Wednesday, September 4, 2019

The Masters: The Who - Best Studio Albums

RtBE loves listening to new music and prides itself on keeping tabs on up and coming artists but in 2019 we are also going to have a monthly spotlight on legendary artists who we really love. We are calling this series The Masters. It will focus on the best albums, live records, transcendent shows and other odd ways we appreciate the artists and their contribution to music, culture and our formation.
For September The Masters focuses on The Who.

When RtBE hears the term 'Rock Band' (not rock and roll mind you) The Who are always the band who jumps to mind. The group were heavy/hard before there was punk/metal. They were over the top, before there was prog. They were in touch with their feelings like folkies, but would make you start a mosh before that was a thing and they never backed down from a fight. 

Pete Townshend, Roger Daltry, John Entwistle and Keith Moon were the perfect rock quartet.  Each played their roles, were amazing at their craft and produced some of the greatest albums in rock history. They were not prolific in the studio, but each record we talk about today could be in talks for best ever.    

Unlike a lot of other British Invasion acts, The Who didn't owe very much to the blues masters that came before them, they were much more influenced by the early American rock and roll inspired by those artists, almost a second generation influence. Unlike the Beatles and the Stones they kept the "roll" out of it and went more for a blasting, the already mentioned metal/punk/prog approach to their songs as they grew as a unit. 

Townshend as a songwriter also tapped into constant themes of childhood abuse, teenage angst and mental confusion. The best part about his songs is that he somehow managed to keep a sense of humor about him and his lyrics. The Who were fun, deep, exciting and a kick ass band so let's dig into their top 5 studio albums....As a reminder, this list is meant to start discussions, not end them....
#5 A Quick One - 1966

Like a few other artists in our Masters series, the versions of English verse American original releases can be confusing. Originally released in America as Happy Jack, A Quick One is the roots of the band as they slowly begin to move away from their mod youth and show flashes of the immense talent to come.

From it's pop art cover to it's bright sounds the group each brought in songs to record, marking it as the most democratic Who album. After a pretty snazzy cover of "Heatwave" each of the four members got involved. Entwistle always was a talent and his "Boris The Spider" is a winner as is "Whiskey Man" while Daltry may bring the most surprising tune to the table with the stripped down "See My Way" after Moon's Beatles parody, "I Need You". However Townshend still reigns supreme with the pop gem "So Sad About Us" and the true highlight of the record, it's mini-opera title track.

"A Quick One While He's Away" is a dynamite run through various styles and genres as Pete proves he is already breaking out of pop-song confines. Townshend is one of the few rockers who could effectively discuss his craft, here is a quote on "A Quick One While He's Away":
The Who were not at their peak exactly, but with "the mini opera", we were just about starting to tap into something that became a complete obsession for me. Which was that when we played a hard-driving rock 'n' roll and brought in this slightly evangelical, hippy, spiritual thing – at the end of our piece, I'm shouting, "You are forgiven, you are forgiven, you are forgiven" – that there would be a kind of spiritual rush in the audience that was obviously there to be tapped into. Rock 'n' roll had always been below the belt stuff, and that was something else. 

#4 The Who Sell Out - 1967

A Quick One was pointing towards more than just 3 minute pop songs and the bands first experimentation with that was the thematic concept album The Who Sell Out. This was to be a pirate radio station with commercials, jingles and then the tunes all intermixed. While the pomposity would increase on future albums, this record truly shows the Who's playful, sense of humor and ear for a catchy jingle.

Not only are the commercials funny for baked beans and deodorant, but tracks like "Mary Anne With The Shaky Hand", provides giggles while using some diverse Latin inspired percussion for a song about hand jobs while "Tattoo" keeps getting more and more covered in ink. The hit "I Can See For Miles" and closer "Rael" points the way towards Tommy, but it is the overall feel and sequencing which elevates the album.

Speaking of sequencing...this is the first Master Series studio album entry where RtBE ended up ranking albums in order released...interesting....

#3 Tommy - 1969

The most well-known Who release with long running Broadway musical attached, a movie, box sets and countless tours to re-hash it, Tommy is everywhere. Even if you don't know the Who you have probably heard of/about Tommy. In the grand scheme of things it is overrated, but it still has a bunch of cool things going for it.

While not a rock opera, it is a thematic concept album with interlinking lyrics, and reoccurring musical themes. Even though it is linked, Tommy always stuck out as more of a pick and choose album and not one we needed to hear from start to finish. "Amazing Journey", "Sparks", "Christmas", and "I'm Free" while just part of the "story" work on their own as singles. "Pinball Wizard" has taken on a life of it's own and is a damn fine song while the climactic "We're Not Gonna Take It" is one of the best finale songs in all of rock and roll.

While it is a jumbled story that makes little sense, the highs on the record are really bad ass and musical magic as the group nails those moments with power and grace. They would do the whole "rock opera" thing better though, but that will come later on this list....

#2 Who's Next - 1971

Th follow up to Tommy was supposed to be Lifehouse, a musical sci-fi where rock and roll was the savior in a Matrix like world...or something like that. It never solidified and was abandoned but what remained in it's place is one of the greatest hard rock albums of all time, Who's Next.

From the opening synths of "Baba O'Riley" to the climactic finish of "Won't Get Fooled Again" the boys are locked and loaded. Almost every tune is a winner, "Bargain", "Love Ain't For Keeping" and "Getting In Tune" are criminally underrated in terms of hard rock classic tracks while "Behind Blue Eyes" brings things down to a sad/contemplative level. The only real misstep is "Going Mobile" and if that track had been removed for say "Pure and Easy" you would have pound for pound perhaps the greatest rock album ever.

Usually when we do this list we only focus on the original release, but when it comes to Who's Next, RtBE would highly recommend getting the one of the bonus editions (1995's or 2003's) which contain some dynamite playing from a band on top of it's game. Live versions of "Baby Don't You Do It", "Water", "Naked Eye" and "Roadrunner" are explosive and outtakes like "Too Much of Anything" are spectacular.   

Who's Next would probably top any other rock bands discography, but not The Who as one achievement is even greater to RtBE's ears.

#1 Quadrophenia - 1973

RtBE's vote for best rock album ever is Quadrophenia. We have spoken about this album quite a few times on this site, but just to reiterate it's greatness, Quadrophenia is magical. It is one of the few albums we need to hear from beginning to end the moment those waves start crashing. Some of the best writing Pete has ever done (booklet included) and even though it is so specific to a certain time, place and country, it's themes of growing up confused by the world is universal. In making things so specific Townshend illuminated something critical in all of us. 

While the writing is great, the music is even better. John Entwistle and Keith Moon truly shine on this album as the rhythm section are vitally important. Tommy was more of a guitar rock record, but Quadrophenia finds everyone playing like the maniacs they are, together, and at glorious angles at times, really a soothing and clashing of styles for a greater whole.

What a record, just writing about it makes me want to put it should do the same.

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