The 8 Ball 12.21.13: The Top 8 Led Zeppelin Songs
Posted by Jeremy Thomas on 12.21.2013
From "Stairway to Heaven" and "When the Levee Breaks" to "Whole Lotta Love," "Dazed and Confused" and more, 411's Jeremy Thomas counts down the top 8 Led Zeppelin songs!
Welcome, one and all, to the 8 Ball in the Music Zone! I'm your host Jeremy Thomas and as always, I will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You're free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is "wrong" is just silly. With that in mind, let's get right in to it!
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Welcome back, ladies and gentlemen, to the Music Zone 8-Ball! This week we continue our look at the greatest songs of Led Zeppelin. That's about all I have to say, so let's get right into the rock and roll brilliance!
Caveat: As usual with my single-act top songs list, I was looking specifically at original songs performed by the band/artist as opposed to covers. This is a little bit muddy with Zeppelin, as they have several songs where they reworked lyrics and arrangements for new takes. I went back and forth on this a lot but decided to keep them because the lyrics are pretty significantly different. I did leave "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You" off (which would have been in the mix for sure otherwise) because the lyrics are by and large directly taken from the Anne Bredon version. And as usual, remember that just because as song isn't on this list doesn't mean that I didn't like it; there are many, many Zeppelin songs that I truly, passionately adore that I couldn't fit on.
Just Missing The Cut
• "Ten Years Gone" (1975)
• "The Battle of Evermore" (1971)
• "Nobody's Fault But Mine" (1976)
• "Going to California" (1971)
• "The Ocean" (1973)
The First Eight
16. "The Rain Song" (1973)
15. "What Is and What Should Never Be" (1969)
14. "Rock and Roll" (1971)
13. "Heartbreaker" (1969)
12. "Black Dog" (1971)
11. "No Quarter" (1973)
10. "Since I've Been Loving You" (1970)
9. "Over the Hills and Far Away" (1973)
#8: "Dazed and Confused" (1969)
Charting in at #8 is one of the legendary band's most famous songs in "Dazed and Confused." Part of what made Led Zeppelin such an iconic band was their ability to merge disparate genres so well, and few songs show such a sublime example of that than this psychedelic blues number. The song was the final track on side one of their debut, self-titled LP and it provided what was essentially the peak of the album, both in terms of pace and creativity. The song, like many early Zeppelin songs, was a reworking of an earlier piece. In this case the original song was from singer-songwriter Jake Holmes, who wrote a song with a similar sound but entirely different lyrics by the same title in 1967. Jimmy Page put his version of the song together while with the Yardbirds, but the song didn't get recorded until after that group broke up and Led Zeppelin had formed.
Of course, while all due credit goes to Holmes for the very base sound, this is a piece that is pure Zeppelin magic in how it merges genres; it went a long way toward establishing the signature Zeppelin sound. John Paul Jones' bass line in this song is one of the all-time great descending bass lines and Plant's lyrics managed to combine that '60s stoner-hippy sensibility with old-town blues. Meanwhile, Jimmy Page's solo is a typically bad-ass one and he's always extended it out for insane lengths in concert, sometimes as long as forty-five minutes. It remains a signature song of the group and for very good reason.
#7: "Achilles' Last Stand" (1976)
In some ways, this is Led Zeppelin's most flat-out metal song. It certainly fits that description from a purely musical standpoint; at this point in the 1970s heavy metal was shuffling off its blues influence. When Zeppelin released Presence in 1976, they certainly weren't strictly following the metal trend (and in truth, Zeppelin never openly took on the mantle of heavy metal). The album contains not only blues elements ("Sea of One") but also Southern rock ("For Your Life"), funk ("Royal Orleans"), traditional rock and roll ("Candy Store Rock") and more. But on the opening track, Zeppelin makes no bones about going right into the heavy metal milieu. This ten-minute epic was never going to become a radio hit due to its length (and Presence's unfairly-lukewarm reception), but it was deeply, deeply influential on the state of hard rock and metal.
Where to start with this thing? Seriously, there's a lot that makes "Achilles' Last Stand" such a great piece of work. Jimmy Page's orchestration on this one is perhaps his greatest achievement as a guitarist; the loops and twists that his guitar goes through are unreal. The thundering hammer of John Bonham's unrelenting drum work, the driving bass line by John Paul Jones; every element of this song comes off as inspired. Robert Plant has said that he disliked the way he sang this one and yet it's still deeply passionate and expressive. No band has ever been quite as versatile as Led Zeppelin and all you need to do is compare this song to one to the rest of the tracks on Presence to see that. Presence may be an underrated album but this song deserves all the accolades that it can receive.
#6: "Ramble On" (1969)
Speaking of songs that show a band's versatility, compare "Achilles" with this one to see how different the band could be. "Ramble On" was one of the first songs where Robert Plant took inspiration from J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings; the first line "Leaves are falling all around" is a paraphrased version of Tolkien's poem "Namarie" and there are references to Mordor, Gollum and the One Ring in the later verse. The Tolkien references aren't what make this song so great though; they are certainly great for the fantasy geeks in all of us, but really they're just little musical versions of Easter eggs and even Plant has in later interviews said that he wishes he hadn't made those references.
Instead, what truly makes "Ramble On" so great is the signature Zeppelin sound. This song, like "What Is and What Should Never Be" and "Over the Hills and Far Away," played with alternating dichotomous sounds to great effect. You have that acoustic opening with the gentle electric bass line before kicking off harder in the chorus and while it's a sudden transition, it's done in a way that is smoother than butter. Page does some interesting power chord work on this as well, always trying new things and the experiment works. This one isn't a regular part of their live show but still manages to rank incredibly high among the group's discography.
#5: "Whole Lotta Love" (1969)
Pure sex in musical form. That's the best way to refer to "Whole Lotta Love," the crown jewel of Zeppelin's first two albums. Just take a look at the lyrics to start with. The words to this song are about sex and nothing but. Take any line of the song and it's abundantly clear: "You need coolin, baby/I'm not foolin'" or the particularly lascivious "Way, way down inside/I'm gonna give you every inch of my love." Good old Robert wasn't particularly subtle with this one, was he? But that's the thing; for a good down and dirty sex anthem, you don't need to be subtle. And this one certainly proves that, blasting Zeppelin fully into the out-and-out rock stratosphere. What's more, the song doesn't just earn its druthers based on the lyrics; Jimmy Page's intro riff is one of the most recognizable in rock history while Bonham and Jones do their part to drive the song forward.
And of course, you can't talk about "Whole Lotta Love" without discussing the midsection. This is one of the great moments in rock history, where the song just completely shuts down so that the band can throw some incredibly experimental jamming work in. This is the kind of thing you expect to hear in the middle of a life performance--cymbal work, wild guitar improvisation, orgasmic moans and shouts--but not in the middle of an album track. And yet, that's exactly what the band gave us and it manages to thrill without killing the song's momentum. And then they're right back into the song as if they'd never stopped. This has become an essential Led Zeppelin track and is a regular of "best hard rock song lists," for very good reason.
#4: "Immigrant Song" (1970)
If "Achilles' Last Stand" is the band's most metal moment as I said earlier, than "Immigrant Song" is their most hard rock moment. Right from the opening guitar riff before you even hear the melodic howls, you know that this one is going to pound its way through the full two minute and twenty-six second duration. The song appeared on Led Zeppelin III as the opening track and was written during the band's tour of Iceland, Bath and Germany in 1970. Plant drew inspiration from legends of invading Vikings and the rest was history; as Plant tells the story he was imagining the song in the voice of a Norse chieftain who is expecting to die as he leads an invasion by sea. It's another example of the band drawing from epic themes for their material, something they always managed to do with great effect.
While "Immigrant Song" is one of the group's shortest songs, it loses nothing for its brevity in terms of raw power. The song is relatively unique among Zeppelin's signature tracks in that there's no guitar solo; instead Page delivers a guitar riff that is almost clipped, giving it an angry strength as if it knows that it is being cut short and rages all the more for that fact. The influence of this song can be heard in any number of Norse-inspired metal songs, both from Norway and outside of the country. And Plant's vocal delivery is almost haunted; it is that certainty that you're going to die, but suppressed by the knowledge that you will be feasting in Valhalla soon enough.
#3: "When the Levee Breaks" (1971)
The signature opening for "When the Levee Breaks" is a relative staple of TV shows and film, at least for Led Zeppelin. The band is notoriously tight-fisted about allowing their songs to be used in such manners (excepting covers), but this number has been used recently in films like Argo and the trailer for the highly-unfortunate Sucker Punch. That has given it a new level of awareness among younger fans and I couldn't be happier. The band's best bluesy track was re-written and re-arranged from a song by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie in 1929 about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. John Bonham's tremendous drumming takes center stage on this one and in fact has since been sampled for a host of songs including Beastie Boys' "Rhymin' & Stealin." Meanwhile Page's guitar work here makes for one of his most complex pieces of work.
Simply put, "When the Levee Breaks" may be one of the most powerful blues rock songs ever recorded. The song was recorded at Headley Grange using the Rolling Stones' infamous mobile studio and that is where the song gets its encompassing, echoing sound that makes it so distinctive. Closing out Led Zeppelin II, this was a track that left fans breathtaken and clamoring for more; it may be one of the greatest closing tracks of all time and ranks very near the top of Zeppelin's full catalog.
#2: "Stairway to Heaven" (1971)
Obvious selection is obvious. In fact, I would venture to say that the only thing not obvious about "Stairway to Heaven" being on my list is that it isn't at #1. That being said, I had said last month (almost one month to the day) in my Top 8 Epic-Length Songs column that I felt there was one song just a little bit better. But that takes absolutely nothing away from this track, which is quite possibly the most well-known rock song of all time and certainly one of the greatest rock ballads of all-time.
"Stairway to Heaven" has been listed on many Best Songs of All-Time list and managed to become the most requested song on FM radio in the 1970's despite never having been released as a single. I love songs that can tell a story and this Page/Plant collaboration reaches an epic, mythical level of story. The lyrics work on enough levels that they've been often misinterpreted to mean one thing or another. It's the most requested song of all-time on FM radio and there are people who consider the song to be overplayed or overrated. I would argue that it is impossible to overplay a song that is just this good and iconic. It's a remarkably complex song that has several different sections to it and is a bitch to perform right—though that doesn't stop everyone in the world from trying. No one has ever done it quite like Jimmy Page though and it's difficult not to just listen in awe of his talent when he rips into the solo at the end. Fantastic stuff.
#1: "Kashmir" (1975)
While I enjoy both "Kashmir" and "Stairway to Heaven" equally on an emotional level, this is the one that I enjoy just a fraction of a hair more on an intellectual level. "Kashmir" is the final song on side two of the double album Physical Graffiti and helped make it one of the most revered and successful double LPs of all time. This was a song that ran, at eight minutes and twenty-eight seconds, well over the seven minute limit that most rock stations considered acceptable for radio play at the time. However, when hearing this song they had absolutely no issue with spinning it in regular rotation and the rest is history.
One of the things that pushes this to #1 for me is simple: in so many ways, this is the quintessential Led Zeppelin song. It contains so much of the elements that made the band as great and as influential as they were; epic themes, deep mythological allusions in the lyrics, Jimmy Page brilliance and more. It's proof positive that progressive rock doesn't have to be devoid of feeling; this song drove Zeppelin straight into the hearts of rock critics who had resisted warming to the band. There is just something truly special in this song; Robert Plant himself considers this to be the definitive Led Zeppelin song and who the hell am I to disagree?
MUSIC VIDEO A-GO-GO
Before we depart, I leave you with this week's Music Video A-Go-Go! This week we have a treat for you, folks...it's Led Zeppelin's full 1970 concert at the Royal Albert Hall" Check it out below!
And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don't forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at 411mania.com! JT out.