Led Zeppelin are the archetypal hard rock band. They streamlined the sound of 1960s rock bands like Cream and The Who; an important innovation was John Bonham’s crisp, groove-based drumming, which contrasted with the busy style of The Who’s Keith Moon and Cream’s Ginger Baker. Led Zeppelin continuously delved into new styles – they emerged from The Yardbirds, a 1960s blues band, but they also explored English folk and progressive rock, and flirted with reggae and disco.
All four members were supremely talented – Jimmy Page was a brilliant guitarist, with many memorable riffs, but he was also an amazing producer, and Led Zeppelin’s albums still sound amazing. Robert Plant was a commanding front man, and Bonham’s powerful drumming propelled the band. John Paul Jones is often the overlooked member, but his bass playing was always excellent, and his skills on keyboards and other instruments coloured the band’s material.
The most important distinction in Led Zeppelin’s discography is that their work can be divided into two tiers – their first six studio albums are all essential, while their final two are worthwhile, but less focused and weaker. The group became distracted by external issues – Plant was involved in a serious car accident and lost a young son to a stomach virus, while Page and Bonham both struggled with addictions as the 1970s wore on. The group disbanded in 1980 after Bonham’s death.
Here are Led Zeppelin’s eight studio albums, ranked from worst to best.
#8 – In Through The Out Door
With Page and Bonham struggling with addictions, Plant and Jones were the main creative forces behind Led Zeppelin’s final studio album. In Through The Out Door opens with a reassuringly muscular Led Zeppelin rocker, ‘In The Evening’, but thereafter it largely stakes out new territory – the pop oriented ‘All Of My Love’, the Latin fusion on ‘Fool in the Rain’, and ten minutes of unwieldy disco-prog on ‘Carouselambra’.
#7 – Presence
After a series of triumphs, Led Zeppelin’s seventh album was disappointing. It features impressively tight playing from a well oiled group, but compared to previous albums, it’s light on great material. That’s certainly not true of the opener – the ten minute of ‘Achilles Last Stand’ are intense, and it ranks among the group’s very finest songs.
#6 – Led Zeppelin
We’re into Zeppelin’s heavy hitters now. Led Zeppelin’s blues-based debut has gained stature over the years, and it’s often cited as their second best album, behind 1971’s IV. I gravitate towards the band’s more expansive, creative later works, but there’s no denying the power of songs like ‘Dazed And Confused’ and ‘Good Times, Bad Times’. The gentle psychedelia of ‘Your Time Is Gonna Come’ has a 1960s flavour like nothing else in their catalogue.
#5 – Led Zeppelin IV
Led Zeppelin IV is the most highly regarded Led Zeppelin record – it houses their best known song, ‘Stairway to Heaven’. But ‘Stairway’, and the album’s other epic piece, the thumping blues closer ‘When The Levee Breaks’, tower over the remaining songs. Despite other excellent tracks, like the stop-start opener ‘Black Dog’ and the pretty, acoustic ‘Going To California’, but IV is one of Led Zeppelin’s less consistent efforts from their prime.
#4 – Led Zeppelin II
There’s a confident swagger to Led Zeppelin’s second album, with monstrous riff rockers like ‘Whole Lotta Love’ and ‘Heartbreaker’. The band are becoming more ambitious – ‘What Is and What Should Never Be’ is an excellent mini-epic. They embrace rock star moves like the long drum solo on ‘Moby Dick’.
#3 – Led Zeppelin III
Folk was always part of Led Zeppelin’s DNA; Robert Plant and John Bonham’s pre-Zeppelin band was called Obs-Tweedle, while Fairport Convention’s Sandy Denny appears on Led Zeppelin IV. Zep’s folk side is dominant on their third record – the mood is set by acoustic songs like ‘Tangerine’ and ‘Gallows Pole’. It’s not just folk though – there’s also the savage opener ‘Immigrant Song’ and the slow-burning blues ballad ‘Since I’ve Been Loving You’.
#2 – Physical Graffiti
The double album Physical Graffiti combines new songs with outtakes from previous records. It’s not flawless, but it has more top-drawer songs than any other Zeppelin album. There are epics; the huge blues of ‘In My Time of Dying’, the eastern-flavoured ‘In The Light’, and the pounding beat and strings of ‘Kashmir’. There’s also diversity; ‘Trampled Underfoot’ explores a Stevie Wonder funk groove, while the brief ‘Bron-Yr-Aur’ is a gorgeous guitar instrumental.
#1 – Houses of the Holy
Houses of the Holy is Led Zeppelin’s most relaxed and playful album. The James Brown parody ‘The Crunge’ and the reggae of ‘D’yer Maker’ are among the group’s most distracting detours, but they’re surrounded by stunning tracks. Opener ‘The Song Remains The Same’ layers squadrons of Jimmy Page guitar tracks, while ‘Over The Hills and Far Away’ blends acoustic folk and charging rock just as effectively as ‘Stairway to Heaven’. Houses of the Holy features two outstanding, moody progressive rock epics – ‘The Rain Song’ and ‘No Quarter’ – while closing ‘The Ocean’ is a terrific riff rocker.
Led Zeppelin’s catalogue is so strong that ranking their top six records is always contentious. Do you have a favourite? How would you rank them?