The White Stripes have officially closed up shop. And so ends a 12 year reign of rock’s most vital band. While I was pretty lukewarm about their last record, I will certainly miss the opportunity to hear any new music from Jack and Meg. Even though I thought they fell off a bit toward the end, I always got the sense that they probably had plenty of great records left in them: a stripped down acoustic affair, a dusty country album, a late career blues punk revival. There was still a lot that I wanted from this band, but it looks like that’s never going to happen now. In a way, that’s fine because what they’ve left us with is an unparalleled string of albums that remind even the most jaded listeners that an amplified guitar and thumping bass drum can, even after all these years, move mountains.
By the time that The Stripes showed up in the late 90s, I think most serious people agreed that rock was pretty much dead as a commercial art form. Radiohead’s OK Computer sounded like a totalizing endgame for all guitar-based music (who has the balls to ring a single note on a Rickenbacker after listening to that record?), and the artistic fiasco of Woodstock ’99 (Limp Bizkit, Korn, Buckcherry, Oleander, The Offspring) seemed like the template for all forthcoming rock. Rock also wasn’t helped by the fact that poptimism, the idea that pop music is as relevant of critic inspection as rock, had replaced rockism as the dominant critical paradigm. While Rolling Stone continued to operate as an editorial anomoly, most serious critical outlets were ignoring mainstream rock in favor of unheralded corners of the music world: German minimal techno, New York freak folk, British dubstep, underground hip hop, stateless online musical entities. By then, the internet had democratized music to such an extent that listening exclusively to rock music seemed naive and socially limiting. Who wants to seriously talk about a new Green Day record when there’s a producer in Bristol who is making sounds that only existed in your nightmares? The world into which The White Stripes released their first couple of albums was a world where rock sounded silly and antiquated. And against all odds, the band made silly and antiquated sound like a thunderous lightning crack of primal honky-tonk-white-boy-soul-blues.
And here fer yer listenin’ pleasure is the meanest of the mean, brokenhearted blues that a white boy ever layed to analog tape.
Caveat Emptor: Look, this list could have gone a thousand different ways because this band has, like, dozens of really great songs. Anything that’s missing can probably be chalked up to a minimal amount of preference (i.e. I prefer “The Denial Twist” to “My Doorbell”). There’s a lot of songs that I had to leave on the cutting room floor that I would have loved to put in here: ”Forever for Her (is Over for Me),” “The Union Forever,” “Instinct Blues,” “The Same Boy You’ve Always Known,” “Why Can’t You Be Nicer to Me,” “Sister, Do You Know My Name?” That said, I would more than welcome comments on omissions and oversights, grave and otherwise.
1. Rag and Bone
I think that “Rag and Bone” might be the single best introduction to The White Stripes’ ethos. Here, the song casts Jack and Meg as itinerant rag and bone folk scouring abandoned properties for useless junk they can turn a profit on. Isn’t this essentially what the duo has been doing for a decade? Polishing cultural detritus and artistic castaways into something relevant for a new age? Plus, the song nicely lays out the characters Jack and Meg played throughout their career: Jack plays the smiling, polite con man to Meg’s sweetly naive ingenue.
A towering cathedral build to house the sacred relics of blues rock, “Ball and Biscuit” is as reverential as it is a blasphemous epic howl of sexual potency. The song’s traditional structure only scaffolds their modern take on blues mythopoetics and numerology: ”It’s quite possible that I’m your third man, girl/But it’s a fact that I’m the seventh son.”
3. Little Room
Every Stripes record featured a song with the word “little” in the title. And the “little” song for their breakout album was “Little Room,” a spontaneous burst of frustrated energy whose only outlet is a spare drum kit. The cymbal crashes and the kick drum thumps and Jack White whips up some philosophically circular nonsense that feels a lot less slight than it should.
While The Stones lent Robert Johnson’s seminal song some sleazy elegance, The Stripes recast “Stop Breaking Down” as a gnarly heavy-footed rocker with some of Jack’s nastiest guitar sounds. The lo-fi production only adds a layer of greasy crud to a song that sounds like it emerged triumphantly from a rancid deep frier.
With The Stripes’ ascendency into rock royalty, there were lots of online complaints about Meg’s drumming skills. And this is as good of a song as any to defend her ability to hammer away at the skins. Meg’s role in The White Stripes looks minimal on paper (pound a stark 4/4 beat until a little cymbal flourish as needed), but it’s so essential to the sound of the band that anything more would completely alter the sound of the band. Can you imagine “Hello Operator” without that primitive groove or that playful rim knocking rhythm between verses? Can you imagine some hack crowding the song with fills and cymbal splashes and rolls? No, you can’t. Because it would be too stupid.
6. Hotel Yorba
While Jack and Meg could churn out some ear-splitting rock n roll, they were rarely bitter or resentful or angry. The goodwill that radiated off these two was never brighter than on “Hotel Yorba,” the sweetest song that band ever recorded: ”Let’s get married/In a big cathedral by a priest/Cause if I’m the man you love the most/You could say I do at least.” The amazing thing about The Stripes’ love songs was that they never blandly revered their subject; these were always songs about courtship and partnership.
7. Little Ghost
I’m serious about being sad that Jack and Meg will never make their country album. If songs like “Little Ghost” were a prelude to a forgone conclusion, then it only hurts more to hear that they’re parting ways.
The chilling non-bass bassline that opens “Seven Nation Army” is deeply fucking menacing. If there were any concerns that the band could live up to the hype of White Blood Cells, then that riff dispelled any doubts in about fifteen seconds flat. The pair even sound like they’re ready to take on naysayers: ”I’m gonna fight ‘em off/A seven nation army couldn’t hold me back.” Every rock band worth its salt has its tough guy anthem, its swaggering giant of piss and vinegar: ”Dazed and Confused,” “Search and Destroy,” “Gimme Shelter.” And “Seven Nation Army” is the toughest, meanest, evil-est slab of stone cold steel that The White Stripes ever forged.
I was very slow to adopt “The Hardest Button to Button.” I once thought it took far too long for song to purge the energy generated by those lengthy verses. Then I got it: it’s great the song produces a tremendous amount of static electricity because when it finally reaches out to you the shock is really rewarding.
This song opens with the guitar rearing back on its feedback haunches, neighing with an electric squeal, and it seems as if Jack White’s composition is already getting away from him. But he almost instantly tames it by channeling its scary energy into a thrillingly loud instrumental refrain. And by the time he gets to the first verse, he’s broken the song’s spirit long enough to spit out his declaration of obsessive love: ”Thirty notes in the mailbox/Will tell you that I’m coming home/And I think I’m gonna stick around/For a while so you’re not alone.” If you’re not paying close enough attention, “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” can sound like a masculine declaration of love, but there’s something wildly manic about those wordless choruses, like our narrator’s trying to work it out while he prepares to calmly sell himself during those creepy verses.
This was the best Top 40 single that never quite made it. I would have relished an entire summer of backyard college parties soundtracked by this stomping masterpiece of fiery pop simplicity.
While we didn’t get “You’re Pretty Good Looking” at the top of the chart, we did get the crackling sparkler “Fell in Love with a Girl.” You couldn’t maintain consciousness without hearing this thing in every grocery store, record store, convenience store, book store, newspaper stand, subway platform, elevator, passing car, waiting room, and crosstown bus in America. Hell, you couldn’t even find respite at home because you found yourself searching for the fourth track of White Blood Cells without even thinking about it. Plus, the video by Michel Gondry completely captured the playful wonder of the song in a rush of stop motion Lego animation.
13. The Denial Twist
I always got the sense that I was alone in my adoration for Get Behind Me Satan; I loved the way that the sandy maracas and fat piano chords complimented Jack’s darkest set of songs. On “The Denial Twist,” Jack never sounded so bitter and resentful, which belies the elegant shimmy of this sophisticated soul update.
My absolute favorite moment in The White Stripes’ catalog is the moment when the anxious churn and grind of the choruses of “I’m Finding It Harder to be a Gentleman” explode into a chorus whose heat melds the lead guitar and the piano into a nihilistic wrecking ball. The song is every bit as bitter as “The Denial Twist,” but here Jack doesn’t bother hiding his derision in the flamboyant rage on display in the instrumental choruses.
Most White Stripes songs sucked the air right out of the room; they burned so hot that they claimed every last molecule of available oxygen. But “I’m Lonely (But I Ain’t That Lonely Yet)” is the sound of settling. In this airy, gospel-tinged closer, with Jack tickling the ivories of a sepia-toned saloon piano, he draws a clear line in the sand but he doesn’t burn down everything around it to prove that it’s there.
16. This Protector
From its position at the end of the masterful White Blood Cells, “This Protector” might sound like an anomalous bit of exhausted backwoods country. But when you take it out of its context, you quickly realize that that ghostly piano with its eerie chords is powerful all on its own. The center of the song, of course, is the passionate declaration that “300 people living out in West Virginia have no idea of all these thoughts that lie within you.” What a singularly beautiful thought. The White Stripes didn’t write too many songs that didn’t have to do with love in one way or another. But “This Protector” is the very rare character sketch where a lonely person finds herself on the verge of something big: the constant refrain of “but now” makes us wait for the guitar/drum slam that we are sure is coming. It’s a perfect gateway to a searing rock attack, but the band holds back, and lets those odd, flat chords ring out in a cold room while the guitars take a rest.