Tuesday, February 23, 2010

So, You Want To Get Into.........Frank Zappa?

Have I talked about this before, the AV Club's feature called "Gateways To Geekery?" It's one of the best columns they have, though I feel like they don't do it enough. There's plenty out there that seems daunting at least from the outset.

Anyway, this is the same premise - and be real, this might be an act of theft, but their own column is an act of theft of the type of conversations you would have with your friends ("I've always wanted to get into so-and-so, any suggestions on where to start?"), so don't even start - as the AV Club's column, making allowances for my own opinions. I really need to branch out from just music. In fact, since I still think my Dr. No review stands as proof that I'm reeeeeeally rusty at writing about films, it might be better for me to frame films through such a context - "So, You Want To Get Into.........Monty Python?" or "...Soviet Film?" would be good entries.

Let's start.

I'm a Zappa fan who is sort of on the fence about fellow Zappa fans. The ones I meet in person I get along with really well. I was telling a friend this past weekend it's a lot like meeting a fellow drummer, in that we can talk for hours about "What was your first FZ album?" or "Who's your favorite bassist?", fun stuff like that.

The online fan community, though? Rabid, contrary, bloviating, arrogant, misinformed, close-minded, vitriolic, territorial, and confrontational. There are some shining stars out there. My friends running Kill Ugly Radio are great. It's in the comment boards, however, that the discourse can veer into some unappetizing turf. Some of these bozos can't comprehend first of all that Frank Zappa was not only human, but one with many character flaws.

Second, anyone who doesn't appreciate one of his works is an uncultured Philistine who simply "doesn't get it." This especially becomes the constant cop-out in instances where Uncle Frank gets exceptionally vulgar. To them, if you find his work offensive, it has something to do with YOU, not the music.

Take my dad - a very open-minded guy musically, with everything from Beethoven to Juice Newton to Cheap Trick to Indian folk music in his collection. But for the most part, he doesn't like Frank Zappa, and it isn't a case of him not "getting it." Believe me, in all my attempts to proselytize to him I have had success in all other cases (I got him into The Ramones, The Residents, Wesley Willis, and pretty much any original blues rendition of a song later done by Cream or The Yardbirds), but with Zappa's discography it's almost completely been a brick wall. One notable exception was this past January when we listened to Orchestral Favorites in the car. He said it was "not bad," which on his grading scale is about a B.*

Trust me, he "got it" when he heard "Dinah-Moe Humm." He "got it" when Flo and Eddie sang about monstrous dicks on Fillmore East, June 1971. He "got it" when he heard this stuff originally, and he "got it" 30 years later when I tried playing it for him.

His criticisms are three simple, admittedly valid points:

1.) "He Just Tries Too Hard To Be Weird!"
This is where it simply becomes a matter of taste. Some chords, timbres, tones, and intervals that may seem harsh to one set of ears could very well be another person's conception of what Heaven itself sounds like. My dad didn't care for Uncle Meat, he said it was "harsh and atonal."

And you know what? He's right. That's also the exact same reason I LOVE that album.

2.) "He Can Be Too Vulgar Sometimes!"
Since Zappa regularly singled out Republicans (though he did target Democratic figures on occasion, too), it's a safe bet that just about any serious analyst of Zappa's work is at least slightly left of center. Unfortunately, this means more than a few of them (Kelly Fisher Lowe's The Words & Music of Frank Zappa does this to the point of annoyance) attempt to justify the existence of songs in Zappa's canon that contain references to bodily functions, sex, sexism, racism, and homophobia. Frank was no racist - his earliest bands featured black and Chicano musicians, before The Mothers Of Invention - and he was certainly no sexist. But he was fascinated by gender roles. He was fascinated by human nature. And guess what? Humans do some pretty interesting things. Put into an unflinchingly honest light, they can seem disgusting. They can even seem alien.

This is the thrust of so much of his "vulgar" works.

Ben Watson upped the ante with the claim that Zappa's trips to Vulgaria are a test on the listener's values. Things are only offensive because of one's own morals. Blah, blah, blah. It's all horse-shit. You know how some people (maybe even you, the reader) just can NOT talk about bowel movements? Yet others - myself included - can be pretty shameless in talking about our latest dump? It's not that the people - mainly women - who jokingly deny that they even create poo are close-minded moralists. They just think it's nasty.

Again, yes, poop is nasty. But it's something we all do...and, as before, it's a matter of taste, BUT - poop can be very, very funny. (Note to self: try to avoid having the words "poop" and "taste" in the same sentence.)

Zappa could be pretty vulgar, sometimes without using a single proper swear word. In fact, those are sometimes the worst (uh, "Keep It Greasey," anyone?). Same case can be made - how comfortable you are with such crudity is a tricky and highly subjective case.

3.) "God, That Guy Could Be A Cynical Asshole!"
Zappa wasn't exactly Mr. Sunshine, even when he was younger and slightly idealistic. For most of his career, I'd say he was a blunt realist. It is not an attitude everyone can appreciate, and I understand that. After about 1980, Frank got increasingly cynical - and I wager even bitter - regarding the declining state of affairs in the world of popular music, the world of "serious" music, and the United States. His dislike of punk music, baseless accusations of conspiracies levied on the American public, and the future of music make him come off like a cranky curmudgeon.

That said, there is a point where I think Zappa's music has to be separated from Zappa the human, otherwise you'll find it very hard to listen to Broadway The Hard Way without thinking of his dissolution of what would be his final band, or to hear any of his Synclavier albums without thinking of his claim that if he'd had a Synclavier in the 60's he never would have had a band.

So, where to start indeed? He released almost 60 albums during his life. Sixty. The guy put out more albums than years he walked this planet. With similarly long-lived groups like The Kinks or The Rolling Stones, you can point to maybe five releases that are absolute essentials. But again, their discography is roughly a third of the size of Zappa's. As a result, I'd say a core collection of Zappa albums would number maybe 10. Keep in mind, though, that the following lists are based on even representation of his multifaceted career. Some - not all, mind you - of my personal favorites might have seeped through onto this list, but (I assure you) not because of any bias.

The Core Collection:


01. Freak Out! (1966)
Remember everything I said about all those British Invasion debut albums? This is just the opposite. It's bold - oh, so bold - with lyrical put-downs of the authorities, education, love, the Watts riots, and close-minded conservatism. The song also has some catchy (in some instances, I think cloying) pop songs thrown in for good measure, with some incredibly bizarre avant-garde pieces to round out this 2-LP set. There's some great rock and roll, some surprising pop music, and experimental tunes you could use to frighten your grandparents.

In short, Zappa needed four sides of vinyl to introduce himself to the world. I don't think it's one of his best, but dammit if it doesn't prove he was incredibly ambitious (and talented as a songwriter/composer) from the very start.

Key tracks: "Hungry Freaks, Daddy," "Who Are The Brain Police?," "Wowie Zowie," "Trouble Every Day," "The Return Of The Son Of Monster Magnet"

02. We're Only In It For The Money (1968)
If you were to only get one Frank Zappa album, it is this one. Recorded in the wake of the Summer of Love, Zappa calls out the hippie movement as one that had been taken over by kids equating freedom with free weed and free tail as well as the record companies hoping to turn the music of the counterculture into something. Some of it gets even darker, suggesting a Kafkaesque nightmare where hippies would be rounded up and placed in internment camps and warnings of a murderous police state.

What was blasphemous to some and a nod-inducing manifesto to others then is a fine case of iconoclasm effectively calling the bluff of an entire generation that collapsed into itself like a dying star in a haze of self-importance. The Age of Aquarius would never come, frankly because the entire notion was bunk from the get-go. Frank was the one in the 1960's who was urging people to join the system if just to infiltrate it from the inside out. They could have listened...but the LSD and the titties were just too damn tempting.

All of this lyrical bluntness is set to an amazing sonic backdrop of rock, gorgeously illustrated with some fantastic performances by The Mothers Of Invention. There's also some extremely discomforting pieces of musique concrete...those with an aversion to harsh noise: avoid the album's closing track like the plague. (I think it's a masterpiece.)

Key tracks: "Who Needs The Peace Corps?," "Mom And Dad," "Flower Punk," "Mother People," "The Chrome-Plated Megaphone Of Destiny"

03. Uncle Meat (1969)
Another double album, this features Zappa using The Mothers in lieu of an orchestra by way of layering tracks upon tracks. The music has gotten more dense and complex, and the album itself marks the debut of many of Zappa's musical staples: tuned percussion, deliberately harsh editing between songs, and a monster jam on side D. The shifts between blues vamps, avant-jazz, chamber pieces, surrealistic tunes with gorgeous melodies, and field recordings might be jarring, but this sort of manic juxtaposition is all done with a purpose: Zappa doesn't want you to differentiate so-called "high art" music from so-called "low art" music. He doesn't.

Key tracks: "Uncle Meat: Main Title Theme," "Nine Types Of Industrial Pollution," "Dog Breath, In The Year Of The Plague," "Mr. Green Genes," "King Kong"

04. Hot Rats
The jump from avant-jazz to rock-infused jazz-blues isn't all that puzzling, although Kelly Fisher Lowe mulls over it incessantly in his book; for me, I consider it the next logical step after he broke up The Mothers. Being mainly instrumental, and featuring some really tight layers of keyboard/woodwinds (all played by ex-Mother Ian Underwood), this is a very melodic album. There's no musique concrete, no snippets of dialog, no underlying politics, just music for the sake of music - and an unforgettable guest vocal from Captain Beefheart on one of Zappa's signature tunes.

I could probably list this as the second most essential Zappa release, possibly even number one if you're playing this for someone who thinks 1967 was the zenith of the civilized world (even if they were born decades after, let them have their delusions!).

Key tracks: "Peaches En Regalia," "Willie The Pimp," "The Gumbo Variations"

05. 200 Motels (1971)
Another 2-LP set, this one the soundtrack to his 1971 film from the incarnation of The Mothers with ex-Turtles vocalists Mark Volman (Flo) and Howard Kaylan (Eddie). This has a little bit of everything, from early 70's comedy-injected cock rock to choral performance to some real classical explorations, as Zappa somehow managed to wrangle the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to perform his orchestral compositions. It's a treat to hear, and a musical kaleidoscope just as out-there as the film...which you need to see. Now.

Key tracks: "Mystery Roach," "This Town Is A Sealed Tuna Sandwich" and the related suite of tunes, "Lonesome Cowboy Burt," "Penis Dimension," "Strictly Genteel"

06. Apostrophe (') (1974)
With his final incarnation of The Mothers, Zappa scored a sleeper hit with an edit of a suite of songs from side A of this record, "Don't Eat The Yellow Snow." While it gave Zappa some long-overdue mainstream attention, the irony rests in the fact that the musically interesting passages from the suite are nowhere to be found on the single version. The flip-side features a great jam with Jack Bruce and a rare co-credit (with keyboardist George Duke) that offers a sentimental statement on the Civil Rights movement, in what I consider one of Zappa's most overlooked songs.

It is complex rock-funk-jazz fusion (which isn't a bad word, unlike in gastronomy) with goofy and at times nonsensical lyrics. The combination made it obvious that Zappa was able to market his product to two very different segments of the public.

Key tracks: "St. Alfonzo's Pancake Breakfast," "Father O'Blivion," "Excentrifugal Forz," "Apostrophe (')," "Uncle Remus"

07. Zoot Allures (1976)
His first solo release after the final line-up of The Mothers, Frank offered an album with a dark, grimy edge. Lots of crunchy, distorted guitar, lyrics on all sorts of subjects (stupidity, disco, torture chambers, sex dolls, pick-up methods), extremely close-miked vocals (you can even hear the spit inside his mouth - do it with headphones and it's like he's right in your ear), two signature guitar solos, and the birth of a technique called xenochrony, where a bass solo from 1976, a drum solo from 1975, and a new guitar solo are all mixed together to make a cohesive whole. Frank would get better at making xenochronous music, but its premiere appearance (on "Friendly Little Finger") is nothing to sneeze at. It's a safe assertion that this album set the precedent for Zappa solo albums recorded in the rock milieu.

Key tracks: "Wind Up Workin' In A Gas Station," "Black Napkins," "The Torture Never Stops," "Friendly Little Finger," "Disco Boy"

08. Jazz From Hell (1986)
The jump ahead ten years isn't to suggest the material released in the interim is worth ignoring - far from, I think it's his best period, especially from 1978-1982, where a whopping THIRTEEN albums were released - but his next major musical innovation, that is to say something he had truly never done before, came with this all-instrumental album. Aside from one live guitar solo, the other seven cuts are all realized on the Synclavier.

The idea behind it is that Zappa didn't want to mess with the human element of hearing his music. With a band came temperaments, pay rates, and the fact that some things might be extraordinarily difficult for his bands to play. On earlier songs like "The Black Page," "Mo 'N' Herb's Vacation," and "Drowning Witch" that almost seemed to be the point: test to see if his bands could play such dense music.

With every tick of the clock, the timbres on this album sound more and more like an old Nintendo, but the intricacies and sheer beauty of the works within still hold up almost a quarter of a century later...although the cover of the record is about as clinical and dreary as the outdated sounds of the Synclavier. This is Zappa the composer at his utmost.

Key tracks: "Night School," "While You Were Art II," "G-Spot Tornado"

09. Broadway The Hard Way (1988)
This audio souvenir from Frank's final tour featured a five-piece brass/sax section, demonstrating that Zappa is a great arranger on top of everything else. Zappa was also at his most political since We're Only In It For The Money. It sheds a similar light on the hypocrisy of what seems like a backwards age. I'm glad it was the time I was born in, not the time in which I grew up...Jesus.

Lots of barbed attacks on conservatism, Evangelical Christianity, Michael Jackson, and Jesse Jackson (who was making a bid for President at the time). Some people have lamented this album seems dated, but I say it's no more dated than the anti Flower Power stuff from 20 years prior. Still, musically exquisite, lyrically intelligent. What more could you ask for?

Key tracks: "Elvis Has Just Left The Building," "Any Kind Of Pain," "When The Lie's So Big," "Rhymin' Man," "Jesus Thinks You're A Jerk"

10. Civilization Phaze III (1994)
This album's status as being both the first posthumous release and the fact that it is currently available new for ONLY $140 on Amazon makes this a dark alley in a dense city of music...and that is a travesty. He might have had the honor of seeing his "impossible" music willingly taken on by the Ensemble Modern with 1993's The Yellow Shark, but it's here on CPIII where he uses the instruments of the Ensemble Modern as voices on the Synclavier, the resulting pieces interspersed with old (1967) and new (1993) dialog. The notion of death lingers over the album the way it hovered over its terminally ill creator as he slowly lost his battle with prostate cancer.

Find this album one way or another. Get a copy from a friend, pick it up dirt-cheap somewhere, Hell - TORRENT IT.

Key tracks: "Amnerika," "N-Lite," "Dio Fa," "Beat The Reaper," "Waffenspiel"

Intermediate Listening:

These albums won't have lengthy descriptions...I value both your time and mine too much to do that. They are grouped in thematic sections rather than in chronological order.

Given the breadth of Zappa's own albums individually, there is bound to be some overlap.

Special Mention:
Absolutely Free (1967) - this one deserves its own special place as a great silver medal, bridging the gap between Freak Out! and We're Only In It For The Money.

You Are What You Is
(1981) and Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch (1982) - Surprisingly with-the-times musically, these albums aren't quite children of Zoot Allures...neither are his other three studio offerings from the 1980's, but as you'll see in the next section, they are filed under "Advanced Listening."

Fans of Uncle Meat and the classical portions of 200 Motels:
Burnt Weeny Sandwich (1970)
Weasels Ripped My Flesh (1970)
The Läther saga (originally intended to be released in 1977 as a 4-LP set; for some reason, the label wouldn't put it out...), which can almost entirely be found on these four sublime late-70's releases:
Zappa In New York (1978)
Studio Tan (1978)
Sleep Dirt (1979)
Orchestral Favorites (1979)
London Symphony Orchestra, Volume I (1983)
Boulez Conducts Zappa: The Perfect Stranger (1984)
Francesco Zappa (1984)
London Symphony Orchestra, Volume II (1987)
Ahead Of Their Time (1993)
The Yellow Shark (1993)

Fans of Hot Rats:
Chunga's Revenge (1970)
Waka/Jawaka (1972) - which was unofficially dubbed Hot Rats II due to the cover.
The Grand Wazoo (1972)
Roxy & Elsewhere (1974)
Sleep Dirt (1979) - which was apparently going to be named Hot Rats III, but along with the other Läther albums it was an "unauthorized" release (according to Frank), right on down to the album art...so who knows? The whole Läther thing is a confusing mess of a story, with dubious claims made by Zappa that seem to contradict other things he's said, and not something for the uninitiated, or even the initiated. Just enjoy the music.
Make A Jazz Noise Here (1991)

Fans of the rock portions of 200 Motels:
Chunga's Revenge (1970)
Fillmore East, June 1971 (1971)
Just Another Band From LA (1972)
Zappa In New York (1978)
Playground Psychotics (1992)

Fans of Apostrophe ('):
Over-Nite Sensation (1973)
Roxy & Elsewhere (1974)
One Size Fits All (1975)
Studio Tan (1978)
You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore, Volume 2 (1988)

Fans of Zoot Allures:
Zappa In New York (1978)
Sleep Dirt (1979)
Sheik Yerbouti (1979)
Joe's Garage Act I (1979)
Joe's Garage Acts II And III (1979)

Fans of Jazz From Hell:
Boulez Conducts Zappa: The Perfect Stranger (1984)
Francesco Zappa (1984)
Thing-Fish (1984)
Frank Zappa Meets The Mothers Of Prevention (1985)
(Note that in this category, the suggested listening all predates the album listed as essential. I'm not sure what that means, but it has to mean something, right?)

Fans of Broadway The Hard Way:
The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life (1991)
Make A Jazz Noise Here (1991)

Advanced Listening:

Note the absence of Civilization Phaze III as a starting point in the Intermediate category. That's because the only other album in his catalog that is remotely like it is the album that inspired it. There is some challenging material here, and in many cases it rewards those willing to give it multiple listens.

Descriptors here will be short. Like this one.

Lumpy Gravy (1968)
A true masterpiece in editing, with avant-classical, spoken dialog, beautiful orchestral themes, snippets of rock music (just enough to whet your appetite for more), and musique concrete experiments peppered throughout 31 crazy minutes. It's a little too short to my liking, but whatever, it's the musical equivalent of an Eisensteinian montage. This is one of the few works Frank consistently spoke well of throughout his career.

Cruising With Ruben & The Jets (1968)
This one's pretty simple, you have to ask yourself three simple questions:
1.) Do I like doo-wop music?
2.) Do I own a turntable?
3.) If not, can I stomach hearing digitally recorded drums and bass overdubbed onto vintage-style doo-wop and R&B?

If you have answered yes to Question 1 and yes to 2 and/or 3, then you will enjoy this album. (Buy it on vinyl. The remixing is atrocious, and the overdubs are even worse. Zappa did it because he didn't like the way it sounded, but then made up a bunch of shit about how the tapes were in awful condition.)

Thing-Fish (1984)
Would you enjoy a Broadway musical that dealt with gays, feminism, race relations, and sexual fetishes that had as its basis a hybridization of the Tuskegee Experiments and the conspiracy that AIDS was designed by the Reagan Administration to kill off blacks and gays, featuring Ike Willis as a black man-turned potato-headed mutant with a duck bill in a nun's habit who speaks in a stereotypical Negro dialect?

Wait, why are you running away?!

Funny enough, this is the other album besides Lumpy Gravy that Frank seemed to cherish. It's also (EASILY) the most divisive entry in his canon. Many hate it, some are merely indifferent, and a tiny lunatic fringe (including this guy) swear by it.

Final Exam:

These are the most difficult and/or uneven of releases. Zappa's work is so huge that every album has its defenders - like the one weirdo James Bond fan who claims Roger Moore is his favorite. Again, sorted by category.

In The (Cold, Sterile) Studio In The (Cold, Sterile) 1980's:
The Man From Utopia (1983)
Them Or Us (1984)
Something about these two albums make them "just kinda there;" although they both have their moments, the bad production and the lapses into humor that I think is just Frank being gross because he can outweighs the peaks. See my review of Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch for why it isn't in this category.

Thing-Fish, too, has been critiqued for sounding clinical, but that's not entirely fair. Much of it is (deliberately) recycled versions of old backing tracks - like a Broadway revue - with any new songs being done on the Synclavier. Part of FZ Meets The Mothers Of Prevention falls into this category, too, but the songs in question ("We're Turning Again," "Yo Cats") make up for the mediocre production with potent - and funny - lyrics.

Live:
Baby Snakes (1983)
Does Humor Belong In Music? (1986)
You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore, Volume 1 (1988)
You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore, Volume 3 (1989)
You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore, Volume 4 (1991)
You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore, Volume 5 (1992)
You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore, Volume 6 (1992)

Those first two albums listed are reasons I'm glad most Zappa fans are happy to share their music. No one should have to pay more than ten dollars for either release. Baby Snakes is a rip-off of a live document, featuring the studio version of the title track plus a measly 30-something minutes of music from the two and a half hour long movie. Anyone else I'd say, "Oh, okay, cool, a live album!" but this is a guy who wanted to release a 12-LP set in 1969 and wanted a 4-LP set in 1977. Excuse me, Frank, but I think we could have handled a double or even triple album.

Does Humor Belong In Music? is from a night with the 1984 band, an ensemble much reviled by this author. Other fans seem to think the '84 band has simply been overexposed.

And why's that? Because a lot of the You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore series seems to be devoted to showing their crisp, picture-perfect renditions of complex pieces and breakneck-fast treatments of songs for casual listeners more than any other incarnation. Between Guitar and the YCDTOSA series (with Volume 2 solely from 1974 and Volume 5 consisting of works from 1965-1969 and 1982), I count 67 songs that were recorded and included.

All while several touring lineups went almost completely ignored, including his 1972 big band, The Mothers' final tour in late 1975/early 1976, and Zappa's first solo tour in 1976. It's a shame.

On the upside, Volume 2 is a complete concert of the Roxy-era band at their performing peak. The fifth volume consists of one disc of early Mothers recordings, including some studio outtakes (I guess you can't really do those on stage, can you?) that are all worthwhile.

One would think Frank would have given equal time to all lineups, or at least made it a little less '84-centric. Still, these packages were 2-CD's...and there were six released, in some weird way fulfilling the plans Frank had in 1969 with the 12-LP set he'd planned called The History And Collected Improvisations Of The Mothers.

The Guitar Albums:
Shut Up 'N' Play Yer Guitar (1981)
Shut Up 'N' Play Yer Guitar Some More (1981)
Return Of The Son Of Shut Up 'N' Play Yer Guitar (1981)
Guitar (1988)
Two questions:
1.) Do you like Frank Zappa's soloing styles?
2.) Are you yourself a guitarist?
If you answered yes to both of these, you are within all your rights to buy this albums once you have We're Only In It For The Money.

I like them all right, but I don't think I've ever listened to Guitar end-to-end. The three SUNPYG albums are actually pretty listenable, though some pieces (like his electric bouzouki duet with Jean-Luc Ponty on violin, "Canard Du Jour") stick out more than, say, the three title cuts, which are all different solos from the same song ("Inca Roads") from different nights. It's the sort of thing you might find yourself excited about as a guitarist...I think?

Extra Credit:
From this point on, strictly optional.

Beat The Boots:
These were two different volumes of bootlegs given an official release on Rhino Records with Frank's blessing. Even though Frank (allegedly) had these shows in soundboard-quality mixes in his vault, he sanctioned only the release of the bootleg tapes. As a result, some recordings are LP-quality, and others are almost unlistenable.

That said, Volume One (1991) of Beat The Boots was released as a boxed set and also as individual CD's. Volume Two was a boxed set only, making it a pretty nice collector's item. In a slightly cruel twist, Volume Two (1992) contains the best of the bootlegs, in terms of performance quality, historical importance, and sheer sonic fidelity. Makes me wonder if Uncle Frank did this on purpose.

Beat The Boots, Volume One:
As An Am (1981-1982)
The Ark (1969)
Freaks & Motherfuckers (1970) - awful sound
Unmitigated Audacity (1974) - ABYSMAL sound
Anyway The Wind Blows (1979)
'Tis The Season To Be Jelly (1967)
Piquantique (1973)

Beat The Boots, Volume Two:
Disconnected Synapses (1970) - with Jean-Luc Ponty on guest violin
Tengo Na Minchia Tanta
Electric Aunt Jemima (1968)
At The Circus (1978, two tracks from 1970)
Swiss Cheese / Fire! (1971)
Our Man In Nirvana (1968)
Conceptual Continuity (1976)

Posthumous Albums:
Aside from Civilization Phaze III, which was finished and in the can when he passed away, the canonicity of all other posthumous releases is speculative and contentious.

The only posthumous releases that I think are essential are The Lost Episodes (a collection of early stuff and outtakes, like The Beatles Anthology except good) and Have I Offended Someone?, a compilation of remixes of FZ's more controversial songs. Both were in the same boat as CPIII, projects approved, mixed, and mastered by Zappa before he shuffled off his mortal coil.

As for the rest? All bets are off. Any of them that aren't complete concerts (FZ:OZ, Buffalo, Philly '76) or Lost Episodes-lite discs of early recordings (Joe's Corsage, Joe's Xmasage, The Making Of Freak Out! Project Object, and Lumpy Money) I say caveat emptor. You could be buying some real garbage, like noisy lo-fi rehearsal tapes for the 1972 big band tour (Joe's Domage) or some head-scratching odds 'n sods collection of seemingly unrelated tunes (One-Shot Deal) or something of dubious origins that someone in the Zappa camp (usually either widow Gail, son Dweezil, or vault-keeper Joe Travers) swears was an unreleased project of Frank's (Trance-Fusion, which was just another guitar feature album).

That said, happy hunting and welcome to one of the most esoteric music cults this side of The Residents.

*The Eric DiBlasi Sr. grading scale is a patented system of oft-repeated phrases that I've aligned up with letter grades:
"Now, THAT was a good...(album/movie/book)" - A+
"Pretty good" - A
"It was okay" - B+
"Not bad" - B
Holding out hand and tilting it from side-to-side - C
"I didn't care for it" - D+
"Oh, MAN, that (album/movie/book)", usually accompanied by laughter - D
"I prefer not to think about the time I (heard this album/saw this movie/read this book)" - F

6 comments:

Andrew said...

I've been reading the AV Club for the past week. Reading a column from about two years ago about a guy who listens to his music alphabetically. It's pretty cool so far.

Kilpin really helped me out a lot giving me as much Zappa as he did. I was hesitant to jump in because of the huge number of albums I needed to get.

Frank really only bothers me with his vulgarity late in his career. I can't remember what song exactly, but one of them really bothered me. Most of the stuff I can just laugh off because I have a twisted sense of humor. I can deal with Frank being vulgar when it has a point and comments on something. That's why I think, Chappelle's Show works more than *shudder* Jeff Dunham because Chappelle is making a point about race in our society rather than just relying on stereotypes for laughs.

Anonymous said...

Wow, Alex, you're giving the Zappa uninitiated a lot of credit by recommending Uncle Meat and 200 Motels! Both those albums are quite dense, bizarre and complicated in spots and could turn off the prospective Zappa listener.
For musicians discovering Zappa, or for fans of "jambands" or just all-around musical 'tightness' you should also recommend One Size Fits All. Many a Deadhead has become a Zappa freak after hearing that one, especially the legendary Inca Roads live guitar solo. As you're probably aware, OSFA usually comes in first when polls of Zappa's "best" albums are conducted. It's definitely my favorite. I agree with your choice of Apostrophe(') for beginners but would definitely recommend OSFA or even Overnite Sensation before delving into the weirdness of Uncle Meat and 200 Motels. just imo, of course. I understand you want to cover the various 'styles' that FZ employed rather than just focusing on one specific time reference/genre, but i do still think his mid-seventies work was his 'best'.

Alex said...

I agree, actually.

Maybe I should have two top ten Zappa lists. This one is a very balanced look at everything he was capable of. The other list should be the ten more accessible (in my opinion) FZ releases.

In fact...let me go do that right now.

PS - You didn't sign your name, so I have no clue who this is!

Anonymous said...

The first Zappa album I heard was 'Just Another Band From L.A'. I'd have to say the Flo & Eddie period turned me of to Frank for a long time, and hearing 'Don't eat the yellow snow' and Sheik Yerbouti' didn't improve my opinion of his music. I wasn't offended by his humor - I just remembered reading about his bands and how they were supposed to be so musically advanced. After hearing the music above, I wondered what the fuss was all about. Then I heard 'Uncle Meat' and I knew what I was missing. The Mothers were such a great band, I could go on blabbing for hours about their greatness. Suffice to say, pick up ANY Mothers album and be amazed. This is not to say that Frank's other music isn't also essential listening. It's just that his output with the Mothers Of Invention showed Zappa at his most fierce, daring, and brilliant. (Personal favorites - Uncle Meat, We're Only In It For The Money, and especially Weasels Ripped My Flesh).

Eric M said...

Great list. I really enjoyed this. I didn't see bongo fury or tinseltown rebellion on here though. What is your opinion of these albums? Also would you generally go for the lather album or the four releases that originally came out?

Alex and Alexa said...

Eric M. -
I adore Bongo Fury! "Carolina Hard-Core Ecstasy" is one of my favorite jams. Great drumming on that one.

Tinseltown Rebellion is okay, but I prefer boots from that same tour. Too much of Tommy's super-brassy synth for me, but I love that rhythm section of Vinnie Colaiuta and Art Barrow.

As for Lather, I'm mixed. Not all of Zappa In New York is on Lather; Sleep Dirt was also meant as a standalone release, its working title being Hot Rats III (with Waka/Jawaka being the 2nd part). And aside from a channel swap and three extra seconds of "Greggery Peccary," there is no difference between the Lather versions of the songs heard on Orchestral Favorites and Studio Tan. So, ultimately, I think the Lather box is simply an extra purchase. For completists, sure, but for everyone else, stick with the albums.

There is a lot of muddiness surrounding the stories of these albums - it was always meant to be a 4-LP set, it wasn't, depending on who you ask. That doesn't help.