If there’s one thing my compadre Juan Alvarado likes to do, it’s challenge me to write lists. Fortunately, if there’s one thing I like to do, it’s write lists. Following our competing Top 10 Simpsons Episodes lists, he immediately challenged me to write competing Top 10 Led Zeppelin Songs lists. Well met, sir!
I’ll start with a brief explanation of my selection process. I’ve listened to the entire Led Zeppelin catalog so many times that Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones, and John Bonham have made my ears bleed. This means that I’ve played out some of the band’s more signature songs. As such, you won’t be seeing Stairway to Heaven, Whole Lotta Love, or Kashmir on my list. Those are great, great songs, but how many more times in my life do I need to hear Stairway? There are so many great songs in the Zeppelin catalog that I can highlight, I don’t really feel the need to rehash the Stairway stories that everyone already knows.
One more note: unlike on my Desert Island Albums series, Juan and I agreed to allow live tracks–mostly because there are a couple of tracks from BBC Sessions that I had to have. Other than that, there were no rules. Without further ado, let’s get to the list.
Honorable Mentions: This list wasn’t quite as hard to winnow down as my Simpsons list was, but there were still a few painful cuts. The four hardest songs to excise: When the Levee Breaks, with its thunderous drum track courtesy of the front hall at Headley Grange; Gallows Pole, with its clever lyrics about wheedling a hangman with promises of silver, gold, or a sister’s love in exchange for freedom (if you listen to the lyrics, the hangman takes the sister and still executes the singer), and its great banjo track; The Rain Song, with its beautiful string arrangement; and Fool in the Rain, with its killer drum track, great guitar riff, and funny ending about waiting for your dream girl on the wrong block. I still can’t believe I cut any of these songs.
10. Thank You (BBC Sessions version)
This song, the first on which Robert Plant wrote the lyrics entirely on his own, is best known for being the lovely acoustic number that closes side one of Led Zeppelin II. As great as that original recording is, the truly epic version is on BBC Sessions. The closing song of a concert the band performed at the Paris Theatre in London on April 1, 1971 (Thank You was an encore staple in the early days, for obvious reasons), it is structured much like the original, with a Hammond organ harmonizing with the guitar, though in the live version it’s a fuzzy electric guitar, rather than an acoustic. It’s actually a fairly pedestrian performance–until the 2:28 mark, at which point Jimmy Page launches into a guitar solo that is unfuckingbelievable. He flies all over the fretboard with bent strings and hammered and pulled notes, a one-minute, thirty-second display of sheer virtuosity that is, in my opinion (and I know this is a bold statement) the greatest guitar solo on any Led Zeppelin recording. When I’m listening to this song, I close the door, turn the lights off, and air guitar along with it like a rejected extra from Wayne’s World.
9. Traveling Riverside Blues
While Led Zeppelin is generally considered to be the original hard rock band, they owe most of their sound to the blues (as an example, they took the lyrics for Whole Lotta Love from a Willie Dixon/Muddy Waters song). Traveling Riverside Blues is a cover, the original recorded by the great Robert Johnson, the King of the Delta Blues. Zeppelin recorded their version for the BBC on June 24, 1969, and as is true of all great covers, the band makes it indisputably their own. The song opens with an instantly recognizable ringing, open-tuned slide guitar riff. Every Led Zeppelin fan I know gets a little weak in the knees when that riff comes in. Plant contributes a pastiche of classic blues lyrics over a shuffling rhythm, including, of course, the famous “squeeze my lemon til the juice runs down my leg.” If you want to understand the roots of where Led Zeppelin’s music came from, this song is a good place to start.
8. Hey Hey What Can I Do
It shows how awesome this band is that one of their greatest songs didn’t even make it on to an album. Hey Hey What Can I Do was released as the B-side on the Immigrant Song single, the only non-album studio track the band ever released, and it still became a staple of classic rock radio. Musically, it’s an acoustic track that prominently features the tasty mandolin playing of John Paul Jones. It’s a fun song to listen to when you’re pissed at your girlfriend, because it’s all about a guy searching town for his cheating “street corner girl” who “wanna ball all day.” What really makes it great is Plant’s inspired vocal, in particular during the song’s coda, when he cries out “Hey hey, what can I do/I got a woman and she won’t be true.”
7. Ten Years Gone
The 1975 double LP Physical Graffiti is notable for its epic, longform songs, the most famous of which is, of course Kashmir. My favorite, though, has always been Ten Years Gone. It’s a song that showcases Led Zeppelin’s studio production (which is to say, Jimmy Page’s studio production), as it layers several guitar parts (14 of them, to be exact), each one more beautiful than the next, on top of each other. It was originally meant to be an instrumental piece, but Plant set lyrics to it, writing about looking back at a girlfriend he’d broken up with ten years before because she made him choose between her and his music (I’m gonna go out on a limb and say he made the right choice). What’s interesting is the lyrics aren’t bitter at all; rather, they’re reflective and mournful, in particular the use of the “eagles of one nest” metaphor, as eagles mate for life.
6. In My Time of Dying
On second thought, this is my favorite epic longform track from Physical Graffiti. It’s a cover of a traditional gospel song that goes back to the 1920s, one that’s been covered by any number of blues artists, as well as Bob Dylan on his 1962 self-titled debut album–but nobody does it quite like Zeppelin. It opens with a snarling open-tuned slide guitar riff, and then Page melodically echoes Plant as he sings, “In my time of dying/Want nobody to mourn.” The song progresses through several different sections, including a sick extended guitar solo. At the 8:15 mark the band stops dead, and pauses, before Plant chants, a capella, “Oh my Jesus, oh my Jesus, oh my Jesus.” He continues to sing these lines as the band crashes back in, building to a crescendo at which Plant is almost screaming the lyrics and John Bonham thrashes his drum kit so hard he seems to be trying to break it. I get uncontrollably fired up when I listen to it. The studio version ends with a humorous moment, when Plant sings “Gonna make it my dying dying dying …” at which point someone starts coughing, and Plant says, almost laughing “cough.” (I went with a live version from 1975 for the link below because, well, it’s awesome.)
Jimi Hendrix is unquestionably the greatest guitar player who ever lived, but Jimmy Page is, I think, the greatest architect of riffs in rock ‘n’ roll history (Keith Richards being the only other guy with a claim to that title). Heartbreaker, the first track on side two of Led Zeppelin II, features what is probably my favorite of his riffs, opening with that extended, slightly bent, heavily vibrato’ed G-bass note. The guitar on this song just sounds so fucking heavy. Plant sings angry lyrics about a cheating girl (a common theme for Zeppelin–that’s the blues influence again), most famously, “One thing I do have on my mind/If you could clarify, please do/The way you call me another guy’s name/When I try to make love to you.” After that line the band abruptly stops, giving way to one of Page’s most famous moments, the 45-second true solo; my favorite part of the song, though, is actually the second half of the solo, when the backing guitar track and drums and bass all come back in for a driving, high octane break that is truly Led Zeppelin at its finest.
4. Over the Hills and Far Away
In many ways, this is the perfect Led Zeppelin song. It starts with an intricate and instantly recognizable acoustic guitar riff–one of those riffs that you always hear someone playing when you’re walking through a guitar shop. The opening lyric, “Hey lady, you got the love I need,” is one of the band’s most well-known, and after the first verse the song transitions, in classic Zeppelin fashion, from the jangly acoustic work to a heavy electric guitar riff. The guitar solo is another fretboard shredding masterpiece, and the outro lyrics, “You really oughtta know … I know I should, I know I should” repeated through a fadeout, and then an extended, slowly plucked guitar outro, give the song a lovely, textured ending
Let me tell you a story: During the summer between my sophomore and junior years of college, I went on a trip with a few friends down to Tijuana. We got about as drunk as you’d expect a bunch of 20-year old college kids in TJ to do, but the most conspicuously drunk were my roommate and I; both of us were going through tough times (as tough as anybody can when he’s living on a beach in Santa Barbara, anyway), and for some reason when we were walking back toward the border we linked arms and started singing Tangerine. I don’t know why exactly we chose Tangerine, but even though I was blacked out at the time, that’s become one of my favorite memories. (The best part of the story is that we insisted on going through the border checkpoint like that, and one of our other friends had to physically separate us.) Musically, the song has one of the simplest guitar tracks in the Zeppelin catalog, but that 12-string acoustic guitar intro is iconic for its simplicity. And it gives way to a thick-toned electric guitar solo that’s a perfect counterpoint to the light acoustic work. A telling endorsement of this song is that Cameron Crowe, who covered Zeppelin for Rolling Stone as a teenager in the ’70s, chose Tangerine as the music for the final scene in his semi-autobiographical opus Almost Famous.
2. Ramble On
All the elements that define Led Zeppelin come together on this one. You have a classic acoustic guitar riff, giving way to another classic electric guitar riff. You have an intricate bass line, creative percussion (it’s a mystery what Bonham is actually playing during the verses, but those are definitely drums during the chorus, and they’re impeccable). And, of course, it has those Tolkien-inspired lyrics: “‘Twas in the darkest depths of Mordor/I met a girl so fair/But Gollum, and the evil one crept up/And slipped away with her.” This is a perfect Led Zeppelin song, and when they showed Page playing the guitar part in this scene in It Might Get Loud, my heart almost stopped.
1. Your Time Is Gonna Come
Ramble On may be the perfect Zep tune, but it’s not my favorite. That would be Your Time Is Gonna Come, the first track on side two of the band’s self-titled debut album. It opens with a one-minute, five-second solo organ intro played by John Paul Jones that gives way to a lightly plucked guitar and heavy drums, over which Robert Plant sings lyrics about a cheating girlfriend: “Lying, cheating, hurting, that’s all you seem to do/Messing around with every guy in town/Putting me down for thinking of someone new.” As we’ve been over, Zeppelin has a lot of songs about the woman who done you wrong, but this one has personal resonance for me: During college I fell pretty hard for a girl who strung me along for a good while, and when I finally figured out it wasn’t going to work out and I needed to quit her, the lyrics, “Made up my mind to break you this time/Won’t be so kind, it’s my turn to cry,” and “Don’t care what you say cause I’m going away to stay/Gonna make you pay for that great big whole in my heart” carried a LOT of weight.
There you have it, my Led Zeppelin Top 10. It goes to show how deep and diverse this band’s catalog is that even though I chose Led Zeppelin IV for my Desert Island Albums list, none of the songs from that album made it onto my Top 10. Fuck me, Led Zeppelin is awesome. Now go read Juan’s list.