These are Led Zeppelin’s 11 best songs.
Let’s face it, Led Zeppelin will never reunite. However, this past year, Rhino Records reissued the band’s entire discography, complete with bonus CDs full of outtakes and live goodies.
Choosing just 10 Led Zeppelin songs is no small task. We ended up with 11 since there was a 3-way tie in our voting. Favorites such as “Tangerine,” “Houses of the Holy” and “Whole Lotta Love” didn’t make the cut, for example. But we feel the songs that did end up on the list represent the best of Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and John Bonham. Please feel free to comment, even create your own lists below. Here is ours.
Behold, the riff to rule them all. There were better guitar hooks before “Heartbreaker” (and most of them were the handiwork of Keith Richards) but Jimmy Page’s fretwork here was a breakthrough for Led Zeppelin. Taut, muscular and bouncy at once, it veered away from the slavish blues found on the band’s first album. It also became the gold standard, an object of study. Even Kurt Cobain, primarily a student of punk and college rock, covered “Heartbreaker” with only the slightest hint of irony and disdain.
There’s no denying the song’s force—or its ubiquity. Though one of the crunchiest rock tunes ever and despite its virtuosic (improvised) guitar-solo interlude, “Heartbreaker” remains pop music in the strictest sense. Short and bitter, it consolidated Led Zeppelin’s many strengths into a bite-sized product. And so it endures not only as a staple of classic-rock radio but an entryway to a more complex and varied catalog.
“Heartbreaker” long ago entered the pantheon of great songs, and its simplicity can be deceptive. As such, it’s easy to take for granted. Like all monumental works, returning to the source shakes away the cobwebs to reveal brilliance. Led Zeppelin would become grander, softer and weirder. They would punch harder still. But Page never matched the immediacy of “Heartbreaker,” his finest and most-inspired showcase.
10. “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You”
Early into their debut album, Led Zeppelin first blurred the line separating authorship and ownership, a problem that continues to dog their legacy. “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” — written in the late-‘50s by a Berkley student named Anne Bredon, and later popularized by Joan Baez—was shamelessly credited to “Trad. arr. Page” in Led Zeppelin’s liner notes. Blatant disregard to intellectual property notwithstanding, Zep’s version of “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” is, at the least, a master class in reinterpretation.
Though “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” stands as one of Led Zeppelin’s most intricate compositions, it endures as a triumph of studio production. Robert Plant’s pleading, and then roaring, vocal goes from sharp to reverberated. It’s woven through the swirling sonic mix, sometimes above, sometimes below. But it remains haunting throughout. The band’s steady technical command is breathtaking, especially as the song swerves into muddy (if not outright druggy) asides.
An acoustic-folk fantasia, peppered with ferocious electric interjections, “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” is a harrowing ode to love lost, and an unintentional parody of the rock-god lifestyle. It also offers a glimpse of what would come on subsequent Led Zeppelin albums. The first rung of their “Stairway to Heaven” was nailed into place here.
9. “Stairway to Heaven”
“‘Stairway to Heaven’ crystallized the essence of the band,” stated Jimmy Page during a 2008 interview. “It had everything there and showed the band at its best… as a band, as a unit. We were careful never to release it as a single. It was a milestone for us.” Despite never being released as a single stateside, the legendary cut would go on to become the most requested FM radio song of the 1970s. Primarily recorded by Page and Robert Plant at the secluded Bron-Yr-Aur in Wales, the working template of “Stairway to Heaven” was a fusion of various pieces of taped music that the cottage inspired. The progression between these segments, including one of music great guitar solos (5:34–6:44) is what would define the characteristic of the live staple.
Following hundreds of performances, the band began to grow tired of the track by 1975—Plant was the most vocal about his distaste for the track. But like a jilted ex-lover, the subsequent distant from the track only made the flames grow stronger. The track eventually making a resurgence in more recent Page & Plant tours and Led Zeppelin reunion dates.
Writer and critic Erik Davis described pop culture’s infatuation with the track most brilliantly: “Think about it: we are all sick of the thing, but in some primordial way it is still number one. Everyone knows it… Even our dislike and mockery is ritualistic. The dumb parodies; the Wayne’s World-inspired folklore about guitar shops demanding customers not play it; even Robert Plant’s public disavowal of the song—all of these just prove the rule. “Stairway to Heaven” is not just number one. It is the One, the quintessence, the closest AOR will ever get you to the absolute.”
8. “Dazed and Confused“
Calling Led Zeppelin “deconstructionists” implies an artier and less accessible band than they actually were, but the term truly fit on their self-titled 1969 debut. “Dazed and Confused” renders an innocent, folky 1967 cut from singer-songwriter Jake Holmes as a rickety, multi-part monster dripping with dread and paranoia. Every part of “Dazed and Confused” builds up to the next until it all comes tumbling down after a heart-racing fast section that comes out of nowhere and might still catch listeners off-guard on the fiftieth listen. This is a song in perpetual, thrilling flux. And it all sounds like it’s recorded in a cavern.
In retrospect, “Dazed and Confused” is a bit damning. Jimmy Page never properly credited Holmes until 2012, and most rock fans still know it as an original. It’s also one of Zep’s most misogynistic songs—“the soul of a woman was created below,” Robert Plant whines, a line not on the Holmes version. But it’s also one of the most impressive demonstrations of Zeppelin’s creative-destructive approach to their influences. Page heard a horror on Holmes’ song that might not have been apparent to most listeners and drew out of it one of Zep’s most frightening songs, both in power and atmosphere. And Plant could always reliably contribute by turning his blues knob up to eleven. Zeppelin would go on to make far more mature works than “Dazed and Confused,” but perhaps no song in their oeuvre as effectively demonstrates what makes them stand out.
7. “Rock and Roll”
Believe it or not, there was a time when “Rock and Roll” was more than just a tool for selling Cadillacs. The once ubiquitous “Break Through” ad campaign ended some years ago, though, so as memories of the song’s corruption into a shallow capitalistic tool fade, it becomes much easier to appreciate what a shot upside the head of good old-fashioned (and aptly titled) rock ‘n roll muscle it is. The result of an impromptu jam arising from the recording of the far inferior “Four Sticks,” the song is atypical in Zeppelin’s canon in its straightforward musical and lyrical approach. This is especially refreshing on an album as heavily steeped in Robert Plant’s Tolkien fetish as IV. Oh sure, Page’s metallic boogie riffing and Bonzo’s famous rolling drum intro and closing fill are exponential levels of heaviness beyond the old Little Richard records the song is modeled after. But there’s an extra ingredient to “Rock And Roll” that Zeppelin’s records didn’t usually benefit from—pounding piano from longtime Rolling Stones sideman and stage manager Ian Stewart, who also appeared on Physical Graffiti’s transparently titled “Boogie With Stu.” Stu grounds the track in a manner that prevents Zeppelin’s tendency toward excessive grandiosity from overselling what is essentially a basic 12-bar blues, without getting in the way of the band’s steamrolling hard rock power.
6. “Ramble On”
For all of Zep’s adventure inspiring songs, nothing quite has the joyous energy of “Ramble On.” Yes, it’s the visions of The Shire, the famously clacking percussion and Page’s autumnal guitar playing, but “Ramble On” is owned by the back and forth perfection of Bonham and Jones. Jones was often the odd man out, taking a back seat to his flashier bandmates, but “Ramble On” is his. His bass flips from chugging to melodic in seconds, creating a rippling effect that allows “Ramble On” to be both jittery and gorgeous. Page’s guitar might bend and glitter, but Jones’ bass is the earthy center. And Bonham shows off a more restrained side, complimenting Jones as much as possible. The trash can banging line that’s become so iconic is a crucial part to the song’s charm, but when Bonzo broke out the full kit, he crashed into the song with vigor.
Despite Plant’s wailing about the “darkest depths of Mordor,” “Ramble On” (along with its spiritual brother “Over the Hills and Far Away”) is a shimmering example of how light and breezy Zep could be. Well, as light and breezy as a tale this epic can be. Perfect to usher in the fall or for your next dragon slaying session.
5. “Good Times Bad Times”
Interestingly enough, Led Zeppelin’s first single, and the first song on their debut album, might be one of least Led Zeppelin-sounding songs they ever released. Compared to the epic grandeur of “Stairway To Heaven” or the sonic experimentation of “Whole Lotta Love,” “Good Times Bad Times” is startlingly conventional, sounding like it could have been a leftover Jimmy Page brought in from the defunct Yardbirds (though John Paul Jones takes credit for the song’s riff). For instance, at a mere two minutes and forty-six seconds, it’s one of the very few sub-three minute Zeppelin songs, and Plant sings the whole thing in a much lower register than we would soon become used to, only reaching up, tentatively, into his famous castrato range during the coda.
However, while “Good Times Bad Times” might not be the most archetypal Led Zeppelin song, there’s an argument to be made that it is the best. When not viewed as a primer for everything that came after, and just as a standalone single, it’s a virtually perfect melding of hard rock, blues, and pop. The intro alone is genius; its slamming guitar chords and increasingly complex drum figure managing to build up unbearable anticipation for the thing to explode in no less than 11 seconds. Meanwhile, the chorus is the most unapologetically melodic in the band’s catalog. But the real star of the show here, as it so often is, is Page’s solo, a wild yet perfectly contained torrent of shrieking shockwaves of runs around the top of the guitar neck. Its entrance into the mix is spine-tingly powerful, and ensures that even if the song itself is conventional, the delivery sure isn’t.
4. “Black Dog”
Lukewarm reviews of the largely acoustic-based III meant that Zeppelin had to prove they could still rock with their follow-up album. That seems absurd in retrospect, of course, but imagine being a Zeppelin fan in 1971, dropping the needle on IV and being greeted with “Black Dog”’s pounding riff – relief might have been a reasonable thing to feel, possibly followed by a burning desire to play the shit out of some air guitar.
The song’s enigmatic title refers to a mangy old canine that was roaming around Headley Grange, the site of the bulk of Zeppelin’s ‘70s recording sessions, during IV’s conception (good thing, too, because the song just wouldn’t be nearly as cool if it were called “Hey Baby, Woah Baby, Pretty Baby”). Musically, it doesn’t seem quite so mysterious at first blush—the call and response pattern between the vocal and the band was probably nicked from an old John Lee Hooker record or something—but the tricky, seemingly constantly shifting time signature allows Page to keep winding the main riff back around itself, never letting it get repetitive. But let’s be real that’s all just build up to Page’s eventual minute-and-a-half long solo, which might very well be his best. Plant adds an undertaste, mostly by moaning unintelligible syllables behind the mic, but also by unleashing his most chill-inducing banshee wail at the 3:47 mark, sounding like he had a school of rabid piranhas chewing at his nuts. –
3. “Immigrant Song”
There is something truly animalistic in nature about 1970’s “Immigrant Song”. The combination of Jimmy Page’s staccato riffs and Robert Plant’s wailing cries triggering some human qualities that have laid dormant in many since the fall of the Viking class. All due respect to “Whole Lotta Love” and “Good Times Bad Times”, but “Immigrant Song” kicked off this third full-length effort with an energy all its own.
After touring through Iceland and Germany in the early months of 1970, the narrative of “Immigrant Song” evolved quickly. A simplistic ode to Viking culture and the Norse Gods, the single would go on to inspire countless bands in the metal realms. A major sentiment given this was Led Zeppelin’s most acoustic-forward albums to date.
Sitting at the front of the album, “Immigrant Song” also foreshadowed the album’s multiple adaptations on folk sounds and their lore (e.g. “Gallows Pole,” “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp” and “Friends). Arriving in the wake of a terrible year in Vietnam and the end of the 1960’s, the single caught young Americans in an era when seemingly everyone was uprooting and re-evaluating their path as a human being. Disentangled from the former status quo, even American-born citizens felt like immigrants in this new reality. The album closing with a powerful line that still holds weight today: “For peace and trust can win the day despite of all your losing.” Peace should ALWAYS win out over fear.
Rock ‘n roll has a long, proud history of apocalyptic tunes. From Sabbath’s “War Pigs” to Queens of the Stone Age’s “I Appear Missing,” the end times has always been a fertile topic in the world of electrified guitars. But, despite plenty of competition, “When the Levee Breaks” is undoubtedly the king of all rapturous rock.
The original was written in 1929 by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie in reaction to the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. Zeppelin with their Asgardian and Tolkien based visions, made McCoy and Minnie’s sorrows into something more biblical. Page’s guitars are all desperate honkey-tonk, Plant brings angelic wailings and the haunting harmonica lick is the thread to the song’s deep south origins.
But really when you’re diving head first into “When the Levee Breaks” you’re hear for the drums. The thunderous twack and thud of John Bonham has been sampled to death over the decades, but the original track still contains an amazing, loping power that controls the entire song. It’s not flashy like “Moby Dick” or as rambunctious as “Ramble On,” but for sheer power, it might just be the finest drum performance of Bonham’s career. This is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but with a booming sound the size of the Mississippi river.
“Kashmir” is eight-and-a-half minutes long and contains a string section, a brass section, lyrics about traveling through space and time, and some of the most orgasmic high notes in all of rock. And yet it somehow manages to stay grounded. The appeal of “Kashmir” doesn’t come from its indulgences but from earthier things–John Bonham’s relentless drums, its gradual build, those weird, squiggling violin riffs, Robert Plant’s soaring vocals. “Kashmir” is still Plant’s number one choice of Zeppelin song to perform, and it’s easy to see why: he’s clearly having a blast. Listen to him sing “my Shangri-La beneath the summer moon”–he seems to unfurl his tongue to catch every last drop of the language. His joy is infectious.
“Kashmir” is oft-cited as one of Zeppelin’s most progressive songs. Indeed, it has more in common with the pulp epics of bands like the Van Der Graaf Generator than anything else in the Zep discography. Prog will always be a bit ridiculous in part because stereotypes about it abound, and a lot of those stereotypes have to do with songs like “Kashmir.” But it’s a testament to Led Zeppelin’s talent that “Kashmir” doesn’t seem absurd in the least. Critics are wont to defend this sort of head-in-the-clouds rock with backhanded compliments like “over-the-top.” “Kashmir” stands purely on its own musical merit, and it should silence anyone who sees excess as grounds to dismiss certain strains of rock as kitsch.