Whenever I’m involved in the age old debate as to which was the better rock band: The Beatles or The Rolling Stones? My answer is always the same, “That’s easy! The Who.”
Since October 2, 1982, the night I saw The Who in concert for the first time, I have viewed the world through Who-colored glasses. They are my favorite band of all time. And Pete Townshend is my favorite songwriter, singer, and guitarist of all time. Hence my answer to that debate.
The Who have turned 50 recently and, to celebrate that achievement, they’ve released another “best of” compilation and have embarked on a North American tour. (The tour is on hold until Spring 2016, due to Roger Daltrey having a wee bit of the viral meningitis. We’re told he is doing well, but needs to rest a while before resuming the grueling task of performing live in front of thousands of adoring fans, of which, this coming May, I will be one.)
The British music magazine NME recently ranked the ten best albums by The Who. That struck me as odd, because The Who released a total of 11 studio albums, so why not rank them all? You know, this list goes to 11. Get it?
However, their list would have to go to 12, if they had featured them all, because they included the band’s seminal live album Live At Leeds (1970).
These kind of lists can’t help but be a little controversial. Not everyone will agree with the ranking choices. (Really, NME? Tommy number one? How pedestrian.) My listing will probably do the same for other Who fans, but it’s my list so I get to pick ’em!
I will include Live At Leeds, but none of the many, many compilations the band has released over the years. Most notable among them are Meaty, Beaty, Big & Bouncy (1971) and Odds And Sods (1974). Both are excellent, but I will not include them here.
So here it is: My ranking of the albums released by the Greatest Rock Band in the World!
12) Endless Wire (2006): This album feels more like a Townshend solo project with Daltrey doing most of the singing. With John Entwistle not being involved due to a wee bit of a case of death, this feels less like The Who than their early 80s, post Keith Moon albums. It does have plenty of good stuff on it though. ‘Black Widow’s Eyes’, “God Speaks Marty Robbins’, ‘We Got A Hit’ are all very good. Roger’s voice has aged, but Pete’s seems ageless. Maybe it’s just me.
My favorite track: ‘Endless Wire (Extended)’
11) It’s Hard (1982): This and Face Dances were criticized unfairly. Yes, the manic drumming of Moon was replaced by the steadier beat of Kenney Jones, but Townshend was still churning out some great tunes. Daltrey’s voice was in excellent shape and Entwistle’s writing contributions were very good. ‘Athena’, ‘Dangerous’, ‘One At A Time’, and ‘Cry If You Want’ all make this album an enjoyable, if uneven, listen.
My favorite track: ‘Eminence Front’
10) Face Dances (1981): Fans probably weren’t sure what to expect with this first album since Moon’s untimely death, but the opening track, for me, is one of the best of The Who’s albums’ lead off songs. Still a bit uneven, but I think it’s much better than some critics were willing to admit. ‘The Quiet One’, ‘Daily Records’, and ‘Another Tricky Day’ are all stand outs.
My favorite track: ‘You Better You Bet’
9) My Generation (1965): The title track was the song that made it likely that if The Who had never produced another song, they would still be remembered as making one of the strongest, angriest, spit-in-the-facest songs ever recorded. The rest of this debut album demonstrates The Who’s early maximum R & B sound. Aside from the title track there are a few other gems worth checking out including ‘The Good’s Gone’, ‘A Legal Matter’, and the driving instrumental ‘The Ox’.
My favorite track: ‘The Kids Are Alright’
8) Who Are You (1978): This was to be the last of the “real” Who albums, and for me it feels a bit disjointed. The title track was written after a drunken encounter by Townshend with members of the Sex Pistols. At the time, Townshend was a great fan of Punk Rock as he felt that the kids could now take care of Rock’n’Roll while he could explore different ideas in music. He did that on this and future albums. Some of the songs play almost as Broadway theater fare. Stand out tracks are ‘Had Enough’, ‘Sister Disco’, and, of course, the title track.
My favorite track: ‘905’
7) A Quick One (1966): This was The Who’s second album and their label thought that since The Beatles were writing all their own songs The Who should, too. They asked that each band member write two songs for their new release. Townshend and Entwistle had the gift, but Moon and Daltrey weren’t quite ready. (Roger only managed one and that was with Pete’s help.) The result is slightly uneven, but there is some nice stuff on here. ‘Run Run Run’, ‘Boris The Spider’, ‘Cobwebs And Strange’ and ‘A Quick One, While He’s Away’ are very satisfying. The song ‘A Quick One, While He’s Away’ is a nine minute track that is made up of separate parts and helped lay the groundwork for Tommy.
My favorite track: ‘Sad So About Us’
6) The Who Sell Out (1967): One of the first concept albums in rock music, Townshend’s idea was to link the songs together as though this was all part of a pirate radio station’s playlist. There are commercials and announcements woven in between the tracks with some of the tracks themselves being commercials. The concept tails off in the second half of the album which includes the song ‘Rael’. That song has many musical elements that Townshend would later use on Tommy. Some of the best tracks are ‘Mary Anne With The Shaky Hands’, ‘Tattoo’, ‘I Can’t Reach You’, and ‘Sunrise’. I recommend getting the deluxe version of this album as it pulls off the concept more thoroughly than the original release.
My favorite track: ‘I Can See For Miles’
5) Tommy (1969): This was the release that made the band rock superstars and finally got them out from under the debt accumulated from all that instrument smashing. The album sounds a little under-produced, but it’s the under-produced nature of this album that made it more suitable to be played live. The story of Tommy (a blind, deaf, and dumb boy) is meant to take the listener on a spiritual journey. I’m not sure it worked out that way, but with such tracks as ‘Christmas’, ‘The Acid Queen’, ‘Go To The Mirror!’, ‘I’m Free’ and ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’, Tommy became a landmark album.
My favorite track: ‘Pinball Wizard’
4) Live At Leeds (1970): This is the best live album I have ever heard! The Who are at their height of musical exploration. The track for their song ‘My Generation’ lasts nearly 15 minutes as Townshend wends his way through a monster guitar solo. The original release contained a mere six songs, but it managed to show the world this is what a live rock album should be. Half of the songs are covers including ‘Young Man Blues’ and ‘Shaking All Over’. Again, I recommend getting the deluxe version. It has much, much more! Plus it gives the listener a chance to hear the band members bantering with each other as they introduce the next song to be played. Damn! I wish I could have seen them then.
My favorite track: ‘Summertime Blues’
3) The Who By Numbers (1975): This is kind of the forgotten Who album, but I think it is outstanding. Much less ambitious that all those concept albums and rock operas that had gone before, this collection of songs finds The Who a bit quieter and coming to terms with getting older. At the time, there were some who worried this might be a sort of suicide note from Pete. Apparently, they didn’t listen much to the uplifting ‘Blue, Red, and Grey’. Lots of good stuff on here including ‘Slip Kid’, ‘Squeeze Box’, and ‘Success Story’ (a great Entwistle tune). Let’s try to remember this one, OK?
My favorite track: ‘However Much I Booze’
2) Who’s Next (1971): This album was the leftovers from Townshend’s very ambitious and confusing project Lifehouse. The project sent Pete into an emotional spiral and it had to be put off. (Pete has never completely given up on it, though.) So, Who’s Next was put together. And, wow! These are leftovers? Townshend’s early embracing of synthesizers led to their greatest opening track ever! This album is full of great rock moments. ‘Bargain’, ‘My Wife’, ‘Behind Blue Eyes’, and ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ all became staples of rock radio.
My favorite track: ‘Baba O’Riley’ (Still gives me goosebumps!)
1) Quadrophenia (1973): Tommy be damned! This is The Who’s greatest album! Completely composed by Townshend, this brilliant album has helped a lot of young people deal with the awkward times of their lives when they just didn’t know who the f@#k they were. As a concept album, Quadrophenia is the most fully realized effort by The Who. There was some criticism that the album was over-produced, but that doesn’t matter to me or the many, many other Who fans who pick this one as their favorite. Its stand out songs include ‘The Real Me’, ‘I’m One’, ‘I’ve Had Enough’, ‘5:15’, and ‘Love Reign O’er Me’. This is an album that must be listened to from beginning to end.
My favorite track: ‘Drowned’
50 years of The Who. Not too shabby.