Top 10 Frank Zappa Albums
Before he died at the age of 52 on Dec. 4, 1993, Frank Zappa released a vast body of work that remains frustrating, complex, confusing and brilliant. He was as prolific as he was restless, jumping from genre to genre, and from target to target, with all the control and temperament that you'd expect from a difficult, boundary-busting artist. From the start of the Mothers of Invention in the mid '60s to the end of his life, Zappa's massive output can be maddening to sort through. So we did all the heavy lifting. All you have to do is soak into our list of the Top 10 Frank Zappa Albums.
Zappa released four great albums during the 12-month period starting in October 1969. This was the second to reach shelves. Even though he had recently broken up the Mothers of Invention, the mostly instrumental 'Burnt Weeny Sandwich' is credited to the band since it pulls together previously unreleased live and studio tracks. Like 'Weasels Ripped My Flesh' (see No. 6 on our list of the Top 10 Frank Zappa Albums), 'Burnt Weeny Sandwich' reheats leftovers into tasty new morsels.
Following a brief post-Mothers period of regrouping his musical ideas, Zappa swerved into the world of fusion for a handful of albums. The jazz and big-band swing of 'The Grand Wazoo' follows the same year's 'Waka / Jawaka' into the rabbit hole of sounds Zappa was so fond of exploring during this fruitful era. He'd return nine months later with a reunited Mothers, his first gold-selling album and a turn toward more commercially accessible music on 'Over-Nite Sensation.'
Like 'The Grand Wazoo' (see No. 9 on our list of the Top 10 Frank Zappa Albums), 'Waka / Jawaka' plays around with various forms of fusion. But it also serves as a bridge between Zappa's avant-rock work and his later, more sophisticated jazz and classical material. A sequel of sorts to the earlier instrumental excursions found on 'Hot Rats,' 'Waka / Jawaka' is stuffed with big brass and tricky time signatures.
'Chunga's Revenge' capped one of Zappa's most productive and exciting years, a period distinguished by favorites like 'Hot Rats' and 'Weasels Ripped My Flesh.' 'Chunga's Revenge' falls in line with other albums released during the period: mostly instrumental, wildly experimental and moving away from the social satire that marked his '60s material. It also tentatively points toward the next chapter in Zappa's storied career.
An artist as prolific and as diverse, not to mention as thematically minded, as Zappa would often frame his records within the context of others. He released several companion pieces throughout his career, works that connect with one another musically, lyrically and in other ways. 'Weasels Ripped My Flesh,' like 'Burnt Weeny Sandwich' (see No. 10 on our list of the Top 10 Frank Zappa Albums) was compiled from leftover Mothers of Invention songs dating back to 1967.
Following the Mother of Invention's 1966 debut, Zappa returned to the studio not long after, determined to tear apart whatever conceptions anyone may have made based on 'Freak Out!' The chaos that Zappa weaves in and out of 'Absolutely Free' is both exhilarating and maddening. There's structure in 'Absolutely Free''s unstructured nature, but Zappa makes you work to find it.
'Uncle Meat' is one of Zappa's most extreme albums ... and that says quite a lot. Supposedly developed as the soundtrack to a science-fiction movie Zappa and the Mothers were putting together, the record messes around with overdubs, tape manipulation and blues-jazz-rock-whatever freak outs like no other album in Zappa's vast catalog. A real mind-blower.
The Mothers of Invention's third album is also one of their most accomplished and their most socially pointed. Taking aim at everything from the counterculture (Zappa hated hippies) and political figures to pop culture and 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band' (which the Mothers spoof on the inside cover), 'We're Only in It for the Money' is a concept album made for and about an era in comical turmoil.
Zappa's debut album with the Mothers of Invention broke a lot of ground. It's not only one of rock's first concept albums, as well as one of its first double LPs, it's also the moment where rock 'n' roll gazed inward and found something other than revelry for the music. With a mix of blues, rock. R&B, orchestral music and noise (without sounding at all like what you'd expect from any of those genres) at its core, 'Freak Out!' is one long thumb-nosing at convention. And it opened the door wide for other weirdos and outcasts to make similar musical stands.
'Hot Rats' marks a major turning point in Zappa's career. It's the first album he made after the Mothers broke up (but not his first solo album -- 'Lumpy Gravy' holds that distinction), it's the first to be recorded using 16-track technology and it's the first to dive head first into the jazz-inspired instrumentals that encompasses some of his best and most thrilling work.