Music legend Frank Zappa would have been 74 years old today. To celebrate the date we’re taking a look at some of the more overlooked (and gleefully weird) albums of his lengthy career. Most people are familiar with the genius of Freak Out!, Hot Rats, and Joe’s Garage, but have probably neglected to travel past. So to rectify that, here are some fascinating Zappa albums that haven’t gotten the same love over the years, but are worth your time nonetheless.
1. Lumpy Gravy – 1968
This one is as experimental to say the least. As with Hot Rats, it’s an instrumental record, but whereas that record was more rooted in free-form jazz, this album veers all over the place. Some moments are jazzy, others feel almost classical; some moments are perfectly pleasant, others would drive the party out of the room. While not exactly a critical favorite, this record certainly has its fans, and if you’re interested in completely understanding the scope of Zappa’s ambition, it’s as essential as anything else he’s recorded.
2. Does Humor Belong In Music? – 1984
A cursory glance at some of the titles Zappa has given his albums and songs over the years should tell you that he has quite a wacky sense of humor, but with this album, he essentially invents the genre of Comedy Rock, or in his case, Jazz Progressive Fusion Comedy Rock. Zappa cracks some one-liners over the course of the recording, and there are some wacky sound effects along the way. Mostly, though, this is an expertly played record that happens to have a foot in the world of comedy. In any case, it’s worth checking out.
3. Frank Zappa Meets The Mothers Of Prevention (1985)
Zappa memorably testified before congress in 1985, as the PMRC was challenging lyrics they believed to be obscene. Zappa delivered arguably the best speech of the hearing, arguing circles around the hopeless uncool senators who were questioning him. But Zappa wasn’t done, this 1985 album’s title was inspired by the PMRC, and the minute-long track “Porn Wars,” takes them on directly. An important document in the battle against censorship that took place 30 years ago, for whom there was no greater champion than Zappa.
4. Shut Up’n Play Yer Guitar – 1981
Zappa’s status as a fantastic guitarist is hardly up for debate, but this 1981 album offers the rare chance to hear him shred for an entire record. That’s right, the whole thing is nothing but 37 minutes of blistering guitar. Zappa would make several other albums like this (including two more in the Shut Up’n Play Yer Guitar series), but since was the one that came first, it gets top billing here.
5. Make A Jazz Noise Here – 1991
Even in the 90s, Zappa was still making fascinating records, like this live double album, which features experimental jazz on tracks like the 14-minute “Where Yuppies Go To Hell.” The album also features some amusing banter between Zappa and the audience, and once again, he’s not afraid to bring politics in the mix, this time expressing glee that Jimmy Swaggart was under investigation at the beginning of the show. An entertaining live record demonstrating that Zappa never lost his ambition or his sense of humor.