Walter Becker and Donald Fagen were college buddies. Steely Dan took its name from a very useful tool mentioned in William Burrough's classic novel "Naked Lunch." So clearly these guys were educated and not afraid to use it.
The original band fragmented largely because Becker and Fagen hated touring. Guitarist Jeff "The Skunk" (how'd he get that nickname?) Baxter and vocalist/keyboardist Michael McDonald eventually left to join the Doobie Brothers and tour their hearts out. But that didn't happen until the mid '70s. In the early '70s, Becker and Fagen worked on a forgettable soundtrack for a forgettable film before returning to roadwork, backing Jay & the Americans. It was a paycheck and that was about it.
With the help of producer Gary Katz, Steely Dan produced "Can't Buy A Thrill" in '72. The album also contained their biggest and most Rockin' hit "Reelin' In The Years." "Countdown To Ecstasy" with "My Old School" came out the following year. This album incorporated many jazz influences, a trend that would continue with subsequent releases. "Pretzel Logic," "Katy Lied" and "Royal Scam" were released in the '70s as Steely Dan became a two person project. Their best album proved to be their last of the decade. "Aja" had the melodic focus of their earlier work plus a great sense of groove. The title track, "Deacon Blue" "Peg" and "Black Cow" were great songs without the excess usually associated with Jazz/Rock hybrids.
Steely Dan limped into the 80's with the "Gaucho" LP that featured "Hey Nineteen" and "Time Out of Mind" but little else of merit. So they brought down the curtain and released greatest hits packages and a box set. Fagen went solo and quickly mastered M.O.R. pop but commercial success didn't last.
Of course, Becker and Fagen joined forces again in the late '90s but it was mostly for longtime fans. They did manage to win a "Best Rock Album" Grammy for "Two Against Nature" but it was such a joke (once again illustrating the Grammy voter's lameness) no one took it seriously. That "success" no doubt encouraged their return with "Everything Must Go" which rolls along agreeably enough in the "Gaucho" vein. Occasionally witty lyrics add some bite to a generally laid back sound.
Steely Dan's debut "Can't Buy A Thrill" with "Reelin' In The Years" tops the list. Five years later "Aja" is another high point thanks to expertly crafted songs ("Deacon Blue" and "Peg") and exquisite performances. In between, "Katy Lied" and Pretzel Logic," are recommended. "Greatest Hits" captures their '70s work while "Citizen Steely Dan" is a box set covering their career into the '90s. Both are good choices.