Rock music fans can certainly be forgiven for overlooking the final two albums of The Who in favor of the band's earlier, more commercially and critically favored output. Nevertheless, it would be a huge mistake for classic rock aficionados to ignore the fine content of 1981's Face Dances and 1982's It's Hard. One of rock's most famous and revered bands of all time, The Who generated more than enough worthy tracks to inspire an impressive short list of its best '80s tracks.
This 1981 track, a signature tune from Face Dances that became a Top 20 pop hit in the U.S. as well as a Top 10 hit in the U.K., is a masterpiece on the level of some of The Who's finest singles. Lyrically, Pete Townshend creates here a jagged tapestry of tortured lines regarding attitudes about self and romantic confusions. "I'm not into your passport picture, I just like your nose" and "I showed up late one night with a neon light for a visa" stand on their own particularly as quirky favorites. However, the slow and complex melodic build of the song remains as exhilarating as ever upon repeat listens. A great thinking man's rocker that is among the best singles of the '80s.
Without the contributions of recently departed manic drummer Keith Moon, The Who certainly became a somewhat different band for its '80s phase. This couldn't be helped, of course, but the resulting higher focus on Townshend's already established melodic sense was not entirely a bad thing, either. This tune made only the faintest dent as a chart single, but as a strong album track it delivers quite beautifully. Daltrey expertly exerts his lead vocalist skills here, relying more on nuances than his typical power and swagger. If only contemplative '80s guitar rock had generally sounded more like this.
Bass player John Entwistle had contributed more than a few classics to The Who's repertoire over the years as a songwriter (including "My Wife" from Who's Next), but the ragged energy of his lead vocals may never have been celebrated enough by the band's enthusiasts. This track particularly benefits from his gritty delivery, and ultimately the song snarls more convincingly than much of the rising hard rock and heavy metal of the early '80s. Like George Harrison in The Beatles, Entwistle at times suffered from being in a band filled with talent and personality. As a result, his contributions may have always been doomed to some level of obscurity. But this one's a genuine keeper.
Some of The Who's finest songs from the band's prime years made deft use of dual lead vocals by Daltrey and Townshend. "Baba O'Riley" and the "See Me, Feel Me" portion of "We're Not Gonna Take It" particularly come to mind, as the absence of Townshend's memorable lead vocal contributions in either of those recordings would be tragic. "Athena" may not be the equal of either of those legendary tracks, but it's an entertaining, melodic romp through The Who's post-new wave sound. It's also tough and uncompromising when it needs to be, particularly during Daltrey's attitude-drenched delivery of the verses. Just gets better with every listen.
It's hard to argue that after the death of Moon, the music of The Who became increasingly less distinguishable from Townshend's solo work. With a talent as prodigious as its leader and main songwriter, that's not entirely a derogatory comment. Nevertheless, this track doesn't sound anything like The Who of old, as even its bombast seems like a career apart from Townshend's epic songwriting on Who's Next. Cryptic title aside, this tune manages to generate a distinct pop music impact, and it's a fittingly memorable '80s swan song for one of rock's finest bands.