Inner Psyche Productions

musings and ramblings from the voices inside…

Top 20 Songs by Led Zeppelin

Every good metal fan that came of age in the 1980’s has that “holy shit” moment where the magnificence of the mighty Zep crashes down on them like the Hindenburg in a thunderstorm. We all knew from reading interviews with your favorite poodle-heads in Circus and Hit Parader that Led Zeppelin was amongst the most referenced and revered of their inspirations (typically along with Aerosmith, KISS, and Black Sabbath), and everyone knew “Stairway to Heaven” – even if you didn’t know you knew it.

My dad bought me a vinyl copy of Led Zeppelin’s debut at the mall when I was about 14 years old, and I distinctly recall listening to side one and being completely non-plussed. It sounded an awful lot like the blues to me – how was I supposed to bang my head to this? And what’s with all the acoustic guitars? After getting II and IV (or “Runes” or “Untitled” or “Zoso” – hell, I give up) on cassette my appreciation grew, but it wasn’t until the 1990 boxed set that the depth of what Zeppelin meant to modern hard rock music finally became apparent. Sure, the “hits” were all there, but I quickly discovered that you could randomly select any track and come across a hidden gem every bit as strong (or stronger) than your “Rock and Roll”s or “Whole Lotta Love”s.

By the time I had collected their entire catalog, this realization extended to pretty much everything they recorded. There are a few skippers in there, for sure, but hardly any flat-out bad songs. The near-perfection they accomplished in just 10 years is unparalleled in modern music.

So, inspired by Martin Popoff’s recent list in Goldmine magazine, I present my top 20 Led Zeppelin songs. Like Martin, I will refrain from providing a technical analysis or try to convince you this list is definitive, but include more personal notes on what these songs mean to me. Likely, your list will differ from mine…(but if it doesn’t have “When The Levee Breaks” on it, you’re just flat out wrong!)

20. Wearing and Tearing

Oft-maligned as not a “real” Zeppelin album, the collection of leftovers assembled on Coda post-John Bonham still have their charms, chief among them this speedy rocker that showed they could keep up with the punks if need be. Yet, Jimmy Page’s tone already took on the character he’d utilize in a few years with The Firm, and Robert Plant’s lower, more mature vocal approach previewed what was to come over his long and varied solo career.

19. The Battle of Evermore

The members of Led Zeppelin often bristled at being tagged heavy metal, and their reliance on acoustic guitars and folk stylings go along way towards backing up their prickliness about it. “The Battle of Evermore” goes even further with its complete lack of percussion and John Paul Jones’ prominent mandolin. Add in Plant’s lyrical references to Ringwraiths and the dragon of darkness and Sandy Denny’s eerie vocal counterpoint (the only guest vocal performance on any Zeppelin record), and you might as well put this one on your Ren-Faire playlist ASAP!

18. Fool In The Rain

Further illustrating the diversity that put them above and beyond their heavy rock peers, this track almost defies genre completely. For the bulk of it, Plant laments being stood up by his love over over a wicked Bonham shuffle. Suddenly, a whistle blast and some rollicking piano transports us to Rio for Carnival! (I can’t take credit for that observation, I dragged a goth chick I was dating to a Led Zeppelin laser-light show and that was her comment.). Some walloping timbales and tom-tom fills bring us back to the shuffle, as we learn that indeed poor Percy was not stood up, but apparently can’t read a map.

17. Good Times Bad Times

Here’s where it all began, and what a way to start. Despite the heavy blues leanings of the first LP, it kicks off with what is basically a really good, heavy pop tune. Yet, everything that would come to define Zep is already here: a note-dense JPJ riff, Page’s wailing pentatonic licks, Plant emoting with a world-weariness well beyond his tender 19 years, and bass drum fills from Bonham that 50+ years on still leave young rock drummers puzzled as to how he did that with one foot. I mean, honestly – who comes out of the gate like this?

16. Immigrant Song

Ah, “Immigrant Song” – the one song on Zeppelin’s criminally underrated third album that your butthead friends in high school thought was worthwhile (Good lord, why are teenage boys so narrow-minded?) Martin Popoff and I share a reverence for LZIII, and it’s born from the fact that this change in direction and exploration of new sounds is what set the stage for everything that came after. elevating them far beyond their acid rock peers. There is no “Stairway to Heaven” or “Kashmir” if this album hadn’t come first. But let’s face it: when it comes to the #1 thing that made Zeppelin “Zeppelin,” it’s the riffs of Jimmy Page. The sum is absolutely greater than the individual parts, but nobody besides Tony Iommi could rival Page in terms of both quality and quantity of riffs. “Whole Lotta Love” may have come before this one, but I’ll take Plant’s tale of Norse invaders over the cringe-worthy, recycled old “sexy” blues cliches of the former.

15. Trampled Under Foot

There’s little debate that John Paul Jones is the unsung hero of Led Zeppelin. Though often showed in fog and curiously absent from their most sordid exploits, this experience as a keyboardist, arranger, and session musician made him much more than just the bass player. Though perhaps “No Quarter” is the more well-known showcase for his keyboard prowess, this funky Clavinet jams on yet another reimagining of an old blues tune brings a near-Stevie Wonder vibe here. (As as aside, when Jones contributed a similar keyboard lick to “Scumbag Blues” off Them Crooked Vultures’ (his one off side project with Dave Grohl and Josh Homme) 2009 release, I found myself grinning from ear to ear…)

14. What Is And What Should Never Be

I was really tempted to put “Heartbreaker” in this slot, because that riff is so definitive (on a record filled with “definitive” riffs), but the song itself is really pretty rudimentary. And though I’m sure the unaccompanied guitar solo was face-melting by 1969 standards, it just comes off as sloppy and self-aggrandizing today. But I never get sick of “What Is…” A progression from the “light and shade” dynamics Page established on the first album, a hippy-dippy verse with inebriated slide guitar alternates with a heavy chorus featuring some choice Plant caterwauling. Tack on a huge coda riff with some trippy stereo effects, and we’ve got Zeppelin’s best (and likely only) take on psychedelia.

13. That’s The Way

A strong visual can imbue, or even elevate, a song to new height of emotional resonance. If a song transports you back to an actual lived experience, it can be incredibly powerful. But, seeing as how Led Zeppelin III came out the year before I was born, I don’t have that association. But Cameron Crowe’s decision to insert “That’s The Way” into Almost Famous, his celluloid ode to ’70s rock that went so far as to make fictional group Stillwater a very thinly-veiled stand-in for Zep, was absolute brilliance. The wistful acoustic guitars and yearning vocals still make me yearn for a time and a place that I never even experienced first hand, but feels like I should have. And when John Paul Jones’ bass and some sparse percussion enters just before the fade, so late in the track that you almost forget it’s coming? I’m not crying, you’re crying!

12. The Ocean

House of the Holy is the most celebratory, joyful record in their catalog. And who can blame them? Riding high on the overwhelming success of their fourth album, this was Zep at the absolute peak of their powers. Sketchy backstage behavior aside, they were on top of the world, and except for the moody Norse tale of “No Quarter,” the joy permeates every tune here, most notably on “The Ocean.” From Bonham’s goofy, off-mic count-in to Plant’s doo-wop vamps over the jammy outro section, this is the sound of Zeppelin absolutely enjoying every second of their hard work. Too bad it was not to last.

11. Babe I’m Gonna Leave You

All the idiots that squawked about the acoustic-leaning third album apparently forgot what immediately followed “Good Times Bad Times” on Zep I – a gently fingerpicked Joan Baez tune (of course, credited solely as “Traditional, arr. by Jimmy Page,” because…who’s gonna know?). Granted, Bonham didn’t let it stay gentle for long, but only at side 1, track 2 of the debut, and Page’s philosophy of “light and shade” is fully realized.

10. Over The Hills And Far Away

I’m a sucker for 12-string guitar, and Page is no stranger to them at all. Though “Tangerine” from the third album came first, this finger-twisting workout is one of the most recognizable 12-string riffs ever, second only to perhaps “Wish You Were Here.” Also of note is the bizarre arrangement, which basically just consists of several verses broken up by a solo section and a spacey, mellow outro, the band dynamics responsible for propelling the tune forwards.

9. Nobody’s Fault But Mine

If there’s a true dark horse from Zeppelin, it’s likely 1976’s “Presence.” I’m pretty sure it’s not anyone’s favorite Zeppelin album, but like everything else they’ve released, it’s not without transcendent moments. Once again taking songwriting credit from Blind Willie Johnson (see also, “In My Time Of Dying”), the band unquestionably fashion the original words and melody into something startling unique. Featuring some over-top syncopations pitting Bohman’s bashing against a triple-layer guitar solo (complemented by some wordless vocalizing from Plant), the bombast more than makes up for the plagiarism (and “Candy Store Rock” as well!). I joke about the plagiarism, but in all honestly, one need look no further than this recording for proof that it takes more than just words and melody to create truly spine-chilling musical passages, as we’ll see again further down the list.

8. Out On The Tiles

Possibly the most overlooked track in the catalog, buried at the end of side one of the third album, “Out On The Tiles” features yet another classic Page riff, but one that leaves tons of space for Plant and Bonham to shine in the verses. Zeppelin was never one for big, singalong choruses, but it’s not hard to imagine an arena full of teenagers belting out “all I need from you, is all your love,” while trying not to spill beer all over their bell-bottoms. So mote it be.

7. Black Dog

As already discussed, Zeppelin would not be Zeppelin without the genius of John Paul Jones. What many fans fail to realize is that, besides his expert bass and keyboard chops, some of their most interesting riffs came out of his brain instead of Jimmy’s, this one in particular was selected to open the monumental fourth album. Zeppelin long fostered the impression that they were not a “singles” band, and the best evidence for this is found by listening to “Zoso” front to back. No matter how sick I get of hearing “Rock and Roll” and “Stairway to Heaven” on the radio, within the context of the album they make perfect sense – nothing is skippable here. “Black Dog” – another in a string of song titles that have nothing to do with the lyrics – serves as the perfect overture for such an epic release, including the soft guitar noises that recall an orchestra warming up before the conductor takes the podium. It says a lot about Page’s abilities as a producer that both the opening and closing tracks from album number IV made this list.

6. Ramble On

Personal story time: I’ve been in bands most of my life, usually not ending up a satisfying experience in the long run. By 2009, I decided it was time to take the bull by the horns and form the ultimate hard rock cover band, pulling together some of the best players I knew (and a singer with like 1,000 Facebook friends). Long story short, the whole experiment crashed and burned within about a year, and I was DONE. No more bands, no more guitar, and hopefully no more frustration and disappointment. That same year, Jimmy Page helped produce and star in a movie that celebrated the electric guitar, called It Might Get Loud. Along with the unlikely combination of Jack White (himself sort of a latter-day Page) and The Edge (whose philosophy must’ve seemed downright extra-terrestrial to the other two), they spend a few hours swapping stories and playing each others riffs.

The first thing Page is shown playing is the opening of “Ramble On,” by himself, with just one of his trusty Les Pauls. The hairs on the back of neck stood up, and that was all it took – I was back in!

PS: More non-sensical lyrical references to Lord of the Rings for the win!

5. Ten Years Gone

Nobody does wistful quite like Zeppelin (see also “That’s The Way” and “The Rain Song”). Alternating between pretty solo choral passages from Page and a monumental riff, Plant sings of time passing by in the blink of an eye – a sentiment which only resonates more and more as middle age shifts into the review mirror. A soaring, twin-guitar melody introduced over top of the main riffs carries the listener up and off into an unknown future, while we hold onto the years that have gone before. Ultimately, “Ten Years Gone” marks the final turning point from “squeeze my lemon” to “yours is the cloth, mine is the hand that sews time.”

4. The Rain Song

Yeah, yeah…”Stairway to Heaven” was the game-changing power ballad, mystically created out of thin-air (and perhaps a Spirit instrumental they might have possibly heard a few years prior….), as they lounged by the fireside in their idyllic English countryside cottage. But since classic rock radio has decided to beat it to a bloody pulp (Chicagoans will recall the WXRT adds from the 80’s where the talent holds up a pizza while saying, “We don’t play Stairway to Heaven until it looks like THIS!”), it’s 8-minute runtime can wear a bit thin.

I’ve long preferred this epic, second track from Houses of the Holy, mostly because it seems less contrived. Each part flows gently into the next, sewn together by sweeping Mellotron and a gorgeous chord progression, building to a startling climax (the “talk, talk” part) that reliably gives me goosebumps. If the rumors are true that Page wrote this tune in response to George Harrison’s criticism that Zep never did any ballads, a) George needed to listen to III, and b) he deserves our eternal thanks.

3. In My Time of Dying

Zep caught a lot of stick for covering blues standards and attributing song writing credit to themselves. To be sure, this is morally dubious, at best, and grand larceny at worst. However, I will maintain to this day that what set Zep apart was the fact that they took the basic lyrics and a bit of melody and completely transformed these song into a form that would be barely recognizable from their humble beginnings. Still doesn’t make it right, but I think even the most casual listener won’t confuse these four Brits for Elmore James. Nowhere this is this more evident than this mammoth cut from side one of Physical Graffiti. Loosely attributed to Blind Willie Johnson, the longest track in Zep’s catalog never gets boring, largely due to Bonham’s massive fills, seamlessly powering Zep through numerous dynamic and tempo changes. It’s got to be my Jesus, indeed.

PS: Don’t forget to listen all the way to “my dying, dying, dying….cough” for a glimpse at the sense of humor that often gets overlooked. (Stupidly, on the original CD issue, they lopped that part off…)

2. Kashmir

I really didn’t want to include the most commonly referenced tunes here, let alone this one, because there are so many overlooked gems in the catalog. But – honestly: what even is this? The only thing even remotely “heavy metal” about this might be the drums, but even at that they are more stately and plodding the anything else. The thin, semi-distorted tone Page wrings from his Danelectro guitar doesn’t sound like anything recorded before or since, layers of middle-Eastern melodies float in an out of JPJ’s Mellotron, as Plant weaves a tale of wanderlust and yearning. Almost 10 minutes long and highly repetitive, it remains endlessly entrancing. If you haven’t listened to it with fresh years, close your eyes and be carried away.

1. When The Levee Breaks

I have one criterion that must be met for any song to make my list of “desert island” tracks: at some point in the song, I must get chills up and down my spine. No song does that for me more reliably than this reimagining of yet another old blues standard (credit where credit is due: at least they gave a co-write to Memphis Minnie here). Much has already been written about Bonham’s colossal drum sound, and how his intro groove is one of the most sampled in history, but for me, the real magic happens when we arrive at the bridge section. The drums briefly pause for a chiming, majestic fanfare from Page, building the tension before Bonham literally crashes back in, Plant’s voice scorching the mic-preamps on the mixing console while Bonzo’s thundering bass drum drives a hole in your chest. I am hard-pressed to name another rock song that can so consistently trigger such a powerful, emotional reaction. If it cost Jimmy his soul to craft this masterpiece, well, I’d call that a bargain.

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