View Full Size 11 / 12   
  • The Who Albums From Worst To Best
Tags: / Credit:

2. Tommy (1969)

Giving Tommy another close listen is a revelation, subtle moments coming to the fore: John Enwistle's bass popping on the denouement of "Amazing Journey" and into "Sparks," Moon's rolling rhythms on "The Acid Queen," and the way Townshend's guitar fires off on "Pinball Wizard." And, hey: Why hasn't "Christmas" become a wintertime standard?

The first rock opera, Tommy entered the musical fray in what most might be the most important year in the history of rock 'n' roll: 1969. Recorded in six months and mixed in two, it was epic out the gate: A story of a deaf, dumb, and blind pinball wunderkind nearly paralyzed by his father's murder of his mother's lover. And, after wading through the 75 minute concept album -- full of repeated themes, a Sophoclean narrative, and thrashing rock -- it was readily apparent a revolution was afoot.

Tommy's "problem" might have, at first, appeared to be its translation. How could a rock band make an epic partially inspired by Meher Baba work live? Released in May, the Who only had to wait until August to put the doubts to rest on biggest of stages: Woodstock. Rifling through a late-night/early-morning set, the Who played much of Tommy. The self-hatred on "Go to the Mirror!" and then the funk of "Smash the Mirror" echoed out. Picking up the leitmotif from the former, "We're Not Gonna Take It" and "Listening to You / See Me, Feel Me" were two of the most obstinate and emotional songs performed at the festival. Nothing could've been more epic.

On “My Generation,” Roger Daltrey famously proclaims, “I hope I die before I get old.” It was 1965: Pete Townshend wrote the lyrics just as he was turning 20. Forty-eight years later, neither the singer nor the guitarist-composer has fulfilled that prophecy. Only one member of the Who did: Keith Moon, drummer and merrymaker extraordinaire, who died of a drug overdose in 1978 at the age of 32. (John “the Ox” Entwistle took his thunderfinger bass licks to his grave in 2002 at the still relatively young age of 57.) Still, it’s a line worth considering in 2013. The Who is still around, and just what does that mean?

Although the Who stands as an outfit with only one-half of its original members, Townshend and Daltrey are getting away with it … and then some. Five years ago the two were knighted USA-style at the Kennedy Center and, in 2010, the Who played a raucous and underrated Super Bowl halftime show: the next level these days, it seems, after being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. And the band’s performance at “12-12-12: The Concert for Sandy Relief” was expansive and one of the highlights of the night. Like another stand-out, Billy Joel, the group pillaged through seven songs; the Who’s set included a rendition of “Bell Boy” with Keith Moon lending his vocals via monitor. And the group is currently knee-deep in the second leg of an American tour, “Quadrophenia and More,” that takes them to Europe this summer. It could be its last ever.

So, why keep going? It seems as though they have some unfinished business. Townshend — long a troubled figure with a blazing media spotlight upon him — released a tell-all memoir last year, Who I Am. And, then there’s the issue of history: The Who has always been considered “one of” the greatest rock bands of all time but rarely “the best.” When boarding the Magic Bus, the Who has always been seated at the back while the Rolling Stones, the Beatles and Led Zeppelin fill out first-class. Townshend and Daltrey, approaching 70, are out to prove something.

And even looking outside of its recent accolades and achievements, the Who has cause for renewed consideration. This is a group that contributed to the framework of how rock ’n’ roll musicians behave: They break instruments and have bad attitudes. They brand themselves: Who wouldn’t readily identify that Union Jack target logo with the group? They make money: T-shirts on the current tour are fetching $40 a pop. They come up with signature moves (Townshend’s jumping windmill guitar stroke) and they bare their chests (Daltrey). They fight with each other like brothers, they have sex with the Western Hemisphere, and they write songs about it all. And, then, one-by-one: They die.

The band’s recordings are the heart of the matter, though, and go a long way toward reopening the case on the brilliant band. The Who has recorded 11 studio albums that have, in turn, given rise to a myriad of greatest hits collections, rare outtake compilations, and some of the best live music ever committed to tape (including the granddaddy of them all, 1970′s Live At Leeds.) Here, though, we consider those 11 LPs as a portfolio in its own right. As the Who criss-crosses the country, it’s readily apparent that, to paraphrase Townshend, the song will soon be over. And it’s these primary documents on which the Who’s legacy will be judged. 

Start the Countdown here.

Comments (59)
  1. whoa, this is a tough list. i do agree with the top three although i’d switch quad and tommy. but the who had such a weird run, with a lot of different styles. kudos for braving it.

    • I agree with you – I can’t understand any ranking of Tommy above Quad. Quad is so much deeper and more accomplished.

      • I’ve always thought Tommy was a better “concept album” but not a better album than Quadrophenia. It has a more comprehensive and interesting story but Quadrophenia has better songs start to finish. Not that the songs on Tommy aren’t great too. I just thought Quadrophenia was a stronger effort musically speaking.

        • i think it’s stronger musically and with the story. i guess i like quad’s story better because it’s a real life story about some guy lost in himself, while tommy is more fantastical. either way, good stuff.

  2. You forgot the Who album: “The Who’s Favorite Album”

  3. No mention of “Eminence Front” from It’s Hard? For shame.

  4. “The Who Sells Out” number one for album covers

  5. Tommy all the way for me. An absolute masterpiece.
    Solid list though.

    • I think Tommy is, without question, number one. I’m gonna go ahead and assume Dark Side will not be number one on the Floyd list which will also be a mistake.

      • ah, dark side of the moon. pink floyd’s masterpiece while simultaneously being its most reviled, simply because of popularity. you’ve never seen a more music nerd/snob lightning rod like it, as it’ll instantly make anyone call meddle their best album while in the meantime us and them will come on the radio and everyone will shut their mouths and sit in stunned silence while it plays out.

        i cannot WAIT for the pink floyd list. you thought the radiohead one caused an uproar.

  6. I feel A Quick One should be higher (title track is easily one of my favorite songs of theirs), but my love for certain Who albums cycles, so I may say something different in a month or two. However, solid, ambitious yet pretty uncontroversial ranking.

  7. The Smiths were allowed their compilations so I’ll mention “Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy” as being worth a listen, especially for my favourite song from them “Substitute”.

  8. Yeah, kinda ridiculous that Meaty Beaty’s not on here. This is a good list, though; all I’d change would be switching the positions of Quad and Who’s Next. Though I don’t think anyone would complain if you put Live at Leeds at #1 either.

  9. Pete has referred to “A Quick One, While He’s Away” as Tommy’s parent because it was the beginning of his experiment with the rock opera structure, not because it was literally about Tommy’s parents (that would be interesting but the two narratives, as loose as they are don’t really mesh).

  10. I think Who Are You is a really good album. It’s certainly not their best but it definitely doesn’t deserve the placement given here. “Trick of the Light” is a great Entwistle rocker, “Music Must Change” and “Sister Disco” are catchy and interesting commentaries on the state of music at the time. “Love is Coming Down” is a fine Broadway-esque ballad sung with great strength by Roger. And of course the title track is nothing short of a classic. I think the album deserves a fresh listen. I think Endless Wire is better than the two Kenney Jones era albums as well, it was misguided in that it just didn’t sound like The Who with all the synths and drum machines and it was more like a Pete Townshend solo album featuring Roger Daltrey on vocals. The songs sounded better when they were done live on the subsequent tour with Zak Starkey on drums and Pino Palladino on bass, both who were conspicuously absent from the majority of the album. Otherwise, I’d say the list is pretty good though I might put Quadrophenia at #1 but I might be biased after having seen Pete and Roger play it in its entirety a few months ago which was one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen.

  11. I love Who’s Next and like Quadrophenia. But Tommy is a mess. “Pinball Wizard” is apparently glued together out of spare riffs — the strummy bits during the verses and the power chords during the chorus sound like they belong to different songs. “I’m Free” is supposed to be some hippie Jesus thing that now just sounds ridiculous like the rest of the hippie Jesus subgenre. “See Me, Feel Me” has a monotonous opening and an equally monotonous chorus repeating the ridiculous idea that anyone would want to follow this guy. And so on. I understand that it’s supposed to be half-joke, half-fantastic, but the fantastic part is pretty pedestrian, and the joke part just falls flat.

  12. “A Quick One While He’s Away” is far and away my favorite Who song, and one of my all time favorite songs in general. Just perfect from start to finish.

    • Best version is the one from the Stones “Rock and Roll Circus” that’s also on the “Kid’s Are Alright” soundtrack. Nearly eight minutes of capital r Rawk. Story is the Circus wasn’t released for 30 years because Jagger knew that the Who had blown the Stones off the stage. My theory that I completely made up is that it was that eight minutes that led to Brian Jones being shown the door in favor of Mick Taylor five months later.

  13. Another compilation that had some worthiness was “Odd & Sods”; my favorite Who song Naked Eye is on it and still receives a couple of spins a year from me even though I gave up on stadium rock back in the early ’80′s (I think the turning point was when I witnessed The Clash opening for The Who at the Silverdome which made them cooler than The Rolling Stones for having Iggy Pop as an opener the year before).

  14. 1. Sell Out
    2. Tommy
    3. Quadrophenia
    4. A Quick One
    5. Meaty Beaty

    Gotta admit that Who’s Next does have the problem of freshness for me . . . my loss

  15. The Who smokes The Stones, The Beatles and Zeppelin; if you want to argue listen to ‘Live At Leeds’ or ‘Live At The Royal Albert Hall’ and get back to me. This writer is a moron of the highest order.

    • Read that again. The writer is talking about how most critics regard The Who, not his own opinion. He’s not making a judgement on the quality of their music in relation to those bands, but rather an estimation of where their importance ranks in our collective consciousness, according to the popular and critical discourse surrounding them. His statement is still debatable, but not related to what you’re arguing.

      How do I know this?

      He says, “The Who has always been considered ‘one of’ the greatest rock bands of all time but rarely ‘the best.’”

      He does not say, “The Who are one of the greatest rock bands of all time, but not the best.”

      So… if one of you had to be a “moron of the highest order”, and one of you drew a debatable conclusion based on observation, while the other contested that conclusion based on a subjective opinion coupled with not reading properly, who is the moron?

  16. Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see

  17. hey guys i got a joke: quadrophenia at #3

  18. Where’s the CSI: Opening Themes OST?

  19. Dear writer of piece: “unabashed bravado” is pleonastic.

  20. Good list. I might have swapped Quad and Tommy. And I might have “Quick One” a spot higher. And also all the other ones are wrong.

  21. Yep, I can handle this list, esp the top five or so. I probably would put Tommy at three and Quad at two, but that’s how I roll today. Tomorrow, I might have rolled differently.

  22. Isn’t it “Won’t get fooled again”? Not “We don’t get fooled again”?

  23. My read was that Zeppelin aped followed the Who much more than vice versa. I mean, Jimmy Page’s first post-Yardbirds plan was for him and Jeff Beck to form a supergroup with. Moon and Moose. (Holy shit, would that have rocked faces off!) Anyways, here’s my version of the truth…

    1. Quadrophenia
    2. Who Sell Out
    3. Who’s Next
    4. Tommy
    5. My Generation
    6. A Quick One
    7. By the Numbers

  24. I still wanna complain about the Outkast list.

  25. Quadrophenia is just such a ridiculously good album. Every time I revisit it I’m blown away by how good they are at their respective instruments, especially Entwistle and Moon.

  26. 1. Sell Out is my all time favorite album

    A Quick One and My Generation are wonderful.

    I certainly love Tommy, Who’s Next, Live at Leeds, etc., but they get overplayed to the detriment of the above three records, so I can’t be bothered numbering 2,3, etc.

    The Who were a great hard rock band but they were also a brilliant POP band.

  27. Listing Who Are You? before It’s Hard is just asking for trolls. Honestly Stereogum you did that on purpose hoping for comments, just in case the rest of the list didn’t spark enough controversy.

  28. I appreciate that Sterogum took this on. Very difficult. I actually do not have any qualms with the listing (although I would switch My Generation and Who Sell Out). However I have a few concerns:

    1) 60′s Who were predominantly a singles band. Some of the best music they produced are not included on any of the albums on this list (Pictures of Lily, I Can’t Explain, Anyway Anyhow, Happy Jack, Substitute, MAGIC FUCKING BUS, the Seeker, Join Together, etc etc). Thus they should have included at least one compilation (Meaty would probably top my list if so), or create a list

    2) The Who are widely regarded as the greatest live band of all time. To not include live albums on such a list is a travesty. Live at Leeds would probably share the top of the list with Who’s next if this was so. Live at Hull and Isle of Wight are incredible as well.

    3) This line from the introduction pissed me off: “And, then, one-by-one: They die.” Yes the band has always been preoccupied with growing old and dying (especially Townsend), but have some class. You would never write that line in conjunction with the Beatles or the Stones.

    Other than that, it is nice to see one of your lists written by someone with actual knowledge of the discography in which they are listing. Many of your other lists have been complete jokes minimizing classic monumental works (Bends, Slanted and Enchanted, Let it Be anybody???), so this was nice to see.

  29. 1st flaw: Why are Live at Leeds and Magic Bus- The Who on Tour (not a live album, despite the name) not anywhere on this list?
    The order is entirely subjective, and Tommy is overrated as usual. But most shocking to me is the relatively-low rank of By Numbers. Here, you have Townshend at the confessional. The lyrics were a glimpse of what would come in his solo records such as Empty Glass and All The Best Cowboys… And musically, Entwistle is a monster on Dreaming from the Waist and However Much I Booze. The whole band rocks out on In a Hand or a Face. By Numbers is the only record that is has elements of Townshend’s solo introspection and The Who’s bombast. To rank the record below A Quick One is a shame.

  30. I think The Who have many different possible answers. Who’s Next is clearly the obvious choice being that it has the bulk of their major hit songs. However, for die hard Who fans, Quadrophenia seems to be the favorite. Clearly, it did very well on it’s recent tour and Pete Townsend is most proud of that piece of work. Also, Tommy, considering how young they were and how they were considered at the time, the loudest, heaviest rock band anyone had ever heard, was very artistic and theatrical and was definitely their most groundbreaking piece of work. Also, for people who grew up with the Who (unlike me) I know have soft spots for My Generation and other pieces of work. For me, Quadrophenia rules all but I feel that since every member has so much to offer and such an important role, there are many different ways of looking at it. They did start out as a stripped down rock band but if you look at it on a more analytical way, they have had a much bigger impact than just that. They progressed musically so much as their career progressed even when they lost Keith Moon, the not particularly skilled drummer who managed to turn the drum into more than just a rhythm piece but an actual integral part of the sound. There is just so much talent and I find it really hard to rank the albums but I think people often underestimate how much amazing work these guys have put out. They often think that it’s just those couple releases but really, every release has at least one song that blows you away. Quadrophenia, I just think for Stereogum users, is the album that is the most impressive and sophisticated. So while I do respect your opinion colin, just for a blog like this, I would have expected a slightly different outcome than just picking the obvious.

  31. Not bad, but “Who Are You” above “It’s Hard?” I’ll take a sluggish Moon over Kenney Jones in his prime any day. Also, I feel like “Who By Numbers” should be higher…it’s a personal favorite, but I guess I’m in the minority.

  32. Uh, what I meant to say was “It’s Hard” above “Who Are You?”

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post, reply to, or rate a comment.

%s1 / %s2