This is a toss-up. Led Zeppelin II or Physical Graffiti. These are two very different albums. One, a bluesy guitar feast, the other, a keyboard + guitar dream. Shocking, Led Zeppelin IV is not in contention. What? Yes, seriously. It’s a great album, and the songs are memorable, we all owned a copy (over 23 million sold), but let’s give the other albums consideration. If it is number one on your list, great. Let’s skip past it.
First, Led Zeppelin II
Led Zeppelin II came out the same year as their debut album. Damn fine year. Their debut album was good but not great. Nothing wrong with the songs, but it’ like they were stuck in second gear. By the time they recorded II, they were clicking as a band, Page was writing more creative songs and he was a better producer. The difference is there. On most Led Zeppelin lists, this album is number two, right behind that album we are not talking about.
This was a serious, hard rock album, really, a hard blues album. Three of these songs were either blues songs or adapted from blues. Look at the credits. Page is awesome with his guitar mastery, he duets with himself as he overdubs multiple guitar tracks on each song. Bonham’s drum assault is very evident with this album. Plant established himself as a lyricist on this album, several of the songs are from his personal relationships. Jones emerges as the group’s secret weapon, his bass lines are crucial to giving the songs drive and backing Page on the groove. He also introduces keyboards to the band’s potency.
This album covers all the bases, electric blues, acoustic blues/folk, classic rock riff songs, instrumental grooves, vocal shredding, and introduction of the keyboards.
“Whole Lotta Love” (John Bonham, Willie Dixon, John Paul Jones, Jimmy Page, Robert Plant) 5:34 This is the signature Zeppelin song, it’s riff crazy, battering ram bass, thundering drums and Page doing what he does best, shredding the vocals. The instrumental break with the phasing from channel to channel was very rad at the time. Page took the group to a new level, one of the seminal guitar riffs of the era. A lawsuit gave Willie Dixon a co-writing credit, something that Zeppelin has dealt with numerous times. This song announces that Zeppelin has arrived.
“What Is and What Should Never Be” (Page, Plant) 4:46 This is Page and Plant writing there own blues song. The production involves some creative us of bounding the guitar from the right to left to right channels. Plant does a great job of switching vocals gears. It is a very sweet guitar song. Jones’ bass is upfront in the mix, almost like a lead instrument. Plant sings about a dalliance he had that he shouldn’t have indulged.
“The Lemon Song” (Bonham, Chester Burnett Jones, Page, Plant) 6:19 Here is another case when a blues musician was awarded a co-writing credit. The song was inspired by a Howlin’ Wolf song, but it was Chester Burnett’s publishing company that file a law suit. The song was written and record on a concert tour of America. The songs feels like it was built from a jam. The guitar and bass duet on this blues stomper. Page goes flying on the bridge, a red-hot solo. This is not their best blues song but it is pretty darn good.
“Thank You” (Page, Plant) 4:49 A great organ part by Jones, and acoustic guitar by Page, on a folkish song. This was a hint at what III would look like. Jones contributes the most to this song but doesn’t get a credit.
“Heartbreaker” (Bonham, Jones, Page, Plant) 4:14 Another fat, riff-heavy song. Page’s guitar fills the sound spectrum. Listen to Jones’ impressive bass line underneath Page’s guitar. Time-out in the middle for a Page solo before the song heats up again.
“Living Loving Maid (She’s Just a Woman)” (Page, Plant) 2:39 This song almost seems like a continuance from “Heartbreaker” with the same nasty type of riff. This is a tasty bit of smoldering blues-rock.
“Ramble On” (Page, Plant) 4:34 A bright, upbeat acoustic guitar starts the song, joined by Jones’ soaring bass. Page and Bonham join in with an electric and drum barrage, but the song never loses the melodic core. Fine guitar work by Page on electric and acoustic guitars.
“Moby Dick” (instrumental) (Bonham, Jones, Page) 4:20 Another riff song built from a jam, this song gives Bonham an opportunity to for a three minute drum solo. Necessary? Not really.
“Bring It On Home” (Dixon) 4:19 Originally credited to Page/Plant, they borrowed pieces of the song from Dixon and were taken to court. While the song is not entirely Dixon, he is listed as the sole writer. Giddy up. Plant with his blues harp starts the song with Jones’ walking bass line. Then Page blasts with a double-barrel of guitar riffs taking up for the harp.
Next, Physical Graffiti
The last great Zeppelin album. It consists of more than half the songs having been recorded or finished in previous years. A few were leftovers from the IV album. No matter, the songs have a familiar groove, and embrace the keyboard as a central part of Zeppelin. Ironically, their next album, Presence, would have no keyboard and would be a lower ranked album. Most of the lists I’ve seen place this album anywhere from three to five. The biggest issue for critics is it has filler and could be reduced to one excellent disk instead of two. Same complaint with the Beatles’ White Album.
All songs written by Page/Plant. Recording dates and locations listed. Jones doesn’t get enough credit for his work composing and arranging these songs.
Side one – This side feels like a continuation of House of the Holy, what you would expect, not breaking any new ground.
“Custard Pie” January–February 1974, Headley Grange, Hampshire 4:13 Guitar riff to start the song, the new addition here is Jones playing the clavinet keyboard. This song really isn’t about custard pie. Page lets out some screaming solos.
“The Rover” May 1972, Stargroves (Houses of the Holy outtake) 5:36 Guitar/bass groove. Page brilliantly throws out these riff songs with seemingly little effort. My only complaint is that Plant’s vocals seem buried in the mix.
“In My Time of Dying” (John Bonham, John Paul Jones, Page, and Plant) January–February 1974, Headley Grange 11:04 Some slide guitar to start. The song is built around that repeating blues riff. A lot of echo in this song. Feels like the outgrowth of a jam, this gives Page a lot of room for his expansive solos.
Side two – This side more belongs to Jones than anyone else. His keyboards provide the subtext for two of three songs on this side. “Kashmir” is one of their finest song and defines this album.
“Houses of the Holy” May 1972, Olympic Studios, London (Houses of the Holy outtake) 4:01 I’m surprised they left this song off the album they recorded it for. Page utilizes an interesting guitar sound. Another distinctive guitar riff, that Jones and Bonham climb aboard.
“Trampled Under Foot” (Jones, Page, and Plant) January–February 1974, Headley Grange 5:35 Things start to get interesting. Jones pounds out the riff on the clavinet, giving it a funky groove. Zeppelin mastered turning a riff into a five minute song without it sounding generic or overstaying the welcome. Jones gets a rare solo and he makes the most of it.
“Kashmir” (Bonham, Page, and Plant) January–February 1974, Headley Grange 8:37 Surprisingly, Jones does not get a credit since he gives the song its great texture with his keyboards, and arranging the string accompaniment. He gives the song a subcontinental flavor. A signature Zeppelin song from this period.
Side three – For many years, my favorite side of the set.
“In the Light” (Jones, Page, and Plant) January–February 1974, Headley Grange 8:44 Jones and his keyboards get this long song started. He goes on to give the song the funky vibe that Page plays off of. This song gets lost in all of the fine songs in their repertoire.
“Bron-Yr-Aur” (Page) July 1970, Island Studios, London (Led Zeppelin III outtake) 2:06 An acoustic guitar solo effort by Page. It would have fit in perfectly on III, but it is a nice change of pace on this set.
“Down by the Seaside” February 1971, Island Studios, London (Led Zeppelin IV outtake) 5:14 A slower-paced county-inspired song with nice vibrato guitar work by Page, supplemented by Jones on electric piano. The middle section ramps up into a gallop of guitar work by Page. Zeppelin could turn styles and paces on a dime, which they do several times here.
“Ten Years Gone” January–February 1974, Headley Grange 6:31 Another riff song that Pages takes through variations. A testament to his ability to work around the guitar fret and create some interesting chord patterns and sounds. One of the standouts on the this album. This is Page at his best. A song like for In Through the Out Door would have been welcome.
Side four – A set of shorter songs, some leftovers from other sessions.
“Night Flight” (Jones, Page, and Plant) January 1971, Headley Grange (Led Zeppelin IV outtake) 3:36 I’m reminded of the James Gang with this song, it might be the organ that powers the song. Zeppelin takes an average riff and builds a better than average song around it.
“The Wanton Song” January–February 1974, Headley Grange 4:06 A blues riff that Pages builds into an interesting song. The vocals are throwaway and Plant buries his vocal in echo. Listen to the guitar work and different sounds that Page creates.
“Boogie with Stu” (Bonham, Jones, Page, Plant, Ian Stewart, Mrs Valens) January 1971, Headley Grange (Led Zeppelin IV outtake) 3:51 A studio jam with Ian Stewart of the Rolling Stones, supposedly based on a Richie Valens song. A lawsuit was filed by Valens’ manager. There was an award with money going to Valens’ mother. It is a rollicking blues number, the piano front and center, in boogie style, a favorite of the late Stones’ road manager, and one-time member. Jonesy on acoustic guitar, mandolin and bass.
“Black Country Woman” May 1972, Stargroves (Houses of the Holy outtake) 4:24 Acoustic guitar by Page, mandolin by Jonesy, stomp by Bonham, bluesy harm by Plant.
“Sick Again” January–February 1974, Headley Grange 4:43 The intro sounds like the Who, then turns into the familiar Page grunge riff. Without the guitar heroics, this would be only of outtake quality.
The building used for the cover; Plant returns to the building.
So, which album is better? They are different albums. I could say it’s a tie, but you want a clear decision. When I want hard rock and killer guitar riff, I go with Led Zeppelin II. It is aggressive and the band is rock-solid tight. Page borrows from some killer blues riffs, so it ought to be good. Physical Graffiti is more adventurous, the songs are longer and Jones’ bass work is terrific and his keyboard work adds something grand to the band. I almost said Led Zeppelin IV, just to be funny. Physical Graffiti gets the edge, but it’s close.