The world of rock let out a massive sigh when it heard that Jack and Meg White were calling it day as The White Stripes. For more than a decade, they had led garage-rock into more interesting territories, giving the age-old genre a more contemporary spin.
They were certainly distinctive, boasting a garrulous, rake thin guitar player at the front, and shy, almost silent woman on the drums. Together, they combined their talents to create a band that was high on energy and burning with possibility. What they lacked in membership, they made up for with energy and pristine musicianship.
Jack White has continued to harness his sound, both as a member of The Raconteurs and a profitable solo artist, but he knows fully well that he could not have made his mark without Meg White’s unwavering support. Critics unfairly dismissed her skills as “basic”, when the primitive fills were exactly what the songs needed.
It’s hard to quantify such an impressive band, particularly when you consider the sheer complexity of their work, but this list offers a sampling of their most distinguished work. From the disembodied yelps of the early tracks to the sophisticated production design of their later albums, The White Stripes had something for everyone.
The 10 best The White Stripes songs:
10. ‘The Hardest Button to Button’
Written as an allusion to Jack White’s broken index finger, this thumping rocker was furnished during the duo’s fourth album, Elephant. Overshadowed by many of the loftier rockers, some of which make this list, ‘The Hardest Button to Button’ nevertheless earns its place on an album that arguably comes closest to being the Brothers In Arms of the early millennium.
The focus is on the guitars, although Jack’s frenzied vocal is actually more dramatic than the wailing guitar lines, Meg’s drum patterns manifesting around the pulsating lyrics, with a gentle, lilting thump. Creepy stuff, but the vocals are persistent, shifting from the vaguely threatening to the braggadocious.
Written to highlight the pair’s talents, the song was an immediate hit with live audiences, offering Jack the chance to demonstrate a collection of fiery, psychedelic-tinted arpeggios. Jack tended to exhibit a more raucous vocal performance during the live gigs, giving the tune an added visceral dynamic.
9. ‘Fell In Love With A Girl’
Scintialltingly well-produced and sung with confidence, this single bursts with energy eagerness, punching the tune with a swagger that feels well deserved. Dominated by a stop-start march beat, the tune presented Meg White in her element, bursting through the tune with authority, integrity and style.
Jack kicks up the stuttering, staccato riff, belting out a vocal that’s high on energy and fast on delivery. Earmarking a new form of music, the tune proved a shoo-in for indie bars across Britain and Ireland, especially in Cork, where it became something of a local lo-fi anthem.
Urgently presented, the tune was performed live on Top of the Pops, which led Jack to deliver one of his trademark goonish monologues mid-performance. It was an unfortunate gesture, but the performance, complete with a feisty harmony vocal, still sounds riveting, capturing the essence of the single through a series of blinding guitar chimes.
8. ‘I’m Slowly Turning Into You’
Eager to push the boundaries of their sound-craft, The White Stripes recorded Icky Thump, their most sophisticated-sounding album yet. Unlike the garage-oriented timbre of their earliest works, this album linked several disparate pieces into one expansive whole, segueing from eerie ominous-sounding waltzes, into a convoy of bravura-ridden vignettes, each one more kaleidoscopic than the one that came before it.
‘I’m Slowly Turning into You’ opens with a thunderous organ-riff that gradually encompasses the entirety of the tune, punched up with one of Jack’s most animal-sounding vocal. The tune features a scorching back-drop, punching the senses with a collection of blinding chords.
The drums barely draw attention to themselves, focusing on the groove in question, each bass-pedal kicked is one of finesse, not ferocity. The band, or duo, sound like they’re being punched up by an orchestra, when it’s the sound of two consummate artists pushing themselves to the next logical level of their trajectory.
7. ‘I Think I Smell A Rat’
“Less is more” seemed to be the mantra that The White Stripes followed during their early, lo-fi days, as the duo spent as little time as they could in the studio, bolstered by equipment from the early 1960s. The tunes were immediate, indolent, and brought to life by the ballast behind the microphone and drums.
It’s hard to state whether or not this piece is a song, as it’s more of a dream-like elegy, flitting from the gorgeous to the generously expressive. Opening on a flamenco style interpolation, the tune then enters into more garage-like territories, as Jack’s howling vocal descends, cautioning listeners to the dangers of betrayal.
A decided improvement on the albums that came before it, White Blood Cells bore many of the trappings of 1950s rock, coinciding with the shifting tide to a more primal form of music. Popular music found it in a formerly sibling, currently unmarried pairing from mainland America.
6. ‘My Doorbell’
Arguably the closest thing in their canon to an out and out funk tune, ‘My Doorbell’ finds Jack in a strangely playful mood, pivoting from the piano to bass in quick succession. His demeanour is lively, and Meg’s drums are equally bubbly, tapping the drums like an audience member clapping to the back-beat of their tunes.
The studio recording is fun, but it worked much better in concert, where they were joined by other guests to flesh it out further. During an appearance on ‘Later with Jools Holland’, the former Squeeze bandmate joined them on keyboards. What the song held wasn’t just character, but texture, encompassing a series of genres that were more expressive than their contemporaries in the field of indie rock.
What the song is about isn’t entirely important, especially since the mantra of The White Stripes wasn’t to be immediate but elliptical in some fashion or another. And on this frivolous piece, they achieve it and then some.
5. ‘Icky Thump’
This tune enjoyed a second wind when it was used in the early trailers for Zack Snyder’s Justice League. Caught in the fusion of the work, the song captured the mania of the film, descending from the sidelines to exhibit a collection of misfits determined to save the world from certain destruction.
Cut from a similar cloth to the Led Zeppelin records that had entertained Jack White as a youth, the tune escapes pigeon-holing by boasting snippets of pop, funk, jazz and some variations of 2000s rap. ‘Icky Thump’ is, in a word, brilliant and still holds up, more than 10 years after release.
And much like the Snyder film, the song centres around the prospect of identity in a world determined to rob a person of it. “Well, Americans,” Jack screams out, “What, nothin’ better to do?” And then he sticks the knife in: “Why don’t you kick yourself out? You’re an immigrant too.” Ouch!
4. ‘Ball and Biscuit’
‘Ball and Biscuit’ is one of Jack White’s mightiest guitar performances, exhibiting a punch that emanates from his inner-Jimmy Page. White would later collaborate with the Zeppelin guitarist on the seismic It Might Get Loud, a memento about the passages of rock through a series of diverse interviews, locations and performances. U2’s The Edge also contributed to the film.
For all its anthemic qualities, ‘Ball and Biscuit’s most bewildering moment comes during the instrumental bridge, as an ambient, elemental guitar comes in, suggesting that The White Stripes were listening to the desert-oriented work of Josh Homme. The instrumental boasts agency, pertinent at a time when samples and loops were slowly becoming mot du jour of the music world.
Kudos to Meg at the back, keeping a tight, taut beat that Jack can wrap his guitar around. No, she’s no John Bonham, but The White Stripes didn’t need a Bonzo, so long as their frontman could play like Page. And indeed he does!
3. ‘I Fought Piranhas’
A delta-blues fanatic from an early age, Jack White had long held a torch for the music that existed before his time on earth. He rarely used equipment that was produced after the 1960s, he seldomly used session musicians unless he absolutely needed them, and fought for Meg White to join the band by teaching her how to play her instrument. In many ways, he was a more contemporary Paul McCartney, and he even sounds like The Beatle bassist on ‘I Fought Piranhas’, a raucous rock number that burns brightly for the entirely of its three-minute run-time.
Indeed, Meg White seems to model her drums on Ringo Starr on this piece, bringing listeners back to the proto-punk early days of With The Beatles. Best of all, the barrelling, abrasive-sounding guitars cut through the track, icily slicing through the proceedings like a hunter searching for new prey.
This was probably no coincidence, as Jack White was eager to experiment with the dexterity of his instrument, curating a series of bellowing riffs. His work was punchy, yet polished, and he went out of his way to bring up the names of the blues icons that had fashioned their sound on their pensive, perilous instruments.
2. ‘We’re Going to Be Friends’
A sweetly-performed song, the single was accompanied by a video that must have raised eyebrows when it was issued in 2002. Meg White sleeps on a bed, while Jack sings a yearning, searching tune, memories flitting before his eyes with welcoming appraisal.
Famed television presenter Conan O’Brien enjoyed the piece and personally asked the duo to sing the tune on Late Night with Conan O’ Brien. The tune had added resonances, as the presenter was in the process of winding the show down after nearly 16 years of seamless television. Suddenly, “Suzy Lee” emerged as an emblem of lost youth, embodying the person who had paved the way for a new avenue from which the narrator could always return to.
Jack White was only in his 20s when he wrote the tune, but the piece-soaked in memory- demonstrates the thinkings of an older, wiser songwriter, aching to find peace in himself through the snippets of a wilful childhood.
1. ‘Seven Nation Army’
There could be only one winner. Everything from the ominous opening note, to the crashing cymbals that close out the track, everything about this track screams “perfection”. It’s one of only a handful of singles that holds up after nearly two decades of close scrutiny, holding none of the trappings that date many other chorus-heavy numbers to 2003.
‘Seven Nation Army’ is surprisingly fresh, cut with energy, goodwill and spirit, making it a genuine contender for single of the decade. It also holds an infectious opening riff, that seeped into the listener’s DNA almost instantaneously, becoming one of the more indelibly hummable guitar performances of the last 20 years.
Indeed, it might have been the most exciting rock single since Suede’s ‘Animal Niterate’, maybe even Nirvana‘s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, fulfilling The White Stripes crusade to bring relevance back to the rock genre that was dying with every passing day. They gave rock a pulse, and continued to give it soul.