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The Strokes vs. The White Stripes
With one band reunited, and the other broken up, we rank both discographies in an epic battle royale of early 21st-century rock.
By Austin L. Ray
Yesterday, The Strokes released Angles, their fourth album — and first in five years — and consequently celebrated a decade of music-making. The one-time avatars of hip, New York City rock 'n' roll dropped their breakout debut, Is This It, in 2001, while at the same time, a young Detroit duo called the White Stripes was busy releasing what would be its own breakout record, White Blood Cells. Despite their stylistic differences, the two acts would go on to be heralded as the leaders of some sort of "Return Of Rock" movement circa the early '00s. Fast forward ten years, and The Strokes have lost most of their prominence, while The White Stripes recently announced that they will not be making music anymore. This seemed like the perfect time for a valedictory assessment. Which band made more of an impact?
10. The Strokes, First Impressions of Earth (2006)
With rare exception, critics were kinder than they should've been to this hit-or-miss platter of mediocrity upon its release. The subsequent years have not been as kind to First Impressions of Earth. Where the Stripes were soaking up the limelight on LP3, the Strokes were stepping away from it with an album whose liner notes are more worth revisiting than the music itself. The band's tried-and-true retro formula wasn't broke, and when they tried to fix it, the result was uneven, bordering on annoying.
Listen: "You Only Live Once"
9. The Strokes, Angles (2011)
Five years passed between First Impressions and this week's Angles, which is the same amount of time it took The Strokes to release their first three albums altogether. Moreover, to hear the band tell it, this record was decidedly not fun to make. It kind of sounds that way too. A mix of solid, quintessentially Strokesian numbers ("Under Cover of Darkness" is the band's best song since Room on Fire), slight but welcome changes of pace ("Metabolism"), and complete head-scratchers ("You're So Right" is, simply, so wrong), Angles is a step in the right direction following First Impressions, and hopefully not the band's last. "I feel like we have a better album in us, and it's going to come out soon," guitarist Nick Valensi told Pitchfork. Fingers crossed.
Listen: "Under Cover of Darkness"
8. The White Stripes, Icky Thump (2007)
Jack White's lyrical wizardry may have been at its peak on what turned out to be the last Stripes album. But so too were his wandering musical impulses. Maybe he and Meg had simply become to big for their garage-rock britches — too distracted and too stretched out from years of success. While Icky Thump contains highlights both feral ("Rag and Bone") and subdued ("300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues"), it also somehow manages to feel both overly glossy and restrained, dressing up the simple songs that made the band great and robbing them of their grit.
Listen: "Rag and Bone"
7. The White Stripes, Get Behind Me Satan (2005)
Certainly the most unorthodox album by either band, Get Behind Me Satan was a curious late-period release for a band that (it seems obvious in hindsight) was growing a bit tired of itself. Perhaps reacting to the two critical and commercial successes preceding it, or perhaps just reveling in its own quirks, Satan sprinkles rewarding oddities ("The Nurse") alongside more typical-if-cleaned-up Stripes fare ("My Doorbell") and classic bangers ("The Denial Twist," "Instinct Blues"). As fun as it is in parts, this record was the beginning of the end of the White Stripes.
Listen: "The Denial Twist"
6. The White Stripes - Elephant (2003)
Unlike their New York brethren, the Stripes managed to build on their breakout release, 2001's White Blood Cells, releasing this crushing record that handily outsold its predecessor worldwide, albeit with the backing of a much larger label (V2, itself backed by Universal, as opposed to California indie label Sympathy for the Record Industry). The Detroit duo doesn't do much wrong here, rocking hard for much of this epic album, taking occasional detours for ballads ("In the Cold, Cold Night," "I Want to Be the Boy to Warm Your Mother's Heart") and one charming country closer ("Well It's True That We Love One Another"), all the while proving it can handle the pressures of a particularly hot spotlight.
Listen: "Seven Nation Army"
5. The Strokes - Room on Fire (2003)
Although it wasn't quite as commercially successful as its predecessor, cut Room on Fire a break. After all, its predecessor was Is This It, easily one of the most talked-about albums of the decade. Even with that in mind, Room on Fire does quite well for itself, essentially repackaging the band's stunning debut with a few new flourishes. If you listen with the right set of ears, it's almost on par with Is This It, and even on its worst days, it still contains some of The Strokes' finest recorded moments.
4. The White Stripes - The White Stripes (1999)
The first and unquestionably most aggressive record in The White Stripes oeuvre, the band's self-titled debut is unrelenting almost to a fault, piling rocker on top of rocker so much so that the occasional mid-tempo number or spooky Bob Dylan cover barely leaves the listener any breathing room. When Jack White screams, "Their ideas make me want to spit" on "The Big Three Killed My Baby," you can practically see the saliva gathering in the corners of his mouth. As if cracking a masochistic joke hilarious only to themselves, The White Stripes pack seventeen songs onto this frantic, overblown album. It's a test of sorts; if you can make it through this one, you'll easily get through — though perhaps ultimately wind up disappointed with — everything else they put to record.
Listen: "The Big Three Killed My Baby"
3. The White Stripes - White Blood Cells (2001)
Despite its rushed early-2001 recording in a Memphis studio, White Blood Cells was The White Stripes' most polished record at the time of its release. It's also arguably the band's most consistent record period, containing a nice mix of malevolent-sounding rockers ("The Union Forever," "I Think I Smell a Rat"), gentle breathers ("We're Going to be Friends"), and clear singles ("Fell in Love With a Girl," "Hotel Yorba," "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground"). The White Stripes were noisier, prettier, and more epic than this at various times during their career, but they never made another album that resonated quite like White Blood Cells. Nor were their words ever again as prescient, for that matter, as the lyrics from "Little Room," which basically tell the band's story before much of it had even unfolded, in a scant fifty seconds.
Listen: "Fell In Love With A Girl"
2. The White Stripes - De Stijl (2000)
The calm before the storm, De Stijl had the advantage of dropping a year before The White Stripes became a household name. As such, it's perhaps lauded a little over-exuberantly as the "Yeah, but have you heard this one?" record, but the fact remains that it's a damn fine, cohesive statement that touches on all of the band's strong points. From riff-rockers ("Hello Operator") to catchy pop songs ("You're Pretty Good Looking"), and breathless, adrenalized assaults ("Let's Build a Home") to bluesy dirges ("Little Bird"), De Stijl is a sampler of the band's myriad styles, and a fitting answer to the question, "What do The White Stripes do best?"
Listen: "Hello Operator"
1. The Strokes - Is This It (2001)
Not many albums sound so ridiculously cool a full decade after their release. Further years will no doubt date Is This It, but I imagine the songs will still hold up in their effortlessly hip, indifferent way — a modus operandi at odds with much of The White Stripes' best material, which chooses to pound you into submission or charm you with its innocence. At once retro and somehow futuristic-sounding, Is This It was a revelation at the time of its release, even if it elicited more than a few eye rolls from older listeners. The Strokes' debut stands tall above the rest of the band's catalogue, documenting a simpler time for a group now surrounded by drama, expectations, and myriad side projects. It's a near-perfect portrait and an untouchable document of early '00s rock music.
Listen: "Last Nite"
Austin L. Ray has spent the last decade writing for The A.V. Club, eMusic, Vulture, Spin and Paste, amongst others. He's also obsessed with Twitter, where he talks about music, makes jokes, links to dog photos, and sometimes offends people. Follow him.