First of all, rank the tracks on Led Zeppelin IV from best to least best (I avoid the word “worst” on purpose here). Now, do the same for any other rock album, and start comparing head-to-head: the top track to the top track, the second to the second, and so forth. Now obviously the four best tracks on IV are Levee, Stairway, Black Dog, and Rock and Roll, in some order, and I think it’s clear that these four will win each one of those head-to-head matchups. (Indeed, one could persuasively argue that the fourth-best song on IV is better than the second-best, or even the best, song on many other albums.) But what’s incredible about this album is that the fifth- through eighth-best tracks will blow any other album’s deep tracks out of the water.
Let’s see this principle in action. My ranking of IV’s tracks goes something like Levee – Stairway – Black Dog – Rock and Roll – Misty Mountain Hop – Going to California – Evermore – Four Sticks. (You could talk me into interchanging Stairway and Levee or Black Dog and Rock and Roll or California and Evermore. And really, the “least-best” track on the album is Four Sticks?? Any other album is going to compete with that?)
Now let’s compare head-to-head with another iconic album: Van Halen’s debut. The ranking of this album’s tracks is going to be something like Runnin’ – Jamie’s Crying – You Really Got Me – Ain’t Talkin’ – Ice Cream Man – I’m the One – Eruption – Feel Your Love – Little Dreamer – On Fire – Atomic Punk. The first time I’m seriously persuaded to take the Van Halen track over the Led Zeppelin track comes clear down at track 7, where I like Eruption slightly more than Evermore. And I like Feel Your Love better than Four Sticks, but I’ll take Four Sticks over anything in slots 9-11 on the Van Halen album.
The brilliance of individual tracks aside, another place where IV shines is sequencing. Is there a better four-track sequence than Black Dog – Rock and Roll – Evermore – Stairway? Is there a better closing track than Levee? I submit that the answer to both questions is a “no” as resounding and emphatic as the crisp snap of John Bonham’s drums (although VH’s opening four is competitive).
Come at me bro. Tell me I’m wrong.