Few bands have changed the course of rock like Led Zeppelin. While the personnel structure of guitarist, dedicated singer, bassist (and band utility man), and drummer wasn’t a revelation itself, the individual members brought a virtuosity and fervor that would become the measuring stick for hard rock bands to follow. Their reverence for the blues guided many of their compositions, and as such, they also became the gateway to original blues artists for generations of young rock fans (this author included). Some will argue they were the prototype for the heavy metal genre that sprung forth in the ’70s, but that would ignore the band’s numerous acoustic pieces as well as the several other genres in which they experimented. From this immortal rock outfit, Blues Rock Review selects their best five albums.
5. Houses Of The Holy
Easily the most far-flung of the Zeppelin catalogue, Houses Of The Holy reaches into and over several genres in an attempt to expand the band’s sonic palette. After three albums of blues and folk oriented rock and one stab at artistic expansion, this set sees the effort through to its logical destination. The triumphant chimes of “The Song Remains The Same,” the beauty of “The Rain Song,” the timelessness of “Over The Hills And Far Away,” the reggae-swipe imbued in “D’yer Mak’er,” and the epic darkness of “No Quarter”…they perfectly stretch the band to its creative limits. To those who think this slot should be occupied by the even stretchier Physical Graffiti, remember that some of the tracks that made it onto that album were ones that didn’t make the cut for this one.
4. BBC Sessions
Between the perfection of their studio albums, and the raw, animalistic onslaught of their live recordings exists a space in which the best aspects of both extremes come together in what is probably the best “rarities” collection of all time. Led Zeppelin’s BBC Sessions captures the band in that ephemeral middle ground where the emotion and extemporaneous musical thought shine through without detracting from the brilliant writing and composition of their songs. The different takes on “Communication Breakdown” expose the simple genius of the main riff, the version of “Thank You” is the band’s best, and “Travelling Riverside Blues” vies for the greatest Robert Johnson cover of all time. For good measure, they also throw in a couple of random covers that only Zep can bring to life in that unique Zeppelin way. It is a blueprint for top-shelf rock and roll.
3. Led Zeppelin II
The most Zeppelin of Led Zeppelin albums, II softens the rough edges of the debut effort while maintaining the punchy blues interpretation that the band would become famous for. So many of the quintessential songs that everyone knows live on this album. “Heartbreaker” and “Living Loving Maid” might catch the ear the quickest, but that’s only because the entire first side is so good, it has become a cultural cliche. It’s the closing tandem of “Moby Dick” and the aptly-titled “Bring It On Home” that really seizes the group’s ethos—guttural blues electrified and amplified, not just sonically, but energetically and emotionally as well.
2. Led Zeppelin I
Led Zeppelin I caught a lot of people off-guard, and when first released many dismissed the band as an inferior version of Cream or The Jeff Beck Group. Most of the harsher critics later revised their opinions once they realized that the album had signalled a major shift in hard-rock, blues-rock, and just rock in general. Although uneven in places, for a first outing the set is actually quite impressive. With half the album consisting of barely recognizable covers, the quartet easily demonstrates a mastery of their influences and also the ability to completely reimagine and improve upon their forebears. Their original compositions shine as well. The three-song run of “Your Time Is Gonna Come,” “Black Mountain Side,” and “Communication Breakdown” covers as much musical ground in nine short minutes as any band not called The Beatles. The sheer intensity and electricity of the music left many listeners with mouths agape, and continue to do so to this day.
1. Led Zeppelin IV
There is little to say about Led Zeppelin’s untitled fourth LP that hasn’t already been said many times over in its fifty years of existence. The strength and quality of the songs contained within helped sell over 37 million copies and the album routinely finds itself near the top of “all time best” lists. Perhaps the eight song set is best understood as four twinned pairs that each represent a major facet of the band’s musical architecture. “Black Dog,” with its uniquely dirty, core riff, and “Rock And Roll,” which continually threatens to spin out of control, represent the band’s hard rock legacy—driving and crushing rhythms punctuated by guitar fireworks and scorching vocals. “The Battle of Evermore” and the legendary “Stairway To Heaven” borrow from Celtic folk traditions and drift into Zeppelin-flavored mysticism. “Misty Mountain Hop” and “Four Sticks” belong to their more experimental group, with their angular, purposefully undanceable cadences rarely found in mainstream rock. Finally, “Going To California” and “When The Levee Breaks” possess a certain feeling of timelessness. The gentle-but-melancholy yearning of the former perfectly captures aimless wanderlust, while the latter’s dark and dire warning foretells of catastrophe experienced by humans over countless generations. There is not a single song, or even moment, on the record that doesn’t flirt with rock perfection. It is Led Zeppelin’s magnum opus.