For this feature, we are tasked to pick the best song from each album in an artist or band’s discography. There can be only one winner. We are confident this is the best of the Jack White, album by album. We are proud to present PLAYLIST: Jack White.
“Stop Breaking Down” from The White Stripes (1999)
It may be perceived as an insult to label a cover tune as the standout track from a band’s debut album. But with the White Stripes’ eponymous record, it is entirely appropriate that “Stop Breaking Down” earns this distinction. On an album full of primitive garage ravers, this Robert Johnson cover stands as a crossroads, harkening back to the Stripes’ musical heritage and casting a jittery eye to the future.
In its original 1937 rendition, Johnson delivered the song in his distinctive spookiness but with a desperate libidinousness. “The stuff I got will bust your brains out, baby/ It’ll make you lose your mind,” Johnson sang with cocksure temptation, begrudging the woman hounding him for whatever mojo he was hawking. Featuring Johnson on slide guitar and his warbling high voice, a chugging rhythm and lyrics rife with hokum, the basic blues number has found itself reinterpreted god knows how many times — as did just about every Johnson cut — before the White Stripes tackled it. Perhaps most notably, the Rolling Stones injected some grease into the ditty on Exile on Main St., giving it an even more lecherous drive.
With Jack and Meg White’s hands on it, though, the “Stop Breaking Down” gains a whole new vivacity and color. If the Whites were daunted by the song’s lineage, they don’t show it. Meg’s drums hit heavy and sonorous, metronomic without being dull, and the tambourine rattle adds a rickety touch. Jack’s guitar tone sounds as though he’s using the electricity powering it to part a sea of crude oil. His voice, unrefined, high and reedy, is the perfect vehicle for making his narrator sound as though he’s spewing demented ramblings. When he delivers the anchoring line of “The stuff I got will bust your brains out/ Yeah, it’ll make you lose your mind” it doesn’t come across as enticement as it did with Johnson, but as a threat.
Brash and incendiary, the song has the nascence of a toddler taking its first steps. While it’s impulsive and without a concern for posterity, it serves as a totem to both the blues legacy the Stripes were championing and gave that legacy a dirty, late ‘90s update, showing how timeless that genre truly is. — Cole Waterman
“Hello Operator” from De Stijl (2000)
White Blood Cells and Elephant are the White Stripes’ defining works, but much of what makes those records so successful was already evident on the band’s first two records. De Stijl sounds more intentionally constructed than the band’s debut, artfully disheveled instead of just raw and noisy, but both channel a Detroit font’s worth of blues and punk through Meg White’s simple drumming and Jack White’s unhinged guitar. Like the duo’s later albums, De Stijl achieves a diversity of styles within a seemingly narrow formula: bouncy guitar pop on “You’re Pretty Good Looking (For A Girl),” a whimsical performance on the ballad “Apple Blossom” and grizzled clatter on rockers like “Why Can’t You Be Nicer To Me?” and the standout garage cut “Hello Operator.”
“Hello Operator” is the kind of basic, contagious guitar romp White seems to create with ease, and it’s a highlight of De Stijl. Starting with that raving guitar intro, “Hello Operator” is built around solos from both band members: Meg’s timekeeping drum fills are skeletal to the point of rudimentary, but they emphasize the giddy showmanship White brings to his most memorable performances. It’s easy to forget that Meg was more than just a songwriting partner that rode on her bandmate’s chops and exhaustive musical output. Meg’s reserved instrumental approach was a conscious stylistic choice that provided a much-needed foil to White’s charged delivery. “Hello Operator” demonstrates this interplay at its most explicit, structuring the song’s stomp around dramatic repeated hand-offs. The White Stripes developed a more mature synergy on their final four albums, but it was just as impressive on this early track. – Mike Merline
“Jolene” from “Hello Operator” Single (2000)
The only non-album track to make our list is the White Stripes’ cover of Dolly Parton’s 1973 song “Jolene.” First surfacing as the B-side to “Hello Operator” in 2000, White would release two raucous live versions, first as a stand-alone single in 2004 and again on the 2010 live album, Under the Great White Northern Lights. In concert, White pushed the song to its plaintive limits with emotionally raw vocals, while the studio version is more refined and restrained.
“Jolene” is a Parton original that echoes the old folk songs White has emulated throughout his career. It is told from the perspective of a housewife who has finally confronted a more beautiful woman she believes has seduced her husband. In an interesting twist, White keeps the gender of the narrator female in all his versions.
“You could have had your choice of men/ But I could never love again/ He’s the only one for me, Jolene,” White pleads towards the middle of the song before finally breaking down with, “I’m begging of you please don’t take my man.” White hits the right emotional nuance, elevating the song beyond mere tongue-in-cheek gender bending to something visceral and gripping.
The best bands can take cover versions and make them their own. The White Stripes did this early in their career with takes on Bob Dylan’s “One More Cup of Coffee” and Son House’s “Death Letter.” “Jolene” is easily the best band’s best cover song, taking the fury and despair of Dolly Parton’s original and adding muscle to its vitriol and sadness. – David Harris
“Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” from White Blood Cells (2001)
White Blood Cells finds the White Stripes building up momentum for their rapid rise. Either heralding that climb or stumbling on an appealing formula, the band shifts direction slightly, away from the traditional sound they had been polishing. The album muddies the bluesy waters they had been treading with songs like the hit single, “Fell in Love With a Girl,” which thrusts an English new wave beat into the low-fi realm of the garage. Although the Brit-wave thrash doesn’t dominate the album, it sets up the choppy drive that the White Stripes would sharpen over their next couple of releases. The bulk of the songs still draw on their blues rock idols, but start taking a more riff-driven approach. White Blood Cells jumps right to it with “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground,” which features an opening run that sizzles with a dark aura of doom anchored in Led Zeppelin’s heyday. The White Stripes’ obsession with that band is in full display, embodying the chain of influences; just as Zepp borrowed heavily from the classic bluesmen, the White Stripes scamper up their shoulders to launch this tune.
But it’s a raw, primitive version of their forebears. The drumming is far simpler and they embrace a rough sound, unconcerned with clarity. Jack White makes a fair attempt to cover Robert Plant, which he’s not quite up to, but his quavering voice seems truer to the blues roots and he manages to cram in a double measure of forlorn regret every time that his voice cracks. In homage to Jimmy Page’s deft sense of dynamics, the thickly distorted guitar drops into a cleaner tone for the verses, but the growl and feedback quickly spring free to fill the interstices. The complete package is a stew of allusions: the gut-punch lurch of “Dazed and Confused” warps with “Wild Thing”-inspired head-banging and the lyrics mutate the usual blues tropes into surrealistic proclamations. This weird Franken-blues creation serves as a fine stepping stone to the muscular drive they’d create for Elephant. – Jester Jay Goldman
“Seven Nation Army” from Elephant (2003)
In the perpetual debate about which White Stripes album is the best, Elephant often comes out on top. There are plenty of fans who prefer the Stripes’ earlier rawer garage sound. But Elephant represents the band’s true ascendency into the heart of American popular culture. The Stripes’ fourth record won Best Alternative Music Album and was nominated for Album of the Year at the 46th Grammy Awards. Rolling Stone named it the 390th greatest album of all time. Does this critical and cultural ubiquity mean that the Stripes sold out in the name of popular success or that their authentic brand of rock ‘n’ roll was rightfully finally recognized by the masses? It would be easy to assert the former if it weren’t for Elephant’s strange, decidedly non-mainstream quirks. Sure, barn burning crowd-pleasers like “The Hardest Button to Button” and “Hypnotize” dominate the album, but the Stripes also give us the countryish Burt Bacharach pastiche “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself,” not to mention Meg’s decidedly non-rock ‘n’ roll vocal feature “In the Cold, Cold Night,” which evokes the immature, out-of-tune charm of Maureen Tucker on the Velvet Underground’s “After Hours.” Then there’s album closer “It’s True That We Love One Another,” a brilliant Vaudevillesque deconstruction of rumors regarding Jack and White’s relationship, or a jokey piece of throwaway hokum, depending on one’s viewpoint.
Despite these album oddities, no song on Elephant is more emblematic of the Stripes’ leap into the mainstream than opener “Seven Nation Army.” While it’s easy for hardcore Stripes fans to hate on this track—it is, after all, the ONE White Stripes song that virtually every living, breathing human being knows—a fresh listen reveals why, in fact, it is so damn popular. The “bass” line (it is actually Jack’s acoustic guitar run down an octave through an effects pedal) is so dramatic and catchy that it is chanted as a kind of tribal ritual at any number of professional and amateur sporting events. Despite the pure bliss of Jack’s guitar riff, the drummer is the unsung hero of “Seven Nation Army.” There are few moments in the whole Stripes catalog as thrilling as when Meg, halfway through the first verse, adds the snare drum on beats two and four to the four-to-the-floor kick drum pattern she has already established. From the Queen of England to the hounds of Hell, “Seven Nation Army” is rightfully irresistible. – Jacob Adams
“Forever for Her (Is Over For Me)” from Get Behind Me Satan (2005)
The White Stripes’ fifth LP, Get Behind Me Satan, will forever be known as the one with the marimba. While some may view the prominence of this instrument as a bold artistic move on the part of the duo, Jack White has asserted that it is all over the record because a marimba happened to be sitting in the studio while he and Meg were laying down tracks. Whatever the reason, Get Behind Me Satan is less guitar-driven and more piano- (and certainly marimba-) based than previous Stripes efforts. Some Stripes fan view this change with outrage (Jack’s rocking guitar riffs, after all, formed the basis of their signature sound pre-2005), whereas others accept it as part of the band’s ambitious evolution. Although Satan is overall a mellower effort than the Stripes’ first four albums, there is no doubt that the piano can rock just as much as the guitar (see “My Doorbell” and “The Denial Twist” as Exhibits A and B). Satan is also one of the most musically diverse records in the Stripes’ discography. Typical Stripes rockers like “Blue Orchid” and “Red Rain” stand alongside the self-deprecating acoustic ballad “As Ugly as I Seem” and the playful mountain folk song “Little Ghost.” Album closer “I’m Lonely (But I Ain’t That Lonely Yet),” a sloppy blues-inflected piano tune that evokes both the great American songbook and Robert Plant in balladeer mode, finds Jack White at his most vulnerable.
Get Behind Me Satan has many standout tracks, but “Forever for Her (Is Over For Me)” shines the brightest. The minimalist sonic palette of Meg’s steady drums, a shaker, a piano, the marimba and a touch of acoustic guitar serves as a perfect backdrop for Jack White’s musings on lost love and life change. Over the course of three minutes, Jack conjures up a multitude of emotions, from exasperation due to personal failure (“I blew it/ And if I knew what to do, then I’d do it” to tortured romantic passion (“Their love is only a fraction of what I can give to you”) to Springsteenesque wanderlust (“Let’s do it/ Let’s get on a plane and just do it/ Let’s get out of town and forever be free).” Through it all, Jack delivers one of the most dynamic vocal performances of his career, invoking tender vulnerability on the verses and unbridled passion on the choruses. “Forever for Her” represents the Stripes at their most emotionally resonant. – Jacob Adams
“Steady, As She Goes” from Broken Boy Soldiers (2006)
The Raconteurs sparked to life on the back of a single song. If you believe the origin story, Jack White and singer-songwriter pal Brendan Benson wrote “Steady, As She Goes” in an attic during the sweltering heat of summer. What began as musical back-and-forth between old friends grew into a full album when Greenhornes garage rockers Jack Lawrence and Patrick Keeler joined the mix. The Raconteurs shunned the term “supergroup,” choosing to define their union as an entirely new band. Broken Boy Soldiers was recorded in Benson’s in-home studio, and the album would go on to earn a Grammy nomination, while “Steady, as She Goes” topped the Modern Rock Tracks chart and even broke top 10 in the United Kingdom.
This side project was a new creative outlet for White, one that did not rely on a stripped-down garage sound, but rode a conventional quartet lineup to a more robust indie rock sound. Broken Boy Soldiers also gave White the chance to share the microphone, and his vocal interplay with Benson on “Steady, As She Goes” gives the hit single an added dimension. White sings of an urge to settle down with the right girl, but is unable to stave off restlessness, which may well have expressed the sympathies of a band full of prolific musicians who were clearly gathering no moss. White has taken on the role of trendsetter (just ask him why the Black Keys are so successful) even while maintaining a certain outsider image. Like most of Broken Boy Soldiers, “Steady, As She Goes” is a kickass rock song by a group of guys who are having way too much fun playing off each other’s energy. Music needs more of this. – Josh Goller
“Icky Thump” from Icky Thump (2007)
Jack White’s successful foray into the Raconteurs’ boys club did not stop him from returning to his “big sister” Meg to release another album a year later. No one knew at the time that this would be the White Stripes’ final studio album, but you’d be hard-pressed to imagine a more fitting swansong. After expanding their sound with piano and even marimba on 2005’s Get Behind Me Satan, Icky Thump brought the White Stripes back to their roots. This is a bluesy garage rock album, purely encapsulated in its self-titled lead single.
Borrowing its title from a British expression that means something like, “Oh God!,” “Icky Thump” merges full-throttled American garage rock with an exotic international feel, due largely to liberally applied Univox synthesizer solos that make the track sound folksy and mysterious. Despite their current estrangement, Jack long maintained that Meg was the heart of the band, and her driving drum beats fuel “Icky Thump.” The song has earned comparisons to Led Zeppelin (especially the guitar thrum of “Whole Lotta Love”), and “Icky Thump” may be familiar, but it is definitely its own beast.
The lyrics dip into a stream-of-consciousness that sees White preaching about immigration issues as well as proclaiming, “you can’t be a pimp and a prostitute too.” This exercise in blending experimentalism with garage rock methodology hits the mark. Shockingly, “Icky Thump” was the first White Stripes single to climb into the Billboard Top 40, even though the opening riff to “Seven Nation Army” is now routinely chanted by entire stadiums at NFL games and World Cup soccer matches. “Icky Thump” defines Jack White’s musical approach: simple yet complex, familiar yet experimental, a perfect blend of style and substance. – Josh Goller
“Carolina Drama” from Consolers of the Lonely (2008)
Despite mostly positive critical reviews at the time of its release, in retrospect, Consolers of the Lonely is not a great record. With White’s blues proclivities cleaving against Brendon Benson’s power pop inclinations, the whole affair feels more muddied and scattered than a pleasant bevy of variety. That this manifests in a bloated tracklist comprising too many mundane songs means that the album forsakes the charm of its predecessor, Broken Toy Soldiers. Come the end though, a great reward arrives in the form of “Carolina Drama.”
A classic murder ballad that owes as much to traditional blues as it does to the novels of Harry Crews and Flannery O’Connor, it digs its hooks in you from the opening notes. White sings in a plaintive manner, his voice sounding strained as he introduces the yarn he’s about to spin, an acoustic guitar behind him establishing a rustic melody. It’s soon joined by an eerie electric counterpart, adding a haunted ambience. When the drums join and the narrative proper unfurls in the second verse, it flows like a black river winding its way into a kudzu- and gator-infested swamp.
Heavy fog and the smell of whiskey seem to permeate the piece as White relates his tale of duplicity and licentiousness in a mossy boondock shack. A South Carolinian family composed of a young boy, his teenager brother Billy, their mother and her reprobate boyfriend is beset with strife when two murders are committed in their midst. First, the boyfriend kills a priest who is fornicating with or attacking the mother, only in turn to be killed by a drunken Billy who believes said priest is his father. Told with a focus on Billy’s addled perception, the story is impressionistic and with an unreliable narrator, amounting to a puzzle as to what is really going on. The lyrics gel perfectly with the music to steadily build the tension and the sense of dread, the gaps between verses filled with ghostly feminine vocals flitting about, light key plinking and an aching Civil War-era violin (or maybe fiddle is more apt in this case). It all comes down in the final extended verse, the drums crashing and the other instruments swirling in a maelstrom in synergy with the story’s violence. Wide-eyed derangement takes over in the form of a choir of la-la-las, all before fading back out with a bookended ambiguity. Not just the best song on Consolers of the Lonely, it is one of the finest numbers in White’s oeuvre. — Cole Waterman
“Hang You from the Heavens” from Horehound (2009)
Arguably the darkest offering to come out of Jack White’s catalog of rotating musical rosters, Horehound found White behind the kit for the first time in years, and you can hear him lurking in the background of these murky, snarling tracks. On its surface, The Dead Weather sounds more like Alison Mosshart’s work with the Kills than anything out of the White Stripes playbook, but there’s a sinister, animated grime all over its trashy blues that goes well beyond that of the four musicians’ regular gigs. Horehound sounds evil, sexualized, aggressive and frenzied, real devil’s music compared to the White Stripes’ candy-coated blues. These songs haunt instead of boogie, with Queens of the Stone Age keyboardist and guitarist Dean Fertita oozing swampy organ parts that combine with drawled guitar (courtesy of Fertita and the Raconteurs’ Jack Lawrence) for a heady murk. The White Stripes records are exhilarating, the Raconteurs’ nostalgic, but Horehound is powerfully unsettling. White relegates himself to a supporting role, letting Mosshart take most of the vocals and rarely making his presence known. On lead single “Hang You from the Heavens,” Mosshart spits fire over mammoth buzzsaw guitars that grind forward mechanically in an ominous two-chord riff. She sums up the album’s attitude with the line, “I’d like to grab you by the hair/ and sell you off to the devil,” a whisper more threatening than her raging banshee cries. White punishes the high-hats, throws in a few distant fills, and his strangled bass drum part lurks in a strategic void at the middle of the track, his performance reserved even as the song’s buildup explodes. The Dead Weather brings a lot of talent to a project that arrived fully formed, but White is a formidable contributor even as a supporting player. – Mike Merline
“The Difference Between Us” from Sea of Cowards (2010)
That Jack White is susceptible to illness seems improbable – and yet a case of bronchitis is partly to thank for the formation of the Dead Weather. When White found himself unable to keep up towards the end of the Raconteurs tour in 2008, Kills frontwoman Alison Mosshart was recruited to take over some of his vocal performance. The chemistry was too good to resist, and so White transitioned out of one supergroup into another, leaving Raconteurs nostalgia behind in favor of this slicker, sexier, grimier collaboration with Mosshart, Queens of the Stone Age guitarist Dean Fertita and bassist Jack Lawrence (also of the Raconteurs). Sea of Cowards was their second release in the space of a year, which just goes to show how quickly ideas can coalesce when alpha meets alpha.
Though Horehound bears the stamp of a White production, his presence was largely executed from behind the drumkit. He rises up in the compositions of Sea of Cowards, this time sharing lead vocal duties with Mosshart. The album reeks in a way that quickens the pulse – the danger is so provocative, it neutralizes the instinct to run. In the end, the contrast between White and Mosshart is almost anti-contrast: aside from the male/female dynamic, these two sound like iterations of the same impish creature. It’s only once they’ve led you some distance down a darkening path that you notice the flicker of forked tongues.
“The Difference Between Us” embodies this creepitude perfectly. The first few seconds are an innocent lure, a spattering of keyboard sounds playfully 8-bit before morphing into a crawling organ riff transmitting straight from 22nd century Transylvania. This is all Mosshart’s freakout; she repeats the same verse time and again, each time more intense and disorganized, like a crazy person who asks the same question over and over, desperate for that impossible yes. “Let’s go walk to the border/ Let’s go walk along the edge/ Let’s go where no one can see us/ And find the difference between us.” Squiggles of keyboard frequencies and abrupt drum fills – sometimes just on the rim – poke through this boggy deathwish. “Just let me do what I need to/ It might be to me or to you” – with this, the Dead Weather leaves you bobbing in the froth of madness. – Stacey Pavlick
“Sixteen Saltines” from Blunderbuss (2012)
There’s an extra measure of electricity in the anticipation of an artist’s first solo release. The White Stripes came on the scene just before the turn of the millennium, and in the foundling years of the 21st century, Jack White owned a good part of the scene, establishing himself culturally as an It Guy and artistically as an auteur. 2012 saw the release of Blunderbuss, White’s first to be billed as a solo album. Would it be much different than the output of the Jack White persona we’d come to expect? The album cover suggests a maybe, a high contrast shot of White against an industrial background, unfocused with a heavy bluish saturation. Which is to say, decidedly not peppermint red.
And yet Blunderbuss falls squarely within the confines of the Jack White catalog, which by no means is indicative of it being a disappointment. More Stripes, less Weather. Predictably (by this point) eclectic, White’s tracklist varies between country, blues and rock traditions. But he doesn’t just visit the past by setting up a stool there and singing a little ditty – it’s as if he flings it over his shoulder and drags it with him into the now. He thrashes, he stomps, he pours himself into a lover’s lament. It’s meticulously orchestrated and lyrically purposeful; still, Blunderbuss retains the unabashedness of a prodigy’s mad improvisations.
A record about fracture and poisonous burn, White does nothing to self-soothe. “Sixteen Saltines” pokes at this blister, and White’s feeling masochistic and all but predatory: “She’s got stickers on her locker/ And the boy’s number there in magic marker/ I’m hungry and the hunger will linger/ I eat sixteen saltine crackers then I lick my fingers.” The lyrics are so clever and direct, and the negative space between isolated call-and-response licks make the subsequent fractious clatter all the more rallying. He slips into delusion, shaking you by the collar when he gasps, “Who’s jealous who’s jealous who’s jealous who’s jealous of who?” He’s a straight-up menace, and “Sixteen Saltines” is indeed Blunderbuss’s saltiest track. Makes you want to reach for another cracker. – Stacey Pavlick
“That Black Bat Licorice” from Lazaretto (2014)
On Lazaretto, Jack White shows off how much he’s evolved since the early days of the White Stripes. His extensive production work and collaborations with the Raconteurs and the Dead Weather has broadened his palette well beyond his blues rock roots. White’s latest album is his most polished, but he hasn’t sacrificed his edge to get there. It’s filled with quality material, from the brooding “Would You Fight for My Love?” to the Kid Rock funk-rap of the title cut. He still can’t let go of the blues – the opening track, “Three Women,” is his take on a Blind Willie McTell tune – but he warps the form to integrate updated textures, like the back masking on “High Ball Stepper.”
White continues to expand his instrumentation over his previous minimalist approach; Lazaretto features a fair amount of keyboard work and integral backing vocals. In compensation, he’s less reliant on simple tagline riffs to hold the songs together, giving him the freedom to break new ground. “That Black Bat Licorice” is a fine example. The manipulated vocal intro sets up a more modern pop arrangement, with overdubbed vocal punches and electronic textures. The main vamp gives the tune a cabaret feel, partly from the bump-and-grind rhythm, but also because of how the percussion follows the vocal phrasing. It’s theatrical and flashy. Like “Lazaretto,” White pseudo-raps his way through the piece with a deliberate step-wise pace. His flow is packed, but some lines jump out like, “She writes letters like a Jack Chick comic/ Just a bunch of propaganda, make my fingers histrionic.” He gives a nod to a bluesy call and response, but the interlocked guitar/synth-line reply to his prodding crackles with noisy electricity. Despite the pop production, the quintessential Jack White sound and feel is still in effect, especially in how he blurs the line between bombast and camp. His intent, as always, is to keep the listener off-balance. The beat and White’s attitude set a serious tone, but he gives us a knowing wink at the production excess when he sets up the violin solo with an offhand, “I never liked it, I never will/ Now state the same damn thing with the violin.” The taste of subversion in that slip of the mask is just another touch of showmanship from this compulsive performer. – Jester Jay Goldman