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ARTIST OF THE DECADE: JACK WHITE

Jack White: He's the third man, second son, and our first artist of the decade

By MATT BERRY
STATIC and FEEDBACK staff writer

I’m going to come right out and say it. This decade, the Aughts, the 2000s, whatever you want to call it, has had no distinctive, singular musical identity. The ’60s? Well, you can sift through dozens of touchstone musical icons from that decade. The Beatles and The Stones and the rest of the British Invasion. Hendrix. The Doors. The Beach Boys. It was the decade rock and roll, as it is known now, found its voice. The ’70s almost killed it, with the over-the-top cheese we now refer to as “classic rock,” the brief but omnipresent disco phenomenon, and the anti-establishment punk movement. The ’80s may not have had one singular touchstone artist, but it certainly had music that is universally tied to that decade, maybe even more so than The ’60s. The ’90s had alternative rock’s ascendence and, what seemed like its death, with Nirvana’s rise and fall.

But the 2000s? Technology has fragmented our culture to a degree that there is not a single, universally recognized musical voice of the decade. The age of digital music means we are no longer tied to the radio or MTV or even the Compact Disc, which seemed revolutionarily convenient twenty years ago. You can isolate yourself with the artist you love and seemingly avoid all those you don’t. Hey, it’s worked pretty well for me. Now I’m only subjected to the Black Eyed Peas and Nickelback while watching sporting events on Fox.

This fragmentation of our culture means that naming an artist of this decade is an admittedly futile effort. How could one even go about it? Do you go by popularity? Does that make Justin Timberlake the de facto icon of the decade? Or Kanye West? Or does the machine that American Idol hath wrought deserve the title? Ideally, the greatest artist of the decade would not be an obscure indie band that only Pitchfork readers know, but they should be somewhat well known while still having a tremendous catalog of music. Or, I could just scrap the whole damn thing and just go with who I think the best musician of the decade was. Wait, I can do that? Phew, that’s a load off. In that case, I’m going to go with an artist who had a tremendous impact on both indie and mainstream music in this decade. Oh, and this artist, Jack White, just happened to have the decade’s best catalog of music.

Jack White’s decade began mostly in obscurity. By the end of 2001, Jack White had gone from a member of an obscure duo called The White Stripes (the other half comprised of drummer/ex-wife/sister/whatever-they-say-she-is-this-week Meg White) to exploding on the scene with the success of “Fell in Love with a Girl.” The track, off the band’s breakthrough third record, White Blood Cells, was everything you needed to know about the band. It was short. It was fast. It was loud. It was different.

The single was released amidst the flurry of the “The Bands” at the beginning of the decade. The Strokes. The Hives. The Vines. The White Stripes shared similarities with these bands, as they favored stripped-down, throwback styles of rock music. White’s prowess as a songwriter and performer is what allowed the Stripes to emerge from the The Bands to become a unique force not only in indie music, but in popular music as well. He creates some of the most distinct sounds in rock history. His guitar, often an octave up or down, sounds like no other. His voice can range from raging garage rocker to traveling minstrel to quiet crooner. The great thing about White is that he can do all of this on the same album.

Nowhere is this more evident than 2003’s Elephant, the duo’s greatest achievement and one of the best albums of the past 25 years. The album mixes the band’s trademark, fast paced garage rock (on songs such as “Black Math” and “Hypnotize”), ballads (such as “You’ve Got Her in Your Pocket”), and heavy-hitting blues-rock like “Ball and Biscuit.” The album catapulted The White Stripes into what they are today: one of the unique, enigmatic, and captivating groups of our generation. The band released five albums in the 2000s (six including their self-titled 1999 debut), and each of them is tremendous. The band released some of the most popular rock singles of the decade, yet none of them were cliché or boring. “Icky Thump,” “Blue Orchid,” “The Denial Twist,” and of course, “Seven Nation Army” are all about as good as a chart topping rock song can be. If Jack White had never done anything outside of this band, it’s highly possible this column would still be about him.

Then you have to take into consideration the fact that his work spread so far beyond The White Stripes. There is, of course, the Raconteurs, White’s side project with Brendan Benson, Jack Lawrence, and Patrick Keeler. The White Stripes had served as a self-imposed limiter on White. Meg’s drumming was the blank canvas with which Jack creates his art. With the Raconteurs, White was able to interact with three talented musicians and incorporate the strength of each member into a more symphonic and collaborative effort. The result? Two dynamite albums that, while never quite equaling the frenetic energy of the Stripes at their peak, are a nice complement to the Stripes’ catalog.

And we’re still not even done! There’s his other side project, the Dead Weather, which features him behind the drums. There’s the country album he produced for Loretta Lynn (!). There’s “Another Way to Die,” the not-as-embarrassing-and-much-more-badass-than-Chris-Cornell’s James Bond theme song collaboration with Alicia Keys. There’s his visionary music videos (yes, they still make those), in which he collaborated with the likes of Michel Gondry. There’s his amazingly not embarrassing, and actually pretty good, journeys into the film world in Coffee and Cigarettes, Walk Hard, and Cold Mountain, to which he also contributed music.

Most importantly, Jack White has been the icon of what is, likely, the decade’s lasting rock legacy: the indie scene. White emerged from the indie scene and burst onto the mainstream without ever compromising his music. And what great music it was. He released five albums with the White Stripes, two with the Raconteurs, one with the Dead Weather, and numerous collaborations. He has covered artists from Bob Dylan to Dolly Parton to Nancy Sinatra to Burt Bacharach to Patti Page. In turn, his music has been covered by artists ranging from the Flaming Lips to Joss Stone.

So, with apologies to Mssrs. Timberlake and West, there is not a musician working today who produced the volume or quality of work over the past decade to match Jack White.

E-mail Matt Berry at matt@staticandfeedback.com

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