Today is Frank Zappa’s birthday (nee 1940, d 1993), also known as the International Day of Frank Zappa, and I figured you could do with some celebrating. The man has a wealth of material so unwieldy and unyielding that it can be tough to know where to start – so let me be your guide.
Not all of these are the most popular Zappa tunes, but I think provide a nice foundation for the breadth and depth of his abilities as a performer, composer, and bandleader.
Diving right into the insanity, let’s go with this live rendition of “Inca Roads,” a stop-on-a-dime track that moves seamlessly between funk grooves, technically dazzling marimba lines, absurdist time signatures, and fun harmonic surprises.
Highlights include Ruth Underwood’s mind-boggling percussion, George Duke’s lush vocals, and the best distorted guitar solo Zappa ever played, with the best guitar tone ever created (an edited version of this solo eventually made it on to the studio recording for One Size Fits All).
Always ahead of the game, Zappa wrote one of the penultimate police/media protest songs in response to the Los Angeles Watts Riots in 1965. Disgusted by racial violence, sensationalist journalism, and social inequality, “Trouble Every Day” feels as relevant today as it must have in the 60’s.
This live version features one of Frank’s sickest solos, and a masterclass in the wah pedal.
One of the great subversive pop songs, “Valley Girl” is proof that Frank could lean back and write a catchy, strange pop song as easily as he could an absurdist orchestral suite.
Although Zappa played hundreds of memorable guitar solos, he rarely exhibited the kind of melodic and rhythmic restraint as on “Blessed Relief,” his most purely American Songbook-jazz composition.
The Grand Wazoo album is fantastic, a lesser-known sequel to the legendary Hot Rats. It’s the only album he wrote specifically for bigband, and its gorgeous, blaring horn lines are the definition of hip.
“Ship Ahoy” is simply guitar heaven, and one of the most-debated songs in Zappa’s discog among pedal builders about how exactly he achieved that tone.
One of Frank’s most purely insane and technically challenging compositions. I have no idea why Ruth Underwood isn’t more revered by fans of musical-acrobatics, because her marimba solo on this tune is one of the craziest pieces of music I’ve ever heard.
An underrated instrumental cut from my favorite Zappa album, “Sofa No. 1” shows Frank at the height of his powers as a band-first composer. Every element and each player is perfectly calibrated.
One of Frank’s personal favorites of his compositions, “The Dangerous Kitchen” is one of the most melodically adventurous tunes the man ever wrote.
Closing things out is “Echidna’s Arf (Of You),” one of my all-time favorite Zappa tunes. A veritable feast for the ears, featuring some of the most pleasing George Duke synth/keyboard tones from this period, Ruth Underwood marimba acrobatics, chaotic horn arrangements, and dirt-red funk grooves.