Over a career spanning more than 30 years, Frank Zappa released over 60 albums both as a solo artist and with his band, Mother of Invention. In the process, he changed the face of music. He may not have enjoyed major critical or commercial success while alive, but he’s subsequently been recognized as one of the most influential and inspiring artists of the 20th century, and a pioneer of comedy rock. Here’s our pick of the ten best Frank Zappa albums of all time.
10. Over-Nite Sensation
Over-Nite Sensation was where things started to get big for Zappa. Recorded during the same sessions as Apostrophe, it was bold, lewd to the point of crude, and utterly edifying. The lyrics might have sent the moral majority over the edge, but the kids loved its rude accessibility. Released on September 7, 1973, it peaked at No. 32 on the Billboard 200 and became a surprise hit in Australia, peaking at No. 47.
He might have achieved a small amount of chart success on his later albums, but Frank Zappa didn’t really ‘do’ commercial. Not often anyway. But in 1974, he made a concession to the mainstream. It was only a slight concession, but the result, Apostrophe, ranks as his biggest commercial success. The album peaked at No. 10 on the Billboard 200 (his highest ever entry on the chart) while its lead-off track, Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow, became his highest-charting entry on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at No. 86. If any artist ever needs a lesson in how to become commercially successful without losing their identity in the process, Apostrophe provides a masterclass in it.
8. Sheik Yerbouti
1979 was a great year for music, if for no other reason than the fact Zappa released two albums. The first was Sheik Yerbouti, a double album of mainly live tracks that were overdubbed in the studio. It was the first of his albums to be released on his eponymous label after he left DiscReet label, and clearly, the experience of being his own boss had put him in a jovial mood. While his lyrics had often had comedic elements, here, he lets his inner stand-up take over, resulting in not only one of the funniest albums of his career, but one of his most approachable. Commercially, it was a triumph, taking him to No. 21 on the Billboard 200 and No. 32 on the UK Albums Chart. It’s since sold over 2 million units worldwide.
7. One Size Fits All
As Far Out Magazine says, listening to a previously unheard album can sometimes leave you baffled. When it comes to Frank Zappa albums, bafflement is just par for the course. Of all his records, One Size Fits All ranks among the weirdest, darting between different styles and different genres so quickly, it’s impossible to know what to expect from one track to the next. But weird can be wonderful, and One Size Fits All, for all its trippiness, is most definitely a wonder.
6. Uncle Meat
Zappa didn’t approve of drugs, but you’d never have guessed it from Uncle Meat. Had it come from another artist, you’d question what they’d been inhaling before hitting the studio. It was originally conceived as a soundtrack to a sci-fi movie Zappa and the Mothers were meant to be putting together. The movie never appeared, but at least we got one of the most mind-bending freakouts of the ’60s out of it.
5. Hot Rats
As Ultimate Classic Rock notes, Hot Rats marked a major turning point in Zappa’s career. Not only was it the first album he released after the Mothers broke up and the first to utilize 16 track technology, but it was also the first to wholeheartedly embrace the jazz-inspired instrumentals that would come to define his most mind-blowing work. The addition of some typically outstanding vocals from Captain Beefheart on Willie the Pimp doesn’t exactly dampen its appeal either.
4. You Are What You Is
Based on the lyrics alone, it’s a wonder You Are What You Is ever made it to the shelves, let alone the radio. A ruthless, profanity-laden takedown of the Republican Party, it ranks as one of the most deliberately provocative albums in Zappa’s catalog. The portrayal of Ronald Reagan in an electric chair on the titular track’s accompanying video didn’t exactly help matters either. But while MTV might have seen fit to ban the video, even they couldn’t stop You Are What You Is from becoming one of Zappa’s best-loved records.
3. We’re Only In It for the Money
Zappa hated hippies, and he didn’t mind people knowing either. On 1968’s We’re Only In It for the Money, he and the Mothers of Invention make their distaste for the counterculture plain. From pop culture to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, everything connected with peace and love gets remorselessly, unapologetically ripped to shreds. A breath of fresh, revolutionary air.
2. Joe’s Garage Acts I, II & III
Zappa’s second album of 1979 is Joe’s Garage Acts I, II & III. A rock opera of three acts, it tells the story of Joe, an average guy who starts a garage band, donates all his money to a false religion, and has such bad relationships with women, he ends up committing some rather unnatural acts with kitchen appliances before being tossed in jail. On his release, he winds up in an Orwellian universe where music has been made illegal, eventually (and understandably) going insane. It’s very weird, very experimental, and very, very Zappa.
1. Freak Out!
In 1966, Zappa released his debut album with Mothers of Invention. At the time, hardly anyone noticed. Of those that did, few were impressed. But with time, it slowly started to develop a cult following, continuing to sell right up until it was discontinued in the early 1970s. Today, it’s rightly considered to be one of the greatest albums of the era. An experimental mix of blues, orchestral music, rock, R&B, and various other genres that no one has ever explored enough to give a name, it flips the finger to every rule in the book, thumbs its nose at tradition, and invites every freak and geek to join in the fun. An irresistible album, and one that still sounds as groundbreaking today as it ever did.