Making its official debut in 1971, Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway To Heaven” has gone on to achieve anthemic status in the world of rock music. Rolling Stone, VH1 and others have picked it as one of the greatest tracks that the genre has to offer, accolades that stand alongside the fact that it is still one of the most played songs on rock radio. However, even though listmakers and other pop culture pundits continue to sing its praises nearly 50 years after its release, it is far from being the best studio cut that the band has in its arsenal.
With jagged, blues-inspired riffs, soaring vocals and a booming rhythm section, Led Zeppelin’s overall sound is nothing short of iconic, credited as one of the foundational pieces that eventually shaped the stylistic flourishes of modern progressive rock, hard rock and heavy metal. That being said, Zep’s discography is way more nuanced than that assessment might convey, using inspiration from folk music, funk and imagery J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings universe to flesh out a repertoire that grows more impressive with age. Listening to those songs over and over again, as a die-hard fan like me is want to, has led me to discover how many I’d put ahead of “Stairway to Heaven” in the pantheon of Led Zeppelin strokes of genius (spoiler: there are plenty).
Check out my list of the 10 tracks that top the group’s 8-minute opus below.
10. Fool in the Rain
Arguably the most overtly pop-sounding cut that Led Zeppelin ever released (something akin to The Doors’ “Hello, I Love You”), this song about a man who longs to see the woman who apparently stood him up is among the best work both Robert Plant and the late John Bonham ever did with the group. Plant’s vocal delivery is both tender and pained, letting the emotion behind the song’s lyrics carry his performance beautifully. Meanwhile, Bonham’s drumming is absolutely sublime, with an uptempo digression in the middle portion of the track that almost defies the laws of physics.
9. No Quarter
Zeppelin at their most atmospheric, the orchestral nature of “No Quarter” is breathtaking in its attention to detail. The solemn, almost brooding keyboard notes present the aural illusion of one being totally submerged in a dark, murky abyss. Plant croons about the militant forces that will show their enemies no mercy, while guitarist Jimmy Page provides a chunky riff that grounds the track in a gritty sonic space. An interlude before the closing verse even carries some jazzier elements, showcasing the group’s willingness to meld multiple genres together on one song.
8. Rock and Roll
An advertising staple since what feels like the dawn of time, “Rock and Roll” is a piece of music that more than earns the all-encompassing attitude conveyed by its title. Beginning with the infectious beat that Bonham lays down to start the track, Zeppelin gets the blood pumping immediately, adding in some sparkling axe work by Page and one of Plant’s catchiest vocal hooks ever. The underrated part of this track? John Paul Jones’s bass playing, which provides the song with a steel backbone that prevents it from ever going completely off the rails.
7. When the Levee Breaks
A sly nod to their blues forefathers, the group use the harmonica-driven “When the Levee Breaks” as a means to go back to their musical roots. The closing track on Led Zeppelin IV, this record has a tragic feel to it, with lyrics centring around the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, which was the most destructive river flooding in the United States history. This positions Plant as a spokesperson of sorts for the wounded and wronged of the world, a role he always took on with relish. At seven minutes in length, it’s an epic that rivals “Stairway To Heaven” in terms of its storytelling ability.
Pop culture references and its role in parody culture aside, “Kashmir” stands as one of the most intricately composed offerings in Led Zeppelin’s catalogue. The song’s unmistakable opening chords have become synonymous with the feeling of approaching danger, on the same level of John Williams’ iconic “Imperial March” from the Star Wars soundtrack. According to Jimmy Page, his legendary riff was actually inspired by a sitar tuning routine, which proves once again that the group were masters at crafting unique-sounding material out of seemingly incongruous elements.
5. Black Dog
Supposedly named after a lost canine that was wandering aimlessly in the studio during recording, “Black Dog” is, without a doubt, my personal favourite when it comes to Led Zeppelin’s music. Robert Plant’s vocals, which serve as an out-of-character “cold open” of sorts for the band, ooze confidence and sex appeal, while Page’s explosion on guitar punctuates the track with the hard rock vibrancy that characterized the band’s muscular approach to making records. I still remember the first time I heard it — alone in my room, with my headphones on and eyes closed — and, as of this writing, it’s the closest I’ve ever come to having an out-of-body experience.
4. Good Times Bad Times
The first song on the band first-ever album, “Good Times Bad Times” is the kind of earth-shattering introduction that few other artists could fashion. The pounding snare and tom notes from John Bonham combine with some menacing chords from Page and Jones that, back in 1969, helped the group make a statement that rock and roll enthusiasts have never forgotten. It’s also one of the tracks on their self-titled debut that really helped established Zep’s signature sound, venturing beyond their bluesy roots to give listeners something that was uniquely theirs.
3. The Immigrant Song
Is this the most recognized riff in the Led Zeppelin canon? That distinction may be a debatable one, but if nothing else, this is the song that continues to introduce the group’s sound to each new generation, perhaps more than any other cut in their library. With Plant’s infamous screams, which take on an almost bird-like quality, are the best-known part of an opening that has gone down in history as one of the rock’s finest moments. Add to that an incredibly catchy guitar riff and some deceptively complex rhythms by Bonham and Jones, and you get a track that is nothing short of outstanding.
2. Ramble On
Starting on a rather quiet note and ending with the roar of a band playing in full-on attack mode, “Ramble On” is one of the best examples of how Led Zeppelin’s sound was able to turn on a dime, always doing so seamlessly and effortlessly. The lyrics are particularly powerful as well, using the journey of Sam and Frodo from Lord of the Rings as a metaphor for the struggles that the group faced while travelling the world, playing hundreds of high-energy gigs night after night. But, as all the great artists do, no matter what obstacles are thrown in their way, they’ll just keep on ramblin’.
1. Whole Lotta Love
The crowning achievement in the discography of one of rock’s most talented groups, “Whole Lotta Love” is the epitome of what makes Led Zeppelin’s sound so special. Of particular note is the “trip” sequence after the second chorus, where Plant’s wails become one with the track overlays and effects to transport the listener to an almost otherworldly place. Then, the sound of Bonham’s drums suddenly come crashing in, giving way to a euphoric blast of guitar action from Page, completing potentially the most synergistic moment in the band’s history. It’s a jaw-dropping moment in a song that never fails to amaze, even after several hundred listens (with the volume turned up to 11 of course).
What do you think — do these songs top the greatness of “Stairway to Heaven” or do they all fall in line behind that classic? Let me know in the comments!