Led Zeppelin — to paraphrase a quote from a character in a movie named after one of their songs — keeps on getting older, and yet their fans stay the same age.
Formed in 1968 by a hotshot guitarist named Jimmy Page, Zeppelin put out eight albums over the course of a dozen years, until the death of drummer John Bonham ended the band in 1980. In subsequent years, Page and singer Robert Plant have occasionally collaborated, both as a duo and as a reunited trio (for one concert in 2007) with bassist John Paul Jones. Otherwise, Zeppelin has been grounded for more than 40 years. And yet, at this very moment, they remain one of the most popular rock bands on the planet. You can measure this by any number of metrics — record sales, streams, radio airplay, blacklight posters hanging in head shops, and so on. Even as so many bands of their generation slowly fade into history, it seems that there’s always a new subset of teenagers every year who decide they will be obsessed with Led Zeppelin right as their hormonal activity reaches its zenith.
To figure out why this is, we need to look back on their 50 greatest songs. What, exactly, are Zeppelin’s 50 greatest songs, and who decided this anyway? I’ll answer the second part first: Me. I did it. And I took it seriously. I’m giving you every inch of my Zeppelin opinions here.
Do you need cooling? Baby I’m not fooling. I’m gonna send you back to schooling — Zeppelin schooling that is. Here are my 50 favorite Led Zeppelin songs of all time.
50. “The Wanton Song”
The Beatles had the best songs. The Rolling Stones were the coolest. U2 was more successful over a longer period of time. But in terms of A-list classic rock bands, no one is more viscerally exciting than Led Zeppelin. This is music that communicates directly to the most primal and non-intellectual parts of your body with greater and more devastating eloquence than anything in rock ‘n’ roll. It’s a force that hits you with unmatched power, starting with John Bonham’s unparalleled drumming, extending from John Paul Jones’ extremely deep bass grooves, carrying over to Robert Plant’s seductively keening vocals, and brought on home by Jimmy Page’s battalion of violently electrifying guitar riffs. It’s the heaviest sound but it’s not bludgeoning — in fact, it’s nimble and funky, like a dancer who also happens to be a serial killer. You put on “The Wanton Song” and it sounds like how you wish all rock bands sounded. Led Zeppelin endures because all of those other bands haven’t succeeded.
49. “Traveling Riverside Blues”
Led Zeppelin is also the most complicated classic rock band, in that if you know anything at all about them, you are aware of some pretty despicable aspects of their career and legacy. Let’s begin with their long and undistinguished history of pilfering Black music and making millions off of it. Blues history of course is ultimately a tale about artists drawing from the same well, re-using the same raw musical and lyrical materials in novel ways. The obvious difference with Zeppelin is how much wealthier they became from drawing on this tradition. But any attempt to dismiss them in retrospect as mere rip-off artists breaks down once you hear “Traveling Riverside Blues.” Originally written by Robert Johnson, it didn’t appear on a proper Zeppelin album until the 1990 Led Zeppelin box set. It also doesn’t sound much at all like Robert Johnson, a man whose every utterance on record is laced with a profound sense of doom. Zeppelin’s “Traveling Riverside Blues” however is positively ebullient. Think of the most charismatic person you’ve ever encountered, and remember how their incredible sense of confidence lifted you up like a wave. That’s what this song feels like. That magnetic swaggering arrogance is Zeppelinesque through and through.
48. “Tea For One”
A different kind of Zeppelin blues, from their first non-masterpiece, 1976’s Presence. “Tea For One” doesn’t telegraph a feeling of strength; it’s expresses weakness and depression, imbued with a knowledge that the terrible things you’ve done in pursuit of absolute pleasure are finally catching up with you. In the late ’70s, Page lived like a vampire in a series of darkened L.A. hotel rooms, feasting on heroin and groupies and maybe a single sandwich every two weeks. Plant meanwhile was in a serious car accident that put him in a wheelchair for months, while Bonham slid deeper and deeper into the worst drinking problem in human history. Jones, judging from The Song Remains The Same, allowed himself to get a truly terrible haircut that made him look like The Little Dutch Boy, but otherwise escaped this era relatively unscathed.
47. “Out On The Tiles”
A lot of this stuff is outlined in Stephen Davis’ Hammer Of The Gods, the most compulsively readable work of rock semi-fiction ever committed to paper. I read it a decade after Led Zeppelin broke up as a pizza-faced junior high schooler, and it instantly put me into an extended Zeppelin phase that never really ended. They will always be my comic-book superheroes of choice — even now, they provide the comfort of the familiar while also seeming mysterious and irredeemably dangerous. Surely someone is reading Hammer Of The Gods right now and experiencing the same thing. When the first generation of Zeppelin fans heard them, especially the boys, “they would become cocky and full of themselves,” to quote one-time Jimmy Page girlfriend Bebe Buell. The music was so powerful — even a relatively straight-forward rocker like “Out On The Tiles” — it made the audience feel like they were greater than themselves, just by virtue of being in its presence. This naturally affected the band members themselves by a factor of 1,000, especially Jimmy Page, whose well-publicized fascination with writer/occultist/mountaineer/hedonist Aleister Crowley had less to do with worshipping Satan (or selling your soul, one of the major plot points of Hammer Of The Gods) and more with the idea that you can self-actualize yourself into exactly who you want to be. That Jimmy Page did precisely that for most of the ’70s makes his Crowley stanning — which includes etching the Crowleyisms “Do What Thou Wilt” and “So Mote Be It” in the inner groove of Led Zeppelin III — slightly less looney.
46. “Gallows Pole”
A big part of the narrative of Zeppelin’s early career is that critics hated them. Upon seeing them perform live in 1969, Jon Landau — the guy who famously wrote that line about seeing rock’s future and its name being Bruce Springsteen — called Led Zeppelin “loud … violent, and often insane.” (Incredibly, he didn’t mean this as a compliment.) Even Lester Bangs, the one first-generation rock critic you would expect to like Zeppelin, called them “utterly two-dimensional and unreal.” (This initial critical reception is Zeppelin’s only authentic connection to Greta Van Fleet.) While Zeppelin responded to the criticism by immediately locking most of the press out of their inner circle, Led Zeppelin III feels like an overt gesture to prove that they aren’t “two-dimensional.” They took out the acoustic guitars and mandolins and marinated in mellow hippie vibes, like a British Music From Big Pink on seriously dank weed. The magic of “Gallows Pole” is that even in this mode, Zeppelin still seems dangerous and sexy.
45. “House Of The Holy”
Zeppelin’s secret weapon, even when it downshifted into Hobbit-y folk tunes, was its innate ability to swing. This is due of course to Bonham, who is properly recognized as the greatest rock drummer of all time. But it also derives from Jones, the most underrated member of a capital-G great rock band ever. Jones was underrated in his own band, apparently, given that Page and Plant basically ghosted him after Zeppelin broke up. (A fact that Jones acknowledged, hilariously and awkwardly, when they were inducted in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall Of Fame.) Jones’ unassuming, even nerdy demeanor clearly works against him — he’s a distant fourth in the Zeppelin “cool guy” rankings. But none of that actually translates to his playing or his understanding of what made Zeppelin work. “You could dance to Zeppelin,” Jones tells Barney Hoskyns in Led Zeppelin: The Oral History Of The World’s Greatest Rock Band. “As a session musician, I did all the Motown covers because I was the only one who knew how to play in that style.” You can hear that James Jamerson-style feel in this song, which indeed works as a killer dance number as well as bloodthirsty hard rock.
44. “Hey Hey What Can I Do”
Like Jones, Jimmy Page was a top session man in the British rock scene in the days before Zeppelin. Plant and Bonham were relative novices from the Black Country, but they learned fast. This combination of experience and youthful energy is what enabled Zeppelin to attack a wide range of music from the beginning — Page and Jones were accustomed to working in different genres, and Plant and Bonham were too young and dumb to be intimidated. If the idea was to sound like a throwback Americana act on “Hey Hey What Can I Do,” why couldn’t they pull that off? Sadly, this B-side did not make Led Zeppelin III, even if it is inarguably better than “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp.”
43. “Four Sticks”
The worst song from the best Zeppelin album, Untitled, also known as “Led Zeppelin IV.” There are people who will argue that Physical Graffiti (aka “the double-album career summation”) is their best, or maybe Led Zeppelin II (“the horniest and hardest rocking one”) or Led Zeppelin III (“the one about Vikings and sunsets”). But the worst songs from those albums aren’t on the list. However, every single track from Untitled is here. Like Leo says in The Wolf Of Wall Street, Led Zeppelin asks that you judge them not by their winners but by their (relative) losers, because they have so few of them.
42. “Misty Mountain Hop”
If you talk to 10 Zeppelin fans, three of them will insist that “Misty Mountain Hop” is the best track from Untitled. (Yes, this is based solely on my personal experience and no actual data, but like the song says, I’m just takin’ a look at myself and describing what I see.) It’s the most “interesting” choice, given how many monster radio hits are from that record. Of course, “Misty Mountain Hop” is also a big radio song, it’s just not quite as famous as “Stairway To Heaven” or “Black Dog.” But it’s definitely the poppiest track on the record, with a hook that John Paul Jones apparently pulled out of thin air one morning at Headley Grange while fiddling with an electric piano while the rest of the band slept off a hangover.
41. “Your Time Is Gonna Come”
None of the songs from Untitled were intended to be released as singles, because Zeppelin didn’t set out to make singles. Zeppelin’s visionary manger Peter Grant —a 6-foot-5, 300-plus pound ex-wrestler whose menacing professional demeanor belied a gentle hand as a father and husband, the perfect physical manifestation of the Zeppelin essence — insisted against record company demands that avoiding pop hits would ultimately boost Zeppelin’s mystique. (Though in the U.S. the record company sometimes went against Zeppelin’s wishes and put out singles anyway.) As it turned out, Zeppelin arrived at precisely the moment that free-form FM radio became important in America, and their absence from the AM side made them superstars in the opposing format. Taking a stand against singles in order to become one of the most overplayed radio bands in rock history defines Grant’s strategic genius.
40. “All My Love”
Zeppelin stuck to the “no singles” policy even in the twilight of their career, when they made their most obvious pop song ever with “All My Love” from 1979’s In Through The Out Door. This was the period when Page was so zonked out that Plant turned to Jones as his new primary collaborator, which explains the lack of guitar and the abundance of synths and songs about carouselambras. In the Hoskyns book, rock photographer and Page’s guy Friday Ross Halfin claims that Jimmy hates this song, “but because it was about Karac” — Plant’s 5-year-old son who died in 1977 of a stomach virus – “he couldn’t criticize it.”
39. “Heartbreaker/Living Loving Maid”
What Zeppelin lacked in pop radio exposure they more than made up within classic rock stations from coast to coast who implemented “Get The Led Out” segments. In my town, you were encouraged to get the Led out at 5 p.m., also known as quitting time for Zep’s blue-collar fanbase. And because there was quite a bit of Led that we all needed to get out, you would usually hear at least two songs. We all get the Led out in different ways, but in my community the songs most likely to be played in this segment was this double-shot from Led Zeppelin II. The first part features one of the most iconic riffs in the Zeppelin canon and the wankiest guitar solo. The second part was supposedly considered garbage by the band, who never played it live, but I remember loving it as a virginal teenager who aspired to one day date beautiful sanitation workers.
38. “Achilles Last Stand”
Page and Plant have been outspoken over the years in distancing Led Zeppelin from any association with metal, which is kind of like Francis Coppola pleading to never be mentioned in the context of gangster films. But there’s simply no other way to describe “Achilles Last Stand” than as one of the great prog-metal songs of the ’70s. As much as Rush ripped off Zeppelin early on, “Achilles Last Stand” sounds like a band who just heard “By-Tor & The Snow Dog” for the first time and then became immediately obsessed with topping it.
37. “The Song Remains The Same”
More prog-metal, though this might actually just be straight-up prog. Originally Page wrote it was an instrumental piece intended to eventually tee up “The Rain Song” on Houses Of The Holy. But then Plant heard it and was inspired — as one often is — to write about Honolulu starbright and sweet Calcutta rain. And, luckily for all involved, the latter phrase just so happened to rhyme with “the song remains the same.”
36. “Black Country Woman”
Untitled is the best Zeppelin album, but Physical Graffiti is the one I listen to the most, because it has the highest percentage of tracks that haven’t been beaten into the ground by every rock radio station on the planet. The second disc, especially, is wall-to-wall quality deep cuts like this song, a throwback to the muscular British folk rock of Led Zeppelin III with a dash of Rod Stewart’s early work. Unlike Exile On Main St., Physical Graffiti is the rare double album that never feels like an exercise in decadence. This a band in complete control of themselves and their music, their final stand before the decadence crushed them.
35. “D’yer Mak’er”
About half of the material on Physical Graffiti is culled from Untitled and Houses Of The Holy outtakes. This is when Zeppelin was operating at their full potential, and therefore working at the highest metabolism for any rock band ever. The wonder of Untitled is how every gesture is fully realized; with Houses Of The Holy, the execution is similarly perfect, even when the chances they’re taking are way riskier, like attempting a reggae song with a title that every white male Zeppelin fan is destined to spend years mispronouncing. On “D’yer Mak’er,” Zeppelin dared to be goofy and yet they still came off sounding like pouty-lipped sex gods.
Led Zeppelin III, along with being “the folkie record,” also was the album where Page and Plant really bro’ed it up, writing the record as they hiked around Wales and stared at sunsets. “Friends” is their “dudes rock” positive jam: “The greatest thing you ever can do now / Is trade a smile with someone who’s blue now.” Though, again, Jones provides an essential element on “Friends,” arranging the string section to give it an exotic, Indian feel.
33. “Communication Breakdown”
The first Zeppelin album was recorded in 36 hours, and it sounds like about 10 minutes of that was spent on this song. The antipathy that punks had for “dinosaur” bands like Led Zeppelin in the late ’70s is such ancient history that even the original punks have moved past it. (Johnny Rotten once called Physical Graffiti one of his favorite albums.) At this point, “Communication Breakdown” might as well be a Sex Pistols tune. It certainly sounds like one, capturing the raw energy at the core of Zeppelin before it was even barely refined.
32. “Sick Again”
It’s been a minute since we discussed the problematic aspects of Zeppelin, so let’s talk for a moment about their misogyny. The stories about Zeppelin’s mistreatment of women abound in every book written about them, though “Sick Again” is one of the few Zeppelin songs that’s actually about their shameless pursuit (and often cruel disposal) of every woman, young and slightly less young, in their orbit. But it’s also true that many of the biggest Zeppelin fans (and the ones most insightful about what made them great) happen to be women, whether they’re journalists like Jaan Uhelszki or lovers like Bebe Buell or hybrids like Pamela Des Barres. Based on accounts of people who were there, Zeppelin treated women like sex objects, but they also allowed women to treat them as sex objects, a dynamic that ultimately comes across vividly in “Sick Again.”
31. “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You”
Musically, Zeppelin also has a pronounced feminine side that often came across strongest in their open and passionate appreciation of Joni Mitchell. This was not common in the hard-rock world of the ’70s, or even among men in general. (Mitchell herself called Zeppelin “very courageous” for being such outspoken fans. “Straight white males had a problem with music,” she added.) And then there was “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You,” a song popularized by Joan Baez in the early ’60s and transformed by Zeppelin on the debut. But while the Zeppelin version hits harder, Plant hardly tries to make his vocal sound “masculine” in the manner of most knuckle-dragging rock singers of the time. He sounds like he’s trying to be a female folk singer, and he pretty much gets there.
30. “Thank You”
Zeppelin has dozens of songs about sex — I think every song at least has sex in the subtext of Bonzo’s drums. But there aren’t all that many romantic love songs in their catalogue. This is one of them. “My love is strong / With you there is no wrong / Together we shall go until we die.”
29. “Custard Pie”
Lest this list get too saccharine, we’re doing a hard pivot into a song that is unabashedly about female genitalia. Yes, this is crude, but Zeppelin was standing on the shoulders of giants, referencing similar pie metaphors from bluesmen like Blind Boy Fuller and Brownie McGhee. Plus, this song is an excellent example of the connection between Page and Bonham, in which the latter closely follows the former in order to create one of the most gloriously bombastic Side 1, Track 1’s ever.
28. “In The Light”
Just as they took a hard stand against radio singles, Zeppelin rarely allows their music to be licensed for movies and TV shows. This is a shame, given how cinematic and atmospheric the music is. But it also makes Zeppelin really stand out when you hear a song pop up in an unexpected context. For instance, the use of Zeppelin’s most Black Sabbath-sounding track, “In The Light,” in the season one finale of Mindhunter is one of the best uses of a rock song in a TV show in recent years. Though, in terms of sheer perversity, I suspect that most serial killers prefer In Through The Out Door to Physical Graffiti.
27. “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”
From here on out, I could just write about how sick Bonham sounds on every song. (Even the acoustic tracks he doesn’t actually play on, I swear I can hear him breathing in perfect time in the background.) But Bonzo sounds especially sick on this song. Significant portions of Zeppelin books is spent on describing the John Bonham drum sound. You can learn about where the mics were placed in the studio, and the way he tuned his drums, and the way the air felt in the room in which he was recorded. But I’m going to fall back on one of my favorite vague muso terms — he just had unbelievable feel. He is aggressively attacking his kit, but it’s not reckless or imprecise. It’s also not not reckless or overly technical. It’s tight but loose, booming but also weirdly … soothing? What I’m saying is that “hammer of the gods” stuff wasn’t just classic-rock bullshit.
26. “Over The Hills And Far Away”
Houses Of The Holy truly is the most “fun” Zeppelin album, the one where they pretty much tried everything. This one is the “let’s revisit our Led Zeppelin III guise but do it slightly better” track. It’s also the song of choice for dorm-room guitar pickers. This probably goes without saying, but it’s best to avoid anyone who’s opening line is, “Hey lady, you got the love I need / maybe more than enough.”
25. “The Battle Of Evermore”
In 2018, I interviewed Robert Plant and it was a rare instance where I got really nervous before talking to a rock star. I’m talking “knot in the pit of your stomach a full 48 hours before the phone call” nervous. It was inconceivable to me that you could actually talk to this person. How in the hell do you interview Thor? Compounding my anxiety was Plant’s well-documented aversion to talking about Zeppelin, especially when he’s ostensibly promoting a solo project. I decided to take an indirect angle into the subject by asking Plant about Sandy Denny, his duet partner on “The Battle Of Evermore” and one of the giants of 20th century British folk. Fortunately, Robert took the bait and soon we were talking about the recording of Untitled. It turned out that Thor was actually a fairly normal and approachable dude.
24. “Whole Lotta Love”
This song is a lot. Along with Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” it is the most notorious example of a faked orgasm in modern popular music. Only Zeppelin did it before Deep Throat mainstreamed pornography; this is proto-John Holmes rock. (It also brings to mind one of my all-time favorite quotes about Led Zeppelin, courtesy of journeyman hard-rock singer Michael Des Barres: “Robert was Marilyn Monroe, and Jimmy was Hedy Lamarr with a Les Paul.”) Hearing this as a kid felt incredibly unseemly, though now when I hear “Whole Lotta Love” I focus on the filth of Page’s guitar. Jack White once called the little solo during the break “some of the greatest guitar notes ever played,” and I don’t think that’s hyperbole.
23. “Rock and Roll” (The Song Remains The Same version)
The Song Remains The Same is rightfully considered one of the most ridiculous and tedious rock films of the 1970s. I’ve watched it at least 20 times but I don’t think I’ve ever actually finished it once without falling asleep. (Consider that I normally start watching The Song Remains The Same very late at night, and never in the most sober frame of mind.) People love to make fun of the Peter Grant sequences, where he struts around pompously in his vintage gangster clothes like a white English Suge Knight. But for me the least coherent scene is when John Paul Jones is seen reading Jack And The Beanstalk to his kids while dressed like Dirk Diggler. (Were they trying to make John Paul look like a huge dork?) All of that aside, The Song Remains The Same is a five-star rock movie for me solely because of the performance of “Rock And Roll,” which is an incredible portrait of arena rock at its absolute peak. The shot behind the band as Bonzo kicks into the opening drum fill while still in the dark, and then the explosion of light as the rest of Zeppelin falls in feels like having a rocket ship strapped between your legs.
22. “Trampled Under Foot”
A tremendous Stevie Wonder homage, just as “Pastime Paradise” is a tremendous Led Zeppelin homage.
21. “Going To California”
More Joni Mitchell worship, via a song so good that it could’ve ended up on Blue. In Joni’s “California,” she sings about hanging out in Paris and pining for home. (“I’m going to see the folks I dig / I’ll even kiss a Sunset pig.”) For Zeppelin, California — Los Angeles specifically — was a home away from home, a fantasyland they never stopped idealizing even after immersing themselves in the sleaziest of sleazy L.A. underbellies. “Going To California” marks the point where melancholy started to creep into Zeppelin’s music, an acknowledgement that they were at their zenith and it wasn’t going to last much longer. Coming from a band so alpha, the vulnerability of “Going To California” hits hard. “Tellin’ myself it’s not as hard, hard, hard as it seems,” Plant sings, and if you know what’s ahead for him and his band, you heart might ache a little, too.
20. “Good Times Bad Times”
By all accounts, Led Zeppelin was the Led Zeppelin pretty much from the moment they first plugged in. “It was just an unleashing of energy,” Plant later said. “But it felt like it was something that I’d always wanted.” You can hear it in this song, the first track on the first album. It’s rare for a band to arrive in that moment as fully formed as Zeppelin was. But the instrumental alchemy was there immediately — the way Bonham’s start-stop drums play off Page’s riff and is held together Jones’ deep-in-the-pocket bass line, and then sent off into outer space by Plant’s screaming vocal.
19. “How Many More Times”
Led Zeppelin I is just so tight and focused. Even “Dazed And Confused” comes and goes in less than seven minutes. But “How Many More Times” is where they really blow it wide open. Page had pioneered jammy rock with The Yardbirds, and he met his match with Plant and Bonham, whose improvisations with their previous group, The Band Of Joy, emulated the West Coast groups that Plant was enamored with. But whereas The Grateful Dead made head music, “How Many More Times” is a jam directed at the crotch.
18. “What Is And What Should Never Be”
As good as the debut is, Led Zeppelin II is the first real masterwork, the record that officially brought the ’60s to an end and heralded a new age. (This album replacing Abbey Road at the top of the album charts in the last week of 1969 is for boomers what Nevermind displacing Michael Jackson at the end of 1991 is for Gen X.) It’s the main reason why critics of the time hated them so much — Led Zeppelin II made them feel old. But they needn’t have worried. All they had to do was heed the words of Robert Plant in “What Is And What Should Never Be” — take his hand, child, and let him take you to the castle.
17. “Fool In The Rain”
“What if Led Zeppelin was Steely Dan?” is a pretty wacky idea, though it’s not even in the top five of wacky brainstorms that exist on In Through The Out Door. (“What if Led Zeppelin was Buck Owens?” takes the cake in that regard.) John Bonham’s masterful execution of the Purdie shuffle is one of his all-time greatest moments on record, an achievement that seems all the more impressive considering that Bonzo wasn’t in the best of shape at this time. If he somehow could’ve cleaned himself up, I have no doubt that Bonzo would’ve ended up playing on The Nightfly.
16. “Ten Years Gone”
A rare glimpse at the “emotionally mature” Led Zeppelin. This is not a band you put on when you’re seeking deep insights into the complex dynamics that occur between men and women in adult relationships. But “Ten Years Gone” is their Blood On The Tracks move, with Plant reflecting on a relationship that ended right around the time he joined Zeppelin. It also ranks among Page’s most intricate constructions of guitar overdubs. Later, when he did his (pretty underrated!) tour with The Black Crowes in the late ’90s, Page found that he was finally able to replicate all those parts to his satisfaction. All it took was having three guitarists on stage.
15. “Immigrant Song”
Robert Plant once claimed that all of the big-balled viking imagery in this song is intentionally funny, and I’m inclined to believe him. “Immigrant Song,” “The Lemon Song,” “The Crunge,” “Hot Dog” — Zeppelin was sillier than they get credit for, probably because Page’s riff and Bonham’s drums are kicking too much ass for anyone to laugh.
14. “In My Time Of Dying”
At just over 11 minutes, this is the longest Zeppelin song on record, and it feels even longer. But that’s not a complaint. “In My Time Of Dying” really does build like a deathbed confession, starting off slow and painful and then speeding up as the ghosts descend to take our protagonist … well, it’s probably not to heaven, right? “In My Time Of Dying” demonstrates that Zeppelin could groove even when they were moving at a snail’s pace, which is nearly impossible for most bands to do without falling apart. This song verges on collapse several times, but it suits the thematic concerns (mortality, Jesus, moaning, etc.) addressed in the text. Zeppelin lurches on purpose, and then (at the 3:46 point) suddenly they’re doing the opposite of lurching. The showmanship is impeccable — it’s a total “put the cape on James Brown’s back” flourish.
13. “Ramble On”
A highlight of the Lord Of The Rings subgenre of Zeppelin songs, as well as an excellent, early example of Zeppelin’s ability to mix acoustic and electric guitars beautifully. In every Jimmy Page interview, he is inevitably asked to give the secret of the Zeppelin sound, and he always goes into his pet riff about his interest in veering between “light and shade,” mixing up heaviness with jangly melody. “Ramble On” was the first time he really nailed it, before refining it to perfection on the next four Zeppelin records. While Radiohead isn’t often mentioned in the same sentence as Led Zeppelin, they emulated that “light and shade” electric-acoustic mix on The Bends and OK Computer, and pulled it off with nearly as much flair.
12. “The Rain Song”
Coming after “Stairway To Heaven,” it’s possible that listeners perceived this as an attempt to top (or just copy) their most iconic power ballad. But while “Stairway” can’t be denied — contrary to what happens in Wayne’s World — “The Rain Song” is the epic “quiet to loud” Zeppelin ballad that I play the most. This band’s willingness to sit back and be extremely twee for several minutes — and on the second track of Houses Of The Holy, no less — is perhaps their most underrated attribute. I’m sure to some ears this just sounds like bad Moody Blues, but I don’t care. When I put on Zeppelin, sometimes I want to hear a million guitar overdubs, a drippy string section, and Robert Plant cooing about how it’s the springtime of his loving. And then after five minutes I want to be snapped out of my coma by John Bonham kicking me in the face.
Along with “The Rain Song,” “Tangerine” was used by Cameron Crowe in Almost Famous as an elegiac hymn evoking the sun-soaked glory days of rock’s bygone past. Even more than “Tiny Dancer,” it’s impossible to extricate my feelings about these songs from my feelings about the movie, which are complicated but mostly affectionate. Led Zeppelin is one of those bands that each new generation grows up with, no matter how far they happen to be from the band’s actual life span. That’s because Zeppelin embodies the youthful ideals of boundless energy and potent libido, obviously. But there’s also a sneaky melancholy embedded in this music, as if Zeppelin could also see the end even when they were in the midst of taking over the world. If this band were only a bunch of dumb teenaged noise, I would have probably moved on by now. But the melancholy speaks to me now in ways I would have never anticipated back when I was poring over mud shark stories in Hammer Of The Gods.
10. “Dazed And Confused” (How The West Was Won version)
A weird tic about my Zeppelin fandom is that I’ve actually become more tolerant of super long live versions of “Dazed And Confused” as I’ve grown older. I suppose this song should represent the self-indulgent side of the band that made punk “necessary” or whatever gets repeated in one million rock documentaries. But the jamband aspects of Zeppelin can’t be excised from the overall picture; if anything, their ability to veer between doom-y sludge and extraterrestrial squeaks for a half hour in front of 20,000 people and still bring down the house speaks to their unique status and power as an arena-rock band. What could be annoying about Zeppelin is also a crucial part of what made them transcendent. Also, including this specific version assuages my guilt about not putting “The Crunge” on this list, as “The Crunge” is actually tucked inside of this performance.
9. “No Quarter”
Take a bow, John Paul Jones. I was tempted to include a live version of this song as well, so that we could all luxuriate in an endless JPJ keyboard solo that sounds like Chick Corea on quaaludes. But the studio take from Houses Of The Holy more than does justice to what is unquestionably the greatest stoner song in the Zeppelin canon.
8. “Bring It On Home”
The best example of them taking a familiar, John Lee Hooker-style blues shuffle and taking it to an entirely new Zeppelin zone. The whole point of this band was to not bring it on home, as Zeppelin was about as far from the home of the blues as you could possibly get. Instead, they had the audacity to take the blues and use it to make themselves seem larger than life, carrying them as far from their own homes as their own power of will could take them. You hear that explosion take place at about the 1:45 mark in this song, and what follows is about as electrifying as blues-based rock gets.
7. “The Ocean”
The first of two songs sampled on Licensed To Ill to make it in the top 10. Like Zeppelin, the Beastie Boys were outsiders operating in a culture that was not theirs, and they endured by not even trying to fit in, but instead emphasizing their otherness. Also like Zeppelin, the Beasties liked really fat, bombastic, and swaggering riffs that made you feel cooler and dumber. If I can extend this comparison a bit further, is it fair to say that the drunken sea shanty that Bonzo is doing at the start of “The Ocean” is kinda sorta similar to rapping? He truly was the beastiest boy of all.
6. “Since I’ve Been Loving You”
I know this is technically a blues ballad, but to me this is the most emo Zeppelin song. It’s definitely the one I played the most when I was a romantically inexperienced teenager who fantasized about one day being in a relationship so intense and tumultuous that I sounded as miserable as Robert Plant. Not that “Since I’ve Been Loving You” entirely made sense to me — for instance, I could not relate to the rigors of working seven-seven-seven to 11-11-11 every night, but I was willing to accept the premise that it was a drag. Also, for a band that somehow couldn’t find the bridge on “The Crunge,” they absolutely crush the bridge here.
5. “Black Dog”
The first song on Untitled, which was my first Zeppelin album, which means “Black Dog” was among the first Zeppelin songs I ever heard. This is like going to a bar for the first time, and instead of handing you a beer they give you a Scarface-sized pile of pure, uncut Colombian and tell you to ingest it all in exactly 1.2 seconds. As is usually the case with Zeppelin, the talk is big but the band delivers — you sweat, you groove, you can’t keep away, and in the end you can only say “oh yeah!”
4. “Stairway To Heaven”
If this song existed in a vacuum, it would probably be No. 1. It’s incredibly well constructed and gorgeous, a real Lawrence Of Arabia of rock ‘n’ roll. It’s so epic and sweeping and beloved and overplayed and seriously it’s way overplayed but it’s still awesome and here comes that guitar solo sweet Jesus but man the overexposure eventually embarrassed Robert Plant so much that he couldn’t sing it with a straight face because does anybody remember laughter?
3. “That’s The Way”
The more approachable “Stairway To Heaven,” the one with less cultural baggage, the luminous Zeppelin ballad that’s down-to-Earth like the girl next door. Almost Famous is also responsible for giving this Led Zeppelin III deep cut some extra shine, but ultimately “That’s The Way” ranks among my very Zeppelin songs because (like all of the band’s best tracks) it feels like a perfect place that you can live inside of for about four minutes. “That’s The Way” is the shire — lush, green, eternally sunny, and then it’s suddenly gone.
Duh duh duh, duh duh duh, duh duh duh, duh duh duh, duh duh duh, duh duh duh, duh duh duh.
1. “When The Levee Breaks”
It’s all here — the contradictions and darkness and orgasms and drugs and life and power and death and Bonzo’s hammer of the gods and Jimmy’s otherworldly guitar and Plant’s pleading and Jonesy holding it all together as it all hangs over hell’s flames.
Zeppelin appropriated the blues, and rappers appropriated this titanic drum break. They sang about the end of the world, and made it feel like a rebirth. When Plant talks about “going down,” he’s somehow talking about sex and visiting Satan. “When The Levee Breaks” is just so dense and hard and it has no top and no bottom. I’ve heard it hundreds of times and it still seduces and terrifies me a little. It’s neither fast nor slow — it feels like it’s 20 minutes long when it’s on and 20 seconds when it’s over. But as long as this song is playing, I can believe every word of Hammer Of The Gods and forget that any other rock band ever existed.
Led Zeppelin is a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.