The garage rock explosion of the early 2000s saw a proliferation of bands whose names began with a ‘The’ and who ranged in quality from the great to the mediocre. The White Stripes were in a different class entirely. While the duo were frequently lumped in with The Hives, The Strokes, The Vines and all the rest, Jack White’s raw sonics, Meg White’s insouciant cool and an arsenal of absolutely sensational songs set them apart from the pack.
They burned brightly and they burned fast but at least they were prolific while they lasted, producing six studio albums between 1999 and 2007. There’s not a true duffer amongst them but here they are ranked from worst (or possibly least good) to best…
6. The White Stripes (1999)
At this point in time The White Stripes were still very much a work in progress and they sounded like it. Debut albums often catch a band at their most primal and explosive, but The White Stripes would actually pack more power as they evolved and Jack White refined his production skills. The guitar in particular sounds comparatively thin here and some of the songs sound more like sketches than fully formed visions. Still, all the elements that would allow them to explode into the public consciousness are in place.
There are also a few excellent songs, from suitably incendiary opener Jimmy the Exploder to the campfire chic of Sugar Never Tasted So Good to a cover of Robert Johnson’s Stop Breaking Down that knocked spots of The Rolling Stones’ version on Exile On Main St.
5. Icky Thump (2007)
If it didn’t represent their creative peak, The White Stripes at least went out on a commercial high with the album that would turn out to be their swansong debuting at Number 1 in the UK and Number 2 on the US Billboard 200.
It certainly wasn’t a bad album, returning to a more fundamental, fuzzed out approach after the more laid back deviation of Get Behind Me Satan. The angular title track was also one of their finest moments. Jack’s lyrics were rarely political - The Big Three Killed My Baby on the self-titled debut was the last time he’d really nailed his colours to any mast, and that was about the automotive industry. He certainly had a knack for it though, delivering coruscating lines like 'White Americans, what?/ Nothing better to do/ Why don’t you kick yourself out?/ You’re an immigrant too.'
There were other standout moments like You Don’t Know What Love Is (You Just Do As You’re Told) but this was largely The White Stripes returning to a style and sound they’d already done better.
4. De Stijl (2000)
De Stijl, Dutch for ‘The Style’, was an art movement that embraced an abstract, pared-down aesthetic using basic elements such as geometric forms and primary colours. It informed The White Stripes’ entire visual style and also stood as a shorthand for their stripped back musical style.
On their second album, the duo were not doing anything radically different than they had on their first, but they were doing it all better. The combination of Jack White’s strident vocal and the Jon Spencer-style explosion of blues, punk and distortion are entirely recognisable as the band that would shortly go on to conquer the world. Even so, it’s some of the quieter moments - the folky I’m Bound To Pack It Up, the wistful Apple Blossom - that leave the greatest impression.
Buy De Stijl
3. Get Behind Me Satan (2005)
After exploding outside of their native Detroit with their third album White Blood Cells and cementing their status with Elephant, The White Stripes were perhaps the biggest force in pure noisy, overdriven rock that we had in the early 2000s. It was therefore a very bold move to turn the amps down from 11 and tap the distortion pedals off.
As the lead single and opening track, the riff-driven Blue Orchid serves as a decoy before Jack and Meg deploy a whole grab-bag of piano-led lounge loucheness, Appalachian folk, laid-back campfire acoustics and experimental curveballs. It’s essentially their Led Zeppelin III, a departure that alienated some fans but stands as a wonderful piece of work years later.
2. Elephant (2003)
Few bands ever write a song, let alone a riff, that transcends popular music and becomes a global cultural touchstone. Whether you associate it with sporting events across Europe and the US or political movements in the UK (remember ‘Oh, Jeremy Corbyn’ at Glastonbury?), there’s no getting away from an earworm of such proportions it belongs under the sands of Arrakis. Seven Nation Army was a monster of a song but it was far from the only highlight on the album that saw the band at the peak of their popularity.
There are guitar drenched stompers in Ball And Biscuit and The Hardest Button To Button. There’s a slightly jagged cover of the Burt Bacharach standard I Just Don't Know What to Do with Myself and there’s Meg taking a sultry vocal lead on In the Cold, Cold Night. It’s a genuine masterpiece but it’s not quite in the number one spot.
1. White Blood Cells (2001)
Elephant might have established The White Stripes as the hottest rock phenomenon of a then new century and briefly made power duos fashionable, but it was the incredible White Blood Cells that laid the groundwork. Their first two albums had made them a cult act for those in the know but it was on White Blood Cells that they exploded into the wider public consciousness, colour theme, sibling mythology and all.
They always excelled at impactful openers but the filthy fuzz and consummate construction of Dead Leaves And the Dirty Ground is as close to perfection as you can get. And the thrills keep on coming. Smash hit Fell In Love With A Girl is the most fun you can have in less than two minutes, with its buzzsaw riff and wordlessly mesmerising refrain. Hotel Yorba takes your hand and whirls you joyously round a sawdust floor and I’m Finding It Harder To Be A Gentleman hits a perfectly weighted groove.
This is where everything they were building up to on their first two albums suddenly clicked into place. And, more than two decades on, one of the first great albums of the 21st century remains a serious contender.