An Introductory Guide to Frank Zappa
Frank Vincent Zappa was an American composer and guitarist who released over 60 albums throughout his four-decade-spanning career. An eccentric visionary, Zappa drew from his diverse influences – from modern classical composers like Varèse and Stravinksy to doo-wop bands from the 1950’s– to create genre-defying music that sounds fresh even today. Similarly nonconformist in his writing, Zappa was also an unrelenting satirist, commenting on various facets of American culture with intelligence and humor.
Given the breadth and depth of his works, figuring out where to start is daunting for a first-time listener. As such, what follows are albums I consider to be Zappa’s best stylistically, as well as suggestions for further listening.
Freak Out! (1966)
A musician’s debut is rarely noteworthy, given how most debuts see artists figuring out their sound and developing their unique style. But Zappa’s debut with his band The Mothers of Invention is. It stands out among the swathes of rock records at the time for its unheard mix of doo-wop, blues, shifting time signatures, free jazz, and piercing satire. Among the first of rock’s double albums (Bob Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde was released prior), the groundbreaking concept album would influence The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
The blues track "Trouble Every Day," is the album's most accessible. In it, Zappa sincerely rants about the Watts Riots, Los Angeles' worst unrest until the Rodney King riots in 1992. The song intrigued producer Tom Wilson to sign them, describing the band as “not exactly a ‘white blues band,’ but… sort of.”
Its relatively straightforward rock opener, “Hungry Freaks, Daddy,” chastises the American education system with powerful lines like “Mister America / walk on by / your schools that do not teach.” Zappa also criticizes former President Lyndon B. Johnson’s poor implementation of social programs: “The left behinds / of the Great Society…”
The eerie “Who Are The Brain Police?” is the first song on the album to The Mothers’ highly unconventional sound. It opens with a bass riff and distorted guitar sounds that immediately unsettles its listeners before transitioning into strange vocals. Questioning conformity in American society, it jarringly changes pace several times before closing with a rattling kazoo solo. The track would be a bold addition to an album coming out even today, let alone one in 1966.
Sonically boundary-pushing and lyrically unrestrained, his debut set the stage for what was to come.
Further listening: Absolutely Free (1967), We’re Only In It For the Money (1968), and You Are What You Is (1981) for songs in a similar vein; Uncle Meat (1969) for more composed, experimental instrumental tracks.
Hot Rats (1969)
The Mothers of Invention would release a few more records before disbanding due to financial reasons. Soon after, Zappa released his first solo record, collaborating with fellow band member and multi-instrumentalist Ian Underwood. Hot Rats is a landmark jazz-fusion record composed of beautifully layered and flawlessly arranged instrumentals from front to back. Zappa’s compositional talents are at the forefront of the album and arguably at their peak.
Its melodic opener, “Peaches En Regalia,” is an endearing classic. Tightly arranged, the instrumental track is among Zappa’s most accessible. Underwood’s colorful playing shines, particularly when his horns crescendo gorgeously mid-track. In sharp contrast, the following track, “Willie The Pimp,” is a dirty blues rock cut that features some of Zappa’s most stellar and grand guitar work. The song’s main riff captivatingly embodies the filthy feel of the track, further enhanced by Captain Beefheart’s raspy and wonderfully peculiar vocals.
The meticulously arranged “Little Umbrellas” is the album’s only outright jazz track. It begins with a foreboding double bass riff before Underwood’s haunting saxophone creeps in. The track spectacularly balances beauty and unease, making this a personal favorite. The penultimate track, “The Gumbo Variations,” is jam-centric and the album’s longest. Zappa’s collaborators improvise around the opening riff, including Don “Sugarcane” Harris’ intricate electric violin and Underwood’s blaring saxophone.
Aptly described by Zappa as “a movie for your ears,” Hot Rats is a jazz-fusion classic.
Further Listening: Waka/Jawaka (1972), The Grand Wazoo (1972) and Sleep Dirt (1979) for more jazz-fusion and big band pieces; Make A Jazz Noise Here (1991), Imaginary Diseases (2006), and Wazoo (2007) for live jazz recordings.
Apostrophe (’) (1974)
Following the success of Hot Rats, Zappa gathered a new line-up of musicians to record several albums, including some of his first live albums. Notable additions include jazz keyboardist George Duke, percussionist Ruth Underwood, trombonist Bruce Fowler, and violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, most of whom would continue to work with Zappa in the upcoming decade. As his most commercially successful album to date, Apostrophe (‘) is packed with accessible songs that show Zappa’s knack for combining snarky humor with impeccable instrumentals.
Side one shows Zappa at his zaniest. “Don’t Eat that Yellow Snow” – his first charting single – follows a dream about an Eskimo named Nanook, taking inspiration from 1922’s silent film Nanook of the North. The groovy track is a highlight, as Zappa vocalizes its ear-grabbing hook. Moreover, you can’t help but sing along to lines like“eh-ay-ay,”“Nanook, a-no-no, no-no,” and “Don’t be a naughty Eskimo.” Nanook’s story continues in the following track, “Nanook Rubs It,” with similarly ear-grabbing vocals, this time featuring Zappa’s icy guitar hooks. It describes Nanook’s violent encounter with a fur trapper who attacks his baby seal. In the funky ‘Cosmik Debris,’ Zappa expresses his anti-drug sentiments describing his encounter with a “Mystery Man.” Zappa claps back at his offer of psychedelics by exclaiming “Who you jivin’ with that Cosmik Debris?!”
The album’s penultimate track is, in my opinion, remarkable. Zappa’s lyrics address racial tensions in America, one of the few instances of sincerity throughout his career. Moreover, Duke’s piano chords heighten Zappa’s sentiments, simultaneously capturing the sadness and hope many felt at the time. Paired with Tina Turner and the Ikettes' gorgeous backing vocals, the track morphs into a soul track. Instrumentally and lyrically, Uncle Remus has aged incredibly well.
Apostrophe (‘) shows Zappa’s ability to write a commercially successful album without losing his identity in the process. As such, you couldn’t go wrong making this your very first Zappa album.
Further Listening: Over-Nite Sensation (1973), Zoot Allures (1976), and Bongo Fury (1975) for blues-rock tracks; Sheik Yerbouti (1979) for more comedy rock.
One Size Fits All (1975)
This decade, in my opinion, was Zappa's most consistent. Having just released Apostrophe (‘) and a fantastic live album that we’ll get to later on, it is astonishing how good One Size Fits All is. As the last studio album released with the then-reformed Mothers of Invention, it is an out-and-out progressive rock album characterized by Zappa’s guitar dominance.
The trippy opener, “Inca Roads,” is impressively intricate. It pokes fun at progressive rock clichés with odd lines like “Did a vehicle / Come from somewhere out there / Just to land in the Andes?” Ruth Underwood’s percussion work is some of her finest, elevating the track’s complexity. Paired with Duke’s keyboards, the track embodies the otherworldly theme that the brilliant artist Cal Shenkel’s artwork depicts. The highlight is, yet again, Zappa’s guitar work. Played with space and melody, Zappa elevates the track to what most progressive rock tracks aim for: making emotion-evoking music while retaining technical prowess. As such, this is hands-down one of Zappa’s best songs and a live favorite.
The gospel-inspired, jazz-rock instrumental “Sofa No. 1,” is a warm and inviting standout, while the heavy “Florentine Pogen,” is a silly love song centered around an Italian cookie. Notably, one of Zappa's biggest influences, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, features vocally in the electric “San Ber'dino,” and the rhythmic “Andy.”
Further Listening: Guitar (1988), Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar (1981), Carnegie Hall (2011), and Chicago ‘78 (2016) for more tracks featuring Zappa’s guitar work; Zappa ‘88: The Last U.S. Show (2021) for more comedy rock and live renditions of tracks from the album.
Joe’s Garage Acts I, II, III (1979)
1979 was an important year for Zappa, having released two commercially successful albums. After the release of the double album Sheik Yerbouti, he released Joe’s Garage Acts I, II, III. The sprawling rock opera is set in a dystopian society in which music is banned, considering the ban of rock music during the Iranian revolution of 1979. Zappa masterfully explores censorship, organized religion, corporate abuse, individualism, and sexual repression.
The opener, “Central Scrutinizer,” sets the scene: the album is narrated by The Central Scrutinizer as a cautionary tale about Joe, who forms a band. The fan favorite “Joe’s Garage,” is a sing-songy tune: a tongue-in-cheek sneer at garage punk and corporate censorship whose ironic commercial sound makes it easily digestible.
Acts II & III open with “A Token of My Extreme,” in which a vulnerable Joe is taken advantage of by L. Ron Hoover, the founder of the “First Church of Appliantology.” In the catchy tune with punchy slap bass and idiosyncratic drum sections, Zappa chides Scientology and, more generally, organized religion.
The penultimate track, “Watermelon in Easter Hay,” is melancholic, yet beautiful. The track begins and ends with The Central Scrutinizer narrating Joe’s deteriorating mental state, between which Zappa’s breathtaking guitar playing takes over. The main riff is played with such intention; he holds and accentuates notes to evoke Joe's agony and hopelessness. Moreover, throughout the song, the guitar notes sound fittingly ethereal, given that Joe imagines these notes as he further slips into insanity. As a guitarist, this may be Zappa at his best. As such, I consider it his masterpiece.
Further Listening: See suggestions for One Size Fits All and Apostrophe (‘).
Roxy & Elsewhere (1974)
This list would be incomplete without a live album, given how many Zappa put out. While it is difficult to pick just one, Roxy & Elsewhere is exceptional. Mostly recorded at the Roxy Theatre in Hollywood with familiar favorites, the album is a triumph in capturing the unparalleled experience of live music.
“Penguin in Bondage” is a notable opener, featuring exaggerated vocals and bizarre lyrics that grab your attention. Zappa’s guitar sounds slimy with a glossy texture, in perfect marriage with the thick and driving bassline. “Cheepnis” is a fun and thrilling tribute to low-budget monster films. Its lyrics center around an unusually large poodle named “Frunobulax,” that neither “bullets” nor “rockets” can stop.
“Echidna’s Arf (Of You)” and “Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing” are dense and highly complex pieces to play, cementing the musicians’ virtuosity and their chemistry performing together. Underwood’s performance on percussion is excellent, as is Fowler’s trombone performance in the 16-minute jazz-fusion closer “Be-Bop Tango (Of the Old Jazzmen’s Church).”
Complex yet inviting, humorous yet serious in its technical excellence, phenomenally sequenced, Roxy & Elsewhere is among the best live albums I’ve ever heard.
Further Listening: Zappa in New York (1978), Roxy by Proxy (2014), You Can’t Do That on Stage Anymore (1988-1992), and The Best Band You Never Heard in Your Life for more progressive rock and jazz-fusion live recordings; Yellow Shark for classical, orchestral pieces.