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White Stripes' "Greatest Hits" was a missing piece in Detroit group's legacy

By Gary Graff
ggraff@medianewsgroup.com, @GraffonMusic on Twitte

Posted: Thursday, December 3, 2020

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Compiling a "Greatest Hits" album for the White Stripes "might just be the most obviously thing that we've never thought of," according to Third Man Records partner Ben Blackwell.

That said, the 26-song, career-spanning compilation, which comes out Friday, Dec. 4, is not necessarily something you'd expect from the White Stripes. The Detroit duo of Jack and Meg White, together from 1997 to 2011, was iconoclastic and reveled in that. The White Stripes was as unconventional as its two-member, guitar-and-drums lineup, and took pride in not adhering to standard music industry conventions like ... er ... greatest-hits albums.

That certainly served the group well. The Whites formerly married, though pretending to be siblings for public consumption released six studio albums, three of which debuted in the Top 10 of the Billboard 200. The White Stripes won four Grammy Awards, and its 2003 single "Seven Nation Army" became an enduring sports stadium anthem around the world.

The group also vaulted Jack White (nee Gillis) to his own iconic status and a successful solo career, which most recently included a pair of lauded performances on NBC's "Saturday Night Live."

"They belong in the pantheon of bands that have greatest-hits records. That's how they exist in my mind," notes Blackwell, who's White's nephew and a musician in his own right, playing with the Dirtbombs, among others. "They may be one of the last bands in that world, that classic, rock n roll album artist or whatever you want to call it. A greatest hits album ... seems like a no-brainer."

Blackwell who curated previous White Stripes archival releases, mostly for Third Man's Vaults series and for the online Nugs.net service says the idea was "an ongoing conversation" at Third Man for a little while. And it was well received from the outset.

"It wasn't like, 'Let's go pitch Jack! Let's go pitch Meg!'" he recalls. "It was, 'Let's think about this ...' and everyone kind of got there together. It wasn't like someone needed to be convinced. There wasn't really any convincing involved anywhere, I think."

Selecting the tracks, meanwhile, was its own kind of challenge. While the White Stripes was a critical success from the get-go, the group's mainstream profile did not take hold until its third album, 2001's platinum "White Blood Cells." The group only had three charting singles in the United States the highest, "Icky Thump," reached No. 26 in 2007 though in the U.K. it put eight into the Top 20. So the criteria for "Greatest Hits" was something other than chart success.

"Most people would just go, 'All right, what are your top streaming songs on Spotify, and go with that, or just take all the songs that were released as singles and put them on there," Blackwell explains. "That didn't feel like the right way to go. Some songs that were released as singles didn't seem to inform the larger history of the band."

"Greatest Hits" is sequenced similar to a White Stripes concert, beginning with longtime set opener (and first single) "Let's Shake Hands" and "Seven Nation Army" bringing it to a close. In between are well-known fare such as "Fell in Love With a Girl," "Hotel Yorba," "Ball and Biscuit" and "Blue Orchard" as well as fan favorites like "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground," "The Big Three Killed My Baby," "Apple Blossom" and the duo's version of Dolly Parton's "Jolene."

But even with a generous two-dozen-plus songs across 82 minutes, Blackwell acknowledges some fans are still griping about the choices.

"What we ended up with as the list seemed like, 'Yeah, I don't think anyone will argue with this' then you put it out there and see, 'Wow, people are arguing about this!'" Blackwell says with a laugh. The greatest complaint, he adds, is that "Black Math" from 2003's "Elephant" isn't included, but something like "The Nurse" from 2005's "Get Behind Me Satan," an idiosyncratic track on which Jack White plays marimba, is.

"I don't dislike 'Black Math,'" Blackwell says, "I just never thought of it as one of the best, greatest songs the White Stripes ever did. To me it's a good song in a bevy of good songs, but it seems like fans like it way more than I had ever known or been aware of. ... That's the kind of thing I've learned from doing this."

The "Greatest Hits" album kicks off a new partnership between Third Man and Sony Music's Legacy Recordings, and is coming out in a variety of packages some with special, randomly distributed giveaway items at selected independent record stores. The Third Man Vault edition of the album features colored vinyl and a bonus third LP of B-sides. Blackwell is already plotting out future archival releases, but he's confident the overdue "Greatest Hits" will be a complement and essential touchstone for the White Stripes' legacy.

"The strength of (the band's) catalog is that there's no definitive, 100 percent agreed-upon greatest White Stripes record you have to have, the one White Stripes record you have to get," Blackwell says. "And maybe there are some people who don't know much about the White Stripes, so this is going to be an introduction to the band for some people.

"We never really thought it would be a thing people would want to have out there, but it's looking like they really do, so it's great to have it for them."

Web Site: www.thirdmanrecords.com

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