Following up on my prior foolish attempt to list a top-anything related to music, herein I offer my Top 10 Favorite Frank Zappa songs, in specific and well-thought out order. Enjoy!
10. Willie the Pimp
A straight-up nasty R&B number with guest star Captain Beefheart – aka Don Van Vliet. Its from Frank’s first solo album Hot Rats, which also makes an appearance below in #6.
9. I’m the Slime
Not only is this musically satisfying – funky and infectious – but its one of Frank’s early forays into pure straight-ahead social commentary, rather than the oblique, dada-istic commentary from his earlier Mothers of Invention days.
Crowing about the evils of mass media mind-control is old by now, but back then Marshall Mcluhan was a new voice, and no one else in music was saying this kind of stuff with as much visibility as Frank, so we gotta give props.
I remember seeing this very clip of Frank playing Saturday Night Live on week-night re-runs of when I was growing up. So glad I found it now:
8. Titties ‘N Beer
A few of the songs on this list (this one, #7, #5) were on a compilation album that my wife had just bought when we were shacking up in our first apartment together (unmarried yet) in 1998. It holds a special place in my heart because of the place-memories I have – playing it on a cheap-ass boom box laid on the linoleum kitchen floor in our Somerville, MA apartment, making some horrible vegetarian meal (yes, we were half veggies then).
The song has a great groove, and hilarious story:
7. Valley Girl
I believe this is the only song to have ever charted for Frank – in 1982 I believe. Its a got a great chorus hook sung in a slurring, bored, annoyed tone by Frank & Co.. The verses are really just spoken word rants performed by Frank’s daughter Moon Unit in her best ditzy valley girl impression. Funny stuff. Shows how Frank can go pop at a whim if he wants to.
6. Peaches en Regalia
As I recounted in great, shitty detail here this song holds a special place in my heart as the first Frank Zappa song I obsessed over when I was first introduced to his more serious works at the relatively old age of 25. It was a minor revelation to me that one could become successful in rock music while still being a composer. I had just escaped graduate school with a degree in composition, and I needed role models like Frank to avoid being convinced that the only way forward for a serious composer was to get tenure and let one’s soul rot as a professor of composition (if one could even get a job, that is).
5. Dinah Moe Humm
I’ve written about this song elsewhere too, and my most memorable experience with it: singing karoake of it in front of a crowd of angry lesbians. Its not his most musically thrilling songs, but I rank it as his greatest joke/gross out/sex song. Its a true novelty song that belongs on any playlist about sex parody, lesbianism etc.
4. Brown Shoes Don’t Make It
Musically this is a long and twisted journey, and though not his greatest masterpiece, it was quite a doozy for a 26 year old Frank Zappa (released in 1967 with The Mothers of Invention). It contains so many insane and hilarious moments (rhythmic hocking & spitting), and outright atonality. Here Zappa shows off his academic side with some nasty tone rows only he would have the nuts to record on a pop record. The fact that he mixes this high-brow stuff with memorable lines like “Be a jerk, go to work” (in a strong New Jersey accent) or “Gonna smother my daughter in chocolate syrup”, along with his beloved R&B grooves – a true little masterpiece. And nasty from start to finish.
3. My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama
This was on the album “Cheap Thrills”. There are many great versions of this song to hear, though this is by far my favorite. The brass and harmonic re-arrangement (of course by Frank himself) just make it awesome. I don’t even know if its the original studio recording (maybe?) since there are so many versions around. But its fantastic – groove, lyric, song title – everything.
2. Wind up Working in a Gas Station
I’ve written about this song in my weekly Deep Music Criticism series, so regular readers shouldn’t be surprised that it ranks near the top of my Best Frank Zappa Songs list. I won’t belabor the points I made in that post so here’s the song again:
1. Dirty Love
Perhaps the most perfectly-crafted funk-rock song in Frank’s catalog. The groove is the nastiest thing on earth, and the lyrics are proto-typically sex-obsessed and predisposed to greasy gross imagery. There’s never a clean angle to a Frank Zappa sex song.
What gives this song its true greatness though, is the harmonic and timbral touches that only Frank Zappa could provide:
- The pairing of clavinet and trilling guitar in your left ear in the verses
- The clustered, extended harmony in the background vocals
If you truly dig Frank Zappa then there’s a chance you’ll like my music too. Please signup for the email list to get my 3 most Zappa-esque tracks free.