The Who is an English rock band that’s been making and releasing music since 1964. To date, they have released twelve studio albums. In this article, I will be ranking all twelve of The Who album covers from best to worst on a variety of characteristics, including imagery, relationship of said imagery to the music on the album, and overall my general opinion of the artwork.
1) A Quick One/Happy Jack (1966/1967)
Coming in first on my list is the cover for their 1966 album, A Quick One (released as Happy Jack in the United States). The art style is colorful, cohesive, and abstract yet structured. The black background makes the band member’s silhouettes and guitars jump off of the cover.
It’s quick to catch attention on a shelf, and sets expectations as a nice introduction for tracks like “Boris the Spider” and “Cobwebs and Strange,” with whimsical lyrics mirroring the album art. I find this album cover particularly pleasing to the eye and am especially a fan of the art style.
2) The Who Sell Out (1967)
This album cover is cheeky, funny, and displays much of the mindset of The Who’s members.
The absurdity of Robert Daltrey sitting in a bathtub of baked beans relates to wonderfully weird tracks like “Mary Anne with the Shaky Hands,” and Pete Townshend using an absurdly large stick of deodorant that supposedly smells like “the sweet smell of success” is a testament to The Who’s blossoming success as a band by the release of this, their third album.
I find this cover to be particularly memorable and almost wish their subsequent covers followed a similar track.
3) The Who By Numbers (1975)
This album follows closely behind A Quick One on this list (though narrowly edged out by my number two choice of The Who Sell Out) for many of the same reasons that that cover came in first.
The art style of this album cover, with the scratchy, drawing-like design and the simplistic-yet-defined imagery, make it appealing to the eye by not overwhelming the audience with too much to look at but still being comical and entertaining.
The faces of the drawn band members express the tiredness and sadness that resonates in many of the songs found in this album, including “However Much I Booze” and “Dreaming From the Waist.” This is the main reason I have it so high in my ranking; the cover is a perfect representation of what to expect when listening to the melodic, heart wrenching lyrics found within.
4) Face Dances (1981)
This album cover looks like a Snapchat filter gone wrong—and that’s why I like it. It’s beautifully colorful, uniquely The Who, and artistically imperfect. It’s Picasso, yet realistic, yet entirely abstract.
It’s a notable and admirable choice that the various differing portraits on this cover are a culmination of sixteen different artists’ interpretations of portraits of the band members. The artwork is upbeat for tracks like “You Better You Bet,” edgy like “The Quiet One,” and classic like “Did You Steal My Money.” You never get bored looking at this album cover, as your eye always finds something new to look at and some detail you haven’t noticed before. I personally feel like I stared at it for hours.
5) Endless Wire (2006)
The Who has a track record of album covers that look like a rainbow threw up on them and Endless Wire is no exception. With vibrant yellows, and oranges, and pinks, all set on a blue background that makes it look like exploding shards from some kind of stained glass window—it’s highly accurate imagery for a track like “Fragments.”
It’s fantastical without being overwhelming, quirky like “A Man in a Purple Dress,” and the imagery of the doves are stoic like “Black Widow’s Eyes.” It’s a cover that captures imagination and draws the audience in—and the tracks on this album never let them go.
6) Who (2019)
Marking the halfway point on my list is the cover for the band’s most recent album, Who. This album cover looks like a quilt an English grandmother would make.
It’s wonderfully British, and, much like Face Dances, is another example of art that you would never get tired of looking at.
Though “Beads on One String” is not the headlining song on this album, I feel the cover art goes hand-in-hand with this song better than any other track. The collage of imagery reminds me of an “trip” my friend once told me he had, and I think that’s a good analogy for the type of psychedelic rock era this band originated from.
7) Who Are You (1978)
It’s clear I tend to sway toward colorful, abstract, and artistic album covers, but Who Are You marks the beginning of the rest of this list where all of the covers tend to be more realistic.
I enjoy this album cover because it still has a wide range of features to it, with the seemingly hundreds of wires, the “appropriate for the era but in our modern age hilarious” outfits the band is wearing, and the overall rock, grungy vibe of the imagery.
This cover art was going to have to make an impact with the infamous “Who Are You” being its cover title. But its wonderfully electric vibes mirror the track “Guitar and Pen” and, again, has an admittedly grungy feel like “Trick of the Light.”
I think it’s a classic cover, and though a little busy, is easy enough for the eye to follow and it fits the overall vibe of the album well.
8) It’s Hard (1982)
Following along with the art from Who Are You, I find the cover of It’s Hard to be wonderfully grungy. It’s very dark, with black being the prominent color in the design, but is nicely broken up by the white shirts the band is wearing and the yellow-green lights at the top.
It doesn’t do much in terms of having a lot to look at, but I feel it is still a good representation of the band’s character at the time, and especially, goes well with the headliner track “It’s Hard.”
Admittedly, the dark vibe flows well with most songs on the album, save for “Athena,” which has a lighter hearted feel. But on the whole, I like the imagery—I feel it could just use a little something more.
9) Who’s Next (1971)
This album cover is a good example of less is more—but admittedly, this one is a little boring.
Similarly to how It’s Hard was very black, Who’s Next is monotonously white. White pillar, light colored sky, light colored ground. The only things that breaks up this blinding landscape are, again, the band’s clothes.
I don’t think this unfortunately plain art does the hit song “Baba O’Riley” justice, but admittedly, is almost perfect for “Love Ain’t for Keepin’” and “Behind Blue Eyes.” This is the main reason this album art falls onto number nine on this list.
10) My Generation/The Who Sings My Generation (1965/1966)
There are two different album covers I can reference for this entry.
My Generation depicts the band members standing next to some barrels looking into the camera that is angled above them. The Who Sings My Generation, on the other hand, shows the band standing in front of Big Ben, looking down at the camera.
Regardless of either individual cover, I have ranked them so low on this list because there’s just nothing original about them. Cover art like these can be seen on what feels like hundreds of other albums. Though I don’t inherently entirely dislike either cover (I do like My Generation slightly more), I just don’t think there’s much to them.
I also don’t find any of The Who’s songs to be particularly boring, so I don’t really think either of these covers lives up to the songs found on the albums.
#11: Quadrophenia (1973)
The only thing I like about this album cover is the motorcycle. Though, admittedly, that is the largest part of the cover, I just don’t find this cover to be anything noteworthy. It’s gray and honestly a little lifeless.
The cover’s saving grace is the band members’ faces in the multiple side view mirrors of the motorcycle. The title track, “Quadrophenia,” with its energizing guitar riffs and thrumming drums, far outdoes the expectations set on it by the album cover.
It is a song that cannot be personified by a mass of gray-ness. It’s a little disappointing, as the album itself is arguably one of The Who’s best, but the cover just doesn’t bring anything to the table.
#12: Tommy (1969)
Putting this album at the bottom of my list is likely a controversial choice. Again, keep in mind this ranking has nothing to do with the music on the album and everything to do with the art on the cover (please don’t bust out the pitchforks).
I just find that the overwhelmingly blue imagery is, well, very plain. Though the band members can be seen in the small black holes that break up the blueness, their faces are so small that it’s hard to decipher.
Nothing about this cover screams the fact that well-known tracks like “Pinball Wizard” and “We’re Not Gonna Take It” are housed within this album’s tracklist. It certainly doesn’t do the character Tommy, a blind, deaf little boy, justice.
Though the clouds and the birds are a nice touch, they’re just not enough to raise this album cover any higher on my list. Sorry Tommy.
I understand that much of what I have claimed in this ranking of The Who album covers is controversial. Many will not agree with me, but that’s the beauty of opinions. Everybody thinks something different, and variety is the spice of life.
There’s really no album cover by The Who that I hate, but I do feel as though the whimsical, color-bomb album covers portray a much more alluring and entertaining feel than their more “realistic” covers. Regardless, the band’s music will continue to be as memorable and stand the test of time, no matter what imagery is thrown on the front cover.
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This article was written by Angela and edited by Michael.