The Student Playlist

Showcasing the Best New Music, Curating the Classics

PROFILE: A Beginner’s Guide to Led Zeppelin

Led Zeppelin I (1969)

led_zeppelin_led_zeppelinDespite meeting harsh criticism (coined by The Who’s drummer, Keith Moon, when he believed the band down like a ‘lead balloon’) Led Zeppelin signed to legendary R&B label Atlantic Records and recorded their first album, Led Zeppelin, in just 30 hours! Featuring only nine songs, the album consists of noteworthy gems, such as ‘Dazed And Confused’, an epic scale track lasting a grand total of six and a half minutes, jam packed with the wheezing psychedelic eeriness of Plant’s voice alongside Page’s tumbling riffs. It was simply unlike anything else in 1969, matching the nimble musicianship of Hendrix and Clapton and marrying it to the raw, primal power of MC5 or The Stooges, and its influence alone makes it a great album.

But for me, the best track is ‘Babe I’m Gonna Leave You’, a daring radical folk blues song which shows the band’s versatility in their exploration of sound, with Plant’s high-pitched wail of “BABY” alongside Bonham’s sudden smashes on the cymbals. Overall, Led Zeppelin is the band’s rawest and most blues-based studio recording, announcing their arrival in the rock‘n’roll scene. The cover art is, of course, one of the most widely recognised images in rock. Already, they were perfectly formed, but they would only get better from here. (9/10) (LISTEN)

Essential listening: ‘Communication Breakdown’, ‘Good Times Bad Times’, ‘Babe I’m Gonna Leave You’.

Led Zeppelin II (1969)

led_zeppelin_led_zeppelin_iiDespite the band’s grueling touring schedule, Led Zeppelin II was their second LP of 1969, and acted as a complete, detailed blueprint for the band’s music at the time, demonstrating their rock’n’roll standard as well as their ability to rework the blues.  From the outset it appears to be an album littered with sexually charged lyrics; opening track ‘Whole Lotta Love’ is a riff-driven and utterly iconic track born to be played loud, despite its extended interludes that sound like Plant’s faking an orgasm. Moreover, alongside swooping instruments is Plant’s sensual wail “way down inside, woman, you need LOOOOOOOVVVVEEEE” causing shivers down your spine, aiding the rumour that he can sing notes that only dogs can hear.

The snaking ‘Heartbreaker’ is another such highlight. But the album cools off in terms of ‘Ramble On’, a track borrowing plots from Tolkien and mixing them with driving acoustic strums and Jones’ jaw dropping bass performance. Upon listening to it, you cannot help but imagine Plant skipping around the Shire smoking a pipe, wearing a feathered hat singing about “Mordor” to his heart’s content. Even a two-minute drum solo from Bonham on ‘Moby Dick’ works brilliantly. Thus, Led Zeppelin II successfully demonstrates their ability as a band to deal with emotions and sexual issues as well as spout creative nonsense about Middle Earth. One of the greatest guitar albums in the rich canon of rock history, a dazzling display of virtuosity by four exceptional musicians in the first iteration of their band before they evolved. (10/10) (LISTEN)

Essential listening: All of it. Now.

Led Zeppelin III (1970)

led_zeppelin_led_zeppelin_iiiOctober 1970 saw Zep throw a shocking music curveball. Their third self-titled album was met with confusion and dismissive contempt, with many fans asking ‘is this really Led Zeppelin?’ Opening track ‘Immigrant Song’ became their latest hit single, a screeching pummeling anthem (Plant’s memorable siren calls spring to mind) about Viking invaders lasting only two and a half minutes long. Yet this long-ship stands alone, as the rest of the album is centered around real songs inspired by folk sounds. ‘Tangerine’, for instance, is the one of the prettiest song they ever made, not an adjective one most associates with Zeppelin, with Page’s 12 stringed guitar sparkling alongside Bonham’s uncharacteristically sensitivity, creating a joyous track that is not a second too long or out of place. But for me, the real centerpiece is ‘Since I’ve Been Loving You’ a slowly smouldering and at times explosive epic, containing one of Page’s most impressive solos and accompanied by moody organs from Jones and Plant’s weary vocals. All in all, Led Zeppelin III was not what fans expected from the boys, but through the successful acoustic ballads lacking in the clichés, they manage to prove that they are a band that can produce more than just pure power, successfully showcasing another side to themselves. (9/10) (LISTEN)

Essential listening: ‘Since I’ve Been Loving You’, ‘Tangerine’, ‘Immigrant Song’

Led Zeppelin IV (1971)

led_zeppelin_led_zeppelin_ivWho doesn’t love a good mystery? In 1971 an album was released with no clues about the band or it’s songs on the cover. It was Led Zeppelin IV, regarded today as one of the finest albums ever produced, selling over 40 million copies around the world and housing several of the group’s most-well known tracks, and certainly their most concentrated collection of hard rock riffs. But why such secrecy? The daring statement allowed the music inside to speak for itself, and it did just that in spectacular fashion.

The album opens with two rock classics: ‘Black Dog’ featuring Plant’s familiar horny acapella vocals alongside Bonham’s swinging beats and Page’s jammy outro, whereas ‘Rock And Roll’ provides listeners with a ‘50s styled rocker featuring another unstoppable Bonzo beat, guitar solos and catchy hooks. Yet the album reached its peak with the self-styled masterpiece, ‘Stairway To Heaven’, one of the most requested rock songs of all time despite its lengthy eight minutes. And it’s no wonder; with its beautiful beginning building up to a crashing crescendo and ultimately denouement, there’s nothing original that can be said about this song that hasn’t already been. Led Zeppelin IV is simply the cornerstone album or any serious rock music collection, representing the zenith of the band’s commercial and artistic peak. (10/10) (LISTEN)

Essential listening: ‘Black Dog’, ‘The Battle Of Evermore’, ‘Stairway To Heaven’, ‘When The Levee Breaks’

Houses Of The Holy (1973)

led_zeppelin_houses_of_the_holyThis is Zeppelin’s most underrated album, which finds itself often overlooked due to being less groundbreaking and impressive compared to their previous albums, at least on the surface of things. Yet it features a lighter, brighter and less blues-based sound on the whole, as well as attempting some exhilarating experimental stuff making it another great album from the boys. The epic ‘The Rain Song’ offers a beautiful majestic ballad, whose orchestral and ambient elements combine into classical perfection – until it explodes with Plant’s powerhouse vocals, as usual. ‘The Song Remains The Same’ attempts to experiment, featuring a galloping rhythm and multi-tracked guitars from Page, with Plant’s weary vocals exploding come chorus time.

Yet, arguably the album’s best song is ‘No Quarter’, a strange, menacingly atmospheric, utterly unique song at seven minutes long. Led by the band’s secret weapon Jones, on keyboards, its single best feature is Plant’s dramatic studio manipulated singing. Unfortunately, the album is marred by a couple of genre exercises that the band confessed were something of a joke in a misguided attempt to prove that they had a sense of humor – the cod-reggae of ‘D’Yer Maker’ and ‘The Crunge’ – but even these are highly distinctive. Houses Of The Holy is thus another great album despite its minor flaws, seeing Led Zeppelin grasp an even tighter stranglehold on the title of ‘world’s greatest band’. (8/10) (LISTEN)

Essential listening: ‘The Rain Song’, ‘The Song Remains The Same’

Physical Graffiti (1975)

led_zeppelin_physical_graffitiBy 1975, Led Zeppelin were larger than life, being the biggest band in the world with their own record label – Swan Song. But even though a dark cloud seemed to hover over the band (Jones considered leaving in ’73 and Plant was involved in a serious car crash in ’75) they always managed to produce musical goods. Physical Graffiti, a sprawling double album, features some of Zeppelin’s best, most far-out and expansive epics, offering something for everyone. However, as is often the case with double-disc collections, it occasionally throws up some tedious or over-long tracks like ‘Night Flight’, for instance, which could’ve been left out.

A personal favourite of mine, ‘Trampled Under Foot’ is an explosively funky workout, consisting of Jones playing an electric clavinet, Page’s wah-wah guitar outbursts alongside Plant’s ragged vocals (due to a throat operation) spurting horny sex and car lyrics. Yet the main highlight is ‘Kashmir’; led by Jones’ brilliantly brooding orchestration, a towering Eastern atmospheric track slowly builds majestically to an overwhelming power climax, capturing the essence of what Led Zeppelin is all about. Finally, the monumental ‘Ten Years Gone’ is another incredibly powerful Eastern-tinged epic showcasing the band’s light to dark dynamics, as well as Page’s multi-tracked guitar being all over the place. Overall, despite the hard times Led Zeppelin were facing, they managed to focus on creating another great album, sealing their place as one of rock’s most important bands. (8/10) (LISTEN)

Essential listening: ‘Kashmir’, ‘Ten Years Gone’, ‘Trampled Under Foot’

Presence (1976)

led_zeppelin_presenceKnown as the forgotten Led Zeppelin album, due to featuring less memorable material as well as being overshadowed by their awesome previous album, Presence was recorded in just three weeks, foreshadowing a wearying pessimism of years of bad luck (hinting at the inter-band tensions developing due to Page’s drug habit and Bonzo’s drinking binges). Kicking off the album is the band’s last true epic ‘Achilles Last Stand’, featuring Bonham’s heart attack-inducing drumming and Plant’s hypnotic singing, yet it leaves listeners feeling slightly cold. Another forgotten track is ‘Royal Orleans’ detailing a biographical account of Jones’ misadventures with a transvestite prostitute. There is an element of playfulness within the track, especially Bonham’s bongo breakdown during the bridge, providing a brief cheerfulness on an album overwrought with turmoil and alienation.

But the failure of the ballad ‘Tea For One’ lets the album down badly at the end; the track mercilessly drags on for ten minutes, boring not only listeners but the band members themselves it seems. To conclude, Presence is an album lacking in memorable hooks and diversity, but this is somewhat compensated by the fact Led Zeppelin remains an amazing instrumental unit throughout. There are still raw spontaneous songs driven by hard-hitting powerful performance, but these are few and far between – is it any wonder this album is often forgotten? (5/10) (LISTEN)

Essential listening: ‘Achilles Last Stand’, ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine’

In Through The Out Door (1979)

led_zeppelin_in_through_the_out_doorIn July 1977 during their concert tour of the United States, Plant received the most tragic news; that his 5 year old son Karac died suddenly from a respiratory infection. This led, understandably, to a two-year break, before the band reconvened in Stockholm to begin working on their eighth album, In Through The Out Door. But the results weren’t the Led Zeppelin sound fans were used to, with Jones, the underdog of the group, co-writing the majority of the songs whilst Page got high and Bonham got smashed. The album begins with the quietly mesmerizing ‘In The Evening’, full of eerie effects, powerful guitar swirls and Eastern mysticism, suggesting that Zeppelin still had plenty of creative genius in them yet.

Moving on, ‘Fool In The Rain’ is unusual as what it lacks in guitar chord changes, it makes for with its catchy piano pop and Bonham’s last burst of brilliance, creating his most memorable and lasting drum line. However, the most ambitious track is ‘Carouselambra’, a ten-minute multi-sectioned epic dominated by its bright synthesizer melody which slows down and becomes moodier and mellower towards the middle, alongside Plant’s unmemorable but cryptic lyrics. In Through the Out Door is overall a darker yet slicker new sound compared to their previous albums that were notably more powerful, telling a world now rocked by punk that they are still relevant if not no longer revelatory. (6/10) (LISTEN)

Essential listening: ‘Carouselambra’, ‘In The Evening’, ‘All My Love’

Coda (1982)

led_zeppelin_coda1980 was a sad year for Led Zeppelin and their fans, following the sudden death of beloved band member Bonham, bringing an end to one of rock’s greatest bands as a going concern. Two years later, the remaining band members Plant, Page and Jones produced Coda, a final farewell album of odds and ends covering the band’s twelve-year career. Barely passing the 33-minute mark and consisting of a mere eight songs, Coda is littered with unreleased leftovers which probably wouldn’t feature on anyone’s ‘Led Zeppelin hits’ playlist. There is no cohesive narrative and the album fails to flow despite its highlights. For instance, ‘Darlene’ is a more ‘50s-styled rock n’ roll throwback whose funky piano boogie is simple and catchy, compared to ‘Poor Tom’ a strange Led Zeppelin III-era folk rocker. By revisiting their final records, Zeppelin did not go out on a high note but they affirmed their place as the rock band of the ‘70s, ending their streak with a majesty and strangeness that cannot be replicated. (5/10) (LISTEN)

Essential listening: ‘Darlene’, ‘Poor Tom’

What is Led Zeppelin’s best album? Tell us what you think below!

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