Things get somewhat more frustrating when you realize that an objective list of their best songs starts to look like a list of TV theme songs, with their discography having been adopted by the CSI Franchise. And that's all well and good, but those songs, particularly "Won't Get Fooled Again," are so deeply ingrained in the public consciousness in that context that it becomes difficult to talk about them outside of it. Not impossible, mind you, but those three songs would be an easy shortcut to constructing this list, because nobody would argue. So right at the outset, I am ruling out "Who Are You," "Won't Get Fooled Again" and "Baba O'Riley" from this list... which is a shame, because as I said they are three of the band's best tunes, and the last one is my absolute favourite song of theirs. But crazy, arbitrary limitations are what The 5 is about, so let's look at what's left:
1: "My Generation"
Let's start with something simple. Basically the entire concept of punk can be traced back to this seminal single, which signalled the Who's rougher, more belligerent take on British Invasion-era rock. A lot of attention gets paid to Daltrey's stuttering delivery of Townshend's perfectly rebellious lyrics, but my ear always goes right to John Entwistle's bass and Keith Moon's drums, which are the more prominent part of the sound through most of the song, upending the traditional rock group dynamic we're used to. This is a song that puts its money where its mouth is.
2: "The Kids Are Alright"
This is almost the inverse of "My Generation." Where that was a song of brashness and self-assurance, this is one of modesty and self-erasure. It's a song about letting other guys dance with your girl. It's not as raucous or incendiary as "My Generation" by a longshot, it's all jangly and restrained. It's The Who as hep, too cool for school mod pop act. Yet it takes balls to be that modest, to send your girl off with other guys (because the kids are "alright.") The individual powers of the band don't really assert themselves as much in "Generation," but they're all here, from Moon's drums to Entwistle's fleet-fingered bass, and a tight, pummeling guitar break from Townshend, to a surprising amount of harmonies accompanying Daltrey's resigned everyman vocal.
3: "A Quick One While He's Away"
Either you get it or you don't and either way is fine by me. The Who's first stab and longform songwriting/storytelling in song is this cute little ditty about a housewife being seduced by a train driver while waiting for her husband to return from a yearlong absence. And while it's not essential enough to The Who's discography to make it onto any of their Greatest Hits compilations, it captures them basically at the moment between being the band that recorded "My Generation" and the one that recorded Tommy. It takes balls to attempt a gag like this, and for me it's an indication they could pull it off even bigger. "You are forgiven / You are forgiven / You are forgiven..."
4: "Behind Blue Eyes"
As the villain song for the abandoned Lifehouse project, "Behind Blue Eyes" carries a lot of weight to it. It grounds and humanizes the point-of-view character of the piece, now just a random moment on the Who's Next album. It's confessional and sincere, and yet its character remains frustrated and angry, succumbing to his baser nature. The build of the song, that moment when it kicks into higher gear, is spot-on, and all of the bandmembers are working at full tilt here (as if they ever weren't, but still.) A classic rock gem in the truest sense.
5: "Love Reign O'er Me"
The Who are a band that wore their spirituality (well, Townshend's spirituality) openly, while managing to weave it into their rock aesthetic. Ultimately it was about freedom and release through music. I could have put in "Join Together" or "This Song is Over," or perhaps even "Bargain," which is superficially about winning over a girl and yet very clearly about spiritual gain. But the hitch with "Love Reign O'er Me" is the simplicity. At this moment in the Quadrophenia project, Townshend's tendancy toward gangly, specific lyrics give way to a general sentiment that captures and enraptures, and Daltry knocks it out of the fucking park. This is my favourite part of any rock opera they did, because it was both among the rockiest and most operatic.