With Spotify’s recent addition of the Led Zeppelin catalog, I’ve been spending a lot of time listening to Zeppelin at work.
I’ve been a Zep fan since high school, but for the most part, I don’t think of their music in terms of the albums they came from. Instead of purchasing the albums individually, I cheated and bought a box set that has most of their tracks in non-album order. So even though I’ve been listening to these songs for over 20 years, in many cases this was the first time I’ve heard them in album order.
Having listened to the Zeppelin discography from beginning to end (or I to Coda, if you prefer) I quickly noticed that some of the albums are much better than others – more well-known songs, more approachable deep cuts, and just a better collection of music.
Here is my ranking of the nine Led Zeppelin studio albums from meh to must have.
The album starts off with “Achilles Last Stand”, a 10 minute epic and closes with “Tea for One”, almost nine and a half minutes of electric blues. The middle has one song the casual fan might recognize from the radio (“Nobody’s Fault But Mine”) and little else – although I’m partial to “Royal Orleans” and “Hots on for Nowhere”.
The cover art has a family sitting around a table staring at “the object” a black obelisk. The family appears both happy and unsure of what do with it. I’m guessing that is what many Zeppelin fans thought when this album came out – they were thrilled to have a new album, but we’re exactly sure that they had – or if they liked it.
8. In Through the Out Door.
Classic rock radio likes to play “Fool in the Rain” in spite of the odd bridge with the whistles and percussion. ”All My Love” is a very nice ballad, and I’m partial to the beat of “South Bound Saurez”.
Other than that? You really need to be a die-hard Zep fan to appreciate the countrified “Hot Dog”, the slow pace of “I’m Gonna Crawl”, and the 10 minutes and 35 seconds of synthesizer and guitar that is “Carouselambra”.
Coda was released after the death of drummer John Bonham, and it has been dismissed by critics as a throw-away album filled with things that weren’t good enough to make other albums. I understand that criticism, but there are some solid tracks on this album. ”We’re Gonna Groove” is one of my favorite Zep songs, and I’ll listen to “Poor Tom”, “Wearing and Tearing”, and “Darlene” any time.
In my opinion, Coda gets a bad rap – or more appropriately, Presence and In Through the Out Door don’t get knocked enough.
6. Physical Graffiti.
A two disk set, Physical Graffiti has some star power (“Kashmir”, “Houses of the Holy”) but the meat of this set is in the deep cuts. There are rocking songs (“The Rover”, ”The Wanton Song”, “Custard Pie”), softer songs (“Bron-Yr-Aur” and “Down By The Seaside”), and introspective songs (“Ten Years Gone”, “In The Light”).
Simply put, if all you know about Zeppelin is what you’ve heard on the radio, this is worth a listen.
5. Houses of the Holy.
Houses may be one of the most diverse Zeppelin albums. There are the standard rock and blues tracks, but they also do some reggae (“D’yer Mak’er”) a James Brown funk (“The Crunge”), and one of their most beautiful ballads (“The Rain Song”).
Fun fact I: The song “Houses of the Holy” does not appear on the album Houses of the Holy, as the band didn’t think the song fit the album.
Fun fact II: A telephone can be heard ringing during “The Ocean”.
4. Led Zeppelin III.
This album also gets its fair share of criticism – mainly because it was such a departure from the first two albums. If you’re looking for the classic rock radio hits, you won’t find much other than “Immigrant Song”.
Much like Physical Graffiti, the depth of the album is in the lesser known tracks, such as the softer “Tangerine” and “That’s The Way”, the bluesy “Since I”ve Been Loving You”, and one of my personal faves “Out on the Tiles”.
3. Led Zeppelin I.
Their debut album continues to stand the test of time. I love the power chords and bass guitar of “Good Times Bad Times”, the chaotic middle section of “Dazed and Confused”, the beautiful acoustic guitar of “Black Mountain Side” and the blues rock of “I Can’t Quit You Baby”, “You Shook Me”, and “How Many More Times”.
2. The untitled fourth album (aka Led Zeppelin IV, aka ZoSo, aka…) .
The album was released without an official name, which is why it is referred to by a variety of names (including Untitled, Four Symbols, Fourth Album, Runes, and The Hermit). For our purposes here, I’ll call it IV, even though I know that is not technically accurate.
This is one of the greatest selling albums of all time, and it contains arguably the greatest rock song of all time (“Stairway to Heaven”), along with Zeppelin classics “Black Dog” and “Rock And Roll”.
So why is IV #2? I’ve never felt like it is a solid album, beginning to end. Frankly, I think after “Stairway”, things fall off in a hurry. Make no mistake “Misty Mountain Hop”, “Four Sticks”, and “When the Levee Breaks” are all good songs – and I’ve long been fond of “Going to California”, but it doesn’t match the oomph of the first half of the album. If I were a vinyl listener, there would be many times where I wouldn’t bother to flip the record over to Side B. In my opinion that is enough to keep IV out of the top spot.
1. Led Zeppelin II.
For some this may be a bit of an upset, but I’ll defend Zeppelin II over everything else in the Zep catalog. It has the radio favorites (“Whole Lotta Love”, “Heartbreaker”/”Living Loving Maid”, and “Ramble On”). It has the greatest love song in the Zeppelin library (“Thank You”). It has great bluesy rock songs (“The Lemon Song” and “Bring it On Home”). And it has the epic Bonham drum solo song “Moby Dick”. It is their most complete, and in my opinion, best work.
Aside from purchasing Mothership (the Zeppelin Greatest Hits compilation from 2007), II is the disk that any Zeppelin fan should own.