Find all my reviews of Led Zeppelin’s studio albums here:
Led Zeppelin albums released in 1969:
If Truth is the point at which British Blues begins to turn into Heavy Metal, this record, in many ways a blatant copycat of Truth, is the point when that process is complete. Yes, they’re still playing the blues sometimes, but it’s slower and louder than ever before in Britain – louder than Truth. Only Blue Cheer in the States had played slower and louder earlier, and Blue Cheer still had enough psychedelic effects to confuse you as to what you were listening to. (Also, this band is a lot more musically accomplished than Blue Cheer.) When they aren’t playing blues, they sometimes play fast, loud rock with virtually no precedent in British rock music – Hendrix without the effects but faster and more primitive. And then they indulge in folk, just like Jeff Beck.
The result is a clear dividing line between what came before and what comes after. You can justly quibble with calling Truth metal. You can maybe quibble with calling Blue Cheer metal. But you can’t quibble with Zeppelin being called metal. (Unless, of course, you’re one of those people who think NWOBHM invented metal, or Sabbath did on their third record, or whatever. The former claim is idiotic – it’s called the “New Wave” because it wasn’t first – and the latter claim is revisionist – music evolves slowly.)
Obligatory mention that Page stole many of his riffs and melodies from other songwriters and his act of pretending he can’t remember doesn’t fool anyone. Also obligatory mention that Robert Plant stole the vast majority of “his” lyrics in the early years from blues songs.
Led Zeppelin II (10/10)
Led Zeppelin’s second album is considerably less ambitious than their debut record, though it is considerably less derivative of Truth as well. (I was going to say more “original” but that would get confusing given how many of these songs are partially or completely stolen from other people.) It’s also more musically consistent, if that was a problem with the first. (I don’t think it was.) So you’d think I’d like it less.
But the thing is, this one is considerably more assured. The band has grown considerably as songwriters/song thieves, and Robert Plant writes lyrics now instead of just stealing them, though he still steals them too! But they’ve grown as a band too and Page has improved as a producer. Basically everything about the record is better except for its lack of ambition.
A bunch of my favourite Zeppelin songs are here and there’s a stretch of this record that feels like it’s practically greatest hits – only interrupted by one of their worst songs ever, “Living Loving Maid”. (Page agrees with me, apparently, as he refused to play it live, supposedly.)
Though there are aspects of the first record that are better – it’s more ambitious, it’s more diverse – I think this record might be a superior listening experience, even if it’s not quite as influential and important.
1970″ Led Zeppelin III (10/10)
Full disclosure: this is my favourite Zeppelin album and I’m not sure I can be 100% objective about it.
Apparently when this was released, it threw fans and critics for a loop. People had been expecting…oh, I don’t know. But what they weren’t expecting was a whole side devoted to, as some believed at the time, sub-CSNY/Grateful Dead type “acoustic music.” The idea that a) Zeppelin had never played any folk songs before CSNY did, or that b) these songs are somehow not as good, is kind of bizarre, but apparently that’s what some people thought. Also, this “criticism” (if it is a criticism, it’s a lazy one) ignores the first side of the record completely.
“Immigrant Song” is, in addition to being their first overt flirtation with Vikings (if memory serves), their most concise single and one of the few Zeppelin “rock” songs to not have a guitar solo. It’s pretty close to perfect for a hard rock song, despite its brevity (or, perhaps, because of it) and despite that lack of solo.
“Friends” is the first hint that this album isn’t going to be like the first two, as it features acoustic guitars and a string section! (The only time ever, I believe.) Jones always got the short end of the stick, and here is another example. This song works because of that string section.
“Celebration Day” is one of their most manic songs and the moog part that runs from “Friends” into it is perhaps the only time they’ve done something like that. Is this Plants most positive lyrics ever?
Even though “Since I’ve Been Loving You” was stolen from Moby Grape, like every other song they stole – pretty much – Zeppelin manages to take what was an alright song an elevate it to a classic. This has to be one of their top couple studio performances ever, featuring perhaps the best solo of Page’s career. Everything is note perfect, including the squeak of the drum.
“Out on the Tiles” is my least favourite song on the record. Even though it is “pummeling” as everyone notes, it’s kind of one note, in my mind, and just doesn’t do anything for me. But, if this is an album’s worst song…well, they’re doing pretty good.
The arrangement of “Gallows Pole” feels like it has become the definitive “rock” version of the song. It’s an elaborate recording, but it’s probably one of the few times I don’t find Page’s production quite good enough. (I should listen to the remaster, obviously.) There’s so much going on here and I love it, I just wish it didn’t sound quite so thin. The arrangement is fantastic and a great example as to how Page could assemble so many guitars (and similar instruments) to essentially create an orchestra.
“Tangerine” is cool in part because of the use of the synthesizer on the guitar solo, but also because of the heavy country vibe, which hadn’t yet made its way into Zeppelin’s sound. Plant is particularly strong on this one.
“That’s the Way” used to be one of my favourite songs. It’s one of these songs where the arrangement feels perfectly suited to the material – though I really don’t hear that dulcimer, if it’s there – and I love how the bass and tambourine come in at the end to sort of finish things off, like icing on a cake.
“Bron-Y-Aur Stomp” is probably the second best performance on the record, despite the rather sentimental lyrics about Plant’s dog. Page has rarely been better as a performer – or a producer, listen for the mistakes he left in – and Jones’ use of a unique bass guitar helps add a uniqueness to this recording.
The last song feels like filler sometimes. It’s a tribute to Bukka White more than it is Roy Harper – I’ve yet to hear a recording of Harper’s where he sounds like this – but it is among their most traditional blues recordings and a fitting capper to one the most adventurous sides in the then brief history of hard rock music.
I understand that Zeppelin has probably released better records, but for me, this is the one that resonates the most. It’s my favourite and will likely remain that.
1970: Led Zeppelin IV aka [Four Symbols] (10/10)
This is not my favourite Zeppelin album. It’s my 4th or 5th favourite. But, putting aside personal preference, it’s hard to disagree that it’s their best record and among the very best hard rock (or early metal) albums ever made.
There’s no filler here; the only filler is maybe “Misty Mountain Hop” and “Four Sticks,” the latter of which I like and the former of which I like part of, and either of which would pass as quality tracks on any of their other albums.
And there’s the symmetry of the record, unlike any other Zeppelin record: each side unfolds the same way, starting with two hard rock/rock and roll songs (that are also shockingly funky), giving way to pure folk music, followed up with perhaps the two most epic tracks in Zeppelin history. If we can put aside Zeppelin’s awful habit of stealing the music of others, there is nothing else like this in early hard rock. (And, even if we must obsess over the fact that both “Stairway” and “Levee” are, at best, inspired by other music or, at worst, stolen outright, they are better than the originals, by leaps and bounds.) These two tracks are the epitome of Zeppelin; they would reach these peaks again, but I don’t know that they ever did so twice on the same record. (Maybe on Physical Graffiti.)
This might be the greatest hard rock album ever. It’s certainly a candidate. But it definitely isn’t my favourite.
1973: Houses of the Holy (10/10)
Though not considered the classic the last record was, this is one of my favourite (perhaps my favourite) Zeppelin records. (In part because it was my first, I think.) Also, if you were to put a gun to my head, I might argue it’s their best (depending upon my mood).
This is the first Zeppelin album where they thought they could do everything: from borderline prog rock (“The Song Remains the Same” and “No Quarter”) to ballads!!! (“The Rain Song”) to funk (“The Crunge”) to reggae (“D’yer Mak’er”). And two of the three more traditional Zeppelin songs are among their best ever (“Over the Hills and Far Away” and, my personal favourite, “The Ocean”). Though it might all sound like Zeppelin to us now, in 1973 it was a bold left turn. So bold, in fact, that a lot of people didn’t like it. (Witness the hilarious contemporary Rolling Stone review from one Gordon Fletcher, who seems to have awarded the album zero stars because it doesn’t sound enough like “”Communication Breakdown,” “Heartbreaker” and “Black Dog.”” Seriously.)
If I were to make a case for Zeppelin as the best “hard rock”/early metal band, this record would be among the couple records that I would present.
1975: Physical Graffiti (10/10)
I have been listening to this album for nearly two decades at this point, so it is way too close to my heart. But, on the occasion of its 40th anniversary, I am going to try to review it.
This is not Zeppelin’s very best record – it’s a little too spotty – and it’s not my favourite either. But I think it might be the most Zeppelin of Zeppelin albums. Nearly everything they did is available here:
- it’s got some of their very loudest material, and some of their poppiest;
- their longest songs and also their shortest;
- some of their flirtations with folk and country and tracks with ten (!!!) guitar overdubs;
- it contains some of their most mature, original compositions, and still has its share of rip-offs of other people’s work; despite being a showcase of Page’s abilities as a producer,
- it’s probably an even better showcase of how great a drummer Bonham was;
- it contains both new material and a host of outtakes from the last three albums;
Everything about the band is encapsulated here. If someone didn’t believe me about Zeppelin’s diversity I would point them to this record. If someone didn’t believe me that you could dance to Zeppelin (not that I do), I would point them to this record. (It’s their funkiest by far, I think.)
It’s a shame that so many metal bands either don’t like Zeppelin (not metal enough) or ignore the lessons; numerous good bands could benefit from following Zeppelin’s example of eclecticism and its on this album that that eclecticism is on its fullest display.
1976: Presence (7/10)
The anniversary came up again and yet again I just couldn’t justify talking about it on the podcast. It’s their simplest record (minus “Achilles’ Last Stand”) and it shows they can do just that one thing as well as anyone. But it’s also their most boring album.
7/10 feels kind of charitable, no?
1979: In Through the Out Door (6/10)
I wrote: Synths shouldn’t replace guitars, no matter how much I like JPJ.
Not much of a review. I think 6/10 might be charitable but the best stuff here is arguably better than anything on Presence other than “Achilles’ Last Stand.”
1982: Coda (6/10)
As a teen, I was just happy for another Zeppelin album. But if I’m fair, this is not only merely a rarities album (albeit one with mostly pretty good stuff) but it is a rarities album that somehow managed to omit some major rarities. For example, “Hey, Hey What Can I Do.” And at least five other songs that could have been released in place of a live version (or soundcheck or whatever) of a song we’ve already heard.
So again, 6/10 feels charitable.