A Beginner’s Guide to the Surreal Music of Frank Zappa

Frank Zappa Beginners Guide

The discography of Frank Zappa is much like the parable of the blind men and the elephant. Depending on the album you start with, your first impression of what Zappa does will be wildly different. With a career spanning from the Mothers of Invention’s 1966’s psych-rock Freak Out! album to the orchestral Yellow Shark released a month before he died in 1993, delving into his massive catalog might seem daunting. But If you are looking to get into Zappa you have come to the right person. The first album I heard was Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention during an acid trip in high school. It piqued my interest—I found a double cassette of Joe’s Garage when I came down, and now 25 years later I am writing this guide to getting into Frank that does not require an eight-hour hallucination. Little did I know, aside from smoking a couple joints in the ’60s, Frank was not into drugs, which might come across as a a surprise, considering how crazy his music can get.

The important of Zappa can not be overstated. He influenced a long list of artists including Phish, the Dixie Dregs, Mr. Bungle, Primus, Merzbow, Psychic TV, John Zorn, George Clinton, Brian Eno, Weird Al, Alice Cooper, Devo, Kraftwerk and Jimi Hendrix. Even Paul McCartney claimed Sgt Pepper’s was The Beatles’ Freak Out!. The broad range of the musicians he inspired reflect the even greater range of sounds Zappa dabbled in. Though his dabbling was what others would consider mastering.

For this guide to the best Frank Zappa albums for first-timers, I am not digging into his posthumous albums, instead focusing a little more on his solo work than his time with the Mothers, though they were certainly important. Here we go…

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best Frank Zappa albums Hot RatsHot Rats

(1969; Bizarre/Reprise)

This is Zappa’s second solo album without the Mothers of Invention, though Mothers keyboardist Ian Underwood does appear on it, and Jean Luc Ponty and Captain Beefheart also make appearances on this album. But Zappa composed, arranged and produced the entirety of it. He also gives an instrumental reinterpretation of “Mr. Green Genes” from the Mothers album Uncle Meat. As one of the first albums to use 16-track recording, Hot Rats features many layers to create an almost orchestral feel. This is what big band might sound like in the world of Dr. Seuss.

At times Hot Rats sounds like it’s wandering off into free jazz, and the album does in fact lean in more of a jazz direction than it does rock. There are few bursts of electric guitar even amidst some of the jamming. There are glimpses into how he can get down with funk groove, and the instrumentation flows smoothly despite the quirky time signatures. “Peaches En Regalia” is has become modern day jazz standard, and aside from “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” might be Zappa’s most well-known song. What’s most important about the album is how it samples his musical styles. It showcases his phenomenal guitar playing, while capturing some of the best tones of his career.

Frank Zappa beginner's guide ApostropheApostrophe

(1974; Discreet)

I never got why people considered this time period to be more centered on humor, because it’s always been an element of Zappa’s music from the beginning. Though admittedly there was more absurdity in the detailed narratives on this, Zappa’s most commercially successful album. The first three songs are based off of a dream Zappa had where he was an Eskimo, including opener “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow.”

This albums features players I think of as Zappa All-Stars: George Duke, Ruth Underwood and Napoleon Murphy Brock, who have all contributed to some of his best work. Duke certainly help bring out more of the soulful funk elements that can be heard here. This aspect of their sound is what makes “Cosmik Debris” not only one of the best songs on this album, but of Zappa’s career. And while Zappa’s vocal style has always been more sarcastically spoken, on this album he actually showcases more of his singing ability.

One Size Fits AllOne Size Fits All

(1975; Discreet)

This is the final album that Zappa recorded with the Mothers of Invention. You might ask why I chose to include their last record and not the earlier, more psychedelic garage prog records released in the ’60s. The short answer is that this album is more refined, showcasing more of a jazz sound. Also the lines were blurred between what was the Mothers and what was Zappa’s solo band as at this point the same musicians were playing in both.

There is more rock n roll swagger to “Can’t Afford No Shoes,” and Zappa employs funky grooves on “San Ber’dino”. “Andy” has one of George Duke’s best vocal performances and falls more in line with progressive rock in terms of acrobatics without sacrificing songwriting. The almost gospel feel of “Sofa 2” takes a turn for the weird when Zappa adds his wacky vocal.

best Frank Zappa albums Zoot AlluresZoot Allures

(1976; Warner Bros.)

Originally this was going to be a double album, but Zappa edited down to a single LP. One of the reasons it stands out among his many albums is that it shows what Zappa’s unique songwriting can do with a heavy metal motif. His association with the genre goes back to when he signed Alice Cooper to his Straight Records Label for Easy Action. The metal influence can be felt in the fiery energy of his guitar solos. The most metallic song on the album isthe heavy thumb of “Ms Pinky” and perhaps to a lesser extent, the lyrics of “The Torture Never Stops.” Granted when we’re discussing metal here, this is in the mid-’70s, so the earliest incarnations. Musically “The Torture Never Stops” owes more to blues, though this certainly is one of Zappa’s darker songs.

This album feature one of the best Zappa drummers, Terry Bozio of Missing Persons. While Patrick O’Hearn and Eddie Jobson from his touring band are on the album cover they did not actually play on the album. Zappa, always the conductor of his bands, has them lay back more and give the guitars more room to breathe, thus creating an album that I might point someone toward if they were looking for some of his best yet most tasteful guitar heroics. Zappa had few peers when it came to his guitar playing, Jimi Hendrix and John McLaughlin coming the closest.

ship arriving too lateShip Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch

(1982; Barking Pumpkin)

This 1982 album find Zappa going down an oddball new wave road. One half of the album was recorded in the studio the other half was live. The bass line to the opener “No Not Now” is rubbery funk played by Arthur Barrow and provides a groove to offset the zany vocals. I am a big fan of his ’80s band and would argue the lineup of  Steve Vai, Ike Willis, Chad Wackerman, Scott Thunes, Tommy Mars and Ray White is better or comparable to any other combination of players Zappa employed.

Zappa’s daughter Moon Unit co-wrote and provides the vocal to “Valley Girl,” where she mocks the stereotypical Los Angeles teen age girl. The vocals to  “I Come From Nowhere” are bizarrely catchy (especially under the influence). The live side of the album sheds the bulk of the new wave influence and goes on more of a jazz tangent, with Zappa employing a more lounge-lizard vocal in his narrative. This along with the more jammy quality is a sharp contrast to the studio side of the album. An angular dissonance haunts the instrumental “Envelopes,” and “Teenage Prostitute” finds Zappa merging hard rock with opera.

Also Recommended: His first album with the Mothers of Invention, 1966’s Freak Out!, is recommended to get perspective on where it began, with more accessible songs as well as plenty of peculiar experiments. The double album Joe’s Garage tells an interesting story of a band and their exploits with robot sex, and has my two favorite Zappa songs on it, “Why Does it Hurt When I Pee” and “Outside Now.” Over-Nite Sensation is also pretty user friendly, with songs that might have hovered in the periphery of progressive rock fans.

Advanced Listening: His live series of double albums called You Can’t Do That on Stage highlights his stellar live shows with the fourth album covering his ’80s band being the standout. I also would say any guitar player with aspirations of playing progressive rock needs to listen to Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar as it finds Frank tackling the styles of guitarists like Santana, Clapton and Hendrix and showing he can hold his own.

View Comments (58)
  • Good article, and well-chosen albums. I’d add ‘Best Band You Never Heard in Your Life, possibly. And Roxy & Elsewhere, definitely.

  • Nice choices. I agree with Kevin Mills, above that Roxy & Elsewhere is a definite top list-maker, though I was delighted to see Hot Rats open the selections! I always enjoyed Volume 2 of the YCDTOSA albums; this was the Roxy ensemble captured live in Helsinki, Finland. “Yellow Snow” is wonderfully captured live on the YCDTOSA Volum 1 album, all 20+minutes. One album that seems to have escaped the article is Bongo Fury, which continues to deliver play after play; perhaps Captain Beefheart’s vocals are too challenging for today’s pedestrian tastes, but Beefheart and Zappa flickered in 1975 to deliver their last music together. Luck for us!

  • Excellent introduction for the unindoctrinated. Excellent excuse for my head to be filled for the rest of the day with alternating gems. I will add, however, that the last tune on Hot Rats, ‘Gumbo Variations,’ is one of my favorite musical pieces of all-time. Right up there with the best symphonic pieces from the classical masters in it’s probing and wide-ranging exploration of sonic adventures.

    Dweezil isn’t the musician his father was, but it was a joy to see the One Size Fits All tour several years ago. At our stop, they opened with the Star Wars theme and the Star Spangled Banner. YES. Wish his brother could have the same respect for their father’s principles.

    • Then you’re really missing out.Try Hot Rats,Chunga’s Revenge,Waka Jswaka,Aposttophe,Zoot Allures ,One Size Fits All,Weasels Ripped My Flesh and Shiek Yerbouti.

  • Weasels Ripped My Flesh was my introduction to Zappa’s music. I think I was 13 or 14. Not even sure how many albums I have now. I lost count. As they say…if I have to explain, you wouldn’t understand.

  • I believe I was 9 or 10 years old when I first heard Zappa’s music. It was from Sheik Yetbouti. Bobby Brown. I listened to this album many times that day. It’s a mainstay of my collection and listening revisits. It, too was a live album.
    Looking through my brother’s roommates album collection I discovered another Zappa album, Zoot Allures. I listened to that well into the evening of the same day. I had no idea what was meant lyracally but musically I was hooked and turned into a musical snob. Nothing matched it then nor now.
    I do appreciate your choices to ease another into the fold.

  • Every Zappa album has songs I love and songs I hate. Inca Roads (From one size fits all) is a complete masterpiece, as far as I’m concerned, as is Movin’ to Montana (From overnight sensation). There’s really something for everybody in Zappa’s work. If you hear something you don’t like, don’t give up!

  • Hot Rats is still my deserted island go to and my first listen and then I quickly gathered all recordings in chronological order – got the original vinyl still and on CD. Loved the article and the comments hardly a week goes by where I don’t learn mote about Zappa be it music, family and all that made him who he was. And then there’s Captain Beefheart as well

    • Being a huge Zappa fan from the beginning all my early albums were vinyl. One should beware that a lot of the stuff released on Rykodisc is subpar. There are annoying high end drop outs on Hot Rats and some of it was remixed very differently from the vinyl. The rerelease of Hot Rats on Zappa Records is like the original vinyl. That is one I play today. Chunga’s Revenge has similar high end problems. I haven’t bought it , but I read that the rerelease of that on Zappa Records is also better.

  • One thing to remember: His guitar work was remarkably unique. Various solos through the years (albums) are quite memorable: Watermelon in Easter Hay, Muffin Man, etc… But the newcomer should make absolutely certain that they grab copies of Guitar and Shut Up and Play Your Guitar. The solos that exist on those albums are some of the most extraordinary guitar compositions you will ever hear in your life.

  • Great article, excellent picks. Glad Over-Nite Sensation made the cut there at the end. Just a heads up, that bass player on Ship Arriving Too Late… was Arthur Barrow, not Arthur “God Of Hell Fire” Brown.

    • Agree with the Over-nite sensation sentiment. And speaking of bass players, Fowler stands at the top of the Zappa pile for me. His work with both Ralph Humphrey and Chester Thompson still, all these years later, floors me. Jawdropping combination of complexity (thank you, Frank) and groove. The stuff just cooks.

  • I had the honor of seeing him live in a tiny theater in Stockton CA. around ’79 or ’80. What an awesome experience.

  • I grew up with fz from the start, so i bought each piece of vinyl within days of its initial release and spent days,weeks and months playing these albums until the next installment arrived. My love is of the early mothers and the Uncle Meat era especially and although i listen to everything else including the recently expanded wonderful ZINY i find my love is more for the jazz influenced Zappa than the straight rock or synclavier stuff.

  • Great article. I agree with just about everything. I have to admit I listen to Only in it for the money and live at the Fillmore….at least once a Month…
    Thank you for your insight

  • Good article. I always felt that “Lather” was the one album that covered a little of EVERY different style FZ dabbled in. I always send newbies to that album to get a complete taste of Zappa.

  • Good article and Zappa has such a wide range of perspective on music it’s difficult to classify just one.
    My favorites are Moving to Montana, Don’t eat the yellow snow, Dynamo hum and of course Slime of the video
    One Classic Musician (“You are missed “)

  • Other than “I don’t wanna get drafted”, “Joes Garage Acts I II & III” was my first real introduction to Frank Zappa in 1980. It is still one of my favorite and most iconic albums.

  • I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Zappa 12 times.. from 1976-1988.. Saw him in NYC on Halloween a few of those times.. I love his music and admire him as a person . He stood up to the industry and pretty much made the music he wanted and died a very successful man. one of the greatest success stories!!!
    I would also recommend the albums, Studio Tan, Orchestral Favorites, and Sleep Dirt . These were released while Zappa was in dispute with Warner Bros. and contain some of the best instrumentals you will ever hear. All his albums are good and have a special something..always remember.. A little green rosetta makes a muffin better!!!!!!!!

    • I fully agree. I’m 55 and now started to listen when I was 15 or 16, that was Sheik Yerbouti, afterwards Overnite Sensation and Tinseltown Rebellion. Discovered Hot Rats only a few years later, but was and still is my favourite (Zappa) album. Listening to Hot Rats now, still makes me discover new things. So awesome…

  • I saw him 3 times, sometime about 1965 or 1966 and twice more in the early 70s. Great music and my kids still think I’m weird.

  • A fair assessment. I became a fan in ’68, bought Weasels Ripped My Flesh having never previously heard even one track by the Mothers. When I finally quit collecting vinyl, I had 40 some albums by the Man. I would also highly recommend Bongo Fury, and Them Or Us.

  • Zappa’s catalog is long and deep, 3 albums with legs not mentioned but worthy of a listen:
    Broadway the Hardway
    Joe’s Garage
    Thing Fish
    I had the pleasure of seeing him live 4 times.
    Twice at the Santa Cruz Civic, once at the Greek on the Berkeley campus and the 4th I think was at the Concord Pavilion. Saw Deezel at the Rio in Santa Cruz, the youngster is not all that.

    • The youngster is not all that. What do you mean by that? Dweezil is one helluva Guitarist, and his band is phenomenal. There is only one Frank. Dweezil is dedicated to spreading the beauty and genius of his father.

  • I have Frank Zappa collection from verve records straight records starting with freaked out all the way to yellow shark there’s a lot of good music in there a lot of good music absolutely free is outstanding Uncle meet burnt weeny sandwich it just goes on and on and on there can’t really be a favorite Broadway the hard way to Joe’s garage to everything in between from freak out to yellow shark you get it start from the beginning it’s conceptual continuity

  • My favorite is whichever one I’m listening to at the time. Don’t remember which I heard first, probably about ’72, quickly dug into the back catalog and grabbed up new stuff as it came out. Keep the YCDTOSA sets in my phone for emergencies.

  • Halloween wasn’t Halloween unless going to at least one of Frank Zappa’s Halloween concert in NYC every year…

  • While I do agree with most of this list, I do think Shiek Yerbouty could easily replace any album on the list and I think it’s a travesty to not have Joe’s Garage on the list, considering it is easily his opus. The other albums should be suggested first and then finally listen to Joe’s Garage once you have a good idea what you’re getting yourself into. Then you can fully appreciate what you’re hearing and the mastery applied to the creation of that album. And to whomever said Dweezil wasn’t very good either saw an unusually bad show or doesn’t understand the musicianship. Dweezil is an excellent guitar player. I saw him when he first started touring and he did things on stage I have yet to see anyone else pull off. Not even close. And he’s only gotten better and has a lot of respect for Frank’s work. He does a very respectable job of playing his father’s material.

  • I am 60 now and I have been a fan since preteen year. I have noticed that the appreciation and enjoyment of FZ increases with age.

    I notice riffs and lyrics now more then ever before.

  • I thoroughly enjoyed your article, but I have to say my favorite period is his earlier works. For me the best introduction to his genius would be: Freak Out, Lumpy Gravy, and We’re Only in it for the Money. The range of music styles and the biting social commentary are an encapsulation of both his genius and the intellectual heights he challenged his listeners to achieve. “Gee, my hair’s getting good in the back.” I would also recommend in addition to the album’s listed in the article and those above, Cruising with Ruben and the Jets–the satire on stuff up the cracks in addition to the guitar work just blows me away.
    Finally the all important question. What’s the ugliest part of your body?

    • I saw one the 4 performances of the Grand Wazoo orchestra, the Hollywood Bowl ! was fantastic…another song is Inca Roads, what a great song..

  • I would tell anybody who never listened to Zappa to start with the Freak Out! album, listen to it exclusively for a month to absorb it and then do the same with each subsequent release. Get them on chronological order, memorize each of them and you’ll get the conceptual continuity flowing throughout the entire body of his work.
    That said, to have had the opportunity to listen to the albums when first released was part of the Zappa experience because, lyrically, Frank Zappa was often poking fun at pop culture. You had to be aware of that pop culture – prime example being “She’s frosting a cake with a paper knife” from Flakes (Sheik Yerbouti) would be lost on today’s new listener. People who listened to the song when first released in ’79 know it refers to a commercial for Duncan Hines (or maybe Betty Crocker) ready made frosting.
    Of course we can’t go back in time, but just listening to the albums in chronological order would provide a rewarding as well as educational Zappa experience. “Arf”, she said.

    • I agree chronological order is the way to get the most from zappa and zolar is correct . He knows of what he speaks and the writer referring to heavy metal style on zoot allures is out to lunch

  • Lather was the album, originally intended for release around Halloween of ’77, which started the whole lawsuit against Warner Brothers Records which Zappa eventually won.
    The audacity to present the record company with four records all at once to get out of his contract was a bold move. And they weren’t four albums just cobbled together in a rushed effort to present the requisite number of albums to satisfy the contractual agreement. They were very well composed and recorded – like any previous Zappa releases – and a marvelous tapestry of the many musical sides of Zappa.
    In retaliation to Warner Brothers, who refused to release it as four records and who also blocked Zappa’s attempt to get it released through a very interested and willing Mercury/Phonogram Records, Zappa brought the entire set to a radio station and invited listeners to tape the record off the air and gave little between-sides “rap session” time with the DJ to give listeners time to put another tape in for the next uninterrupted side of the monstrosity masterpiece. To put this bold move in context and contrast, Zappa’s music had always been heavily bootlegged and he hated that. Other people were making money on his music. Zappa even went so far as to create the “Beat The Boots” collection of popular bootlegs of his music, allowing his fans the option to buy the same bootlegged material but supporting him instead of the bootlegger. A true maverick in the music business.

    Lather was finally released posthumously in the sequence as intended and is a great Zappa album for anybody’s collection.

    • They were only in it for the money was a reply to Paul McCartney liking Freakout..I heard it in 67, still listen to it because it is still today!

  • Was Frank’s classmate at Mission Bay High(San Diego). We both worked on school paper, he wrote an offbeat column and drew cartoons of monsters banging on drums with spoons. He cared not for history, refused to buy our yearbook, but always borrowing mine. He was consumed with today and tomorrow, not yesterday. Met son Dweezil in Las Vegas, found a fan in line with Frank’s face tattoo’d on his arm, brought him right to Dweezil who said “I would not recommend thus but nice to see it”. Frank let me sit-in when he rehearsed at Raleigh Studios on Melrose. And be backstage with him at LV Aladdin Theatre for Performing Arts. I so admired him when he testified to the Congress against Tipper Gore’s plan to but ‘ratings’ on music like we have on movies.
    I went on to become youngest City Councilman(San Diego) at 27, and now am oldest California constitutional officer at 82,
    “Member, Board of Equalization” overseeing work of our 58 County Assessors. I loved the Real Frank Zappa book and story of his taking Simon & Garfunkle with him to Buffalo to open, under an earlier name they’d used(Tom & Jerry), then at end he had them end the show with “Sound of Music”, stunning the audience. My son Derek(executive at Coachella Music Festival) knows Moon Unit. What a life, far too short but so well lived!!!

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