The Who’s 20 Greatest Songs of All Time

As The Who continues to honor the 50th anniversary of their brilliant LP Who's Next, the Paste team runs down the group's 20 greatest songs.

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The Who’s 20 Greatest Songs of All Time

When I told a few fellow fans of The Who what song the music team at Paste had chosen to top this list, their response was usually a moment of quiet contemplation before saying something along the lines of, “Yeah, that works, but what about…” And so would begin many long debates about which one of the hundreds of songs recorded by Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend, John Entwistle and Keith Moon might rise to the #1 spot. As I said in our recent list on the best Kinks songs, there are far too many contenders to consider. Even looking at this rundown, it feels more like a 20-way tie for first place than a simple ranking of what the five writers here managed to agree should make the cut.

What you’re going to find below only scratches the surface but manages to include a taste of the group’s explosive early maximum R&B sound, their friendly embrace of psychedelia, Townshend’s growing ambition that codified what a concept album could be, the gentle injection of electronic instruments into their massive sound and their continuing interest in straight up pop. From their first singles in 1964 through to the beginning of their efforts following the death of Moon in 1978, there was nothing this band couldn’t do. Their collective work since then may have gotten spottier and less exciting, but Townshend continues to take big swings as a songwriter — something few artists that came up at the same time would dare to.

The Who are still adding new chapters to their history. They just wrapped up a series of concert dates in Europe to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Who’s Next ahead of a reissued version of the album that aims to tell the complete story of how Townshend intended and failed to make another grand conceptual statement. That they came out of the experience with one of their tightest collections of songs only speaks to the hot streak the group was on. The four men emerged bloodied but unbowed and as brilliant as ever.

As with all of our lists, this is sure to raise some eyebrows and hackles among the legions of Who fans. I can already hear you sharpening your knives as you realize that none of the songs Entwistle wrote for the group are among the 20. My hope is that you do as my friends did, and give yourself a moment’s pause to appreciate that six decades after the group got together, we are still talking them and praising them to the heavens. Not many bands get that lucky. —Robert Ham, Associate Music Editor

20. “I Can’t Explain” (1964)

This would be the last time The Who would record something quite so straightforward and frills free. It’s as if producer Shel Talmy insisted that the quartet restrain themselves from their feats of instrumental wonderment and Townshend from his lyrical filigrees. But to hear Townshend himself tell it, the real roots of the song come from a moment of having taken too many amphetamines and not being able to tell your gal that you’re going out of your mind. What better reflection of that than to play music as if everything is normal and you don’t feel like you’re crawling out of your skin. Townshend dismisses it somewhat as a facsimile of the Kinks, a vibe it certainly gives off, but with a little more sex and speed stirred into the mix. —Robert Ham

19. “The Real Me” (Quadrophenia, 1973)

Nothing is more underrated than a bass-centric song, and “The Real Me” is just that. Flowing right in from the stormy opening track “I Am The Sea,” the second track from The Who’s rock opera Quadrophenia is about the protagonist Jimmy’s struggle between his four personalities. The song follows his journey to get insight from different people like a doctor, his mother and a preacher to discern who the “real” Jimmy is. The moan of the bass mimics the frustrations of Jimmy as he finds no answer to the question of his identity. According to Entwistle, he was joking around when he recorded the bass part in the first take, but the band loved it and used it as the finale version. I’m not sure if he was being coy or not, but if so, he stumbled into one of the most incredible bass performances of all time on accident, which is as crazy as it sounds. —Olivia Abercrombie

18. “Slip Kid” (The Who by Numbers, 1975)

Initially written for Lifehouse but shelved for a few years, “Slip Kid” was given a second chance on The Who by Numbers in 1975—and thank goodness for that. It’s a song drenched in a hundred contexts, perhaps most definitively as a warning of the dangers of the music industry. Townshend himself even classified the song as “parental in its assured wisdom.” “No easy way to be free,” Daltrey sings over and over in the closing verse. “Slip Kid” has one of Townshend’s greatest guitar riffs paired with a shuffle rhythm and, later, a salsa beat. Perhaps most importantly, there’s an incredible one-note guitar solo from Townshend on this track—an uncharacteristic approach from the bombastic, windmilling axeman. The Who can make anything sound good, especially the recurring theme of just not loving the idea of having a responsibility to tend to. “Slip Kid” is an understated mark of rebellion ensconced in one of the catchiest instrumentations the band ever conjured up. —Matt Mitchell

17. “The Seeker” (1970)

In many ways, “The Seeker” exists as a response to Tommy. The band’s first single following that album’s release, the track offers a snapshot of a group reckoning with both their past and their future, tossing the present aside and searching for where they can go. When Daltrey sings, we hear the urgency with which he searches for answers, answers that neither Bob Dylan nor the Beatles nor Timothy Leary can supply. Of the song, Townshend says, “Quite loosely, ‘The Seeker’ was just a thing about what I call Divine Desperation, or just Desperation. And what it does to people.” “The Seeker”’s protagonist is a self-proclaimed desperate man, a selfish one at that. He is full of contradictions. Yet when the song culminates “I’m looking at me / You’re looking at you / We’re looking for each other,” all pretension falls to the wayside, and we are left with an arresting picture of The Who’s constant evolution, consistent efforts to redefine and reaffirm themselves in an era that was changing even faster than they were. Though released between the successes of 1969’s Tommy and 1971’s Who’s Next, “The Seeker” begs not to be forgotten and rather cements itself as one of the most important songs in The Who’s story. —Madelyn Dawson

16. “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere” (1965)

Rumor has it that when the master tapes for this single made its way across the pond, the American arm of the Who’s label rejected them due to the abundance of guitar feedback and other sonic clamor within this recording. Hilarious, if true. I like to imagine that after they heard the song, their hopes of having another “Can’t Explain” were dashed and they looked for any reason to dismiss it out of hand. Fools that they were, they missed out on what a rock treasure this is. The lyrics are just as impactful as the single that would follow, “My Generation,” as it captured a tone of defiance and fury at the status quo. It signaled the arrival of scores of young people looking to cut their own way through the thicket of nonsense that came with so-called adulthood. These alright kids wanted to go anywhere they wanted and no locked doors were about to get in their way. Turn up the volume, and shout and shimmy your way to a better life. —RH

15. “Squeeze Box” (The Who by Numbers, 1975)

There’s that scene in Freaks & Geeks where Mr. and Mrs. Weir are listening to “Squeeze Box” and trying to decipher whether it’s a sexual innuendo or a song about an accordion. Mr. Weir is convinced that it’s vile and suggestive, while Mrs. Weir can’t help but make motions with her arms like she’s playing an accordion. It’s such a hilarious scene in an episode filled exclusively with Who songs (the central plot of that episode is a Who concert, of course). But “Squeeze Box” is great because it’s such a diversion from what the Who do best. It’s not loud or stadium-sized, it’s subdued and bluegrass-inspired. Townshend himself plays the banjo on it, which I think is particularly perfect. A demo of the song sounded a lot like The Beatles’ “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” but the final version we know and love sounds only like something The Who could drum up. Their best records—Tommy, Who’s Next and Quadrophenia—were behind them, yet “Squeeze Box” remains a polka-style rock classic, a simple, catchy double entendre for the masses. The song peaked at #16 in the US, because Americans love accordions! —MM

14. “Behind Blue Eyes” (Who’s Next, 1971)

From the scraps of a follow-up rock opera to Tommy, the anthemic “Behind Blue Eyes” triumphed. The soft plucks of an acoustic guitar accompany the darkly introspective lyrics, “But my dreams they aren’t as empty / As my conscience seems to be.” The concept of the song follows a villain named Jumbo, who is lamenting about the power of temptation and debauchery but still believes he is a good guy. To no one’s surprise, this concept came from a real story of Townshend’s own issues with seeing himself as the bad guy. One night, he was tempted by a groupie but declined the advance as it went against the teachings of his spiritual leader, Meher Baba — something he probably dedicated a little too much of himself to. The line “When my fist clenches, crack it open” comes from a prayer he wrote to deal with the situation. A bit melodramatic, but it makes for a damn good lyric. —OA

13. “Substitute” (1966)

Though not released on any of the band’s major studio albums, this 1966 single became a mainstay of their live sets, and somewhat of a hit nonetheless, reaching number five on UK charts, and later being included on Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy, their 1971 compilation album. The premise of “Substitute” is simple: Daltrey sings his lamentations of not being the guy his girl wants—he’s just a “substitute for another guy.” Inspired in part by the energetic garage buoyancy of the Rolling Stones’ “19th Nervous Breakdown,” and in part by the way Smokey Robinson enunciated the word substitute on his 1965 hit “The Tracks Of My Tears,” Townshend leaned into the generative process of employing harsh contrasts, and wrote this bluesy number. The song features a driving bassline from John Entwistle and even features his bass work on a solo that bridges the track’s straightforward dynamics and thoughtful compositions. Even more explosive live, the track was featured on near all of The Who’s early sets, and the version released on their Live At Leeds, is absolutely electrifying, giving each of the members more than enough space to do what they do best. “Substitute” remains an early example of just how closely the band could work together, and just how tight of a track they could manage.—MD

12. “Won’t Get Fooled Again” (Who’s Next, 1971)

The Who were a band that couldn’t be constrained by radio. Sure, they’ll offer up the 3:36 single edit of “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” but they need eight-and-a-half minutes to let this cynical anthem stretch—for Keith Moon to cut loose and Townsend to bring Who’s Next‘s loose story to close. It’s the bookend to “Baba O’Riley,” with the same Lowery organ riff, but without the hopefulness of that opening track. The ’60s were over and not much had gotten better. And with the Boomers now in charge, the song feels prophetic in the way it shows disdain both for those in power and for those seeking power. —Josh Jackson

11. “I’m Free” (Tommy, 1969)

Townshend opens the track with a punchy riff to signal this newfound confidence and power Tommy has acquired. The song follows some gospel music conventions with vibrant keys and the swelling glory of the chorus repeating the joyful cry of freedom. Daltrey’s vocal is as light and airy as Tommy’s revelation once he regained his sight, voice, and hearing. Tommy wants people to follow him to this revelation and believes he has gained an unearthly sense of clarity. The people’s interest is sung through the last two lines of a discordant but heavenly chorus: “How can we follow?” Although Tommy’s religious endeavors didn’t work out for him, The Who surely had a hit. —OA

10. “I Can See For Miles” (The Who Sell Out, 1967)

On the surface, the song comes across as a bit of nasty rhetoric spewed out to a romantic partner. They think they’ve gotten away with messing around behind Pete Townshend’s back, but he sees all. But when found within the context of the Who’s wild pirate radio tribute album The Who Sell Out, this takes on a much more epic scale. The circular musical attack of the chorus comes across like someone falling down a psychedelic tunnel of their own devising, only to emerge with their third eye wide open and ready to see beyond their drab everyday surroundings. The Taj Mahal and the Eiffel Tower are in view and they look spectacular. John Lennon can do all the relaxing and floating downstream he wants to. The Who are fucking soaring. —RH

9. “The Kids Are Alright” (My Generation, 1965)

Perhaps (and maybe rightfully) overshadowed by a song called “My Generation,” “The Kids Are Alright” often slips through the cracks in conversations around the greatest Who songs of all time—but it shouldn’t. The track wasn’t a big hit (it peaked at #41 in the UK and #85 in the US), but it showcased how, beyond their label as the “loudest band in the world,” the foursome had such a distinctive penchant for pop melodies. The song is so synonymous with The Who’s legacy that it even shows up again at the very beginning of Quadrophenia nearly 10 years later. After bassist John Entwistle passed away in 2002, Roger Daltrey started making affectionate nods to him in his live performances of the track. Nearly 60 years later, “The Kids Are Alright” remains, just maybe, the undisputed godfather track of power pop. —MM

8. “Eminence Front” (It’s Hard, 1982)

By anyone’s reckoning, the creative well had started to run dry for Pete Townshend well before the death of his playmate Keith Moon. The final two albums to feature the drummer were checkered affairs with incredible peaks and some ghastly valleys. The ratio only got worse as Townshend chose to reserve his best material for his solo recordings. When he struck lightning within The Who, however, it hit hard. On It’s Hard, the final album by the group before a long studio hiatus, the flash was brightest on “Eminence Front.” Sung mainly by Townshend about the airs that the wealthy put on and the white powder that they put up their noses, the tune is cutting and unsparing even of the songwriter’s own part that he plays in this charade. The message becomes somewhat sneaky as Townshend applies it to a devilish bit of slink-funk, with the tone supplied mainly by an stinging arpeggiated synth pattern and the chud-disco ramming of Entwistle and drummer Kenney Jones. It may be a put on but it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it. —RH

7. “We’re Not Gonna Take It” (Tommy, 1969)

Townshend has admitted that he didn’t write the tune with the Tommy storyline in mind. He was more interested in making a reactionary epic—embracing the resistance towards fascism and brittle politics. But, the song works in the scope of Tommy’s overarching concept, as Tommy’s people reject his new religion that prioritizes pinball and bans drinking and drugs. Entwistle makes an appearance vocally here, singing lead in the chorus while Daltrey takes the helm in the verses. “Listening to you, I get the music. Gazing at you, I get the heat. Following you, I climb the mountain. I get excitement at your feet. Right behind you, I see the millions. On you, I see the glory. From you, I get opinions. From you, I get the story,” The Who harmonize in unison at the track’s end, and you could plug those words into any circumstance—even in 2023—where disciples follow their crooked messiahs. I listen to “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and I, sometimes, can’t fathom that it was made almost 55 years ago. Its context and inspiration continue to ring familiar. The Who were always ahead of their time, we’ve long known this truth. —MM

6. “Who Are You” (Who Are You, 1978)

Though it was penned by Townshend, chronicling an encounter he had with Paul Cook and Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols in a bar one night, Roger Daltrey’s vocals breathed an entirely new life into the song. According to Townshend, once Daltrey got on the track, it transformed into a “Prayer from a destitute man. The man is on the street, looking up to the sky and asking God, ‘Who are you?’” I can’t help but agree with Townshend’s appraisal. Daltrey’s gravelly lead vocal, cathartic and urgent, contends with the singsong-y harmonies that make up the song’s chorus, the repeating “Who are you”s that create the backbone for the track’s power. Though backed by the bounce of a constant synth beat, the song is damn angry. The aggression builds and culminates in Daltrey’s growling “Ah, who the fuck are you / I really wanna know.” His begging isn’t an act of desperation, but rather an antagonism, and with its enthralling dynamics, he six-and-a-half minute track builds to a point of burning confrontation. —MD

5. “The Song Is Over” (Who’s Next, 1971)

Initially, “The Song Is Over” was meant to be the final track on Lifehouse, the sci-fi rock opera that Pete Townshend abandoned. Instead, it serves as side one’s closer—but its theatrical roots remain ever present. Beginning with a stadium-sized piano ballad melody that transforms into a massive, remarkable instrumental. Townshend sings the verses and the bridge, while Daltrey roars through the chorus—before they both team up for the song’s coda. There’s no doubt here that “The Song Is Over” is operatic. It’s one of the most unmistakable concertos in the band’s entire repertoire, as Townshend’s guitar solo and the orchestral percussion and keys swallow the track up whole. “I’ll sing my song to the wide open spaces, I’ll sing my heart out to the infinite sea,” Daltrey calls out. It’s a manifesto, a claim to a lifetime of throwing your art towards the heavens. —MM

4. “My Generation” (My Generation, 1965)

“My Generation” has always been a counterculture anthem. When Pete Townshend wrote the track, he was inspired by the children of World War II veterans. There was a massive divide between the generations, and even with all the political unrest in the ‘60s, they were told to enjoy the peace of a post-war UK. The Who told the world exactly who they were by making this proto-punk song the title track of their debut album. There are so many interesting pieces of the song, like Roger Daltrey’s stutter, whose origins are said to come from a nervous first recording of the song, according to Daltrey. However, there have been other stories about the origins of the stutter, like an influence of John Lee Hooker’s “Stuttering Blues” or even an imitation of a British mod on speed. Regardless of its origin, the frustrated scream is a hallmark of the influential song. The song also delivered one of the most quotable lines for angsty youth around the world to relate to: “I hope I die before I get old.” Even at the beginning of their career, The Who were already putting their stamp on the rock scene. —OA

3. “Pinball Wizard” (Tommy, 1969)

As the first single from their 1969 rock opera Tommy, “Pinball Wizard” signaled a turning point, not just for the band, but for the bottom-line trajectory of rock music as a whole. You’d be hard pressed to find another group in the ’60s with the same level of dedication to building the life of character in addition to the sonic landscape of an album, let alone one with the technical prowess needed to pull it off. Even yet, The Who delivered all that and more with Tommy, on which “Pinball Wizard” remains the most enduring and iconic track.

“Pinball Wizard” is recognizable instantly, even before Pete Townshend comes in and electrifies it, delivering one of the most immediate guitar riffs in rock and roll history: one that vibrates through the entire song, into many a bar-band-live-set-singalong, and to generations of visionary rockers. The song wasn’t initially part of how the band envisioned Tommy, rather, after a NME critic expressed trepidation about the whole Rock Opera enterprise, Townshend added it in, hoping to bring a bit of eccentric levity to the release. While it is impossible to imagine a Tommy for whom pinball was not situated at the core of his existence, so the legend goes that it was almost never conceived. The “rockaboogie,” as the track was named by Townshend, delivers a frenetic storytelling like none other, and proved The Who to be capable of unimaginable feats; if creating an anthem out of a deaf dumb and blind pinball champion was within their breadth, what could The Who not be capable of doing? —MD

2. “Baba O’Riley” (Who’s Next, 1971)

The frenetic, futuristic Lowery organ at the beginning of “Baba O’Riley” is somehow both anxious and optimistic, allowing the song to build in both tension and joy for a full half minute before piano, drums and finally Roger Daltrey’s vocals kick in. Pete Townsend may have been inspired to write the song after looking at the aftermath of music festivals at the Isle of Wight and Woodstock, but the music—originally meant to kick off a rock opera about a Scottish farmer—is much too full of joy for the get-off-my-lawn perspective to make the song anything but a celebration. I mean, try to listen to Dave Arbus’s violin without the urge to dance a jig. —JJ

1. “Love, Reign O’er Me” (Quadrophenia, 1973)

The most operatic track from classic rock’s quintessential rock opera, “Love, Reign O’er Me” shows what separates The Who from all of their contemporaries. God bless Pete Townsend’s creative ambitions and that they found a worthy emotional voice in Roger Daltry and willing and talented collaborators in John Entwistle and Keith Moon. The elliptical conclusion to Jimmy’s story in Quadrophenia is perfect—an emotional reflection on an island in the rain, with its “tears from on high,” hopeful in its invitation of love back into his life after all the trauma and depression. That the song didn’t crack the top 50 on the Billboard Hot 100 just speaks to the tragedy of trying to cut this masterpiece down to a three-minute radio edit. —JJ

Listen to a playlist of these 20 songs below.

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