Happy 70th birthday to Robert Anthony Plant, the legendary former lead singer of Led Zeppelin and solo artist since the early ‘80s. From his new-wavey 1982 debut, Pictures at Eleven, to his multidimensional 2010s work with Band of Joy and the Sensational Space Shifters, Plant’s solo work finds him digging into his blues, folk and country roots with a spacey, mellow approach.
While it’s tempting to hear albums like Carry Fire as a continuation of Led Zeppelin’s acoustic tendencies, Plant’s work also serves as a game of contrasts. In his early days as the Dionysian, bare-chested frontman of Led Zeppelin, he was insecure about it all crashing down. In Charles R. Cross’s biography Shadows Taller Than Our Souls, Plant stated about the recording of Led Zeppelin I, “As far as I was concerned, I was going to [leave the band] anyway. I was quite nervous and didn’t get into it until II.”
Perhaps fueled by that self-doubt, all four men kicked the bravado up to 11. Plant, especially, gave rock’s machismo a Mount Olympus vibe, hollering his sex-and-Tolkien lines at full-bore. But it was the band’s quietest moments — of which Plant had a huge hand in — that truly made them great. By their untitled 1971 album, their heavier jams were perfectly tempered by tracks like “Going to California” and “The Battle of Evermore,” which featured shimmering mandolins and acoustic guitars.
As the band wore on amid exhaustion and personal setbacks, Plant had a hand in introducing subtler shades to albums like Physical Graffiti, Presence and In Through The Out Door. And if you lean more “The Rain Song” than “The Lemon Song” at the end of the day, Plant’s three-decade career post-Zeppelin might reflect your mood.
In honor of the master turning 70, here are 7 tracks that provide a gateway into his terrific solo songbook.
“Pledge Pin” (from Pictures at Eleven, 1982)
Plant’s body of work would go on to take on honeyed, mystical qualities, the aural equivalent of a room full of bead curtains and comfortable throw rugs. But it wasn’t really there yet on his debut album. Instead, 1982’s Pictures at Eleven is symptomatic of a hard rock frontman of the ‘70s getting awkwardly bitten by the new wave bug: oceans of compression, gated drum sounds, Phil Collins in the credits. That said, the jangly, Smiths-sounding highlight “Pledge Pin” still sticks.
“Big Log” (from The Principle of Moments, 1983)
The Principle of Moments is not only a more confident listen than its predecessor, it momentarily cast Plant as a perfectly marketable synthpop musician a la Howard Jones. “Big Log” is a great adult contemporary hit from that album; its moody ambience redeems its somewhat non-sequitur lyrics like “My questions in thousands take flight,” and “My love is exceeding the limit.” Phil Collins is back on the sticks here; song-by-song, Moments resembles one of his ‘80s solo albums.
“Ship of Fools” (from Now and Zen, 1988)
In an interview with Uncut in 2005, Plant brought up a long-lost album: “By the time Now and Zen came out in ‘88, it looked like I was big again. It was a top 10 hit on both sides of the Atlantic. But I can hear that a lot of the songs got lost in the technology of the time.” He’s right. Now and Zen was a sticky, commercial hit that Plant needed at the time, and its copious synths and drum programming instantly fossilized it. No matter: its second single, “Ship of Fools” hit No. 84 on the Hot 100 and, fittingly, soundtracked the final episode of Miami Vice. And if you’re in the right mood, its hopelessly dated production winds up charming, not prohibitive.
“Shine It All Around” (from Mighty ReArranger, 2005)
Plant had a sluggish ‘90s, a decade that mostly culminated for him in Walking Into Clarksdale, his virtually-unheard 1998 reunion album with Jimmy Page. Mighty ReArranger, his second album with the backing band Strange Sensation and eighth altogether, found Plant playing to his strengths. Gooey drones and low-BPM beats abound — always a good look on the “Kashmir” singer — and its lead single, “Shine it All Around,” is a midtempo gem that keeps it simple. Just a heavy, Bonhamesque beat, a dreamy little synth sample and a big, slashing chorus will do. It was a reliable presence on radio back then, peaking out at No. 35 on the Mainstream Rock Songs chart.
“Please Read the Letter” (feat. Alison Krauss) (from Raising Sand, 2007)
From Ray Charles’ Genius Loves Company to Herbie Hancock’s River: The Joni Letters to Johnny Cash’s American IV, the 2000s record market was filled with “comeback releases” for prestige artists, usually with handpicked guest stars and song choices by an outside Svengali. In Raising Sand’s case, that curator was T-Bone Burnett, who made a career out of paring back and stripping away to find the beating heart of an arrangement. Rather than being contrived or pandering, Raising Sand is a jewel. “Please Read The Letter,” a tune rescued from Page and Plant’s middling Walking to Clarksdale, is an excellent gateway into this crystal-clear union of two greats. Perhaps emboldened by Raising Sand’s success — the album was either artist’s highest-charting release, at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 — Plant and Krauss attempted to record a follow-up, but the project stalled. No matter: “Please Read the Letter” and Raising Sand will provide hours of entertainment.
“Rainbow” (from lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar, 2014)
After the commercial hosannas of Raising Sand, which mostly featured renditions of songs by Tom Waits, Townes Van Zandt, The Everly Brothers and more, Plant opted to continue down that same path with 2010’s cover-heavy Band of Joy. This made 2014’s atmospheric lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar, recorded with the Sensational Space Shifters, his first all-original work in over a decade — and it’s a beauty. At this point, Plant had exorcised every shriek, wail and moan from his vocal bank, opting for silvery, subtle incantations. “Rainbow” contains one of his most gorgeous vocal performances over an Eastern-sounding vamp from the Shifters.
“The May Queen” (from Carry Fire, 2017)
The lead cut from 2017’s excellent Carry Fire isn’t Plant’s first “may queen” he sang about, but the mature, lionesque singer who recorded this one bears nearly no resemblance to that who sang “Stairway to Heaven.” Part of the loveliness of “The May Queen” is in how Plant can imbue trope-y lyrics (“sweet surrender,” “the fire’s still burning,” “a love that never dies”) with warm, lived-in profundity. The result is a tangibly soothing glow from the grooves themselves — one Plant and his collaborators have been stoking for 30 years.