All 245 Who Songs Ranked Worst to Best
In their very early days, the Who carried the tagline, “maximum R&B.” As the London-based quartet progressed beyond rhythm and blues, they continued to do everything at a maximum: Pete Townshend invented power pop (or at least coined the term) and created the rock opera. The Who also made obliterating their instruments a symbol of rock ’n’ roll excess, and claimed the record for the world’s loudest band.
In between the smashed guitars and bleeding ears, the Who amassed an impressive collection of songs, the vast majority of them penned by Townshend. Just out of his teens, the band’s guitarist and spokesman discovered a knack for songwriting – first about the mod scene, then pertaining to a number of quirky characters. Eventually, he graduated to more difficult subjects including religion, politics and his own deep-seated insecurities. With the prolific Townshend leading the way, all that was left for bassist John Entwistle to write was the comic relief – although he contributed more than a few treasures.
The following list of 245 Who Songs Ranked Worst to Best includes each officially released track during a run of more than 50 years. It spans every LP, EP, single, b-side, compilation, live album, soundtrack, box set and reissue from 1964 until 2018 and features a fair share of cover versions (both brilliant and head-scratching), as well as original songs by all founding members of the group. (Spoiler alert: the Roger Daltrey and Keith Moon compositions don’t end up very high.)
A quick note: this ranking focuses on full-band material, with demos and outtakes that feature multiple members of the Who. Townshend’s famous demos were not included (even if they were part of an official reissue) and neither were Townshend solo songs that the Who performed in concert. There are a couple of borderline calls, which are explained along the way. Also, although more than a few Who tracks have been released in multiple versions, each song is limited to one entry. The info and year listed with every track refer to the album that contains the song or, otherwise, its first appearance as a b-side, on a compilation, etc.
Now, let’s get to the windmilling, drum-thumping, primal-screaming, bass-thundering and power-chording energy (along with sensitive and clever songwriting) as we sort through 245 Who Songs Ranked Worst to Best.
245. “Fire,” The Iron Man: The Musical (1989)
The reunited Who render Arthur Brown’s “Fire” unrecognizable. In turn, this pseudo-industrial catastrophe bares no resemblance to anything that was ever great about this band.
244-240. Tommy soundtrack additions: “Prologue - 1945,” “Bernie’s Holiday Camp,” “Mother and Son,” “Champagne” and “T.V. Studio” (1975)
Let’s get this out of the way: Most of the Tommy movie soundtrack songs were garish, synth-forward recreations of tracks on the original album. Townshend wrote these new (or new-ish) pieces to suit Ken Russell’s film. The instrumentals lack the power and grandeur of the Who’s originals, while the songs contain lunkheaded lyrics. The Who were not meant to be a backing band for Ann-Margret or Oliver Reed.
239. “In the Ether,” Endless Wire (2006)
Pete Townshend tries to sing like an old man, but sounds like Grover performing at Sesame Street’s least-discerning jazz club.
238. “Under My Thumb,” b-side (1967)
In a show of support for Mick Jagger and Keith Richards (then dealing with a legal matter), the Who rush-released some Stones covers for a single. They rushed so fast, they forgot to do anything interesting with “Under My Thumb.” The cooing background vocals strip the recording of any grit.
237. “Hall of the Mountain King,” The Who Sell Out reissue (1995)
John Entwistle said the Who were horrified when they heard the mistakes they had made on this sloppy classical odyssey. Yep.
236. “Medac,” The Who Sell Out (1967)
For the most part, the radio “jingles” on Sell Out are quick and quirky. Entwistle’s plodding ode to pimple cream is neither.
235. “I Need You,” A Quick One (1966)
Songwriting was not Keith Moon’s strength – although doing a send-up of John Lennon (heard in the break) clearly was.
234. “Miracle Cure,” Tommy (1969)
Extra! Extra! Band needs to explain plot with 10-second song snippet.
233. "There's a Doctor,” Tommy (1969)
Ditto, except this one is longer, and slightly more necessary in letting listeners know what character will be singing the next song.
232. “Trilby’s Piano,” Endless Wire (2006)
The piano ballad’s simple rhymes can’t convey the tangle of connected characters in the Who’s “Wire and Glass” mini-opera, leaving Townshend to pine for “Hymie” with little context.
231. “Do You Think It's Alright?,” Tommy (1969)
More Tommy connective tissue, though the light, layered vocal lines make for a decent contrast to the darkness of “Fiddle About.”
230. “How Can You Do It Alone,” Face Dances (1981)
The better question is: How was the writer of “Pictures of Lily” still bewildered by masturbation in his late 30s?
229. “Batman,” Ready Steady Who EP (1966)
A stilted goof on what was, back then, a brand-new TV theme song.
228. “Tommy’s Holiday Camp,” Tommy (1969)
Moon gets a writing credit because it was his idea for the finale to include a holiday camp, but this is Townshend having fun with the reappearance of Uncle Ernie.
227. “You,” Face Dances (1981)
There's a decent, dirty drive to this Entwistle tune, but the clichéd lyrics (“one touch and my goose is cooked”) slam on the brakes.
226. “They Are All in Love,” The Who By Numbers (1975)
The low point of Pete’s pity party on By Numbers, complete with Roger Daltrey blowing a raspberry, a shot at childbearing women and this admission: “I’ve seen magic and fame, now I’m recycling trash.”
225. “The Last Time,” single (1967)
The better of the Who’s two Stones covers, though that's not saying much (see No. 237).
224. “A Man is a Man,” It’s Hard (1982)
Townshend’s look at masculinity, with phrasing straight out of a Hallmark card. “Tattoo” did it better, and more tunefully, 15 years earlier.
223. “Love is Coming Down,” Who Are You (1978)
The subject is pure Pete, as the songwriter perceives the ups and downs of life as an opportunity for spiritual reincarnation. But the strings and easy listening accoutrements are pure cheez.
222. “Barbara Ann,” Ready Steady Who EP (1966)
Moon sure loved the Beach Boys (who had a hit in ’65 with this doo-wop cover), but he didn’t love them enough to keep his falsetto lead vocal in tune.
221-220. “Fragments” and “Fragments of Fragments,” Endless Wire (2006)
A quick digression: Around the time that Townshend and Daltrey released Endless Wire, a new TV drama called Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip premiered on NBC. It was about a Saturday Night Live-type comedy program, but the sketches depicted on the fictional show-within-a-show were hardly amusing – which is part of the reason the series tanked. Similarly, in the context of the Who’s “Wire and Glass” mini-opera, “Fragments” is supposed to be a smash hit single. But, with its oscillating synthesizer intro and philosophical mumbo-jumbo, it sounds like a fifth-rate Lifehouse outtake. There are melodic songs on Endless Wire that could be radio hits in a parallel universe, but not either version of “Fragments.”
219. “Good Lovin’,” BBC Sessions (2000)
The quartet fails to Who-ify the Rascals hit, merely speeding through an indistinct cover version in less than two minutes.
218. “Cooks County,” It’s Hard (1982)
The lyric, “This song is so long, it ends up where it begins,” is supposed to be an allegory for human suffering. Instead, it's a self-inflicted indictment of a repetitive track that is 3:52, but feels interminable.
217. “Dancing in the Street,” Won’t Get Fooled Again EP (1988)
Minimum, not maximum, R&B.
216. “It's Your Turn,” It’s Hard (1982)
Accustomed to writing sly and humorous songs – what some might term the comic relief on Who LPs – Entwistle tried to shift to a more serious tone for “It’s Your Turn.” But this is one dull, bitter vision of the Who passing the torch to a new generation, made worse by the gauzy synthesizers that soften any musical bite.
215. “I'm a Man,” My Generation (1965)
While Daltrey tries (and fails) to sound like a grizzled bluesman, the Who seem content to stomp about. It’s more of a showcase for session piano-player Nicky Hopkins than for any band member.
214. “Cobwebs and Strange,” A Quick One (1966)
One of Keith Moon’s rare “writing” credits, this cacophony features Daltrey on trombone, Townshend on penny whistle and Entwistle on trumpet. Moon gets to crash the cymbals and his kit. A noisy trifle.
213. “Heinz Baked Beans,” The Who Sell Out (1967)
A year later, Moon and Entwistle made a similarly brassy march into a silly fake jingle on Sell Out. John’s growled “What’s for tea, daughter?” might make the minute worthwhile.
212. “Get Out and Stay Out,” Quadrophenia soundtrack (1979)
After one listen, it’s obvious why this bit of filler didn’t make the original Quadrophenia album – the song’s single line, “Get out and don’t come back” is repeated by Pete incessantly. But, apparently, this was good enough for the film soundtrack.
211. “Why Did I Fall for That,” It’s Hard (1982)
The Who employ a girl-group stutter beat and attempt a meaningful song about politics and nuclear war. But the glossy chorus makes it all sound like a forgotten ’80s sitcom theme.
210. “Rael (2),” Thirty Years of Maximum R&B (1994)
Nearly three decades after the ever-ambitious Townshend narrowed “Rael” from a full opera to a mere track, the Sell Out closer received a coda in this organ-drenched addendum. Pretty, but it doesn't make you long for an album-length version.
209. “Bucket T,” Ready Steady Who EP (1966)
A faithful Jan & Dean cover with surf-rock fanboy Moon on lead vocals. At least he's having fun.
208. “Wasp Man,” b-side (1973)
The band’s in-joke (referring to an incident in which Moon declared himself Wasp Man while wearing a groupie’s bra on his head) is more interesting than this silly “Relay” b-side that spins on the strength of Townshend’s chunky riffage.
207. “I Am the Sea,” Quadrophenia (1973)
Townsend opted for a sound collage instead of a more traditional overture to begin his second rock opera. Snippets of the double LP’s songs (or “themes”) fade in and out amongst the crashing waves in a manner that's neither compelling nor particularly effective.
206. “Zoot Suit,” single (1964)
Some mod nonsense written by manager Pete Meaden to a stolen melody (“Misery” by the Dynamics). Technically, it was the Who’s first single, although they were going by the moniker the High Numbers at the time, in a desperate attempt to become stewards of Britain’s mod scene. If they sound like poseurs on “Zoot Suit,” it’s only because they were.
205. “Early Morning Cold Taxi,” Thirty Years of Maximum R&B (1994)
With boring, repetitive lyrics, this “Taxi” doesn’t take you anywhere. Still, there’s a sweet, muted lilt to the Sell Out reject, credited to Daltrey and Dave “Cy” Langston (although totally written by the latter).
204. “Girl’s Eyes,” Thirty Years of Maximum R&B (1994)
Another Sell Out leftover, this one instigated by Keith. Despite the drummer’s lack of commitment to singing on key, this bit of fluff is far from an embarrassment. It’s better than both of the Moon tunes that made it onto A Quick One, but the Who had such a better batch of songs by ’67.
203. “Twist and Shout,” single (1984)
There were two iterations of the Who’s version of the Isley Brothers’ classic – although each is based on the Beatles’ rendition. Daltrey used to lead the quartet through the song as part of a live medley in the early ’70s, but more than a decade later (on the ’82 “farewell” tour), Entwistle took over on lead vocals. Neither version is all that amazing, although there is some small pleasure in hearing the reserved bassist shred his throat on the crowd-pleaser. Work it all out, John.
202. “Here for More,” b-side (1970)
On this Daltrey-penned obscurity, the Who combine leftover Tommy chords with a country twang and some self-help platitudes. Pleasant but forgettable.
201. "Anytime You Want Me," b-side (1965)
As far as titles go, this Garnet Mimms and the Enchanters cover was the perfect b-side for “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere.” As far as R&B covers go, it’s pedestrian.
200. “Imagine a Man,” The Who By Numbers (1975)
Pete was turning 30. To listen to such lethargic navel-gazing, you’d think he was on his deathbed. Either way, Roger can’t sell his bandmate’s insecurities – not here, at least.
199. “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting),” Two Rooms: Celebrating the Songs of Elton John & Bernie Taupin (1991)
Returning serve 16 years after Elton John became the “Pinball Wizard,” the Who took on this most raucous of John/Taupin tunes. “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting)” was originally influenced by the band’s early muscular sound, and it’s a shame the Who didn’t cover this back then because this 1991 attempt is too produced and mannered. The best idea on the track pops up when Townshend sings a snippet of “Take Me to the Pilot” down the stretch.
198. “Welcome,” Tommy (1969)
The Who never included “Welcome” in their live renditions of Tommy, because they knew, like anyone else, that the sleepy tune about Tommy’s commune wasn’t vital to the sound – or plot – of their rock opera.
197. “They Made My Dream Come True,” Endless Wire (2006)
On the downslope of Townshend’s mini-opera, Pete appears to address the Who’s Cincinnati tragedy, departed bandmates and his status as an elder statesman of rock, without really saying anything at all. These are too many ideas for a full-length song, much less one that runs a little more than a minute.
196. “Dig,” The Iron Man: The Musical (1989)
The Who’s first studio recording in seven years could only manage to disappoint; this mid-tempo mediocrity made the rock dinosaurs sound worthy of extinction.
195. “It's Not Enough,” Endless Wire (2006)
Daltrey opens up and roars and Townshend gets off a satisfactory solo, but does this sound like the Who? Not enough.
194. “Now I'm a Farmer,” Odds & Sods (1974)
Quite possibly the most irritating chorus in the Who canon. And Townshend's “impersonation” of a farmer doesn't make this oddest of Odds & Sods any more pleasant.
193. “Instant Party Mixture,” My Generation deluxe edition (2002)
Apparently, at this stage of our list of All 245 Who Songs Ranked Worst to Best, we’re knee-deep in weird toss-offs. This one’s a send-up of a party record, where the three Who instrumentalists deliver one-liners like they were on Laugh-In.
192. “Had Enough,” Who Are You (1978)
Daltrey hated the syrupy strings on this Entwistle-penned track so much, he punched producer Glyn Johns. They sure sound awful, but the rest of the recording is not so hot either.
191. “Much Too Much,” My Generation (1965)
Moon plays some punchy drums on a run-of-the-mill love song that is made a touch more interesting by some of Townshend’s word choices – levy, bevy and enthusiasm that has waned.
190. “Joker James,” Quadrophenia soundtrack (1979)
A hokey attempt at levity within the Quadrophenia story, the prank-oriented “Joker James” was wisely avoided on the original album, but later recorded for the movie soundtrack.
189. “Cousin Kevin Model Child,” Odds & Sods reissue (1998)
The jaunty but superfluous Tommy outtake was rendered wholly unnecessary when “Cousin Kevin” and “Fiddle About” were moved away from each other in the rock opera’s running order.
188. “One Life's Enough,” It’s Hard (1982)
The Who didn’t do sweet very often, or very well. This hazy impression of a lusty memory never becomes much more than just an impression.
187. “Motoring,” Two’s Missing (1987)
This b-list Martha and the Vandellas cover wasn’t deemed good enough. The song’s pretty weak, but the young Who lean into it as Keith makes a delightful racket.
186. “Mirror Door,” Endless Wire (2006)
Townshend has a tendency to employ pop culture references on later-day Who songs. None of these is more egregious than “Mirror Door,” with presents a sort of musicians’ heaven, featuring Mozart, Howlin’ Wolf and … er, Doris Day, who was still alive. Oops.
185. “I Like Nightmares,” Face Dances reissue (1997)
The strutting boogie presents Pete’s dark vision for the ’80s: bad news and more drugs. It got left off of Face Dances, but is probably a little more striking than the LP’s worst cuts. But just a little.
184. “Dogs, Pt. 2,” b-side (1969)
Two-and-a-half minutes of Townshend, Entwistle and Moon bashing it out in the studio, punctuated by the occasional bark (because “Dogs,” right?). There are worse ways to waste your time.
183. “I Don't Mind,” My Generation (1965)
A prosaic rendition of James Brown’s ditty, only with backing vocals that are out of tune. (They even more noticeable on the stereo remaster.)
182. “Bony Maronie,” Thirty Years of Maximum R&B (1994)
In 1971, the Who were an unstoppable force in concert. But you’d hardly know it from this live cover of a 1957 Larry Williams single. “Bony Maronie” never really gets rolling, and becomes tentative in its improvisational moments.
181. “Unholy Trinity,” Endless Wire (2006)
Daltrey sounds pretty good on Endless Wire, even when the songs don’t. But on this otherwise pleasant celebration of Pete’s pretend, multicultural band, old Rog sounds like he’s straining for the notes.
180. “Four Faces,” Quadrophenia soundtrack (1979)
An embarrassingly naïve presentation of the Quadrophenia hero’s split-personality, thankfully kept off the original album and dumped on the film version’s soundtrack, six years later.
179. “Please, Please, Please,” My Generation (1965)
Mick Jagger, Eric Burdon and a few others managed to transcend their African-American-inspired vocalizations without sounding like they were trying to merely impersonate black singers. On this James Brown cover, Daltrey can’t help but sound like a white boy trying desperately to be someone that he’s not.
178. “Cache Cache,” Face Dances (1981)
Wandering around the capital city of Switzerland in a drunken stupor before passing out in a bear pit is pretty great fodder for a story. Too bad Townshend couldn’t make much of a song out of his true tale.
177. “Mike Post Theme,” Endless Wire (2006)
There’s some good, old-fashioned Who power in this track’s opening volley – with Daltrey bellowing “We’re not strong enough!” – before the song gets mired in weighing the value of TV series while praising the man who wrote so many of their theme songs (Law & Order, Hill Street Blues and The Greatest American Hero, among many more). It’s not a bad song, just a strange one.
176. “Be Lucky,” The Who Hits 50! (2014)
Doris Day and Mike Post seem like strange figures to feature in Who songs, but Daft Punk might be a step beyond acceptable. Still, “Be Lucky” is sort of catchy and Pete’s rumbling guitar sounds good.
175. “Here ’Tis,” Thirty Years of Maximum R&B (1994)
As far as it goes with white guys covering black musicians, the Who’s version of this Bo Diddley chestnut (recorded when they were the High Numbers) sounds less stilted than how Pat Boone would do it. The harmonica is nice and bluesy, too.
174. “Doctor, Doctor,” b-side (1967)
John plays hypochondria for laughs while singing like a eunuch. He’s less ill than shrill.
173. “Bald Headed Woman,” b-side (1965)
Before the Who’s rendition of producer Shel Talmy’s dumb blues tune zooms ahead, Townshend just lets his guitar lay there and reverberate. Link Wray would be proud.
172. “You Stand By Me,” Endless Wire (2006)
Earnest and spry, but slight.
171. “Don't Look Away,” A Quick One (1966)
This Byrds-ian, but basic, toe-tapper showcases lovely harmonies over lovelorn lyrics that fixate bizarrely on lion’s mouth metaphors. Maybe the circus was in town when Pete wrote this.
170. “Daily Records,” Face Dances (1981)
The problem with “Daily Records” (other than the irksome sing-song quality of some lines) is the problem with the bulk of Face Dances: this is achingly personal material from Townshend, who would have done better to include it on a solo record than give it to ham-fisted Daltrey. Good lyrics and great drumming from Kenney Jones, but a lackluster result.
169. “How Many Friends,” The Who By Numbers (1975)
Another example of Roger singing less-than-convincingly about Pete’s insecurities – simply because Townshend didn’t have any other material at the time for the Who. If “How Many Friends” is more dynamic than some of its brethren, it’s also awkward.
168. “My Way,” Odds & Sods reissue (1998)
Not Frank Sinatra’s “Way”; this one belongs to Who hero Eddie Cochran. Back in ’67, the band did justice, if little else, to the steady-rolling tune.
167. “C’mon Everybody,” Live at the Fillmore East 1968 (2018)
Another Cochran cover, blasted indiscriminately by the band’s booming concert attack, circa 1968.
166. “Dangerous,” It's Hard (1982)
A bass-fueled sonic barrage unfortunately marred by Entwistle’s potshot poetry and sideman Tim Gorman’s very-’80s, elastic synthesizer.
165. “It's in You,” Face Dances reissue (1997)
Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus … and he’s a bitter old rocker that doesn’t understand why fans would want the Who to do what they do best.
164. “Trying to Get Through,” Tommy deluxe edition (2003)
This is filler, deep-sixed from Tommy for good reason. But, man, if Moon’s drumming doesn’t sound great tumbling all over the track’s circular riff.
163. “It's a Boy,” Tommy (1969)
At less than 40 seconds, this isn’t much of a song, but the Townshend-sung title lyric – coupled with Entwistle’s sighing French horn – remains an iconic part of the rock opera.
162. “Relax,” The Who Sell Out (1967)
It’s not without its melodic charms, but “Relax” feels like a parody of a “Summer of Love” come-on to a hippie chick. And it’s a specific kind of woman who appreciates being compared to a horse.
161. “Glittering Girl,” The Who Sell Out reissue (1995)
The Sell Out outtake – presented, more or less, like a band demo with Pete singing lead – had potential, both in its chugging chords and its mercurial subject, described as both a “shimmering pearl” and “goddess of hell.”
160. “Lubie (Come Back Home),” Who’s Missing (1985)
The Who pound their way through Paul Revere and the Raiders’ “Louie,” who somehow became “Lubie” in this rarity. Forgettable, sledgehammer pop.
159. “Smash the Mirror,” Tommy (1969)
A key moment in Tommy’s story doesn’t make for a particularly memorable song on the double album. But “surmise” is a great rhyme for “rise.”
158. “Did You Steal My Money,” Face Dances (1982)
The audio treatment of the repeating theme – in which Pete’s accusatory question appears in the right channel, then left, then centered – is a nifty studio trick. But it’s also one that wears thin.
157. “Goin’ Down,” Two’s Missing (1987)
Townshend and Entwistle combine their roaring instruments into a steamroller of sound. This live cover is merely an excuse for the Who, circa 1971, to blast away on stage. Fair enough.
156. “Melancholia,” Thirty Years of Maximum R&B (1994)
Left off Sell Out, this down-in-the-dumps lost-love song offers an interesting glimpse of introspection (“what I despise in other guys is here in me”) and a Tommy musical theme that would be repurposed for “See Me, Feel Me.”
155. “Greyhound Girl,” Endless Wire two-disc edition (2006)
This is one of a few Lifehouse songs that didn’t appear on a Who album or a Townshend solo project until much, much later. The simplicity allows Pete to really dig into the live performance, lurching with his acoustic guitar and gargling the words.
154. “Call Me Lightning,” single (1968)
The banjo is a quirky touch for this rubber ball of a song, whose energy wears thin as soon as it becomes evident that it has nothing much to say.
153. “Sodding About,” The Who Sell Out deluxe edition (2009)
Entwistle comes to the fore on this gnarly, forgotten instrumental. His French horn rings out like a prison siren, rising and falling over his fuzzy tarantula of a bass guitar.
152. “Heat Wave,” A Quick One (1966)
On their Martha Reeves covers, the Who never bettered the Motown sound, though this insistent rendition packs a punky energy.
151. “Guitar and Pen,” Who Are You (1978)
Even for a band known for their rock operas, this is a bit too overblown and theatrical – even if Townshend said he was trying to ironically channel Gilbert and Sullivan. And listening to Daltrey opine about songwriting is like hearing Moon give advice about being a responsible adult.
150. “Cousin Kevin,” Tommy (1969)
The lesser of the two “abusers” written by Entwistle for Tommy, “Cousin Kevin” starts out nefarious and ends up cartoonish … not to mention boring. The track outlives its usefulness by a couple of minutes.
149. “Pick Up the Peace,” Endless Wire (2006)
Like many of the components of Townshend’s “Wire & Glass” mini-opera, “Pick Up the Peace” presents more interesting ideas than it is able to bring to life. But the song has a nice Quadrophenia-esque drive to it.
148. “Somebody Saved Me,” Face Dances reissue (1997)
This jazzy Townshend song was passed up by the Who and later ended up on a Pete solo disc. Yet the full-band reject (well, not quite full – Townshend sings instead of Daltrey) is the better version of a tune about bad luck which, with the benefit of time, ends up looking like good luck.
147. “Silas Stingy,” The Who Sell Out (1967)
Entwistle’s folk story is less about greed than it is about fear. For a children’s tale, it’s engaging enough, although the “money, money, moneybags” refrain is overused (eight times in three minutes) to the point of annoyance.
146. “Run Run Run,” A Quick One (1966)
Townshend’s daggers of guitar elevate this perky pop-rocker, which could have been recorded by any number of ’60s bands – and was, before Pete reclaimed it for his group.
145. “Jaguar,” Thirty Years of Maximum R&B (1994)
Moon provides lead vocals (and lead drums) on this thunderous fake advertisement for the illustrious car manufacturer. The three-minute jingle was cut from Sell Out for the more substantive “Sunrise,” which was the right call, although “Jaguar” is sort of fun.
144. “Underture,” Tommy (1969)
Essentially “Sparks” at three times the length and half the potency.
143. “In the City,” b-side (1966)
The songwriting and most of the instrumentation are the work of Entwistle and Moon, who reportedly forgot to tell Townshend and Daltrey about the recording session. Keith’s Beach Boys fandom comes through on this pleasant “Surf City” wannabe, but it doesn't sound much like the Who.
142. “I've Been Away,” b-side (1966)
The story goes that Entwistle and Moon recorded John’s music-hall goof about a wrongly convicted man on their own. For a throwaway b-side, it’s got some great lines, including this wry bit of wisdom: “It’s a waste of time doing time.”
141. “The Rock,” Quadrophenia (1973)
A second instrumental that merges Jimmy’s musical theme “personalities,” just like the title track. Its only purpose is as preamble for the story’s rain-soaked finish.
140. “Old Red Wine,” Then and Now (2004)
Pete balances sentiment with snark in his tribute to the excesses and successes of late Who bassist John Entwistle, who died in 2002.
139. “It's Hard,” It’s Hard (1982)
How difficult was it for Townshend to write decent lyrics to go with a resonant chorus? “Very, very, very, very hard.”
138. “Whiskey Man,” A Quick One (1966)
One of Entwistle’s early character songs, about an alcoholic in severe denial. It’s tuneful, in a muted way, but features an unexciting Who performance.
137. “After the Fire,” Blues to the Bush (2000)
Townshend wrote this mid-tempo thinkpiece – with peculiar references to Matt Dillon and Dom DeLuise – for the Who reunion at Live Aid, but when it didn’t come together in time, he gave it to Daltrey to record on his own. The Who came back around to it 15 years later, turning the song into a strong, if staid, rumination on a rock band past its prime, but still capable of magnificent performances – even if this isn’t one of them.
136. “See My Way,” A Quick One (1966)
In order to mimic that classic Buddy Holly sound, Moon drummed out the song’s galloping beat on some cardboard boxes. Daltrey’s songwriting is inarticulate and bland, but the tune’s solid.
135. “It's Not True,” My Generation (1965)
One of Pete’s early songwriting subjects was lying, or at least the disparity between appearance and reality. This lively number, with great drum fills from Keith, is the most sophomoric of the bunch, as Roger tears into rumors that he’s half-Chinese and has eleven kids.
134. “The Dirty Jobs,” Quadrophenia (1973)
Neither Moon’s emphatic percussion nor Daltrey’s growled vocal can eclipse the rock opera’s weakest proper song, featuring nagging strings and Jimmy’s mixed-up stint as a blue-collar worker.
133. “Just You and Me, Darling,” BBC Sessions (2000)
Two minutes of rollicking R&B spotlighting the marvelous contrast between Roger’s roughed up lead vocals and Pete and John’s choirboy “doo-doo-doo” backing.
132. “Sound Round,” Endless Wire (2006)
A promising beginning to the “Wire & Glass” mini-opera, driven by trademark Who bombast, even if the foreboding lyrics don’t make much sense.
131. “We Got a Hit,” Endless Wire (2006)
This track – celebratory, light and melodic – sounds more radio-friendly than the song (“Fragments”) that is supposed to be the big hit within the plot of “Wire & Glass.” It’s far from captivating, but it is catchy.
130. “Shout and Shimmy,” b-side (1965)
A party record that captures an element of how frenetic these James Brown covers must have sounded at early Who gigs. A whole mess of fun.
129. “Fiddle About,” Tommy (1969)
With deep brass blurting, Entwistle’s song plummets into a disturbing episode of Tommy’s molestation. Quick and effective.
128. “Man with Money,” A Quick One reissue (1995)
The Who couldn’t match the Everly Brothers’ harmonies (although they acquit themselves just fine on this cover), but they could bring a booming foundation to a song about a man who breaks bad just to get the girl.
127. “Black Widow’s Eyes,” Endless Wire (2006)
Ripped from the headlines, “Black Widow’s Eyes” is about a hostage being instantly attracted to a suicide bomber. The crisp, clear recording isn’t as violent – or beautiful? – as the terrorist with the temptation eyes.
126. “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” b-side (1968)
Entwistle seemingly combined the “horror rock” of “Boris the Spider” with the alcoholic fixations of “Whiskey Man” into this sinister nugget – said to be about the dark side of the (Keith) Moon.
125. “We Close Tonight,” Odds & Sods reissue (1998)
As the Who assembled Quadrophenia, Townshend skipped most of the funnier songs in favor of more tragic material and “We Close Tonight” was left out. Maybe that was best, even if this is an amusing little song that pits a young man’s nervous, romantic thoughts (sung by Entwistle) against his nakedly false bragging (sung by Moon). It’s both funny and tragic, but perhaps “Bell Boy” was enough tragicomedy for the rock opera.
124. “When I Was a Boy,” b-side (1971)
John’s requiem for youth serves as a counterpoint to Pete’s idea of a “teenage wasteland.” The lyrics are fine, but it’s the grinding sweep of “When I Was a Boy” that makes it memorable. You have to guess that this was only a b-side because the Who (or, at least, Townshend) were so prolific at this stage of their run.
123. “Faith in Something Bigger,” Odds & Sods (1974)
Pete’s first attempt in 1968 to bring serious religious themes into the Who’s songwriting is lyrically clumsy, but the song’s melody and melding voices are pretty.
122. “Road Runner,” Who’s Next deluxe edition (2003)
Long past their “maximum R&B” phase, the Who could still lay waste to a blues-rock standard, as they did during many ’70s concerts at which this Bo Diddley gem was performed (sometimes as part of a medley). Effortless, rolling thunder.
121. “In a Hand or Face,” The Who By Numbers (1975)
The verses cut like a machete (supported by the Keith Moon bulldozer), but the chorus (“I am going round and round …”) brings a pushpin to a knife fight. Pete gives Roger some great, nasty lyrics to sing, including, “Ain’t it funny how they all fire the pistol at the wrong end of the race?”
120. “A Man in a Purple Dress,” Endless Wire (2006)
Packing righteous indignation and Daltrey’s bellowing voice, Townshend mocks the pomp and circumstance of those who deign to speak for God. The musical accompaniment, the ringing beauty of Pete’s acoustic guitar, is appropriately dressed down.
119. “One at a Time,” It's Hard (1982)
The opening horns are a little too “theme from Rocky” and Entwistle’s lyrics sound as hastily written as they apparently were, but the hurdling force of this track paired with John’s whiskey-sour vocal prove that the Who were still capably wielding immense power even as they were running low on inspiration.
118. “Two Thousand Years,” Endless Wire (2006)
Daltrey and Townshend take on the role of Judas (always the most fun; ask any cast member of Jesus Christ Superstar) for a study in patience. The surging and crisp acoustic glory of the piece makes it an Endless Wire highlight.
117. “Someone's Coming,” b-side (1967)
The least “storybook” of Entwistle’s early Who songs, “Someone’s Coming” is also the first time Daltrey sang lead on a composition by the bassist. Hiding a forbidden teenage love is hardly an original subject for a pop song, but the strong horn arrangement and Roger’s honey-dripping vocals make the whole affair sound classier.
116. “Don't Let Go the Coat,” Face Dances (1981)
Townshend’s worthwhile self-examination celebrates having a center to one’s life, whether that is spirituality, love or family. The unsung undercurrent is that rock ’n’ roll along won’t save you – which should be evident to any fan of the Who’s glory years who was presented with the gelatinous soft-rock sound of this track.
115. “The Quiet One,” Face Dances (1981)
This is Entwistle’s song, and a sardonic play on his persona – but it’s also a showcase for his then-new partner in the Who’s rhythm section, Kenney Jones. The drummer has taken plenty of heat from Who fans simply for not being Moon, but to impugn his skills is to ignore the intensity of his pummeling performance on “The Quiet One.”
114. “Put the Money Down,” Odds & Sods (1974)
A few of the Lifehouse tunes that didn’t become singles or part of Who’s Next turned up on Odds & Sods, including this lurching rocker. The song presents a peculiar mix of religious and rock ’n’ roll references, from walking on water to “bands killing chickens” (a.k.a. Alice Cooper). Daltrey’s full-throated holler makes you buy what Townshend’s selling.
113. “I'm the Face,” b-side (1964)
Taunting harmonica rides Entwistle’s bass zooms and a rumble-seat rhythm on Pete Meaden’s mod reworking of Slim Harpo’s “Got Love if You Want It.” This was supposed to be the debut single from the Who (when they were calling themselves the High Numbers), but a mix-up placed it on the b-side to the vastly inferior “Zoot Suit.”
112. “Helpless Dancer,” Quadrophenia (1973)
As “Roger’s Theme” in the rock opera, this is a martial barrage of anger. The visceral lines pile on top of one another, as if Daltrey is landing punch after punch – right, left, right, left – in a bitter takedown of all that’s wrong with Jimmy and the world he sees around him.
111. “Dogs,” single (1968)
Lyrics about dog butts, funny accents by Roger, John and Pete (Keith must have been so disappointed) and a booming chorus that goes “there was nothing in my life bigger than beer” all make this tale of love at the greyhound racetrack the wackiest single the Who ever recorded. It remains strangely entertaining.
110. “Endless Wire,” Endless Wire (2006)
Words about an electronic discovery contrast with the Who at their rootsiest, finding a country gait and a comfortable, catchy hook. Pete’s lead vocal is both playful and soulful.
109. “Dance it Away,” Pete Townshend b-side (1982)
Although this b-side was not credited to the Who, it features the band’s rhythm section. “Dance it Away” evolved out of a grinding guitar jam at the band’s 1979 concerts. It was recorded (at least partially) for Face Dances, but foolishly discarded despite being more sonically exciting than any of the other material. When Townshend, who sings lead on the forceful tune, rescued it for an ’82 solo b-side, he preserved the Who’s original backing track. (Entwistle’s burly bass part is a giveaway.)
108. “Squeeze Box,” The Who By Numbers (1975)
If “My Ding-a-Ling” could be a chart-topper for Chuck Berry, then why wouldn’t this dirty joke become a big hit for the Who? The words are as moronic as the melody is memorable.
107. “Tea & Theatre,” Endless Wire (2006)
This song is ostensibly about the characters in Pete’s mini-opera (about a band of three, and one of them dies), but it has obvious and resonant parallels to Townshend’s feelings about he and Daltrey continuing on as the Who (after the deaths of Moon and Entwistle). Townshend looks back with a full, but heavy heart: “We made it work / But one of us failed / That makes it so sad / A great dream derailed.”
106. “Going Mobile,” Who’s Next (1971)
Saying that is the worst song on Who’s Next is kind of a backhanded compliment to the band’s most celebrated album. But the lyrics are hokey, Pete’s “beep-beep” is cringeworthy and who knows why the guy with the sledgehammer guitar tone wanted to make it sound like the Main Street Electrical Parade? Moon rescues the proceedings by drumming circles around the track.
105. “Out in the Street,” My Generation (1965)
The first track on the Who’s first LP, “Out in the Street” is an announcement. With its warbly guitar intro, tumbling-down-the-stairs drums and defiant bravado, “Out in the Street” heralds the barbed attack that will be paired with sharp melodies for the bulk of this album. It’s far from the best song on the debut, but it’s a worthy opener.
104. “Cry if You Want,” It’s Hard (1982)
Seventeen years after sneering “I hope I die before I get old” at society’s elders, Townshend redirects his anger at the generation he once brashly represented. “Cry if You Want,” with its rapid-fire verses and rat-a-tat beat, keeps the brash attitude, but lets it loose on the hypocrisy, greed and arrogance Pete perceived in himself and other baby boomers. A nice slice of nasty.
103. “1921,” Tommy (1969)
For a song that portrays a murder, “1921” is one of the Who’s prettier numbers. The melody is nice, but the best component is the part with the overlaid vocals, in which Daltrey (as Tommy) and Townshend (as his stern parents), contradict each other when Mom and Dad cover their butts and accidentally turn their son into a deaf, dumb and blind boy.
102. “Daddy Rolling Stone,” b-side (1965)
This early b-side – a cover of a song by Otis “Don’t Be Cruel” Blackwell – doesn’t merely prove that this band claimed a decent drummer. This is the sound of a drummer who would thwomp all over any bandmates that might have lacked the gumption to breathe fire right back at him.
101. “Doctor Jimmy,” Quadrophenia (1973)
A tale of excess, presented in an excessive manner. But as the street-brawling Jimmy, Daltrey’s fury and beauty slash and burn through all the sound effects, synthesizers and orchestrations. And Moon, whose hedonistic lifestyle inspired the lyrics, gets to spill his cascading drums all over the (excessive) eight-minute run time.
100. “Tommy Can You Hear Me?,” Tommy (1969)
It's simple and short, but this campfire sing-along of a track became one of Tommy’s pop culture touchstones largely because it's simple and short … and a real head-sticker.
99. “Is it in My Head?,” Quadrophenia (1973)
Townshend's biting guitar lands with the sting of insecurity as Quadrophenia’s protagonist wonders if it's him or the world that's the problem.
98. “Success Story,” The Who By Numbers (1975)
Entwistle uses an eight-string bass to run roughshod over his weary band. The insults are delivered with John’s snide humor, making this both more powerful and funny than most of Pete's down-in-the-dumps tunes on By Numbers.
97. “New Song,” Who Are You (1978)
If you can stomach the self-loathing – and the tacky synthesizers – “New Song” is a curious exploration of an aging artist who acknowledges his (and his peers’) diminishing returns. Townshend weaponizes the Who to tear at his dinosaur-rocker soul, stuck between the punks on one side and comfortable conformity on the other.
96. “Odorono,” The Who Sell Out (1967)
Just because an advertisement is selling a product, does that mean it is devoid of artistic merit? People cry at their favorite holiday ads and Townshend is able to turn a (pretend) jingle into a smart story about triumph and rejection, then lowers the boom: “She should have used Odorono.” Just a crummy commercial?
95. “Postcard,” Odds & Sods (1974)
The Who go on tour in Germany, Italy, Australia and the U.S. and Entwistle takes us along for the ride – well, via postcards, at least. With an oom-pah stopover, and wicked financial commentary, “Postcard” never takes itself seriously.
94. “See Me, Feel Me,” single (1970)
“See Me, Feel Me” isn’t a track on Tommy, but rather a theme repeated in songs such as “Christmas” and “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” But because the passage, and the “Listening to You” crescendo, became so famous (aided by the Who’s filmed Woodstock performance), “See Me, Feel Me” was put out as a single. These are powerful motifs, no doubt, but they’re even better in the context of the full songs.
93. “However Much I Booze,” The Who By Numbers (1975)
This song was so specific to Townshend, Daltrey reportedly refused to sing it, lest anyone think that he had trouble with the sauce. But this is more than an alcoholic confession. It is a trenchant commentary on feeling empty that gets a little meta in the last verse, as Pete nods to the armchair psychologists in the Who’s fanbase.
92. “The Ox,” My Generation (1965)
Given the same nickname as the Who’s sturdy bass man, the instrumental “The Ox” is a delightful few minutes of pseudo-surf-rock clangor and rumble from a band that was better than most at making transcendent noise.
91. “Glow Girl,” Odds & Sods (1974)
Townshend elevates the trope of the teenage death pop song (“Last Kiss,” “Dead Man’s Curve,” etc.) by turning a plane crash into a scene of reincarnation. The finale on this Sell Out outtake would be, ahem, reincarnated in Tommy, but the most interesting part might be the stock-taking of commercial belongings rendered meaningless by the crash.
90. “Quadrophenia,” Quadrophenia (1973)
The rock opera’s delayed overture weaves together the instrumental themes heard throughout the double LP, including the four meant to represent Jimmy’s personalities. But forget all that: This is a sophisticated and impactful performance by the Who, particularly Townshend who plays the twists and turns of the melodies (both vocal and instrumental) on his stinging but fluid guitar.
89. “Love Ain't for Keeping,” Who’s Next (1971)
Who’s Next is rife with epics (in terms of length and sound), so this scaled-back song is a welcome counterpoint. And just because “Love Ain’t for Keeping” is an acoustic-based number that begins and ends within a span of three minutes doesn't mean it doesn't dig down to discover its own strength.
88. “I've Known No War,” It’s Hard (1982)
Out of Face Dances frustration, Townshend and the Who aimed for a common concern between band members on It’s Hard, which turned out to be a fear of nuclear war. This is the best tune related to the subject, in terms of Daltrey’s rooftop-shouting swagger, Pete’s pile-driving riffage and a testimony to post-war privilege.
87. “Music Must Change,” Who Are You (1978)
Pete’s prose is a little purple, and so is Roger’s face on the blustery choruses, but the song hits on an unrealized sound for the Who. There’s open space on “Music Must Change,” freed up by the lack of drums, because Keith couldn't manage the rhythm. It's a happy accident that reveals subtleties that otherwise might have been plowed over.
86. “Dreaming from the Waist,” The Who By Numbers (1975)
Roger didn’t want to sing about Pete’s drinking problem, but he was OK voicing his 30-year-old sexual frustrations: “I’m too old to give up, but too young to rest.” Thanks in part to the vigor of the Who’s rhythm section, “Dreaming from the Waist” is more dynamic than most of By Numbers, even if it sort of still feels like the band is spinning their wheels in the sand.
85. “Time is Passing,” Odds & Sods reissue (1998)
This Lifehouse leftover takes a folksy approach to one of the themes central to the failed project: the saving grace of live music. But the sauntering track goes beyond the idea that music equals freedom. From a larger perspective, taking in sounds and sensations, Townshend feels the earth move and himself age. He senses impermanence in his world, which makes the music even sweeter.
84. “905,” Who Are You (1978)
Turns out that rock operas are contagious. Entwistle plucked this Who Are You chestnut from a half-finished futuristic concept about clone-like, numbered people. But there’s a beating heart in this programmed person, who laments the lack of originality that exists in an automaton. The computer-y synthesizers add to the b-movie appeal, and the keening chorus is a winner.
83. “Little Billy,” Odds & Sods (1974)
Written for, and rejected by, the American Cancer Society, “Little Billy” is a little ditty about a boy who eschews smoking cigarettes for eating, and ends up taking care of the offspring of his dead schoolmates (whose ranks were thinned by lung cancer). A bizarre, but glorious, pop gem.
82. God Speaks of Marty Robbins,” Endless Wire (2006)
This gentle hallucination of a song is about God going through the motions of creating all of heaven and earth in order to hear the music made by humans – a byproduct of creation that seems to please this higher power. It turns out God, like singer-guitarist Townshend, is a fan of country music great Marty Robbins. So this is God’s way of turning on the radio.
81. “The Good’s Gone,” My Generation (1965)
Daltrey growls, Moon pounds, Entwistle throbs and Townshend slashes through this early Who album cut, content to sit and spin in its dark tone. In ’65, there were more aggressive Who songs, but none so threatening.
80. “Real Good Looking Boy,” Then and Now (2004)
It could have sounded ridiculous for one of rock’s golden gods to sing about being ugly, but Daltrey sings this late-period Who pearl with such conviction that it’s easy to conflate Rog’s voice with Pete’s insecurities about his appearance. Using Elvis Presley as the paragon of perfection, Townshend writes about feeling unattractive but being boosted by the woman who loves him. It’s tender, in a way that few Who songs are.
79. “Sensation,” Tommy (1969)
Townshend repurposed this song from being about a groupie to describing Tommy’s miraculous transformation. It works as a sublime pop moment sung angelically by Townshend to signal the joy of the boy’s reclaimed senses – and that should tell you how high Pete was on that groupie.
78. “I Can't Reach You,” The Who Sell Out (1967)
This delicate tune, like many of Townshend's spiritually inclined material, can be misread as a yearning love song, but close attention indicates that he’s seeking more than a date for Saturday night. Regardless, the trickle-down piano in the latter part of the chorus is as divine as the song’s inspiration.
77. “Fortune Teller,” Thirty Years of Maximum R&B (1994)
The least of the pre-Beatles rock ’n’ roll covers in the Who’s act circa 1968-70, their version of Benny Spellman’s “Fortune Teller” is still a wooly beast. Hard and heavy from the get-go, the stage piece finds new life when the boys slam it into high gear.
76. “Circles (Instant Party),” b-side (1966)
There's not enough room to discuss the complicated history of the song with two names, so instead let's focus on the first appearance of Entwistle’s French horn. As Pete’s songs became more sophisticated, the sounds did too. John’s brass-blurting abilities would be put to good use, on Tommy, and Quadrophenia, and here.
75. “Mary Anne with the Shaky Hand,” The Who Sell Out (1967)
A shimmering and shimmying ode to a woman with Parkinson's or certain talents that are left to the imagination. You be the judge.
74. “Too Much of Anything,” Odds & Sods (1974)
A song about moderation from a band that often had four guys playing (or singing) lead at the same time. They manage to keep it in check on this gentle giant, originally written for Lifehouse.
73. “Athena,” It’s Hard (1982)
This bossa-nova incongruity finds Townshend exploring his obsession with an actress, building up his disinterested subject into a Greek goddess (the song went from “Theresa” to “Athena”). Never one to avoid self-incrimination, the songwriter castigates himself while Daltrey brings every inch of his vocal dexterity to translate Townshend’s complicated confessions.
72. “Cut My Hair,” Quadrophenia (1973)
The storyline of Quadrophenia is somewhat opaque to all but the most dedicated fans of the rock opera; it is better treated as a series of vignettes. In this one, Jimmy feels he “has to work himself to death just to fit in” not just with the fashionable mod scenesters but also as a member of his family. He feels inauthentic either way, and Pete’s shining guitar reflects the character’s uncertain feelings.
71. “Baby Don't You Do It,” b-side (1972)
The Who covered this Marvin Gaye single back in their “maximum R&B” period, then revived it on stage and in the studio during the Lifehouse/Who’s Next era. The later versions are tumultuous in the best way, with Moon spinning plates on his drum kit, Entwistle surging on the bass, Townshend chunk-chunk chugging on his guitar and Daltrey finding that sweet spot in his scream where his voice is just about to break, but doesn’t.
70. “Go to the Mirror Boy!,” Tommy (1969)
The song is important to the plot (a doctor discovers that Tommy’s problems are psychosomatic), but even more crucial to the album’s motifs when the “See Me, Feel Me” and “Listening to You” themes are heard together for the first time. Daltrey, as Tommy, sings to his reflection about climbing the mountain while Townshend slashes at the ropes and Moon topples his drums down the slope.
69. “Long Live Rock,” Odds & Sods (1974)
A self-conscious barn-burner rescued from one more Townshend concept that petered out. “Long Live Rock” winkingly celebrates the best and worst of rock, with Pete declaring, “We were the first band to vomit in the bar / And find the distance to the stage too far” as if that’s a badge of honor.
68. “Sunrise,” The Who Sell Out (1967)
Sell Out’s breathy dream sequence finds Townshend floating in a tangle of jazz chords and hints of a spiritual awakening. “Sunrise” is quietly gorgeous, adding another facet to the Who’s most sonically diverse album.
67. “Sister Disco,” Who Are You (1978)
Rife with melodies and crunching Who power (only slightly tainted by synths), this recording of Townshend's strange song – which may or may not have anything to do with disco – showed that the band’s swagger was intact.
66. “I Don't Even Know Myself,” b-side (1971)
One of rock’s most confessional songwriters broadcasts a warning that, even on this subject, he can’t be trusted. Townshend and the Who push you away with the blazing verses, then squint with one eye to check if you’re still around on the ricky-ticky interludes.
65. “Eyesight to the Blind (The Hawker),” Tommy (1969)
The band not only nicked this Sonny Boy Williamson song for Tommy (because of the blind, dumb and deaf themes), they gave it the full Who treatment. Moon and Entwistle sound like they recorded the rhythm track on construction equipment.
64. “Overture,” Tommy (1969)
The Who achieve symphonic grandeur with just a power trio and some meager additions (Entwistle’s French horn, Townshend’s organ, Moon’s gong). A dark and dynamic introduction.
63. “Disguises,” Ready Steady Who EP (1966)
Waves of audio interference dovetail with Townshend’s lyrics about a girl who camouflages herself to get away from a suitor. “Disguises” is both a refreshing take on an unrequited love song and a strange way to record a plucky pop song. The whooshing sheets of noise bring a surreal quality that remains unsettling.
62. “Heaven and Hell,” b-side (1970)
Entwistle’s cartoon vision of the afterlife is little more than a joke, but this 18-wheeler of a song is anything but. Often used in the Tommy era as an opening “test balloon” in concert, the meager lyrics of the red-blooded “Heaven and Hell” allowed everyone in the Who to stretch out: pounding, zooming, shredding and howling.
61. “I'm Free,” Tommy (1969)
An ear-catching riff (which became more rip-roaring on tour) announces Tommy’s sermon, enhanced by emphatic drumming, twinkling stair-step piano and Daltrey’s holier-than-thou delivery. Townshend’s acoustic noodling forecasts a shadowy underbelly.
60. “The Song is Over,” Who’s Next (1971)
As Daltrey began to flex his lower, stronger voice, Townshend started to arrange songs that played to the contrast of his high-pitched timber and Roger’s diaphragm-rattling tone. This six-minute power ballad makes great use of their differing vocals; as Pete laments the end of something (the failure of Lifehouse?), Roger bucks up and belts out a defiant rallying cry.
59. “The Acid Queen,” Tommy (1969)
Townshend betrays his feelings about drugs and sex in a song that seems to intertwine the two as a miracle cure. Pete’s no Tina Turner, but he and his guitar sneer convincingly to create the acid queen, a charlatan who is more interested in getting paid than helping young Tommy.
58. “Our Love Was,” The Who Sell Out (1967)
As shining and soaring as the relationship that Townshend sings about in the lyrics. And the guitar solo in the break is pretty resplendent, too.
57. “Getting in Tune,” Who’s Next (1971)
The Who take it down a little and get some room to breathe. Offering little reason to pay attention to the lyrics (they’re still better than “Going Mobile”), this sonic real estate allows for a focus on the details – Entwistle’s rippling bass, Moon knocking down the door like a battering ram, sideman Nicky Hopkins banging on an old piano like he hadn’t since My Generation and Daltrey flexing vocal cords as thick as power lines.
56. “I've Had Enough,” Quadrophenia (1973)
If Jimmy’s got four personalities, they’re all on display on Quadrophenia’s disc one closer. “I’ve Had Enough” manages to be sweet, angry, smug and meditative through passages that rage, boast and cry while featuring two-ton drums and pin-prick banjos – all finished off with the best Daltrey scream this side of Who’s Next.
55. “Rael (1),” The Who Sell Out (1967)
Between the Who’s mini-opera and their first full-blown rock opera, Townshend continued to hone his world-building skills. For a time, “Rael” was going to be Tommy-sized. Instead, the Who provided condensed version (but still with multiple parts, including an early stab at “Sparks”) of Pete’s fantastical world to close Sell Out.
54. “Sally Simpson,” Tommy (1969)
Not only a clever – and hardly positive – third-person view of the rock opera’s main character, but a smart example of Townshend’s strength as a short storyteller in song.
53. “La-La-La Lies,” My Generation (1965)
Perhaps the first example of Keith’s abilities as “lead” drummer. He doesn’t just punctuate Townshend’s tune about untruths, he punches it down the street, dragging his mates along.
52. “Water,” b-side (1973)
The Who show their ecologically conscious side, although it's telling that clean water just barely outranks female companionship as a basic necessity. But really, on this hulking mammoth of a b-side, it sounds like the Who of the early ‘70s only truly needed a spotlight and a stage to survive.
51. “Leaving Here,” Who’s Missing (1985)
The best cover song in the Who’s “maximum R&B” repertoire, this Motown tune is ripped to shreds by every member of the band. It's remarkable that anything in Detroit was left standing.
50. “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere,” single (1965)
“Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere” presents a band that were still figuring out exactly who they were (pardon the pun). Townshend claimed the spirit of the song was inspired by Charlie Parker while Daltrey’s lead vocal, especially down the stretch, owed an obvious debt to James Brown. Yet the whole thing came out as a chirpy macho trip – a very poppy pop single, albeit one with razored guitars and a tumult of percussion.
49. “Shakin’ All Over,” Live at Leeds (1970)
Johnny Kidd and the Pirates’ minor-key masterpiece is given a shellacking by the Who, particularly Entwistle, whose instrument sounds like a diesel train on the song’s indelible bassline. At this stage of their career as a live band, they could probably make “The Wheels on the Bus” sound nasty, so a great rocker like this became absolutely menacing.
48. “Pictures of Lily,” single (1967)
A tuneful tale about a World War I-era pin-up and a young man who is hardly master of his domain. Townshend said the song contained some autobiographical inspiration, which any listener could tell from his excellent rhythm guitar playing. Pete always had a strong right hand.
47. “Amazing Journey,” Tommy (1969)
The first song after Tommy becomes deaf, dumb and blind has to explain that the boy lives in “vibration land.” Townshend’s fantastical lyrics aren’t as interesting as the Who’s own vibrations, especially Moon’s fills, which are like snowflakes: No two are alike.
46. “Boris the Spider,” A Quick One (1966)
The best creepy, crawly story since the whey heyday of Miss Muffet (and she didn't have songwriter Entwistle’s basso profundo singing abilities). The hairy, descending bass helped it become Jimi Hendrix’s favorite Who tune – and make Townshend jealous.
45. “Young Man Blues,” Live at Leeds (1970)
If “Heaven and Hell” was the warm-up and “My Generation” was the marathon in the Live at Leeds era, “Young Man Blues” was the Who’s 400-meter hurdles. In concert, Mose Allison’s song (considered for Tommy) was treated to a four-front attack, as a shout from Daltrey would be met by an elephantine stomp from Moon before being blasted aside by Townshend shrapnel and overtaken by hyperactive Entwistle bass runs. A punishing workout.
44. “Another Tricky Day,” Face Dances (1981)
An uneven Who album gets a wonderful send-off with this gem. It’s not flashy, just incredibly detailed (Entwistle’s bass slide, those keyboard flourishes, Townshend’s backing vocal commentary and a nuanced lead from Daltrey). The lyrics are indecisive, yet full of cleverly worded wisdom, often about losing yourself in the music might save your brain from needless worry. “It’s all here on the vinyl …”
43. “Let's See Action,” single (1971)
Riding a bucolic groove (aided by Nicky Hopkins’s piano twinkle), Townshend calls for change, but laces it with enough spiritual mumbo-jumbo to make it certain that he’s not declaring revolution, but a more personal “action.” Daltrey’s confident strutting makes “nothing is everything” sound reasonable and then Pete descends in the bridge to reveal that he doesn’t have the answers anyway.
42. “My Wife,” Who’s Next (1971)
After a fight with the missus, Entwistle wrote this nightmare version of marital strife, in which his better half turns into an unstoppable force akin to the killer in a slasher flick. John’s lyrics are always good for a laugh and the track’s wall of steadily encroaching sound is the perfect partner for this song about a less-than-perfect match.
41. “Bell Boy,” Quadrophenia (1973)
It's impossible to discuss “Bell Boy” without focusing on Moon – his outsized accent, that running-of-the-bulls drum lead-in, the aching sweetness of his vocal performance – but “Bell Boy” is also a well-conceived song by Townshend. Not only does the song show that today’s beach-ruling heroes are tomorrow’s washed-up townies, it’s also a rumination on living in the past. You can go back to the place, but the time is already long gone.
40. “You Better You Bet,” Face Dances (1981)
The band’s last huge hit isn’t a prototypical Who song (sonically, it’s closer to Townshend’s new wave-y solo material), but it is a great pop song. And it’s a really weird love song, with lyrics that make Pete sound like a drunken, charming mess. The recording’s musical components – including undulating keyboards set against rollicking piano, Jones’s good-foot/bad-foot drums and Daltrey’s robust lead vocal – combine with a triumphant melody to make “You Better You Bet” not just a catchy pop tune, but an interesting Who record.
39. “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” Tommy (1969)
The rock opera’s big finish features Tommy’s followers tearing down their idol, who retreats to his safe place of sensations. The majestic “Listening to You” send-off brings this sometimes silly story back to a personal level: there are no shortcuts to being happy with yourself.
38. “Pure and Easy,” Odds & Sods (1974)
As much as, if not more, important to the Lifehouse concept as anything on Who’s Next, “Pure and Easy” presents music as a life force. A gussied-up Townshend demo appeared on Pete’s first solo LP, but the Who’s version has more grit and a better, ascending guitar part by the songwriter himself.
37. “Armenia City in the Sky,” The Who Sell Out (1967)
Who needs Lucy if you can visit an entire city in the sky? Townshend buddy John “Speedy” Keen wrote this hallucinatory ode, but the Who put the charge into it – a muddy rumble, disorienting guitars and dissonant horns. The band’s version of psychedelia was less a floating dream state and more a heavy, fuzzy nightmare. Thrilling.
36. “Love, Reign O’er Me,” Quadrophenia (1973)
Townshend’s prayer for deliverance (as Jimmy surrenders to larger powers rather than fighting them) is matched with one of Daltrey’s finest vocal performances on record. If Quadrophenia’s finale sounds overblown, that’s what you get when you have all four founding members of the Who operating at maximum output.
35. “Christmas,” Tommy (1969)
The most underrated track in the rock opera is a stunner. It begins at a run, captures the excitement of a child on Christmas morning via Townshend’s pulsing guitar (and the Who’s hyperventilating background vocals), exposes the well-meaning worry of Tommy’s parents, gives Daltrey a swooping hook to sing in “And Tommy doesn’t know what day it is …” and introduces the lonely “See Me, Feel Me” motif – all in about four-and-a-half minutes.
34. “A Legal Matter,” My Generation (1965)
This is Pete’s first lead vocal, which was the right call, because young Roger wouldn’t have possessed the ability to suggest the stream of sarcasm running under the divorce-themed ditty. What appears to be a bouncy argument against monogamy is actually a confession of an immature male who wants affection without responsibility. The lyrics tell us that “marrying’s no fun,” but this excitable tune sure is.
33. “Drowned,” Quadrophenia (1973)
Quadrophenia begins with a track titled “I Am the Sea,” but it is here on side three that the members of the Who (plus pianist Chris Stainton) become a swirling, stormy ocean. Moon’s percussive onslaught represents the unrelenting crash of waves, and Entwistle’s playful bass the mischievous undertow. Daltrey keeps his head above water even if songwriter Townshend desires to drown in an experience larger than himself.
32. “I'm a Boy,” single (1966)
Since the beginning, Townshend had aspirations of telling these giant, unwieldy stories, while only somewhat aware that his greatest strength was in writing about smaller moments. “I’m a Boy” was going to be part of some sci-fi nonsense, but it was for the better that it stood alone as a humorous and frustrated view into gender identity. Few bands were attacking the guitar, bass and drums with enough fury to create the barbed metronome in this single’s heaviest moments.
31. “Eminence Front,” It's Hard (1982)
What has more bite: Townshend’s towering spear of a riff, his flying dagger of a guitar solo or the lyrical scalpel he uses to dismember the “greed is good” decade? He snarls the lead vocal, too, making this assault ferocious on all fronts.
30. “Behind Blue Eyes,” Who’s Next (1971)
Instead of “Sympathy for the Devil,” the Who have empathy for the hated: “Behind Blue Eyes” was originally intended as a song sung by Lifehouse’s villain. The folksy beginning and the three-part harmonies present the band at their most delicate, before the shift (two-thirds of the way through the song) allows Moon to crack it open and pump the Who back up to crunchy-chord intensity.
29. “Trick of the Light,” Who Are You (1978)
This is Entwistle’s best Who composition because it’s both darkly funny and surprisingly vulnerable. You can have money, fame and cars, and you can strum an eight-string bass through the middle of this leviathan, but that doesn’t make you immune to insecurity. In fact, if this song is any proof, a rock star’s lifestyle might only enhance some of those feelings. But when it came to writing this most beastly of Who tracks, old Thunderfingers had no reason to feel uncertain.
28. “The Seeker,” single (1970)
Two things: no one but Joan Baez referred to Bob Dylan as “Bobby,” and “Leary” doesn’t rhyme with “either.” Otherwise, it’s hard to find fault with “The Seeker,” about someone who loses himself in the search for greater understanding. But this song could be about something far less profound and Townshend’s serrated riff would still draw blood, Moon’s King Kong drums would still crush and Hopkins’s piano slides would still delight.
27. “Sea and Sand,” Quadrophenia (1973)
There’s a tug of war going on in Jimmy’s head between at least two voices, represented by Daltrey and Townshend. The former buries himself in the sands of nostalgia, before his rose-colored reminiscing gets interrupted by Townshend, who comes roaring in on a swaggering riff as if it were a GS scooter. Pete slanders the glory days, spitting poison about Jimmy’s insecurities and the high poseur quotient in the mod scene. Roger gives up (“nothing is planned by the sea and the sand”), and Pete begins to sing the early Who b-side “I’m the Face” just to taunt him. A rock opera in Jimmy’s head.
26. “Blue, Red and Grey,” The Who By Numbers (1975)
The Who rarely got quiet, and if you had Entwistle, Moon and Daltrey in your band, why would you? So, it’s often a sign of something special when they do. “Blue, Red and Grey” is just Townshend cooing over a ukulele, supported by Entwistle’s gentle horns. It’s a little song about the little moments that works as counter-programming – a respite from the ugly feelings that dominate By Numbers. It's also sensitively sung by a man better known for smashing guitars than strumming Hawaiian folk instruments. But can he windmill on that thing?
25. “5.15,” Quadrophenia (1973)
Brassy with more than a hint of glam rock, “5.15” opens the second half of Quadrophenia with an escape both mental (Jimmy’s on drugs) and literal (Jimmy’s on a train). Driven by an engine of guitar, piano and horns, and fueled by wild, call-and-response verses, this song’s got locomotive power by the boilerful, even if the story doesn’t really go anywhere. Not that it matters, because “5.15” is more of a collection of observations – including ushers who cover up the stench of urine on train seats with cologne.
24. “Relay,” single (1972)
Pete Townshend predicts the Internet. Actually, “Relay” describes a method of communication within the Lifehouse story. Regardless of the larger saga, the song is interesting on a micro level with Daltrey singing about an underground network that circumvents the powers-that-be. The single doesn’t just pertain to technology, but features a great use of it. Pete creates the song’s signature blocky, transmogrifying hook by running his guitar through a synthesizer filter, lending the tune a retro-futurism.
23. “Happy Jack,” single (1966)
Another one of the Who’s unusual ’60s characters, Jack takes a licking and keeps on ticking. He certainly takes his lumps from Moon, who acts like a metal sculptor, pounding this two-minute wonder into shape with what might be the best example of his “lead” drums. Townshend’s jig-like guitar flourishes, Entwistle’s plunk-plunk bassline and the high harmonies add support, but Keith’s incredible drum patterns are the star – as irrepressible as Jack’s sunny mood.
22. “The Real Me,” Quadrophenia (1973)
Townshend wrote the song, but this is the Daltrey and Entwistle show. Roger’s disdain is so pronounced, his rock ’n’ roll-frontman tenacity so apparent, that “Can you see the real me?” is less of a question and more of a dare. “Can ya? Can ya?” he shouts. His defiance is backed up by John’s bass, which takes turns shoving the song forward and doing melodic somersaults around the angry lyrics, like it was the devil on Daltrey’s shoulder.
21. “So Sad About Us,” A Quick One (1966)
Pete coined the term power pop – not about this song, although it fits the description perfectly. Roger sighs the lyrics, supported by his guitarist and bassist on harmony detail, while Pete jabs and scratches at his instrument, John thumps his bulky bassline and Keith both clobbers the beat and hammers around it. Tough and pretty: the sound of the Who in 1966.
20. “Who Are You,” Who Are You (1978)
Even if Moon was “not to be taken away,” he was gone just after the Who released their 1978 LP. Although his percussive talents were fading in the time before he died, Keith gave one last, colossal performance on “Who Are You.” Those avalanche fills on the verses are capable of burying a small town in rubble and the tom hits coming out of the song’s twiddling interlude might register on the Richter scale. All of it only augments Daltrey’s furious reading of Townshend’s angry assemblage of urban ugliness.
19. “Summertime Blues,” Live at Leeds (1970)
A cover so riveting, a live performance so electrifying, the Who’s version of “Summertime Blues” all-but obliterates any memory of Eddie Cochran’s original, much less Blue Cheer’s gnarly rendition. Not only is Entwistle’s voice of “The Man” monstrous, every single moment is larger than life. In lockstep, Townshend’s smoldering guitar and Entwistle’s revving bass leap over the Atlantic Ocean as if they were hopping over a puddle. Moon drubs the earth off its axis. And Daltrey melts the polar ice caps with his whooping and wailing. There ain’t no cure for the summertime blues, but this thrashing certainly helps.
18. “Sparks,” Tommy (1969)
“Amazing Journey” establishes Tommy’s “vibration land,” but “Sparks” (true to its title) sets it alight. First, Moon, Entwistle and Townshend churn like a turbine as effects circle and flutter like bats at dusk. John’s swooning bass bellies up the bar before the instrumental takes a darker turn. His staccato bassline tiptoes beneath Pete’s willowy showers of guitar, culminating in Keith’s ominous rumble, rattle and crash. Hints of sunlight glint in Entwistle’s French horn and after a brief dash, this crisp and mysterious sensory experience concludes.
17. “Tattoo,” The Who Sell Out (1967)
The concept of masculinity is explored, with a hearty dose of humor, in “Tattoo.” This sweetly sung tune about two brothers who “man up” by getting their arms tattooed is one of Townshend’s best story-songs, with details that extend beyond the song’s central conceit. For example, the tattoo parlor is near the barber and gymnasium – two other masculine haunts. The boys’ mother “naturally” prefers the tattoo that is a tribute to her. The brothers are willing to go under the needle, but won’t cut their ’60s-length hair to appear manlier to their father. And the ending amusingly subverts the young men’s macho ideals, as one of them marries a woman who is tattooed, too.
16. “Naked Eye,” Odds & Sods (1974)
Every die-hard fanbase has their rarity, album cut or lesser-known song that they elevate to an impossibly vaunted status. But Who devotees are absolutely right about “Naked Eye,” a song with a riff that sprung from a Live at Leeds-era jam and Townshend’s reaction to people blaming their shortcomings on their drug intake. The lyrics prod you to think harder while the charging guitar knocks you back on your heels. “Naked Eye” proves another rock-fan trope is true, as well: the live version, with Pete’s fiery reading of the middle verse, is vastly superior.
15. “I'm One,” Quadrophenia (1973)
Townshend’s personal feelings about being out-of-step as a young man (or anytime) bleed into his character’s anxieties about not fitting in. The song begins quiet, acoustic and sad – and then Entwistle and Moon kick in and Pete’s resentment comes to the fore. He tugs and pushes at his guitar as he begins to snarl the chorus. “I am one,” he declares, showing Jimmy’s (somewhat) comfort with being part of a crowd just as Pete audibly grows stronger while he is supported by his band.
14. “I Can't Explain,” single (1965)
Townshend imitated the Kinks and came up with this switchblade single – the first to be released under the Who name. It’s sharp and fast and rhythmic in all the right places, but “I Can’t Explain” also reveals a burgeoning and original songwriter (leaving aside the debt owed to Ray Davies). The lyrics are ostensibly based in love, but they’re more about frustration, confusion and an inability to express oneself. That is to say, teenage problems described by a teenager. Townshend explained it all too perfectly … and in just two minutes.
13. “Join Together,” single (1972)
There’s lots to like about this single. The jaw harp and harmonicas lend a fascinating buzz to the song's foundation – and make a welcome shift from a role so often filled by synthesizers in this Who era. Townshend makes a plea for inclusion while doffing his cap to Daltrey: “It's the singer, not the song, that makes the music move along.” But the most satisfying Who moment is when the boys crack like a whip into the second verse with Townshend’s buzzsaw guitar slashing through the air and Daltrey howling, “Do you really think I care …?”
12. “Slip Kid,” The Who By Numbers (1975)
Easily the most underrated single in the Who’s career, “Slip Kid” is special. The Who could simply power and push and storm and stomp their way through Townshend’s societal suspicions – and, sure, this song has plenty of force. But the By Numbers leadoff track also shimmies and salsas its way forward, winding like a snake as Daltrey rages about “running in the rain” and Townshend lunges with his axe. When Keith Moon is on drums, most songs qualify as rhythmically compelling; but “Slip Kid” finds an easy way to be free of the typical rock ’n’ roll backbeat.
11. “Won't Get Fooled Again,” Who’s Next (1971)
An epic from every vantage point: length, volume, energy, drum solos, screams and even the subject matter. Townshend writes, and Daltrey belts, about a revolution that turns out to be pointless, if not bloodless. You can feel the violence (Moon’s relentless drumming, Daltrey's famous, glass-shattering scream) and sense the disconcerting counter-activity (as Townshend’s guitar flails upward on the choruses, Entwistle’s bass winds downward) in this world-wary heavyweight.
10. “A Quick One, While He's Away,” A Quick One (1966)
The Who’s second album had room to spare, so the 21-year-old Townshend put together a mini-opera. The story is basic (boy leaves town, girl cheats on him, boy returns, boy forgives her), but the multi-part epic is a blast. Each section has its melodic strengths and idiosyncrasies – from lascivious Ivor the Engine Driver to cries of “cello, cello, cello” in place of the orchestrations that the band couldn't afford – and the end-run is nothing short of spectacular. Pete was right; even in the context of a dumb story, hearing “You. Are. For-giv-en!” backed by blazing guitar has an almost religious aura to it.
9. “Magic Bus,” single (1968)
When rock stars sing about coveting vehicles, they’re usually talking sports cars, limos or something outlandish. But, subverting pop music clichés once more, the Who just wanted their own bus. The lyrics are nonsense, but the song isn’t – matching a shake-n-bake Bo-Diddley thump to an acoustic rhythm guitar nearly as arid as Johnny Cash’s. The studio version makes for an incredible pop single, but the live approach (see Live at Leeds) gives the Who enough space to take a joyride to the moon and back.
8. “Baba O’Riley,” Who’s Next (1971)
Lyrically, it’s not much. (The words can be summarized as “hey, let’s go... and watch out for teenagers.”) But who cares when the sound of “Baba O’Riley” is so rich? The build-up is perfect. Batting leadoff on Who’s Next, the song rises from that looping electronic trickle – a method often duplicated, never bettered by Townshend – to the sturdy, sustained piano chords to Keith’s perpetual tumbleweed drumming to the farmer’s declaration from Roger to, finally, Pete’s roaring guitar. After Pete cries his warning, we’re off with Sally, thundering our way “south, cross-land” to … somewhere. Sure, let’s go? Wherever the Who, circa 1971, are taking us, the journey will be more than worth it.
7. “Pinball Wizard,” Tommy (1969)
A song that was hastily added to the Tommy storyline became the rock opera’s signature tune. And for good reason, because while the Who’s opus can get bogged down (especially in the second half) with mini-songs that advance the plot or Townshend’s insights on religion, “Pinball Wizard” is pure fun. It’s also the last of the band’s great character songs in the ’60s, with the “Bally table king” grousing about this worthless kid who just dethroned him, amidst some Chuck-Berry-style lyrics that are justifiably playful for a song about pinball. The 10-story tall riff, enough to silence any arcade, only brings scale and fervor to this amusement-hall showdown.
6. “Bargain,” Who’s Next (1971)
Townshend has watched a few of his compositions (both with the Who and without) get mistaken for straight-forward love songs when he had something more substantial in mind. “Bargain” is not about romantic obsession (much less getting a deal on a Nissan), but fixated on spiritual discovery. It’s actually a fairly informative peek into Pete’s psyche at the time: He was a man so seemingly desperate for deliverance from the abundant, but empty, spoils of being a rock star. His anguish becomes the Who’s frenzy, with Daltrey’s full-throated spewing of his bandmates promises and the three instrumentalists locking horns in a rampage across barren land. While more than a few Who’s Next classics always seem to get the glory, “Bargain” is more furiously performed than the bunch of them, and definitely has more to say.
5. “The Kids are Alright,” My Generation (1965)
In ’65, there wasn’t a shortage of obsessive love songs: like the girl, need the girl, get the girl, love the girl, lose the girl, hate the girl, miss the girl, chase after the girl, might kill the girl, look, there’s a new girl, etc. But there were few songs as ambivalent about the subject as “The Kids are Alright,” with its first line: “I don't mind other guys dancing with my girl.” It’s not clear if Townshend is trusting, selfish, depressive, rationalizing or some kind of mix. It’s as if he’s saying, “The other scenesters are cool and I’ve got to get on stage (or at least get away). She’ll probably be better off without me, because her parents don’t like me anyway.” With a modicum of lyrics (the first two verses are repeated after the bridge), the band’s primary songwriter sculpts a moment of uneasy acceptance, buoyed by the ringing beauty of his guitar and the sad-eyed harmonies behind Daltrey. There’s plenty of power here, especially in Moon’s push-push-push drumming and alley-smashing fills, and “The Kids are Alright” becomes a bridge between “maximum R&B” and the more intricate material Townshend would soon write.
4. “I Can See for Miles,” The Who Sell Out (1967)
What a great-sounding record. The lyrics (about a guy with magical vision) aren’t an uninteresting choice for a song, but Daltrey’s tone of detached derision is much more arresting. It’s like the Who frontman is Dr. Manhattan, shrugging off the puny earthlings as he towers above the fray. And there’s plenty of fray on “I Can See for Miles,” with Moon scampering up the walls to drum in every corner of the song and Townshend piling guitars upon guitars – each with their own stinging, biting, buzzing personality. Pete also delivers the greatest one-note guitar solo in the history of rock while Entwistle’s bass thuds menacingly behind him.
3. “The Punk and The Godfather,” Quadrophenia (1973)
There’s no song less consequential to the plot of Quadrophenia, but more revealing about how Townshend viewed himself and his band in relation to their audience (certainly in the early days, coming out of London’s mod scene). Pete’s self-perception as a “clown” would lead down a dark path on By Numbers, but here the conflict between fan (punk) and rock star (godfather) is positively galvanizing. It’s interesting that Daltrey, in one of his most turbulent turns at the mic, voices both the punk (who sneers “you only earned what we gave you”) and the godfather (who protests “I’m the punk in the gutter”). The conflict doesn’t just play out in the battling lyrics, but also in the music, with Pete’s wood-chipper riff charging at Entwistle, who ducks, darts and dashes all over to avoid the knock-out blow. Meanwhile, Moon thumps away, as thunderous here as he is throughout the rock opera. It culminates in a confession, with Townshend voicing the honest thoughts of the man behind the curtain (instead of the great and powerful Daltrey), admitting that you shouldn’t believe everything you see on stage.
2. “Substitute,” single (1966)
That opening riff – both chiming and lacerating – alone would merit “Substitute” a high entry on this list. But everything that follows is equally exciting. Entwistle’s bass hops back and forth quicker than a Wimbledon championship. Moon’s drums sound like a tympani here, an adrenaline-charged pulse there, and a hail of bullets anytime he's given a long enough to open fire. Daltrey injects just the right amount of contempt into lines such as, “I was born with a plastic spoon in my mouth.” Of course, Townshend’s the guy who wrote those enduring, snarky lyrics for “Substitute,” the purest distillation of his career-long “look closer, think harder” fixation from “It’s Not True” to “Naked Eye” to “Eminence Front.” Although, it's not like his faith in humanity grew much past, “It's a genuine problem, you won't try / to work it out at all, just pass it by.” It's much harder to give that treatment to this masterpiece of a pop single.
1. “My Generation,” My Generation (1965)
More than a song, it’s a line in the sand. More than a hit, it’s an anthem. To summarize “My Generation,” politely: if you don’t get it, if you don’t understand, if this doesn’t please you or move you or speak to you in any way, then the solution is easy. Go somewhere else. Stop bothering us. And feel free to fuh-fade away in the process. More than 50 years later, “My Generation” should be a fossil. But it’s not only germane in the age of internet trolls, the nagging, metallic drive remains striking and jagged, bouncy but dangerous. And everyone in the Who gets to shine: a sing-able bass solo for Entwistle, implied profanity for Daltrey, clap-trap clatter for Moon and a string-bean sting for Townshend guitar. The end is near pandemonium – the righteous sound of the Who coming together just to blow it all apart.