At their core, The Who have always been a band searching for identity. Their very name, a definite article followed by an interrogative pronoun, is a testament to their inquisitive, soul-searching nature. Over nearly 60 years, Roger Daltrey, Peter Townshend, and the late John Entwistle and Keith Moon discovered, ironically, that their identity indeed lies in agnostic ambiguity.
“I won’t find what I’m after/ Till the day I die,” Townshend penned on the 1970 single “The Seeker”. However, The Who’s constant striving has led to one of rock’s greatest careers — one marked by troubled relationships, rambunctious rock and roll, raging social commentary, untimely deaths, and above all, a yearning for love.
The tortured lyricism of Townshend, the heart-wrenching screams of Daltrey, the frenzied drum rolls of Moon, and the unrestrained bass lines of Entwistle created some of rock’s greatest arena anthems from “My Generation” to “Baba O’Riley”. But behind every lyric and power chord is a passionate plea for hate to f-f-f-fade from among us and for love to reign o’er all. The Who may never find what they’re after, but they’ve led millions of fans along their “Amazing Journey” through vulnerability and no-nonsense rampage.
We celebrate and continue that journey by ranking and dissecting The Who’s studio discography, plus a couple of essential albums that also belong in the rock and roll quartet’s illustrious canon.
14. WHO (2019)
Overture (Best Song): The Who’s first single since 2014, “Ball and Chain” recaptures the gruff blues-rock Daltrey and Townshend have always delivered with precision. Protesting the injustices of Guantanamo Bay, Daltrey growls with the same righteous anger that has fueled Who anthems for over 50 years.
Guitar and Pen (Best Lyric): “I’m rockin’ in rage/ Well past my prime/ Denying the curtain/ Wasting no time” — “Rockin’ in Rage”
Eminence Front (Most Ambitious Moment): Typically, an ambitious rock song contains maximalist experimentation and grandiose lyricism. But for one of the loudest, most ambitious rock bands of all time, it instead means pulling back. The restrained soft rock of “I’ll Be Back”, a song about love after reincarnation, has more in common with early ‘80s Billy Joel or Hall & Oates than the anthems of Who’s Next — an unlikely left turn for a legacy act this late in their career.
The Rock (Loudest Moment): WHO isn’t a particularly loud album, but raucous opener “All This Music Must Fade” is a classic fan-pleaser about The Who’s unwillingness to conform to modern music fads. Daltrey’s soulful, husky voice hasn’t lost its edge in 2019, and Townshend remains a master of the power chord.
Bargain (Forgotten Gems): While it’s impossible to choose a “forgotten gem” from a brand-new record, WHO deep cut “Street Song” promises to be a favorite sleeper. Written about the tragic Grenfell Tower fire, which killed 72 people, “Street Song” is imbued with the same anguish and longing that charges Quadrophenia.
Who Are You (Analysis): An album which finds itself at the bottom of a ranking isn’t necessarily a bad album, especially when you have a discography like The Who. Their 2019 release, WHO, is an enjoyable listen, filled with straightforward rock and roll just as you’d expect. However, it’s also the safest album Daltrey and Townshend have ever released. They’re never quite provocative despite a few heartfelt indictments of society and politics, nor are they musically as adventurous as in the past. WHO is certainly not objectionable, but that’s part of its weakness. –Chris Thiessen
13. Face Dances (1981)
Overture: Their highest-charting latter-day hit, sitting at No. 1 on the Billboard Top Tracks chart for five weeks, Face Dances opener “You Better You Bet” has steadily emerged as one of The Who’s most recognizable singles. Equal parts earworming and unashamedly anthemic, it’s an opener that sets a high watermark for an LP that, sadly, doesn’t manage to match its promise.
Guitar and Pen: “Your letter came and today is the eighth/ This is the day that Moonie earned his wraith.” — “It’s in You” (1997 bonus track)
Eminence Front: There’s optimistic, and then there’s conceiving of a reality where the immortal refrain, “Did you ever dream of a suicide pill/ And wake up cold to the smell of bread?” (“Cache Cache”) might somehow work. Is it nigh on tragically bad? Yes. Is it ambitious? Extremely.
The Rock: Though coming up short elsewhere, John Entwistle’s “The Quiet One” packs a heady punch early on. Featuring some of Roger Daltrey’s finest vocals on the album (as well as an admirable display from Moonie replacement, and ex-Faces drummer, Kenney Jones), it’s as thundering as the latter-day Who ever got.
Bargain: Along with “You Better You Bet” and “The Quiet One”, “Another Tricky Day” makes Face Dances worthy of the odd cursory listen. Drawing parallels to The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”, it’s a dynamic, swaggering peak that doubles up as a reminder of the importance of perspective.
Who Are You: Released three years on from Keith Moon’s generation-puncturing passing in 1978, Face Dances was always going to be the sound of band facing down an identity crisis. But despite the best efforts of ex-Faces drummer Kenney Jones, who is a solid presence, the album also largely lacks the potency and intent that made The Who such a force to be reckoned with in the preceding two decades. Valiant, no doubt, yet decidedly underwhelming, in all. –Brian Coney
12. It’s Hard (1982)
Overture: Ladder-climbing keyboards from Tim Gorman, nasty bass grooves from Entwistle, and angsty soul vocals from Townshend collide on The Who’s best ‘80s performance, “Eminence Front”. Like the blissful hedonism Townshend criticizes, the song’s shimmery funk-pop sheen is a “put on” suppressing society’s vices.
Guitar and Pen: “There is a stranger inside me somewhere/ That shadow behind me, don’t even look like me/ An echoed apology” — “It’s Your Turn”
Eminence Front: Late album song “A Man Is a Man” denounces toxic masculinity and the hardened cowboy aesthetic decades before it became a mainstream hot topic. “When a man is a man… He don’t have to perform like John Wayne in some B-feature flick,” Daltrey and Townshend harmonize, encouraging an open heart over a “soul on the ice.”
The Rock: The last of three Entwistle-penned songs on It’s Hard, “One at a Time” blasts into being with a brassy fanfare, which gives way to rollicking drums and a thumping bass line. The whole affair is dramatic, though scattered and ungrounded.
Bargain: “I’ve Known No War” is a true-to-form Who anthem that rocks and marches like “Who Are You” or something on Who’s Next. Daltrey animates Townshend’s Cold War reflections with roaring riot over quintessentially crunchy guitars and drifting orchestral sweeps.
Who Are You: The Who’s final record before their 20-plus-year hiatus and Entwistle’s death, It’s Hard is, well, not easy to love. Comprised of selections from a ditched Entwistle opera (“It’s Your Turn”), callbacks to early Who (“It’s Hard”), and social commentary (“A Man Is A Man”, It’s Hard doesn’t know what it wants to be. In fact, Daltrey and Townshend both admitted the album shouldn’t have happened, citing label pressure as the album’s driving force. Still, It’s Hard is at its strongest an indictment of political power, hyper-masculinity, and hedonism in a decade plagued by all three. At its worst, it’s the sound of a band who doesn’t want to exist. –Chris Thiessen
11. Endless Wire (2006)
Overture: While the album’s closer, “Tea & Theatre”, serves as the prologue in Townshend’s loose narrative, it’s hard not to think about The Who’s own journey as Daltrey sings, “One of us gone/ One of us mad/ One of us me/ All of us sad.” Despite a tumultuous relationship across their 50-year career, the now-duo still perform their smoldering songs as one, choosing friendship and forgiveness over bitterness.
Guitar and Pen: “I lovingly mock you noble lords/ We all dress up to grand awards/ I do that as well” — “A Man in a Purple Dress”
Eminence Front: Townshend’s lead vocal performances are typically welcome change-ups amidst Daltrey’s powerhouse performances. On tender ballad “In the Ether”, he had the opportunity to either create a magical moment or a disaster with his Tom Waits-meets-Louis Armstrong garbling. Unfortunately, it’s the latter as Townshend professes his intoxicating love obsession.
The Rock: “We’re not strong enough,” Daltrey screams on early song “Mike Post Theme”. One of the album’s most dynamic performances, Daltrey delivers Townshend’s soap opera-spurning soapbox sermon with zeal.
Bargain: At 62 years old, Daltrey’s bluesy rasp is powerful as ever on “It’s Not Enough”, an explosive and contemptuous cry against other’s discontent and soul-draining demands. Co-written with Townshend’s eventual wife Rachel Fuller, “It’s Not Enough” is as well-crafted a rock song as The Who ever created.
Who Are You: Despite its low placement on this list, Endless Wire is an impressive feat for a band 40 years into their career. While most of their contemporaries have played the 21st century safe, replaying the old hits and creating nostalgia-heavy new material that remembers the good-ole days, The Who pour themselves into their 2006 return unafraid to take risks and explore new scenery. The shots don’t always land here, and Townshend’s mini-opera on disc two lacks the focus of Tommy and Quadrophenia. But the defiant rock and roll spirit of The Who permeates Endless Wire all the way through. –Chris Thiessen
10. A Quick One (1966/67)
Overture: Bassist John “The Ox” Entwistle’s first composition, “Boris the Spider”, was, according to Pete Townshend, Jimi Hendrix’s favourite Who song. Written in six minutes, it’s a memorable and masterfully silly classic that comes creeping in from the left field (and an early live fan favourite, with very good reason).
Guitar and Pen: “Occasionally a girl surprises me/ When she turns out to be you.” — “Disguises”
Eminence Front: Though noted Beach Boys fan Keith Moon knocks a cover of The Regents’ “Barbara Ann” right out of the park, the nine-minute “A Quick One, While He’s Away” is both a sprawling, harmony-laden highlight and easily one of the band’s most singular songs.
The Rock: Capturing early Who at their most offbeat, “Cobwebs Are Strange” is a cacophonous psycho-march featuring Moon on orchestra cymbals, Townshend on penny whistle, Daltrey on trombone, and Entwistle on trumpet. Neighbours partying a little too hard? You could do much worse than giving this one a blast.
Bargain: A song that comes precariously close to being overshadowed by more outlandish efforts (not least the band’s “Batman” cover), “So Sad About Us” is a shimmering power-pop gem that, despite being originally written for Liverpool beat foursome The Merseys, is nuanced, heart-stung early Who at their most alchemical.
Who Are You: Not unlike their 1981 album sans Keith Moon, Face Dances, album number two for The Who is a snapshot of a band in irreversible transition. While a step down, and a mottled departure from the “maximum R&B” sound of their 1965 debut, My Generation, the pros swing slightly in the band’s favour. Not unlike The Beatles on Help!, A Quick One is a naïve, but occasionally rewarding document of a band on the cusp of tapping into their potential. Best of all, with each member given the opportunity to contribute songs, it’s weird and curveballing in all the right places. –Brian Coney
09. Odds & Sods (1974)
Overture: An essential piece of the scrapped Lifehouse project, “Pure and Easy” is The Who’s Genesis story — their paradise lost and hope for paradise regained. In a metaphorical world of music, The Who (like all of us) rummage through distortion for purity, light as a breath, with the strength to hold us together.
Guitar and Pen: “As people assemble/ Civilization is trying to find a new way to die/ But killing is really merely scene changer/ All men are bored with other men’s lies” — “Pure and Easy”
Eminence Front: While Odds & Sods features plenty of songs that could’ve fit within the tracklists of Tommy and Who’s Next, it also features oddities like “Now I’m a Farmer”, a song about harvesting nature’s hallucinogenic gifts. The track sounds innocent enough if you miss the subliminal messages. What’s unmistakable, though, is the hilariously ambitious attempts at Southern accents, yodeling, and Johnny Cash-inspired country rhythms.
The Rock: Another song from the Lifehouse project, “Put the Money Down” sounds like a swampy predecessor to “Who Are You” with its lazy groove and untimely police encounters. At the song’s climax, Daltrey bellows the song’s title with all his might over one of the tightest, bluesiest performances the quartet ever delivered.
Bargain: A rollicking meta-rock song recorded in 1972, “Long Live Rock” is the direct link between Chuck Berry and AC/DC (whose debut album arrived one year after Odds & Sods). The song became a minor hit seven years later following the success of documentary film The Kids Are Alright, yet it remains a dust-covered deep cut today.
Who Are You: B-sides and rarities albums may be standard fair today, often garnering yawns over applause. That certainly wasn’t the case in 1974 when The Who released Odds & Sods. Considering the amount of scrapped projects in the years preceding, Odds & Sods is a blessing that captured the (at times, overly) ambitious mind of Pete Townshend during his peak writing years. The album isn’t by any means cohesive, yet it contains some of The Who’s strongest performances of the era (“Pure and Easy”) and deserves to be named among their studio albums. –Chris Thiessen
08. Who Are You (1978)
Overture: Penned by Pete Townshend after a lengthy night on the tiles with Steve Jones and Paul Cook of the Sex Pistols, the fist-clenched, instantly recognisable title track is (and by some considerable distance at that) the undoubted high-point of Who Are You.
Guitar and Pen: “I spit out like a sewer hole/ Yet still receive your kiss/ How can I measure up to anyone now/ After such a love as this?”
— “Who Are You”
Eminence Front: Pushing close to seven minutes, “Who Are You” is, for the exact same reason it’s the album’s irrefutable climax, also its most visionary moment. From its winding structure and squelchy synth patterns, to that breakdown; it’s a gutsy and mercurial triumph.
The Rock: Released as a second single, “Trick of the Light” is a textbook Entwistle barnstormer. Performed occasionally on the band’s 1979 tour with the bassist on eight-string, it’s a muscular, tympanic, membrane-bothering tale of sexuality insecurity.
Bargain: Despite the notable absence of Keith Moon’s indelible touch (the drummer’s rapidly deteriorating health meant he was unable to perform to the track’s 6/8 timing), “Music Must Change” is a heartfelt and impressively unraveling mid-album peak.
Who Are You: The Who’s eighth album, and the last to feature Keith Moon, who died three weeks after its August 1978 release, Who Are You hasn’t aged gracefully. The songwriting is often unfocused, and those polyphonic synth pads have dented it with a dated air. While a handful of songs (“Who Are You”, “Trick of the Light”, “New Song”, and “Music Must Change”) rescue it from featuring at the back-end of this list, it was, in truth, the beginning of the end. –Brian Coney
07. The Who Sell Out (1967)
Overture: “I Can See for Miles” is easily the most recognizable hit from The Who’s 1967 oddball record. But it’s the soaring melody of “Our Love Was” that warms the heart with each repeat listen. Perhaps The Who’s response to the California jangle pop of The Byrds, Townshend’s guitar rings out from beneath sweet, love-struck harmonies surely inspired by The Mamas and the Papas.
Guitar and Pen: “You take away the breath I was keeping for sunrise” — “Sunrise”
Eminence Front: The Entwistle-penned “Silas Stingy” offers a brief vignette of an Ebenezer Scrooge-like character who spends his entire wealth securing his money until it’s gone entirely. Medieval harmonies, proto-Queen theatrics, and Entwistle’s twisting trumpet lines combine to create a maximalist cautionary tale, which shouldn’t work. But then again, a lot of what The Who created shouldn’t have worked.
The Rock: Moon’s trashcan drum performances and Entwistle’s thumping bass line propel “I Can See for Miles” forward with brooding force. But it’s Townshend’s huge chords and machine-gun guitar solo that echo loudest on The Who Sell Out.
Bargain: “Tattoo” is a first-person exploration of manhood, gender expectations, and generational clashing. Daltrey and Townshend tenderly trade vocals as they tell the tongue-in-cheek tale of two brothers whose rebellious antics offer an escape from the abuse and control of their closed-minded parents.
Who Are You: The Who Sell Out is one of the oddest entries in the quartet’s canon. Portrayed as a broadcast on pirate radio station Radio London (commercials and all), the album is the closest The Who ever come to psychedelia, as they explore fictional, drug-induced destinations like Armenia (not the country) and Rael. Though the album wasn’t very successful (due to the fact that they didn’t, in fact, sell out at all), The Who Sell Out remains a cult favorite among fans due to its eclectic nature and smart songwriting, which mirrored the monumental shifts the music world experienced in 1967. –Chris Thiessen
06. My Generation (1965/66)
Overture: Despite the title track being assured of its status as one of the most important songs in rock, “The Kids Are Alright” wins out for being such a simple yet immaculate, era-condensing anthem.
Guitar and Pen: “Why don’t you all f—— ade away.” — “My Generation”
Eminence Front: Suffice to say, “My Generation” flipped the rock and roll script and then some. Combined, Daltrey’s edgy faux-stutter, Moon’s blitzing exhibitionism, and the song’s unconventional stop-start structure has ensured that it is rightfully remembered as one of the most unapologetically brazen rock singles of its (or any other) time.
The Rock: Sure, it’s edging towards clean sweep here, but “My Generation” — fueled by Keith Moon’s heroic grandstanding — is by far and away the debut’s most raucous moment. And it checks out: a song that’s widely regarded for preempting both heavy metal and punk rock was never going to be a dulcet affair.
Bargain: Largely overlooked single “A Legal Matter” is a jangly triumph. Released as the B-side to “The Kids Are Alright” in the US, it’s most notable for being the first time Townshend sang lead vocals. (Roger Daltrey was mid-divorce at the time; considering the song’s lyrical content, it may have been a little too close to home.)
Who Are You: With the British Invasion reaching fever pitch, 1965 was a uniquely electrifying time to be a youth in England and beyond. More than the vast majority of records released that year, My Generation manages to distill the spark and spirit of the age. With advance copies of the debut receiving negative verdicts from the press, Pete Townshend was impelled to write new original material for the official release. The covers delivered, for the most part, but those new songs proved both revelatory and vital. It may not be flawless — far from it — but My Generation brims with the feverish zeal and songwriting prowess of a band who, when they really put their mind to it, could truly sound like no one else. –Brian Coney