When listening to The White Stripes in present-day, it’s hard to not question if they were a real band that geniuenly existed in our timeline. The dynamic energy between the two Michigan-natives, Jack and Meg White, almost seems like a fever-dream at this point. How did two DIY musicians create some of the most powerful rock songs of the 21st-century and then just disappear?
In the 14 years together, the former husband and wife duo have released 6 studio LPs, all of which are considered the most iconic rock albums of their time….and I’ve decided to rank them in (personal) preference order.
(yes, they were a once-married couple, then divorced and decided to introduce themselves as siblings once they got famous to avoid having to explain the drama)
However, before we jump into the actual list, I need to clarify, whenever I say “worst” album by The White Stripes or an album that I “don’t like”…What I mean is, in terms of a perspective of considering their entire body of work. I’m also looking at each record as a whole package, instead of the individual songs… I’m in no way saying it’s an awful album that should be disregarded in general.
PS, it would be fun to know your personal ranking of their discography so feel free to comment yours!
#6: Get Behind Me Satan (2005)
I am going to go ahead and rip off the “hot takes” bandage and put Get Behind Me Satan as the worst album, in my humble opinion.
I know, I know, how do are I do this? Especially since this record gave us gems like “Blue Orchid” and “Red Rain“, which are both some of the most widely known The White Stripes tracks. Nevertheless, they are, honestly, the only memorable tracks on this record. It’s also worth mentioning that Get Behind Me Satan gave us the Jack White pencil moustache era that should have been illegal, and I will never forgive him for that.
Jokes aside, what I really won’t forgive about this record is that it has a really strong opening with Blue Orchid, which later becomes a misleading first impression. Initially, you are given a “hell yeah” sensation upon hearing the ripping beats of Blue Orchid, yet, the album then goes into “The Nurse” which immediately kills the entire vibe of the album…and then……My Doorbell…. like, really?
Whenever I give this album another try, a sense of anger builds up and I want to scream “how the hell do you go from Blue Orchid to back-to-back tracks that sound like 90s-commercial-jingles?”. Unfortunately, Get Behind Me Satan follows this pattern all the way to track seven, White Moon.
Even then, White Moon is only saved due to hindsight knowledge that we get from the documentary “Under Great White Northern Lights“. In that film, we get this beautiful scene of the two White‘s sat around the piano, as Jack plays White Moon. We watch Jack serenade his longtime partner, Meg, who is then brought to tears because they are both very aware that that is the end of their time as a band. Probably one of my most favourite rockumentary scenes ever.
But again, seven tracks in and the album is only saved by a song that you’d have to know from their later body of work in order to really enjoy.
Luckily, we are finally given a break from the old-school-pop-melodic-jingles and have Instinct Blues to listen to, which is a bad-ass punk-inspired bluegrass tune. Sadly, this only lasts for a short while because then we go back to the piano jingles, that I honestly don’t find myself eagerly replaying.
Overall, Get Behind Me Satan consistently stays in the last place for me. Maybe I am not mature enough to enjoy the more pop-like sounding songs, or maybe I just don’t get what they were going for. If that is the case, I am sorry I failed you former Mr. & Mrs. White, but this record will most likely forever stay at the last place for me.
#5: Icky Thump (2007)
…Yeah, I really just did that, again. I put one of the most iconic rock albums of the 2000-2010 era as my second least favourite albums.
The album Icky Thump has many stand-alone songs that are some of the most brilliant songwriting of our time, for example:
“White Americans, what? Nothing better to do? Why don’t you kick yourself out? You’re an immigrant too? // Who’s usin’ who? What should we do? Well you can’t be a pimp
and a prostitute too”
That alone should hypothetically give this album instant immunity and be scored as top The White Stripes album, however, album rankings, unfortunately (or fortunately) don’t work like that.
You can’t just expect me to ignore the fact this album had so many potentials that just repeatedly fell flat. Take the second track of this album for example, “You Don’t What Love Is[….]”, riff-wise, it’s strong, but there are a few loose bolts that make the song feel poorly executed.
For a long time now, I’ve tried to pinpoint what it is exactly that makes me go “meh” for both this song and, honestly, the entire record.. but I don’t really know how to explain it. Sometimes I think it’s the fact that there are a lot of empty gaps between the guitar and drums, like the lack of a juicy bass line that carries the melody. Then, there are times I conclude that maybe this album is just poorly mixed, but knowing Jack, I don’t think he’d allow the latter.
The album plainly lacks a real umph to it, despite the attempts being there.
Although Icky Thump marked the duo’s return to the more garage-punk roots that the band was built on, that’s not to say the music on this album is exactly that. For whatever questionable reason, Jack and Meg thought it’d be clever to draw on mariachi influences and incorporate these thematics into their classic Detroit born-and-raised-tunes.
Furthermore, there’s a lot of questionable track listing choices made on this album. For example, track 4 is the song “Conquest“, which is this mariachi inspired song that goes with the albums aesthetic. Yet, that song is then followed by “Bone Broke“, which is a classic White Stripes bluesy-garage rock song, and then we’re thrown into tracks 6 and 7 which are both bag-pipe-white-as-hell-colonial beats.
I understand Jack‘s obsession with “expect the unexpected”, but considering that he is also a man of worshiping the vinyl experience, I don’t think it works well when spinning the album. It all clashes.
I know these are all controversial takes because in terms of “professional scoring” this album knocked it out of the ballpark. So, maybe I’m just not musically inclined enough to “get the experience”, but sometimes, to me, being experimental is just a mask for “I tried too hard, and it ended up a bit messy”.
You can be avant-garde without being messy.
However, If we ignore those cringe moments, we do have gems like Icky Thump, Little Cream Soda, I’m Slowly Turning Into You and Catch Hell Blues, and even if the entire package of this album does not go well, the tracks individually are worth giving a chance.
It’s also a huge shame that THIS was their final goodbye to the music world, especially after one of the most iconic careers in modern rock music.
#4 De Stijl (2000)
Up until this point, I’ve been pretty ruthless and heavily emphasizing each album’s flaws because it’s the only way I could justify not having them ranked higher up. If I discussed the brilliance of the previous albums, I’d end up scrapping this entire piece, as I would no longer feel comfortable ordering them.
I was doing fine with this mantra until this present moment, as the next four records are less distinct in terms of their flaws, in my opinion.
Honestly, how am I to argue which one of these is better than the other when they are all literally the best albums in rock music history? I was a fool thinking this article would be a good idea, but I’m trying.
De Stijl is The White Stripes’ sophomore album, therefore I’d like to acknowledge the fact that I sincerely recognize how strong of a record it is when you consider that this is still very much a DIY project. This album holds some of the most disgusting guitar tones and riffs that pre-teen me has had ever heard, such as “Death Letter”, “Hello Operator” and “Little Bird“. I remember hearing those songs for the first time and wanting to inject them into my brain… A religious experience, praise be, amen.
The reason though this album is number 4 and not higher, is because in terms of comparing it to the remaining 3 records it’s very “we’re still figuring out our sound” vibe. Which, is not bad at all, since, again, this is their second LP. Oddly enough though, this album, in contrast to their later albums of Icky Thump and Get Behind Me Satan, has a lot more songs that feel full and put together.
It’s almost disappointing how much better the sophomore album of a renowned band is better than their last two albums. But, again, we’re talking about the album as a whole package, because if we’re talking individual tracks then Little Cream Soda alone trumps the entirety of De Stijl.
#3: Elephant (2003)
We’re at the point in the article where I feel it’s important to elaborate on how DIY Jack and Meg White are. To begin with, Meg has had no formal drum training or a single lesson in her life. In fact, she had never had any aspirations to be a drummer or even a musician. Jack asked her to play along with his music because he was aware that her ‘primal’ drum playing would be that secret ingredient to what makes The White Stripes so distinct.’
Elephant is the band’s fourth studio album and one of their most critically acclaimed and commercially successful albums. It earned the duo two Grammy nominations and the award for the best alternative rock album in 2004.
One of the most famous beats in the world? Seven Nations Army from the 2000 album Elephant. A distinct feature in that song is Meg‘s simple but memorable drumming. However, have you ever noticed that when played live, she has not once played in the same tempo as the recording or to the last time she played it… and Jack LOVED that. Instead of giving her a metronome to train to, he let her keep changing the tempo…even mid-song on stage because it would challenge him to pay attention and stay on his toes.
Maybe that was more of a fun fact than a legit reason to why I’m ranking this number three, but please, let me praise this band in peace.
Despite this list being a more personal ranking, it still feels wrong putting this at number three because it is one of my all-time favourite albums in general. When I consider how, right off the gate, this album opens with the iconic Seven Nation Army, then is followed by the as memorably melodic Black Math and slowly wraps into the Beatles-like There’s No Home For You Here.
It’s just pure art.
Then the album is just hit after hit, after hit. Track three is the anthemic I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself, that although starts slowly it ends with a chant worthy repetition of the chorus. The only real justification for not placing this album as number one is the B2-B4 sides of the album, which comprise of more stripped-back ballads. Even then, they’re not terrible, especially how well the return of the more hard rock songs is executed after these songs.
After the ‘slow down’ of the hard-hitting openers, we get to the C side of the album and it starts with this gritty blues song Ball and Biscuit, which has this shrilling guitar tone halfway through that carries you back on the garage rock journey of your dreams.
Conclusively, Elephant is a great example of how one can administer both punk-like-rock music and bluegrass-ballads without it becoming messy.
#2 The White Stripes (1999)
Alas, we’re down to the final two studio albums, and preferably, both these albums are top tier for me. Still, I’ve put myself in this ranking and now I have to conclude it without further complaints.
The album The White Stripes is the debut record by the Michigan band, and this album is a huge deal for those from the era. Although it was not initially critically acclaimed from the get-go, those from the bands home state declare it a significant piece of Michigan’s punk-rock identity.
Significant to the Detroit rock culture aside, this album is also a vital part of the early 2000s garage rock sound. The album is raw, authentic, and heavily draws on blues which was not very common for the more preceding “punk” music that had come out. The White Stripes introduced sultry blues-tones by using slider guitar tones in songs like Suzy Lee. This technique is a huge part of The White Stripes record and is actually what I particularly enjoy about this album most.
What we don’t hear much of in this album is those “ugly” guitar tones that became so vital in the signature Jack White guitar tone. It’s weird listening back to songs like “When I Hear My Name“, the guitar tones in the recording are so average and clean. If you watch later performances of the song when Jack discovers his love of that more blaring guitar tone, the song comes to life.
The lack of nasty-sounding (in the best way possible) guitar solos is what “missing” in this album. The guitars are quite clean, considering later The White Stripes work. It has that effective punky-blues vibes that sit so well with me, but it definitely misses the special touch of his boisterous tones.
It almost feels wrong without them.
Still, that’s the only real flaw about this album. There isn’t a single track that I find doesn’t embody the spirit of The White Stripes. Everything about this album is so fresh, and badass.
#1: White Blood Cells (2001)
July 3rd, 2001, The White Stripes released their third album White Blood Cells. The album was recorded four days and emphasizes the band’s blues-rock influences, rather the more ‘primitive’ garage rock sounds from their two earlier albums.
This album, in my humble opinion, is a holy grail rock album. From its straightforward instrumentals, the muddy mixing that gives it a mean sound, to the clean combination of southern roots with loud punk influences, White Blood Cells is a work of art.
The recording process of this album is an interesting one that I think is worth highlighting. As mentioned previously, the album was put together in less than a week, as Jack wanted the tense energy to be translated into the recording. This was also the band’s first time using a 24-track recording studio, in which it was specifically asked of recording engineer, Stuart Sikes, to not make the final mix clean, let alone sound “too good”.
Sorry Jack, but the album sounds f*cking great. The ‘poor mixing’ gives the album a fuzz-rock edge, that I think works really well with songs like “Fell in Love With a Girl” , it transmits the youthful charm that is so distinct to The White Stripes, perfectly.
This brings me to one of the most clever things about the band.
A lot of people claim they don’t like The White Stripes because they’re “too simple”, however, the band uses their simplicity and child-like charm to bring rock and roll back to the basics. Hence the bright white, black and red colours to their aesthetic, the rusticity of two “siblings” playing “two” instruments and never going beyond that. Jack has shared that the band chose the peppermint logo because it represents the fresh-youthful package they were going for.
The band is supposed to be simple, charming and unapologetically loud. To me, the best album that captures that feeling is White Blood Cells. It’s straightforward without being boring, it’s gritty without sounding try-hard, it’s tense but still has a fresh bounce to the tracks.
I don’t think it can be easy to create something with such a contrasting dichotomy “tense but light”. Yet with the simplicity of Meg’s drumming and Jack‘s masterful skills playing along to her rudimentary take on music, it works so damn well.
That’s what made The White Stripes so one of a kind.
I would love to know how you would rank their discography!
Until next time Interwebs! 🕸
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