In 2012, the Zappa Family Trust reissued Frank Zappa’s original 58-album catalog through Universal Music, with nearly two dozen early-ish titles benefiting from a significant audio upgrade. So what better time to introduce yourself to the peculiar and prolific genius of Frank Zappa — composer, bandleader and guitarist extraordinaire? We’ll even make it easy for you: Simply follow this handy 10-step introduction to the 20th century’s most daring and wickedly satiric rock-classical crossover genius. It starts off easy and becomes less so. Save his Synclavier experiments and confrontational mid-eighties sampler sallies against the Parents Musical Resource Center (aka the “Washington Wives”) for later. This is what you need to consume right now!
“Peaches En Regalia”
Begin here. The opening track of 1969's Hot Rats, with which Frank Zappa pretty much invented jazz-rock fusion, is a regal distillation of Zappa's musical personality at its most slyly inviting. With Ian Underwood's keyboards and winds simulating an entire orchestra, an immaculately concise FZ guitar solo, and a teenaged Shuggie Otis on bass, "Peaches" blends pomp, wit, rock, jazz and classical flavors into a rich, palate-cleansing overture for the extended jams that follow.
Over-Nite Sensation and Apostrophe’
Zappa’s two most commercially successful albums, recorded mostly during the same 1973 sessions, tantalize with psychedelic scatology and catchy comedy-rock tracks. Initiate yourself into the mysteries of yellow snow, dental floss and Sears ponchos, but don’t miss the subtly akimbo arrangements, rocking set pieces, and stellar guitar playing. Fun fact: Tina Turner and the Ikettes sang uncredited backing vocals for $25 per track.
Zappa's thoroughly entertaining 1972 sequel to Hot Rats recalls the sort of sophisticated big-band jazz played by Don Ellis and Bob Brookmeyer. Bookended by the 17-minute "Big Swifty" and the 11-minute title track, W/J makes 7/8 and 11/8 time signatures sound as normal as 4/4. Also, "Sneaky" Pete Kleinow plays one of the finest pedal-steel solos ever on the hallucinatory "It Just Might Be a One-Shot Deal."
Roxy & Elsewhere
Percussionist Ruth Underwood earns MVP honors on this 1974 live album that balances Zappa's compulsive perfectionism with gleeful improvisation and infinite hooks. The original double-vinyl's side-long sequence of "Village of the Sun," "Echidna's Arf (Of You)," and "Don't You Ever Wash That Thing" contains as much heart as humor thanks to George Duke's vocals, Chester Thompson's ridonkulous drumming, and the ringmaster's obvious delight at the fleet-footed mischief he hath wrought.
“The Adventures of Gregory Peccary”
Zappa considered himself first and foremost a modern classical composer, and often complained about needing to tour with a rock band to subsidize his serious stuff. Somewhere between three-chord rock and Webern-ian dodecophony, however, he sometimes hit a sweet spot of semi-serious rock operatics, most notably in this 20-minute orchestral work from 1978's Studio Tan. Zappa's subtlest social satire, "Gregory Peccary" mocks consumerism, mechanization, religious exploitation, and the very nature of time itself with blithe melodic pastiches.
Burnt Weeny Sandwich
After disbanding the original Mothers of Invention in 1969, Zappa released both this album of (mostly) studio leftovers and the (mostly) live collection Weasels Ripped My Flesh the following year. Weeny is a grand gateway into the Mothers' peculiar mix of high and low styles. Doo-wop gems "WPLJ" and "Valarie" bookend a classically inclined set whose nineteen-minute multipart centerpiece "The Little House I Used to Live In" features a fiery Don "Sugarcane" Harris blues-violin solo.
Considered Zappa's quintessential composition by many, the rhythmically treacherous One Size Fits All (1975) opener pokes fun at progressive-rock pretension even as it inspired some of FZ's most beautifully composed guitar solos. This version's solo, played originally onstage in Helsinki, exemplifies Zappa's notion of xenechrony, a recontextualizing of material between stage and studio. Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar's title track, for example, snags a particularly stunning "Inca Roads" solo from a 1979 tour.
Make a Jazz Noise Here
Zappa's final tour, in 1988, featured an ultratight 12-piece band with a hard-swinging five-man horn section. The third of three live albums documenting the excursion, Jazz Noise mixes artfully arranged Mothers classics like "Cruisin' for Burgers," extended sample-driven improvisations such as "When Yuppies Go to Hell," and jazz-inflected instrumentals like "Black Napkins." The whole affair runs more than two hours, contains numerous quotes from the classical canon, and has a valedictory maturity reminiscent of Dutch jazz oddballs like the Willem Breuker Kollektief.
We’re Only in It for the Money
Beginning with Cal Schenkel's Sgt. Pepper's-spoofing cover art, the Mothers of Invention's 1968 conceptual masterpiece satirized the hippie "flower punk" subculture even more venomously than Zappa had skewered their parents a year earlier on Absolutely Free. Short, sharp melodies, musique concrète, analog electronics, astounding tape-speed manipulation, orchestral leftovers from Lumpy Gravy, and both broad and laser-sharp parodies of contemporary hits (e.g., "Hey Joe") add up to a brain-scorching album of singular collagic velocity.
Notoriously gnarly but endlessly rewarding, Zappa's often-conflicting pop and "serious" sides come to a jittery and often transcendent resolution in the grooves of this double album containing "most of the music from the Mothers' movie of the same name which we haven't got enough money to finish yet." The title track and Zappa ür-theme "King Kong" emerge and dissolve throughout the album like Wagnerian motives performed by a Darmstradt serial composer conducting Arkham Asylum's institutional orchestra — only funnier.