Ranking Led Zeppelin’s Studio Albums
One of the titans of rock history, Led Zeppelin has a near-flawless discography whose consistency continues to amaze. They never made a bad album and the majority of their releases are true classics. This list is a (humble) attempt to rank their studio albums, 1969-1979, from worst to best.
How does one even do that, though? Can someone really compare these albums? These guys were always hugely ambitious, virtuosic, and capable of proving they were the greatest that rock music had to offer.
Each of these albums has their own quirks and details that make them stand out, but my general criteria are:
- the consistency of the album’s tracklist as a unified whole and
- how well does it represent the vision of the band.
Overall, I tried to be fair; the universally loved ones get their due respect, and some underappreciated ones receive a revised look. The important detail is how lucky we are, as listeners, that they have given us so much great music that we can revisit at any time.
8. In Through the Out Door (1979)
A solid album, but it doesn’t come close to the heights of their early 70s output. As a response to disco and punk, both in full swing by 1979, In Through the Out Door sounds feeble, like the work of a band starting to be outdated.
The creative disconnection the band members experienced due to personal issues is evident here. The elements that made them such a great band are all present, but a certain authentic magic captured on their early albums seems to be absent. “Carouselambra,” the album’s ten-minute centerpiece, for instance, should be the epic highlight a la “Kashmir” or “Achilles Last Stand”, but its numerous ideas are mashed together into an incoherent composition that one easily forgets once it ends.
There’s also “Hot Dog,” sometimes called the worst song of their career, which is a half-assed attempt at rockabilly that falls flat. John Paul Jones’ keyboard contributions all over this album are often distracting and, at their worst, annoying. They sound confused here, and it’s heartbreaking that they never got to make a follow-up that could have indicated a new direction.
In Through the Out Door isn’t without highlights. “In the Evening” kicks things off strongly – though it’s no “Whole Lotta Love” – and two of the band’s poppier songs, “Fool in the Rain” and “All My Love,” are both memorable. Generally, though, I think a casual Zeppelin fan could get away with considering this a curiosity, rather than a classic to spin over and over.
7. Presence (1976)
Presence is the only album of Led Zeppelin’s career where the first track is head and shoulders above the others. “Achilles Last Stand” is an extraordinary achievement, deserving of mention alongside “Stairway to Heaven”, “Kashmir” and “Dazed and Confused” as one of the finest epics of the band’s career. The song never loses its thundering momentum for ten whole minutes, with an especially cathartic guitar solo that I’d feel comfortable calling Jimmy Page’s greatest.
The band’s seamless transitions into complicated 5/4 passages exhilarate me every time. Don’t sleep on that song. It really is that good. And the rest…? Look, it would be sacrilege to call it filler, but given the consistency of their first six albums, the rest of Presence doesn’t match up. The songs are fine, but they don’t astonish.
Presence is where the band starts to repeat themselves. “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” sees them doing a Blind Willie Johnson tune that undeniably rocks, but it doesn’t do anything that they hadn’t already done many times over. “Tea for One,” while pleasant, feels like a less satisfying rewrite of “Since I’ve Been Loving You.”
Even the filler on Physical Graffiti feels acceptable on the strength of the complete package, which Presence unfortunately doesn’t have. 45 years after its release, rock criticism has relegated Presence as B-tier Zeppelin. I’m in agreement.
6. Led Zeppelin (1969)
What, sixth?! Yes, and I say it proudly. Led Zeppelin’s debut is a revolutionary moment in rock history and an unquestionable classic, whose placement on this list only indicates the quality of Led Zeppelin’s catalog. My take is that the first seeds of their brilliance are showcased here, but their peak was to come later.
The context of the 60s rock scene can be heard in the poppier tracks on the album, like “Your Time Is Gonna Come” and “Good Times Bad Times.” The band’s blues roots are also on full display here, which makes this one stand out. Though “You Shook Me” and “I Can’t Quit You Baby” both go on for a liiiiiiiittle too long (sorry!), it is undeniably exhilarating to hear them jam. Notably, those tracks are the work of an ensemble already locked in perfectly.
The band proves themselves ambitious from the get-go with two of their greatest epics in “Dazed and Confused” and “How Many More Times,” both of which are monstrous. Equal parts psychedelic and headbanging, those two songs lay the blueprint for much of 70s rock.
For me, Led Zeppelin hits best in its faster moments, notably “Communication Breakdown,” which beats Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” by a year and (unintentionally?) looks forward to the punk rock of the next decade. To imagine what people thought hearing this for the first time in 1969 befuddles the mind.
5. Led Zeppelin II (1969)
The band were intent on earning the title of world’s greatest rock band with Led Zeppelin II, released only ten months after their head-spinning debut. “Whole Lotta Love” is one of those era-defining songs that never loses its power; its sexual energy is still shocking, and it’s practically impossible to not air guitar to that riff and the solo following the psychedelic break.
This album introduces some of the ideas Led Zeppelin would come to perfect on later records. The band sounds comfortable creating more dynamic arrangements on this album, indicated by “What Is and What Should Never Be” and the bluesy “The Lemon Song” on Side A. The elegiac and sentimental “Thank You” looks forward to the acoustic songs on their best records, featuring some great organ playing from John Paul Jones.
The half-acoustic, half-electric arrangement of “Ramble On” would sound appropriate on Houses of the Holy, and its Tolkien-inspired lyrics are the first of the band’s that incorporate fantasy elements. John Bonham gets to show off his drumming chops unaccompanied in “Moby Dick,” and Jimmy Page does the same with his notorious guitar solo on “Heartbreaker.” An astonishingly consistent album, and required listening for any fan.
4. Led Zeppelin III (1970)
This one is underrated, if Led Zeppelin having an underrated album is even possible. Much of its criticism can be attributed to the strong presence of folk rock; Side B features acoustic guitars on every track. As a result, Led Zeppelin III is more meditative and less aggressive than the previous two, but in my opinion is just as strong.
The record opens with one of their greatest rockers with “Immigrant Song” before rapidly shifting direction into the ominous folkish psychedelia of “Friends.” With its almost Indian feel, “Friends” is the first track that captures the beautiful pastoral feeling of Bron-Yr-Aur, the Welsh cottage where much of the album was written. The acoustic songs are of high quality; “Tangerine” is a gorgeous folk rock tune, and the traditional folk song “Gallows Pole” builds to a thrilling climax complete with banjo and mandolin.
There is still hard rock to be found here in “Celebration Day” and “Out on the Tiles,” and possibly their most jaw-dropping blues number in the eight minute “Since I’ve Been Loving You.” Led Zeppelin III has a little bit of everything that made them great.
3. Led Zeppelin IV (1971)
One of the most celebrated albums of all time, Led Zeppelin IV has attained mythical status over the years. The hype is warranted. This is the work of a band at their peak. Like all their best albums, Led Zeppelin IV confidently offers the listener songwriting variety for a dynamic listen.
“Black Dog” and “Rock and Roll,” two hard-rocking classics, are followed by “The Battle of Evermore,” a fantasy-inspired pastoral folk song with no drums and consistent presence of mandolin. To even mention “Stairway to Heaven” seems unnecessary, as it is probably their most famous song, but it really is as good as they say. Spectacular in its lyrics, performances, and gradual build from a single acoustic guitar to full band, “Stairway” is the rock epic perfected.
The second half maintains the momentum with “Misty Mountain Hop,” a pop-oriented and groovy number about hippies, and “Four Sticks,” named after Bonham’s use of four drumsticks on the recording. “Going to California” offers another sentimental moment with one of the band’s strongest ballads.
For me, the highlight of the album is the closer, and my favorite Zeppelin cut, “When the Levee Breaks,” with its powerful drum groove, bluesy harmonica, and slide guitar. A new Zeppelin fan should start here; I can assure you that you will be coming back to it for years to come.
2. Physical Graffiti (1975)
Their only double album, Physical Graffiti deserves a high placement because of the sheer quantity of its ideas. No Led Zeppelin record better captures their versatility than this one, which runs for 84 minutes across 15 tracks.
On these four sides, we get the whole repertoire. No, really. Name a side of Led Zeppelin, and they’ve got it here: heavy blues rock (“In My Time of Dying”, “Custard Pie”), Eastern-influenced psychedelia (“Kashmir”, “In the Light”), sunny pop rock (“Down by the Seaside”), acoustic rock (“Black Country Woman”), funk (“Trampled Under Foot”), and even 50s rock n’ roll (“Boogie with Stu”). The album is filled with many of Jimmy Page’s greatest riffs and solos, and John Bonham’s kit never sounded better than it does here.
And though it would become a distracting problem down the line, the use of keyboards here is tasteful and effective: check out the funk bombast of “Trampled Under Foot,” or the droning introduction to “In the Light.” And sure, the record starts to lose steam on Side D, but none of the tracks there are bad by any means, and the consistently high quality of the first three sides is more than enough to call Physical Graffiti one of rock’s masterpieces.
1. Houses of the Holy (1973)
It might be controversial, but Houses of the Holy is my pick for the best record of Led Zeppelin’s career. There is a distinct sunny feeling to this album, especially with the bright presence of acoustic guitar.
As mentioned for Zeppelin III and Physical Graffiti, this album’s variety is one of its strengths. “The Rain Song” is a gorgeous folk number that could be their greatest acoustic song, while “The Ocean” and “Dancing Days” deliver in the hard rock department.
The most compelling moments on the album are when these two worlds collide, like on “The Song Remains the Same” and “Over the Hills and Far Away.” Both of those songs are not afraid to rock out, but the aggression is encased in joyful feelings; now that is a combination I can get behind. The one gloomy moment is “No Quarter,” with its ominous organ tone and lengthy intro, which is as unabashedly psychedelic as they ever got.
The oft-hated “D’yer Ma’ker” has always been a big highlight for me: it has a simple but captivating groove and a four-chord major-key riff which I wouldn’t get tired of if even it continued for a full hour. “The Crunge” is the obvious low point of the album, but it runs for a brief three minutes and comes after the absurd run of the first three tracks.
As far as I’m concerned, it’s no problem. This album is a masterpiece.
Ranking Led Zeppelin’s Albums In Conclusion
Do you have any thoughts, feelings or violent reactions to our list of Led Zeppelin’s top studio albums? Leave us a comment down below to share your album rankings.