Best Zappa Songs

Ava Flores
• Wednesday, 18 November, 2020
• 10 min read

During his lifetime he made nigh-on 100 separate recordings, put out dozens of classy compilations, fistfuls of singles (some of them super rare), and was the subject of various tribute albums. Zappa is one of the few artists operating in a rock or post-rock medium who deserves the epithet “genius.” He poked fun at both the establishment and the counterculture with varying degrees of venom.

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(Source: societyofrock.com)


The lyric is a black comedy and another social satire, and the song remains the blueprint for Zappa’s revolutionary attempt to address the underground in a seven-plus-minute musical. The Mothers’ third album, We’re Only In It For The Money, is an obvious send-up of materialist rock culture that even takes a poke at Sgt Pepper’s… For many Zappa fans, each track could make its case among the best of his songs.

Blessed with a cool Ray Collins vocal, some hot horns, and a sublime long-fade guitar solo from the main man, this is vintage Mothers, right down to the locked-down-tight rhythms of Roy Estrada and the percussive fills of Jimmy Carl Black and Arthur Dyer Trip III. Hot Rats (1969) is crammed with goodies, but the perennial live favorite, the instrumental “Peaches En Regalia” (also released as a single) retains its currency as one of the best Frank Zappa songs.

From an early solo period when Zappa was embracing fatherhood with the birth of son Weevil, this sumptuous track features studio-effect half-speed mastering and progressive fusion elements. Imagine it as a bizarre cross between Steely Dan and Weather Report, and enjoy the journey while Smuggle Otis plucks his bass and the masterful Ian Underwood carries the horn and organs Maximus parts.

Zappa in the 70s Skipping with a heavy heart over Burnt Weeny Sandwich we land on Weasels Ripped My Flesh and an expanded mother featuring Lowell George (en route to Little Feat fame). Recorded live at University of California, Los Angeles, 1972’s Just Another Band From LA features The Turtles’ Howard Kayla and Mark Holman (aka Flo & Eddie) and shouldn’t be overlooked.

Audacious rhythms and percussion proliferate, and Discreet even released the song as a single, which helped the parent album break into Billboard’s Pop Top 10. The Mothers concept ends on One Size Fits All, which opens with the progressive fusion of “Inca Roads” but generally sends itself up thanks to a sequence of time signatures and a famous Zappa guitar solo.

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(Source: ultimateclassicrock.com)

During another prolific year, Zappa teamed up in earnest with his labelmate, friend, and kindred madman, Captain Beef heart (aka Don Van (Glen) Plait). Every track on 1975’s Bongo Fury satisfies, but we’ve picked out the appealing “Advance Romance” for its parody but affectionate insight into how a love song is written and deconstructed.

One song that didn’t get much homegrown airplay was the scatological “Bobby Brown,” in which Zappa’s delight at ignoring the boundaries of taste reaches a zenith. Hugely popular in Northern Europe, the song may be Zappa’s most successful commercial moment: the single shifted enough copies to go gold (250,000 satisfied customers in Germany alone) and became a firm live favorite.

In 1979, Zappa increased his fascination with Xenophon and progressive guitar solos, but also enjoyed a period of intense exposure on North American FM radio. Much lighter than anything else on Joe’s Garage, the fluid guitar solos, occasionally reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s David Glamour, make it worth the price of admission alone, and it is a testament to Zappa’s compositional skill.

By the 80s, it was arguable that Zappa, while not turning his back on rock music, had become far more interested in his other loves: Boulez, Stravinsky, Eric Dolph, and post-bop free jazz in general. One of Zappa’s final performances is the album’s closer, the epic “G-Spot Tornado,” on which he overcame his illness and marched on stage in Frankfurt in order to conduct the Ensemble and received the ovation of his life.

Eat That Question, the new Frank Zappa documentary from director Thorsten Shuttle, is in theaters now. The film primarily revolves around clips, interviews and a vast selection of footage; all of which takes an attention-grabbing deep-dive into the mind of the prodigious musical genius.

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(Source: www.craftyhope.com)

Not only is this newly-released rock doc chock-full of great footage and mind-blowing music; but it will make a newborn Zappa fan out of any newcomer who watches. Not to mention that it is certain to reignite the spark within seasoned Zappa fanatics, perhaps inspiring us to dust off our old collections again.

Plucked from the same album that spawned the title-track music video, famously-banned by MTV for depicting Ronald Reagan in an electric chair, are these equally-as-controversial conjoined masterworks. With bizarre storytelling of unambiguous sexual deviance and a complete lack-of-filter, this politically incorrect gem of the late-seventies is certainly not something to bring home to your mother.

Jesus Thinks You’re A Jerk Album: Broadway the Hard Way Released: 1988 From the brilliantly satirist Broadway the Hard Way, comes this musically-dazzling and politically-scathing attack on evangelist/then-presidential hopeful Pat Robertson, as well as Jim and Tammy Faye Baker. Just as in We’re Only In It For The Money and You Are What You Are, this is Zappa at his most political, and features some of the most interesting and provocative music of his career.

Within the massive soundtrack of Zappa’s psychedelic work of cinema 200 Motels is this slapstick, spaghetti western of a song sung by the one and only Jimmy Carl Black. Be In My Video Album: Them or Us Released: 1984 Never a trend follower and always fearlessly outspoken; here is Zappa taking on the ridiculousness and artlessness of MTV.

Frank expressed this sentiment perfectly on this track: “You can show your legs while you’re getting in the car, and I will look repulsive as I mangle my guitar.” Tell Me You Love Me Album: Chung’s Revenge Released: 1970 This straight-forward rocker is well-known to the seasoned Frank Zappa fan, nonetheless remains a prominent favorite.

(Source: www.dailyherald.com)

We Are Not Alone Album: The Man From Utopia Released: 1983 This interstellar instrumental, featuring Marty Krystal on saxophone, is a shining musical treasure hiding within this frequently overlooked Zappa record. With elaborate twists and turns, plus the musical conversation between the guitar and marimba; this three-minute opus is one hell of an interesting and underappreciated listen.

Wild Love Album: Sheik Djibouti Released: 1979 Yet another selection from the fantastic 1979 classic, Sheik Djibouti ; the basic track was recorded live at the Deon Hammersmith in London, England and was spiced-up with plenty of studio overdubs. The song features Zappa, Randy Thornton and Napoleon Murphy Brock on vocals, Tommy Mars on keyboards, David Ocker on clarinets, and Terry Ozzie on drums.

Brown Shoes Don’t Make It Album: Absolutely Free Released: 1967 “Be a jerk, go to work” they say with subversive zaniness in this anthem of anti-conformation. “Be a loyal plastic robot for a world that doesn’t care!” Brown Shoes represents the pinnacle of the “Freak Out” era of the Mothers of Invention, in which creating songs about rejecting societal norms was at the top of the agenda.

Later on, a more upbeat version of this song can be found on the 1981 live album, Tinseltown Rebellion, recorded at the Deon Hammersmith in London, England. King Kong (1-6) Album: Uncle Meat Released: 1969 “King Kong” first made an appearance on the album Lumpy Gravy in 1967, however, this earth-shaking instrumental was a regular in the live rotation throughout the Zappa timeline.

Other renditions can be found on albums such as, Ahead of Their Time, Make A Jazz Noise Here, and even a live collaboration with John Lennon & The Plastic Ono Band; which can be found on Lennon’s Sometime in New York City album, under the moniker “Jam rag.” Sandwiched between the hippie-critical “Oh No” and the ear-splitting title track; “The Orange County Lumber Truck” is one of Zappa’s most infectious instrumentals.

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(Source: thestuffimade.com)

Some hard-core Zappa fans might disagree, but the fact of the matter is, if you were a Rock n’ Roll-listening teenager in the 1970s; you knew about “Dinah-Moe Hume.” In addition to the album version, one of the most interesting recordings of this classic can be found on the live album/movie Baby Snakes. With raw musicianship and biting political and social commentary, this Zappa tune is no doubt one of his most important and rousing compositions.

An alternate version known as “More Trouble Every Day” appears on the live epic Roxy & Elsewhere from 1974. The song first appears on the 1969 album Uncle Meat, under the title “A Pound for a Brown on the Bus.” The classically composed Yellow Shark version is also a most-impressive presentation.

It’s a dazzlingly extraordinary warts-and-all performance, packed-full of audience participation and that special kind of spontaneous theatrical beauty which could only come from a live Frank Zappa experience. Released: 1972 Here is yet another standout Frank Zappa song with several recorded versions.

No doubt, one of the most approachable of Zappa tunes, this track is definitely an important highlight for the novice listener. With hauntingly brilliant musicianship and Frank’s hair-raising storytelling, this track is pure perfection.

Other appearances are included on Zappa in New York, The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life and You Can’t Do That On Stage Any more Vol. Advance Romance Album: Bongo Fury Released: 1975 Recorded live in concert at Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin, Texas during May 1975, with an astonishing band lineup featuring Captain Beef heart, George Duke, Napoleon Murphy Brock, Terry Ozzie, Bruce and Tom Fowler; Bongo Fury is certainly something special.

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(Source: npr.org)

Montana Album: Overwrite Sensation Released: 1973 A bizarre tale of a cowboy, some dental floss and a pair of Zircon encrusted tweezers. With standout Zappa alumni such as Napoleon Murphy Brock on lead vocals, flute and tenor saxophone, George Duke on keyboards and Ruth Underwood on vibes and percussion; “Florentine Po gen” is almost as good as it gets.

The main piano part is played soulfully by George Duke as Frank croons the vocal melody, revealing the social justice side of the modern day Stravinsky. San BER’Dino Album: One Size Fits All Released: 1975 Beginning with the amusing opening line, “She lives in Mojave in a Winnebago, his name is Bobby, he looks like a potato,” this proverbial Zappa tune is one of those songs that everyone loves, whether Zappa newcomer or seasoned pro.

This song features Johnny “Guitar” Watson on vocals and Captain Beef heart (billed as Bloodshot Rolling’ Red) on harmonica. Blessed Relief Album: The Grand Wazoo Released: 1972 During recent live performances with Zappa Plays Zappa, Weevil would often describe “Blessed Relief” as an under-appreciated song; and I completely agree.

“Blessed Relief” is just that: a melodious come-down following the musical whirlwind that precedes this serene composition from The Grand Wazoo. With Frank’s flawless guitar wizardry and the great Napoleon Murphy Brock tearing up the lead vocals, this eighth track from the 1975 masterpiece, One Size Fits All is some of the best music you’ll ever hear in your life.

Cosmic Debris Album: Apostrophe Released: 1974 Not even psychics are safe from Zappa’s razor-sharp scrutiny. Cosmic Debris tells the tale of a guru and a not-so-gullible customer who snatches up the psychic’s magic crystal ball and turns the tables on the swindling con-man.

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(Source: thequietus.com)

The incredibly ingenious instrumentation mimics the storyline and paints vividly cartoonish pictures that bring the music to life. “Let’s Make the Water Turn Black” is one of the most imperative highlights on this psychedelic masterwork.

The Gumbo Variations Album: Hot Rats Released: 1969 Guitar solos, overdubbing and musical innovation galore! Hot Rats is an all-around outstanding work of musical genius, and “The Gumbo Variations” is the most epic of songs within this ground-breaking record.

Inspired by the low-budget monster movies in which Zappa loved so dearly, “Cheeping” is a ranks rollercoaster of musical virtuosity. Particularly in songs like “Mom and Dad” and “What’s the Ugliest Part of Your Body?.” “Concentration Moon” however, focuses on the admonition of possible internment camps, in which were rumored to be deployed by the coming Nixon administration to quell the rising tide of leftist radicals.

Although written about different people in a different time, the message within still resonates with the struggles of present day. Then Zappa went to work once again, to create The Black Page (Part Two) for those folks “who might enjoy the melody of the Black Page but couldn’t really approach it’s statistical density in its basic form” as Frank explains in lengthy detail to the boisterous New York City audience on the Zappa in New York album.

Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow > Nanook Rubs It > St. Alfonzo’s Pancake Breakfast > Father O’Oblivion Album: Apostrophe Released: 1974 Great googly googly! Considering all these songs are intentionally strung together, and are meant to be listened to as a whole; leaving one out just wouldn’t make sense.

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(Source: www.flickr.com)

The first side of the legendary Apostrophe album features some of Frank’s most beloved compositions, and these four songs are some of the most iconic of Zappa’s entire catalog. However, it is this orchestral version (also being the final onstage performance from the modern day composer) that is truly tear-inducingly breathtaking.

Watermelon in Easter Hay Album: Joe’s Garage (Acts 1,2, & 3) Released: 1979 Following the despondent monologue and apically heart-wrenching guitar jam of “He Used to Cut the Grass” and also the “Easy Meat”embedded Xenophon of “Packard Goose,” comes one of Zappa’s most celebrated guitar instrumentals. “Watermelon in Easter Hay” concludes the final act of Joe’s Garage, with its mournful guitar styling which render it a picture-perfect musical musing to convey the fantastical fits of depression the main character is experiencing.

The solo is followed by the finale “A Little Green Rosetta,” as the album departs into the fading echoes of musical pandemonium. Big Swift Album: Aka/Jataka Released: 1972 Aka / Jataka and The Grand Wazoo are the pinnacles of Zappa’s jazz-fusion era.

Hungry Freaks, Father Album: Freak Out Released: 1966 This Zappa classic and musical milestone can be summed up by the following text from the album’s liner notes: “On a personal level, freaking out is a process whereby an individual casts off outmoded and restricting standards of thinking, dress, and social etiquette in order to express creatively his relationship to his immediate environment and the social structure as a whole. Inca Roads Album: One Size Fits All Released: 1975 Inspired by “Was God an Astronaut?,” the bestselling book from author Erich On Daniel, Inca Roads is a fantastical musical journey thrust by the out-of-this-world creative dexterity of an all-star cast of distinguished Zappa alumni.

George Duke, Chester Thompson, Ruth Underwood, Tom Fowler and Napoleon Murphy Brock are all present on this celestial prog-rock tour de force. Originally from the soundtrack album 200 Motels, “Strictly Genteel” is solid proof that the world of Zappa, while zany, can also be stunningly beautiful.

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(Source: www.stereogum.com)

In pure Zappa fashion, the clashing of the logical and the absurd is what makes this modern classical stand out above any of the music being recorded at this time. Other versions can be found on 200 Motels, Orchestral Favorites and Make a Jazz Noise Here.

“Echidna’s ARF (Of You)” and “Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing?” in particular, feature some of the most mind-boggling explosions of musical complexity you’ll ever hear. The overall theme of the record is the fictional concept of an Orwellian existence, wherein music has been made illegal.

“If the plot of the story seems just a little preposterous,” explains Frank on the album’s liner notes, “just be glad you don’t live in one of the cheerful little countries where, at this very moment, music is either severely restricted… or, as it is in Iran, totally illegal.” Peaches En Regalia Album: Hot Rats Released: 1969 “Peaches En Regalia” is arguably the most concise, cohesive and celebrated work of art from modern day composer, Frank Zappa.

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