Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Thirty Greatest Led Zeppelin Songs, Part 3: Numbers 1-10

Finally, here is my annotated countdown of numbers 1-10 of what I consider to be the greatest songs in the Led Zeppelin ouevre (for my lists of numbers 11-30, see here and here).

10. "The Rain Song" (Houses of the Holy, 1973)

"The Rain Song" is unique in the Led Zeppelin canon, a ballad that defies ultimate genre classification. The slow, melancholy melody is perhaps the most beautiful thing Page ever wrote, and the lyrics, arranged around the four seasons, are among Plant's best. Plant's vocals and Page's electric and acoustic guitars are gorgeous, accompanied nicely by Jones's orchestral mellotron. For a listen, see here.

9. "Heartbreaker" (Led Zeppelin II, 1969)

Built around one of Page's most memorable riffs, "Heartbreaker" is Zeppelin playing blues-based rock at its loudest and most ferocious. As great as the riff and song are, the song's glory is found in its epic, unaccompanied guitar solo in the middle, which still must be heard to be believed, despite its influence on scores of inferior imitators. The studio version is wonderful (here), but as usual is one-upped by their live performances (for example, see here), in which Page often included Bach's "BourrĂ©e in E minor" and other elements.

8. "How Many More Times" (Led Zeppelin I, 1969)

The closing number on the band's triumphant debut, "How Many More Times" is built around a hypnotic bolero rhythm (reminiscent of, but different from, anything written by Howlin' Wolf, whose influence is also evident from his early classic entitled "How Many More Years"). The song is also notable because of Page's powerful guitar work (not only his familiar pyrotechnics, but also his use of the bow), the call and response between Page's guitar and Plant's wailing vocals, and one of the singer's greatest performances. For the studio version, see here. For an outstanding live version from the BBC archives, see here.

7. "Since I've Been Loving You" (Led Zeppelin III, 1970)

"Since I've Been Loving You" is the greatest pure blues in Zeppelin's catalog. The slow blues in C minor was written to supplant their original use of covers such as "You Shook Me" and "I Can't Quit You Baby," found on their first album. Robert Plant delivers one of his best vocal performances, and Page's solo is a wonder to which to listen. For the studio version, see here. For a terrific live performance from Madison Square Garden in 1973, see here).

6. "What Is and What Should Never Be" (Led Zeppelin II, 1969)

Another of Page's triumphant "light and shade" songs, "What Is and What and What Should Never Be" veers between the delicate, almost dreamy verses and the insistent, hard rock chorus (with its rap-like rhythmic vocal performance). Page, using his Gibson Les Paul for the first time in the studio, provides a wonderfully delicate slide solo in the middle, and the outro provides a platform for Plant's peerless singing and a chunky guitar rhythm that is unmistakably Jimmy Page.

5. "Stairway to Heaven" (Untitled, 1971)

Led Zeppelin's most famous song, and the most played song in the history of rock music radio, "Stairway" was never released as a single, both as a matter of principle and the song's 8 minute-plus running time. At the time, it was also considered something of a departure for the band. Beginning as a slice of English folk, complete with wooden recorders courtesy of John Paul Jones, the music speeds up as the song progresses, culminating in a classic Zeppelin hard rock climax, highlighted by a famous, complex-yet-lyrical guitar solo by Page. For the studio version, see here. If anything, the live versions from 1973 at Madison Square Garden and 1975 at Earl's Court are more exciting because of the extended length of Page's solo.

4. "Black Dog" (Untitled, 1971)

To me, this song was the soundtrack of my sophomore year in high school. This is Zeppelin at its most inimitable. Based on an impressive blues-based riff composed by Jones and featuring a basic call-and-response structure between Plant and Page, with a title derived from a Labrador Retriever that was hanging around the Rolling Stones' Headley Grange recording studio, "Black Dog" was the kind of tune no other "hard rock" outfit could duplicate by design, if Jones is to be believed, who utilized the song's complex rhythms and time signatures for that very reason. The song is notable as well, not only because of Page's typical lead playing, but because in the outro of the song, Plant — who, in the band's early days, had a vocal range of more than three octaves — hits an A-flat without falsetto, the highest recorded note in the group's recorded body of work. For a listen, see here.

3. "Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You" (Led Zeppelin I, 1969)

No song better captures Page's desired "light and shade" aesthetic better than "Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You." Written by Anne Bredon in the late 1950s, Page learned of the song via a 1960 live performance by Joan Baez (here). As was his wont, he took the original and entirely reworked it. The main body of the song is acoustic and is dominated by a beautiful minor key melody far more haunting than the Baez original. But what sets the song apart is the way Page adds a sledgehammer, descending guitar pattern (ripped off a year later by Chicago to form the basis of their "25 or 6 to 4") to complement the delicacy of the main verses perfectly. The star of the show here, though, is Plant, the stunning maturity of whose vocals here bely the fact that he had just turned 20 when the recording was made in late 1968. For the studio version, see here. For an early live version, see here).

2. "Kashmir" (Physical Graffiti, 1975)

The expression "world music" hadn't been coined when Zeppelin recorded this, the song Plant considers the "definitive Led Zeppelin song." With lyrics written by Plant after a drive deep into the Sahara Desert in southern Morocco and music written by Page with a distinctly Middle Eastern feel, "Kashmir" (despite the somewhat anomalous title) signaled a new direction for the band, reaching heights they would never again scale. What holds the song together is the unmatched drumming of Bonham, who executes the song's polyrhythms with aplomb. For the studio version, see here. For a live version, see here.

1. "Whole Lotta Love" (Led Zeppelin II, 1969)

Only Keith Richards of the Stones could construct blues riffs like Jimmy Page. And here is Page's unquestioned best riff: an insistent, pounding, and brutal one executed with a metal slide on his trusty Les Paul. The lyrics were, for all practical purposes, a rip-off of Willie Dixon's song, "You Need Love," performed by Muddy Waters in 1962 (here). But the music is something else: more brutal and primal, with another remarkable vocal performance by Plant. If I were to ever own a cell phone, I would want this song's riff to be my ring tone. For the studio version, see here. For an early live performance recorded for the BBC, see here.


  1. I agree with your take on "Heartbreaker." Just OK on the album (I feel like the song kind of drags) but I was blown away when I heard a live version (i.e. BBC Sessions). Great picks overall, I probably would have had Dazed and Confused in my top 10, if not top 5.

    Electric Magic :)

  2. I'm just getting started on your wonderful posts and links to the music. I was happy to see "Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You" so near the top, although I don't know how I could have made choices. Only one suggestion, I would like to see links open in a new window so I can get back to your blog more reliably.