Between 1970 and 1975, Led Zeppelin was the biggest band on the planet. They were the living definition of rock superstardom and a model of rock n’ roll excess. They flew on their own private Boeing 720, developed a (supposedly exaggerated) reputation for trashing hotel rooms and released some of the most critically acclaimed hard-rock albums of all time.
However, the band’s expansive discography can make it difficult for new listeners to know where to start with the band. To help, we’ve written a beginners guide to the group that contains suggestions for first-time listeners, bootleg enthusiasts and those looking to unearth Led Zep’s hidden gems.
For first time listeners - Led Zeppelin IV
Ask five fans which Zeppelin album is the best introduction to the band and you’ll likely get five different answers. Everyone has their favourite. However, based purely on accessibility and impact, we’ve gone for Led Zeppelin IV. One of the most commercially successful rock albums of all time, it features some of the group’s biggest tracks, including Stairway to Heaven, When the Levee Breaks, and Black Dog.
Recorded over three months at the start of 1971, the album was largely a reaction to the critical mauling Led Zeppelin III received in the music press. Rather than retreat into the more traditional hard rock sound that typified the first two albums, Led Zeppelin doubled down and continued to experiment with a wide range of styles and instruments.
While Stairway may be one of the most overplayed rock songs in history, this is an album that includes so much more than that riff. It has certainly withstood the test of time and continues to make appearances in greatest albums lists. If you’re looking for an easy way into the Led Zeppelin universe, this is it.
Next steps - Physical Graffiti
Recorded and released at the height of the band’s powers, Physical Graffiti was Led Zeppelin’s statement of greatness. The double album hit the shelves in February 1975, at the end of the five year period in which the group reached the pinnacle of their popularity and were heralded as the biggest rock band in existence. It’s a record that was intended to cement their position at the top and reflect all that Led Zep had been and achieved. It did just that.
Despite covering a lot of ground stylistically - In My Time of Dying was a folk standard covered by Dylan, while Kashmir is a Mellotron-driven prog-rock adventure and Bron-Yr-Aur is a fully acoustic number from Page - the album holds together surprisingly well and is often considered the best representation of the band’s artistic vision.
Underappreciated classics - Led Zeppelin and Houses of the Holy
When you really begin to explore the Led Zeppelin back catalogue, it quickly becomes apparent that there’s a whole lotta Zep to discover. While Led Zeppelin III is much-loved by fans and is a great choice for those who appreciate the folkier Led Zep sound, our favourite under-appreciated Zeppelin albums are the group’s debut, Led Zeppelin, and their fifth album, Houses of the Holy.
The former introduced us to the classic Led Zeppelin rock sound and is composed of both original material and several covers. It contains a whole host of classic riffs and a slew of tracks that are beloved by Led Zep aficionados who dig that earthy, bluesy sound. If you just want to sample a few tracks, start with Good Times, Bad Times, Your Time Is Gonna Come and Communication Breakdown, the latter of which is often cited as the first metal song.
Houses of the Holy is an altogether different beast. If Led Zeppelin was an understandably by-the-numbers rock album (it was their debut release after all), Houses… is a masterpiece of experimentation. Encompassing and traversing psychedelia, reggae, swing, funk and 50s rock n’ roll, it marked a move away from the blues-orientated sound of the early albums and a step towards a cleaner, more epic and expansive style that reflected the group’s status as the biggest band on the planet.
Digging a little deeper - The Bootlegs
Led Zeppelin released nine studio albums over a 13-year period. That may seem like a lot to get through but, for Led Zep obsessives, it’s quickly exhausted. Fortunately, there’s a wealth of bootleg live recordings to work your way through, should you want to get better acquainted with the raw sound of Led Zeppelin live.
Like other bands of the time, most notably the Grateful Dead and the Who, bootlegging has played a big role in growing the group’s mythology and sustaining the community of fans who follow them. There are literally hundreds of recordings to pick your way through, which is ideal for crate-digging fans who thrive on getting to know their favourite bands inside-out. However, it does mean it’s difficult to know where to start.
The 27th April 1969 show in San Francisco offers a fascinating snapshot into Led Zep’s early raw edge, while the 24th July 1979 show in Copenhagen highlights the slickness of their late-stage performances and is renowned for Page’s virtuoso playing. The Montreux show on 7th March 1970 is one for the audiophiles out there and the 26th January 1969 performance in Boston is regarded as one of the group’s finest, even if the sound quality of the recording isn’t quite up to scratch.
Solo gems - The post-Zeppelin projects
When Led Zep broke up in 1980, following the death of drummer John Bonham, it wasn’t immediately clear what would come next. Despite briefly considering a career as a teacher in a local Steiner school, Robert Plant eventually released his first solo album, Pictures at Eleven, in 1982. Page worked on several soundtracks and Jones collaborated with a diverse array of music stars during the 80s and 90s.
While not all the group’s solo recordings have approached the heights of their Led Zep output, there are a few notable albums to check out if you’re interested in diving a little deeper. The Honeydrippers saw Page and Plant reunite to release the excellent The Honeydrippers: Volume One EP in 1984, while Jones played in the supergroup Them Crooked Vultures for a short time.
However, the pick of the post-Led Zep bunch is probably Plant’s duet album with Alison Krauss, Raising Sand. A bluegrass and folk-inspired masterpiece, the recording features two of the greatest vocal performances of the last 20 years.
So that’s our beginners’ introduction to the music of Led Zeppelin - a brief guide to where you should start, what comes next and how to continue the hard-rock adventure. How do you feel about our choices? Is Led Zeppelin IV the best intro to the group for a total newcomer? Which Led Zep album is most underrated? Get involved, drop us a comment below and let us know what you think.