Monday, December 17, 2012

The Thirty Greatest Led Zeppelin Songs, Part 2: Numbers 11-20

Here is my annotated list of numbers 11-20 of what I consider to be the greatest songs in the Led Zeppelin ouevre (for my post listing numbers 21-30, see here).

20. "Bring It On Home" (Led Zeppelin II, 1969)

Early Zeppelin's greatest indebtedness was to the blues, as this, the closing track to their second album, gives eloquent testimony. It also demonstrates the extent to which they, more than any other band, distilled the essence of the blues and transformed it into their own unique style of bludgeoning, hard blues-rock. The intro and outro of this song are a cover of the Willie Dixon song of the same name, recorded famously by Sonny Boy Williamson II (Aleck "Rice" Miller) in 1963 (for a listen, see here), though performed in a more ominous, haunting manner than the original. But the middle of the song, a Jimmy Page original, is based on a classic, devastating riff and showcases the early Plant's unmatched pipes. For a listen, see here.

19. "In My Time of Dying" (Physical Graffiti, 1975)

This, one of the oldest songs in the Zeppelin catalog, also has the distinction, at 11:05, of being the longest studio cut on any of their albums. Prominent early versions of the song include those Blind Willie Johnson ("Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed," 1927 [here]) and Charley Patton ("Jesus Is A-Dying Bed Maker," 1929 [here]). Subsequently the song was take up by Bob Dylan on his 1962 debut album ("In My Time of Dyin'" [here]). Once again, Zeppelin's version demonstrates their ability to take traditional material and transform it. In this instance, the excitement provided by Page's blistering slide guitar in conjunction with the rhythm section of Bonham and Jones is thrilling, to say the least. The studio version (here) is great, but it pales in comparison to their live version performed at Earl's Court in 1975 (here).

18. "Ramble On" (Led Zeppelin II, 1969)

One of the greatest examples of Page's interplay of "light and shade," "Ramble On" is also the first Zeppelin song that references Plant's fascination with J. R. R. Tolkien's The Ring ("In the darkest depths of Mordor ..."), cleverly wed to more traditional blues lyrical themes ("I've got to ramble"). For a listen, see here.

17. "Communication Breakdown" (Led Zeppelin I, 1969)

One of the staples of the band's early  performances (as evidenced by multiple performances found on their BBC Sessions), "Communication Breakdown" is Zeppelin both at its most primal and, somewhat ironically, forward-looking. The almost proto-punk attack of Jimmy Page's downstoke riff was enormously influential on Joey Ramone, among others, but the later punks never could duplicate (even had they wanted to) Page's rapid-fire runs on his Telecaster. The studio version (here) was a shock to the senses when released in 1969, but, if anything, their live performances were even more powerful, as may be seen here.

16. "Ten Years Gone" (Physical Graffiti, 1975)

Another of Page's greatest "light and shade" songs, this wistful, nostalgic reminiscence by Plant of a former girlfriend he left to join the band packs both a musical and emotional wallop. The depth of the studio sound (here) is due, in part, to the layering of 14 different guitar parts. But the song still packed quite a punch live, as may be seen on their final performance of the tune, at Knebworth on 4 August 1979 (my wedding day!) (here).

15. "That's the Way" (Led Zeppelin III, 1970)

Led Zeppelin III has often been viewed as an atypical Zeppelin album, and as such is consistently underrated by fans. "That's the Way" is "exhibit A" for such atypicality. Written by Page and Plant while on retreat at Bron-Yr-Aur cottage in Wales after their whirlwind first year of touring, "That's the Way" is a gentle slice of acoustic folk, and one of the most beautiful songs the band ever recorded. Listened to in tandem with its immediate predecessor, "Tangerine," one would never have guessed the musicians were members of the hardest rocking band in the business. For a listen, see here.

14. "When the Levee Breaks" (Untitled, 1971)

"When the Levee Breaks," from Zeppelin's untitled 4th album, is a complete reworking of the 1929 Memphis Minnie/Kansas Joe McCoy blues song of the same name, which recounts the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 that killed 246 people and left the Mississippi River 60 miles wide south of Memphis. Few recordings convey to better effect the majesty of the mature Led Zeppelin sound than this showcase of the talents of Robert Plant, who in this song demonstrates, not only his legendary vocal prowess, but James Cotton-worthy chops on the harp as well. And few recordings convey the apocalyptic nature of such "natural" disasters to those unfortunate enough to live through them. For a listen, see here.

13. "Dazed and Confused" (Led Zeppelin I, 1969)

No song is associated with early Zeppelin more than this psychedelic slice of slow blues, with its descending bass pattern, bowed guitar solo, and furiously fast middle instrumental section. Long a centerpiece of the band's live shows, the quartet often would extend the length to 45 minutes in later years. For the original live version, see here. For a live performance from 1970, see here.

12. "Over the Hills and Far Away" (Houses of the Holy, 1973)

One of the most accessible of Zeppelin's masterpieces, "Over the Hills" begins as a winsome folk-rock tune with a Jimmy Page acoustic introduction and first verse sung by Plant over the acoustic strumming. But then Page's blistering electric guitar kicks in along with the tight rhythm section, and the rest of the song plays as a straight ahead rocker, though the acoustic foundation is evident throughout. For a listen, see here.

11. "Rock and Roll" (Untitled, 1971)

One of Zeppelin's most immediately recognizable classics, "Rock and Roll" began as an impromptu jam based on Little Richard's 1957 "Keep a Knockin." Though a thoroughly traditional rock 'n roll song based on a typical blues chordal progression, the sheer ferocity of Page's and Bonham's attack and Plant's still- remarkable vocals transform it into a tune worthy of the 1970s and, indeed, any time. Page provides yet another classic solo and the Stones' Ian Stewart graces the song with some classic boogie-woogie pounding on the keys. To listen to the studio version, see here.


  1. So many great songs. How can you decide?

  2. I love Led zeppllin this the #1 band of my life whenever im listening my in a trance