Frank Zappa has been gone for 25 years now, but his timeless music still lives on. Back in 2015, the Zappa Family Trust posthumously released Frank’s 100th official album, Dance Me This, which was the final record completed by the modern-day composer before his death in 1993. With one-hundred albums under his belt and nearly forty years worth of music, Frank Zappa’s career was an astonishingly massive accomplishment of musical greatness. So massive, in fact, that anyone interested in diving into the seemingly endless Zappa catalog might not know where to begin.
We could go on and on; from the beautifully complicated arrangements of Uncle Meat and Waka/Jawaka or the powerful live performances from the Mothers of Invention on Fillmore East – June 1971 and Just Another Band From L.A., to the scathing political genius of Broadway The Hard Way and the unrivaled classical brilliance of The Yellow Shark. We could wax poetic for days. With so much music to choose from, getting started on your journey through the world of Frank Zappa can no doubt be a daunting task.
Well, have no fear, Live For Live Music is here! We present our Top 12 most essential Frank Zappa albums. A list for beginners… or as Mr. Zappa would say, “strictly from commercial.” Let’s get started!
12. Zoot Allures (1976)
Zoot Allures was released in 1976 and was Zappa’s 22nd album. It is the only release on the Warner Bros. label, due to a thorny lawsuit between the two. Regardless of this, the record was one of Zappa’s most popular and features one of the strongest gatherings of musicians ever assembled by Frank. When you’ve got the genius Frank Zappa, Napoleon Murphy Brock (vocals), Terry Bozzio (drums, vocals), Roy Estrada (bass, vocals), Ruth Underwood (synthesizer, marimba), Ian Underwood (saxophone) and Bruce Fowler (trombone) all together on one record, the results are unsurprisingly unparalleled. Featured on this album are the hits “Wind Up Workin’ In A Gas Station,” “Disco Boy” and the fan favorite and live staple “The Torture Never Stops.”
11. Freak Out (1966)
“Suzy Creamcheese, what’s got into you?”
In 1966, Freak Out started it all. This generation-defining debut is a bizarre twist of rock n’ roll, doo-wop and early psychedelic music. Whilst being incredibly musically diverse, Freak Out is one of the earliest examples of a concept album and demonstrates some of the finest illustrations of irony and social/political satire in American rock music. Here lies the seeds that grew into the summer of love. From the opening track, “Hungry Freaks, Daddy” to the Watts Riot-inspired “Trouble Every Day,” this debut record from Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention is one of the biggest game-changing albums out there.
10. You Are What You Is (1981)
“You are what you is, and that’s all it is,” sings Frank on this gem of the early eighties. It features Zappa at his most political, railing against Republicans, religion and the overall ridiculousness of American society. The music video of the title track was banned from MTV for depicting President Ronald Reagan strapped into an electric chair. The album touches on everything from religion (“The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing,” “Dumb All Over,” “Heavenly Bank Account”) to infidelity (“Harder Than Your Husband”) and even Deadheads (“Teenage Wind”), as well as the Halloween hit, “Goblin Girl.” This is some of the very best of eighties-era Zappa and exemplifies the lyrical and intellectual prowess of the late creative genius.
9. Hot Rats (1969)
Hot Rats was Zappa’s second solo effort and proved to be one of his most celebrated musical works. The album is a jazz fusion masterpiece and features one of Zappa’s most well-renowned instrumentals, “Peaches en Regalia.” Hot Rats is jam-packed with horns, reeds, organ, bass, drums, percussion, flutes, saxophones, clarinets, tape speed manipulation, bizarre sound effects and extended guitar jams. Captain Beefheart takes the lead vocal on “Willie The Pimp,” which also features Don “Sugarcane” Harris on violin. Other highlights include the jazz instrumental, “Little Umbrellas” and the colossal thirteen-minute jam, “The Gumbo Variations.” If you don’t own Hot Rats, you don’t have a Zappa collection.
8. We’re Only In It For The Money (1968)
For a guy who had such a strong disliking of the psychedelic movement, Zappa sure knew how to write top-notch psychedelic music. Better than anyone else could, in fact, and unlike many of the similar bands of that time, Zappa did it completely sober. We’re Only In It For The Money was Frank’s response to The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and is known as one of the greatest experimental albums of all time. The album artwork is a parody of the famous Sgt. Pepper album cover, along with the tongue-in-cheek album title which is no doubt yet another saucy jab at the ‘fab four.’
During a time when ‘flower power’ was at its most popular, Zappa saw right through these trends and fashioned a creatively contemptuous musical parody of the times. Songs such as “Who Needs The Peace Corps?”, “Concentration Moon”, “Absolutely Free” and “Flower Punk” unmercifully tear into what Frank saw as the shallow absurdities of the hippie counterculture. However he didn’t just point his finger at the youth. Frank takes aim at the parents and authority figures of sixties America on tracks like “Mom & Dad”, “Bow Tie Daddy”, and “What’s The Ugliest Part Of Your Body?”. With brilliantly hilarious satire, expert musicianship, mind-bending arrangements and incredibly advanced recording techniques, We’re Only In It For The Money is by far one of the most important albums of the late sixties.
7. Zappa In New York (1977)
Zappa In New York was recorded at the Felt Forum and at the Palladium during a chaotic time in New York City, and that chaos echoes loudly throughout this tremendous live record. This was also one of the greatest lineups that Frank has ever pulled together, live on stage, and if you close your eyes while listening, you’ll feel like you’re front and center. The young and extremely charismatic drummer Terry Bozzio delivers some of the albums most memorable moments. Whether it be playing the part of the devil in “Titties & Beer” or glam-rock star Punky Meadows in “Punky’s Whips,” Bozzio delivers lots of laughs. Not to mention the drum masterpieces, “The Black Page Drum Solo” and “The Black Page 1 & 2.”
Never to be outdone of course, is Frank’s face-melting guitar work on songs like “Cruisin’ For Burgers” and “Pound For A Brown.” The explicitly hilarious, “Honey Don’t You Want A Man Like Me” was a live staple at the time and is one of the high points on the record as well. Even Saturday Night Live announcer, Don Pardo found his way onto the stage, providing the spoken-word introductions for “I’m The Slime”, “Punky’s Whips” and “The Illinois Enema Bandit.” Zappa In New York is hands-down one of the greatest live records of all time.
6. One Size Fits All (1975)
Perhaps one of his most successful, One Size Fits All is a grand-slam of a record. This was Zappa in his prime and features the exceedingly intricate fan favorite, “Inca Roads”, as well as the singles “San Ber’dino” and “Sofa No.1 & 2.” The band lineup includes some of the most prominent members of the Zappa alumni: George Duke (keyboards, vocals), Napoleon Murphy Brock (flute, tenor saxophone, vocals), Tim Fowler (bass) and Ruth Underwood (vibraphone, marimba, percussion). “Po-Jama People,” “Florentine Pogen” and “Andy” also are highlights on this phenomenal record, and are among some of the greatest songs of the entire Zappa catalogue.
5. apostrophe (’) (1974)
apostrophe is as close to commercial as Frank Zappa could get. This highly-renowned rock classic offered up the first charting single of his career, “Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow.” The song was in conjunction with the subsequent tracks, “Nanook Rubs It,” “St. Alfonzo’s Pancake Breakfast” and “Father O’Blivion,” however the radio edit of “Yellow Snow” was the official single. Also in attendance is the well-known “Cosmik Debris” as well as the standout track, “Uncle Remus,” which sheds light upon racial tensions in America. apostrophe is an essential of the essentials and still stands as the biggest commercial triumph of Zappa’s career.
4. Over-Nite Sensation (1973)
Recorded during the same sessions as Apostrophe, this progressive masterpiece was the launch of Zappa’s commercial years. With hits like “Camarillo Brillo,” “I’m The Slime,” “Dirty Love,” “Zomby Woof,” “Montana” and the obscenely sexually-charged fan-favorite, “Dinah-Moe-Humm,” this record is brimming with classics of the 1970’s. No doubt a controversial record, the subject matter predominantly focuses on themes of a sexual nature. Pornography, masturbation, bestiality, oral and anal sex are all in attendance. Classy material indeed.
Meanwhile, songs like “I’m The Slime” take aim at the addictive nature of television; “a tool of the government and industry” as Frank puts it. The song ironically even made its way onto the popular new late-night television show at the time, Saturday Night Live, where Zappa’s performance of the song was broadcast to television screens all across the country. Quite the incongruous yet ingenious public sensation indeed.
3. Roxy & Elsewhere (1974)
When it comes to live albums, you can’t get much better than Roxy & Elsewhere. Primarily recorded at the Roxy Theatre in Hollywood, California, it stands as one of the most extraordinarily complex Zappa recordings ever. Some of his most difficult and intense instrumentals are on this album. “Echidna’s Arf (Of You)” and “Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing” are arguably two of the most elaborate instrumentals in rock history.
“Cheepnis” and “Be-Bop Tango” are also so outrageously multifarious, they are truly out-of-this-world. Percussionist Ruth Underwood’s work on the xylophones, marimbas and vibraphones is some of the best you’ll ever hear, while the vocal stylings of Napoleon Murphy Brock are some of the strongest of his career. Also in the lineup is George Duke (keyboards, synthesizer, vocals), Tom Fowler ( bass), Bruce Fowler (trombone), Walt Fowler (trumpet), Jeff Simmons (rhythm guitar, vocals), Don Preston (synthesizer), and both Ralph Humphrey and Chester Thompson on drums. Other notable songs are the kinky “Penguin In Bondage” and the autobiographical anthem “Village Of The Sun.” Roxy & Elsewhere offers up the best of the best.
2. Sheik Yerbouti (1979)
By 1979, Zappa was at his apex. Recorded both live and in the studio, Sheik Yerbouti is a massive double-album of pure creative genius. Much of the album’s material pokes fun at the popular music and culture of the late 1970’s. From disco and cocaine (“Dancin’ Fool”) to sex and S&M (“Bobby Brown Goes Down”/“Broken Hearts Are For Assholes”), Zappa saw right through the trends of the 70‘s just as he did during the previous decade. Peter Frampton is mocked on the opening track “I Have Been In You” and even Bob Dylan takes a hit on the following song “Flakes.” It seems no one is safe.
Whether it be the fiery performance of “Tryin’ To Grow A Chin,“ the politically incorrect hilarity of “Jewish Princess” or the silly and suggestive “Wild Love,” Sheik Yerbouti gives the fans everything you’d want from a Zappa record. To this day, it stands as Frank Zappa’s biggest selling album. “I knew you’d be surprised!”
1. Joe’s Garage Acts I, II & III (1979)
1979 was a big year for Frank Zappa. It was a tough choice between this album and Sheik Yerbouti, but after some thought, Joe’s Garage won the well-deserved spot at number one on our list.
Joe’s Garage is a rock opera with three acts. It’s a concept album, telling the story of an Orwellian universe where music has been made illegal. “If the president (any one of them) went on TV and sat there with the flag in the background (or maybe a rustic scene on a little backdrop, plus the flag) and stated sincerely into the camera and told everybody that all energy problems and all inflationary problems had been traced to and could be solved by the abolition of music,” Zappa explains in the album’s liner notes, “chances are that most people would believe him and think that the illegalization of this obnoxious form of noise pollution would be a small price to pay to buy gas like the good ol’ days.”
The title track is one of Zappa’s most famous tunes, along with the popular fan-favorites “Catholic Girls,” “Crew Slut,” “Fembot In A Wet T-Shirt,” “Why Does It Hurt When I Pee” and the guitar instrumental “Watermelon In Easter Hay,” which is famously known as one of Zappa’s greatest solos. The album certainly isn’t without Frank’s usual intricacies. “On The Bus“ is a face-melting guitar opus and “Keep It Greasey” has a mind-boggling 21/16 time signature. All in all, Joe’s Garage is the epitome of a Frank Zappa record. From the musical diversity and density to the satirical humor and masterful guitar wizardry, Joe’s Garage Acts I, II & III showcases the very best of Frank Zappa.
So that’s it, folks. That is our list of the top 12 most essential Frank Zappa albums. If you don’t have these records, well, what are you waiting for? Go on, expand your mind and your music collection. Give your ears and your mind a treat, because as Frank famously said, “music is the best.”
You can also check out Joseph Conlon’s list of Zappa’s 50 Greatest Songs.