led zeppelin - led zeppelin (album cover)Zeppelin’s career can be pretty cleanly divided in half since they made eight studio albums, the first four of which were released between January 1969 and November 1971 and were stylishly titled Led ZeppelinLed Zeppelin II, Led Zeppelin III and Led Zeppelin IV. It was Zeppelin at their most consistent and productive, and while all of those albums are considered classics now, Led Zeppelin III is easily the runt of the litter when it comes to acclaim. I actually went a long time without even listening to it, figuring it wasn’t that good since it didn’t make Rolling Stone‘s 2003 list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. (By comparison, Led Zeppelin was #29Led Zeppelin II was #79, and Led Zeppelin IV was #69.)

led zeppelin - led zeppelin ii (album cover)Furthermore, Led Zeppelin III was the hardest of the four to find at libraries (as in, I never got my hands on it), so I asked for it for Christmas a few years ago since I was tired of not having heard it. Unfortunately, I remember listening to it on my dad’s stereo shortly after getting it and being largely unimpressed. But some time ago when I was in the midst of composing this list I thought, “You know, I never gave that a fair shot.” I hadn’t listened to Led Zeppelin II in a while either, so I listened to them back to back, fully expecting to love II and hate III. Well, I was shocked by how much more I loved III. Not that II isn’t good — it’s an honorable mention, in fact — but III is that great. I was stunned that I had so readily cast it aside.

led zeppelin - led zeppelin iv (album cover)One of the reasons I enjoy Led Zeppelin III over say, Led Zeppelin IV is that almost all of Led Zeppelin III is uncharted territory for me. As I pointed out in my entry for Led Zeppelin IV, my classic rock station back home in Maryland played every single song from IV either regularly or semi-regularly, so that album has always been just a playlist for me. By contrast, eight of III‘s ten tracks were unfamiliar to me when I first listened to it (“Immigrant Song” and “Since I’ve Been Loving You” are the exceptions), and I had been a Zeppelin fan for quite some time by then. Led Zeppelin III had always been this hole in my collection that I longed to fill, since I’m a completist in that way. (Though I’m slightly ashamed to admit I have never listened to their final album, 1979’s In Through the Out Door.)

led zeppelin - how the west was won (album cover)Although I like the studio version just fine, the live cut of “Since I’ve Been Loving You” from the ridiculous three-CD live album How the West Was Won (2003) is one of my favorites. I recommend the album for all the die hards out there, but just be forewarned that there are some really long songs in there that test my patience. We’re talking 20-25 minutes. (Yeah, that long. No joke.) And on an album that’s two and a half hours long to begin with. So unfortunately, it’s not easy listening by any means, but for those looking for live versions of some of their favorites, it’s worth having, since none of the material is anything less than top drawer, there’s just too much of it. You’ll probably buy it for the nearly ten-minute version of “Stairway,” but make sure you listen to “Since I’ve Been Loving You” before you start skipping around.

led zeppelin - physical graffiti (album cover)Though 1975’s Physical Graffiti would be more diverse due to its double-LP length and inclusion of leftovers from previous albums, Led Zeppelin III might very well be Zep’s most adventurous record (it certainly contains the least amount of hits), as they departed from the straight bluesy hard rock of their first two albums. Both of those albums included a token acoustic track or two — no doubt to allow the clatter to breathe — but Zeppelin delves much more deeply into folk and incorporates more acoustic guitar into their presentation on III. The album is divided into a side of rockers — “Friends” is the exception, but its placement is fitting since it moves at a fast clip — and a side of acoustic songs, which works well, since Zeppelin move into unexpected territory as they unveil each new acoustic number. Furthermore, it set the table perfectly for “The Battle of Evermore,” “Stairway to Heaven” and “Going to California” on Led Zeppelin IV.