Discography: Led Zeppelin
Led Zeppelin I (1969)
Zeppelin I is perhaps the definitive blues rock album as they tackle a pair of Willie Dixon covers among some of their bluesiest originals. Still, it's not just a rehashing of standard blues. They add varying degrees of other genres, particularly psychedelia, that makes their first effort a great album in its own right rather than just a foreshadowing of future greatness.
Led Zeppelin II (1969)
With their second release, Zeppelin made the prototype for the bluesy hard rock album. Once again, they imbued the album with trippiness, with a break in the middle for the albums two weakest and most straightforward songs ("Livin' Lovin' Maid" and "Heartbreaker"). In a sense, those two tracks might say the most about the album. How great must it be when two songs of that calibre are the low points?
Led Zeppelin III (1970)
III is arguably Zeppelin's most cohesive album although it's folk tendencies tend to put off a lot of their dumber "fans." This album is as creative, albeit not as varied, as Houses of the Holy, but it's far more subtle. It runs from hard rock to folk to pyschedelia to blues as if each is the band's prefered genre. While it may be their best album, it is definitely my favorite.
Led Zeppelin IV (1971)
A little more hard rock oriented than III, Led Zeppelin IV seems to be widely seen as the band's crowing achievment and for good reason. There are two songs that I generally think I don't want to hear ("Rock n Roll" and "When the Levee Breaks") until I do hear them and remember that they're great songs. Musically, IV falls somewhere beteen II and III, but quality-wise, it's maybe just a tad shy, almost immeasurably, of those two. It might suffer most from the sheer amount of airplay that "Stairway," "Black Dog" and "Rock n Roll" get (although I never turn them off no matter how many times they get played).
Houses of the Holy (1973)
While IV is often seen as their best album, Houses of the Holy probably actually is their best. It's a hair less cohesive than III, but it pushes the limits of what a rock band can do far more, much like the Beatles did on Revolver or the Who did on Who's Next. Had Zeppelin only released this album, their mark on rock music would still be staggering.
Physical Grafitti (1975)
What could be better than one LP of Houses of the Holy? One would think it would be two LPs of Houses of the Holy, but that's not the case. Physical Grafitti is an ambitious undertaking but ends up being Zeppelin's first album with filler. Still, there are some amazing moments from the epic "Kashmir" to the whimsical "Down by the Seaside." Don't get me wrong, Physical Grafitti is not a failure. They pushed the limits and succeeded even if not fully. There's certainly more than one LP of great music on the album, but they couldn't quite stretch it to a full two.
Prescence is neither as ambitious as Physical Grafitti nor as cohesive as Houses of the Holy, but it probably suffers most from being a Led Zeppelin album. It would likely receive great reviews had it been a Bad Company record. But it had to live up to Zeppelin standards, not just rock standards. True, they were running out of steam to some extent here, but they still delivered. Even the weaker tracks like "Hots on for Nowhere" and "Candy Store Rock" aren't throwaways and they do show that the band wasn't content to sit still. There's good energy on Prescence, but even it's best moments don't match the energy they consistently had on the first five albums.
In Through the Out Door (1979)
I take a slightly different view of In Through the Out Door than I suspect most people do. It's treated as their final album as though they were on the verge of calling it a day when they recorded it. However, it's only their last record because John Bonham called it a day. In light of this, I like to see In Through the Out Door as a transitional album. They were pushing their sound once again, with the heavy keyboards in the thick of the now more traditional hard rock they'd helped to establish. A lot of hard rock/heavy metal bands of the 80s incorporated keyboards much in the way that Zepellin does on this album (versus the more classical leaning work of Jon Lord in Deep Purple). Unfortunately, the transition was cut short and Zepellin's imitators were only capable of copying and not anticipating where In Through the Out Door would lead.
Led Zeppelin also released two live albums: The Song Remains the Same and How the West Was Won. The best way to deal with these two is to simply say that, after 27 years, the latter finally gives Zeppelin fans what they'd hoped for with the former.
Another aside about Zeppelin that is worth mentioning is that when they released the BBC Sessions, they included a previously unreleased gem in "The Girl I Love She Got Long Black Wavy Hair." Along with the "Immigrant Song" b-side, "Hey Hey What Can I Do," this is one of the best testements to Led Zeppelin's greatness. Both of these songs would not only have made it on the album for another band, they probably would have been singles.