I was reading this the other day, and I thought to myself, what other rock artist has the sheer depth of good material to merit a list as diverse as this one? I was thinking David Bowie, but he's only produced, at most, 12 great albums, and my choices would probably be predictable anyway (hint: Never Let Me Down doesn't make it). But then I thought to myself, who can match Dylan in terms of sheer recorded output? Lou Reed, maybe. And Frank Zappa.
Zappa and Dylan share a few defining characteristics: they're iconoclastic, genre-hopping, and not very good singers, plus they love to piss all over that already urine-drenched institution Rock Criticism (something they share with Reed as well, hm...). Upon closer inspection, though, it's easy to tell these were two people, vaguely defined as "pop stars," who nevertheless played wildly different games.
In the case of Zappa, he truly is the closest we've come to a great classical composer-as-rocker, as opposed to being merely a great guitarist or songwriter (let's forget about Roger Waters' operas, for now). The distinction between Zappa and virtually everyone else in the rock guitar game is as clear as day: for Zappa, rock music wasn't a way of life, it was merely incidental to his compositional and performance strategies. Nevertheless, he was also as prolific as they come, and having scoured through most of his repertoire (up to the 80s, honestly), I feel compelled to give my list of
THE TEN GREATEST FRANK ZAPPA ALBUMS (as chosen by Nathan)
(Note that I am lumping Frank Zappa, the Mothers of Invention, and all variations thereof because I think we can all agree they are all indelibly stamped with the personality of their primary creator.)
"You asshole," you're probably thinking. "Läther doesn't count--Warner Bros. wouldn't abide by Zappa releasing a quadruple album so the songs were split up into four lesser Zappa albums (Zappa In New York, Sleep Dirt, Orchestra Favorites and Studio Tan)." This is true, but it was eventually released the way Zappa intended, and it's as marvelous a 3-hour album as has ever existed, starting with some career-best fusion in "Regyptian Strut," continuing with the beautiful "Broken Hearts Are For Assholes," etc. etc. "The Adventures of Gregory Peccary" is one of his best longer pieces.
2. Zoot Allures
Unlike my No. 1, Zoot is lean and mean in addition to being a powerful experience, a showcase for some of the greatest guitar performances in rock history, including the opening blast of fuzz in "Wind Up Workin' In The Gas Station" and the mighty composition "Black Napkins," featuring fret runs so magnificent that a thousand budding electric guitarists gave up and became yuppies instead.
3. Hot Rats
The most beloved Zappa fusion album is also probably his best. Whenever I feel like having my mind blown, I listen to "Peaches en Regalia," and if for some reason I want to convulse to the guttural meanderings of Captain Beefheart, I sway along to "Willie The Pimp." The longer songs are front-to-back compelling and listenable, with none of the fat of some of Zappa's other fusion releases.
4. Over-Nite Sensation
Although this and Apostrophe (') are basically two parts are what is essentially the same album (so much so that a Classic Albums documentary lumped the two together), I prefer Over-Nite Sensation, slightly, if only because I love album opener "Camarillo Brillo" slightly more than "Don't Eat The Yellow Snow." I find the last minute of "Montana" to be irrationally exuberant, given its subject matter.
5. Freak Out!
For some people, Frank Zappa's first album with the Mothers of Invention will always be his greatest moment as a musician. In terms of weighing great songcraft against audacious experimentation ("Help, I'm A Rock!"), it certainly ranks up there. It's also probably Zappa's funniest album, and it has two of his greatest riff monsters in the form of "Hungry Freaks, Daddy" and the still-relevant "Trouble Every Day."
6. Apostrophe (')
Though, as stated earlier, I generally view this album as basically of a piece with Over-Nite Sensation, it functions as a great listening experience in his own right. The Yellow Snow/Nanook medley is a great three-part suite with wonderful drumming in particular, and the title track is one of the mightiest bass monsters ever concocted (played by Jack Bruce, I believe, whose personality didn't mesh with Zappa's at all).
7. We're Only In It For The Money
The Mothers' third album, which unlike Freak Out! takes quite a few listens to get into, WOIIFTM is still considered the classic anti-hippie polemic, featuring commentary that strikes me as alternately biting and overly simplistic. Nevertheless, it abounds with moments of compositional genius, my personal favorites being "Let's Make the Water Turn Black" and "Harry, You're A Best."
Though it will probably forever be known as Zappa's second-greatest fusion release, the only difference in terms of quality between this and Hot Rats is the lack of an opener as iconic as "Peaches en Regalia." The two shorter, poppier songs are as lovely as anything on Freak Out!, and the final title track begins with a great trumpet-induced frenzy of melody, almost Miles-ish in its exactness. It's one of my favorite moments on any Zappa album.
9. Absolutely Free
Equal parts sonic exploration and complete goof, the Mothers' second album laid out the blueprint for Zappa's future career, oscillating between longer medleys of melodic motifs and shorter, jokier songs (including yet another riff on "Louie, Louie"). I love the lascivious nature of "Why Don'tcha Do Me Right?" and the album includes one of my favorite rave-ups "Invocation & Ritual Dance of the Young Pumpkin."
10. Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar
A niche album to be sure, and a wildly uneven one at that, but if you're willing to sit through a lot to get through to those moments of beauty, this album acts as a great compendium for those wanting to know why Zappa is considered one of the greatest to pick up the guitar. There aren't many guitarists who can play for ten minutes and still remain as fascinating and memorable as they were at the beginning, but Zappa was a man of limitless, effortless skill and imagination.