When Led Zeppelin smashed their way onto the rock music scene in the late Sixties, no one could have foreseen the amazing success the band would enjoy over the next decade. They owned the Seventies, and created hard rock that is still as relevant today as it was three or four decades ago. They were the godfathers of hard rock and one of the driving forces behind the emergence of album rock.
When they formed the band as Led Zeppelin, they had already earned enough street cred with Atlantic Records to control much of the marketing of their music, including their penchant for releasing their music as albums and not singles. The strategy worked pretty damn well; they released nine albums, selling more than 200 million copies worldwide and placing six at number one on Billboard’s list.
Looking back 30 years since their last real studio release, In Through The Out Door, we’ve decided to rank the albums from worst to best. “Worst” is all relative, of course…
(Links to all of the albums are provided at the bottom of the page)
9. Coda, 1982 – This one actually never should have been released. It was a greedy money grab by the remaining members, following the death of drummer John Bonham. The word ‘coda’ means the final act of a musical performance; this was their final release, but it was really a collection of average stuff not good enough for previous albums, not quite a coda. The best track on the album is “Bonzo’s Montreaux” a fantastic 4 minute solo from the genius beating the skins.
8. Presence, 1976 – This one was mediocre, but there’s good reason. This was the heavily anticipated follow-up to Physical Graffiti, but the band had encountered some huge obstacles. Robert Plant was in a wheel chair recuperating from a serious car accident and the band was literally rushed through recording, as they only had about three weeks to finish the album, before this little band named The Rolling Stones had the studio reserved. “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” is a great tune with superb vocals from Plant. Much of the rest is forgettable.
7. Led Zeppelin III, 1970 – OK, now we’re in some rarefied air. The remainder of the albums are all classics, beginning with this 1970 release which featured more unplugged rock than the band had offered up previously. The genesis of most songs was a trip to a tranquil Welsh cottage without electricity, where Page and Plant recuperated from a grueling year on the road. The album kicks off with the powerful “Immigrant Song” which is a logical extension of the first two albums and the antithesis of unplugged. After that, the tracks meander a bit. “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp” (named after the aforementioned cottage) is a fun romp and different from anything else the band had done. “Gallows Pole” is a fantastic remake of a bluesy standard with some nice mandolin work. Only #7 on this list, but a fine album.
6. House of the Holy, 1973 – Another great album. Interestingly, the song “Houses of the Holy” actually did not make the cut for this album, and was included instead on Physical Graffiti. It was better than a few that found their way onto Houses of the Holy. There’s still a slew of great cuts to choose from. Side 2 includes three fantastic songs: “Dancing Days,” “D’yer Mak’er,” and “The Ocean.” The fourth song on that side is the spacey “No Quarter,” one of John Paul Jones’ best bass songs.
5. Physical Graffiti, 1975 – If this was a single album, it probably would be at the top of the list, but, there’s some filler mixed in with the gems on this double album. Still, this definitely qualifies as great. The band finished their recording session with too much music for a single album, but not enough for a double album, so they reached back and included some previously unreleased tracks. This one is truly a showcase for Jimmy Page, including the “The Rover” a great guitar song ahead of its time and “Bron Yr Aur,” one of the leftover tracks, but basically a four minute beautiful Page guitar solo. I loved “Boogie With Stu” another fun tune with some groovy mandolin and drum work. Side Two is amazing: “Houses of the Holy,” “Trampled Underfoot,” and the band’s greatest song “Kasmir.” Great stuff.
4. In Through the Out Door, 1979 – Many Led Zeppelin purists pan this album, mainly because Page’s guitar takes a back seat to Jones’ keyboards. True statement, but Jones saved the album, while Page and Bonham blew off many recording sessions as they battled addiction problems, costing the latter his life just after the album was released. And, the songs are all pretty damn good. Side One is near perfection, with “In the Evening,” “Fool in the Rain” and the rollicking “Southbound Suarez” and “Hot Dog,” which starts with a great riff from Page. Side 2 features the ten minute “Carouselambra,” and great keyboards from Jones, drums from Bonzo, and vocals from Plant. Not a guitar song but still a masterpiece. If the band had continued after this, they may have again changed the course of hard rock.
3. Led Zeppelin, 1969 – They started out as The New Yardbirds and just before release were forced to change their name. Led Zeppelin will go down as one of the greatest debut albums ever; a fantastic fusion of blues and rock and a great showcase for Plant and Page. “Dazed and Confused,” the highlight of the album, featured Page playing the guitar solo with a violin bow. We hear a few Willie Dixon blues covers that were reminiscent of the Yardbirds, and then a handful of fantastic hard rock tunes that were clearly ahead of their time. The album includes “Communication Breakdown,” “Your Time is Gonna Come” and “Good Times Bad Times.” Clearly a great debut that changed the course of rock music.
2. Led Zeppelin IV, 1971 – This album was officially untitled and also referred to as ZoSo or Runes. It’s almost perfect and features their biggest hit ever, “Stairway to Heaven,” and to many Zeppelin fans, it’s not even one of the top songs on the album. The album kicks off with two of the band’s best guitar songs ever “Black Dog” and “Rock and Roll” and wraps up with an amazing blues rocker, “When the Levee Breaks.” In between, there’s just a ton of great music, and some amazing guitar work. “Misty Mountain Hop,” “Four Sticks” and “Going to California” are all fantastic classic rock tunes. Truly a special album, and one that became the third biggest selling record in US history. I vacillated on and off whether or not this was the band’s best ever effort.
1. Led Zeppelin II, 1969 – Perfect. It really is a perfect album and amazingly, this masterpiece was recorded quickly, on the road, as the quartet feverishly toured the US and Europe supporting their wildly successful release of their debut album. It is Page’s opus with some of his greatest guitar playing and also features his excellent production work. The album is a cohesive blending of guitar-driven bluesy rock, and balls-to-the-wall hard rock. The tracks offer a live feel and showcase all four members hitting their prime. The album ignites with “Whole Lotta Love,” and some of rock’s most memorable guitar riffs. Afterwards, we get into more of a Blues groove with “What Is and What Should Never Be,” and similar tracks “The Lemon Song” and “Bring it on Home.” The guitar on “Heartbreaker / Living, Loving Maid (She’s Just a Woman)” is ahead of it’s time. Plant seems to have been at his best and Jones and Bonham are in the zone, especially during the instrumental genius of “Moby Dick.” As if that all wasn’t enough, the album also features the band’s greatest ballad, the spacey “Thank You.”
So, there you go. A lengthy discourse, and many tough choices. As I chatted about this story with others, I had folks recommend 7 of these albums as the band’s best, so obviously there are many worthy contenders for the best of the best. I’ll stick with my selections, because tend to I agree with myself quite often.
In the meantime, let us know your thoughts in the Comments below (beneath all of the album links).