One of the biggest, baddest and most comprehensively brilliant bands to have ever graced the earth, Led Zeppelin, created some stellar songs in their day. The band, comprised of Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Bonham and John Paul Jones, made a significant impact on the world of music and delivered it all within a comparatively small set of songs. Just over seventy tracks can be attributed to the band’s famous line-up and, when you compare that to Pink Floyd’s 165-song contribution or The Beatles’ whopping 300+, you get a sense that the band were after quality, not quantity.
Formed in 1968, after the mercurial talent of Page saw him go in search of a new band, having seen The Yardbirds fall apart, Led Zeppelin quickly made waves as one of the most buccaneering rock and roll acts around. Recruiting Plant, Bonham and Jones, the group found their name thanks to Keith Moon, who said their new band would go down like “a lead balloon“.
Led Zeppelin were quickly signed up as part of the growing roster of rock acts on Atlantic Records, a label that would prove to be a happy home for the swashbuckling band. The band toured relentlessly and refined the idea of a rock show like no other band had done before them. With their touring schedule, the group showcased a vision of the future and laid the blueprints for most modern rock shows as we know them today.
Though the band spent a few years in comparative obscurity, eventually, the world caught on, and Led Zeppelin became one of the biggest bands the world had ever seen. Their live shows became more and more epic while their albums matched their growing vision and enlargening egos, doing what most bands can only hope to achieve: walking the walk and talking the talk.
But, as ever, the legacy of live shows will always wane with the passing of time and the fading of memories. What’s left for fans in the 21st-century to appreciate is the studio albums they left behind and the songs they adorned them with. As such, we’re picking out our ten favourites below as a reminder of the band’s brilliance.
Led Zeppelin’s 10 best songs:
10. ‘When the Levee Breaks’
By 1971, the act of English rock bands taking on old blues cuts was becoming an overdone thing. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones had already strangled much of the Delta blues for their finest tunes. Yet, Page, Jones, Plant, and Bonham took on ‘When The Levee Breaks’ with a renewed vigour. It sits on this list for some of John Bonham’s most dominating set of drum sounds.
Recorded in a stairwell to gather that muffled and echoing drum sound, Bonham is powerful and commanding on every beat. So much so that Page and co. built the song around it.
Taken from the band’s sophomore album ‘Heartbreaker’ has a habit of dividing fans as it lands heavily on the instrumental side of things. As well as Page’s huge solos, the song is imbued with a rhythm section intent on killing every beat in front of them. In truth, the music acts as a reminder of the talent of Robert Plant.
The thing is, while singer Plant’s contributions to the song are somewhat minimal in comparison to others, it is a testament to Plant’s ability to completely transform any song he is on into the Robert Plant Show. So powerful and far-reaching are his lines that we could listen to Plant singing this on his own, with no backing, and still be pleased.
8. ‘Good Times Bad Times’
Another cut from Led Zeppelin II sees the drummer reigning supreme over the band. Within the song, Bonham displays all the mind-blowing speed and technique of a superhero as he took Vanilla Fudge drummer Carmine Appice’s technique of 16th-note triplets to make this one memorable moment for the band. But while Appice used a double kick drum, Bonham trained his right foot to move double speed to complete the technique.
Not only did he double his efforts in that department, but Bonham also demonstrated his unique position within the band too. In a band with one of the best rock singers of all time being backed by one fo the best rock guitarists of all time, it can be easy for the rhythm section to take a back seat. This was not in Bonzo’s vocabulary.
On ‘Good Times Bad Times’ he puts the drums on equal footing with the rest of the group and superbly executes every moment.
7. ‘Communication Breakdown’
While every Led Zeppelin song was geared towards getting the best out of the band, this is Page at his most deliberate and punchy — delivering a short but sweet right cross that landed on most people’s chin in 1969 with a power as yet unparalleled. It does help that the song is also an early anthem of the band’s incendiary beginnings.
Explaining his technique to Guitar Player magazine in 1977, Page said: “I put it in a small room, a tiny vocal booth-type thing and miked it from a distance. You see, there’s a very old recording maxim that goes, ‘Distance makes depth.’ I’ve used that a hell of a lot on recording techniques with the band generally, not just me. You’re always used to them close-miking amps, just putting the microphone in front, but I’d have a mic right out the back, as well, and then balance the two, to get rid of all the phasing problems; because really, you shouldn’t have to use an EQ in the studio if the instruments sound right.”
“It should all be done with the microphones. But see, everyone has gotten so carried away with EQ pots that they have forgotten the whole science of microphone placement. There aren’t too many guys who know it. I’m sure Les Paul knows a lot; obviously, he must have been well into that, as were all those who produced the early rock records where there were one or two mics in the studio.”
6. ‘Black Dog’
For us, this is Led Zeppelin at the magical best. While Robert Plant delivers vocal licks that would make a Nun shudder, Bonham pounds out his kit like a furious butcher, John Paul Jones brings the groove and Jimmy Page weaves a delicate tapestry of steel intertwining them all. And that’s just the first 30 seconds of 1971’s ‘Black Dog’.
The sounds at the beginning of the song are Page warming up his guitar something which he called: “Waking up the army of guitars.”
The fact that Page waits until the end of the song to deliver his crescendoing guitar solo shows what an expert eye he had for song construction. Marvel below:
5. ‘Immigrant Song’
The first track of the band’s third album, ‘Immigrant Song’ came out of the traps with a fire in its belly and one of Plant’s finest performances on record. While lyrically, Plant doesn’t have much to contend with, his transformative “Ahhhhh” will go down in history as one of the most iconic rock moments of all time.
Plant is on fire throughout the song, hitting notes that only dogs can process while also possessing all of the malicious intent that Lucifer himself would be proud of. Equally, it is some of jimmy Page’s finest work, dragging his solo from the pits of hell up to the heavens.
Even some 50 years on, this song is still a meaningful and overbearing powerhouse of a rock anthem — an absolute monster.
4. ‘Ramble On’
The vision for ‘Ramble On‘ was one of fantasy from Robert Plant, who had become inspired by the work of J.R.R. Tolkein and makes reference with the lyrics “the darkest depths of Mordor” and “Gollum and the evil one”. It’s a section of lyrics that Plant later confessed to being embarrassed about.
One of Zeppelin’s more obviously joyous songs, the upbeat tone of the cut is perfectly complimented by Page’s silky solo, which saunters around the one minute 47-second mark. Another effervescent jangle comes through before the end, adding the perfect punctuation.
It’s the kind of song that showcases that the perception of Led Zeppelin as a hard-hitting rock band was only part of the truth.
3. ‘Stairway to Heaven’
There likely isn’t much more we can tell you about ‘Stairway to Heaven’ that you don’t already know. A song as ubiquitous as ‘Happy Birthday’, the track has now been widely derided, even by the band’s singer, who once paid $10,000 for a radio station never to play it again. However, to ignore the track’s brilliance is to ignore a piece of history.
It would be impossible to ignore the sheer weight and gravitas that ‘Stairway To Heaven’ holds. It’s easy to fall in love with ‘Stairway’; after all, it’s eight minutes of pure songwriting brilliance. Lyrically abstract and musically complete, the fact we have Plant’s tender vocals is the cherry on top of the hefty Bonham, Page and Jones cake.
Of course, Page’s solo will go down in history, but it is the collection of the group’s efforts that really shine.
To disagree with the placement of ‘Kashmir’ on this list would be to disagree with the entire band. Jimmy Page and Robert Plant have both publically called the song their favourite, while it also remains a joyful moment for most diehard fans.
“It’s difficult to be asked, ‘What’s your favourite Zeppelin track?’ They all were,” Page told Fricke of Rolling Stone with a knowing buoyance. “They were all intended to be on those albums.” But he decided to narrow it down soon after. “I suppose ‘Kashmir’ has to be the one,” he said.
‘Kashmir’ had begun its life during some sessions at Headley Grange in 1973 where Page and Zep’s drummer John Bonham, “It’s the first thing I ran through with Bonzo,” Page said. “I just know that [Bonham] is gonna love it, and he loves it, and we just play the riff over and over and over, because it’s like a child’s riff,” Page remembered.
It’s one of the band’s undying anthems and a bastion of what made Led Zeppelin one of the world’s greatest bands.
1. ‘Whole Lotta Love’
When anyone thinks of rock behemoths Led Zeppelin quite often the first song that will come to their mind is the 1969 smash ‘Whole Lotta Love’. The song acts as the perfect example of the bruising musicianship at the centre of the group. All four members were experts in their field.
The opening track for the band’s second album, Led Zeppelin II, flies out of the traps like a greyhound with a riff-fuzzing bottle rocket in the wrong end. Jimmy Page’s guitar sound would go on to define a generation—raucous, unrestrained and unflinching, it drives the whole song and much of the decade that followed.
Backed amply by the crashing power of Jon Bonham’s drums and the definitive bassline of the decade from John Paul Jones, the track is a thing of unbridled beauty. However, above all else, Plant’s vocal on ‘Whole Lotta Love’ is what sets it apart. It is the performance of a supreme singer, it is a performance of epic proportions, it, essentially, makes the track what it is.