If you attempted to craft the perfect rock band in a laboratory, you probably still wouldn’t be able to come up with something as powerful and timeless as Led Zeppelin. The sum of Zeppelin’s parts were spectacular, but each part on its own was just as impressive. There was no weak link. Take each part on its own and what do you have? John Bonham’s crushing drums, John Paul Jones’s reliable but innovative bass, Jimmy Page’s inspired, sludgy guitar riffs, and Robert Plant’s other-worldly, ethereal vocals.
Chuck Klosterman once wrote that every man “born after the year 1958 has at least one transitory period in his life when he believes Led Zeppelin is the only good band that ever existed.” I can’t speak to the general truth of that statement, but I can tell you that as a man born after 1958, I certainly had that Zeppelin phase. I was 14, I was a freshman in high school, and I bought some iron-on t-shirt transfer paper to make my own shoddy Led Zeppelin t-shirt. (This was just before the proliferation of classic rock tees at JC Penneys and Targets everywhere.) As anyone with a Zeppelin phase in their past can attest, eventually your music tastes expand. But for a moment, Led Zeppelin was all that mattered. And that always stays with you.
To celebrate Led Zeppelin’s influential and illustrious career, I have decided to rank every Led Zeppelin song. Every single one.
These songs are drawn from Led Zeppelin’s nine studio albums spanning from 1969 to 1982 (with a few additional studio tracks that were released later on their box set). Consideration is limited to studio tracks, i.e. no live songs. Of those studio tracks, I have also decided to omit the alternate version of “I Can’t Quit You Baby” from Coda, as well as “White Summer Black Mountain Side” from the box set, due to its similarity to “Black Mountain Side.”
After heaping all that praise on Zeppelin, there’s something to keep in mind: Even the greatest bands are bound to have some duds in their catalog. Led Zeppelin was, of course, monumental when they were on their game. But they still had some mis-hits, especially as they inched closer to the end of their career. Hopefully we can get through those unfortunate tracks quickly.
Okay, 83 tracks. Worst to best. Here we go.
MY SPIRIT IS CRYING FOR NEVER HEARING THESE SONGS AGAIN (83-80).
The following four songs, all from the band’s last studio album In Through the Out Door, are anomalies in Zeppelin’s catalog. They are horrible. There is too much synthesizer and not enough hooks. They should never have been recorded. Let’s just pretend they never happened and move on.
83. Hot Dog | In Through the Out Door (1979)
82. I’m Gonna Crawl | In Through the Out Door (1979)
81. Carouselambra | In Through the Out Door (1979)
80. South Bound Saurez | In Through the Out Door (1979)
To represent this group of mishaps, here is “Hot Dog” in all its glory. Listen at your own peril.
SOMETIMES SOME OF OUR SONGS ARE MISGIVEN (79-72).
These eight songs are bland. No hooks, just lots of yawns. The overwhelming majority of these tracks are from Presence (their second-to-last record) and Coda (their posthumous amalgamation of “leftovers”). These songs aren’t terrible, but they have no spark.
76. Tea For One | Presence (1976)
Led Zeppelin recorded “Since I’ve Been Loving You” in 1970. It’s a great song (hence, you will find it farther down the list). Why listen to the same thing (“Tea for One”) when the original was better?
75. Trampled Underfoot | Physical Graffiti (1975)
This is considered one of their biggest hits, but I think it’s just a bore. Plant’s voice sounds strained and the endlessly recurring keyboard riff is lazy and uninteresting. Sorry, not sorry.
74. For Your Life | Presence (1976)
This is a mid-tempo snooze fest. The groove in the middle section is admittedly not terrible, but I could do without the rest.
73. Walter’s Walk | Coda (1982)
Another pointless Coda track, devoid of anything exciting.
72. Hats Off to (Roy) Harper | Led Zeppelin III (1970)
I applaud the avant-garde blues experiment they’re attempting to pull off here. At the very least, it’s an unusual track, and a valiant effort, but it just doesn’t work.
IT’S JUST A SPRING CLEAN FOR THE MAY QUEEN (71-62).
Nothing special here. The next 10 songs are not great, but not bad either — just okay.
71. Sick Again | Physical Graffiti (1975)
This is the definition of “middle of the road.” The guitar has a nice gritty sound to it and the melody is serviceable, but it’s mostly uninteresting.
70. Bonzo’s Montreaux | Coda (1982)
This is a really nice showpiece for John Bonham’s drumming. I still prefer “Moby Dick” though.
69. Celebration Day | Led Zeppelin III (1970)
“Celebration Day” is monotonous. Every instrument seems to be obsessed with playing the same note. Sometimes monotony works, but only when its groove is engaging (e.g. “When the Levee Breaks”).
68. Custard Pie | Physical Graffiti (1975)
I have to get something out in the open — I’m not the biggest champion of Physical Graffiti. I really like the album, and of course it’s eons better than Presence, In Through the Out Door, and Coda. But Physical Graffiti contains a lot of filler, “Custard Pie” included. An album’s opening track is supposed to be its highlight, its emissary to the new listener. “Custard Pie” is a weak emissary. The fast-paced opening riff isn’t bad, but the song just sounds overly busy.
67. Friends | Led Zeppelin III (1970)
Just like its companion track, “Celebration Day,” “Friends” lacks any sense of variety. The acoustic tracks on the back side of the Led Zeppelin III are far superior.
66. In the Evening | In Through the Out Door (1979)
The guitar riff is powerful, but the synth is cheesy. Also, by this point in their career, Plant’s voice lacked its youthful, guttural power. You can really tell Plant has lost a step on “In the Evening.” But when you attack microphones like he did for 10 years, can you blame him?
65. We’re Gonna Groove | Coda (1982)
When listening to the overall mediocrity of Coda, the opening energy of “We’re Gonna Groove” can seem like a godsend. But don’t lower your expectations. Zeppelin can do better.
64. Ozone Baby | Coda (1982)
The track is saved by its catchy “ooh-ooh” melody and the fun double hi-hat section at 1:20.
63. Hots On For Nowhere | Presence (1976)
Despite its overall mediocrity, “Hots On For Nowhere” does have a nice, bouncy beat to it. I’ll give it that.
62. Royal Orleans | Presence (1976)
This is almost a funk track with it’s punchy, syncopated guitar stabs.
YOUR HEAD IS HUMMING (61-45).
Now we’re getting to the good stuff. Not bad when 61 of your 83 songs are this good.
61. Four Sticks | Led Zeppelin IV (1971)
“Four Sticks” is the weakest link on Led Zeppelin IV, but it’s still got some killer guitar and some impassioned screeches from Plant.
60. You Shook Me | Led Zeppelin II (1969)
A good slow blues jam, but far from their best slow blues jam.
59. Night Flight | Physical Graffiti (1975)
The highlights are Bonham’s subtly great drumming (nice hi-hat opening!) and the interaction between the guitar, organ, and melody in the verses. However, the “meet me in the morning” chorus is fairly mediocre.
58. Down by the Seaside | Physical Graffiti (1975)
They capture the ocean vibe here well — the wobbly, underwater guitar and electric piano recall “Octopus’s Garden.”
57. Black Country Woman | Physical Graffiti (1975)
It’s an inconsequential ditty, but it has a nice, carefree, campfire vibe. And I like hearing the studio chatter at the beginning.
56. D’Yer Mak’er | Houses of the Holy (1973)
There are some mildly interesting tangents related to “D’Yer Mak’er,” one of the biggest anomalies in Zeppelin’s catalog. Some of the uninitiated pronounce it “Die-er May-ker,” but don’t be fooled. You can’t ignore the apostrophes or the intended British accent — it’s pronounced “Jamaica”! Also, remember Sean Kingston? Chances are a good portion of Led Zeppelin fans won’t. He was a teenage reggae-R&B singer in the mid-to-late 2000’s who released “Me Love”, directly ripping off/paying homage to (depending on whether you love or hate it) this song. Honestly, I can’t decide whether I love or hate “D’Yer Mak’er.” It’s really catchy, but also really corny.
55. Misty Mountain Hop | Led Zeppelin IV (1971)
It’s got a solid, driving groove to it, but again, it’s hard for me to get over a little too much repetition. Plant’s sudden screech of “what do you, WHAT DO YOU THINK I SAW?” is pretty great though.
54. Boogie With Stu | Physical Graffiti (1975)
“Boogie With Stu” is a pretty basic 12-bar-blues throwaway, but Plant’s vocals, distant in the mix but fervent in their delivery, are pretty captivating.
53. The Crunge | Houses of the Holy (1973)
It used to be one of my favorites, but recently I’ve begun to find “The Crunge” a little grating. I still like the funkiness and the odd, jittery 9/8 time signature though.
52. In the Light | Physical Graffiti (1975)
“In the Light” gingerly straddles the line between cool and corny. It’s a bit more self-serious than it has any right to be, but it has some legitimately great moments — the random keyboard interlude at 4:10, Plant’s multi-tracked vocals during the meandering parts, and the uplifting, ascending guitar line.
51. I Can’t Quit You Baby | Led Zeppelin I (1969)
Another slow blues jam, brought to life by Plant’s opening yowl and the fat bass line.
50. The Wanton Song | Physical Graffiti (1975)
Plant’s voice is raspy here, clearly lacking the punch of his more youthful days. But the extremely rhythmic riff and insane drum patterns make the song chug.
49. Out on the Tiles | Led Zeppelin III (1970)
This song has grown on me a lot lately. The catchiest part is Plant’s semi-chorus: “All I need from you is all your love, all you gotta give to me is all your love.”
48. Poor Tom | Coda (1982)
If all physical and digital copies of Coda somehow ceased to exist, “Poor Tom” is the only track that I would truly miss. It’s a fun folk romp.
47. Since I’ve Been Loving You | Led Zeppelin III (1970)
I anticipate some backlash to this song’s relatively low placement. I respect and admire Page’s control over that guitar and Jones’s organ touches. It’s incredibly slinky and sexy, giving ample room for Plant to unleash his vocal power. It’s just that the slow, plodding blues version of Zeppelin has never been my cup of tea. I can recognize the magnificence of this song though.
46. Bron-Yr-Aur | Physical Graffiti (1975)
45. Black Mountain Side | Led Zeppelin I (1969)
These are the two instrumental acoustic numbers in their catalog, and both are gorgeous. They also showcase Jimmy Page’s range — he wasn’t just a slayer of huge electric riffs; he could tone it down and do some beautifully intricate acoustic picking as well.
EVERYTHING STILL TURNS TO GOLD (44-19).
We’re stepping on some very solid ground now, approaching “epic” territory. The following 26 songs are really, really good.
44. In My Time of Dying | Physical Graffiti (1975)
The most epic (and epochal) delta blues song of all time. Page’s pitch-bending on the guitar is masterful.
43. Heartbreaker | Led Zeppelin II (1969)
“Heartbreaker” is considered Part A to the Part B of “Living Loving Maid (She’s Just a Woman).” I think “Living Loving Maid” is the better half, but “Heartbreaker” still has a great, meaty riff.
42. All My Love | In Through the Out Door (1979)
As we’ve discussed, In Through the Out Door was largely a disaster. However, the album had two saving graces: one track that we’ve yet to discuss (#27) and “All My Love.” “All My Love” uses more synth than I would usually like for such a mighty guitar band. But the track is such a solid pop song with a strong melody that it ultimately doesn’t matter. My favorite element, along with the little guitar licks, is the synth trumpet solo, which I learned note-for-note when I was 14 and proudly played on the cheesy trumpet setting on my electric keyboard.
40. The Girl I Love She Got Long Black Wavy Hair | BBC Sessions (1969)
A prime example of the electrifying intersection between blues and rock and roll.
39. Bron-Y-Aur Stomp | Led Zeppelin III (1970)
This is basically a precursor to the recently popular “stomp and holler” folk rock genre, championed by bands like Mumford & Sons and the Lumineers, but “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp” is much less forced than the faux “authenticity” of those bands mentioned.
38. Thank You | Led Zeppelin II (1969)
“If the sun refused to shine, I would still be loving you. When mountains crumble to the sea, there will still be you and me.” One of Zeppelin’s most gorgeous songs, thanks primarily to John Paul Jones’s lovely organ work.
37. The Lemon Song | Led Zeppelin II (1969)
Another stellar example of the fat riffs that define Led Zeppelin II. The instruments are booming.
36. Nobody’s Fault But Mine | Presence (1976)
The only Presence track not named “Achilles Last Stand” that’s actually good.
35. How Many More Times | Led Zeppelin I (1969)
Such a great, driving groove. Page, Bonham, and Jones are fully on the same page (no pun intended), creating an unstoppable force of sound.
34. Travelling Riverside Blues | BBC Sessions (1969)
The best thing about “Travelling Riverside Blues,” besides its origins as a 1937 Robert Johnson classic: that wobbly, delta blues guitar. The effects they put on that guitar really capture the essence of Robert Johnson’s version.
33. Moby Dick | Led Zeppelin II (1969)
I think “Moby Dick” doesn’t get enough love. The instrumental track is built around John Bonham’s truly epic and impressive drum solo. On top of that, that hefty electric guitar sound so prevalent on Led Zeppelin II makes the non-drum-solo parts just as enjoyable.
32. Gallows Pole | Led Zeppelin III (1970)
This is the name of one of the bands I was in. But despite our name, we weren’t skilled enough to play this or any other Led Zeppelin song. “Gallows Pole” opens up with a haunting acoustic refrain, as Plant pleads for the “hangman” to delay his execution — but somehow the dark song quickly becomes joyous with the addition of a convivial mandolin and banjo.
31. The Rover | Physical Graffiti (1975)
I remember as a junior in high school, this was my favorite Zeppelin song for a few months. Why? That riff. If we were judging on riffs alone, “The Rover” would be top 3 easily.
30. Dancing Days | Houses of the Holy (1973)
The guitar hook repeats 1,875 times (that’s a rough estimate) and it’s impossible to get out of your head. But it’s also really good.
29. Ten Years Gone | Physical Graffiti (1975)
“Ten Years Gone” is not in a hurry. It’s confident and evocative. It skillfully alternates between quiet, wistful strumming and loud riff-and-drum passages, all with Plant’s yearning melody floating on top, as he sings “Then as it was, then again it will be / and though the course may change sometimes, rivers always reach the sea.”
28. Dazed and Confused | Led Zeppelin I (1969)
I predict that the placement of Dazed and Confused will cause some consternation. It’s a monumental song — some might argue that it’s the centerpiece of Led Zeppelin I, and one of their best tracks ever. I really like it, especially the round bass line that opens and anchors it, but as I’ve said here before, Zeppelin’s “slow” mode is not my favorite mode of theirs. I like the mid-tempo and fast ones best. But I have a lot of respect for the achievement of “Dazed and Confused.”
27. Fool in the Rain | In Through the Out Door (1979)
“Fool in the Rain” wins the award for “Song That Your Mom Loves but Has No Idea It’s by Led Zeppelin.” One of the two bright spots on In Through the Out Door (along with the aforementioned “All My Love”), this is Zeppelin’s delve into pure pop. Bonham’s inventive, swinging drum beat grounds the song as Plant sings one of his most infectious melodies.
26. Living Loving Maid (She’s Just a Woman) | Led Zeppelin II (1969)
As I mentioned before, this is the superior Part B to its predecessor on the album, “Heartbreaker.” The riff is excellent — perfect for a summer drive.
25. Achilles Last Stand | Presence (1976)
As a whole, Presence is an incredibly bland and hook-less album, but “Achilles Last Stand” is an epic, 10-minute exception. The drums and bass gallop along frantically, giving the song an urgent feel.
24. Houses of the Holy | Physical Graffiti (1975)
Somehow not on the actual album called Houses of the Holy, but still awesome nonetheless. It’s a bouncy song with a chugging riff and memorable, syncopated, almost-pop melody.
23. That’s the Way | Led Zeppelin III (1970)
“That’s the Way” is a first-class example of Zeppelin at their mystical, acoustic apex. It’s hard to hear this song without picturing Kate Hudson in Almost Famous, a true manic pixie dream girl in all her glory. This sweet, flower-child ballad perfectly mirrors the whimsical meandering of Cameron Crowe’s classic film.
22. No Quarter | Houses of the Holy (1973)
This is John Paul Jones’s showpiece. His eerie, wobbly keyboard riff at the beginning sets the tone for the ominous slow jam. As teenagers, my cousins and I made a dumb movie about a friend that gets kidnapped, and “No Quarter” was the song that soundtracked our dramatic “brooding” scenes, complete with purposeful slow-motion walking as we set out to find him. I’m not going to lie, it was awesome.
21. Babe I’m Gonna Leave You | Led Zeppelin I (1969)
There are a lot of artists that can claim connection to “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” and its chord progression. The song was originally written in the 1950s by Anne Bredon, a UC Berkeley student at the time (represent!), who first performed it on the storied Berkeley radio station KPFA. The song was popularized by folk legend Joan Baez, whose rendition served as the influence for Led Zeppelin’s take, but not before being interpreted as a bouncy dance by the Plebs and a psychedelic romp by Quicksilver Messenger Service.
Led Zeppelin’s haunting version is by far the most memorable — you can just feel the pain. Plant’s performance is especially impressive, most notably at 3:46 when he breaks out with “AAAHHHHH BAAA-BY, BAA-BY, BAA-BY.” They double down on the chord progression and emphasize it as the centerpiece of the song. You’ve probably heard the chord progression before in other iterations. Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4”? Check. Green Day’s “Brain Stew”? Check. The White Stripes’ “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground”? Check. Quite the influence this little song has had.
20. Your Time is Gonna Come | Led Zeppelin I (1969)
As someone who actually took formal pipe organ lessons, “Your Time is Gonna Come” has always represented something attainable for me. My guitar-playing is pretty mediocre, which severely limits my ability to play most Zeppelin songs myself. But the organ backbone on “Your Time is Gonna Come” is something I can actually play, and play well. As a teenager, I found the sheet music for it online and would play that riff on the church organ whenever I could. While my friends in high school were off playing in a heavy metal band that never required any keyboard parts, it was cool to hear (and play) a hard rock song with such a wicked organ part.
19. The Battle of Evermore | Led Zeppelin IV (1971)
“The Battle of Evermore” is the only Zeppelin song to feature a guest vocalist. It’s a duet between Plant and Sandy Denny, lead singer of the folk rock band Fairport Convention. The song is a beautiful slice of Celtic-sounding folk, with Page noodling on the mandolin and Plant and Denny seamlessly blending their voices together, telling a tale about a Queen of Light and Prince of Peace.
SHADOWS TALLER THAN OUR SOUL (18-1).
These 18 songs are epic and transcendent. They are the best of the best. They pierce the soul.
18. Black Dog | Led Zeppelin IV (1971)
“Black Dog” was probably many people’s introduction to Led Zeppelin, as the first cut on their most popular album. It’s built around the call and response of Plant’s yowls (“Hey hey mama said they way you move, gon’ make you sweat, gon’ make you groove!”) followed by that robust guitar/bass/drum chugging.
17. Tangerine | Led Zeppelin III (1970)
It never ceases to impress me how well Led Zeppelin could do both “crushing, mighty, electric rock” and “pensive, beautiful, acoustic folk-rock.” “Tangerine” is one of their most exquisite forays into acoustic folk-rock. The melody and harmonies are impeccable, the chords inherently nostalgic as Plant sings “I was her love, she was my queen, and now a thousand years in between.”
16. The Rain Song | Houses of the Holy (1973)
Legend has it that George Harrison once said he liked Led Zeppelin, but thought they should do more ballads. So in response, they recorded one of the best ballads ever, “The Rain Song” (and even paid tribute to him by leading off with the same two chords from the first line of “Something”). It’s easily the band’s most delicate, graceful, gorgeous song. The three most beautiful components are the acoustic guitar, the mellotron-strings sound, and the piano accents. They gracefully accompany Plant’s optimistic, poetic lyrics about getting through the rough patches in a relationship: “Upon us all, a little rain must fall.”
15. Hey Hey What Can I Do | No Album (1970)
This non-album track was recorded during the making of Led Zeppelin III, but was only released as a B-side to “Immigrant Song.” It’s crazy that a song that was treated like a throwaway stands as one of their best songs — it’s catchier than you expect it to be. Page plays a brilliant acoustic chord pattern as Plant laments, “I said I got a little woman and she won’t be true!”
14. Communication Breakdown | Led Zeppelin I (1969)
This is a huge personal favorite of mine. Clocking in at a brisk two minutes and 30 seconds, it gets in, blows your face off, and gets out. You can hear the beginnings of frenetic punk here. It’s absolutely invigorating.
13. Kashmir | Physical Graffiti (1975)
On paper, “Kashmir” is really not my type of song. It’s slow, long, and repetitive — it lacks any of the contrast or urgency of much of Zeppelin’s best work. But “Kashmir” is just so good. It puts you in a trance. There are three main riffs that serve as the anchors for the track, two ascending and one descending in almost perfect scales, with the strings and brass providing some needed accentuation.
12. The Song Remains The Same | Houses of the Holy (1973)
What an exhilarating way to open an album! Anyone who wondered how Led Zeppelin would follow up their massively successful Led Zeppelin IV record (home of “Stairway to Heaven”) received a swift answer when they put on Houses of the Holy and were greeted by the energetic bursts of “The Song Remains the Same.” As I’ve said here before (and will continue to say), Zeppelin were masters of contrast. This time, it’s the fast-paced, spirited intro and “California sunlight, sweet Calcutta rain” parts juxtaposed against the slow, melodic “I had a dream” parts.
11. Immigrant Song | Led Zeppelin III (1970)
Genius.com, the lyric aggregation and annotation website, transcribes the opening salvo — the piercing powerhouse of a shriek from Robert Plant — as “Ah, ah.” “Ah, ah???” How utterly pathetic. There is no possible way to undersell that opening line more. The annotation on Genius calls the “extended, melodic warcry” one of the most “memorable intros in rock.” That’s more like it. It’s a little more than “Ah, ah” — believe me.
One other item of note: Led Zeppelin is notoriously stingy with letting movies use their music (although it is known to happen, as I’ll discuss further down this list). In order to use “Immigrant Song” in that scene where they’re all driving in the van, the makers of School of Rock recorded Jack Black pleading with the members of Led Zeppelin to allow them the privilege.
10. Bring It On Home | Led Zeppelin II (1969)
The boys of Led Zeppelin have tons of tracks where they go fast, loud, all-out, full-steam-ahead for the full duration. The previous song on the list, “Immigrant Song,” is a good example. But as I continue to state, they are at their absolute best when they start a song one way and then completely change direction. A slow song that turns fast makes the ‘fast’ all that much sweeter. Songs can either change gradually, like “Stairway to Heaven” — or, they can change with a burst of ferocity, like “Bring It On Home.” The track opens with Plant soulfully playing the blues harmonica, like he’s sitting on the front porch at dusk. Then at 1:43, Page comes in with a blistering riff, Bonham pounds his snare drum twice, and then just like that, they’re firing on all cylinders. I honestly think that transition might be my favorite 10-second moment of any Led Zeppelin song ever.
9. Good Times Bad Times | Led Zeppelin I (1969)
When I was 13, one of the first CDs I ever bought with my own money was Early Days: The Best of Led Zeppelin, Volume 1, and the very first track was “Good Times Bad Times.” Besides what I heard on the radio or at friend’s houses, it was the first taste of Led Zeppelin I had ever sought on my own — the first song from the Hammer of the Gods to flow directly from my headphones to my head. The first two isolated guitar strums on “Good Times Bad Times” was a clarion call. Two strums were all I needed to be instantly hooked to this band (and Bonham’s relentless drum fills sealed the deal). Now, imagine hearing those strums in 1969, when this heavy brand of rock was completely uncharted territory. The Rolling Stones were masters at sneering, gritty rock and roll, but they were never this heavy. “Good Times Bad Times” introduced the world to the hardest rock on the planet.
8. When The Levee Breaks | Led Zeppelin IV (1971)
This is a prime example of a song that has grown on me over the last twelve years of Zeppelin fandom. When listening to Led Zeppelin IV, I was originally attracted to the ubiquitous riffs of “Black Dog” and “Rock and Roll” and the folky beauty of “Going to California.” I thought “When the Levee Breaks” was too long and monotonous. But since then, I’ve gained a deep love for the 7-minute behemoth. What did I say when I was talking about the repetitiveness of “Celebration Day” back in the doldrums of this list? Monotony works if the groove is good enough. Well, the groove on “When the Levee Breaks” is good enough. When cranked up to 11, Bonham’s steady but dominant drums and Page’s looping guitar put you in a blissful trance. This is Led Zeppelin at their most powerful.
7. Over The Hills And Far Away | Houses of the Holy (1973)
“Over the Hills and Far Away” is a seamless folk/hard rock crossover track. It’s melodic, bright, even hopeful sounding. I have fond memories of listening to this on my CD player and portable speakers during a high school band trip to northern California. It was the perfect soundtrack for good, carefree times with friends while driving on the Pacific coast.
6. Ramble On | Led Zeppelin II (1969)
Led Zeppelin ooze “cool,” but they were also huge nerds. Exhibit A: “Ramble On,” and their unabashed Tolkien fandom — “T’was in the darkest depths of Mordor, I met a girl so fair / But Gollum and the evil one crept up and slipped away with her.” But because Zeppelin could pull off anything in 1969, somehow it doesn’t come off as overly corny. Or maybe the song is just so good that it doesn’t even matter.
You can tell just from the opening acoustic strums that this song is special. The verses have a wide-eyed whimsy to them, brimming over with excitement and potential (and an exquisitely melodic bass line from Jones). Then the chorus unleashes with Plant’s yelp of “RAMBLE ON!” It’s another showcase for Zeppelin’s unparalleled aptitude for loud/soft contrasts.
5. The Ocean | Houses of the Holy (1973)
“We’ve done four already, but now we’re steady, and then they went: 1, 2, 3, 4.” That’s how John Bonham counts off to open “The Ocean.” Funnily enough, the main riff is not in 4/4 time, like most Zeppelin songs, but in 15/8. I have no idea how they pulled off 15/8 while making it sound so natural. Anyway, it’s hard to find a moment more pure and gut-punching than the transition at about 2:30. Plant is singing his sweet harmonies, a cappella. Then, a momentary silence before BOOM — Jimmy Page and John Bonham come crushing in, waking us up from our trance and tugging us back into the relentless riff and drum beat.
4. Going To California | Led Zeppelin IV (1971)
As a California native, I often think of this song when I’m away and longing for home. The wistful folk, built on Page’s acoustic guitar and Jones’s mandolin, conveys a deep sense of yearning. On the strength of the beautiful instrumental interplay alone, the song almost forces your mind to wander and daydream. But on top of all that intricate instrumental beauty lies Plant’s exquisite melody, especially when he punches up the intensity, singing “Took my chances on a big jet plane, never let ’em tell you that they’re ALL-ALL THE SAME!”
Rumor has it that Plant wrote the song about Joni Mitchell. He expressed slight embarrassment over the lyrics years later, but he also said that “it did sum up a period of my life when I was 22.” I mean, everyone feels 22 at some point. Capturing that feeling of hormones and emotions and infatuation is no small feat. Lines like “someone told me there’s a girl out there with love in her eyes and flowers in her hair” stay with you for a long time.
3. Whole Lotta Love | Led Zeppelin II (1969)
By this point, my opinion on the sound of Zeppelin’s second album, Led Zeppelin II, has become clear — it sounds effing amazing. Well, Led Zeppelin II‘s thesis statement is “Whole Lotta Love.” In fact, it’s probably the thesis statement for their whole career. All four members are in total lock-step. Page’s monumental guitar riff belongs in a museum. Plant’s desperate screech is like Wilt Chamberlain scoring 100 points, a triumph never to be matched by any other vocalist ever. Jones and Bonham wholly keep up with Page and Plant’s intensity from beginning to end. If we had a time capsule and were forced to select one Led Zeppelin song to include (hell, one rock and roll song to include), it’s gotta be “Whole Lotta Love.”
2. What Is and What Should Never Be | Led Zeppelin II (1969)
I’ve talked a lot about contrasts in Led Zeppelin’s music, both across their catalog (electric vs. acoustic) and within many of the songs themselves (like the calm-before-the-storm of “Bring It On Home”, the alternating “loud/soft” sections of “Ramble On”, or the “fast/slow” sections of “The Song Remains the Same”). “What Is and What Should Never Be” is the absolute pinnacle of contrast in their discography.
David O. Russell, one of my favorite modern directors, places huge importance on creating indelible musical moments in his films, paying close attention to selecting songs that will serve as the soundtrack. In Silver Lining’s Playbook, Russell plays “What Is and What Should Never Be” while Bradley Cooper’s character has a bipolar freakout because, according to Russell, it’s a “bipolar song.” (You can watch the scene here.)
Russell’s right — it is, indeed, a bipolar song. It opens quiet with Plant’s “And if I say to you tomorrow…” along with a breezy jam (Jones’s bass line really shines in the open space). Then all of a sudden, they dial it up and Plant starts his signature screech, before easing back gradually into the quiet. One of my many favorite parts of the song comes at 3:30 when they give themselves over completely to the “loud,” as the guitar riff alternates between the left and right speakers, spitting out two powerful strums at a time. It’s a complex, dynamic song, displaying the contrast that Zeppelin did better than anyone.
One other note: this is my wife’s favorite Led Zeppelin song. She has good taste.
1. Stairway To Heaven | Led Zeppelin IV (1971)
The most popular Led Zeppelin song by far, “Stairway to Heaven” has been a staple of classic rock radio and 70’s high school dances since its release. Perhaps you are disappointed or outright incredulous with this selection for number one — “it’s overplayed,” “it’s overrated,” “it’s the obvious choice,” etc. But I ask you to strip away the ubiquitous cultural phenomena that surround this song and judge it from a purely sonic context. There’s a reason that it has gained such notoriety. Let me make the case for why “Stairway to Heaven” is the greatest Led Zeppelin song of all time.
First, here are the basic elements of “Stairway to Heaven” that make it great:
- That beautiful, iconic, acoustic picking in the opening.
- The synthesized flutes, melding together in gorgeous two-part harmony.
- The mysticism and sense of wonder throughout.
- The first electric chord strum at 2:13. The song has a way of adding elements ever so gradually, at the perfect volume, at the perfect time.
- The yearning — “There’s a feeling I get when I look to the west, and my spirit is crying for leaving.”
- The exquisitely pretty, wordless part at 3:57. The purposeful guitar, the subtle keyboard accents, Plant’s muted “Oh-oo-whoa-oo-whoa-oo…” It’s a superb lead-in to one of my favorite moments…
- …when the drums come in for the first time at 4:18. It’s perfection. John Bonham is my favorite drummer ever, I just decided right now. No one had better drum fills.
- The strong backbeat at “Your head is humming and it won’t go.” It’s bouncy and catchy — impossible to not bob your head.
- When it completely changes pace at 5:33.
- The guitar solo.
- The drum fills during “When all are one and one is all, to be a rock and not to rolllllllll!” Again, like I said, NO ONE had better drum fills.
- The passion of the whole “AND AS WE WIND ON DOWN THE ROAD, OUR SHADOWS TALLER THAN OUR SOUL…” section. Such a satisfying climax.
- “And…she’s…buyyyyyyyy-ing a staaaaair-way….. to hea-vuh-uhnnn.”
- Despite its running time of 8 minutes and 2 seconds, it feels much shorter. It breezes by. Every verse, every chorus, every solo matters. There’s absolutely no fat on this song — it’s 8 minutes and 2 seconds of lean meat.
Second, there is a certain deleted scene from Cameron Crowe’s 2000 film Almost Famous, which tells the story of a young rock and roll fan named William who follows a fictitious band on tour to write about them for Rolling Stone in the early 1970s. It’s a movie about the joy of music, and no scene displays that unbridled joy quite like this one. William tries to explain his love of rock and roll to his straight-laced, disapproving mother (played by Frances McDormand) by putting “Stairway to Heaven” on the record player, with two other women and his sister’s ex-boyfriend — a lovable, Tom Brady-looking, 1971 bro if I ever saw one — in the room as well.
At the beginning, they sit there quietly and let the soft, acoustic opening sink in. As it slowly picks up intensity, William and especially the ex-boyfriend start getting into it, passionately air-drumming and air-guitaring along. It reminds me of listening to the car radio with my brother and sister, hurting my hands on the steering wheel with the force of my drumming. The sheer elation in the room is charming and infectious. If you haven’t air-drummed like 1971 Tom Brady before, then you haven’t lived. By the end, everyone is bobbing their head or tapping their limbs, including the resistant mother. She knows there’s magic there.
The scene isn’t the reason why I love “Stairway to Heaven.” But the scene embodies why I love “Stairway to Heaven” so much. It still gives me chills after double-digit views. Crank it up and let it wash over you.
Don’t let the hype ruin it for you. “Stairway to Heaven” is the greatest Led Zeppelin song ever, incessant radio plays and awkward school dances be damned!
That’s all of them! Here’s a very rudimentary visualization of the placement of the songs organized by album.
Here is some more random analysis of the rankings.
And here’s a Spotify playlist with the top 44 songs listed here. Thanks for reading!