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 being 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.
Ummm. Where’s “A Quick One”. Also, if a compilation (Meaty Beaty) makes the list, then why not “Odds and Sods”?
Yes to all of this. Also missing: The Kids Are Alright, Magic Bus (US only LP) and of course, the greatest live album of all time, Live at Leeds.
Notice that this list is a ranking of The Who’s STUDIO albums. Not live albums. STUDIO albums.
Well, Magic Bus should be there. Despite the “The Who on tour” subtitle of the album, it’s all studio.
Yep, ‘Who’s Next’ gets my vote for greatest rock album of all time. It’s beyond great.
Quadrophenia below the over-blown Tommy? Where is Live at Leeds??????
Studio albums only.
Quad is the quintessence of overblown. Tommy is a masterpiece and is their best album.
One of the greatest live albums EVER!!
By Numbers better than Quadrophenia? Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy is a Greatest Hits LP. This list makes no sense.
That’s the thing about lists. They often inspire strong reactions.Thanks so much for yours.
I stand corrected on the MMB&B point…I acknowledge that it is a compilation in my article, but knew it from my childhood as a free-standing LP. The rest is my own quirky taste. 🙂 Thanks for the clarification!
Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy isn’t a studio album. It’s a compilation. Putting Sell Out which was hugely groundbreaking at the bottom is kind of an injustice. And the list doesn’t have A Quick One/Happy Jack. I don’t think this writer really knows what she’s talking about, nor does she know her history.
I wrote the piece…& am admittedly no music historian, just a long-time rabid fan. I acknowledged that MBB&B was a compilation in my article, but apologize for the inclusion. Good point about A Quick One/HappyJack, thank you for that! These things are hard to whittle down.
Hang in there Ellen. I’m a writer and I know how tough it can be. Good responses.
Thanks, Dan! Much appreciated. I understand (& participate in) spirited debate, but people really take their album choices to heart! All the best to you ~
Please stop beating up this woman! She’s a Who fan. Don’t attack your own mates, mates! M,B,B and B was given to me by my older brother for my 17th birthday. I. too, regarded it for years as being a stand-alone LP of their discography- and much like the writer- out of pure enthusiasm did I cling to this misconception.
As an avid Who fan I gotta tell you, Ellen….ya dun good. I always felt that ‘by numbers’ was under rated.
Where is A QUICK ONE? I can’t even…
The Who are mostly terrible. Roger Daltrey is an awful, clunky singer, and their records are wildly uneven at best–with “A Quick One” being their one true work of musical excellence.
It’s a shame that people continue to worship this incredibly overrated band. They wrote some decent singles, its true, but never made a great full length album. Songs like “Love Reign O’er Me” or “Long Live Rock” are simply not good; albums like “Face Dances” and “It’s Hard” tarnish whatever slight legacy this band possesses; and overall I wish Townshend was a solo artist with a rhythm section of Moon & Entwistle.
Pete? Is that you?
Good one, I always shook my head listening to Pete berate my favorite band. Did he have the right? I’m still not sure…
What? Someone who isn’t a big fan of the Who? They really exist?
Comb O’ Myerda:
If you don’t know much about music or don’t like The Who, fine, you are entitled to your opinion, but you are DEAD wrong. Sales of albums and concert tickets prove you, DEAD wrong. The Who are one of the top ten bands of all time. Daltrrys voice on Love Reign O’er Me was fantastic. Just as you are entitled to your opinion, I am entitled to mine, with facts to back it up.
A good overview, though I’m sorry to see “A Quick One” omitted. Also, if compilations merit inclusion, maybe like every recordings would fit as well? Particularly for The Who, one of the greatest live acts on rock history. “The Kids Are Alright” soundtrack is a great sampling of this through the years.
And “Live At Leeds” captures the live energy of rock and roll like few other albums, before or since. Considering they only had three instruments on stage, the boys made an astonishing amount of noise — glorious, glorious noise.
Glorious noise indeed. That sums it up!
I heard a while back that some of the songs on “Who’s Next” were almost throwaways. Hard to believe.
I host a weekly music show on my website. We will be doing a special in January on LifeHouse, a double album that was scrapped for the intense tracklist of Who’s Next. All of the songs have appeared on Who comps and whatnot, handsome actually were re-dine and placed on other LP’s, like Who Are You.
Ben, what is your website?
Swap “Tommy” and “Quadrophenia”, obviously, and maybe move “By Numbers” and “Who Are You” up a place each. Otherwise, yeah, a solid list.
Thanks! I have been the recipient of eye-rolls over the years for my fealty to Tommy over Quadrophenia. 🙂
Tommy was the beta which culminated in the brilliant masterpiece Quadrophenia!
Lost credibility with me with “Squeeze Box” being the favorite on By Numbers.
My personal favorites don’t fare well on this list, I consider The Who Sell Out and Quadrophenia to be the band’s career highlights. I had trouble being very enthusiastic about anything after Quadrophenia, with those albums it was more a matter of developing a grudging acceptance of them after the fact, once I realized how much worse the NEXT album was. Who’s Next is undeniably great, but it has that “what could have been” quality of being what they salvaged from Lifehouse.
Quadrophenia is #1 in my book. Rare example of concept, composition and musicianship all on an elite level. Equals any album in music history. Moon’s drumming alone makes it #1. But Who’s Next is right there, too, and Tommy is a masterpiece that changed how a lot of songwriters viewed the potential of rock. So…any order is really pretty fair.
On the other hand, M,B,B & B is a great collection, but should be no higher than #5. Swap it with The Who Sell Out (one of the first concept albums, and in many ways the beginning of prog rock), and it’s a much closer list. Since you’re not counting live albums, Leeds doesn’t make it…but that album (especially the full version) had better versions of a lot of the singles.
Plus: Extra props to someone (anyone) who actually liked It’s Hard. I’ve been listening to The ‘Oo for 40 years and I can’t stomach it. Three great songs, and a bunch of crap. “Eminence Front” is awesome, though.
“Eminence Front” is epic…& lifts the whole thing up. Without that track…yeah. Not up to standard.
where is live at leeds
Great article but 7 and 3 should be swapped. Thanks, The Who rank higher than Stones and Beatles for me.
Meaty, Beauty, Big, and Bouncy is a hits compilation. And it seems by reading the description that the author does not realize such.
Here’s what the author said about that in an earlier reply: “I stand corrected on the MMB&B point…I acknowledge that it is a compilation in my article, but knew it from my childhood as a free-standing LP. The rest is my own quirky taste. Thanks for the clarification!”
Overall, not bad for someone who isn’t as versed in the group as many of us die hards and fans are. Interestingly, I will be hosting a special on the aborted 1971 double album LifeHouse, which eventually became Who’s Next. And yes, for my money, nothing touches Who’s Next in terms of sheer rock firepower. Even the ballads have heft and weight to them. Look forward to your next piece.
Many thanks, Ben! I have learned a lot already from the die-hards. Heck, I thought I WAS one! 🙂 I love the passion of The Who fans.
Quadrophenia is my ” If I could only own 1 album on a Desert Island”. It spoke to me. Pete is a Geniuses genius.
Thanks for the nice article. Don’t let the stridency of some of the comments get you down – it was a great conversation starter.
For me, there’s no question that Quads is #1 by a long shot, but after that, I agree with Next. Tommy would be lower on my list, and Who Are You higher.
The only place I’d differ from the Who pack is that I wouldn’t leave Endless Wire at the bottom. Despite it being a “Who’s Left” album, I love some of those tracks, especially the title track.
Many thanks, Ned! I sure appreciate your comments. I like Endless Wire, make no mistake, but it just hasn’t gotten into my soul as the others have. It deserves another listen for sure.
Editorial note: it’s called: won’t “get” fooled again
Good catch. We’ll correct it. Thanks.
Thank you, thank you, thank you for resisting that regressive urge to give us each album one by one in a clickbait in slide show! Such a joy! That being said, I’d go with Who’s Next as my favorite. But my sentimental fave is Tommy, my very first album purchase as a middle schooler.
I love an old-school list myself. Many thanks!
Depends what is meant by “best”. For me, Quadrophenia is their best album.
Might want to revise this list to eliminate the omission of A Quick One. Not to unmercifully hammer the reviewer, but to essentially rank it below the incomprehensible Endless Wire and rote-like product like Its Hard strips this otherwise insightful analysis of any credibility whatsoever. You can fix this!
I believe Tommy witnessed his long lost father killed by his mother’s boyfriend which rendered him deaf dumb and blind.
This is a reply to the fans who put Quad on a shelf by itself, ready to head to the deserted island. There are at least 3 of us who know what’s good. I put it with – although I am often bashed for it – only Pink Floyd’s ,”THE Wall” in a class by themselves. Listening to them in their entirety, thru headphones and after a good smoke,I would recommend whole heartedly. But what’s great about those LPs is that you can separate them into singles and still have a bag full of hits when you’re done. I also long for what might have been concerning Lifehouse. I only learned of what went on there recently, and it made total sense. I always felt like I was picking up on a theme, of sorts. Baba, fooled again, same old song seemed as though they fit with Slip Kid, the Relay, How many friends and others. I wish I’d have been hip to the show mentioned earlier who’s subject was Lifehouse. I would have liked to know anything about that
?potential? Album? My ignorance is confounding.
I agree with the poster about how one defines best….with that said let’s try to qualify our list…
1. One is wise to put historical context in with the definition. For example, Tommy was groundbreaking, it really had no precedent, so from that definition, or from a creative perspective of the time it was released, many will argue Tommy.
2. The actual collection itself…how chart topping…. how does it hold up over time….got to roll with Who’s Next…for God’s sake…most consider it in the top 5 rock albums of all time…
However, I ask one simple favor of you…take your phone or your tablet and pull up the lyrics on the web, turn the lights off, put in the earbuds…and listen to Quadrophenia….don’t argue with me on this one…just go for it….even if you have listened to the album 100 times, or only a few. It is an absolute masterpiece. I admit, I am not a music critic, I can’t play an instrument….so who am I to judge? This album is transformative, it gets into your soul in a permanent way. The story itself, the sounds, the melody, and frankly Pete and his guitar along with his melodies are earth shattering. Shout out to the the poster who, if they could only take one album to the deserted island would pick Quadrophenia….I have told that to so many people as well. I never met a soul who agreed with me…so there are two of us now.
Anyway, peace to you all.
Nice article! I have been a Who fan since I was a kid, and I just purchased their albums after about 30 years of not listening to them, and upon revisiting their music, I, too, feel that Quadrophenia deserves the number one spot. It is more musically ambitious than Tommy, and a lot less dated. The only outstanding thing about Tommy is the song Pinball Wizard, which is undoubtedly one of Who’s best songs. Quadrophenia, on the other hand, while perhaps not having a song as iconic as Pinball Wizard, is a much more cohesive whole, and Townshend does a masterful job of weaving together the different melodic and conceptual motifs that recur throughout the album. Sure, a lot of their music is clever and fun, but to my ears, Quadrophenia is the only Who album that rises to the level of high art.