Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and John Bonham are demigods put on this Earth to rock. How else can you explain the impossibly heavy yet instantly iconic sound they pioneered throughout the ’70s as Led Zeppelin? Bonham’s hand-of-God drumming, Page’s wonderfully indulgent guitar work, Plant’s primal howling and Jones’ soulful bass grooves and keyboard arrangements all combined to create one of the greatest rock bands in history, and one of the few where every member was essential to their success.
Their early fusion of blues and hard rock was always overblown but played with such intensity and authenticity that the larger-than-life sound and lyrics always felt justified. But Zeppelin was about more than sheer power — through their nine studio albums, they found ways to push their sound and the sound of rock music in new directions with each album. So let’s see how each one holds up today.
10. In Through the Out Door
Led Zeppelin cut back on their usual hard-rocking aesthetics to pursue something a little more produced, a little more artificial, even a little goofy with In Through the Out Door. Robert Plant and John Paul Jones pulled the reins more than Jimmy Page for this record, and despite its success, all surviving band members expressed reservations toward the album. Plant said that “Of all the [Led Zeppelin] records, it’s interesting but a bit sanitized because we hadn’t been in the clamor and chaos for a long time.” Indeed the album feels a bit toothless for Zeppelin. The bad tracks are among their worst (“Hot Dog” and “Carouselambra”), and even the standouts (“Fool in the Rain” and “All My Love”) are a little too cheesy to enjoy with reservations.
Inessential. In Through the Out Door has a few stinkers and a few greats, but Coda doesn’t really have either. It feels like what it is — a rushed release of previously unheard material cobbled together in the wake of a tragedy (drummer John Bonham’s death) to appease the record company. Culled from throughout Zep’s career, the tracks boast the hard-rocking dynamic you’d expect from their peak years but without the same strength of songwriting.
Presence is a nice antidote to In Through the Out Door — all hard-edged rhythms and galloping hard rock riffs instead of playful synths, a rough reflection of the hard times the band was going through at the time, while Robert Plant was still recuperating from a car crash. The album contains one of the band’s greatest guitar epics (“Achilles’ Last Stand”) and a few good hooks, but ultimately lacks the variety and experimentation that elevates the band’s best albums.
7. How the West Was Won
How the West Was Won is a comprehensive snapshot of Zeppelin at the very height of their powers, touring the US to promote Led Zeppelin IV in 1972. It’s a great live album filled with many of the band’s greatest hits, played a little looser to let the band members show off their considerable musical prowess and dynamics as Plant improvises new ways to groan passionately in the foreground, but the extensive showcases like the 20-minute drum solo of “Moby Dick” tend to get a little too indulgent, even by Zeppelin standards. Ultimately, it’s still a fantastic live album and artifact of music history that gets placed so low on my list only because every album from here on out is so damn good.
6. Led Zeppelin III
One of Led Zeppelin’s most un-Zeppelin-like and least cohesive recordings yields some of their greatest surprises and a few of their greatest misfires. The folk rock aesthetic of the album shines brightest on the absolutely gorgeous acoustic tracks “Tangerine” and “That’s the Way,” while “Gallows Pole,” “Out on the Tiles” and “Immigrant Song” are all classic rockers. “Since I’ve Been Loving You” is one of their less interesting blues epics, however, and the album closer “Hats Off to (Roy) Harper” is most definitely a failed experiment.
5. Led Zeppelin II
This is the album where Zeppelin defined their hard rock sound, fusing blistering blues guitar with a new sort of heaviness only they could pull off. From track one, the scorching hit “Whole Lotta Love,” these songs are defined by their guitar riffs, although there are vocal hooks galore too, especially on “Ramble On” and “What Is and What Should Never Be.” Its only missteps are the immature “Living Loving Maid” (Jimmy Page’s least favorite Zeppelin song, understandably so) and “The Lemon Song” (“squeeze my lemon until the juices run down my leg” sounds gross even by cock-rock standards).
4. Physical Graffiti
The rare double album that manages to have it both ways, disc one of Physical Graffiti is tight and perfectly calculated, beginning with the straightforward rocker “Custard Pie” and building to the hypnotic masterpiece “Kashmir,” while disc two is a loose and casual, almost like you’re sitting in for a jam session with the band members as they cycle through oddball outtakes like instrumental acoustic exercise “Bron-Yr-Aur” and the playful country blues of “Black Country Woman.” They aren’t all classics (I tend to forget “Boogie with Stu” and “The Wanton Song” exist), but the tracks add up to one of the most consistent double albums in rock history.
3. Led Zeppelin
Right out of the gate, Led Zeppelin created a perfect fusion of blues and rock, with enough novel ideas mixed in to keep things interesting. It hardly matters that the songs were often “borrowed” from uncredited musicians when they manage to do so much with the basic templates of old blue songs. Only the covers “I Can’t Quit You Babe” and “You Shook Me” are anything less than utter perfection from a band who sounded as confident as ever on their first studio album.
2. Houses of the Holy
Led Zeppelin’s first four albums were mostly spent refining their iconic hard rock sound while saving time for a couple new experiments per album, but Houses of the Holy threw that sound out the window in favor of something a little higher in pitch — more psychedelic than heavy really. Even in this new context, the band is as strong as ever on both familiar tracks (the perfect folk-to-rock transitions of “Over the Hills and Far Away,” the balladry of “Rain Song”) and in strange new territory (the playful reggae of “D’yer Maker,” the funk workout of “The Crunge,” and especially the psychedelic keyboards and vocal manipulation on “No Quarter”).
1. Led Zeppelin IV
What can you say about perfection? A little too epic even for a proper title, Led Zeppelin IV shows Led Zeppelin’s total mastery of their sound even as they find interesting new things to do within it. They perfected heavy blues rock with album closer “When the Levee Breaks,” acoustic loveliness on “Going to California,” scorching uptempo rock on “Rock and Roll,” and even the now-cliched “Stairway to Heaven” feels like their definitive stab at a delicately evolving epic. Every song is so big and overblown in its sound and its lyrical mysticism, the album feels like the ultimate gift from these veritable demigods of rock.
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