You’ll have a hard time finding many better albums than this one. When I first started checking out CDs from the libraries near my parents’ house in Annapolis, Maryland at the age of sixteen, Who’s Next was in the first batch. I had heard Limp Bizkit’s pointless/awful cover of “Behind Blue Eyes” on alternative rock radio the previous fall, and I was keen on hearing the original. What I didn’t anticipate, however, was hearing songs I was already familiar with in “Baba O’Riley” and “Bargain,” the former from listening to classic rock radio, the latter from watching too many cheesy car commercials. I don’t recall being familiar with “Won’t Get Fooled Again” at the time; I certainly wasn’t aware of its status as one of the greatest songs ever.
I wish I could go back to that initial period of discovery when I was fifteen or sixteen. It was actually a bit of a perfect storm, as several things occurred at once that led to my multiple trips to the library. First of all, iTunes and the iPod had recently launched, and even then music had started to become more virtual. Suddenly it clicked that I could check out CDs from the library and rip them onto my computer, avoiding the cumbersome — and, at least at the time, guilt-laced — burning process altogether. Furthermore, Rolling Stone had just published their list of the 500 greatest albums ever the preceding fall, so I just printed out a copy of it and took it with me to the library, checking off ones I already had. (Some call that stealing. I say it it’s not. If we’re allowed to rip CDs we buy, why can’t we rip CDs our tax dollars buy?)
I had also just reached the age where I could finally drive, so I could basically go to the library whenever I wanted. I got some biggies early on: Led Zeppelin, Born in the U.S.A., Rumours, Sgt. Pepper, Back in Black, The Joshua Tree and some others that are still to come on this list. The only album that I’m absolutely positive I got on my first ever haul is Who’s Next, which is not only the finest album by one of rock & roll‘s greatest bands, but is probably the best album from 1971, rock & roll’s greatest year. In a year that saw the release of Led Zeppelin IV, Tapestry, Imagine, There’s a Riot Goin’ On, L.A. Woman, Maggot Brain, Sticky Fingers, What’s Going On, Hunky Dory, Pearl, and still others I haven’t mentioned, Who’s Next gets my vote for the best of the lot.
Seriously, is there a single weak moment, let alone a less-than-stellar song, on Who’s Next? There are more great songs here than most bands can hope to have in an entire career. I just wish The Who had made more straightforward rock & roll albums like Who’s Next instead of concept albums that, while innovative, lacked the pure joy of this record. 1969‘s Tommy is my favorite of their two bloated double album rock operas, as I have never gotten into 1973‘s Quadrophenia that much aside from some great cuts like the title track, “The Real Me,” “5:15” and “Love Reign O’er Me.” Their first foray into the concept album, however, was The Who Sell Out in 1967, which featured fake commercials and PSAs. I’ve never really been into it, but it’s got one of the their best songs, “I Can See for Miles,” on it.
The Who were one of the most right-brained and forward-thinking bands of their era, for sure, and given their fascination with expanding the idea of what an album can be, it’s no surprise that Who’s Next began as another rock opera called Lifehouse. It was eventually scrapped, obviously, after Pete Townshend suffered a nervous breakdown. It’s hard to imagine Lifehouse could have possibly turned out better than Who’s Next, considering Who’s Next is as close to perfect as albums get. As a result, Who’s Next stands alone as their only pure rock & roll album during their peak years, and it’s probably the only time the execution ever fully matched their ambitions. It’s one of the most stunning albums ever, a timeless classic that never gets old.