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.