Jack White's 20 Best Songs Ranked
As 'Elephant' turns 20, we're counting down highlights from the White Stripes, the Raconteurs and the Dead Weather
Published Mar 23, 2023Jack White recently made his fifth appearance as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live, and I spent a few minutes that evening browsing reactions to the performance on Twitter. About two-thirds of tweeters were blown away, praising him as one of the greatest performers in the show's history; the other third were appalled, saying it was "just noise."
Twitter is made for such divisive reactions, but even so — it was clear from the tweets that, more than 20 years since the White Stripes exploded into the mainstream, White still inspires awe and revulsion with his bare-knuckle blues and jagged garage rock.
While peers like the Strokes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs have come and gone (and then returned for the nostalgia circuit), and the Black Keys became watered-down arena rock, White has never paused for a moment. With side-projects like the Raconteurs and the Dead Weather, and as the head of Third Man Records, he's continued to push boundaries and buttons. Now 47 years old, his latest albums have been the most experimental of his career: the weirdo funk/hip-hop/electronic rock of 2018's Boarding House Reach, and the twin attack of 2022's electric Fear of the Dawn and acoustic Entering Heaven Alive.
With the White Stripes' career-defining 2003 album Elephant turning 20 on April 1, we're counting down the 20 best songs in White's career.
20. The White Stripes
"The Air Near My Fingers"
The overlooked gem from the White Stripes' best-known album, "The Air Near My Fingers" is buried in the back half of Elephant and was only ever played live a small handful of times. It's certainly not the flashiest song in White's oeuvre, but with its snaking melody, subtly sinister lyrics and irresistible "doot-doo" hook, it's a low-key standout in an album of anthems.
19. Jack White
"Freedom at 21"
In a 2018 interview with Exclaim!, White spoke about the influence of hip-hop on his work, saying, "I've been sneaking it under the radar and no one really notices." Case in point: "Freedom at 21," the standout single from his debut solo album, with its curiously echoing drum groove, twangy surf riff and Whammy pedal weirdness. After the staunch minimalism of the White Stripes, this offered an early indication of the freaky experimentation of his solo career.
18. The White Stripes
"Take, Take, Take"
Get Behind Me Satan (2005)
Get Behind Me Satan was the White Stripes' first album they wrote after getting popular — and boy, can you ever tell. It's full of anti-commercial ballads and screeds against fame, including the vicious "Take, Take, Take," a scathing account of a fan meeting '40s film star Rita Hayworth and making ever-escalating demands of her time and attention. White's signature cynicism has rarely been quite so biting.
17. The White Stripes
De Stijl (2000)
There's something a tiny bit icky about "Apple Blossom" and its dubious declarations of love — to paraphrase, "Other people don't care for you, but I do." But with a perfectly Kinks-y piano bounce, it's got one of the most undeniably infectious pop melodies in White's entire oeuvre. While the White Stripes usually rely on rawness over refinement, this is a classic piece of smart songwriting.
16. The White Stripes
"We're Going to Be Friends"
White Blood Cells (2001)
Jack White always embraced the childish element of the White Stripes — something that came across subtly in the band's peppermint imagery, and explicitly in songs like "We're Going to Be Friends." White sung from the perspective of a schoolchild on this tender acoustic lullaby, which is so sweet that the White Stripes even turned it into a kids' book.
15. The Dead Weather
"I Cut Like a Buffalo"
White takes a backseat, literally, as the drummer in the Dead Weather — but the band's best song is a rare moment when he gets on the mic. Amidst threatening organ stabs and eerie echoing effects, White yelps eerie lines like, "You cut a record on my throat," and, "You're a prick with a pin woman / Push it into my skin." It's the perfect embodiment of the Dead Weather's ferocious goth blues.
14. The White Stripes
The White Stripes catalogue is peppered with power chord ragers that tone down their usual blues in favour of pure garage punk (see also: "Broken Bricks," "Hypnotize"). "Black Math" is one of the best of these, adding a twist to its straightforward stomp in the form of a slowed-down Big Muff breakdown and a squealing guitar solo employing White's signature stuttering style — not to mention some exceptionally cool vocal scatting when White croaks, "ah ah ah ah."
13. The White Stripes
"I Fought Piranhas"
The White Stripes (1999)
Jack White had been planning on asking guitarist Johnny Walker of the Soledad Brothers to join the White Stripes, making them a trio, but those plans were interrupted when Walker got into med school. The spine-tingling closing track of the White Stripes' self-titled debut offers a taste of what that trio lineup might have sounded like, with Walker's spooky slide work interlocking with White's skronkier caveman playing. "I fought piranhas / And I fought the cold / There was no one with me / I was all alone," White sings, his voice rising to a shriek while a thick blanket of reverb adds to the chilly desolation.
12. Jack White
"Never Far Away"
Cold Mountain (Music from the Mirimax Motion Picture) (2003)
The 2003 film Cold Mountain was perhaps the first indication of how White's ambitions would eventually take him beyond the White Stripes: he acted in the film and performed five songs on the soundtrack, marking his first commercial release as a solo artist. In addition to covers of traditional songs, he offered up this retro-styled original, based on the film's characters, Ada and Inman. It shows that his appreciation for folk music goes every bit as deep as his dedication to the blues.
11. The White Stripes
De Stijl (2000)
Taking inspiration from the schoolyard chant, "Hello Operator" is a quintessential example of the way White was able to totally reimagine blues with raw garage production and a skewed sense of childlike innocence. It's also a perfect display of how Meg White's barebones drumming complemented his songwriting, with the timekeeper playing the world's simplest drum solo entirely using rimshots. With "is Meg White a good drummer?" regrettably back in the discourse, here's undeniable proof that she is.
10. Jack White
"Shedding My Velvet"
Fear of the Dawn (2022)
A wonky weirdness frays the edges of Fear of the Dawn, but its best track is also its most straightforward. Closer "Shedding My Velvet" is a hypnotic comedown from a manic album, its sultry soul groove providing the pulse for bluesy six-string seductions and stately piano textures. The layered tones and juddering breakdowns threaten to go off-kilter, but each time the arrangement goes sideways, the drums bring the track back to its equilibrium.
9. The White Stripes
"The Hardest Button to Button"
White pulled off a tricky sleight of hand on Elephant, using an octave pedal to fill in the bottom end for the famously bassless duo. It sounds fantastic hammering out the primal quarter notes in "The Hardest Button to Button" as White seethes about "a brain that felt like pancake batter," painting a sinister portrait of family drama. The White Stripes made it sound even better live, when White used seasick octave drops to play the bassline and guitar part at the same time.
8. The White Stripes
"Fell in Love with a Girl"
White Blood Cells (2001)
The breakthrough hit "Fell in Love with a Girl" launched the White Stripes' mainstream career in less than two minutes of white-knuckle garage punk, propelled by scorching power chords and a wordless "ah-ahh-ah" hook. With an iconic LEGO video that served as the perfect visual representation for the simplicity of the music, it's so catchy that it became a hit again just a couple years after its release, thanks to a slow and soulful cover by Joss Stone.
7. The Raconteurs
"Broken Boy Soldier"
Broken Boy Soldier (2006)
White's piercing, eerie voice has never sounded more otherworldly than it does here, as he shrieks amidst a droning, psychedelic soundscape. White has shown an interest in stage musicals, at one point covering "Mr. Cellophane" from Chicago; "Broken Boy Soldier" sounds like the moment when the villain appears alone on stage to explain his origin story.
6. The White Stripes
White Blood Cells (2001)
White is best known for rock and blues, but he also has a longtime connection to country music; he lives in Nashville, after all. The White Stripes dedicated White Blood Cells to Loretta Lynn, and White tried his hand at the genre with "Hotel Yorba." But even with White affecting a twang amidst a three-chord acoustic hoedown while singing about "stompin' our feet on the wooden boards," he and Meg still bash this one out like a feverish garage rocker. In more recent years, he's played it live with pedal steel and fiddle, making it far more convincing as a country tune; either way, it's great.
5. The White Stripes
"Seven Nation Army"
Ba ba BA ba ba bahh bahhhhh!
4. The White Stripes
"The Big Three Killed My Baby"
The White Stripes (1999)
When White was playing in the early cowpunk band 2 Star Tabernacle, they collaborated with veteran soul singer Andre Williams, who requested something "controversial" to sing. White responded by writing "The Big Three Killed My Baby," a thunderous smasher about Detroit's "big three" car companies: GM, Ford and Chrysler. The collab didn't quite work, but the song later became the primal highlight of the White Stripes' early catalogue — a brutish two-chord stomp that finds the duo at their most quintessentially Detroit.
3. The Raconteurs
Consolers of the Lonely (2008)
White's best songs tend to be visceral bursts of raw emotion — but "Carolina Drama," the far-and-away highlight of his work with the Raconteurs, is a cryptic murder mystery that unfolds patiently over six minutes of gothic, minor-key folk rock. With the expert pacing of Agatha Christie, White tells a tangled tale involving brothers, their mom, her boyfriend, a priest and the milkman. There's violence, a revelation about paternity, a dead body and a jeering refrain of "la-di-da-dah" — but if you want the full story, you're going to have to ask the milkman.
2. The White Stripes
"Ball and Biscuit"
Possibly referring to the STC Coles 4021 "ball and biscuit" microphone, or maybe a nod to British slang and the fact that Elephant was recorded in England, White's longest-ever studio recording is seven minutes of lurid, oozing id. It's hard to say why exactly it seems so raunchy, since White doesn't say anything remotely explicit — but with a swaggering spoken-word delivery and three sprawling solos that single-handedly transformed White from garage upstart into generation-defining guitar hero, this is some primordial peacocking. "And right now, you could care less about me," White declares. "But soon enough, you will care by the time I'm done." He absolutely makes good on his promise.
1. The White Stripes
"Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground"
White Blood Cells (2001)
Here it is: everything that makes White great packed into three thrilling minutes. A screech of feedback leads into a bludgeoning fuzz riff that hits with brute-force simplicity; a delicate series of arpeggios and chord embellishments bring fresh life to a classic-sounding progression; impressionistic lyrics twist childlike imagery ("shiny tops and soda pops") into a cryptic story of heartbreak; a stomping bridge flips a blues standard, borrowing lyrics from Son House, into a new form. The chords and melodies could have seemingly been written by almost anyone in the past few decades, and yet White plays with unhinged urgency that feels entirely his own (thanks in no small part to the thundrous snare-kick of drummer Meg White). "Dead Leaves" is the first song on the band's breakthrough album, and although White's music has gotten more ambitious and refined, he's never distilled his essence quite so purely.