by Jeff Fiedler
Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.
Led Zeppelin (1969, Atlantic)
A landmark, if fairly overrated, album, the band’s self-titled debut finds the band’s distinctive sound fully-formed right from the very first notes. The chemistry of the lineup is obvious even just from the first few bars of “Good Times Bad Times,” so there’s no shortage of fine musicianship and passionate playing to be admired here. What no one ever bothers to point out, though, is that, judged purely on the songwriting, this isn’t actually all that remarkable of an album. Nearly half of the album consists of blues covers, while most of the band originals are the sound of a band still just a little bit too blues-influenced at this point to conceivably make all that much noise on the pop singles charts. (“Dazed and Confused,” for instance, is certainly an impressive bit of musicianship from the band, especially in its live incarnations, but as a piece of songwriting, there’s just not a whole lot there.) Still, there are several cuts that hint at the group’s significant promise as songwriters, namely the frenetic “Communication Breakdown” and the even better album opener “Good Times Bad Times,” in which John Bonham immediately launches himself into consideration for the title of the greatest drummer in rock and roll.
Led Zeppelin II (1969, Atlantic)
The band’s sophomore outing is every bit as musically impressive as the debut but boasts a noticeably much stronger set of songs (all of them self-penned, at that, with the exception of the Sonny Boy Williamson blues cover “Bring It on Home.”) There’s many an iconic guitar riff here, namely on the band’s first Top 40 hit “Whole Lotta Love” (the instrumental break of which still sounds impressive and inventive five decades later) and the equally catchy “Heartbreaker.” “Ramble On” and “Living Loving Maid (She’s Just a Woman)” are both fun rockers, and the lovely “Thank You” does a fine job of proving that the band can be just as effective in its softer moments.
Led Zeppelin III (1970, Atlantic)
Easily the most atypical of the band’s albums, most of III features the band in an acoustic – if not pure folk – setting. (It’s not all soft, though, and the Top 40 album-opener “Immigrant Song” is one of the band’s best driving rockers yet.) For that reason, it’s less likely to appeal to hard-rock buffs than either of the first two discs, but it’s not the change in sound that makes the album a drop-off from its predecessor so much as it is that the songs aren’t as strong or as catchy this time out. The album also ends with what is arguably the most bizarre song in the band’s catalog, “Hats Off to (Roy) Harper.” The album has its great moments, though, particularly the lovely ballads “That’s the Way” and “Tangerine,” the rockers “Out on the Tiles” and “Immigrant Song,” and perhaps best of all, the boisterous folk stomp of “Gallows Pole.”
Led Zeppelin IV (1971, Atlantic)
The band’s fourth outing is not only the band’s masterpiece, but it’s arguably the single greatest hard-rock album of all-time, period. It’s not just that this album boasts the band’s most iconic and beloved song, “Stairway to Heaven.” It’s the ferocity of album openers “Black Dog” and “Rock and Roll,” the jubilant stomp of “Misty Mountain Hop,” the gripping folk of “The Battle of Evermore” and “Going to California,” and the astounding musicianship throughout. Page is at the top of his game here, and John Bonham’s drumming on the heavier cuts (especially “When the Levee Breaks”) is a real revelation.
Houses of the Holy (1973, Atlantic)
It may not quite be the same masterpiece its predecessor was, but it might be the next best album they ever made. Some fans dislike the stylistic experimentation on this disc, but the detours help to make the album all the more fun of a listen if you’re not a hard rock purist. The creepy, atmospheric epic “No Quarter” and the pounding “The Song Remains the Same” are probably the most iconic songs on here, while “Over the Hills and Far Away” is one of the band’s most successful fusions of folk and hard rock. The more straightforward rock of “Dancing Days” and the reggae excursion “D’yer Ma’ker” are the album’s catchiest moments, while the funk-oriented “The Crunge” is the band at its most playful and lighthearted. The album closes with one of the band’s most underrated songs, the rhythmically complicated but infectious “The Ocean.”
Physical Graffiti (1975, Swan Song)
It might be fair to call this double album – technically a compilation of eight new cuts and seven previously unreleased leftover songs from the previous three albums – a sprawling mess. But if the Beatles’ White Album can be held in such high prestige, why not Physical Graffiti, which is every bit as captivating and contains nearly just as many good songs? The seven outtakes are actually much stronger than you would expect any leftovers to be. “Houses of the Holy” is so astoundingly catchy, it’s somewhat amazing it got left off its predecessor of the same name since it would have made a much more obvious single than “D’yer Ma’ker.” “Black Country Woman” (also an outtake from Houses) is one of the band’s more infectious blues numbers. The hooky and compact pop of “Night Flight” (an outtake from the fourth album) features some fun drumming from Bonham, while “Down by the Seaside” is simply dreamy. The brand-new material is naturally even better, highlighted by the tour de force “Kashmir,” the funky and soulful hard rock of “Trampled Underfoot,” the chilling “In the Light,” and the album-opening stutter of “Custard Pie.”
Presence (1976, Swan Song)
There’s nothing noticeably bad here, and the band’s performances are perfectly okay, too, but for all the times I’ve ever listened to this album, I cannot for the life of me ever remember how any of the songs go, and it’s not hard to see why this was their first album since their 1969 debut to not yield a Top 40 hit. The songs just aren’t very catchy. The disc sounds good when it’s on, but the songwriting really leaves a lot to be desired. The album’s best moments come courtesy of the ten-minute epic “Achilles’ Last Stand” and the bluesy rock of “Nobody’s Fault but Mine.”
In Through the Out Door (1980, Swan Song)
Sure, it’s a little less distinctively Led Zeppelin-sounding than usual – if only due to the heavy use of synths and the occasional stylistic excursion. But, thankfully, the songwriting has improved quite a bit from the last album and the band sounds a bit more refreshed, too. It might not quite live up to the greatness of their early ‘70s albums, but as the band’s final proper studio album, it’s not a bad note to go out on, either, and it mostly makes up for the missteps of Presence. “All My Love” might not sound anything like typical Zeppelin, but it’s still a highlight and provides a nice transition into the kind of atmospheric pop Robert Plant would explore in the early part of his solo career. The Top 40 hit “Fool in the Rain,” featuring some of John Bonham’s most underrated drumming, is not only the band’s catchiest song in five years, but one of the most fun and playful songs the band has ever made, even incorporating an extended samba-flavored instrumental break that concludes with some of Bonham’s most impressive fill work.
Coda (1982, Swan Song)
A short but sweet posthumous compilation of previously unreleased songs, this isn’t a traditional album per se, but it’s well-done and the songwriting is nearly as strong as that on In Through the Out Door. The biggest revelations here come from the folk stomp of “Poor Tom,” a Led Zeppelin III outtake, and the hard-hitting rockers “Ozone Baby,” “Darlene,” and “Wearing and Tearing,” all fiery outtakes from In Through the Out Door that arguably should have made the final cut of that album. The John Bonham showcase “Bonzo’s Montreux” is pretty fun, too, giving the full spotlight to John’s drumming talents for nearly five thunderous minutes to surprisingly strong musical effect.