In the history of pop music, not many artists have been as prolific as Frank Zappa. During his lifetime, the gonzo guitarist released 62 albums with his band the Mothers of Invention and as a solo artist. After his death in 1994 of prostate cancer, the Zappa Family Trust continued where the Master of Invention himself had left off. Zappa’s 100th official album, Dance Me This, the final record completed by the composer before his death, was released in the summer of 2015. The 43 albums released posthumously make for a total of 105 albums.
More important than the quantity of Zappa’s discography, however, is its quality. Being a completely self-taught composer and performer, Zappa was one of the key figures in the breakdown of boundaries within popular music. His career did not only span three decades, it also united genres like rock, pop, jazz and classical music into one discography. While he initially rose to fame as member of the Mothers of Invention, it was clear from the start who was in charge. In fact, before Zappa came aboard, the collective was a R&B group called the Soul Giants. Zappa replaced guitarist David Coronado and insisted the band start playing his original material. The rest is – the cliché is true in this case – history, as this list of The 10 Best Frank Zappa Albums to Own on Vinyl proves.
Compiling a Zappa collection, can be a tough task. To keep things from getting confusing right of the bat, let’s start at the beginning. The Mothers of Invention’s debut Freak Out! was simultaneously one of the first concept albums— a musical painting of Zappa’s perception of American pop culture— as well as one of the first rock double albums (Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde was released one week earlier). The post-modern Freak Out!, fused rhythm-and-blues, rock-‘n-roll, doo-wop and orchestral avant-garde arrangements, found Zappa managing to get the freak in himself out and opening the door to many other weirdos worldwide.
While Freak Out! would eventually become successful in the States, the record first and foremost made an impact in the United Kingdom and other European countries. Paul McCartney, for instance, regarded Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as the Beatles’ Freak Out!. Zappa, being a hardcore hippie hater, had none of this. The Mothers, in fact, spoofed the illustrious artwork of The Beatles’ album on the inside of their third record, We’re Only In It for the Money. For a guy who had a strong disliking of the psychedelic movement, Zappa showcased he possessed the skills for writing psychedelic music perhaps better than anyone else could at the time. His soberness while writing allowed Zappa to take a noticeably nuanced position in the socio-political debates of the Sixties. Humorously yet unmercifully, Zappa attacked the shallow absurdities of the hippie youth culture (“Flower Punk,” “Absolutely Free,” “Who Needs The Peace Corps?”) as well as the American authorities (“Mom & Dad,” “Bow Tie Daddy,” “What’s The Ugliest Part Of Your Body?”).
This is perhaps one of Zappa’s most extreme albums ever. The record was developed to serve as a soundtrack to a proposed science fiction film inspired by the band’s sexual escapades. Though the film would never see the light of day, some of its test footage would eventually be released by Zappa himself in 1987. Uncle Meat showcased a stronger focus on percussion than Zappa’s previous works and highlighted his skills as a composer through orchestral symphonies and free jazz as well as his strengths as a producer through its overdubs, experiments with tape speed and other alternative recording techniques.
Among other things, Hot Rats is Zappa’s first album recorded using sixteen-track technology. That’s not the only reason why the album marks a turning point in the guitarist’s career, though. Hots Rats was the first album Zappa created after the Mothers broke up. This change in circumstances, however, did not bring him to a standstill: it enabled him to dive head first into the jazz-inspired instrumentals that would become a core element of his most exciting work. With session contributions by jazz and blues luminaries like Shuggie Otis, Don “Sugarcane” Harris, Jean-Luc Ponty and Zappa’s childhood friend Don Van Vliet aka Captain Beefheart (“Willie The Pimp”), Hot Rats is one of Zappa’s most focused forays into jazz, making it one of the records that even most non-Zappa fans enjoy.
Throughout the second half of the sixties, Frank Zappa proved he could rightfully be called an overnight sensation. The moustached maestro was not planning on leaving the music industry as quickly as he had conquered it. In 1973, after releasing the jazz-oriented pair Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo, Zappa turned to a larger audience and launched into an altogether more commercial phase of his career with the release of Over-Nite Sensation. Perhaps the least weird thing about Over-Nite Sensation is that it features Tina Turner on backing vocals.
Apostrophe is as close to commercial as Zappa gets. It offered up his first ever charting single, “Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow” and was the Zappa’s first album to reach the Top 10 on the American album charts. Apostrophe was largely written during the same sessions as Over-Nite Sensation and it’s not a stretch to regard the two albums as one. Apostrophe too marks Zappa’s return to a more conventional form of songwriting, though ‘conventional’ is very relative in this case. Apostrophe is still full of twists and turns. There’s even room for an expansive jam with Clapton colleagues Jim Gordon and ex-Cream bassist Jack Bruce on the record’s title track. Besides, this renowned rock classic features some of Zappa’s most clever wordplay and significant subjects, such as racial tensions in the USA. The devil here is in the details: what did you think an apostrophe between two brackets was supposed to look like?
As consistent as Frank Zappa refused to be in terms of styles and genres, so consistent he was when it came to the quality of his records. Throughout the ‘70s, the professional provocateur seemed to release one masterpiece after the other. That did not change when Over-Nite Sensation, Apostrophe and Roxy & Elsewhere were succeeded by One Size Fits All, the last album Zappa would release in cooperation with the then reformed Mothers of Invention. While he found himself surrounded by band members like George Duke, Napoleon Murphy, Tim Fowler and Ruth Underwood, Zappa did not allow anyone to steal the show. The show belonged to him and specifically to his guitar in the case of One Size Fits All. Classic centerpiece “Inca Roads,” for instance, features one of the best Zappa solo’s ever, while single “Sofa No. 1 & 2” showcases some of Zappa’s most gargantuan guitar-playing as well.
Sheik Yerbouti (1979)
Recorded both live and in the studio from 1977 to 1979, Sheik Yerbouti is another double-album that lets Zappa’s creative genius out of the bottle as never before. It was the first album to be released on the musician’s own eponymous label after his departure from Warner Bros. As such, Zappa felt free to emphasize the comedic aspect that had always been present in his music. Zappa didn’t settle for satirical though, at times Sheik Yerbouti is downright sadist. Despite or perhaps because of its controversial nature (some songs were banned from U.S. radio), Sheik Yerbouti became Zappa’s biggest commercial triumph by selling over 2 million copies worldwide.
Being the rock legend he is, Frank Zappa of course couldn’t do without a rock opera of his own. That opera, the tree-part Joe’s Garage, was released in 1979, one of Zappa’s most productive years. The trilogy tells the tale of an Orwellian universe where music has been made illegal. (One can imagine why some of Zappa’s own music could very well have planted that idea into the mind of some politicians.) All in all, Joe’s Garage is the epitome of Frank Zappa records. We, the more or less normal people, keep broken lawnmowers, moving boxes full of books we never read and sporting good we never use in our garage. Frank Zappa’s is bulging with musical diversity and density, humour and hilarity, and whopping guitar wizardry.
Many assume Frank Zappa’s glory years are situated in the sixties and seventies, but his reign undoubtedly continued into the following decade. You Are What You Is, another double album, sees Zappa at his most profane and political. The album, which came out months after famed live album Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar, rails against anything from Republicans to organized religion. The video for the title track was even banned from MTV, which had launched earlier that year, because it depicted President Reagan strapped into an electric chair. Not exactly an album you’d let your kids listen to, you’d say. Zappa, however, didn’t just let his kids listen, he let them play. That’s right: besides Steve Vai and Mothers of Invention-members Jimmy Carl Black and Motorhead Sherwood, You Are What You Is features the first on-record appearance of Zappa’s children Moon Unit and Ahmet.