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The Complete Listener’s Guide: Frank Zappa 101

Frank Zappa’s discography is one of the most intimidating and potentially misrepresentative of any back catalogue out there.  With over 62 releases during his lifetime and another 32+ posthumous records, it can be hard to know just where to start.  Adding to that the many different styles he worked in makes getting a representative sample of the man’s work nearly impossible for first timers.

The goal behind this “Complete Listener’s Guide” is to provide an overview of Zappa’s musical progression as well as to give a plan of attack at diving into this massive body of work.

Frank’s career can be divided into the following five periods:  Early Satire Rock (1966 – 1968), Innovative Instrumentals (1969 – 1972), Progressive Rock Songs (1973 – 1976), Return to Satire Rock, Late 70s and Beyond (1978+), & Return to Innovative Instrumentals, Late 70s and Beyond (1978+).  It’s my opinion that very few Zappa releases post 1980 are worth listening to more than once all the way through, but this doesn’t mean he still didn’t put out great songs.

Let’s get started into breaking down each era.  For a guide on where to start, skip to right to the bottom of this post.

Early Satire Rock (1966 – 1968)

Important Albums:  Freak Out!, Absolutely Free, Lumpy Gravy, & We’re Only in It for the Money

Despite some of Frank’s mid-1970’s joke songs, these early albums may be the most detrimental to his lasting legacy as a great musician and brilliant composer.  Don’t get me wrong, these are very important and influential releases and many Zappa fans love these early “classics” naming Freak Out! and We’re Only in It for the Money as among his finest records.  However, these songs can’t help but sound extremely dated and a bit annoying after repeated listens.

The social satire of these releases are not only something I agree completely with, but funny too.  However, the songs pale greatly in comparison to his later work.  The best albums of the bunch are oddly enough his most forgotten, including Lumpy Gravy and Absolutely Free.

Lumpy Gravy is a great experimental mash-up record of Frank’s early movie scores, themes, and skits all of which flow seamlessly together.  The record was actually his debut solo album and consists of just two 15 minute tracks.  A recommended early album, but definitely not the place to start in his catalogue.

Absolutely Free is the first album where we get a taste of the amazingly unique guitar playing that would dominate Zappa’s later recordings.  “Invocation & Ritual Dance of the Young Pumpkin” is the perfect example of this.  As for satire, this disc contains some of the best: “Call Any Vegetable”, “Status Back Baby”, “Big Legged Emma”, and “Son of Suzy Cream Cheese”.  AF is my choice for the best early Zappa record.

Best Album: Absolutely Free

Recommended Songs:  “Trouble Every Day”, “Invocation & Ritual Dance of the Young Pumpkin”, “Big Legged Emma”, “Flower Punk”, & “Let’s Make the Water Turn Black”.

Innovative Instrumentals (1969 – 1972)

Important Albums: Uncle Meat, Hot Rats, Burnt Weeny Sandwich, Chunga’s Revenge, & The Grand Wazoo

The late 60s/early 70s was quite a transitional time for Frank.  Not only was he starting to emerge as a serious composer and one of the world’s best guitar players, but he began to improve his sonic palate as well, experimenting with things ranging from 8 track recording gear to get great drums sounds to interesting guitar effects to a wider range of musical instruments.  The result was nothing short of breathtaking.

The crown jewel of this synthesis is Hot Rats, an album credited with creating Jazz/Rock Fusion but definitely veering to the rock side of that equation.  The lead track, “Peaches en Regalia,” is arguably his best composition blending various rhythms, melodies, and guitar parts all into one seamless piece of music.  Some of his best grooves and solos can be heard on “Willie the Pimp,” “Son of Mr. Green Jeans,” and “The Gumbo Variations.”  The disc rounds itself out with too more great progressive jazz pieces.  For those fans wishing to jump straight into his instrumental work, start here.

Burnt Weeny Sandwich and The Grand Wazoo are two other notable records from this period, and although they are not as tight as Hot Rats from start to finish, they provide us with even more great music and sounds.  “Theme from Burnt Weeny Sandwich” and “Holiday in Berlin, Full-Blown” off Burnt Weeny Sandwich and “The Grand Wazoo” and “Eat That Question” off of The Grand Wazoo are probably the tracks to start with.

Other notable releases from this period are the eclectic Uncle Meat, the hit or miss Waka/Jawaka, and Chunga’s Revenge which surprisingly contains some of his finer work.

The years of 1969 to 1972 may be Zappa’s peak, although the years that directly follow may surpass this effort.  If you are a fan of progressive instrumentals, interesting instrumentations, and great jamming, this is the place to start.

Best Album: Hot Rats

Recommended Songs: “Peaches en Regalia”, “Son of Mr. Green Genes”, “Holiday in Berlin, Full-Blown”, “The Orange County Lumber Truck”, “Transylvania Boogie”, “Twenty Small Cigars”, “It Just Might Be a One-Shot Deal”, & “The Grand Wazoo”

Progressive Rock Songs (1973 – 1976)

Important Albums: Over-Nite Sensation, Apostrophe (‘), One Size Fits All, Roxy & Elsewhere, Bongo Fury, & Zoot Allures

In many ways, Frank Zappa invented a new genre with the release of Over-Nite Sensation.  His melding of various influences and genres into these warped rock songs still sound alien today.  The amount of musical “information” that is packed into these songs is revolutionary.  The cuts break down and shift momentum at the drop of a dime.  No bar of music is wasted.  “Zomby Woof” is a perfect example of this.  Various jazzy, almost atonal fills break up the groove provided by fuzz guitars and horns, while the drums stop and go at a near perfect pace.  Frank also steps up his guitar playing breaking out amazing solos on pretty much every cut.  Start your journey with this album if you’re a fan of progressive music in a more traditional rock setting.

Apostrophe (‘), released shortly after Over-Nite, may be the single best introduction to Zappa there is in one disc.  It’s got jamming and solos (“Cosmik Debris” & “Apostrophe'”), well crafted songs (“Uncle Remus”), and boundry pushing music (“St. Alfonzo’s Pancake Breakfast” & “Father O’Blivion”)…just listen to the drums on “St. Alfonzo’s”, who else was playing like that in the 70’s?

One Size Fits All was actually voted fan favorite on a Zappa tribute website.  The poll was set up as a 64 album March Madness style bracket with albums facing off head to head and then moving on.  It’s not hard to see why: “Inca Roads” may have one of the most inventive guitar solos of all time, and the genre sifting “Andy” and unqiue rocker “San Ber’dino” may be two of his top rock songs of all time.  The blending of rock, soul, and jazz on “Andy” is hard to top.

Bongo Fury and Zoot Allures are also worth checking out if the previously mentioned albums interest you.  “Black Napkins” off of Zoot is one of his better know instrumentals.

Best Album: Apostrophe (‘)

Best Songs: “Camarillo Brillo”, “Dirty Love”, “Zomby Woof”, “My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Momma”, “Apostrophe'”, “Uncle Remus”, “Andy” “San Ber’dino”, & “Black Napkins”.

Return to Satire Rock, Late 70s and Beyond (1978+)

Important Albums:  Joe’s Garage Acts I-III, Sheik Yerbouti, Tinseltown Rebellion, Your Are What You Is, Ship Arriving to Late to Save a Drowning Witch, & Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention

Zappa in the 1980s and beyond is a very hit or miss affair, with his “satire rock” being more spotty than ever.  It’s great to see him attempting new things, like the talking/singing found on Ship Arriving to Late to Save a Drowning Witch or the combining of live musicians with his Synclavier compositions, but ultimately this all pales in comparison to his better work.  Also, like most musicians of the time, the stark, lifeless production decisions of the 80s made a lot of that work sound very dated, very quickly.  Gone are the thumping bass parts, warm drumming, and rich violin solos, instead replaced with programmed lead parts, thin drumming, and less dynamic variation in instrumentation.

All this is not to suggest that his later work is completely useless, but you must wade through a lot of filler.  His abundance of material coupled with a lack of editing lead to many albums with a few good tracks.  He released 5 albums in 1979 and another 5 in 1981!

Regardless, Sheik Yerbouti is the finest late-era Zappa rock album, featuring a generous and eclectic 18 song set.  All the elements are there: deadly sharp whit, great guitar solos, interesting instrumentals, and great song writing.  This is the recommended starting place to get into this period of his work.  “Flakes”, “Jones Crusher”, “Rat Tomago”, and “City of Tiny Lights” are all worthwhile listens.

Beyond that album, and possibly Them or Us, the rest of the good stuff comes in on a song-by-song basis.  Joe’s Garage features the title track of the same name and “Catholic Girls”, Tinseltown Rebellion‘s title track and “Doreen” off Them or Us are probably the best of the rest.  Overall, this is easily his weakest period.

Best Album:  Sheik Yerbouti

Best Songs:  “Joe’s Garage”, “Catholic Girls”, “Flakes”, “City of Tiny Lights”, “Porn Wars”, “Doreen”, & “Tinseltown Rebellion”.

Return to Innovative Instrumentals, Late 70s and Beyond (1978+)

Important Albums: Studio Tan, Sleep Dirt, Shut Up ‘n Play Your Guitar, Jazz from Hell, & Civilization Phase III

At this point, things get a bit harder to classify, mainly because the great instrumental tracks are spread out and integrated into records with a lot of more vocal dominated numbers.  For instance, the great “Watermelon in Easter Hay” showcasing a rare major scale solo is on Joe’s Garage and “What’s New in Baltimore”, probably the best synthesis of the Synclavier and his guitar soloing, is wasted on the below average Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention.

Sleep Dirt and Studio Tan do concentrate the innovative instrumentals on the other hand, and if they had been combined into one album as originally planned via the Lather Box Sex, we might of had another Hot Rats on our hands.  “RDNZL”, “Revised Music for a Guitar and Low-Budget Orchestra”, “Regyptian Strut”, and “The Ocean is the Ultimate Solution” would have combined to make a great record.

Jazz From Hell is another worthy full album effort.  “G-Spot Tornado” still sounds fresh and exciting today and did what Battles is currently doing a full two decades earlier.  “St. Etienne” is just another entry in the vast collection that is great Zappa guitar solos.  Speaking of solos, Shut Up ‘N Play Yer Guitar is chalked full of them, but I actually prefer them in context, rather than extracted like they are presented there.

Best Album: Jazz From Hell

Best Songs: “Watermelon in Easter Hay”, “What’s New In Baltimore”, “Revised Music for a Guitar and Low-Budget Orchestra”, “G-Stop Tornado”, & “The Ocean is the Ultimate Solution”.

Frank Zappa Listening Guide

Here’s a recommended listening list on getting started into Zappa’s vast catalogue:

  1. Apostrophe (‘) – The best one disc entry point to his work, containing much of what he does best.
  2. Over-Nite Sensation – The single best representation of his warped rock songs chalked full of amazing compositional and arranging skills and great rock grooves.
  3. Hot Rats – His single best instrumental album and the finest Jazz/Rock Fusion album of all time.
  4. Burnt Weeny Sandwich OR The Grand Wazoo – Two worthy discs to get a deeper look into his great instrumental work.
  5. Roxy & Elsewhere – A great showcase of what a live performance would have been like.
  6. One Size Fits All – Voted as the fan favorite album, full of classic Zappa tracks and moments.
  7. Joe’s Garage Acts I-III OR Sheik Yerbouti – Better than average late-era rock songs.
  8. Freak Out! OR Absolutely Free – A look at his whip sharp whit cutting through the Hippie/Flower Power rhetoric.
  9. Studio Tan – Skip the first 20+ minute track and check out his late era instrumentals.

After wading through what you like, dive deeper into that era using the guide above.  Happy listening.


*Image from Wiki Commons

4 thoughts on “The Complete Listener’s Guide: Frank Zappa 101

    1. That’s awesome. I’m glad this guide helps wade through Zappa’s vast and potentially confusing back catalogue. Some unreleased material has been popping up on Spotify and the album “Finer Moments” is the best of the bunch…especially “Old Curiosity Shoppe” and “Uncle Rhebus”.

      P.S. – “Weis” has one “s”.

  1. Anthony,
    This is a tremendous outline. Many hours in the making.
    I am a huge Zappa fan and, you’re right the sheer volume of his work makes is hard to find the thread.
    Thank you!

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