The name Frank Zappa enters the conversation when considering unique and original artists from the 20th century. In truth, he was a pioneer. Zappa blended different styles of music like rock, jazz, and even disco into his records and, at times, into a single song. The composer, who died in December 1993, left a vast back catalogue. Between his first album in 1966 and his death in the early ’90s, Frank Zappa released sixty-two albums.
Of course, in 2020 his catalogue has expanded even further, with many posthumous releases. His discography stands at 113 albums (including live sets) and 13 compilation albums. For the casual listener, or those interested in “getting into” his music, it’s overwhelming.
So here’s a breakdown of the very best, focusing on ten albums across two decades. Hopefully this offers a more digestible overview of the work of Frank Zappa, and an entry point to his daunting discography.
Freak Out! (1966)
This is ground zero, the start of it all. Zappa’s debut album with The Mothers of Invention broke a lot of ground. Often cited as one of rock’s first concept albums, Freak Out! is also one of rock’s first double albums (Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde was released the same month). It didn’t just open the door to new possibilities, it blew it off the hinges, mixing experimental themes and combining raw blues with orchestrations and straightforward rock music. This album made the music world stand up and take note, from the opening cracker ‘Hungry Freaks, Daddy’ to the mammoth closer ‘The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet’. This record was even instrumental in influencing The Beatles, as Paul McCartney has pointed to the album’s influence on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Hot Rats (1969)
Following Freak Out!, Zappa released more music with The Mothers Of Invention before dismantling the original band. After the split, Hot Rats was the first work he produced and, for many, the first Zappa record they heard. An album largely made up of sublime instrumentals, fusing jazz and rock beautifully—with one exception. Zappa’s childhood friend and on/off collaborator Captain Beefheart (Don Van Vliet) adds vocals to the second track ‘Willie The Pimp’. This is a song that aches to be heard, with an almost inexplicable structure. Now fifty-one years later, Hot Rats sounds so far ahead of it’s time. This is party down to the 16-track technology Zappa used. Once you dive into this jazz-inspired outing, you’ll never look back—and the hooks of ‘Peaches En Regalia’ become more addictive with each listen.
The Grand Wazoo (1972)
If the ’60s were a time of experimentation for Zappa, the ’70s simply became a playground to let loose with creativity. Starting here with The Grand Wazoo. In some ways it’s a continuation of what the composer executed on Hot Rats, but here he took it further and his vision became more realised. Again, it’s largely instrumental, with a strong emphasis on brass sections and blistering guitar solos. In truth it is perhaps his finest, most overlooked work. The honest bones and brilliance of The Grand Wazoo is that you will never have heard anything like it before. But do take note, with all of Zappa’s creativity, he detested drugs, and even fired band members for using. He did not drink alcohol, his vices were smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee. This music was created by a very sober and focused mind.
Over-Nite Sensation (1973)
This is a progressive masterpiece which launched Zappa’s period of more accessible albums. It’s no filler, all killer, with tracks like the catchy ‘Camarillo Brillo’. While the droll vocal of ‘I’m The Slime’ is epic, the soulful chorus adds another dimension before that final enamel-removing solo. One of his most recognized songs, ‘Dirty Love’, appears beside the odd ‘Zomby Woof’, the surreal ‘Montana’, and the sexually-charged ‘Dinah-Moe-Humm’. This is the apparent theme to the album, as Zappa delves tongue-in-cheek into pornography, masturbation, bestiality, and other such classy subjects. Nevertheless, this is a classic, timeless piece of work.
Recorded during the same sessions as Over-Nite Sensation, it could have been that album’s side three and four. Apostrophe is as close to commercial as Frank Zappa could get. Cut from a cloth of radio-friendly rock music, the album produced a hit single with ‘Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow’. Zappa’s humour ran rampant throughout the opening song cycle of ‘Nanook Rubs It’, ‘St. Alfonzo’s Pancake Breakfast’ and ‘Father O’Blivion’. However, the further you venture into the record, the more uplifting it becomes. With the transcending title track, the classic ‘Cosmik Debris’, and ‘Uncle Remus’, a subtle, social commentary on the building racial tensions in mid ’70s America.
One Size Fits All (1975)
Continuing a run of quality in 1975 with One Size Fits All, it becomes obvious that Frank Zappa’s creativity was on fire. It also contains a stylistic maturity in the song structures. This, perhaps, led to the album becoming his first gold-selling record. At times it’s commercial, though it never loses the off-the-wall edge of his previous recordings. Tracks such as ‘Inca Roads’ and ‘Sofa No.1 & 2’ became instant live favourites. Though the brilliance off ‘San Ber’dino’ is perhaps a standout cut, even with the lyrics:
“She lives in Mojave in a Winnebago/His name is Bobby, he looks like a potato.”
The real winner of One Size Fits All is Zappa’s guitar dominance. Even for those who are not fans of guitar acrobats, this is impressive. Also worth noting—this is the last album Zappa would release with the then-reformed Mothers of Invention.
Zoot Allures (1976)
For first time listeners, this is the bridge between straightforward rock and the world of Frank Zappa. Zoot Allures is simply a solid rock album. It features a stripped back sound compared to previous outings. While it is not regarded as an essential album by Zappa, it is an album that you can listen to, and absorb easily without getting lost in furious time signatures. The humour remains with his blast at the Studio 54 disco craze of the time in ‘Disco Boy’. This song will leave you scratching your head slightly, although the remainder of the album flows. With tracks such as ‘The Torture Never Stops’, ‘Wind Up Working In A Gas Station’, and the guitar instrumental ‘Black Napkins’ all flowing effortlessly. There is a lot to enjoy here, and the music is never too complex, at times becoming brain candy.
Joe’s Garage Acts I, II & III (1979)
The year 1979 was pivotal in the career of Frank Zappa with the release of two huge projects. One double album, Sheik Yerbouti, and this triple-record set. Joe’s Garage is a rock opera with three acts, a concept album set in an Orwellian landscape where music is banned, and so escapism is illegal. In some respects, this is Zappa’s stab at censorship, but the music is some of his best. The nostalgic title track aside, other standouts are ‘Catholic Girls’, ‘Crew Slut’, ‘Fembot In A Wet T-Shirt’, ‘Why Does It Hurt When I Pee’ and for guitar maestros, the inimitable ‘Watermelon In Easter Hay’. This is Zappa at his best, biting satire and innovative music that’s built to last.
Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch (1982)
The ’80s offered perfect fodder for Frank Zappa to target with his venomous, often low brow humour. Though this is one of his shortest works, the six tracks are still fine examples of instrumental prowess underpinning sketchy themes. There are contributions from up-and-coming guitar hero Steve Vai, and the album also introduced the world to Frank’s daughter, Moon Unit Zappa (I kid you not), on ‘Valley Girl’, a piss-take of all things ’80s. It’s a solid album, with some decent material that allows input from the backing band as much as Frank Zappa himself. At a time when music became dark and serious with new wave, post punk, and Goth, Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch offered just the right amount of uplifting departure from the norm.
Jazz From Hell (1986)
This became the last studio album Frank Zappa would release in his lifetime. Though he certainly went out on a high, as Jazz From Hell won a Grammy Award for Best Rock Instrumental. This pretty much nails what the album is—a collection of well-produced passages, meshing jagged beats and synth patterns. Although Jazz From Hell is almost fully immersed in synthesizers, it does not stray into a dreamy atmosphere and Zappa’s guitar work does appear on ‘St. Etienne’. Still, a work to explore and enjoy in equal measure, and a fitting end to two decades of studio output.