Catalog Crawl: The Who

Catalog Crawl

Music nerds love ranked lists. Music nerds love thoughtful commentary. Music nerds love carefully curated playlists. Catalog Crawl provides all of these things and more. In these features, Strange Currencies takes an exhaustive look at the discographies of our favorite artists — the ones who reside at the core of our music obsession.


Pete Townshend. Roger Daltrey. John Entwistle. Keith Moon. No band of the British Invasion were as explosive, as unpredictable, or as lethal as The Who: a London quartet that arrived on the scene well after The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Kinks, but that left an impact crater which rivaled any of their storied peers. Yes, The Beatles dominated by best-in-class songwriting and an endless well of musical exploration; The Stones thrived on their ‘bad boy’ reputation; The Kinks excelled with wry observations of contemporary British life. In contrast, The Who ruled through brute force, and a musical alchemy that could blow any of their contemporaries away. They were, at their peak, an unstoppable force of nature.

And that peak arguably lasted longer than any of their rivals. Volatile as they were, The Who’s classic lineup remained intact from 1964 until Keith Moon’s untimely death in 1978. During those years, the band released eight studio albums (two of which were double LPs), a monumental live record, and a wealth of classic singles. In fact, not only would I argue that their early singles represent much of The Who’s greatest work, but also that songs like “I Can’t Explain,” “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere,” “Substitute,” “I’m a Boy,” “Pictures of Lily,” and “Happy Jack” — none of which appear on any of their proper albums — damn near represent the platonic ideal of sixties rock music.

But the Catalog Crawl feature is about albums, and thus, we’re here to focus on The Who’s significant contributions to the notion of the album as rock music’s defining format. After all, this is a band that helped introduce terms like “concept album” and “rock opera” into the pop lexicon. During their critical and commercial peak, The Who — and Pete Townshend in particular — did as much as any group to force fans and the rock press to view their records as cohesive, transportive, and serious works of art. Granted, this may have come at the expense of The Who’s reputation as a stellar singles band, but it’s the album which stands at the core of the group’s considerable legacy.

And so, here we rate and rank the eight studio LPs that The Who recorded with Keith Moon, four more that were released after his death (two of which appeared after John Entwistle’s death in 2002), the 1974 outtakes collection Odds & Sods, and 1970’s Live at Leeds — considered by many to be the greatest live album ever recorded by a major rock band. Through the inevitable peaks and valleys of an over-half-century career — including the band’s likely final album, 2019’s Who — the one constant is the peerless ambition that has become synonymous with The Who.

And as always, this feature includes the requisite playlist. This time out, the rules were to exclude any track that appears on the band’s most recent career-spanning compilation: 2014’s The Who Hits 50. I’d steer any total Who newcomer to begin there, as Hits 50 is not only the most comprehensive comp available, but it also includes the aforementioned early singles that are such a crucial part of the band’s story. Consider my playlist as an addendum to that collection. Enjoy!


It’s Hard

1982

(5.6)

14

1982’s It’s Hard would be the last Who album for twenty-four years, and — given its critical reception — it shouldn’t really come as a surprise. Easily the nadir of the band’s initial run, It’s Hard isn’t outright dismal, but its highlights are few and far between.

In fact, it wouldn’t be completely out of line to suggest that It’s Hard only houses a single track that could qualify as a highlight: the disco-funk hit “Eminence Front.” While something of an outlier in the band’s catalog, “Eminence” outright slaps, and its placement at the center of the album only further emphasizes its “diamond in the rough” status.

One for the playlist: You’re not leaving me much to work with here, guys! Again, “Eminence Front” is great. “Athena” is alright. However, both of those appeared on Hits 50. Of what’s left, “It’s Your Turn” is the best of the bunch. At least it sounds vaguely like The Who… Sure, that’s a low bar, but It’s Hard isn’t a great record.


Endless Wire

2006

(5.9)

13

To their credit, it’s a bit impressive just how often Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend sound convincingly like their younger selves on 2006’s Endless Wire: the first Who album in twenty-four years. However, the moments where they strain to do so can be a bit jarring, and so too is the relatively lackluster material of Endless Wire. It’s admirable that Townshend in particular was still aiming for something ambitious here, but too often, his ambition exceeds his grasp.

And yet, you really wouldn’t want it any other way with The Who. Even many of their finest moments are defined by overreach, and it’s that dynamic that would keep them such a compelling act for so long. And ultimately, while Endless Wire falls well short of the band’s best work, there’s something comforting in the fact that it exists at all.

One for the playlist: To my ears, the most vital sounding thing here is the early album highlight “Mike Post Theme.” Fortunately, it wasn’t included on Hits 50 — “It’s Not Enough” was chosen as the requisite track from Endless Wire — and is eligible for inclusion.


Face Dances

1981

(6.0)

12

With Keith Moon’s death in September 1978, it was inevitable that 1981’s Face Dances would be a transitional record for The Who. However, rather than suffering from filling a Moon-shaped hole with new drummer Kenney Jones, the comparatively lackluster Face Dances is more the result of inconsistent material.

While Pete Townshend had engaged in solo work for nearly a decade, 1980’s Empty Glass was both a critical and commercial success; and listening to Face Dances, it’s clear that most of Townshend’s A-material had been expended on his own solo record. He brought a few quality songs to these sessions — namely the opening “You Better You Bet,” which features a great performance from Roger Daltrey — but too many of these songs are either forgettable, or even worse, memorable mostly for their awkwardness.

Still, give it half a chance, and you’ll find enough to make Face Dances a reasonable bargain bin grab.

One for the playlist: With “You Better You Bet” and “Don’t Let Go the Coat” chosen for Hits 50, the best option left is the closing “Another Tricky Day.” I remember this one from the radio when I was a kid — which would’ve been at least several years after the release of Face Dances — which is a testament to the fact that it actually houses some pretty solid hooks.


Who

2019

(6.1)

11

Let me begin by saying that I really didn’t want to default to the four non-Keith Moon albums occupying the bottom four spots on this list; and that I am quite pleased that The Who did not bow out with 2006’s Endless Wire. In that regard, 2019’s Who could be viewed as part of an upward trajectory, in that ends a truly legendary band on something that is definitively not their worst record.

But as much as I want to praise Who, it’s merely a decent release by a band far past the point in which they could’ve been reasonably expected to put out something decent. There’s nothing about this album that is outright bad — except perhaps for the more-than-obvious autotune on Pete Townshend’s voice in “I’ll Be Back” — but at the end of the day, Who is merely a minor course correction from the underwhelming Endless Wire.

Kudos to Townshend and Roger Daltrey for sounding consistently engaged — if not exactly vital — across these eleven tracks. Kudos to them for taking on some semi-relevant political issues. Kudos to them for giving it another go after thirteen years between albums. But again, at the end of the day, Who, is merely a passable album from a band that had made their name on a string of legendary ones.

One for the playlist: Written by Pete Townshend’s brother, Simon, “Break the News” is a comparatively low-key highlight, in that it keeps its ambitions in check, while playing well to Roger Daltrey’s noticeably-aged voice. It’s a minor track, but a worthwhile one.


Who Are You

1978

(6.3)

10

The final Who album to be recorded with Keith Moon — note the ominous message on Moon’s chair on the LP sleeve — Who Are You is a decidedly mixed bag that found the band facing a bit of an identity crisis.

Many things that had historically worked well for The Who — theatrical bombast; a fondness for the absurd; synthesizers — don’t quite land as smoothly on these nine tracks. In fact, the mix of synths and borderline cringey moments make for an often cheesy listen. However, there are a handful of glimpses of the original quartet’s power scattered throughout.

Granted, most of these glimpses appear in the closing title track. While it very well could’ve originated with its punny title, “Who Are You” actually works, as it finds the band in full flight, and sends their legendary drummer out on a high note.

One for the playlist: With the aforementioned title track off the table, the next best choice from Who Are You is John Entwistle’s sci-fi opus “905.” It’s a decidedly weird track that doesn’t necessarily play to the band’s greatest strengths, but there’s an endearingly dorky quality to it; and it feels appropriate to include at least one song written by The Ox.


Odds & Sods

1974

(6.5)

9

Drawing a bit too heavily from The Who’s arena rock era for my tastes — really, there was an abundance of great outtakes from the mid-sixties to choose from — 1974’s Odds & Sods presents a marginally interesting ‘alternate album.’ Only 1964’s “I’m the Face” — recorded and released when the band were still known as The High Numbers — breaks up the cohesiveness, even if these leftovers are lesser than the tracks that appeared on the concurrent LPs. It’s not essential listening by any means, but Odds is a decent curio for Who fans.

One for the playlist: The track that best aligns with my preferred version of The Who, “Glow Girl” is a compact piece of storytelling that anticipates the widescreen ambition of Tommy — especially in its closing, gender-swapped message to Mrs. Walker.


The Who by Numbers

1975

(7.4)

8

Perhaps a reaction to the preponderance of ‘confessional’ singer-songwriters during the first half of the seventies — but more likely a byproduct of Pete Townshend going through some heavy shit — 1975’s By Numbers is easily the most introspective record in The Who’s catalog. Of course, introspection can still be accompanied by propulsion, which By Numbers provides plenty of.

Granted, the band do tone things down a bit from the widescreen ambition of their previous three projects. And while powerful, these tracks arguably display a nuance that hadn’t yet been heard in a Who record — one that actually helps to emphasize the vulnerability of Townshend’s songs.

And, as always, Roger Daltrey is up to the task of conveying Townshend’s emotions with his own voice. While dialing back the ‘character acting’ elements of Tommy and Quadrophenia, Daltrey still manages to live wholly within these songs. Though this made for The Who’s subtlest album to date, By Numbers is a definite grower.

One for the playlist: Not only is it the best thing eligible here, but “Blue Red and Grey” is my favorite track from By Numbers. It’s a charmingly low-key spotlight for Pete Townshend, and it provides a revealing glimpse into the confessional nature of its parent album.


A Quick One

1966

(8.6)

7

There’s something of a narrative about The Who’s second LP, in that it represents a bit of a sophomore slump for the band. Given the fact that A Quick One — released as Happy Jack in the U.S. with a slightly different track list — featured five songs written by Pete Townshend’s bandmates, in an attempt to earn some royalties, it seems as if it could have been a let down.

And sure, the Townshend material towers over everything else. “So Sad About Us” is a seriously overlooked highlight, and while it’s long been pointed out that the title track would achieve a far more impressive level in live performances, the original version presented here is still outstanding.

But the non-Townshend tracks feature a few gems as well. John Entwistle’s “Boris the Spider” adds a comically dark whimsy that suits the band well. Keith Moon’s “I Need You” follows it with a similarly sinister vibe. Really, only Roger Daltrey’s “See My Way” is a dud.

And while the American version improves by subbing out a solid cover of “Heat Wave” for “Happy Jack” — one of the great early Who singles — the original LP is excellent in its own right.

One for the playlist: Sure, the title track is great, but there are much better versions of it to be found elsewhere. Besides, “So Sad About Us” is a genuine gem: one that has been covered by power pop greats like The Jam and The Breeders.


My Generation

1965

(8.7)

6

It’s tempting to characterize The Who’s debut as an album built around a pair of legitimately great songs — the title track and “The Kids Are Alright” are both all-timers — but My Generation is a front-to-back blast. While the track listing is filled out by a handful of well-known covers, the band puts their own explosive spin on each of them, providing a welcome complement to a solid set of original tunes.

And, nearly sixty years after its arrival, My Generation still sounds fresh and invigorating. The early Who were a sight (and sound) to behold; and while they would soon scale greater heights, there is still a palpable energy that courses throughout these dozen tracks.

One for the playlist: Though fan favorite “A Legal Matter” is eligible, I’m gonna opt for the mid-album gem “Much Too Much.” For my money, it does a slightly better job of displaying the combustible energy of early Who recordings.


Live at Leeds

1970

(9.1)

5

As my already-stated love of all things mod-era Who might indicate, I’ve always kept 1970’s Live at Leeds at something of an ‘arms length’ distance. Sure, its reputation as one of the great live rock albums was fully enshrined by the time that I heard it, but Leeds was always someone else’s idealized version of The Who, instead of mine.

But good God, does this fucking thing rip, or what? Live Who at this time was certainly a force to behold, and Leeds captures a particularly potent night for the band — albeit in abbreviated form. The track listing of the original version may appear slight — only six songs — but the group makes each of these thirty-six minutes count.

And, of course, there are plenty of expanded options available for those interested — including one that adds an entire contemporaneous set from Hull. But even in its original version, Leeds is an utterly convincing document of The Who’s live prowess.

One for the playlist: Sure, the band’s take on “Summertime Blues” is great, but the compilers of Hits 50 did me a favor by choosing it over “Young Man Blues.” This take on a Mose Allison track is arguably The Who at their thunderous best.


Quadrophenia

1973

(9.3)

4

The Who’s sixth studio album — their second double LP — is certainly a behemoth, clocking in at over eighty minutes. However, Quadrophenia‘s ambition can also be felt in its narrative scope and instrumental grandeur. Simply put, this is The Who at their most forceful — at least in the studio.

As such, the rhythm section work of Keith Moon and John Entwistle often takes center stage, propelling Pete Townshend’s compositions to heretofore unheard heights. Equally up to the task is Roger Daltrey, whose multi-faceted vocal modes help to add depth and nuance to the conceptual nature of the material.

In recent years, Quadrophenia has arguably become the trendy pick for The Who’s greatest album, and while I don’t share this assessment, it’s a damn fine record regardless.

One for the playlist: Oh, y’all just gonna leave “The Real Me” dangling out there for me to pick? There are plenty of great tracks on Quadrophenia, but that one feels like a necessary inclusion — if even just for John Entwistle’s dexterous bass part alone.


Who’s Next

1971

(9.6)

3

The grandeur of Pete Townshend’s vision was supposed to culminate in a conceptual project that he dubbed Lifehouse, but when that ambitious plot was abandoned, what emerged in its place was the album most-frequently cited as The Who’s best work. And while I don’t agree with conventional wisdom on this one, Who’s Next is still a frequently-staggering achievement, and undoubtedly one of the finest examples of the arena rock sound that would largely define the seventies.

In reality, Who’s Next is utterly dominated by its bookending pairs of tracks. On the A-side, this means the Terry Riley-inspired epic “Baba O’Riley,” and the absolutely thundering “Bargain”: one of Keith Moon’s most striking performances. On the flip, it’s the vulnerable “Behind Blue Eyes,” and towering “Won’t Get Fooled Again”: the latter of which single-handedly proves that The Who were easily the most ass-kicking band of their (or really any) g-g-g-generation.

The middle five are a little more of a mixed bag for me: ranging from the generally-agreed-upon low point of John Entwistle’s “My Wife,” to the comparatively rustic charms of “Going Mobile.” It’s the remaining three that’ll probably make or break one’s view of Who’s Next as a whole. And while “Song is Over” and “Getting in Tune” in particular are beloved by many Who fans, they unfortunately don’t do much for me, and keep Who’s Next out of the uppermost echelon of the band’s catalog.

One for the playlist: The aforementioned big four radio staples are unsurprisingly all included on Hits 50. Of the remaining tracks, it’s “Going Mobile” that is the standout in my eyes, and which gets the call.


Tommy

1969

(9.7)

2

First things first: The Who’s 1969 self-stylized “rock opera” is an utterly ridiculous album. It’s bombastic, painfully unsubtle, and the storyline is simply ludicrous. If there is a single inflection point in which the thrilling ambition of the late-sixties pop scene gives way to the bloated excess of seventies arena rock, chances are that Tommy stands as the guilty party.

But caught in the right light, Tommy is not only extremely powerful, it’s downright transcendent. Within its oft-overwhelming bombast are moments capable of turning the most jaded skeptic into a true believer. Set aside the frequently uncomfortable story of a “deaf, dumb, and blind boy” who becomes a pinball-playing messiah — unless that helps — and bear witness to Pete Townshend’s sonic architecture, John Entwistle’s mastery of craft, Keith Moon’s barely-controlled chaos, and Roger Daltrey becoming one of rock’s finest frontmen in real-time.

Bottom line: the story can be critical to one’s appreciation, or — if necessary — completely superfluous. Either way, Tommy is a masterpiece.

One for the playlist: If for no other reason, the appearance of the “see me, feel me” / “listening to you” motifs make “Go to the Mirror!” an emotional centerpiece of Tommy. With several of the album’s other highlights included on Hits 50, it’s an easy choice.


The Who Sell Out

1967

(9.8)

1

I shall remain steadfast and wholly unapologetic in my insistence that early Who is the best Who. Besides, too often, I worry that my top picks in these Catalog Crawl features hew too closely to conventional wisdom. And while 1967’s The Who Sell Out has long held a reputation as the ‘cool’ Who album to love, it still fells like something of an underdog pick.

Sell Out merges the barely-intact energy of The Who’s legendary early recordings with the loftier ambitions of their later work, all while presenting the most interesting concept of their concept albums: a mock broadcast from the famous pirate radio station, Radio London. The ‘proper’ songs effectively find The Who playing the part of several different bands, with cleverly humorous promo spots and commercials interspersed throughout. And though the radio broadcast conceit is essentially abandoned after the mid-album highlight “I Can’t Reach You,” the remaining tracks are a rewarding melange of psychedelia, music hall, gentle folk, and a multi-part epic that offers several cues to Tommy.

That abandonment of concept arguably keeps Sell Out from being a perfect album — and I’d argue that The Who never made such a record — but this still stands as one of the true masterpieces of rock music’s most thrilling, vibrant, and relentlessly-creative era.

One for the playlist: Outside of the towering “I Can See for Miles,” Sell Out has typically gotten the short shrift on compilations. Understandably so, as its individual pieces all feel remarkably well-integrated into their parent album, and don’t quite resonate as effectively outside of it. Still, I’ve got plenty of gems to choose from here, and I’ll go with the cheeky early-album gem “Mary Ann With the Shaky Hand.”


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