MAKING YOUR WAY through the more than 70 titles in Frank Zappa’s
catalog is a daunting prospect, but those recordings—representing a
career that spanned nearly 44 years—contain some of the most outrageous
music you will ever hear
You will also be greatly rewarded for your efforts, because you’ll experience Zappa’s gift for composing and arranging some of the most insanely complex and perception-shattering popular music ever, the outlandish precision of his performing ensembles, a view of the universe that was simultaneously ultra-cynical and weirdly exciting, and his monstrous guitar prowess. Some of the solos on these albums will bend your head in half, with fearless melodic choices, nasty blues-derived bends and slurs, and some of the thickest lead tones on record. Zappa blew my mind so many times that I’m permanently scarred and loving it.
This overview is necessarily incomplete, and many fine albums are not listed, particularly those that don’t feature guitar—such as The Yellow Shark (the most accurately performed representation of Zappa’s chamber music he was ever able to hear) and Civilization Phase III (a double-CD masterwork performed mostly on a Synclavier). Recent archival releases are also worth investigating, especially the extremely cool surround sound DVD-audio albums Halloween and QuAUDIOPHILIAc.
The first Mothers of Invention re-cord is simultaneously Zappa’s most pure pop album and a commentary on the mid-’60s Sunset Strip ethos, capped off by 20 minutes of uncompromising avant garde rock. This music is genuinely subversive, unapologetic, and sardonic—a legitimate precursor to punk.
We’re Only In it For the Money, 1968
Just as mind-blowing now as it was in 1968, this is a revolutionary sonic explosion of social critique and powerfully effective editing techniques that incorporates some of Zappa’s most iconic material, such as “The Idiot Bastard Son” and “Let’s Make The Water Turn Black.”
Uncle Meat, 1969
A treasure trove of Zappa’s most intricate studio constructions—heavy on mallet percussion and winds—and featuring copious amounts of his bluesy acoustic playing.
200 Motels, 1971
This soundtrack album to Zappa’s first film is an undervalued gem, particularly for the inclusion of some of his most melodic and memorable orchestral compositions. These are not ideal performances, but the pieces are dripping with atmosphere and power.
One Size Fits All, 1975
Zappa’s highly popular mid-’70s music—featuring brilliant work from George Duke, Napoleon Murphy Brock, and Ruth Underwood among others—is also represented by Over-Nite Sensation, Apostrophe (’), and Roxy and Elsewhere. But One Size contains “Inca Roads,” which contains what many consider to be his best released guitar solo.
Originally planned as a four-LP box, but never re-leased in that form, this sprawling masterwork features the majority of Zappa’s musical concerns—rock band virtuosity, orchestral maneuvers, musique concrete, guitar-solo extravaganzas, extended narratives, and assorted depravities—and manages to make it all work as one unified statement.
Shut Up ‘N’ Play Yer Guitar, 1981
The Bible for voracious lovers of Zappa’s guitar technique. It’s three discs of his fiercest, nastiest, and most adventurous solos, “accompanied” by the hair-raising drumming of Vinnie Colaiuta, and edited and sequenced for maximum variety and excitement.
You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore Vols. 1-6, 1988-92
This is a series of six double-CD sets, featuring unaltered live recordings of Zappa’s bands from 1965 to 1988. Any year’s lineup can suddenly careen into any other, which makes this an excellent overview of Zappa’s storied concert career.
Lumpy Gravy, 1967
Often cited by Zappa as one of his favorite works, this collage of orchestral music, jazz rock, musique concrete, and surreal spoken word was a unique beast in 1967, and it remains an exhilarating and hilarious listen.
Hot Rats, 1969
Zappa’s best-known album was a technical tour-de-force for 1970. Utilizing 16-track recording techniques to present a crystal clear recital of blues-jazz-jam rock, this was one of the first albums where Zappa gave himself a vast quantity of space to stretch out on lead guitar. The “Willie The Pimp” wah solo is studded with memorable melodies and impolite attitude.
Burnt Weeny Sandwich, 1970
This and the contemporaneous Weasels Rip-ped My Flesh were compilations of the recently-disbanded late-’60s Mothers Of Invention lineup. Weasels is the more contentious listening experience, while Burnt Weeny is simply luxurious, featuring some of Zappa’s most beautifully modest and melodic lead work.
Just Another Band From L.A., 1972
This album’s companion record, Fillmore East June 1971, may be considered the more definitive document of this humor-oriented band. But I give my nod to Just Another Band, if only for the mega-mindfreak 25-minute extravaganza “Billy The Mountain,” which changed my life.
The Grand Wazoo, 1972
Some seriously rocking big- and medium-band arrangements, conceived by Zappa while in a wheelchair after being thrown from the stage of London’s Rainbow Theatre in 1971. Zappa’s playing is gorgeous on both this album and its companion, Waka-Jawaka. Check out the liquid lines on “Blessed Relief” for starters.
Baby Snakes (DVD), 1979
This band, with Terry Bozzio and Adrian Belew in the lineup, may have been Zappa’s perfect realization of a virtuoso rock lineup that could play all the notes and still maintain raw aggression. Zappa was rocking his SG outrageously during this period, and this movie features some of his most devastating solos.
You Are What You Is, 1981
An underrated tour-de-force with Steve Vai playing impossible guitar parts and outrageous details popping out of the mix everywhere. This was Zappa’s last full-blown, studio-constructed rock band recording.
Make a Jazz Noise Here, 1991
It’s hard for me to be objective, as this album documents Zappa’s 1988 band and last touring ensemble, of which I was a member. The 12-piece group delivers generous portions of instrumental mayhem, and a glorious track called “Cruisin’ For Burgers,” which was my favorite song to play with Frank.
Cruisin’ With Ruben & the Jets, 1969
The original release was a warm-hearted and faithfully arranged tribute to Zappa’s beloved ’50s R&B and doo-wop, overlaid with a lightly satirical view of high-school garage band culture. The current CD version features bass and drum overdubs that Zappa added in the mid-’80s that are stylistically inappropriate to the music.
Chunga’s Revenge, 1970
Fillmore East June 1971, 1971
Sheik Yerbouti, 1979
These three perfectly fine albums are currently represented by CDs that impose very tinny EQ, additional reverb, and some thoroughly distracting stereo imaging that sounds like tape dropouts.
The Man From Utopia, 1983
Thing Fish, 1984
Some fans can’t get behind these two albums due to their severely coarse subject matter. I find them beautifully perverse and unapologetic, but recommend that you not start here.