Editor’s Note: Fans of The Who are obviously passionate. This article has generated more comments than many of our posts — and most are thoughtful and articulate. A few, however, are downright nasty. Please, be kind. Lists like these always generate discussion and debate. Let’s disagree without be disagreeable. Many thanks.
Legendary rock band The Who has been twisting our brain cells, getting our political dander up and delivering bad-ass musical transcendence for over a half century. Because of that, their music has been the playlist of many an adolescence – including mine and my college-age son who found deep pleasure in attending their concert last year. Well, it’s been ten years since the band released an album but given their recent performance at Desert Trip in this past October, we’re eager for another. There’s not a bad release in their discography, although naturally we have our favorites. Let the countdown begin.
11. Endless Wire (2006)
This fine album was released 24 years after their previous one It’s Hard. Because of that, the songs therein have inevitably impacted the musical world much less than their previous releases. Nevertheless, even here, the band’s output is artistically fierce and intriguing. The track “Man in a Purple Dress” is a blistering mockery of spiritual hypocrisy while the second half of the album is the mini-opera “Wire and Glass,” recalling the band’s signature double-albums Quadrophenia and Tommy.
10. Face Dances (1981)
This early entry into 1980s-era The Who features drummer Kenney Jones on percussion due to the tragic death of brilliant madman-percussionist Keith Moon in 1978. It’s a fairly uneven album but when it hits the mark, it’s pretty spectacular, especially with the infectious pop love song “You Better You Bet” and the profoundly humane anthem “Another Tricky Day.”
9. It’s Hard (1982)
The band’s penultimate album is sadly the last to feature brilliant bassist John Entwistle, who died in 2002. Anyone introduced to The Who during college in the early ‘80s eagerly welcomed the fresh release of enduring tracks like “Athena” (an up-tempo ode to Townshend’s failed romance with actress Theresa Russell) and the earworm “Eminence Front” (a mockery of people who hide their humanity behind drugs).
8. The Who Sell Out (1967)
Remember when rock was against the establishment? When making money got the middle finger? Well, The Who satirized anti-establishment in true anti-conformist fashion. The album is peppered with faux commercials between tracks which include the minor classic “Mary Anne with the Shaky Hand” – with its none-too-subtle masturbation references – and the captivatingly trippy “I Can See For Miles” and miles and miles and miles and miles.
7. Who Are You (1978)
This LP is bleak. But there’s nothing wrong with rock that’s out to tell the harder truths. Listen to “Sister Disco” and “Who Are You” and you’ll be swept away in a world of critical self-analysis, cultural analysis, self-reflection and self-disgust. The lyrics abound with profanity which surprisingly made it uncensored onto radio airwaves at the time. No surprise that The Who was still breaking the rules thirteen years after their first LP.
6. Quadrophenia (1973)
One of The Who’s two double-album rock operas, Quadrophenia tells the musical tale of a young “mod” – think a British lad who embraces spiffy suits, speed, dancing and posing – searching for meaning in the working-class world. Agitation turned into art, this epic “concept LP” has many high points including “The Real Me,” in which guitarist Pete Townshend takes his usual maestro qualities to the next level by pulling together all the other instruments while still running the musical show. It is a thing of utter beauty. Other worthy entries are the pained, powerful “Love, Reign O’er Me” and the soul-realigning “5:15.”
5. The Who by Numbers (1975)
The fabulous cover art is done by bassist John Entwistle and the whole album is a catchy delight. “Slip Kid” has an up-tempo vibe but a serious, rather deflating message about growing up and accepting responsibility. My favorite, “Squeeze Box,” is a bluegrass-y fun tune, loaded with silly, mystifying sexual innuendo.
4. My Generation (1965)
This first album, a testosterone maiden voyage, is impressively gutsy for its time. “The Kids Are Alright” became the title of the documentary about the band in 1979 but here it’s an engaging song about youthful invincibility. The title track is one for the ages, searingly addressing teenage angst and anger at the older generation. Daltrey’s stuttery delivery remains incredibly potent, as does the oft-repeated “Hope I die before I get old” lyric.
3. Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy (1971)
I must acknowledge that this is not a studio album per se, but an early compilation. I fell in love with it as a child and believed it to be a studio LP; the tracks fall together in such a great organic way. The curious title lists the band mates – buff Roger Daltrey was “Meaty”; drummer Keith Moon, “Beaty”; John Entwistle, “Big”; and energetic leaping performer Pete Townshend, “Bouncy.” Gems abound here. “Magic Bus” is a hypnotic peek into the brain of a young man haggling for a vehicle so he can “drive to my bay-bay.” “I Can’t Explain” is pure adolescent-flavored rock-pop genius, and the delicious “Pictures of Lily” is a poignant, quirky ode to both masturbation and celebrity nostalgia.
2. Tommy (1969)
The Who’s first extraordinary rock opera and double album has the insane plot of a blind, deaf, mute baby who grows up to master pinball by using his sense of smell. The track “Pinball Wizard” musically lays out the whole mad scenario as the listener is instantly drawn into the insanity by a glorious instrumental overture. John Entwistle’s many gifts extended to the French horn, which is employed evocatively, even erotically here. “Sally Simpson,” a somewhat unsung classic about a besotted groupie, deserves more recognition as does the finale, “See Me, Feel Me.”
1. Who’s Next (1971)
Truthfully, I think a case could be made for Who’s Next being the best rock album in history. The iconic image of the band members peeing on an enormous concrete piling signals gritty greatness and every tune is a classic, beginning with the opening track “Baba O’Riley” with its unforgettable “teenage wasteland” refrain. Who’s Next also has a great love song “Bargain,” a great hate song “My Wife” and one of my favorite songs ever “Won’t Get Fooled Again” featuring Roger Daltrey’s most soaring vocals and that astounding primal scream. All of it is passionate, political, praiseworthy… How often do you approach perfection like this?
Photo credit: The Who circa 1978 by Keystone/Staff courtesy of Getty Images.
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PPS. For a personal account of the aforementioned Desert Trip music festival, check out our post Not Bad for a Bunch of Old Guys. You may also enjoy 31 Concept Albums You May Have Missed, Your 10 Favorite Concept Albums, and 15 Bands That Could Be Considered the Next Beatles.