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Looking Back at Steely Dan’s Two Against Nature Album 20 Years Later
When Steely Dan released Two Against Nature on a leap year’s February 29, exactly twenty years ago (then their first album in two decades), critics instantly adored it. “What makes [the album] work isn’t its cerebral ellipticity but its stunning musical clarity,” Rolling Stone wrote in their review at the time. “It is a showcase for what Steely Dan’s core twosome can do—reluctant guitar god Becker remains a fluid, precise player, while Fagen covers the keyboard waterfront with a variety of jazz and R&B styles.” “We might just want to jump into the disc and let the duo take us away from all this teen choreography,” Entertainment Weekly mused in their own take. “Even if their particular Shangri-la is peopled by perverts, creeps, miscreants, and clavinets.”
The Village Voice, Spin, and NME each also logged their own positive missives on the set. (In case you forgot their reputation, Pitchfork marks the lone negative review garnered. The outlet awarded the set a measly 1.6 on their scale, writing, “This putrid bait lures both the smooth jazz aficionados and the hackysackers. ‘Fusion’ is too caustic a verb, better suited for nuclear physics and Don Caballero. ‘Making pudding’ better describes this genre blending.”) The album, dark and strange and, not to mention a near 180 musical degrees from plastic pop that was dominating the charts at the time—think Britney Spears, *NSYNC, Backstreet Boys, and Destiny’s Child—cracked the Top 10 on the all-genre Billboard 200 and the Top 20 on the UK counterpart.
But, even though the album was praised upon its release, the cycle of release eventually burned too bright. And much of the last twenty years have witnessed the set maligned by critics and music nerds, alike. Only very recently has this album started to come back around into the good graces of listeners.
Famously, during the early part of Steely Dan’s career, primary songwriters and the music industry’s most famous Bad Uncle lyricists, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker refused to tour. They maintained their position through their break-up in the ‘80s—Becker relocated to Hawaii where he quit drugs and picked up avocado farming; Fagen released an extremely well-received solo album plus scored the film adaptation of Bright Lights, Big City—but when the group reformed in the ‘90s, they did so only as a live act. It was not until Two Against Nature when fans got a new tour launched in conjunction with new music. A remarkable treat, the following March they were also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
But just before their induction, which happened alongside Michael Jackson, Queen, Paul Simon, and Aerosmith, the set won Album of the Year at that year’s Grammy Awards ceremony. (Their first victories from the Recording Academy, they picked up two other golden gramophones that evening: Best Pop Vocal Album and Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group, for the lecherous “Cousin Dupree.”) The backlash began immediately.
“The top winner when the 43rd annual Grammy Awards were presented tonight at the Staples Center here was an album about incest, statutory rape, threesomes and drugs,” the New York Times noted in their recap of the event. “But it was not by the rapper Eminem.”
“It was an unlikely victory,” they added, “many were predicting that the award for album of the year would go to either You’re the One by Paul Simon, a perennial Grammy favorite, or the much debated Marshall Mathers LP by Eminem, which sold at least seven million more copies than Two Against Nature.”
“It’s not that Two Against Nature, their 2000 comeback album after a 20-year hiatus, is awful,” Spin has since reasoned. “… The problem was what they were defeating: the biggest pop-culture event of 2000, Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP.” (Em’s release may have been massive, but it was not without controversy of its own. That the Recording Academy had chosen to nominate the rapper’s The Marshall Mathers LP for the night’s biggest award drew protests from LGBTQ, women’s, and religious groups over its incendiary, and as they argue, hateful, lyrics. The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation was additionally upset that Elton John had agreed to perform alongside the rapper.)
1973: (L-R) Jim Hodder, Walter Becker, Denny Dias, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter and Donald Fagen of the rock and roll band “Steely Dan” pose for a portrait in 1973.
Michael Ochs Archives
In the years since, the album has been included in near countless roundups of least-deserving AOTY winners. And in retrospect, some of the ire has shifted, as many now agree that Radiohead’s seminal Kid A, also nominated that year, was actually the deserving winner. “Grammy voters tend to be old, white and male,” Newsweek reasoned in a 2015 article titled “The Most Ridiculous Album of the Year Winners in Grammy History. “Steely Dan members also tend to be old, white and male,” they added before arguing in favor of Kid A for its resetting the course for rock music at large.
“What better way for the Academy to greet the dawn of a new era than to, uh, give the Album of the Year to a Steely Dan comeback album?” Vulture quipped, sarcastically, in their “Greatest Grammy Snubs of All Time” round-up. They added: “In a year where Radiohead’s Kid A turned over a fresh digital leaf and Eminem’s Marshall Mathers LP blew young listeners’ minds with unprecedented levels of savage wit, bestowing oldsters Walter Becker and Donald Fagen with a de facto lifetime achievement award instead of respecting the austere artistry of Thom Yorke & Co. or the monstrous energy (and monstrous sales) of Marshall Mathers was a puzzling choice…”
Esquire called the moment one of the “worst” in Grammy history.
The album is certified platinum for sales, and in the years since, the casual listener has come back around to the set. And, for what it’s worth, Two Against Nature is extremely good, though, if you’re a Dan fan, you didn’t need me to tell you that. (If you’re one of the many deeply irked by their blue-eyed jazz fusion, there’s no point in trying to convince you now.) It’s lyrics, full of scoundrels and pervs doing—well you’re never really sure what they’re up to, are you?—still manage to shock, decades later. So too does the smoothness of their sonic blend, and the cohesiveness with their ’70s sounds. And their ability to just pick up, exactly where they left off, some twenty years after their last studio sessions.
Which is not to say it was the fitting winner that winter night in 2001. In terms of immediate impact, Eminem’s biggest album unquestionably and forevermore altered the landscape of pop music. A new threshold was found, shocking the status quo into dicey new areas of conversation. But as for lasting legacy, Radiohead’s Kid A began a new millennium for rock music. It challenged their contemporaries to find new blends, moods, and vulnerability. Two Against Nature could never compare to either of these records—and that’s exactly why people revolted against it so fiercely for two decades. It’s just that, as the years have passed, so too has the need to vilify it for winning. People have, with time, returned to what they originally liked in the set, which is, well, the music.
Which is not to say it was the fitting winner that winter night in 2001. In terms of immediate impact, Eminem’s biggest album unquestionably and forevermore altered the landscape of pop music. A new threshold was found, shocking the status quo into dicey new areas of conversation. But as for lasting legacy, Radiohead’s Kid A began a new millennium for rock music. It challenged their contemporaries to find new blends, moods, and vulnerability.
And following this year’s Grammy voting scandal, where ousted CEO Deb Dugan revealed the convoluted, biased, and completely unfair voting process behind the annual broadcast, you also don’t need me to tell you that who wins also doesn’t really matter. (Drake said it best in 2019: “Awards don’t matter,” he explained, while accepting an award for Best Rap Song.) What matters—what has always mattered—is the music. And, lucky for us, the legacy of Two Against Nature, Kid A, and The Marshall Mathers LP, will outlive us all.
Madison Vain is a writer and editor living in New York, covering music, books, TV, and movies; prior to Esquire, she worked at Entertainment Weekly and Sports Illustrated.