Captain Beefheart:
Five Essential Albums

by Clark Collis

Image Credit: Richard McCaffrey/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images

Rock music lost one of its most legendary stars today with the death of Captain Beefheart (aka Don Van Vliet), who passed away at the age of 69 of complications from multiple sclerosis. Below you’ll find a list of what, in our opinion, are the top five Beefheart albums. Whether you’re a Captain lover or virgin, please do check them out on this sad day.

Safe As Milk (1967)

The Captain’s first proper album — which featured assistance from guitarist Ry Cooder — is also one of his most accessible, with a clutch of relatively catchy rock tracks like “Zig Zag Wanderer.” Elsewhere, songs such as “Electricity ” give some warning of the musical mayhem to come.

Trout Mask Replica (1969)

This double set is easily most Beefheart’s famous album and probably his best—an astonishing, influential onslaught of avant-garde blues that still reveals fresh lunatic nuances on the umpteenth listen. The album was also the favorite long player of British DJ legend John Peel, who once said of Beefheart’s magnum opus that “If there has been anything in the history of popular music which could be described as a work of art in a way that people who are involved in other areas of art would understand, then Trout Mask Replica is probably that work.” According to one of the many legends that swirl around the making of Trout Mask Replica, while Beefheart was rehearsing for the album at his house with backing group the Magic Band, he asked his record company to pay for a tree surgeon to calm surrounding growths, so that they wouldn’t fall over in terror.

Lick My Decals Off, Baby (1970)

His self-produced follow-up to Trout Mask Replica is in the same fantastically demented vein as its predecessor — critic Robert Christgau once described it, not incorrectly, as “repulsive and engrossing and slapstick funny” — and tends to be the Beefheart snob’s album of choice due to its currently-unavailable-on-CD status.

Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (1978)

Beefheart returned in style after a four-year hiatus (and a couple of missteps with 1974′s Bluejeans & Moonbeams and the same year’s Unconditionally Guaranteed) with this gloriously off-kilter collection that showed he had lost none of his way with a beguilingly whacked out lyric: “Tropical hot dog night/Like two flamingos in a fruit fight!”

Ice Cream For Crow (1982)

Ice Cream for Crow was the last album Beefheart recorded before retiring from music to concentrate on painting, which seems a shame given the quality of the work on display. The title track in particular is a naggingly catchy blues romp — though its accompanying video was apparently rejected by MTV for being too uncommercial.

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