When The White Stripes first crossed over into the mainstream with their 2001 album White Blood Cells, many wrote off the band—and frontman Jack White—as a one-trick pony. It was an easy mistake to make; infectious singles like “Fell in Love With a Girl” and “Dead Leaves on the Dirty Ground” sounded like someone had dug them up, forgotten and dusty, at a Detroit flea market. Jack and his not-sister Meg White had been trailblazers of the millennial garage-rock revival, but most didn’t think it would last very long. Of course The White Stripes would go on to release another three acclaimed albums (including the modern classic Elephant) before disbanding in 2007. By the band’s demise in 2011, White was being added to lists of rock ‘n’ roll’s best guitar players, and the backlash was well underway.
Since then, White has formed a collection of bands, released a pair of solo albums, produced a stack of records for other artists (including Loretta Lynn’s Grammy Award-winning 2004 album Van Lear Rose, lead by the excellent “Portland, Oregon”), and launched indie recording wonderland Third Man Records. And for all his trouble, he’s become one of the more polarizing figures in rock; you either can’t stand White’s rock evangelism, or you’re a steadfast fan perpetually craving his next album, project, tour date. Regardless of your stance, it’s impossible to deny the impact that this songwriter/guitarist/drummer/entrepreneur has on the music industry. Here are the 12 best songs—considering works from all of his projects—by Jack White.
The lead single off The Dead Weather’s new album Dodge and Burn, “I Feel Love” recaptures the gravely mix of performers that represents the supergroup’s signature sound. At the center is Alison Mosshart and her screechy vocals, but here the lyrics are delivered with a rhythm to match the drum’s shuffle and the driving bass line. Dean Fertita’s lead guitar ties it all together, and while the album is too new to really pick a favorite song, “I Feel Love…” is a tune that will certainly remind you that The Dead Weather is more than just a throw-away side project for these artists.
The song that took The White Stripes from a blues-fueled Detroit duo to a garage rock sensation, “Fell In Love With A Girl” was became a breakout hit and rock radio favorite in 2002. Helped by the gloriously lo-fi video by French filmmaker Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Be Kind Rewind, and more) that saw Jack and Meg writ in stop-motion Legos, the single’s punk energy and dead-simple structure won The White Stripes a legion of fans. A departure from the more blues-tinged singles off the previous Stripes albums, “Fell In Love With A Girl” heralded a garage rock revival with a steady stream of bands tackling the striped-down sound during the early years of the new millennium.
Another foot-tapping, slide-heavy Raconteurs tune, “Top Yourself” is the most direct song from the group’s sophomore album—a charming ragbag of styles and sounds. The biting invectives that White aims at a former lover grow in spitefulness as the song progresses, the vitriol contrasting the playful melody and lightness of the backup vocals. And as the guitars build the venomous breakup song hits a delightful stride. It’s mean-spirited, but it will resonate with anyone who’s ever been wronged in love. The band released a bluegrass version of the song as a B-side to “Salute Your Solution,” and the extra kitsch-factor in this track improves on the album version’s sour grapes vibe.
This gem on the White Stripes’ final album, Icky Thump, serves as a kind of swan song for the band’s exploration of the blues. White tried to incorporate many aspects of the form into a cohesive whole, and the song undulates between a languid delta blues shuffle and an angular electric blues cry dripping with fuzz and overdrive. It’s a dynamic and pleading tale of a man realizing that he’s his own worst enemy, and it’s unexpected poignancy is set over the expected wailing guitars, crash cymbals, and bombast. The Stripes would go on hiatus—permanently, it turns out—just months after Icky Thump was released, and you can almost sense that White may have suspected that the band was nearing an end; it really feels like he’s saying goodbye to something.
After the bluegrass diversion of “Top Yourself,” the Raconteurs doubled down on the fiddles and banjos with a rollicking rendition of “Old Enough” featuring bluegrass and country stars Ricky Skaggs and Ashley Monroe. The recording highlights the song’s Zeppelin-influence with some great mandolin playing by Skaggs, and the harmonies in the chorus are filled out with Monroe’s twang (and she’s got some great back-and-forth with White as well). The song meanders around the central motif letting each play get a turn to show their chops; it’s so much fun you’ll wish they had booked a whole month of studio time to cover the rest of Counselors of the Loney. White clearly loves collaborating with diverse artists, and he excels at putting assembling groups that play together with flair.
White loves to end albums with a powerful track, and “Will There Be Enough Water” continued the trend into The Dead Weather era. It wraps up their 2009 debut Horehound— a tumultuous collision of musicians and sounds that coalesces into something dark and dirty. While most Dead Weather tracks put White behind the drum kit and hang on Alison Mosshart’s smoldering vocals and lascivious stage presence, “‘Water” has White shoulder the six string to produce more heavy duty blues licks. It’s a sultry dalliance that gets both White and Mosshart out on center stage sharing a mic, and their chemistry is undeniable.
Jack White’s debut solo album, 2012’s Blunderbuss, lets the prolific musician stretch for new ways to express himself. But the lead single, “Love Interruption,” showed off a stripped-down sound and relatively simple production. There’s a Wurlitzer piano, White’s acoustic strumming, a couple of clarinets and a haunting harmony with Nashville singer Ruby Amanfu’s gritty, sweet vocals. “Freedom at 21” or “Sixteen Saltines” might be more bombastic and rockin’ tracks from Blunderbuss, but “Love Interruption” offers a glimpse into White’s troubled mind. It’s an earnest proclamation of what was missing for him after his divorce from Karen Elson and a clear statement that his solo album wouldn’t be a rehash of his past creations. It’s got that anachronistic charm that White does so well, and that bass clarinet just sounds so good.
During The White Stripes’ extended hiatus, Jack White formed a “new band of old friends” to scratch his creative itch. The Raconteurs collected songwriter Brendan Benson and the rhythm section from Cincinnati Garage Rock band The Greenhornes into a roots-rock tinged group that allowed White and Benson to play off each other for maximum effect. There are a lot of strong songs on the debut album, and the best ones show off an almost palpable tension between the two guitarists. There was a subtle conflict that was apparent during live shows as well, and it fueled many intense performances. With White’s piercing licks and the roaring Zeppelin-like climax, “Blue Veins” is a blistering bluesy lament that was always a highlight of Raconteurs shows.
Elephant, the White Stripes’ iconic fourth album, was a turning point for Jack White; it’s the last album to mainly focus on the straightforward punk-tinged garage-rock blues that defined the Stripes’ early sound. The following White Stripes LPs both incorporated more diverse influences and instrumentation from piano to marimba, and his later projects were even more of a departure. Elephant is packed with visceral explorations of the 12-bar blues, and “Ball and Biscuit” is the epic culmination of White’s first musical identity. It’s also the longest White Stripes song, and thus an excellent choice to play on the jukebox at the local dive bar. Lyrically, it’s about as coherent as the early blues standards that White borrows so much from, but the fuzzed-out and pitch shifted wailing of the multiple guitar solos tell the story just fine.
“Die By the Drop” is one of the standout songs from The Dead Weather’s catalog. An introduction of sorts to the supergroup that featured White mostly on drums, vocals from Alison Mosshart of The Kills, Jack Lawrence from The Raconteurs on bass, and veteran Dan Fertita of Queens of the Stone Age and other groups on guitar and keyboards. This live performance, recorded at Third Man Records in 2010, sounds a little rough. The vocal mix is kinda weird, and Mossheart sounds a little sketchy. There’s some feedback. Fertita’s solo is loose and messy. But the performance captures the intensity and attitude of a band that no one expected to make a second album (let alone a third).
A slow-burn murder ballad that closes out the second Raconteurs album, Carolina Drama tells the story of poor family—two brothers and their beleaguered mother—and their standoff against her abusive boyfriend. Brendan Benson’s bottleneck slide guitar serves as counterpoint to White’s percussive acoustic playing while the story unfolds. There’s a brief piano interlude and some ethereal backup vocals, creating a very cinematic experience that wouldn’tt be out of place in a Tarantino flick or some forgotten spaghetti western. White’s dramatic warble only adds to the song’s gothic charm. “Carolina Drama” was a popular way for The Raconteurs to close out shows, and White has continued to develop and perform the tune on his solo tours where the addition of the fiddle played by Lille Mae Rische adds more melancholy.
The pulsing bass notes that underline the anthemic “Seven Nation Army” and form the most recognizable rock riff of the last 20 years weren’t even played on a bass guitar. White’s use of pitch-shifting guitar effects have been a signature of his unique style, and here he created something that transcended the ubiquitous single to find a place in popular consciousness. The hook has become a populist anthem and is chanted in sports stadiums across the globe; it’s become one of the first riffs kids learn when picking up guitar for the first time. “Seven Nation Army” is emblematic of White’s ability to strip down complex melodic ideas to their core and then play the hell out of them. The lead single off of the 2003 album Elephant, “Seven Nation Army” also announced the return of slide-work into White’s playing after he left the bottleneck in his guitar case when recording White Blood Cells.