Marking the 20th anniversary of Frank Zappa’s death, I continue to be inspired and entertained by his work and the rich musical legacy he left the world so I've selected ten essential albums (and Kevin Courrier provides an eleventh). –John Corcelli
On one of his many appearances on Late Night with David Letterman, Frank Zappa talked about his “personal relationship with his fans.” He was responding to Letterman’s question regarding the explanatory liner notes to the London Symphony Orchestra release of 1983. In one short answer, Zappa perfectly expressed the unique character of his work and the personal way it had evolved over the years. For me, the strength of Zappa’s music is completely about how I relate to it; the jokes I get and the particular subjects of his songs. Frank Zappa is certainly not for everyone, but if you’re looking for one of the most creative, challenging and rewarding composers of the 20th Century, then the following albums will do the trick:
1) I first heard the song “Dirty Love” when I was about 16 years-of-age. It was my musical gateway into the world of Frank Zappa, mainly for its witty lyrics and its tightly arranged musical hooks. Consequently, I would highly recommend that you start with Over-Nite Sensation (1974).
3) As a musician and jazz fan, I really began to dig the sounds of Zappa’s 1974 band featuring, Napoleon Murphy Brock, Tom Fowler, Chester Thompson, Ruth Underwood and the late George Duke. The confluence of improvised music along with Zappa’s formidable compositions make for some really satisfying results. Consequently I must recommend One Size Fits All (1975), with the classic opening track “Inca Roads” and You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore, Vol. 2 aka The Helsinki Concert (1988), featuring the same group that Zappa said [played] “with a lot of skill and miserable touring equipment” but who knew the material so well “they could probably perform it blindfolded.”
5) Zappa was always interested in getting the best musicians his money could buy, consequently he wasn’t afraid to expand his touring bands to include a 5-piece horn section. Zappa’s more ambitious and successful album is The Grand Wazoo (1972) featuring two of his most poignant and beautiful works, “Eat That Question” and “Blessed Relief." That giant big band became more refined 15 years later, when Zappa formed what became known as the 1988 Band. For me it was the strongest and tightest group of his musical career as the band performs some of Zappa’s most difficult works and new arrangements of his older compositions.
8) Special word goes out for the many fans of Hot Rats (1970) featuring the classic instrumental, “Peaches En Regalia” and the opening music to the recent Zappa Plays Zappa concert in Toronto, “The Gumbo Variations.” It’s a record that still sounds as fresh as the day it was released.
9) In 1993, the year Zappa died, an album was released on his Barking Pumpkin label called The Yellow Shark. It’s a CD of Zappa’s orchestral music as performed by the Ensemble Modern from Berlin, Germany. It was recorded in 1992 under the supervision of Frank Zappa who produced the album. For me, this record symbolizes everything about the importance of Zappa’s work and its appeal to the new generation of musicians, in this case based in Europe. Like most of Zappa’s works, some of which were written on a synclavier, the music is almost impossible for humans to play. It’s all technically challenging, yet musically satisfying, because enough rehearsal time was granted for the players. This record succeeds for that reason and the enthusiasm of the conductor, Peter Rundel to bring Zappa’s music to life, in a more formal, orchestral way: real musicians on real instruments with no overdubs.
10) Weasels Ripped My Flesh (1970) is a masterpiece of collage art that brings together every element of Zappa's diverse abilities from full blown absurdism ("Didja Get Any Onya"), r&b ("Directly From My Heart to You"), abstract jazz ("Toads of the Short Forrest," "Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue"), musique-concrete ("Dwarf Nebula Processional March and Dwarf Nebula") to rock and roll ("My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama"). Featuring the most unsettling album cover in the Zappa catalogue, Weasels Ripped My Flesh is pure dada music. (*selected by Kevin Courrier.)