The 10 Best Robert Plant Songs

Ebet Roberts / Getty

The 10 Best Robert Plant Songs

Ebet Roberts / Getty

Robert Plant was the frontman of Led Zeppelin. What the hell do you do after that? Sure, there are all sorts of reasons a lead singer, or another band member, goes solo, from ego to creative differences to other interpersonal band drama. But Plant was the singer in one of the biggest bands ever, both in sound and influence, a group whose legacy can be found everywhere; from hair metal to grunge to hip-hop samples; from heavy-blues psych-rock madmen to druidic folkies; from their impact on pop music to their presence in pop culture at large, the platonic template for “Rock Band” in, of course, Almost Famous, and well beyond. The band ended in 1980, with the death of John Bonham. They were one of those alchemical combinations: Four members, each a distinct and towering presence in their own way, without which Led Zeppelin couldn’t be the same, and wouldn’t have ever achieved their specific lightning-strike brilliance. The band had to end there. And if Robert Plant wanted to keep making music, that meant he had to embark on a solo career.

So, what would that look like? The legendary and dynamic and overpowering voice, unmoored from the discrete elements of Zeppelin that had helped give him that power, but also were powerful enough to balance him out. Iconic frontmen like Plant had been, and have since been, there before. There are many ways it can go. And over the course of the 35 years since Plant’s solo debut, 1982’s Pictures At Eleven, his career has gone in most of those possible directions.

For someone as cemented in pop history as Plant, his solo career has often been somewhat forgotten. Zeppelin’s hallowed catalog casts a heavy and long shadow, even though Plant has remained an exploratory and restless solo artist over the decades, and one that has largely eschewed the kind of nostalgic or financially-motivated retreads of the past that most of his peers have indulged. Plenty of other musicians have gone solo and found a different kind of success or notoriety, and plenty musicians have tried it only to have to return to their band. Plant is somewhere in between, having found continued mainstream success with his ‘80s work, and critical respect for more recent outings, but coming across as the kind of elder statesman who’s plugging away at the side, chasing new interests while fielding Led Zeppelin reunion questions in every interview, even today.

Part of the reason Plant’s solo career is an odd, overlooked one is that some of the earlier work hasn’t aged entirely well, or sounds almost bizarre against the context of Zeppelin and his later work. On his initial solo albums, he partnered with Phil Collins — the man with the golden touch when it came to early ’80s mainstream rock that could be ground-breaking and massively popular simultaneously — and those records do have a forward-thinking quality to them compared to what some other ‘60s/’70s luminaries were up to that decade. Plant pushed forward from the experiments of Zeppelin’s final outing, 1979’s In Through The Out Door, and didn’t just dress up his standard approach with a few synth textures — some of the highlights on Pictures At Eleven and its successor, 1983’s The Principle Of Moments, felt genuinely of a piece with the new wave era.

The weird thing is that the blend of Zeppelin’s rock DNA and the instrumentation and arrangements of those records is that it sometimes starts to sound like Rush or (fittingly) Genesis; not a bad thing inherently, but perhaps an uncool signifier that has contributed to Plant’s ‘80s work being somewhat consigned to ephemera despite the hit singles and the fact that we constantly revive and reevaluate everything from the ‘80s. The other problem is that the decade was a mixed bag for him from a songwriting standpoint, some memorable highlights and then more forgettable, or embarrassing, moments.

While Plant kicked that decade off adapting to the times, his future adaptations had an inherent contrast to them — he still delved into the new styles of mainstream rock, but those styles were also more indebted to him. From the late ‘80s to the early ‘90s, there were ways in which he both followed trends and reclaimed some intrinsic Plant-ness that wasn’t as evident on the earlier records. He sounded like a Rock God again as the ‘80s waned, but the context then was big radio hard rock and a tendency towards hair metal — that is, as a new generation of bands influenced by Zeppelin and their contemporaries emerged, Plant began making big, sometimes schlocky, rock music again, with all that late ‘80s excess and crunch. Manic Nirvana, from 1990, might be the most disorienting one, with Plant sounding like he’s singing with the Cult on “Hurting Kind (I’ve Got My Eyes On You)” and with Mötley Crüe on “Big Love.”

Fast-forward to 1993’s Fate Of Nations, and you can find Plant doing the same thing in the grunge era, when bands like Pearl Jam and Soundgarden and Stone Temple Pilots took their debt to ‘70s hard rock and turned it into mainstream alternative rock. A song like “Calling To You” at once sounds almost like something Soundgarden themselves could’ve written for 1994’s Superunknown and also lets you imagine what a ‘90s Zeppelin record could’ve been like. After the various looks Plant tried out, this felt like a more natural extension of his past.

Appropriately then, it laid the groundwork for Plant returning to that past for the rest of the ‘90s. Plant had already reunited with Jimmy Page on a few occasions, both for each other’s solo work but also in the short-lived supergroup the Honeydrippers, in which they tapped into the ‘50s nostalgia of the ‘80s and scored a hit with their rendition of “Sea Of Love.” A decade later, they took it much further, teaming up for No Quarter, a live and mostly stripped-down album that featured some revelatory readings of Zeppelin classics (the version of “Gallow’s Pole” is stunning) amidst new material.

That chapter laid the groundwork for a collaborative album of new material, 1998’s Walking Into Clarksdale. It’s pretty mindblowing how forgotten that album is, considering it’s the closest you get to a new Zeppelin record after the band’s dissolution. Like some of Plant’s earlier ‘90s work and No Quarter, it picked up threads from Zeppelin’s classic albums and transferred them 20 or 25 years later; there are songs on Walking Into Clarksdale that sound like Page and Plant filtering themselves through people they inspired, like Soundgarden or Jeff Buckley. Some of the tracks, like “Shining In The Light” and “Most High,” are worth revisiting, but there’s something missing in the whole thing. Like with No Quarter, John Paul Jones didn’t get an invite, and hearing Page and Plant play very Zeppelin-esque music without either Jones or Bonham can make the whole thing feel like a weird, hollow echo.

That brings us to the 21st century, a turning point. The paradox of earlier moments in Plant’s solo trajectory where he sounded like himself filtered through current trends is… he also didn’t sound like himself. It was a logical progression for him to try out hair metal and grunge along the way, and his voice remained in remarkable shape through much of it, but it was also a strange thing to hear him belting out melodies that any number of hair metal singers might’ve belted out. In the ‘00s, he hit a career renaissance, fully establishing his own persona as a solo artist while also making the best music of his solo career, while also more effectively operating on a through line from some elements of Zeppelin’s work.

On his records from this century, Plant started displaying a similar melodic sensibility to the one he had in Zeppelin, but he conveyed that through music that often explored various folk traditions and American roots music, frequently blended with North African or Middle Eastern rhythms and instrumentation. On some of these albums, he dove headlong into one thing, like 2007’s collaboration with Alison Krauss, the acclaimed roots album Raising Sand. On others –
like 2005’s Mighty ReArranger, 2014’s Lullaby And… The Ceaseless Roar, and his great new album Carry Fire — he seamlessly mixes all these things together. Plant is always around, always does interviews still. And yet, aside from the Grammy-winning Raising Sand, his recent solo work often feels like it doesn’t attain that high a profile, like it remains underrated.

Which is a shame: Plant’s latter-day solo work is a masterclass when it comes to a classic rock great aging gracefully. He’s not rehashing the past. He’s still convincingly and deservedly resistant to nostalgia and notions of the glory days, even as he’s grown more comfortable playing Zeppelin favorites live over the decades. There’s a striking moment that ends a 2014 interview with Rolling Stone:

Plant stands up to leave, but turns on his heel. “Do you know why the Eagles said they’d reunite when ‘hell freezes over,’ but they did it anyway and keep touring?” he asks. “It’s not because they were paid a fortune. It’s not about the money. It’s because they’re bored. I’m not bored.”

And why would he be? There’s a gravity to Plant’s latter-day work, a lived-in and panoramic perspective that no doubt partially comes from the world-conquering days of Zeppelin, but he’s taken that in a weathered and wizened direction that suits the gravel of his voice now. He’s aged into a sort of leonine mystic parsing the origins of music that was present on those Zeppelin records, digging further into the past and finding something new and exciting in weaving it together. One of the finest examples is Carry Fire, a frequently gorgeous album that works in similar territory to its predecessor, taking folk forms and twisting them in exotic directions, with Plant maintaining a gift for ripping a track open into something surprising and otherworldly with a simple, wordless refrain.

On the occasion of Carry Fire’s release and Raising Sand’s 10th anniversary next week, we decided to look back at all the chapters of Plant’s career and highlight some of his best songs. It’s a tricky one to approach that way — there’s plenty of material that’s intriguing and curious and memorable for various reasons, and sometimes not the right reasons. Some of those songs are still on the list, but most of it is derived from his more recent work. Even there, it’s not always easy to single out best songs, exactly — many of the choices below are starting points, great tracks from great albums that deserve to be experienced in full. Plant has had a dynamic solo career — and these 10 songs are a selective look at the various versions of himself he’s explored along the way.

10. “Tall Cool One” (from Now And Zen, 1988)

Given everything said above, this may seem like an odd and inauspicious choice to kick off the list. “Tall Cool One” is from the era of Plant’s career where you have to have some degree of sympathy for late ’80s corporate rock, because even though it’s anchored by a piano riff and synth flourishes, it definitely has some hair metal vibes, too. At the same time, there’s a part that sounds like the Cars, and a part that sounds like Billy Idol. That’s before you get to the fact that Jimmy Page plays on it and that it samples several Led Zeppelin songs. There’s a lot going on in “Tall Cool One,” and it’s sort of a ridiculous song. But it’s also mercilessly catchy, the kind of song that doesn’t go away for a week once you hear it, making it one of the more enjoyable and enduring tracks from a strange period in Plant’s solo career.

9. “Burning Down One Side” (from Pictures At Eleven, 1982)

How much you’d appreciate Plant’s first two solo albums likely depends on how much you appreciate the more synth-oriented moments on In Through The Out Door. “Burning Down One Side” sounds like the lead single from the ninth Zeppelin full-length that never happened, down to the point that you still can’t understand half of what Plant is saying. A swaggering piece of synth-rock, the song is a prime example of how Plant kept pushing forward while toying with the sounds and production of the early ’80s. Eventually, that’d lead him adrift, but “Burning Down One Side” is one place where it clicked.

8. “Angel Dance” (from Band Of Joy, 2010)

After the success of Raising Sand, Plant stayed in a similar vein for Band Of Joy, an album that revived the name of his pre-Zeppelin band for a collection of folk-leaning performances. Throughout his career, Plant has had a penchant for interpreting (or stealing) old blues and folk; as much as he’s known as the singer for indelible classic rock staples, he’s also a singer gifted with interpreting traditional music and other people’s songs. “Angel Dance,” a cover of Los Lobos and Band Of Joy’s opener, is one of his finest. He transforms the song into an undulating, roiling thing, humid like an afternoon that’s about to break into a storm but never does.

7. “In The Mood” (from The Principle Of Moments, 1983)

One of Plant’s big solo hits, “In The Mood” comes a few years after the end of Zeppelin and is an early instance of Plant finding new avenues for his voice that sound totally different than his past gig. Another assist from Phil Collins, it’s a total ’80s slow-burn jam, with one of the easiest, catchiest, and laid-back melodies Plant ever sang — there are no showoff moments, just simple repetition that helped “In The Mood” become a big single. It glides by with a lightness that was never Zeppelin’s approach, and rather than sounding like a classic rock survivor attempting to fit in with the sounds of the early ’80s, it legitimately sounds like a track that could’ve been by a younger, early ’80s artist. That makes it a weird pairing that’s more foreign to the ears than Plant’s latter-day work, but that also makes it one of his early ’80s tracks that works.

6. “Pocketful Of Golden” (from Lullaby And… The Ceaseless Roar, 2014)

Here’s where Plant doesn’t get nearly enough credit for the strength of his recent albums. In 2014, the man was 66 and put out an album that drew upon a lot of the traditions and songwriting approaches he already knew well, but made them sound alien and beautiful in a totally different way. “Pocketful Of Golden” was one of the best songs from Lullaby And…, and between its stuttering beat and the looped sounds that color the background, it sounds like what might happen if Radiohead made an album of ancient folk-rock. Plant gently floats above it, grainy and cooing little koans as the song shimmers by. Like similar songs from Plant’s 21st century albums, it has a lightly psychedelic quality, like Plant’s taking things you recognize and recontextualizing them in an imagined world.

5. “Gone Gone Gone (Done Moved On)” (from Raising Sand, 2007)

Who knew a partnership between Plant and Alison Krauss would’ve worked so brilliantly? Initially coming across as a mis-matched pair, it turned out that the two of them, with the guiding hand of T Bone Burnett, made a great album together — perhaps the best of Plant’s solo career, and certainly one of his most respected and high-profile post-Zeppelin works, eventually cleaning up at the Grammys. “Gone Gone Gone” was one of the album’s singles, and one of its more uptempo moments. Originally a sunny ’60s pop track by the Everly Brothers, the rendition on Raising Sand was consistent with the atmosphere of the record — whispery rumbles and dusty rhythms underpinning Plant and Krauss’ voices intersecting. Compared to the brightness and youth of the Everly Brothers original, it has a lived-in quality that’s consistent with all of Raising Sand and most of Plant’s 21st century albums in general.

4. “The May Queen” (from Carry Fire, 2017)

There are several great songs on Carry Fire that could’ve made this list. Aside from a few silly lines, “Carving Up The World Again… A Wall And Not A Fence” is a rolling song with one of Plant’s swooping, beautiful choruses; one of the more uptempo tracks, “Bones Of Saints,” is a rushing and jangling rocker; “Keep It Hid” and “Bluebirds Over The Mountain” are both instances where Plant once more finds a way to blend his late-career roots proclivities with electronics, resulting in that exotic quality some of his recent albums have. But the album’s opener, “The May Queen,” edges everything out, partially because it sounds like an old-age continuation of Led Zeppelin III’s psychedelic folk. The tumbling percussion, a resonant guitar strum that almost feels percussive in of itself, and the way Plant mines the weather corners of his voice — “The May Queen” is one of those songs that shows not only the strength of late-era Plant, but also the ways in which he’s making music that connects back to his ’60s and ’70s work while still taking it somewhere unexpected.

3. “Rich Woman” (from Raising Sand, 2007)

The opener of Raising Sand, “Rich Woman” is a hard song to pin down. There’s nothing foreboding about the album, but there’s something in the hushed swamp-rock of “Rich Woman,” the way the guitars flicker in and out as if wilting in the heat, that makes it the kind of song that should play at the opening of a movie where a lot of bad shit is about to go down. (Admittedly, this could be coming from the fact that there are echoes of Burnett’s work here in his work for True Detective.) Either way, it’s a perfect way to raise the curtain on the album, a sweltering track that sounds like cigarette smoke idly curling through thick air.

2. “Rainbow” (from Lullaby And… The Ceaseless Roar, 2014)

Like “Pocketful Of Golden,” “Rainbow” was a standout from Lullaby And… that found Plant trafficking in a fragile, ethereal beauty. The elements of the song should work against each other — the fuzzy churn of the guitar and a distorted beat vs. the impressively high notes Plant casually coasts into and a synth keen that wraps its way around Plant’s melody. The reason it’s so high on the list is partially because it’s one of the late-career tracks that most underscores just how unique and special Plant’s path has been. From his mid-50s into his 60s, he’s avoided the pitfalls that most aging rockstars fall into — he’s avoided self-parody, he’s avoided obsolescence and stasis. “Rainbow” is the sound of an old great still forging for new territory. It isn’t a complex song, but it’s one that’s alluring and enigmatic and familiar all at the same time.

1. “Shine It All Around” (from Mighty ReArranger, 2005)

Though Plant’s current backing band, the Sensational Space Shifters, is likely his best since Zeppelin, his stretch with the Strange Sensation in the early- to mid-’00s is also crucial. Despite Raising Sand often being credited as the beginning of Plant’s late-career renaissance, the records Plant made with the Strange Sensation are where that really begins. Picking up where his ’90s work with Page left off, this is where he really started to formulate mixtures of roots, rock, folk, and more modern embellishments into his own brand of ragged, otherworldly mysticism. There are other great songs from Mighty ReArranger, like “Tin Pan Valley” — which is a rare ’00s Plant song to have a genuinely Zeppelin-sized rupture in its unnerving electronic textures — and “Another Tribe,” as well as their interpretations of Zeppelin classics like “Gallows Pole.” But “Shine It All Around” is still the best of the bunch. All the pieces fit together perfectly. A drumbeat reminiscent of trip-hop (or, you know, “When The Levee Breaks”), the little humming textures of the verses, and the way it all breaks out into a chorus of chugging guitars and Plant’s layered chorus, one that isn’t as in-your-face as Zeppelin yet remains one of the biggest and catchiest choruses of his solo work. It’s hard to say any one solo Plant song defines a career as long and varied (both stylistically and in quality) as his has been, but ten years on “Shine It All Around” remains as much an earworm as ever, and it’s a signpost pointing to everything that’s special about Plant’s solo years, especially the recent ones.

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