Unless you're fanatically devoted or unusually well-off, odds are you won't be investing in all 53 of the Frank Zappa albums recently reissued by Rykodisc. That means you'll have to make some choices. But how? Here's a brief glance at a few of the more worthwhile titles in the Zappa discography:
"Freak Out!" (Ryko 10501) Originally released in 1966. Zappa's first album with the Mothers of Invention. Though the performances are amateurish in comparison to his later work, the songs are as close to traditional rock and roll as Zappa ever got. Highlights include the bluesy "Trouble Every Day" and the sly, pop parody "You Didn't Try to Call Me."
"Hot Rats" (Ryko 10508) Originally released in 1969. Recorded with multi-instrumentalist Ian Underwood and an assortment of session musicians, this is Zappa's first successful flirtation with jazz fusion. "Peaches en Regalia" is the standout track, but "Willie the Pimp" (featuring Captain Beefheart) is a close second.
"The Grand Wazoo" (Ryko 10517) Originally released in 1972. A big band album of sorts, this mostly instrumental session features a host of L.A. jazz musicians and some of the snazziest horn writing of Zappa's career. Best riff: "Eat That Question."
"Over-Nite Sensation" (Ryko 10418) Originally released in 1973. As aggressively as it sends up the whole rock-star ethos, there's an underlying affection to Zappa's writing here that keeps both his derisive attitude and knee-jerk sexism largely in check. (That his band plays superbly helps.) Includes "Dirty Love," "Dinah-Moe Humm" and "Montana."
"Roxy & Elsewhere" (Ryko 10520) Originally released in 1974. Although its appeal originally centered on songs like "Penguin in Bondage" and "Cheepnis," it's the playing that ultimately keeps this album from going stale. Not only does Zappa maintain an awesome level of instrumental rapport with George Duke, but Bruce Fowler comes frighteningly close to making the trombone sound as though it belongs in rock and roll.
"Zoot Allures" (Ryko 10523) Originally released in 1976. A fairly dark album, full of nasty innuendo and vicious sarcasm, but also boasting some surprisingly funky rhythm work and some eloquent Zappa guitar solos. "Ms. Pinky" is particularly provocative.
"Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar" (Ryko 10533/34/35) Originally released in 1981. A collection of guitar-heavy instrumentals intended to remind listeners that there was more to Frank Zappa than puerile lyrics, this collection -- which incorporates all of "Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar," "Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar Some More" and "Return of the Son of Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar" -- offers ample testimony to Zappa's mastery of guitar texture.
"London Symphony Orchestra, Vol. I & II" (Ryko 10540/41) Originally released in 1983 and 1987. Zappa's status as a "serious" composer was greatly enhanced by these recordings, made with a real conductor and big-time symphony orchestra. Though the performances are a tad rough around the edges (especially on Vol. II), the writing is rich and colorful, demonstrating that Zappa's adoration of Edgar Varese was no mere affectation. "Pedro's Dowry," with soloist Chad Wackerman, is particularly interesting.
"Make a Jazz Noise Here" (Ryko 10555/56) Originally released in 1991. Recorded live at a variety of locations, this extensive double-disc set shows off the considerable ability of one of Zappa's best bands. Though the political commentary seems a bit dated now -- Jimmy Swaggart jokes? -- the playing is razor-sharp, and the soloing inspired. Among the more impressive tracks is a reggae-inflected remake of "King Kong."
"Playground Psychotics" (Ryko 10557/59) Originally released in 1992. Consisting of odds and ends from the early '70s, this
collection includes everything from embarrassingly authentic backstage banter to a full accounting of the time John Lennon and Yoko Ono sat in with the Mothers at the Fillmore East in 1970. Worth owning if only for Lennon's rendition of "Well."