Zappa – His Greatest Works: Opinion

Frank Zappa has so much music out there; it is hard to know where to start. We offer our opinion and pick out what we think are his greatest works.

Back in June 2020, the At The Barrier editorial duo, Dom Walsh and Mike Ainscoe held a public debate in which they both made the case for their favourite album produced by Rush during the nineteen eighties. Both Dom and Mike put forward convincing arguments to support their album of choice and, in the end, the result of the debate was declared a draw.

Undeterred, we thought we’d try a repeat of the experiment with, this time, Dom and regular contributor John Barlass presenting their top five all-time favourite albums from Frank Zappa. This could get messy…


Prolific. That’s a word that is banded around, often without any real thought to its applicability. Michael Ricketts’ goal scoring exploits were described as “prolific” the season that he netted just 12 Premier League goals for Bolton Wanderers. And the word is often applied to Philip Norman, whose 16 (excellent) rock music biographies were written over a period of almost 40 years. Prolific is, indeed, a word that means many things to many people. But, when it comes to describing the musical output of Frank Zappa, prolific is a word that comes immediately to mind.

Not counting his very earliest recordings – a pair of soundtracks for a couple of mid-sixties low-budget movies, Frank’s recorded output over his 30-year musical career amounted to 62 albums of original material, plus innumerable live outings and compilations. That’s some production rate.

Both Dom and John are long-term Zappaphiles.

John received his Zappa introduction in the early 1970s when he was a guest for the evening at the home of an older music aficionado and was alternately baffled, amused and seriously challenged by the album on the turntable that had tracks on it with names like The Voice of Cheese, Dog Breath in the Year of the Plague, A Pound For Brown on the Bus and Ian Underwood Whips it Out. The album in question was Uncle Meat by a band called The Mothers of Invention, and it left a lasting impression. It took a few years and a few dabbles with albums like Hot Rats and Chunga’s Revenge before a pair of albums, Over-Nite Sensation (1973) and Apostrophe(‘) (1974) really hit the spot and lured John into a state of fandom that endures to this day.

Dom grew up in musical home, with a father who had also undergone the Zappa damascene conversion. Thanks to his dad and, possibly, contrary to his mother’s finer instincts, Dom was familiar with the lyrics, if not their meaning, of such Zappa gems as Be In My Video, Joe’s Garage and Catholic Girls whilst still a primary school pupil. There were also repeated listens to Sheik Yerbouti! Frank Zappa has been an ever-present in Dom’s life.

We are both often asked the best way of getting to understand and enjoy the music of Frank Zappa and we usually suggest that anyone with such curiosity lends an ear one of the compilation albums – either Rykodisc’s 1995 collection, Strictly Commercial, which brings together 19 of FZ’s more accessible pieces, or for those known to possess a sense of humour with depraved overtones, the 1997 collection, Have I Offended Someone, with its track listing chock-full of sexual deviance and religious offence. And, one or two people, having followed those suggestions, have taken the Zappa bait and then want to know the albums with which they should launch their fledgling collections.

There’s really no such thing as a “typical” Zappa album. There’s room for just about everything within his vast canon, whether it be the musique concrète, doo-wop and sound collages of his early albums, satire of hitherto untouchable institutions such the late sixties counterculture, the Catholic Church and Bob Dylan, the straight-ahead jazz rock of albums like Hot Rats, dystopian concept projects or serious modern classical composition. And that list is only scratching the surface. So, as a service to anyone contemplating a deep dive into the limitless ocean that is the music of Frank Zappa (and The Mothers), Dom and John have each offered up their five favourite Frank Zappa albums.

And, of course, just about every Zappaphile reading this will have a different opinion. So, if you are, and you do, please do let us know what YOUR Zappa favourites are!


One of my all-time favourite live albums, Fillmore East – June 1971 was recorded on the 5th June of that year by a newly re-assembled Mothers lineup comprising FZ on guitar and vocals, Ian Underwood on Keyboards and woodwind, Don Preston on synthesizer, Jim Pons on bass, Aynsley Dunbar on drums, Bob Harris on Keyboards and, most audibly, former Turtles Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman (aka Flo & Eddie) on vocals.

Dominated to some degree by the Kaylan/Volman “groupie” comedy routine – they describe themselves as ladies who “Get off on being duped by a baby octopus and spewed upon with cream corn” before they force the band into proving their rock star credentials by performing their “Big hit single – with a bullet” – a version of The Turtles’ 1967 hit, Happy Together. But it’s not all fun and laughter – Fillmore East – June 1971 also contains storming versions of Little House I Used to Live In from The Mothers’ Burnt Weeny Sandwich (1970) album and, best of all, Peaches En Regalia and a wonderful Willie the Pimp, both standout tracks from the classic Hot Rats album (see below.)

And the really great news is that the entire show from that 5th June night at The Fillmore, plus every single note played during the other three shows from the 5th and 6th June, including the 6th June guest appearance of John & Yoko – the final performances by anyone at that iconic venue – plus the first official recording of Zappa’s life-changing show at London’s Rainbow Theatre on 10th December 1971, when Frank was pushed from the stage by a crazed fan, and recordings from shows at Harrisburg and Scranton PA during the same tour have recently been made available on the Zappa Records UMe deluxe boxset, The Mothers 1971.

HOT RATS (1969)

Probably the all-time favourite of many Zappa fans, Hot Rats is, quite simply, a timeless classic. Released in October 1969, Hot Rats is almost entirely instrumental, with the notable exception of the mighty Willie the Pimp, for which Zappa managed to entice his (then) friend Captain Beefheart to provide a memorable vocal.

The album opens with Peaches En Regalia, probably one of the best-known and durably enjoyable of all of Zappa’s tunes, and the album is a feast of jazz-rock exploration, awash with powerful guitar, immaculate horns and wonderful violin parts. Tracks like Son of Mr Green Genes, The Gumbo Variations, It Must Be a Camel and, particularly, the delightful Little Umbrellas have all stood the test of time and all sound as fresh today as they did back in ’69. Zappa assembled a stellar cast of musicians to help him realise the Hot Rats vision, with stalwarts Underwood and Beefheart joined by such luminaries as Shuggie Otis on bass, Don “Sugarcane” Harris and Jean-Luc Ponty on violins and Lowell George on guitar.

Hot Rats refuses to die and we were fortunate to be present at Manchester’s Palace Theatre back in December 2019 when Frank’s son Dweezil, accompanied by Scheila Gonzalez on sax, flute and keyboards, Ryan Brown on drums, Kurt Morgan on bass and Adam Minkoff on guitar, keyboards and vocals injected new life into these incredible tunes.

And the album’s cover is worth a mention too. Initially, I found Cal Schenkel’s infrared cover photo of GTO Miss Christine peering from a sunken flower bed slightly disturbing, but there’s no doubt that it grew to become a defining Zappa image.


Released in March 1979, Sheik Yerbouti was originally a 2-disc vinyl album comprising a mix of studio and live recordings. Propelled, no doubt, by the success of international hit, the lewd Bobby Brown Goes Down, it’s Zappa’s best selling album with songs that are amongst his most accessible. Many of the songs are controversial, with penetrative sex (from either direction) featured in opening track I Have Been In You and the aforementioned Bobby Brown, the druggy exploits of disco-lovers (disco was HUGE in 1979, when the album was released) are tackled in Dancin’ Fool and the sticky subject of Semitic stereotyping makes an appearance in Jewish Princess. Elsewhere, Zappa delivers an unflattering parody of Bob Dylan in the hilarious Flakes and sympathy for those discarded in love goes out of the window in the merciless Broken Hearts Are For Assholes.

But, in amongst the controversy and the merriment, there are also some wonderful musical moments. Adrian Belew delivers a stunning vocal on the jazz/soul masterpiece City of Tiny Lights, Patrick O’Hearn’s bass on Rubber Shirt is sublime and Zappa’s studio wizardry in combining it with a Terry Bozio drum part recorded elsewhere is mind-blowing and Zappa’s guitar on Sheik Yerbouti Tango and, particularly, Rat Tomago (both extracted from live performances of other tunes) is amongst the best he ever recorded.


Probably a controversial choice for a Top-Five listing, but Over-Nite Sensation is the album that allowed me to confirm my membership of the Zappa Appreciation Society, so I’m sticking by it. Released in June 1973, Over-Nite Sensation was recorded during the same sessions as 1974’s Apostrophe(‘) – also another close call for my Top Five.

With a line-up that combines the prominent marimba and vibes of Ruth Underwood with the brass of Sal Marquez and Bruce Fowler, Ian Underwood’s woodwind, George Duke’s keyboards and Jean-Luc Ponty’s violin with some exquisite guitar from FZ, Over-Nite Sensation achieves a level of musical sophistication that stands in sharp contrast with Frank’s explicit lyrics. There’s not a duff track to be had, although some listeners may eventually tire of the lurid details of Frank’s encounter with the insatiable Dinah-Moe-Hum and her lustful sister. Highlights include the dynamic opening track, Camarillo Brillo, the sinister I’m The Slime (Frank’s swipe at the banality of TV programming) and the epic closing track, Montana.


You know what we said said about Frank’s prolificacy? Well, nowhere was that as evident as it was in 1979, when Frank followed his double-album masterpiece, Sheikh Yerbouti (see above) with, first, the single disc Joe’s Garage Act I and then, just two months later, the double disc epic, Joe’s Garage – Acts II and III. As the whole thing flows as a single work and, in 1987, was issued as such in a 2CD set, I’m treating Joe’s Garage as a single album for the purpose of this article.

Joe’s Garage is, undoubtedly, the most cohesive concept work that Zappa ever produced – as a satire of the contemporaneous counter-culture, 1967’s We’re Only In It For The Money could also be described as a “Concept” album, but it lacks the binding narrative of Joe’s Garage.

The story centres around the eponymous Joe, an aspiring musician who exists at a time at which the Authoritarian government powers have designated music as a corrupting force, and Joe suffers the full consequences of pursuing his calling. During the course of the story, Joe looses Mary, the girl he loves and suffers heartbreak, catches VD as he tries to forget Mary by chasing other women, strikes up a sexual relationship with an electrical appliance and is imprisoned and raped. The whole thing is held together by narrated interludes from The Central Scrutinizer – Zappa, using a sinister whispered voice – and there are loads of great songs to drive the story along.

Musical highlights include the set’s opening title track – also issued as a single – the viscous Catholic Girls, the Scientology-bating Token of My Extreme, and Watermelon in Easter Hay, the album’s sublime instrumental on which Zappa plays what many consider to his best-ever guitar solo. In compiling the album, Zappa made extensive use of the of xenochrony, a technique that uses material recorded in other settings – live recordings in particular – and repurposes them into different settings. Much of Zappa’s guitar work on the album came about in this manner, and it is testimony to Frank’s skill as a producer that it’s impossible to see the “join.”

Like much of Zappa’s work, Joe’s Garage is a timeless album that still holds up well today; the music is fairly straightforward and incorporates theme of pop, heavy rock, punk and even disco and the dystopian theme of the story reflects happenings in many, societies – including our own – during the 40-odd years since the album’s initial release. And Zappa’s treatment of subjects such as censorship, abuse of authority and religion is decisive and pitiless.

Joe’s Garage is a great album – I’ll never tire of hearing it.

THEM OR US (1984)

Zappa, for me, started in the 1980’s. I was born in 1983 so I never got to ‘see’ Zappa in his pomp as it were. Sadly, one of my earliest memories of Frank is when he died in 1993. I remember it being on the news on morning TV and obviously knew who he was due to my father allowing me to listen to Sheik Yerbouti and Tinsel Town Rebellion. Over the years, I have grown into the Zappa discography and now being into my fortieth year of being, I have a definite radar of what I rate the most; not just the smuttiest, rudest and most absurd parts!

Them Or Us was a late one for me. When John and I discussed this article, I knew I would put an 80’s release in. You Are What You Is is a strong contender, and I watched/listened to Does Humour Belong In Music? an awful lot. Going back, Them Or Us is a brilliant record for me.

It contains one of my favourite Zappa songs in Stevie’s Spanking; an ode to Steve Vai; Zappa’s then protégé. Whilst the studio take checks in at around five minutes, there are some stunning live versions knocking around that really show the six string fire that Zappa/Vai brought to the table. Check out You Can’t Do That On Stage Vol. 4; the version on there is truly epic. Steve Vai is credited in You Are What You Is with ‘Strat Abuse,’ and he is commonly referred to as Zappa’s ‘stunt guitarist,’ due to his acrobatics on the fret board.

Elsewhere on Them Or Us, there is a searing guitar solo on the reggae tinged take on Sharleena; a song that appeared on 1970’s Chunga’s Revenge. Truck Driver Divorce starts as a comic take on the archetypal truck driver before gestating into an absolutely mind melting cacophony of feedback and tone in a solo that really pushes boundaries.

The comedy continues in the pop music video bashing Be In My Video. Bobby Martin’s hilariously high falsetto, digs at Bowie’s Let’s Dance and ‘smelling the glove,’ all raise a titter. Zappa also enlists the help of one of his hero’s in Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson on In France – not the first studio appearance from Watson after his cuts on One Size Fits All and Thing-Fish.

To complete the record, Zappa throws in a cover the Allman Brothers classic, Whippin’ Post. This was a song that I first heard on Does Humour Belong In Music? and sees use of live recording with studio work; and Bobby Martin starring on vocals. For me, if Zappa chooses a song of your to cover, that is a nod of approval. Although when we spoke to Mike Keneally (ex-Zappa instrumentalist) he told us that Zappa didn’t know Stairway To Heaven that well before they played it (full interview here).

Frank had decided during rehearsals that he wanted to play Stairway To Heaven. He asked, ‘OK…how does it go?’ He was aware of it but hadn’t heard it. Robert, Scott, Chad and I performed the best Stairway To Heaven we could so Frank could hear the song. He was like… ‘those changes during the guitar solo are really boring. A minor, G, F.’ He tried soloing over it. The thing of one minor down to flat 7 to flat 6 was like a harmonic prison. Anytime he was trying to get something going over it, it was not an inspiring progression for him. He kept trying to do solos. I knew the solo, and would play it at rehearsal when Frank wasn’t there. At one of the rehearsals, alto saxophonist, Paul Carman came over and asked me to show him the solo as he wanted to play it together with me. What a great idea! I showed him. That night, when Frank came to rehearsal, he started to improvise a solo over the solo section but Paul and I blasted over him with the solo in unison as a surprise for Frank. He didn’t know we were going to do it. Frank stopped soloing, turned around and looked at us, and he just stands there and smiles and watches us do the whole thing. He halted the band at the next section where the vocals come back in, and said, ‘OK…show it to the rest of horn section.’ We spent the next hour and half going through the solo so the rest of the horn section could write their own charts of the music. Frank said we’d play it like that. It was a remarkable moment.

Mike Keneally on getting Stairway To Heaven right for Frank Zappa

I don’t think that any Zappa appraisal can go without the mention of Inca Roads; track one, side one of One Size Fits All. It is notoriously one of Frank’s most complex pieces of music and was a composition that more often than not was played in live shows. Different line ups of Zappa’s touring band put their own unique spin on the song but this studio version features some wonderful marimba playing from Ruth Underwood. Whilst also being wildly complex, it is the complexity that ramps up the intrigue. It is a fascinating listen and one that sets up one of Frank’s finest records, and the last with the Mothers Of Invention.

The album features the aforementioned Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson and it is not the only way in which One Size its All and Them Or Us are bedfellows. Sofa #2 finishes the album, but a backwards recording of the song is used to form Ya Honza from Them Or Us. In any case, Watson contributes to two of the albums finest works; San Ber’dino and Andy.

Andy is a six minute musical odyssey which traverses many styles and genres. It is grand, soulful, bluesy, bizarre, rhythmically hypnotic, guitar heavy. The list can go on; you just have to listen to it to see all the turns you can take. When you peel back the numerous layers, there is so much going on in the song. Like Inca Roads, the complexity keeps you guessing. The vocal line of ‘If there’s anything good inside of you, I really wanna know,’ is an irresistible hook; with the melody replicated in the music, it will eat at your brain. There is the inevitable guitar solo from Frank however this time it is played over a marching drum. Something feels very unique about this track.

San Ber’dino is a more straight up song and sees Watson improvising lyrics over the closing bars. It is a heavier track and one that sits well with Florentine Pogen from the album. Both use heavier guitars and both became mainstays of Zappa’s live repertoire. The version of Florentine Pogen from the 1988 band is excellent (see The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life).

One Size Fits All is a little bit of an overlooked gem in the discography in my opinion. Great musicians, great songs, some utterly bizarre nonsense, great production, and intriguing cover art. Little things like the letters of s-o-f-a fitting the title of One Size Fits All are always little titbits that I like. Plus, Evelyn, The Modified Dog…a truly nuts spoken word inclusion. Brilliant.


A posthumous release from the Zappa Family Trust, and part of the complete concert series that seem to be periodically released. This particular release focuses on concerts at London’s Hammersmith Odeon over four nights in January 1978.

These particular concerts formed the source material for Sheik Yerbouti. Consequently, a lot of the final cuts on that album are evident here in different form. There is also plenty of material from Zappa’s extensive back catalogue contained herein.

City Of Tiny Lights and Jones Crusher are wonderfully heavy. For me, when Zappa cranks it up, his playing is just explosive. He could hang with Iommi and Blackmore in the heaviness stakes. Indeed, Frank was a big fan of Black Sabbath. One thing that I personally love is that both Frank and I share love for Supernaut from Sabbath’s Vol. 4 record. If you hear Supernaut you can hear plenty of that style in some of Zappa’s work. (Read more about Zappa and Black Sabbath here).

It is however another of the heavier tracks that steals the show for me here; Muffin Man. Originally on 1975’s Bongo Fury, Muffin Man is absolutely monolithic on this release. The guitar duo of Adrian Belew and Frank Zappa absolutely lay waste to everything. Muffin Man segues directly from Camarillo Brillo and the opening salvo really pins your ears back; it is genuinely brutal. Solo wise, this is pure shred fodder. I absolutely love it. In recent years, the only version of this song that I’ve heard that is heavier was a cover by sludge band, Slabdragger (give that a listen here).

Elsewhere on Hammersmith Odeon you get the early incarnation of Watermelon In Easter Hay, arguably Frank’s crowning achievement on the guitar. It is a thing of pure beauty. Punky’s Whips allows Terry Bozzio to take the lead in the brilliantly funny piece about his ‘obsession’ with a musician named Punky Meadows. It’s sandwiched between Broken Hearts Are For Assholes and Titties’N’Beer. This little selection makes for a thoroughly entertaining trio of songs. For me, this is an essential live release in amongst a slew of essentials.


Like One Size Fits All and Inca Roads, Zoot Allures contains some of Frank Zappa’s most endearing pieces of music. The title track is up there with Watermelon In Easter Hay in terms of Frank’s soloing. The tone and timbre of the playing is majestic. The same could be said for the remarkable Black Napkins. Both of these cuts are truly defining moments for Zappa as a rock guitarist. Like many albums in the FZ canon, live recordings were used to make the albums; this adds such an organic element to the songs. As the songs gestated in live sets they morphed into different beasts. On 2009’s ‘Philly ’76’ release, Zappa performs Black Napkins with Bianca Odin in the band; it contains a wordless vocal solo from the blues supremo, as well as a solo on violin from Eddie Jobson.

If those two classic tracks aren’t enough to say that Zoot Allures is one of Zappa’s finest, you can go further. The omni-present The Torture Never Stops is placed centrally on the album. It is one of many incarnations of another one of Zappa’s vital works. Again, the mutation of the song was constant. In 1984, when Zappa released Thing-Fish, there was a bizarre version cooked up entitled The Torchum Never Stops. Thing-Fish is a conceptual beast of a record and is probably only for the deep divers. On Volume 4 of Zappa’s You Can’t Do That Onstage Anymore, there is a 1975 version with Captain Beefheart included. The Torture Never Stops is one of my favourite Zappa pieces and I love hearing all the different takes on it.

Elsewhere on Zoot Allures, there is a brilliantly punchy Wind Up Workin’ In A Gas Station and again, heavier numbers like Wonderful Wino, Ms. Pinky and Friendly Little Finger. The latter almost has a folk rock feel to it for me. The heavier takes on songs could be down to that Zappa/Sabbath influence again. It goes without saying that the playing is out of this world and the ferocity with which the guitar is approached sees a shift in the embracing of the heavy stuff.

Such were the times, Zappa was never far away from a swipe at society. To close out Zoot Allures, Disco Boy was chosen. I think the title tells you everything you need to know about the content; vanity in the disco scene is the target.

Zoot Allures feels like a more serious album, although there is still the satire dripped in. It is a classic in the history of Frank Zappa and could be considered a good start point for people wanting to get into the music of the great man.


Chunga’s Revenge was Frank’s first album of the 1970’s. It was pivotal for it being the first album to feature Flo & Eddie; the ex-Turtles members. This was one that came late to me, after a gradual working backwards of the discography. I think it is clear from my picks that I am a big fan of Zappa’s guitar work. Chunga’s Revenge showcases Zappa in bluesier mode.

Transylvania Boogie zips out of the traps; the guitar line is provocative and punchy; the drums are urgent. After the opening salvo the track settles into a boogie and saunters into a more standard blues affair in Road Ladies. The title of the second track suggests a sleazy affair and that is not far off the mark. Chunga’s Revenge then flips and takes a jazz departure with the beautiful Twenty Small Cigars. In the liner notes for Imaginary Diseases, a posthumous release highlighting Zappa live in 1972, Steve Vai comments that Zappa had shown him 10 different chord re-harmonisations for the song. This just brings home the fact that Frank saw music from so many different directions and wanted to play in all of them.

The Nancy & Mary Music is a near ten minute piece that plays out in all directions of improvisation using instrumentation as well as vocals and percussion. In some respects, it is a challenge to listen to, but it ultimately pays off. It snares you so you can’t stop listening.

Side Two of the record moves into more traditional areas. Tell Me You Love Me and Would You Go All The Way are ‘poppier’ numbers. The former has a feel of the title track from 1974’s Apostrophe in it’s opening. It is a harder rock song and Would You Go All The Way sounds like a rock and roll standard in its musical format. Lyrically, both songs are close to the bone – depending on your perception. Would You Go All The Way led to a Zappa concert at Royal Albert Hall being cancelled due to obscene lyrics. Notable versions of the songs can be heard on the aforementioned Philly ’76 release with Bianca Odin giving it both barrels in her vocal takes of the songs.

The title track from Chunga’s Revenge is one that appeared frequently in live sets throughout his career. An instrumental piece, featuring a wild electric alto sax solo from Ian Underwood, the guitar work is again exemplary; the crying sound that Zappa gets from his six string really hits the mark. A short percussive interlude follows in The Clap; this is FZ on his own with a title leaving nothing to the imagination.

Rudy Wants To Buy Yez A Drink is one of my favourite Zappa songs. It is incredibly catchy and a lovely little pop song! The comedic slant offered from Flo & Eddie here, and on previous cuts on the album, show just an inkling of what was to come over the next two decades with Frank. The album closes with Sharleena; another ever present in the Zappa repertoire. An original version appears on 1996’s The Lost Episode and there is also the Them Or Us take as well as countless live versions available. This is one of my favourite versions of the song and a fitting way to sign off a look at five of my favourite albums from Frank Zappa.


So – there you have it: ten favourite Zappa albums from two At The Barrier writers. The choices we each made weren’t easy ones and both John and Dom were forced to exclude enduring favourites from their lists because of the self-imposed five albums each restriction. Freak Out, We’re Only In It For The Money, Apostrophe(‘), Bongo Fury, Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch, You Are What You Is, Sleep Dirt and Zappa In New York are just a few examples of albums we love but which we were unable to fit into our respective lists.

Then there’s stuff like the Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar series of instrumental albums that demonstrate Frank’s solid qualifications for place in the Rock Guitarists’ Hall of Fame. In addition to the rock side of Zappa, he was also pioneering the use of the synclavier on albums like Jazz From Hell. We’ve only scratched the surface, that’s for sure.

Plus there are all the classical releases! Zappa’s final release before his early passing was The Yellow Shark in 1993. One of Tom Waits’ favourite albums and one that Frank himself said was one of his most fulfilling projects. It ends with a song called G-Spot Tornado from Jazz From Hell; a song that Zappa thought was impossible for a human to play. Turns out it wasn’t impossible; it just highlights what an incredible composer Frank Zappa was.

But what about you? What do you think? We’d love to hear which of FZ’s many albums hit the spot for At The Barrier readers. Please add your thoughts in the comments below and share away on social media! Let’s keep the discussion going.

Music is THE BEST!

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4 replies »

  1. I enjoyed reading Dom’s and John’s Zappaphiliac rationales and am surprised no one has posted yet. Truthfully, I hated the first Zappa album I ever bought, “Just Another Band from LA,” and still do, but when I tried “Tinseltown Rebellion” the whole thing clicked and I’ve never looked back. I still remember hearing when he died; not a surprise since I knew he had cancer, but when I got into the car to go to lunch and turned on the FM rock station that never played Zappa and heard “Joe’s Garage” being played, I knew today was the day.

    My top five Zappa albums in ascending order:

    5. “The Yellow Shark.” Zappa’s (neo-)classical pretenses work best as miniaturist pieces, and this is that crowning achievement, blending new (“Outrage at Valdez,” “Get Whitey”) and old (“Dog Breath,” “Uncle Meat”) along with his typical barbed irreverence (“Food Gathering in Post-Industrial America”). Plus the Ensemble Modern seems to respect and admire his work, unlike those drunken hired guns from the London Symphony Orchestra.

    4. “Joe’s Garage, Acts 1-3.” Truth be told, a lot of this is smutty indulgence that detracts from an idea Rush had already broached in “2112,” but the best of it (“Joe’s Garage,” “Outside Now,” “Packard Goose,” “Watermelon in Easter Hay”) is the best of Zappa. Besides, I had to get an album made with his greatest drummer, Vinnie Colaiuta, on this list.

    3. “One Size Fits All.” Agree with Dom: “an overlooked gem.” The best from his bland middle-1970s period, combining compositional and instrumental complexity (“Inca Roads,” “Andy”) abandoned after “Waka/Jawaka” while previewing socio-cultural hard-rock satire (“Po-jama People,” “San Ber’dino”) from “Sheik Yerbouti” and beyond.

    2. “Hot Rats.” More than just critical pretense adding this one even if he made it with a bunch of ringers (and invaluable Mother Ian Underwood) whose slick professionalism actually enhances “Peaches en Regalia” or “Son of Mr. Green Genes.” I do love me some Jean-Luc Ponty (his “King Kong” is the greatest Zappa tribute album I’m aware of), but Sugarcane Harris owns him with his incendiary sawing on the sizzling “The Gumbo Variations.”

    1. “We’re Only in It for the Money.” If I had to pick one, this is the indispensable Zappa album, wedding his technical prowess, now having perfected his medley/montage approach with painstaking production detail, to the most astute, acidic, confrontational socio-political observations he ever made, truly one of the greatest countercultural statements of the 1960s–and that’s saying a lot. Made me go out and buy a book of Kafka’s short stories because of Zappa’s reference to his “In the Penal Colony” in the liner notes describing “The Chrome-Plated Megaphone of Destiny,” still one of the scariest frickin’ pieces of music I’ve ever heard (“Ooh! Arbitrary.”). Shame on you, guys. This one’s a no-brainer for me.

    I’ll spare you my list of “honorable mentions” because of its intercontinental absurdity. Again, nice work and an enjoyable read. Hope others will keep the discussion going too.

    • Hi Darryl…Dom here.

      Many thanks for your comment. It is great to hear from fellow fans! I am particularly glad you picked out One Size Fits All…it is a brilliant record and one that I have on constant rotation. The inclusion of The Yellow Shark was one that I though about (mainly for G-Spot Tornado!); I plumped for the other end of the spectrum with Chunga’s Revenge. I’ll be honest, I could rewrite many parts of this article to include other albums! I included the Hammersmith show, but Philly 76 would be in the reckoning now…as would You Can’t Do That On Stage Vol. 2…the beauty of Zappa is that there is so much stuff out there that you can more often than not find something to suit your taste.

      Again, many thanks for the comments…hope to see you around the pages again soon!


  2. Hi Darryl!

    Many, many thanks for your comprehensive response – that’s exactly the kind of dialogue that Dom and I were hoping to stimulate when we wrote the article. I honestly can’t argue with your selections and each of your choices would fit comfortably into my own Top 5.

    I’m particularly gratified by your choice of We’re Only In It For The Money as your Number 1 selection. It’s also a great favourite of mine. In common with many teenage record store browsers, I was fascinated by the Sgt Pepper parody sleeve photo and I spent many an hour studying that pic before I took the plunge and bought the album. At first, I found it difficult to listen to but, as is the case with all high-quality, enduring music, my patience was rewarded and the album remains a firm favourite of mine. I still haven’t managed to convince my wife, though…

    Thanks once again for taking the trouble to get in touch and, as you say, let’s hope that your response prompts others to join the debate!

    Cheers! John

  3. Thanks for replying, John. I could also do the top five FZ albums to avoid at all costs . . .

    Yes, I learned that, no matter how brilliant and life-changing “Money” might be, it might not be the best album for a first-time Zappa listener. I once recommended it to a colleague who asked me about Zappa, and when I followed up with him, he wasn’t exactly enthusiastic. Better to stick to “Hot Rats” or “Apostrophe” or the “Strictly Commercial” comp, I guess.

    You mentioned studying the “Money” cover/sleeve photo. According to the Zappa entry in the first book on rock I ever bought, “The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock,” edited by Nick Logan and Bob Woffindon of “New Musical Express” and first published way back in the late 1970s: “Zappa spoke to Paul McCartney on the telephone about getting permission to parody Sgt Pepper on the cover of We’re Only In It For the Money, but McCartney was suspicious and referred him to the Beatles management. Afterwards McCartney said: ‘He kept talking about “product” so it sounded like a business matter’; Zappa felt annoyed and the matter held up the release of the album.” Yeah, “strictly commercial,” all right.

    Now, how did I find your website? I’ve been having “Rat Tomago” running through my head for a few days, not just FZ’s shredding but Terry Bozzio’s drumming behind it. Not an affliction because I often have a song/musical passage pop into my head when I wake up; I had a Robert Fripp guitar passage from the live instrumental “Is There Life out There?” as an earworm for days a couple of weeks ago. But yesterday I realized that I didn’t even know what a “tomago” is. “Tamago” is the Japanese word for egg, but I had to see whether I could find anything on “tomago.” No luck, but I found this article, so here we are.

    Take care.

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