Next month, Jack White’s Third Man Records will release a new greatest hits album by The White Stripes. For White, it’s another classic anachronistic move: In the age of streaming platforms, greatest hits compilations have become all but extinct. But it’s also warranted and even necessary revisionism for one of the great (and misunderstood) bands of their era.
Almost a decade after they broke up, The White Stripes are even more out-of-step with the pop mainstream in 2020 then they were during the era of nu-metal and teen pop. Jack White has since moved on to a successful solo career, though his tendency to come off as a reactionary crank in interviews has taken some of the shine off of his former band’s legacy. In their time, The White Stripes were as unlikely a world-conquering band as Nirvana was in the early ’90s. Their formula of commingling a plainly constructed mythos — a brother-sister band dressed like peppermint candies — with utterly simple and gut-level blues-based rock proved to be remarkably resilient, both commercially and artistically, over the course of six albums. Ultimately, it was hard to tell sometimes where the mythos ended. (When White calls himself “the seventh son” in “Ball And Biscuit,” he’s referencing a classic blues trope and the fact that he is literally the seventh born son in his family.)
Hopefully the new greatest hits record will be an excuse to go back and listen to The White Stripes’ music, which I’m happy to report holds up very well. How exactly did this band make blues rock great again? I tried to figure that out by revisiting my 30 favorite White Stripes songs.
30. “Let’s Shake Hands” (1998)
Their debut single, and a summation of their sound and aesthetic. In Detroit back in the late ’90s, The White Stripes were not immediately popular; a local scenester once described them as “the kid band that nobody liked.” That was partly due to White’s voice, which was even more shrill and Robert Plant-esque (and therefore un-punk) in the early days. But there was also the novel combination of extreme, even cartoonish childishness and brute old-world aggression derived from the unrestrained machismo of the blues. (White later said that the former was a way to initially distract audiences from the latter.) You can hear all of that in “Let’s Shake Hands” — the text is chaste, but the subtext is highly charged.
29. “I Fought Piranhas” (1999)
Like Jack and Meg White, I am a native of the upper Midwest, and I remember what it was like here in local indie-rock clubs at the turn of the century. You couldn’t toss a PBR bottle cap without hitting a band with a name like The Filthstooges or The Redsideburns or Johnny & The Harley Cats In Heat. Garage rock was a reaction against technology and the internet rapidly remaking culture, so it was an inherent bug of the genre that 99.9% of the bands from that time have been memory-holed or otherwise stranded in their time. As the extremely rare exception, The White Stripes had the benefit of undeniable vision and sturdy tunes, though they also knew how to play the game. “I Fought Piranhas” is the sort of surly, bluesy vamp that leather-jacketed Detroiters, Milwaukeeans, and Chicagoans could get behind, no matter the lack of piranhas in Lake Michigan.
28. “Black Math” (2003)
The 2008 documentary It Might Get Loud opens with the most Jack White scene imaginable — we see him dressed like Johnny Depp in Mortdecai, carefully assembling a Coke bottle guitar while surrounded by cows on the Tennessee plains. The image projected here aligns with White’s persona as the ultimate purist, but this is actually a character called “Jack White” that a boy named Jack Gillis invented. Before he was Jack White, young Gillis loved Led Zeppelin, a band that never was all that reverential of their blues roots. (They were plunderers, not preservationists.) And that hasn’t really changed — Jack White might preach about the primal beauty of a homemade Coke bottle guitar, but musically he’s closer to one of Jimmy Page’s double-neck beauties. Listening to “Black Math,” The White Stripes are best understood as a Gen X Zep, a quintessential riff-rock machine operating on cheap equipment.
27. “Screwdriver” (1999)
Unlike another band from Michigan that likes to get the Led out, The White Stripes had the foresight to not emulate them visually, nor did they ape their million-dollar classic-rock production. White’s love of monstrous, stutter-start riffage instead was married to consciously scruffier sonics. The first song White ever wrote for The White Stripes, “Screwdriver” is like Led Zeppelin II if had been recorded at Cobo Hall by a Walkman with dying batteries.
26. “Icky Thump” (2007)
The best description I’ve seen of a Jack White guitar solo, courtesy of The New Yorker‘s Alec Wilkinson: “Often a series of collisions, a challenge to a song to defend itself. He likes fat, sludgy tones and clipped attacks, often repeating a note as if he were throttling it.” This violent, car-crash style also comes across when he plays other instruments, like a Univox synthesizer, which White maximizes for every squeak, squawk, and squiggle on “Icky Thump.”
25. “You’re Pretty Good Looking (For A Girl)” (2000)
Among the many fascinating contradictions of The White Stripes: They are both strongly Midwestern in their core musical elements and embrace of no-frills simplicity, and yet also indebted to British rock in terms of their interest in highly constructed “fake” visual facades as well as White’s songwriting. White is an American obsessed with this country’s native 20th-century music forms — blues, folk, country, jazz — but he’s coming at them as an outsider, separated by an ocean of time and technology in the same way that British rockers were put at a distance by a literal ocean. “You’re Pretty Good Looking (For A Girl)” is a poppy blues-rock song that has always reminded me of The Kinks — like Ray Davies, White was man out of time, pining for the traditions that his peers were rapidly setting aside, a romantic who fought off his own cynicism but cultivated an anachronistic naiveté about the modern world.
24. “Truth Doesn’t Make A Noise” (2000)
I’ve gone far too long without talking about Meg White, White Stripes drummer and essentially the whole point of the band. In Meg, Jack founds something that would make this particular blues-loving Midwestern white-people band different from all the other white-people bands. Her drumming was both post-modern and primitive; it made The White Stripes sound like a contemporary reimagining of the blues, and also older than the blues. Meg was also Jack’s muse — pretty much every White Stripes song can be interpreted as being about her or inspired by her, or taken as a signifier of what she represents to the audience and White himself. “Truth Doesn’t Make A Noise” is about a woman who projects her power by not speaking, which must have been especially attractive (as well as frustrating) for a busybody like White. This song appropriately veers between admiration, resentment, and protectiveness. “You try to tell her what to do / And all she does is stare at you / Her stare is louder than your voice / Because truth doesn’t make a noise.”
23. “You’ve Got Her In Your Pocket” (2003)
I’ve spent more time than most critics psychoanalyzing the Jack and Meg White dynamic. (White’s first post-White Stripes album, 2012’s Blunderbuss, is a rich text for Jack and Meg watchers, replete with songs that appear to comment obliquely on their musical breakup.) Since Meg never talks, the texts here tend to be one-sided, though Jack to his credit often paints himself (or his unnamed male protagonists) as weak or misguided. Often these songs hinge on power — who has it, and how it is unwittingly transferred freely between parties. Responding to charges that he was overly controlling in The White Stripes, Jack told The New York Times Magazine in 2012, “Meg completely controlled the White Stripes. She’s the most stubborn person I’ve ever met, and you don’t even get to know the reasons.” That quote makes me think of “You’ve Got Her In Your Pocket,” a song in which a controlling man knows he ultimately has no power over a woman who he’s convinced will one day leave him. The fact that Meg did eventually leave confirmed those fears. When Jack performed it on The Tonight Show a few years ago, he was visibly emotional. Some drummers you can just never get over.
22. “Little Room” (2001)
Setting aside all of the Jack vs. Meg palace intrigue in The White Stripes, let it also be known that Meg White is first and foremost an incredible rock ‘n’ roll drummer. “Little Room” is one of her greatest performances, as real and primal and visceral as Son House’s handclaps on “Grinnin’ In Your Face.” It’s The White Stripes at their simplest, and one of their wisest statements about how fame can kill the original inspiration that makes fame possible. It’s not long, so I might as well quote the entire song: “Well you’re in your little room / And you’re working on something good / But if it’s really good / You’re gonna need a bigger room / And when you’re in the bigger room / You might not know what to do / You might have to think of / How you got started sitting in your little room.”
21. “The Denial Twist” (2005)
Get Behind Me Satan was the great curveball album after White Blood Cells and Elephant made them one of America’s most popular and lauded bands. After so much meat-and-potatoes minimalism, hearing piano featured so prominently on a White Stripes record was as jarring as the shiny synths on Van Halen’s “Jump.” But this is also one of the best pop songs in The White Stripes catalogue, though the ragtime-punk feel is more 1905 than 2005.
20. “Offend In Every Way” (2001)
Jack White has the dubious distinction of producing the least listenable album of Neil Young’s career, 2014’s A Letter Home, recorded with a Voice-O-Graph vinyl recording booth that makes the LP sound like a dead man’s attic. I prefer this deep cut from White Blood Cells anchored by Jack’s faithful replication of Neil’s fuzzy guitar tone. Neil should have produced Jack, not the other way around.
19. “Hello Operator” (2000)
Recently I was talking on one of my podcasts about how the legacy of The White Stripes has been affected in the past decade by Jack White’s progressively grumpy public persona. This is a purely anecdotal observation, based on various conversations I’ve had with “the kids,” but it seems like The White Stripes — the most critically adored band of that early aughts “return of rock” generation — currently lag in popularity behind The Strokes and even Interpol and The Killers among younger generations. Right or wrong, they’re now commonly perceived as Luddite killjoys with a theatrical streak that’s out of step with current indie trends. As a rebuttal, I would forward “Hello Operator,” an incredibly fun rock song that reminds me of “Funk #49.” In spite of White’s reputation, this band was not joyless. At their best, they could be gleefully, happily dumb.
18. “My Doorbell” (2005)
Exhibit B in the case of The White Stripes being a lot more fun than people remember. Also a good example of White’s talent for writing dumb songs in a smart way.
17. “Do” (1999)
I wonder if Jack White internalized early criticism from his Detroit peers about his voice, as he still tends to not view himself as a singer. (“I don’t have a sing-the-national-anthem voice,” he told The New Yorker. “What I do is vocalize characters.”) All of this seems strange now, because White is rightfully recognized now as a fantastic rock singer, capable of conveying rage, innocence, lust, infatuation, confusion, and regular old rock-star swagger and authority. And he could do that from that beginning, no matter the haters. This smoldering ballad from the self-titled debut about not trusting the intentions of strangers — a classic JW trope — features one of my favorite early Jack White vocals, touching on all of the aforementioned feelings and more. “Don’t want to be social / Can’t take it when they hate me / But I know there’s nothin’ I can do.”
16. “White Moon” Under Great White Northern Lights version (2009)
Another one for the “psychoanalyze Jack and Meg” file. White apparently wrote “White Moon” (as well as another Get Behind Me Satan track, “Take, Take, Take”) about Rita Hayworth. But in the 2009 tour documentary Under Great White Northern Lights, this Dylanesque tune appears to comment on the undoing of The White Stripes. Toward the end of the film, Jack plays it at a piano with Meg at his side, and in that light the thematic connections “White Moon” has to other Meg songs — the struggle for control, and the inevitability of separation — is made plainer than it is on the album version. As Jack’s emotional performance peaks, Meg starts to break down. “And I promised I wouldn’t lead her on / But she met me, then led me / And I ate what was fed me / ´Til I purged every word in this song.”
15. “The Union Forever” (2001)
Orson Welles was a control freak from the Midwest who obsessively threw himself into multiple projects simultaneously throughout his life. Naturally, Jack White was drawn to Welles and his signature film, 1941’s Citizen Kane. This intense, swirling psych-rocker from White Blood Cells functions as a kind of cover version of that movie. In White’s reimagining, the insecurity and megalomania of Welles/Kane is viewed through the prism of White’s own anger and determination to get one over on the world. “What would I liked to have been? / Everything you hate” functions as a mission statement for his career about as well as anything he actually wrote.
14. “I’m Finding It Harder To Be A Gentleman” (2001)
The best longform interview with Jack White was conducted by Conan O’Brien in 2013, mainly because their friendship made White comfortable enough to drop his usual facade of hostile defensiveness with the media. A bit that stands out is White’s belief that people used to have more etiquette with technology; the supposed loss of politeness as society moved beyond landlines to mobile phones is what he finds most offensive about progress. Once again, we see White’s preoccupation with ritual and formality, which informed nearly everything about The White Stripes, from their color schemes to the way White wrote and recorded songs. It’s also reflected in the eccentric phrasing of “I’m Finding It Harder To Be A Gentleman,” in which heartbreak is couched as a failure to maintain a proper level of decorum.
13. “Jimmy The Exploder” (1999)
The funniest subplot of The White Stripes’ career was their rivalry with another Midwestern two-person blues-rock combo, The Black Keys. It was instigated entirely by White, who was convinced that The Black Keys ripped them off. Did they? Maybe a little, though the Stripes and the Keys both owe a huge debt to Flat Duo Jets. It’s possible The Black Keys only bothered listening to the first song on the first White Stripes album, as “Jimmy The Exploder” is the White Stripes song that sounds the most like the Black Keys.
12. “Apple Blossom” (2000)
If the twee exterior of The White Stripes was an act of misdirection giving them space to play the blues without suffering “white boy blues band” taunts, the undercurrents of aggression and menace in their music in retrospect allowed them to transcend the quirky excesses of the era. “Apple Blossom” comes awfully close to sounding like a Moldy Peaches track; extreme cutesiness for the sake of extreme cutesiness. But childishness for White is an affectation that can’t fully conceal the fiercely restless adult beneath. His voice might be light and his words romantic on “Apple Blossom,” but Meg’s drums and those clipped piano chords tell a different, more foreboding story.
11. “Jolene” (2000)
When Dolly Parton sings “Jolene,” it’s gently (even sweetly) pleading, with Dolly attempting to flatter her rival in order to deter her from taking her man. (There’s also the joke embedded in the subtext that any woman could possibly be more desirable than Dolly Parton.) When Jack White sings “Jolene,” the woman is driven so mad with jealousy and self-hatred that it turns the song into a threat of violence. Dolly’s “Jolene” is finely wrought southern melodrama. The White Stripes’ “Jolene” is a slasher film.
10. “The Hardest Button To Button” (2003)
Speaking of slasher films, this is The White Stripes’ answer to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a darkly funny tune about a dysfunctional family plunged into even deeper crisis by the arrival of a new baby. This is also the most underrated guitar riff in the band’s canon; the only reason it wasn’t the breakout track from Elephant is that tens of thousands of people can’t sing it in soccer stadiums.
9. “The Same Boy You’ve Always Known” (2001)
“The Hardest Button To Button” is Jack White’s exaggerated caricature of what it’s like to grow up in a large family; “The Same Boy You’ve Always Known” feels more like an expression of Jack Gillis’ experience. (I can certainly imagine Jack as a kid pre-planning the lowering of his casket.) A nakedly vulnerable song about loss and regret, “The Same Boy You’ve Always Known” is also one of the band’s prettiest and most melodic tunes, with a riff that evokes the second side of Abbey Road.
8. “The Big Three Killed My Baby” (1999)
The White Stripes eventually had to leave Detroit, lest Jack White punch out every second and third-tier garage rocker in town. But Detroit could never be fully removed from the heart of The White Stripes. Detroit is one of America’s great music cities, of course, but it’s also a city of underdogs and scrappers. Even after The White Stripes “won,” they never stopped acting like the world was against them. “The Big Three Killed My Baby” is a love letter of sorts to their home city, though because it was written by Jack White, it’s also about hating the city’s auto companies, “planned obsolescence,” and modernity in general. “Well I’ve said it now / Nothing’s changed / People are burnin’ for pocket change / And creative minds are lazy / The big three killed your baby.”
7. “Hotel Yorba” (2001)
Jack White is fond of telling this story about how he keeps his guitar picks on stage far away from the microphone, so he’s forced to work a little extra hard. Struggle is the mother of invention in his world. But the pleasure of “Hotel Yorba” is that it’s so easy; it’s their happiest, lightest, and most ebullient song. Unlike that other famous rock ‘n’ roll hotel, you can check in any time you like, because all they got inside is vacancy.
6. “We’re Going To Be Friends” (2001)
Another song that would be insufferable and dated to the period if it were played with even an ounce of irony. (“We wanted things to be as childish as possible, but with no sense of humor,” White once explained to Spin.) What steers it away from quirksville is Jack White’s inescapable melancholy; he’s reliving childhood, not simply remembering it, and you can hear the distance between where he is now and where he wishes he was then. This song treats the act of chasing all the ants and worms as the most important thing in the world because that’s how it feels to a 6-year-old.
5. “Seven Nation Army” (2003)
The most famous White Stripes song, and probably the single most famous rock song by anybody of the last 20 years. The New Yorker called it the second most recognizable guitar riff ever, after the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” which seems like an exaggeration. (Ritchie Blackmore can afford to live like a bejeweled warlock in a castle somewhere because people can’t stop humming “Smoke On The Water.”) But it’s true that the “Seven Nation Army” riff is incredibly easy to sing along with — it’s not the band’s best riff, but it’s unquestionably their most communal. It’s the sort of riff that most bands don’t even attempt to write anymore, because aspiring to the kind of impact that “Seven Nation Army” has had seems ridiculously out of reach. But there’s clearly still a need for songs like this, and Jack White was fortunate to come up in an era when virtually nobody else was either capable or interested in doing it.
4. “Fell In Love With A Girl” (2001)
People forget that before “Seven Nation Army,” this was the big White Stripes “hit.” It stills sounds like a perfect rock song to me, though I suspect that it might come across as very “aughties” to people who weren’t around at the time. A lot of songs by a lot of early ’00s bands that nobody remembers kind of sound like “Fell In Love With A Girl” — chunky riff, rudimentary but powerful rhythm section, yelp-y singer. It was The White Stripes’ entry in the great “garage rock anthem” sweepstakes, which I think was ultimately won by The Hives’ “Hate To Say I Told You So.” But if they lost the battle, The White Stripes obviously won the war.
3. “Death Letter” (2000)
Ghost World came out the same year as the third White Stripes album, White Blood Cells, so Jack White didn’t have to suffer Blueshammer jokes from haters until he was already well established. But he certainly feared Blueshammerism seeping into his own music from the beginning of his band; dressing up in red, white, and black was a way to sidestep conversations about the contradictions about being an earnest white bluesman. But when The White Stripes covered Son House’s “Death Letter,” there was no hiding behind a clever color scheme; they were going to judged strictly on the merits of their execution. Amazingly, they pulled it off; this is their greatest musical performance on record, with Meg swinging hard against Jack’s slashing slide solos. It works because it’s not an attempt to sounds like Son House; it’s pure gutbucket Detroit blues-punk made by arty outsiders.
2. “Ball And Biscuit” (2003)
Sex appeal is The White Stripes’ most underrated attribute. In their prime, Jack and Meg radiated an intense magnetism on stage; everyone in the audience wanted to be with one or both of them, these so-called siblings who in the throes of their heaviest jams stared at each like they wanted to jump each others’ bones. Jack was also the rare male rock star of his era who sang about sex proudly and even boastfully, as if he might actually be good at it. (Julian Casablancas meanwhile typically sounded too sleepy for a little action.) Film director David Fincher was among those who appreciated this aspect of The White Stripes; I think that’s why he put their sexiest song, “Ball and Biscuit,” in the first scene of The Social Network. How better to demonstrate Mark Zuckerberg’s interpersonal ineptitude than by showing him not getting laid in spite of the appearance of this audio aphrodisiac?
1. “Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground” (2001)
Yes, The White Stripes’ music was simple. But it was also extremely difficult to pull off. Executing a song like “Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground” in a way that sounds fresh and feels legitimately exciting already seemed impossible almost 20 years ago when White Blood Cells dropped. And yet hearing the first 20 or so seconds of this song for the first time in my car at full volume is an experience that remains burned into my memory; I’ll never know what it was like to hear “Whole Lotta Love” in 1969, but I’m confident that hearing “Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground” in the summer of 2001 more than makes up for that. If you think that’s just nostalgia, please go back and listen (as I did in real time) to every garage-rock band that attempted to write a song like this between the years 1998 and 2003. The failure rate is astonishingly high; the lack of success at taking old blues riffs and turning them into vital 21st-century rock songs rivals that of the Washington Generals’ futile attempts to defeat the Harlem Globetrotters. The White Stripes’ accomplishment only seems more incredible in retrospect; they took some of the most familiar musical stems in the American pop culture grab bag, and made them sound different and current at a time when the odds of anyone caring about the blues were astronomically out of whack. But that’s all just music-critic projection. Put this song on. It doesn’t speak to your head or even your heart. It goes straight for the loins. And that’s where all the best rock ‘n’ roll lives.