The 10 Best White Stripes Songs

The White Stripes were Occam’s razor manifested as rock. Underneath the misdirection and mythology, it was just two people, wearing three colors, obsessed with one musical concept: the beauty of simplicity.

People like categorizing things, we like putting stuff into tidy little boxes — it explains the tyranny of the subgenre — and the Detroit band prodded at that tendency by laying out their plan for all to see (guitar-and-drums blues revivalists with a strict color palette) specifically so that they could subvert it. The blueprint was there all along, hidden on the unassuming debut album track “Do,” which I’d argue is the most overtly autobiographical song in this otherwise opaque catalog. Thematically, it laments the plight of the introvert, as Jack addresses authenticity (“There’s somebody there who doesn’t think they are true”), anxiety (Meg’s, presumably), and the risks of speaking (misinterpretation, overexposure). Everything about their presentation was specifically designed to sidestep these pitfalls, so they could demonstrate that the only thing that was real was the music. You have to give it to them, it was beautifully simple.

As long as those superficial parameters were intact — red, white, and black-clad siblings playing “real” rock — they had the freedom to be whatever the fuck they wanted to be under the surface.

Jack and Meg White violated the terms of their initial conceit almost immediately, recording with a third musician and often sounding more like Nuggets revivalists on their self-titled debut. Soon they brought in decidedly non-blues instruments — an electric violin on De Stijl first, then synthesizers and bagpipes by 2007′s Icky Thump — while avoiding accusations of “trying to find their identity” or “transitioning” because of that handy label originally affixed to the box.

Thus, more than revivalists, they were postmodernists, combining Jack’s genuine reverence for the roots of his music with a chameleonic need to don new skin. They were an embodiment of quantum theory’s parallel realities idea, hopping across eras and genres, between songs and within them, rock history in real time. And while it didn’t always work (ahem, “Who’s A Big Baby?”), it was perfectly suited for the Internet generation, conceived before that was even a concept, which may be exactly how they made blues rock relevant after it had been decimated by laptops and butt-rock.

So, with Jack seemingly prepping his second solo album, a Dead Weather record on the way, and guitars slowly crawling their way back into the pop conversation, it feels like an appropriate time to revisit the White Stripes’ catalog, now that the box around it has deteriorated. Precisely because of their carefree zig-zagging across rock territory, this was a daunting task. So many motifs! So many blues! So many excellent singles! I’m partial to the bombastic, frenzied version of the band, but no matter how you carve up their output, you’ll find sincerity do-si-doing with cheekiness and intensity dueling with restraint, delivered via goddamn brilliant songcraft. They’ve left behind a thrilling legacy, and because of the misleadingly simple identity, the White Stripes were one of the most unpredictable bands of the past 20 years. I hope these 10 songs encapsulate all that.

10. “Screwdriver” (from The White Stripes, 1999)

While some of The White Stripes delved into gothic Americana, mostly it combined steroidal blues and adenoidal garage rock. And “Screwdriver” mainlined that shit, all raucous boogie and panting id. Son House, The Sonics, Led Zeppelin, those landmarks were immediately apparent, but the Pixies influence on this band doesn’t get mentioned enough. On “Screwdriver,” the quiet/loud dynamic is there, sure, but it’s also manifested in this song’s balance of abrasiveness and groove, Jack’s rambling Black Francis whine, and Meg’s full-bodied thuds (willed out of her without the help of one Steve Albini, mind you). That’s the secret of this band — one song can lead to hours charting out their pedigree, but you’ll still never quite figure out the gestalt of it all, how they became this singular, delightful mutt.

9. “Black Math” (from Elephant, 2003)

Even on their boisterous songs, Jack and Meg rarely exuded actual anger (“The Big Three Killed My Baby” being one of the exceptions). “Black Math,” while not full of rage, is a snotty diatribe attacking our schools’ perceived failure to foster actual learning. It is without a doubt the most badass song about the classroom since “School’s Out.” There’s something thrilling about witnessing a small amount of people making a huge, gnarled racket, like when Nirvana combined for the annihilation of “Milk It.” There’s just a primal thrill about the imbalance. What elevates “Black Math” from the Stripes’ other cranked-to-11 assaults is the bouncing betty riff, that stoner metal breakdown, and — most crucially — those closing yeahs dropping with the snark of 25 teens preying on a substitute teacher.

8. “Apple Blossom” (from De Stijl, 2000)

The White Stripes could melt the paint off walls, but they were also masters of subtlety. Take “Apple Blossom”: I’ve always thought it was White’s shrouded commentary on the implied ulterior motives of any man swooping in to comfort a crying woman. As the protagonist offers to “rescue” a troubled gal, those mischievous, plodding piano chords place a tinge of nefariousness in his overture, as though he’s deviously twirling his mustache. This feeling hangs around until the last line, when he says, “I think I’ll marry you” and we realize he was sincere all along. Unless he wasn’t. That constant, subtle conflation of what’s genuine and what’s misdirection was the band’s most inimitable quality.

7. “Hello Operator” (from De Stijl, 2000)

You can count on one hand the number of times Jack ceded the spotlight to someone else during his Stripes tenure, and it was usually for something slightly confounding: Meg’s lead on “In The Cold, Cold Night,” Mort Crim’s “Little Acorns” monologue. When he briefly steps aside in “Hello Operator,” though, it makes complete sense. But it’s no less surprising, as in, John Szymanski’s blistering harmonica bum-rush can literally startle you. His clinically efficient cameo is the connective tissue linking this brittle-yet-bouncy blues update with a jamming-on-the-patio past, making for an inspired moment of harmony.

6. “My Doorbell” (from Get Behind Me Satan, 2005)

With “My Doorbell,” Jack managed to pen a song that was even jauntier and more brain-burrowing than “Hotel Yorba,” its endless loop chorus morphing into mantra by the fadeout. Every instrument here sounds hollowed-out — well, even more than usual — like the song was recorded in some sepia-toned saloon, as Jack pounded away on a weathered upright to confirm that, yes, the piano really is a percussion instrument, just as we learned in grade school. Plus, he pulled off that nifty pop trick of using an upbeat melody to hide decidedly less jubilant lyrics.

5. “Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground” (from White Blood Cells, 2001)

The Stripes’ third album begins with a righteous dirge, the riff pure mud. Has a song ever had a more perfect title? “Dead Leaves” was immediately on its own plane, insulated against that fleeting “garage rock revival” signifier. In my high school at the time, John Mayer and Jack Johnson were the “indie” acts to know about, DMB’s Lillywhite Sessions CD-R was spoken of in hushed tones, and Disturbed were an honest-to-God force. (Sigh, the suburbs.) But this opening squall of feedback and sludge obliterated those childish things. We didn’t quite know what the strange man was singing about with that quavering voice. We didn’t know about the color-coordination and sibling mythology yet. But we did know this sickening crunch broke everything open.

4. “Hotel Yorba” (from White Blood Cells, 2001)

The most memorable White Stripes songs felt like they were conjured out of thin air, straight from Jack’s brain onto a piece of wax. (The actual process doesn’t seem that far off.) And so, “Hotel Yorba” is music as manna, a cosmic fluke that exhibited the homespun timelessness of, say, McCartney, while the shouted refrain gave it the communal immediacy of a square dance. No complexity, but no vacancy, either.

3. “Ball And Biscuit” (from Elephant, 2003)

Never were Jack and Meg more on message as a blues duo than they were for these seven shit-kicking minutes of stupidly brilliant sexual fury. The solos (plural!) screech and wail from a supernatural usage of the whammy pedal, only to evaporate for tossed-off boasts about asking your girlfriends what they know, as Meg’s cavewoman thumps match Jack’s caveman come-ons. The song’s attack-and-retreat tactic is an aural S&M game, the red and black motif and titular sphere suddenly indicative of a ball gag. It’s the sound of being (burned) alive, and the result is seven minutes in heaven.

2. “Fell In Love With A Girl” (from White Blood Cells, 2001)

One of my friends, while stoned, recently convinced himself this song was a cover of some forgotten ’60s garage number. This speaks volumes either about the caliber of my friend’s weed man or the caliber of White’s revivalist instincts. Jack melded his own quirks (wordiness, strategic silence) so seamlessly with smiley-Ringo-Starr double taps, Brill Building aah-aah-aahs, and early punk swagger that it transcends mere homage or pastiche. He went Jurassic Park here, extracting rock DNA and playing God with it, resulting in a song that may not have stomped with rock’s dinosaurs but reigns supreme over their myriad descendants.

1. “Seven Nation Army” (from Elephant, 2003)

A downtuned groove, an incessant kick drum, paranoid-Plant vocals — by 2003, Jack White had wielded these weapons to maximum effect, we thought. Then he unleashed this shrieking behemoth that declared, “A seven nation army couldn’t hold me back,” knowing that line evoked its world-conquering might. No two fake siblings could have all that power, we thought. We were so, so wrong.

For a band built on contradictions, this was their Platonic ideal. It’s polished but could’ve moments ago wriggled out of the primordial soup, teeth gnashing. It’s a stubbornly minimalist display of arena grandeur. It oozes swagger while avoiding hamminess and features a guitar line that’s more singable than the finest Swedish-engineered chorus. I didn’t want to give “Seven Nation Army” the top spot, but this song with no refrain, with nary an ooh-ooh, is the White Stripes’ crowning achievement. Turns out the truth does make a noise, the noise of thousands chanting in unison.

Listen to our playlist via Spotify.

Comments (81)
  1. My favorites that I’d have feigned outrage over had they been excluded (Hotel Yorba, Apple Blossom, Hello Operator, Black Math) are all here. Carry on!

  2. Make it a Top 11 and add “We’re Going To Be Friends” and it’s not a bad list for a change. Good job.

  3. Everyone should check out the of Montreal version of Fell in Love with a Girl that they did for the AV Club

  4. Great list and great write up. I miss them. Just like Ryan Adams said: “Thank you Meg White for saving rock and roll.” They are still my favorite concert (get behind me satan tour in Vancouver).

  5. I’m a fan of all of these songs – sad to not see Blue Orchid and We’re Going to be Friends, but I can live with that. Though Icky Thump is noticeably absent.

    • Both those songs were right on the cusp for me, as was “Icky Thump” and a couple others. I didn’t want it to be just a list of singles, though (they had an incredible ear for singles!). And while it really pained me, I just couldn’t make room for their final album. It’s arguably their most consistent LP, but I just don’t know if it has those transcendent moments.

    • I first realized that Icky Thump is a great song when I was watching The Other Guys high as shit a few weeks ago (sorry Michael_) and it plays during the ridiculous shootout scene in it.

  6. Doesn’t get much better than White Blood Cells tracks 1-4. Easy way to shut up the (unbearable) kind of people who still think there hasn’t been any good music made this century.

    • Their best 4 song streak to me is Slowly Turning In To You – Jolene – 300 MPH – We Are Going To Be Friends, right in the middle of ‘Under Great White Northern Lights’.
      Truly immense preformance…

  7. As soon as I saw the article title, I was ready to rage at the song’s selected. But with an overwhelming catalogue to pick through, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head.

    And I can’t argue with SNA as #1, especially given how ubiquitous a song it is now; as it’s become an anthem at sports stadiums worldwide.

    Man, I miss these guys so much.

  8. “Seven Nation Army” is one of my favorite songs ever. Truly fantastic.

    “The Union Forever” and “This Protector” are my two favorites not mentioned. But yeah, there’s no arguments here about this list. It certainly showcases how extremely versatile they were.

  9. !0. Icky Thump
    9. Take, Take, Take
    8. Hotel Yorba
    7. Catch Hell Blues
    6. Girl, You Have No Faith In Medicine
    5. Ball And Biscuit
    4. Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground
    3. 300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues
    2. Fell In Love With A Girl
    1. Hypnotize

    • I like your list better. Kudos for including Girl, You Have No Faith In Medicine and 300 MPH Torrential Outpour Blues. Two of my favorites.

  10. t.rex  |   Posted on Feb 26th +11

    Hardest Button to Button and Blue Orchid, but not a disagreeable list overall

  11. Hey, great list! I’m especially pleased (and admittedly surprised) to see Ball And Biscuit on here. That song fucking does something to me. I’ve tried cocaine and can safely say that stuff ain’t shit compared to the moments Jack rips into those solos. I’ve nearly crashed my car on numerous occasions rocking out and air guitaring to that jam.

    • That song is just pure rock and roll to me, at it’s most basic. Thumping drums. Flamboyant braggodocio. And guitar riffs and solos that melt faces. It’s a 7 minute song that I always feel ends too soon.

  12. You cried The Union Forever,

    BUT THAT WAS UNTRUE GIRL

  13. and I fought piranhas and I fought the cold

    • my personal 10 favs-

      Cannon
      I Fought Piranhas
      Dead Leaves
      Little Bird
      Black Math
      Ball & Biscuit
      Icky Thump
      Take, Take, Take
      Expecting
      Hello Operator

  14. I’m actually getting married soon, and among the motown, funk, and pop that will grace the dance floor, I fully plan on getting the DJ to play “Fell in Love With a Girl” to get everyone riled up and going crazy. I can’t wait for that moment.

  15. I don’t like Hotel Yorba at all and Girl, You Have No Faith in Medicine should definitely haven been in this list, but otherwise a pretty fine list, with the obvious #1 & #2. Well maybe, Little Cream Soda should be in there too, to represent Icky Thump, an album I like better than Get Behind Me Satan.

    • My personal favorite from Icky Thump (besides the title track) is “I’m Slowly Turning Into You.” Jack White played it live on his recent tour and it was so ominous and awesome.

  16. #1 Seven Nation Army? Better than “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground”? Even better than “The Hardest Button to Button”, which it’s not mentioned here?

    The list contains some of the best White Stripes songs, but forgets all those simple jewels, like “The Union Forever”, “Hipnotize”, “Offend in Everyway”, etc., etc.

  17. No contest.

  18. Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see

  19. i’m trying to figure out nicer ways of saying this:

    WHY THE FUCK DID YOU LEAVE OUT JOLENE

  20. Even a little throwaway like “Little Room” is awesome. Man, I love this band.

  21. I’ve always been partial to a Little Cream Soda

  22. does anyone want to discuss the increasing thickness of jack whites neck ?

  23. Nice list man, it’s almost impossible to whittle the White Stripes down to 10 songs, but I think you get all the essentials.

    Think I might include You Don’t Know What Love Is, Little Ghost, and We Are Gonna Be Friends, but I don’t want to axe any that you included…

    Can we make it a top 20?

  24. Hardest Button to Button, come come now.

  25. This list became invalid the moment you decided not to include Truth Doesn’t Make a Noise (let alone placing in on the highest spots)

  26. maybe there should be a top ten white stripes covers list:

    1. jolene
    2. death letter
    3. john the revelator
    4. one more cup of coffee
    5. st james infirmary blues
    6. ashtray heart
    7. boll weevil
    8. isis
    9. walking with a ghost
    10. i just don’t know what to do with myself

    • They always did a really good job with covers. That list is just as hard to compile in my opinion. I would add “Black Jack Davey”, “Love Sick” and “Good To Me” to your list above.

      • Also love Party of Special Things to Do. You could totally do a whole breakdown/list/ranking of Jack White’s covers, they’re something special.

  27. I miss the slower stuff on this list. “Same Boy You’ve Always Known,” for example.

  28. Nice list. I probably would have added Girl, You Have No Faith but that’s splitting hairs.

    As an aside, I can’t listen to Fell In Love With a Girl without thinking of Jimmy Fallon at the 2002 MTV VMAs.

  29. i was going to make my own list but this is too hard. too much good stuff

  30. 1.Death Letter
    2.Death Letter
    3.Death Letter
    4.Death Letter
    5.Death Letter
    6.Death Letter
    7.Death Letter
    8.Death Letter
    9.Death Letter
    10.Death Letter

  31. I am anticipating the announcement of the next Jack White solo album very soon which is awesome, but god damn I miss the Stripes

  32. Rag and Bone… anyone? That song rips, and to me it’s the quintessential Stripes song, has all the elements you want/need.

  33. Whoa there, took a big risk mentioning weed in the Fell in Love with a Girl paragraph. Careful, lest you bring down the judgement of _ on you!

    Seriously, though: “He went Jurassic Park here, extracting rock DNA and playing God with it, resulting in a song that may not have stomped with rock’s dinosaurs but reigns supreme over their myriad descendants”. That’s a PERFECT description of that song. Well done sir!

  34. 11.Little Cream Soda

  35. Thanks for not intentionally leaving off the hits, as these lists tend to do.

  36. No-one’s suggesting You’ve Got Her In Your Pocket?

  37. not a terrible list… but

    no truth doesn’t make a noise?
    no this protector?
    no offend in every way?
    no same boy you’ve always known?
    no denial twist
    no red rain

    these are overlooked classix imo

  38. Great list, but I wish something from Icky Thump would have made it on here. “Catch Hell Blues” “Icky Thump” or “I’m Slowly Turning Into You” wouldn’t have looked out of place replacing anything from 10-6.

  39. Death letter
    black math
    Ball and Biscuit
    Seven nation Army
    We are going to be friends
    Dead Leaves on the Dirty Ground
    Hypnotize
    Icky Thump
    Finding it Harder to be a gentleman
    I just don’t know what to do with myself

  40. Well I’m sorry but I’m not interested in gold mines, oil wells, shipping, or real estate.

  41. Some favorites of mine nobody has mentioned yet:

    “I Can’t Wait”
    “Now Mary”
    “You’re Pretty Good Looking For a Girl”
    “Sister, Do You Know My Name?”
    “Why Can’t You Be Nicer To Me?”

    These would all make my top 10.

  42. shout out to WBC deep tracks Offend in Every Way, i can’t wait, i’m finding it harder to be a gentleman, i can learn

  43. Disappointed ‘Icky Thump’ didn’t get any love on this, but I don’t know what song you’d kick off of here to make room for one of those tracks.

  44. how has no one mentioned The Air Near My Fingers yet??
    seriously. that whole Hypnotize-The Air Near My Fingers-Girl, You Have No Faith In Medicine sequence is one of my favorites, ever.

    • Well gif-ed, Chad D’Entrone! While I don’t particularly care for The White Stripes, this song and Gondry’s amazing video for it kick some serious ass. I was surprised at it’s omission.

  45. “The Hardest Button to Button”, “Same Boy You’ve Always Known”, “Little Ghost” and “I Can Tell That We’re Going to Be Friends” are my favorites that missed. And “The Union Forever”.

    Solid write-up though, and I don’t know what all I’d take out to put mine in.

  46. Easily one of my ten favorite bands. They have legitimately forty great songs off a discography that’s not even that big, and excluding covers. These are my favorites, but I recognize that there are so many more good ones.

    10. We’re Going to Be Friends
    9. Do
    8. Apple Blossom
    7. Instinct Blues
    6. Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground
    5. The Air Between my Fingers
    4. Fell in Love with a Girl
    3. Little Cream Soda
    2. Red Rain
    1. I Can’t Wait

  47. Stripes are def in my top 5 bands of all time. My personal top 10 songs…. which is really difficult.

    1. Dead Leaves
    2. I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself
    3. I’m Finding It Harder to be a Gentleman
    4. Truth Doesn’t Make a Noise
    5. Effect & Cause
    6. Offend in Every Way
    7. Hello Operator
    8. There’s No Home For You Here
    9. White Moon
    10. Hotel Yorba

  48. Great band, great story. I mean the whole two piece thing. I don’t think seven nation army is the best though, although it’s probabyl the best example of their two piece approach. I think fell in love with a girl is their best song.

  49. Three words – Rag and Bone.

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