The Beatles are the most influential band of all time, period. I’m saying “most influential” because it’s a more objective term than “greatest” or whatever, and I want to be clear that this is not a matter of opinion. But once you take them out of the argument, there’s a very healthy 2nd tier of artists who are continually recognized for their monumental contributions to rock and pop music, even if not quite to the same extent. Of course some obvious names will come to mind – Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, The Stones, The Beach Boys, Sabbath, etc., but I’m here to argue that Frank Zappa is a more influential artist, a more integral piece of artistic and cultural development in the 20th century, than any of these – that he’s more influential than anyone except the Beatles.
I know what you’re saying. Sure, Zappa was really funny. And he was a really zany composer who seemed to actually know what stupid music stuff meant! Heck, you might even be aware that you’re supposed to call him a “genius”. But none of that necessarily amounts to fully grasping what I consider to be this enormous influence, so let me try some bullet points:
- He made more albums than anyone fucking ever
- He has a long list of “firsts” including the first double album, first concept album, and (arguably) the first jazz/rock fusion album
- He was DIY wayyyy before DIY was a thing
- His band was a breeding ground for countless musicians who went on to illustrious careers
- He opened the door for anyone, ever, who used rock music to do something more than just say “I love you”
This just scratches the surface, and of course, none of these points carry much real weight unless you let his albums illustrate them for you. Yet first-time Zappa enthusiasts are often faced with a kind of existential crisis that inevitably results from taking one’s first prod at his mountainous and seemingly impenetrable catalogue of live and studio output. So I’m just going to do it for you. These 13 albums are mostly the “absolute essentials”, with a couple of personal favorites thrown in, and I assure you they represent a pristinely well-informed road map from beginner to intermediate Zappa fanatic status.
Freak Out! (1966)
Apologies for sustaining the comparison for so long, but I’m going to keep talking about the Beatles for a bit, since this album in particular holds an important place in their own history. Zappa’s debut, Freak Out!, was released in 1966, somewhere in between Rubber Soul and Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – in other words, between the introduction of the album as an art form, and the hyperbolic consummation of what the album-as-art-form could aspire to. Of course this was not an accident, and Mr. McCartney has always been quick to acknowledge his debt to Freak Out! in bolstering this accelerated progress. At the time of its release, it was utterly unprecedented – the first double album, the first concept album, and a more audacious insertion of irreverence, weirdness, and just plain ART than had ever been attempted in the context of a rock album. If Rubber Soul was the starting point for contemplative artistry in rock and pop music, Freak Out! was its evil twin; every tasteless joke, every bit of scathing satire, every abrasive bit of noise that would find its way onto wax in the decades to come should look to this album as the one that opened the doors. The Beatles may have always been quirky, and that quirkiness may have turned outright strange by the time they got to Magical Mystery Tour, but Zappa’s debut was nothing short of a molotov cocktail of grotesqueness hurled at anything resembling sterility and safety in 1960s America.
Many people regard Freak Out! as important because it was a mission statement of sorts, or a sign of things to come, or the first hint of some Zappa themes that would be honed and improved in records to come. It’s a fair point, but I’ve really grown to see this album as a complete masterpiece in its own right, and I keep coming back to it because simply put, it’s one of Zappa’s funniest albums. It’s weird as hell but still strangely inviting; it’s hauntingly prophetic without ever being too dark. All the little pop hooks are supposed to sound stupid, but manage to still be charming at the same time, and a couple of lines make me crack up everytime I hear them:
Fooled around with all those other guys,
That’s why I had to get my khakis pressed
(from “Go Cry on Somebody Else’s Shoulder”)
Roll your car and say “Gee whiz!”
You tore a big hole in your convertible top
What will you tell your Mom and Pop?
“Mom, I tore a big hole in the convertible”
(from “You’re Probably Wondering Why I’m Here”)
They look stupid when typed out, and probably aren’t even that funny when you first hear them, but the more you listen to this album the deeper in you get, until every silly line feels like an inside joke that just gets funnier and funnier. It’s not full of dizzying musicianship like Zappa’s 70s albums would be, but on the humor/satire/avant/artistic side of things, all the main ingredients are here. It’s the literal and figurative prototype of the entire Zappa cosmos, a debut of earth-shaking importance, and a piece of art that would be reconsidered and expanded, but never quite improved upon, with the prolific catalog which would follow.
We’re Only In It For The Money (1968)
When all those people say all those aforementioned things about how Freak Out!’s formula would be perfected on albums to come, this is probably the one they’re most immediately referring to. One look at the cover and you’ll recognize as direct as possible an illustration of the Beatles-Zappa concept album ideas exchange. Further, none other than Eric “Slowhand” Clapton, an early proponent of Zappa and his Mothers, delivers the album’s first lines. What I’m getting at is that (astoundingly), a mere 2 years into his career – a career which mainstream radio couldn’t possibly make sense of, or even recognize as valid – Zappa was being located in the greater context of rock’s great practitioners, in a complicated relationship to popular music that would waver between sincere mutual respect and aesthetic repulsion for the remainder of his output.
From within, Zappa launches what might first appear to be a big joke at the whole music industry, but it becomes quickly clear that he has significantly more disdain for authority figures than he does for sub-par hippie bands, and even more disdain for the mindless, obedient drones who allow themselves to be controlled by said authority, and who form the core of suburban American stupidity. As the album’s title would suggest, what results is a vision of utter emptiness – moral, artistic, or otherwise. And as ever, Zappa’s work stands as the foil – pre-packaged flower power is a cowardly trend, but true art will ever require true courage, and this album is both courageous and artistic without mercy.
I certainly wouldn’t deny that this album pushes the thematic elements of Freak Out! to an extreme, but it’s an extreme which is much less funny. And this is both a pro and a con – I for one certainly miss the lighthearted laughs to be found hidden throughout the debut, but it is also to this album’s credit that it is capable of putting forth a vision of doomed society that is so legitimately horrifying.
Uncle Meat (1969)
This double-length kitchen sink of Mothers mythos was (apparently) intended to be the score to a film that was never released; what resulted instead was the densest Zappa album to date, and an almost inexhaustible compendium of strangeness. It will never be as memorable or highly-regarded as its aforementioned precursors, but in many ways it’s a culmination of all things Mothers. Avant-garde orchestrations, doo-wop on acid, interlude skits, generous doses of cacophony, seamless transitions from live to studio recordings, an extended jazz suite, and an overall higher level of musicianship than was seen on any previous effort – it’s all here, and in spades. Moreover, the production on this record (by Frank himself, of course) is absolutely stunning. How such sophisticated sound quality was achieved by a self-taught bohemian with a shoestring budget is beyond my comprehension, but the sonic clarity even on passages with very elaborate instrumentation will really knock you out.
Uncle Meat marks a change in approach, insofar as Zappa’s signature satire becomes a bit less visible on its own legs, and more subtly imbued within a broader veil of twisted humor. Earlier I noted that one thing that complicates We’re Only in it for the Money is an unsettling bit of tension between the satirical and comedic elements of the record; it’s obvious when Zappa is making a joke, and even more obvious when he’s disparaging some poisonous element of society, but they aren’t always happening concurrently. In Uncle Meat and onward, the two get wrapped up in one another, and it gets more difficult to pull them apart. Not to detract from those earlier albums, but I do think that this shift works in his favor, and presents what is more or less his signature aesthetic. In later efforts we’ll see the jokes become too obvious, just like the satire may have been too obvious earlier on, but on albums like this they are perfectly balanced in a way that only Frank could have achieved.
Hot Rats (1969)
Hopefully I’ll never find myself in this scenario, but if someone ever held a gun to my head and told me I could only listen to one Zappa album for the rest of my life, this’d be the one. It’s the first official “solo” FZ album, and I think that’s important, because it shows Frank doing something really different. There was no doubt that even in the Mothers, Frank called all the shots, but regardless Hot Rats doesn’t feel like he’s trying to make a Mothers album anymore; it feels like he’s doing whatever he wants to do, and this sense of artistic freedom sets the stage for the rest of his career, throughout which he’ll traverse a variety of styles (and backing bands) at whim.
Speaking more specifically, this is the album when Zappa decides to temporarily jettison (most of) the lyrical and spoken-word comedy/satire that defined in large part his first 5 years, focusing instead on music, period. There are some guest vocals from the inimitable Captain Beefheart on “Willie the Pimp”, but otherwise this album comprises all instrumentals.
And what instrumentals! In the liner notes Hot Rats describes itself as “a movie for your ears”, and I couldn’t have put it better myself. It spans a huge spectrum, from the 3-minute masterpiece of lounge-jazz cinematography that is “Peaches en Regalia” to the 17-minute open jammage of “The Gumbo Variations”, and takes every opportunity to explore the boundlessness of sonic possibility. And despite being unfathomably detailed in its approach to sound and vision, it still manages to rock harder than any Zappa album before it, and features a number of underwater, distorted guitar solos from Frank himself, both of which point towards his movement away from the avant orchestration of his 60’s work, and towards the more electric but more accessible character of (most of) his early-mid 70’s albums.
Before moving on it must be noted that multi-instrumentalist Ian Underwood is, well, instrumental to this album, to the point that he approaches “right hand man” status. His work on keys and winds enhance more moments than you can count, and his tenor sax solo on “The Gumbo Variations” WILL MELT YOU.
Weasels Ripped my Flesh (1970)
This is a bit of an anachronism, since the misleading release date betrays the fact that this material – a collection of live and studio Mothers outtakes – was recorded between 1967-1969. And this should make sense given the above comments on Hot Rats, as this album is in no way looking forward to more accessible rock stylings, but instead is very much a celebration of the weirdest shit that could have possibly come out of the brain of FZ and his demented minions. Songs like “Didja Get Any Onya?” and the latter half of “Toads of the Short Forest” give some of the best glimpses available into the madness that would have been a late 60’s Mothers show – dirty, hairy freaks hollering over odd time signatures, delivering bizarre soliloquies, and squeezing unearthly intonations out of their instruments, all while their fearless, mustachioed leader conducts their every outburst, head cocked and smirking with sour satisfaction.
It’s certainly telling that the most “normal” song on here (a cover of Little Richard’s “Directly from my Heart to You”) is in fact the strangest, by mere virtue of the fact that a straightforward R&B cover has found its way onto a set of music that otherwise resembles very little having to do with planet Earth, its inhabitants, and the music they are typically wont to make. Yet as weird as this album can be, if you allow it, it will suck you in much more than it will push you away. I’d say it’s the derelict cousin of Uncle Meat; I consider both to be very much representative of the world of the Mothers of Invention, but the raw immediacy of Weasels’ live quality is something of a foil to the pristine production on Uncle Meat. But at the end of the day, the same can be said for either – if you “get” this album, you “get” the Mothers. Enjoy Weasels alongside its sister album, Burnt Weeny Sandwich, which is another Mothers outtakes album with a greater emphasis on structured composition over free-form improvisation.
Side note #1: Contender for best album cover ever
Side note #2: “My Guitar Wants to Kill your Mama” – contender for best song title ever
Chunga’s Revenge (1970)
Ok, I had to include at least one overlooked gem/personal favorite. This album wouldn’t be included in most other “essential Zappa” lists, and for understandable reason; it’s a bit uneven, it’s not nearly “perfect” in vision or execution like the previous entries on this list are, and it represents an awkward phase in Zappa’s career, between the 60’s and 70’s periods which I’ve already outlined.
Anyway whatever. It’s not “essential” and it probably shouldn’t be on this list but I’ve always loved it. It’s got Flo and Eddie from The Turtles singing vocals on some great cuts, it’s got a nice range of stylistic diversity, and it’s got Ian Underwood playing a sax through wah and distortion in an effort to emulate a “gypsy mutant industrial vacuum cleaner”. Great stuff.
The Grand Wazoo (1973)
While I’ve described the general trend of Zappa’s 60’s-70’s shift as one away from an avant orchestra, and towards an avant rock group, let’s remember that this is a man who defies all attempts at generalization. With that said it should be no great surprise that in ‘72 and ‘73 he released, respectively, Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo, both of which were basically big band jazz albums, with improvised solos occurring within the framework of orchestral arrangements. The Grand Wazoo is arguably (but not very arguably) the better of the two, and is right up there with Hot Rats as Zappa’s greatest efforts as a practitioner (and originator) of the all-too-easily-befouled genre that is jazz/rock fusion.
Like Uncle Meat, I think that The Grand Wazoo is a great place to look for evidence of FZ’s oft-overlooked production prowess, and unsurprisingly, since both albums offer complex and often grandiose instrumentation. More instruments means more chances to screw things up, but once again the clarity on this record is astonishing, and every instrument finds its correct place in the mix as precisely and harmoniously as the brush strokes on an Old Masters painting. Sonically, this album can go from tight intimacy to unbridled pomp, and again and again I’m floored at how adept Zappa was at squeezing all the right sounds out of all the right people, and then doing them all justice in the final mix.
Overnite Sensation (1973)
Typically considered alongside its successor, Apostrophe(‘), Overnite Sensation is generally regarded as the best entry point into Zappa’s catalogue for the absolute beginner. These are some of his funniest albums, and also some of his most straightforward, meaning they’re relatively accessible to newcomers, but let’s not forget the fact that they’re also top-notch, especially in terms of the musicianship of his studio players. It would seem that FZ had finally attained enough clout to shell out for the best musicians in the game, so he wasted no time in putting together an incredibly solid and incredibly tight band featuring the likes of keyboardist George Duke, sadly overlooked drummer Ralph Humphries, and Ruth Underwood, whose virtuosic marimba work became an oddball trademark of this particular backing band. If the myths are to be believed, FZ locked them all in a dungeon and forced them at whip-point to practice for 16 hours a day, and I’ll be darned if the results don’t speak for themselves. The recently released “Roxy the Movie” DVD is a great example of this prodigious pride showing all their chops in a live setting, and I watched the whole thing with my jaw pretty close to the floor.
Of course the album title is a bit of a joke; even though he was indeed approaching some level of mainstream success, he certainly hadn’t done so overnight, but instead had trudged through years of obscurity and (gasp!) hard work to get even the slightest recognition. Regardless, this album and the next are the first real examples we see of Zappa putting out songs that would become familiar not only to his underground cult of dirty freaks, but to the rest of the world. The most recognizable cut on this one would have to be the stone-cold classic “Montana”, which distilled all of FZ’s senseless humor, electrifying guitar work, and bandleading capabilities into a relatively digestible piece of whimsy that would become a staple of classic rock radio for years to come. But honestly, just about every song on this album is almost as memorable, and littered throughout are great solos from Frank and his sidemen, and fleeting orchestral passages placed perfectly within rock contexts with a deftness that no other artist could dream of.
Apostrophe (‘) (1974)
Again, there are a lot of similarities between this album and Overnite Sensation, but perhaps the most striking difference is a less song-oriented approach, in favor of a four-song suite, chronicling of course the trials of an ill-fated eskimo named Nanook, which brilliantly poked fun at prog-rock/concept album excess while simultaneously becoming one of Frank’s best known pieces. Otherwise, “Cosmik Debris” is probably the only radio-friendly number on this record, but it still maintains an air of accessibility that keeps it right next to its predecessor as contender for the best single representation of Zappa’s whole….thing.
I’m trying to decide which one I like more, and it’s tough. All things considered, Overnite Sensation is probably a better album, but there’s still so much to love on this one. Including a bass solo on the instrumental title track which may or may not be played by Jack Bruce – nobody really seems to know. And “Uncle Remus” might just get my vote for best Zappa ballad; despite comedic undertones it nonetheless features a beautifully lyrical guitar solo as well as some some seemingly earnest subject matter regarding race relations, culminating in a sense of seriousness which we don’t see too often in the Zappa catalog.
One Size Fits All (1975)
One Size Fits All might also be considered right alongside those last two albums, since it’s got mostly the same backing band and overall aesthetic. Surprisingly, however, while Overnite Sensation and Apostrophe remain the better-known crowd-pleasers of the bunch, it seems like One Size Fits All often emerges as the fan favorite among true Zappa fanatics. Perhaps it’s because Zappa fanatics by nature like things in inverse proportion to how much the rest of the world likes them; or maybe there’s, ya know, a real reason.
My best guess is that this album feels more serious. And I only mean this partially in terms of how actually “serious” the subject matter is – no, there aren’t any jokes about dog piss or dental floss farms, but it’s still full of only-slightly-subtler subversive humor, including a whole song about pajamas, and a guy who looks like a potato. But nonetheless, it feels like this album is less concerned with cheap laughs and recognizable song structures (“recognizable” being a relative term of course), and more with pushing the limits of Zappa’s band as an outfit of utmost technical proficiency and interplay. As a result it takes a greater amount of digging and devotion to get to the core of, and really appreciate, this album. Needless to say, the payoff is well worth the commitment, but if you’re still hesitant, give “San Ber’dino” a listen and tell me that doesn’t infect you.
Zoot Allures (1976)
If the 70’s saw Zappa strip his band down and embrace rock – and if One Size Fits All was the most stripped-down entry in the “holy trinity” I just listed – then Zoot Allures is the logical conclusion and apex of this transformation. On albums like Uncle Meat and Hot Rats, and even more recent excursions like the Nanook saga, we’ve seen Zappa use everything at his disposal to achieve grandiose (if bonkers) orchestration. Well, Zoot Allures sees him doing the opposite, to such an extent that one wonders if he was challenging himself to make an album with a forcedly meager set of means, just to see what happens. However, let me say that there is absolutely nothing meager about Terry Bozzio’s drumming on this, his first appearance on a studio Zappa album.
Well, whatever his motivation, this album is incredible. The bare-bones-ness of it really works to its advantage, and creates a completely pervasive atmosphere of creepy, greasy, darkness that runs through the whole thing. Zappa sings in a low, sinister croon, and seems intent on playing the part of the smirking pervert, while the muffled distortion on his guitar solo provides the appropriate sonic counterpart. Lyrical themes traverse the transgressive, devoting a near-alarming amount of time to sexual deviance, physical discomfort, and a broader palette of the dismal underground and its unspeakable inhabitants. Like One Size Fits All, it doesn’t seem to be trying so hard to nail the immediate (and often juvenile) humor of some of his more popular releases, but “Wonderful Wino” still cracks me the heck up.
Sheik Yerbouti (1979)
Annnnd we’re back, to the same kind of song-oriented bathroom jokes that made Apostrophe (‘) and Overnite Sensation such big hits. This one’s a whole double dose of them, and boy does he lay it on thick, especially on songs like “Bobby Brown Goes Down” and “Jewish Princess”, to which plenty of people took legitimate offense. To be honest, it’s not one of my favorites, but as you can probably tell from the selections on this list, I prefer Zappa the avant-quasi-serious musical mastermind to Zappa the perennial potty-mouthed feather-ruffler. But I don’t mean this to be dismissive – if my personal preferences leave me less interested in his more direct humor, it doesn’t mean I don’t think he’s quite good at it, and some of the best examples are to be found on this record.
Moreover, there’s a deeper significance to the fact that Zappa was continually willing to make the most disgusting jokes that he could, and publish subject matter that showed no reservation towards offending American middle-class sensibilities. In the 80’s he would go on to be an integral figure in the movement of free-minded musicians like himself to resist the efforts of the PMRC (Parents Music Resource Center) to impose warning labels and other examples of proto-censorship on the music industry. One of my favorite Youtube rabbit holes is Frank Zappa censorship debate videos – you’ll love them!
In other news, not only is Terry Bozzio still killin’ shit all over this album, but sonic wunderkind Adrian Belew makes some great contributions (including an untouchable Dylan impression on “Flakes”) before being stolen away by Bowie soon after, and recruited by Robert Fripp soon after that to be the face of the resurrected King Crimson.
Joe’s Garage: Act I (1979)
Ok, this might count as the 2nd entry in the “overlooked gem/personal favorite” category. Sure, not quite as much as Chunga’s Revenge, but I do think that my own predilection for this album might slightly outweigh critical response/”classic” status/etc. But whatever, it’s my list. And my name is Joe. And Vinnie Colaiuta is on this album! It’s a rock opera about how music ruins lives. The white zone is for loading and unloading only…
Ok this has gone on too long. Time for me to pack up and go home.
Just go listen to some Zappa.