Led Zeppelin Albums, Ranked From Worst To Best
With Led Zeppelin, the albums were always the thing. Their legacy, unlike Jimmy Page‘s antecedent group the Yardbirds, was built not on singles but on longform statements of purpose. Similarly, Led Zeppelin’s legend grew over an extended arc, as the foursome of Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and John Bonham constructed a new alchemy from the rock-solid foundation of roots music.
Along the way, they’d stir in heavier sounds, delicate folk and Celtic influences, orchestral thunder and primal sensuality, as Page summed up their unboastful credo: ‘Ever onward.’ Only Bonham’s 1980 death could stop Led Zeppelin, which appeared to be on the crux of a never-finished final transformation with its pop-focused ‘In Through the Out Door.’
A full-circle compilation of more blues-focused outtakes, appropriately titled ‘Coda,’ ended their initial canonical run of recordings — one highlighted, defined but never limited to the strikingly diverse, 23-times platinum ‘IV.’ In fact, this determinedly album-oriented band’s catalog continues to yield intriguing new insights, as you’ll see as we rank Led Zeppelin albums, from worst to best.
‘In Through the Out Door’ (1979)
With Page and Bonham spiralling into substance abuse and booze, the other half of Led Zeppelin was left to piece together the group’s latest iteration. The results, outside of the odd greasy groover like ‘In The Evening’ or ‘South Bound Saurez,’ often couldn’t be any further away from the monstrous blues rock that Zeppelin had unleashed 10 years before. But they might have pointed to more chart success. Put another way, Plant’s pop-leaning solo career began right here.
It’s become almost mandatory to dismiss this odds-and-ends package issued after Bonham’s death. Critics will tell you that its uneven, that it lacks focus. Go back, though, and ‘Coda’ uncovers the ferocious beating heart of Led Zeppelin after the sadly diffused period surrounding ‘In Through the Out Door.’ Rather than the sad goodbye that album might have been, ‘Coda’ reminded us of their now-lost greatness.
‘Physical Graffiti’ (1975)
This bloated set’s best moments struggle to overcome the throwaway double-album debris that engulfs them. For every funk-filled joy like ‘Trampled Underfoot,’ there’s ‘Boogie with Stu.’ The towering Eastern mysteries of ‘Kashmir’ grind to a halt for speed bumps like ‘Black Country Woman.’ Unfortunately, ‘Physical Graffiti’ can come off (like so many multi-disc sets of that era) like a kitchen-sink project in desperate need of a good plumber. There’s a fantastic single-disc release in here somewhere, though.
If ‘In Through the Out Door’ belonged to Plant and Jones, then ‘Presence’ was a showcase for the others — meaning a return to their bawdy early sound. Page unleashes a torrent of layered grooves, while Bonham brings his sticks down with teeth-splintering force on gems like the galloping ‘Achilles Last Stand’ and the coiled ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine.’ After a period of furious invention, and no small amount of rock star decadence, the grimy grooves of their initial period have a renewed sense of force and danger.
‘Led Zeppelin’ (1969)
There’s no denying this set’s heavy-blues immediacy, its sense of throwback menace, or even that it’s one of the all-time great debuts in rock. But too much of the songwriting felt (and, in some cases, actually was) borrowed from the rootsy greats that inspired Led Zeppelin, and the album — for all of its raw power — only hints at their flinty ambition. For anyone else, this would have ranked higher, maybe even at No. 1. Not Zeppelin.
‘Houses of the Holy’ (1973)
Fresh off ‘IV,’ Led Zeppelin was clearly in the mood to stretch its legs. The result is a project as ambitious as any the group ever attempted. Of course, that remains its blessing and curse. Dotted with songs both unusual (the anthemic expanse of ‘The Rain Song,’ the strange sensuousness of ‘No Quarter’) and approachably fun, ‘Houses’ tended to anger those who wanted them to remain in a heavy-rocking box. Expectations aside, though, it showed there was nothing Led Zeppelin couldn’t do. Unfortunately, its proximity to ‘IV’ likely doomed it from the start, and it’s simply not as cohesive.
‘Led Zeppelin III’ (1970)
Largely overlooked in its day, principally because it was said to have moved too far and too quickly into Zeppelin’s growing experimental curiosity. Still, this set of warm, more acoustically focused tracks — while not the building-levelling delight of Led Zeppelin’s first two albums — works as a road map toward their growing facility with complex arrangements and inspired melodic twists. That, of course, is what eventually made ‘IV’ into a career-shifting triumph. This album, transitional though it may be, had to happen first.
‘Led Zeppelin II’ (1969)
Led Zeppelin begins to emerge from its own influences, setting a template for heavy-rock sounds that would stand for generations. A punishing touring schedule had hammered them into fighting shape and, with ‘II,’ they came out swinging. It remains a staggering wonder. That said, while there’s still plenty of grinding blooze, Led Zeppelin begins to rapidly expand its sonic palette — and it’s in those moments that we sense the greatness to come.
‘Led Zeppelin IV’ (1971)
A singular achievement — in rock, or anywhere else — ‘IV’ ties together all of the exotic strands that transformed Led Zeppelin from brilliant musicians playing blues rock to brilliant musicians, period. A bold new vision framed by rock, folk, blues and classically tinged orchestral settings would creatively combine the best of everything they’d done through three albums — reshaping the band’s sound and its legacy forever. There’s a reason this is Led Zeppelin’s best known, most recognized project. Everything comes together right here.