The Who were, undoubtedly, one of the most influential bands of the 20th century. Inspiring many great artists such as Eddie Vedder, Jack Black, Bono, Liam Gallagher, Billie Joe Armstrong and many more, the band’s contribution to music didn’t just end with brilliant albums, they were largely responsible for the development of the Marshall stack, large PA systems and the heavy use of synthesizers within rock music too.
Of course, with a legacy so vast, it still didn’t end there. The Who were responsible for developing the music style known as ‘rock opera’ and, with it, Pete Townshend, their guitarist, developed the power chord technique of playing the instrument. Multiple hard rock, punk rock and mod bands have been influenced by The Who’s music and, it’s safe to say, that without the band we wouldn’t be nearly as rich in rock as we are today.
Formed in London 1964, The Who, in their entire musical career, sold over 100 million copies worldwide. They have an extensive catalogue when it comes to making music with 12 studio albums, 14 live albums, 26 compilation albums, 4 EPs, 58 singles and four soundtrack albums. Not resting on their laurels in terms of music creation, the band also famously created their own record label in Track Records. Wrapping things up, a couple of their albums like Tommy and Quadrophenia were also adapted into acclaimed feature films.
Whenever a band has multiple albums, the question arises as to which is the best record they have ever created and, subsequently, which album is their worst. Today, we are going to look into their 12 studio LPs and categorise them in order of greatness. For a band like The Who, it’s certainly not easy.
Ranking The Who’s albums worst to best:
12. Who (2019)
We start off with The Who’s 12th and final studio album. Released 13 years after their 11th album, this self-titled album comprised of ballads, rock music, experimental electronica and “classic Who-ish” songs which sought to re-establish the band as figureheads of rock. This 11 track project, in truth, was largely only enjoyed by the band’s diehard fans.
Critics and lesser-fans both felt that some tracks in the album weren’t well-conceived and didn’t project the same intensity as the group’s back catalogue. Aside from a few songs which still had the same feel as The Who’s previous works, most of the LP felt like generic acoustic pop songs with not much noteworthy guitar playing.
For The Who, to miss that expectation is sacreligious.
11. The Who Sell Out (1967)
This might come as a shock to some, but next on our list is The Who’s third studio album. Upon its release, The Who Sell Out received mixed reviews and, according to many music journalists, music magazines and critics, this was The Who’s best work. However, this concept album did not sit well with the underground music scene in the UK.
It was also an album that was largely discredited by the band’s original clique of fans, with The Mods of the day rejecting it out of hand.
The album is a collection of unrelated songs interspersed with fake commercials and public service announcements, which makes for a disjointed record. The LP’s release was followed by lawsuits from multiple companies due to the mention of real-world commercial interests over the faux commercials and on the album covers.
10. It’s Hard (1982)
On number 10 we have their 10th studio album, It’s Hard.
This was the final album to feature their long time bassist John Entwistle, who passed away in 2002. This album contains some wonderful songs like ‘Athena’, which peaked at No. 28 in the Billboards pop chart. It also features songs like ‘Dangerous’, ‘Its Your Turn’, ‘Eminence Front’ and ‘One at a Time’, which highlighted the group’s talent. The song ‘I’ve Known No War’ is also noteworthy as it featured the orchestral arrangement from the Quadrophenia film version ‘I’ve Had Enough’.
There were certainly moments on the record that saw it become a beloved moment from their canon but was largely middle by critics of the day.
9. Endless Wire (2006)
Endless Wire was the 11th studio album, released on 30 October 2006 in the UK. It was their first new studio album of original material in over two decades following the release of It’s Hard in 1982, and, perhaps more notably, the band’s first record since the death of the bassist John Entwistle.
This album consisted of memorable songs like ‘Black Widow’s Eyes’ which talked about Stockholm Syndrome, ‘We Got a Hit’, ‘Endless Wire’, ‘It’s Not Enough’ and ‘Mike Post Theme’. Endless Wire is a robust piece of work and showcases the band’s bountiful talents.
8. My Generation (1965)
My Generation was the debut studio album by The Who, released on 3 December 1965. This album, among other things, featured Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin working as a session guitarist. The Who exploded into the music scene with this album.
The album had it all from a ferocious blend of grungy distortion, rumbling bass and percussion, and brutish vocals and songs like ‘I Don’t Mind’, ‘La-La-La-Lies’, ‘The Kids Are Alright’ and ‘The Ox’. My Generation became the blueprint for much of the subsequent garage rock and heavy metal that followed soon after and positively shoved at the boundaries of popular music.
The album went gold, was number five in the albums chart in the UK and should rightly be heralded as one of the most influential LPs of the day—but it’s not one of their best.
7. A Quick One (1966)
Unlike other albums by The Who, in which guitarist Pete Townshend was the sole songwriter, A Quick One featured contributions from all band members, with singer Roger Daltrey contributing one song, bassist John Entwistle and drummer Keith Moon each contributing two and making this one of the band’s most collaborative records.
Intended to be heard as a pop album and act as a sonic participant in the pop art movement, the music in the album was inspired from multiple places ranging from commercial jingle melody to the group’s soul influences.
The title track of the album, ‘A Quick One, While He’s Away’, gave their listeners a glimpse into the band’s future as creators of rock opera. This album contained the most covered Who song ever, ‘So Sad About Us’. It also had songs like ‘Happy Jack’, ‘Boris the Spider’, ‘Cobwebs and Strange’ and ‘Heat Wave’ which added power to the tracklisting. A Quick One was also well received just like their previous album, critically it was a big hit.
6. Face Dances (1981)
Their sixth album that hit platinum was The Who’s ninth studio album, Face Dances. Despite mixed reviews by the critics, the album peaked at number four on the Billboards and number two on the UK album charts.
Hit songs like ‘You Better You Bet’, ‘Don’t Let Go The Coat’ and ‘You’ are from this album and there’s no doubt that it is one Who record that is positively brimming with energy and ideas, despite its position in the band’s iconography. While others may be more routinely suggested as the band’s best, it’s hard to ignore this one as an underrated classic.
5. The Who by Numbers (1975)
Their seventh studio album, The Who by Numbers was released on 3 October 1975 to huge fanfare. The songs on the album were, for the most part, more introspective and personal than many other songs that the band had released prior to the album. Townshend said, “The songs were written with me stoned out of my brain in my living room, crying my eyes out… detached from my own work and from the whole project… I felt empty.”
The Who by Numbers was their first album under Polydor Records. The album took an unusually long time to complete in comparison to their previous albums and contained songs like ‘Slip Kid’, ‘Squeeze Box’ and ‘Dreaming From the Waist’ which highlighted the group’s unstoppable ability to craft rocking tunes.
In fact, ‘Squeeze Box’ even made it to top 10 singles chart in the UK.
4. Who Are You (1978)
Even though this album was created when punk rock was getting increasingly popular and threatening the nature of bands like The Who, Who Are You incorporated elements of progressive rock and it was this kind of production helped to appeal to commercial rock radio at that time. With multiple layers of synthesiser and strings, the album showcased some of Townshend’s most complicated arrangements for all to see. Many of the songs reflected on Townshend’s long-mulled Lifehouse project, featuring lyrics about songwriting and music, using them as a metaphor for life, including songs like: ‘Guitar and Pen’, ‘New Song’, ‘Music Must Change’, and ‘Sister Disco’.
The band was drifting apart during this period, as band members were working on various solo projects and Moon was diving deeper into drug and alcohol abuse. Moon’s health was especially an object of concern, especially considering his drumming skills had also drastically deteriorated and his performances for most of the sessions were below expectation. He was unable to keep time on the track ‘Music Must Change’, so, rather than try to work with Moon, the drums were removed completely from the track, and then later replaced with the sound of footsteps along with cymbal crashes.
But, as the saying goes, “all’s well that end’s well” and Who Are You received immense commercial success.
3. Quadrophenia (1973)
Their second rock opera, the story of Quadrophenia, was set in London and Brighton in 1965 and followed a young mod named Jimmy and his search for self-worth and importance. Quadrophenia was the only Who album entirely composed by Pete Townshend. The guitarist created the character of Jimmy from a composite of six early fans of the group, giving the character a four-way split personality which, as you may be able to tell, led to the album’s title.
Following the immense commercial success of Tommy and Who’s Next, the band was struggling to come up with a suitable follow-up. Then Townshend became inspired by ‘Long Live Rock – Rock Is Dead’ theme and, in autumn 1972, began writing material and finally came up with Quadrophenia. Recording of the tracks was done separately and to obtain a better string section sound on the album, Townshend bought a cello and over two weeks learned how to play it well enough to be recorded.
When Pete Townshend was asked about this album, he replied by saying: “The group never recorded anything that was so ambitious or audacious again”. This was Pete’s favourite Who album and Quadrophenia was the second album to turned into a film and was a mark of the band’s impressive progression.
2. Tommy (1969)
Townshend came up with the concept of Tommy following his introduction to the work of Meher Baba. After meeting the guru he attempted to translate Baba’s teachings abd philosophies into music. Recordingstarted in September 1968 but took a huge six months to complete as material needed to be arranged and re-recorded in the studio.
He decided that The Who should record a series of songs that stood well in isolation but formed a cohesive whole on the album. Townshend was also insistent that the material be performed in concert, as a way to counter the trend of huge groups like The Beatles and The Beach Boys on focusing on the studio-side of being in a band. Townshend wanted it all.
Their fourth studio album was unlike any other as they introduced to to the world the concept of a rock opera for the first time. The album tells the story of Tommy Walker, a “deaf, dumb and blind” boy, and the life he tries to lead, including his family issues.
Each and every song in the album can be enjoyed individually and one could argue that with this record The Who made a breakthrough in rock music. Songs like ‘Overture’, ‘Christmas’ and ‘The Acid Queen’ became cult classic songs. Later Tommy was adapted into a film and proved the group’s reputation was growing at a wild rate.
1. Who’s Next (1971)
Who’s Next is the fifth studio album by The Who and by far their best. The record was born out of Townshend’s fabled Lifehouse project, a multi-media rock opera written by the guitarist as a follow-up to the band’s 1969 album Tommy. The complex project never mad it off the ground because of Twosnhend’s spiralling vision and his issues with Kit Lambert, the band’s manager, but Townshend was persuaded to record the songs as a straightforward studio album.
The first session for what became Who’s Next was at Mick Jagger’s house and, in actual fact, the backing track of ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ was recorded alongside the Rolling Stones frontman. The bandmates brought various artists to play different instruments for this record and the violin that can be heard in ‘Baba O’Riley’ was played by Dave Arbus and signified the group’s prominence. The final sessions were overseen by their then producer and engineer, Glyn Johns, who took the record to a whole new level with his production skills and filled Townshend with different ideas for the songs.
‘Baba O’Riley’ may well be one of the most enigmatic opening songs of all time, featuring piano and synthesizer-processed Lowrey organ by Townshend, the track breaks open the treasure chest of music to come. The song’s title is a clear tribute to Townshend’s guru, Meher Baba, and minimalist composer Terry Riley, two men who brought light to Townshend’s life. The album contained songs like ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’, ‘My Wife’ and also included such all-time Who classics as ‘Bargain’, ‘Behind Blue Eyes’ and the majestic ‘The Song Is Over’ all of which confirmed The Who as rock giants.
Since it’s release, Who’s Next has often been considered as The Who’s best album. In fact, to some, it is considered to be the best hard rock album ever created.