Top 10 Frank Zappa Songs
Frank Zappa's music isn't for all tastes. He knew this: He made it that way. While his peers and contemporaries were incorporating R&B and blues into their psych-out rock 'n' roll, Zappa played around with more esteemed forms of music, including jazz, classical and performance art-based collage. The music he made – with the Mothers of Invention, as a solo artist and on projects that aren't so easily defined or classifiable – was almost always challenging.
Even a seemingly throwaway goof like Don't Eat the Yellow Snow incorporated musical twists and turns that would leave typical rock artists bruised after 30 seconds. Still, Zappa's music found open-eared audiences among traditional rockers, classical and jazz fans, connoisseurs of outre music and, of course, totally stoned hippies. His discography spans almost 30 years, all the way to his death in 1993. He released more than 60 albums during that period. It wasn't easy, but we managed to pull together a list of the Top 10 Frank Zappa Songs.
Zappa's 1966 debut LP with the Mothers of Invention is often credited as the first concept album. Like so many of Zappa's records, the double album mocks a specific corner or contemporary society – in this case, the burgeoning hippie culture. "Who Are the Brain Police?," which was actually released as a single, lives up to the album's title: It's a sonic freak-out structured on top of layers of noise. Obviously it didn't chart.
Zappa's second solo album following the Mothers' breakup was an instrumental work that almost completely abandoned typical rock signposts. Yet, influenced by the growing jazz fusion movement, Hot Rats remains one of Zappa's most accessible albums. The breezy "Peaches En Regalia" is the LP's opening cut, a playful and tuneful song that regularly found its way into Zappa's live shows.
Zappa's only Top 40 hit (it hit No. 32) featured his 14-year-old daughter Moon on lead vocals, running through a bunch of early-'80s "valley" speak (if you lived through it, you knew how painful it was). But keeping with his lifelong skewering of fads and cultures, "Valley Girl" is a biting satire of West Coast emptiness – something that probably went way over the heads of the young people who made it a hit.
Disco was huge in 1979. So naturally it was a ripe subject for Zappa to attack. And it's such a spot-on parody of the music and culture that it became his biggest hit until "Valley Girl" (see No. 8 on our list of the Top 10 Frank Zappa Songs). The backbeat makes it easy for commercial consumption ... until it all breaks down somewhere in the middle as about a dozen different styles nudging the dance elements aside.
It's no surprise that this song by the Mothers of Invention was released as a single in 1969: It doesn't sound all that different from other songs that came out during that musically experimental year. It even includes a pretty killer guitar solo, appropriately. It's also not so surprising that a single titled "My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama" bombed. (The song later appeared on the 1970 album Weasels Ripped My Flesh.)
One of Zappa's earliest free-form masterpieces, a seven-minute pop explosion that wraps up about a decade's worth of Top 40 radio in a typically twisted take-down of dwindling U.S. values. "Brown Shoes Don't Make It" is the centerpiece of the Mothers' second album, itself a classic of mid-'60s adventurism and the earliest example of Zappa's genre-sprawling brilliance on our list of the Top 10 Frank Zappa Songs.
Zappa's first charting single (it reached No. 86 in 1974) is also the lead track from the four-song suite that starts his only Top 10 album. While the song introduced Zappa to tons of new fans, it also branded him with the reputation as a novelty artist who packed more jokes than talent. The track's flowing bass and elastic melody nod subtly to the doo-wop music that's at the core of so many Zappa songs.
Another song from Zappa's only Top 10 album Apostrophe (see No. 4 on our list of the Top 10 Frank Zappa Songs), and the track that follows the "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow suite. Zappa narrates the story of a promise-sputtering guru over a springy jazz rhythm that steps down for a killer guitar solo. A mid-'70s slam of leftover '60s "mumbo jumbo."
The title track, and key cut, to Zappa's three-act rock opera about the music business (and, in a way, a body slam to punk rock) features one of his most mainstream-leaning melodies. Of course, the lyrics tell a different story: Top 40 music is mocked, derided and scorned throughout the six-minute track. Still, it's one of Zappa's most popular songs.
In 1973, Zappa returned to the studio with a new band of Mothers. The sessions yielded two albums: 1974's Apostrophe which was credited as a solo record (see Nos. 3 and 4 on our list of the Top 10 Frank Zappa Songs), and Over-Nite Sensation, a band LP from 1973. "Montana" is the closing cut on the latter album and a six-minute tour de force for both bandleader and group. Drum fills, blazing guitar solos, funky time signatures – all that plus Tina Turner on backing vocals.