FEATURE: My 15 favourite Frank Zappa albums

Most bands don’t even have 15 albums during their entire career. But for Frank Zappa, that’s pretty much the number of records he would release before his first coffee in the morning. With that in mind, I find it impossible to pick just one favourite Frank Zappa album, so here’s my top 15. Click on any of the titles to buy the album from Amazon.com

1. Over-Nite Sensation
Home to a whole barge full of particularly well-known FZ songs: the track listing is ‘Camarillo Brillo,’ ‘I’m The Slime,’ ‘Dirty Love,’ ‘Fifty-Fifty,’ ‘Zomby Woof,’ ‘Dinah-Moe Humm’ and ‘Montana.’ Out of all of those, only ‘Fifty-Fifty’ is unlikely to show up on a list of the ‘big ones.’ I’d love to hear this one on vinyl some day. It has that dry, clear sound that is a bit sterile on a CD or MP3 but really comes alive when it’s streaming off a big slab of shellac.

2. We’re Only in It for the Money
Wow. I only heard this one for the first time about, what, a year or so ago? Maybe two years? I dunno. I’m a busy dude and I’ve kinda lost track of my own temporal orientation. What I do know is that pretty much everything I want to hear in music is here: virtuoso performances, unique rhythms, amazing tones, powerful concepts, lyrical diversity, funny stuff, dense arrangements as well as simple clobber-you-over-the-head arrangements… I thought I was getting far too cynical and grouchy to have my life changed by an album these days but We’re Only In It For The Money totally did that for me. If you’re skipping through the CD for the first time looking for good bits, don’t pass over ‘What’s The Ugliest Part Of Your Body.’ What may sound initially like a straightforward doo-wop tune has the coolest from-out-of-nowhere middle section (the ‘All your children are poor unfortunate victims’ bit) which moves me in ways I can’t describe.

3. Broadway the Hard Way
Most of these songs are about social issues that are uniquely relevant to 1988 America (lyrics about Ronald Regan, Oliver North, Surgeon General C Everett Coop and the Iran Contra scandal are far too overt to be taken as allegory), but while the issues and topics may be dated, there’s something that feels eerily current about this one. It’s almost like listening to a musical production of The Daily Show if it was around in the late 80s. Yet for all its humour, cynicism, criticism and occasional downright meanness (Tammy Faye Baker is described as “an ugly little weasel bout three-foot-nine” in ‘Jesus Thinks You’re A Jerk’), Broadway The Hard Way includes a couple of my all-time favourite Frank Zappa guitar solos, in ‘Any Kind Of Pain’ and ‘Outside Now.’

4. Zappa in New York
This one would be worth it even if it was only a single with ‘I’m The Slime’ on one side and ‘Titties and Beer’ on the other. But the performances by drummer Terry Bozzio and the inclusion of tracks like ‘The Illinois Enema Bandit,’ a killer ‘Pound For A Brown,’ a crazy ‘Punky’s Whips’ (one of my all-time favourite Zappa tracks) and two totally different and equally headspinning ‘The Black Page’ renditions elevate Zappa In New York from mere cool album to the status of Monolithic Achievement Worthy Of Being Blasted Into Space To Remind Our Future Alien Overloads Who They Were Messing With And What Mankind Was Capable Of Achieving When They Weren’t Being Absorbed For Their Lifeforce By Gelatinous Space Monsters.

5. Uncle Meat
This one is very compositional and eclectic. It may be too trippy for some. For others it’s musical and emotional nourishment of the highest order. It’s all here – the pretty little bits, weird flourishes, songs changing direction almost arbitrarily in ways that don’t make sense in the moment but which reveal themselves as perfect in the wider scheme of things. And ‘Louie Louie’ played on the organ at the Albert Hall. If you’re new to Zappa this is probably either the worst or the best introduction possible, depending on your perspective.

6. Jazz from Hell
FZ, meet computer. Computer, meet FZ. One of the most daring musical extrapolations ever to issue forth from the hard drive of the now archaic Synclavier music system, Jazz From Hell was one groundbreaking mother of an album. Back when you actually had to have a pretty thorough knowledge of musical notation in order to make electronic music in a computer, Frank and his assistants tirelessly fed musical scores into the Synclavier to recreate the music Frank heard in his head but was unable to get live musicians to perform to his satisfaction.

7. The Yellow Shark
If Jazz From Hell is the sound of computers doing the musically impossible, Yellow Shark is the sound of musicians doing the computationally impossible. Recorded with the Ensemble Modern and worth buying just for the liner notes even if they forget to put the CDs in at the store, this set is the last thing Frank released during his lifetime and in many ways it sums up everything about him, from heartfelt sentimentality to artsy extrapolations like ‘Welcoome to The United States’ to downright musical obscenity. There’s an amazing, unmissable rendition of ‘G-Spot Tornado’ from Jazz From Hell to cap off the album.

8. You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore – Vol. 6
So there were two Frank Zappas, right? There was the stunningly virtuosic genius musician/composer, and there was the hilarious guy who wrote filthy, filthy songs. Often the two would mix – Frank wasn’t a fan of strict definitions and segregations within his music or life – and so we have You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 6. This live album features performances culled from many different line-ups and eras, and it’s full of tawdriness, lewdness, sexual innuendo, sexual outuendo, sexual inandoutuendo, naughty words, provocative squats, fetishes and kinks. Real ‘listen to it with headphones on so you don’t get it confiscated by your parents’ kind of stuff.

9. 200 Motels: Original MGM Motion Picture Soundtrack
Disclaimer: I saw the film 200 Motels again recently and found it a bit too, uh, esoteric to really dig the way I used to. However, in the context of happy memories and impact on personal development this was a pretty big one for me. For some bizarre reason nobody will ever be able to explain to me, my local video store in small town Australia had a VHS copy of this for hire when I was in my teens. I used to take it out every couple of months, wait til nobody was home or at least had all gone to bed, then have my little 14-year-old mind exploded by the psychedelic perversity therein. Don’t go looking for any real sense of plot in the movie. Don’t go looking for much pretty in the music. Just enjoy the ride, and the awesomeness of a track like ‘Magic Fingers.’

10. FZ:OZ
A live album recorded here in Australia in the 70s. FZ pulls some very cool guitar tones on this one, and there’s a great spontaneous vibe. Dig FZ’s delay and wah-drenched solo on ‘Carolina Hard Core Ecstasy,’ not to mention a melancholic and restrained ‘Zoot Allures,’ which beat Steve Vai’s ballads to the punch by a decade and a half. Also includes the hilariously filthy ‘Poodle Lecture’ and some great versions of ‘Dirty Love,’ ‘Black Napkins’ and ‘Camarillo Brillo.’

11. Trance-Fusion
Frank’s Shut Up And Play Your Guitar series of albums and the album simply titled Guitar are pretty well known. They’re all constructed pretty much entirely of FZ guitar solos and nothing else. Which is cool. But for those who may have drifted away from Zappadom over the years and not paid any attention to his posthumous releases, there are some great moments on this one. Check it out. Although some of the posthumous Zappa releases are compiled by the Zappa Family Trust, this one was completed by Frank and he always intended for it to be released in this form. Dig the subtle Simpsons reference in the title ‘Good Lobna.’

12. Make a Jazz Noise Here
Mainly instrumental, this one has rearrangements of many a classic Zappa tune, with the focus squarely on the 5 piece horn section. Personal highlights are the ‘Let’s Make The Water Turn Black/Harry You’re A Beast/Orange County Lumber Truck’ medley, a great clean-toned guitar solo on ‘Stinkfoot,’ and Mike Keneally’s tapping extravaganza on ‘Stevie’s Spanking.’ There are also some pretty outstanding pieces that are unique to this set including ‘When Yuppies Go To Hell’ and ‘Fire And Chains.’

13. Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch
This one can be pretty difficult to digest – the majority of the songs are too wacky for most people, but it’s worth pushing through the parody disco beats of ‘I Come From Nowhere’ and ‘No Not Now’ to enjoy what’s below the surface. And if you are able to digest the fiendishly intricate ‘Drowning Witch’ and ‘Envelopes’ (not easy for first timers, such as me when I happened to choose this as my first Zappa album), you’ll find some amazing playing by a very young Steve Vai. Challenging but brilliant.

14. You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore – Vol. 2
This one features probably my favourite Zappa line-up – Frank Zappa, Napoleon Murphy Brock, George Duke, Ruth Underwood, Tom Fowler and Chester Thompson – performing tracks like ‘Inca Roads,’ ‘Stinkfoot,’ ‘Village Of The Sun,’ ‘Pygmy Twylyle,’ ‘RDNZL,’ ‘Uncle Meat,’ ‘The Dog Breath Variations’ and ‘Montana (Whipping Floss).’ The band are at the top of their game and their relaxed interplay kinda makes you feel like you were there. I guess the fact that it’s the only one of the six You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore releases to have its own subtitle is evidence that Frank recognized its uniqueness.

15. Apostrophe (‘)
A few indisputable rock classics are on this album. ‘Cosmik Debris.’ ‘Stinkfoot.’ ‘Uncle Remus.’ All that stuff about yellow snow, including the incredible ‘St Alfonzo’s Pancake Breakfast’ (and did you see Dweezil play the marimba bit on guitar with Zappa Plays Zappa?). By the way, check out the title track for some mournfully teeth-grinding fuzz bass tone courtesy of one Mr Jack Bruce of Cream. I really enjoy this one but it’s probably my least favourite of my 15 favourites.