Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Top 15 White Stripes songs (OK, I know that's not a catchy title, but screw it.)

Let me start off by saying this - I LOVE the White Stripes. LOVE them. I own all their CDs, have almost their entire collection on my iPod, and have been searching like hell for a reasonably-priced copy of their out-of-print "Under Blackpool Lights" concert DVD. Hell, I even dressed up as Jack White for Halloween (and even when my friend arrived dressed as Meg, no one could figure out who we were supposed to be. :sigh: Rock is dead....) Still, if this blog helps you become a fan of the Detroit duo, or even if you just find a couple of songs to put on your own iPod, then I'll be satisfied. Just know that it was very hard for me to condense this list down to my personal 15 favorite tracks, so good songs like "Blue Orchid", "You Don't Know What Love Is (You Just Do As You're Told)", "Jolene", "Truth Doesn't Make a Noise", and "Same Boy You've Always Known" were left off. But I still recommend them. And if you are a Stripes fan who happened to come across my blog and disagree with my opinion, then you can go ahead and bite me. Or start your own crappy blog. OK, so without further ado, here we go:

15. A Martyr for My Love for You
Album: Icky Thump

A fair portion of the White Stripes' songs are about love and the difficulties and angst that come along with it, and this is a great example. The lyrics are poignant, describing a man who loves a woman so much that he can't stay with her, out of fear of hurting her. The real twist comes during the instrumental breaks, when Jack offers one of the heavier guitar riffs you'll hear from the Stripes, which makes it a good counterbalance for the sorrowful tone of the rest of the song.

14. Hello Operator
Album: De Stijl

De Stijl, their second album, still showcased their roots in garage rock and blues. It was a very raw sound that's well-captured in the upbeat "Hello Operator". Meg's minimalist drumming (particularly the solo bits) is countered by some great guitar and harmonica playing by Jack. An excellent starting point for someone who wants to get into their older work.

13. Ball and Biscuit
Album: Elephant

The majority of the White Stripes songs follow a common philosophy: set a basic structure (usually Meg's job - people rip on her "lack of drumming skills", but she keeps the beat simple, allowing Jack to elaborate; people tend to miss the fact that Jack only limits himself to three chords while playing for the White Stripes, too.), and then improvise within the confines of that structure. "Ball and Biscuit" is a good example of that - it's a very basic blues riff that repeats over the course of the 7-minute track, but after each chorus, Jack hammers out some of his best guitar work yet. It all makes for a song, that's raw, powerful, and even a little bit sexy. [winky emoticon]

12. My Doorbell
Album: Get Behind Me Satan

Get Behind Me Satan was a departure of sorts from their previous work - with a few rare exceptions, Jack stuck to the piano on this album, and although it wasn't as strong overall as Elephant, a few fun singles came out of it, including "My Doorbell". The song about waiting for love, then abandoning it for "my own friends; they're all above me" is a bouncy, lilting song that just wouldn't have worked as well with a guitar, even if Jack White was the one holding it.

11. Conquest
Album: Icky Thump

Another fun song, and the first of three covers on the list. The Stripes take Patti Page's song about lovers alternating roles as hunter and prey, and crank it up a notch, adding blaring trumpets to the grinding guitar sounds (the intro and coda are great fun to listen to). It's obviously not an easy song to reproduce live, but every so often you should be allowed to have one album-exclusive track that just lets the listener crack a smile.

10. The Hardest Button to Button
Album: Elephant

Along with the #9 entry, one of the mosic basic hooks of any of the White Stripes songs, and surprisingly, Jack doesn't do much improvisation on it; instead, he focuses more on driving home the lyrics ("I had opinions that didn't matter..."). Of course, the hook is still remarkably catchy, and Michel Gondry's music video plays off the steady rhythm off the song - well worth checking out.

9. Hand Springs
Album: N/A

Not officially released on any studio album (but was part of a compilation CD called Hot Pinball Rock - seriously), "Hand Springs" is a very simple song. Meg provides a basic yet rapid beat, over which Jack recites a spoken word bit about a boy's futile attempt to reconcile with his girlfriend at a bowling alley. During the chorus, Jack plays a basic six-note riff that really only gets tweaked at the end of the song. Still, the result is a raw and remarkably effective track.

8. Catch Hell Blues
Album: Icky Thump

Now we start getting back to Jack's guitar prowess really being showcased. The melody during the verses is heavy and constant, which then opens up to let Jack tear loose with some incredible solos, only to come right back down from his guitar-god cloud into the lock-step beat from before. The lyrics are fun ("If you go looking for hot water, don't get shocked if you get burned a little bit"), but it's the variance from drawn-out notes to frenetic guitar-playing that make this a fun track to check out.

7. Icky Thump

Album: Icky Thump

The title track, which still receives a fair amount of airplay on rock radio stations, is another typical Track 1 from the White Stripes - a charging, guitar-driven song that's slightly more complex than their usual fare. The lyrics are also slightly different in "Icky Thump", as the quick pounding beat almost forces Jack to sing with more urgency and emphasis than in other songs. Not their best Track 1, but definitely worth a listen.

6. St. James Infirmary Blues
Album: The White Stripes

The only track off their self-titled debut on the list is probably the biggest departure from their early sound on that CD, which makes sense, seeing as this is a cover of Louis Armstrong's well-known dirge. However, like a good cover song should (and much to the dismay of Satchmo fanatics), the Stripes' variation is something familiar and yet entirely foreign and new. Jack's piano rendition is less mournful and practically bouncy, like something you'd hear at one of those New Orleans jazz funerals, or perhaps in a Screamin' Jay Hawkins song. This song shows that, even in their early stages, the Stripes showed both a love of old jazz and blues, and the musical chops to come up with an entirely new and entertaining spin on a classic.

5. Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground
Album: White Blood Cells

White Blood Cells can be seen as a transition album, from their raw, garage-rock sound to their more polished style. "Dead Leaves", the album's first track, declares the White Stripes' presence on the major rock scene from the very start with a loud feedback screech. The rest of the song is a tense, charging number that really accentuates Meg's drumming for a change, particularly in the chorus. The lyrics about waiting for a lover to return are hopeful yet brooding, and of course, Jack's guitar-playing, though low-key, is always worth a listen.

4. Death Letter
Album: De Stijl

An exceptional blues cover, the Stripes take blues legend Son House's song about the death of his true love and keep it close to the original. As with most blues songs, of course, there is room for improvisation during the guitar solos, and Jack makes the most of it, changing pitch and tempo with practically no break in rhythm, and Meg, almost intuitively, follows along perfectly. It's a great guitar song from a true legend, and the Stripes certainly do it justice.

3. The Denial Twist
Album: Get Behind Me Satan

Another piano-based song off their fifth album, "The Denial Twist" is a light, bouncy little track that combines catchy lyrics ("If you think that our kiss was all in the lips, well, you got it all wrong") with a simple piano rhythm that mimics Meg's drumbeat. The video is also worth checking out: another bit of eye candy from Michel Gondry that uses trick photography in a fun way. Oh, and did I mention that the video has CONAN FRICKIN O'BRIEN in it?!? I rest my case.

2. Fell in Love with a Girl
Album: White Blood Cells

Their breakout hit (very possibly aided by the well-known Lego music video, directed by - guess who? - Michel Gondry), this sub-2-minute romp doesn't really showcase Jack's guitar abilities (except the intro, perhaps); if anything, Meg's drumming seems to take over the song in places. But it's overall such a quick, rollicking song that it's practically pointless to analyze it. It's like a music sugar rush - you get amped up and energetic when listening to it, and once the song ends, the crash of silence is pretty overwhelming.

1. Seven Nation Army
Album: Elephant

What else could it be? "Seven Nation Army" is far and away their most popular track; even people who haven't heard of the White Stripes have most likely heard the famous 7-note riff at some point over the last six years (side note: Jack didn't use a bass on this song, he just used a whammy pedal to drive the notes down an octave). The song won a Grammy in 2004 and was named one of the 25 greatest guitar songs of all time by Rolling Stone, and its popularity is still evident today, as many soccer clubs' fan groups have adopted the riff as a chant (especially in Italy, oddly enough); the song has also been covered by a number of artists from a number of genres. This was truly the song where the White Stripes cemented their place as one of the top rock acts of the last decade, and Jack White rightfully earned his reputation as one of the best guitarists (if not THE best) of this generation. If you haven't heard the song: 1) Come out from under the rock. 2) Here's the video; you can thank me later. I accept payment in the form of money and giftcards to Target. Or if you can get me that "Under Blackpool Lights" DVD, then we're solid.

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