Well, this is a tricky one. The idea behind this series is to spotlight lesser-known songs of some of music’s most celebrated artists. But Led Zeppelin? They only released eight albums of material in their time together. And Classic Rock programmers have picked those albums pretty clean, leaving it hard to imagine that there could be anything of Zep’s that hasn’t been heard (and then heard again) by even casual fans. After all, they helped to create the genre known as “heavy metal” before branching out into a bevy of fascinating musical areas — and then essentially calling it a day after John Bonham’s death. As a result, the catalog is finite and well-trodden. Still, here are ten tracks, all excellent, which might not be the first things you think of when you think of “Led Zeppelin.”
1. “Your Time Is Gonna Come” (1969)
Led Zeppelin’s debut album intrigued fans and flummoxed critics before eventually sledgehammering its way through all defenses. But the band also proved they could take their foot off the throttle when necessary, as in this mid-tempo romantic revenge fantasy. John Paul Jones delivers magisterial church organ to set the tone, while Robert Plant lays off the intense wailing that characterized his vocals elsewhere on the album, instead finding a bluesy “pocket.”
2. “The Lemon Song” (1969)
Led Zeppelin II doubled down on what made the first album so memorable, more thundering riffs, pounding drums, and rafter-rattling vocals. Many of the songs are classics (“Whole Lotta Love,” “Heartbreaker,” “Living Loving Maid,” “Ramble On”), so it’s hard to find a track from this album that’s unheralded. This blues monster qualifies, as the band locks into a sludgy groove before double-timing their way to glory. Jones stands out on bass, while Jimmy Page cuts loose with one of his fiercest solos.
3. “Friends” (1970)
Anyone who wrote the band off as one-trick ponies could no longer deny their musical excellence and versatility after Led Zeppelin III. And “Friends” is a great example of why. Plant’s vocal melody, Page’s trudging acoustic guitar, and Jones’ orchestrations all seem to be pulling in different directions, toying with dissonance at times, but reluctantly uniting nonetheless. The lyrics also show Plant starting to veer away from blues rephrasing towards something more original and compelling.
4. “That’s the Way” (1970)
A clear competitor for the band’s prettiest song ever, it’s a wonder that this one doesn’t receive more airplay. Give credit to Cameron Crowe for realizing how great it is and utilizing it well in Almost Famous. Page, with help from Jones on mandolin, locates bittersweet angles off the breezy acoustic guitar, while Plant puts in a vocal performance of understated, longing beauty. Who knew that folky introspection rested so comfortably in their wheelhouse?
5. “Four Sticks” (1971)
Led Zeppelin IV is widely and correctly lauded as their masterpiece, as they synthesized all of their disparate interests on an album as accomplished as it is ambitious. This is the least-known of the eight songs on the album, and it’s odd, shapeshifting nature might be the reason that it doesn’t get as much play as the other evergreens. But there’s a lot to love here, especially Bonham’s relentless drum approach that holds everything together even as the other elements start to wander.
6. “No Quarter” (1973)
1973’s Houses of the Holy continued Led Zeppelin’s impressive hot streak, with this mysterious track being one of the highlights. Page and Plant revisited it for their 1994 reunion, but the original is where you want to be. Page grinds his way through forbidden lands while Plant’s voice barely escapes the snowy murk created by Jones’ atmospheric touches. Bonham, meanwhile, lives up to the song’s title, delivering the beat unafraid of even “the dogs of doom.” Spooky, spirited stuff.
7. “Down by the Seaside” (1975)
It must have been odd to hear hard rock’s standard bearers performing a soft-rocker that, with the exception of the strange non-sequitur of a break, wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a singer-songwriter record. But Physical Graffiti was a double album, which gave the band some latitude to try things like this. The loping rhythm and Page’s watery guitar make for a relaxing and quirky listen, one that holds up well over time.
8. “Boogie With Stu” (1975)
The “Stu “in question was Ian Stewart, known for his longtime association with The Rolling Stones as road manager and occasional piano player. Here he adds some serious boogie-woogie to the proceedings, and the rest of the band eats it up. Bonham’s trashcan beat is irresistible, Page gets down and dirty on rhythm guitar and sprints through a couple mandolin solos, and Plant seems to be having the time of his life. Simply a blast from start to finish.
9. “Hots on for Nowhere” (1976)
Presence has its defenders, including Page, whose guitar playing is exceptional throughout. But Plant’s injuries suffered during a car accident the previous year and the rushed making of the album created a record largely devoid of any true classics. This track, with frustrated lyrics that Plant aimed right at Page, is a keeper, in large part because it achieves an effortless funkiness that often eluded the band when they consciously tried to reach for it.
10. “Hot Dog” (1979)
The band’s biggest chart hits came off their final album together, even if it left their longtime fans a bit baffled by the “accessible” turn. This track might be the only one in the Zep catalog that would fit in well at a country hoedown. Like many of their British rocking peers, the band seemed to see country music as a bit humorous, but they honor it nonetheless here with Bonham’s two-stepping beat, Jones’ saloon piano, and Plant’s moaning self-harmonies.
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