Albums of the decade No 7: The White Stripes – Elephant

The stripped-back approach to rock'n'roll inspired many bands during the noughties, but none were a match for Jack and Meg

The cricket bat on the cover, along with utterances about cups of tea and the Queen, announced that the White Stripes were a long way from Motor City for their fourth album. They also seemed, at times, a long way from the decade in which this was made. Elephant was laid down in east London's Toerag Studios for just £5,000, on analogue equipment built before 1963, whereas the sleeve notes boasted that it was recorded and mastered without using a computer. This stripped-back approach to rock'n'roll influenced countless Stripes imitators at the start of the decade, but nobody matched Jack and Meg when it came to creating a colossal sound out of such basic ingredients. Elephant, after all, was the release that banished preconceptions about the White Stripes' self-consciously limiting format and affirmed that they were consistently and swaggeringly magnificent.

Their first recording for a major label, the 14 tracks had a gritty truculence that was still accessible enough to transform them from a cult act to a global concern. Meg White's guileless, tick-tock drumming style was the perfect anchor for the mangled blues and squalls of noise Jack White wrung from his guitar. Beneath the seismic grumble of Seven Nation Army or the caterwauling helium chorus of There's No Home for You Here were pithy specimens of songwriting craft.

At its heart was Jack's hankering to be born in an age when men were gallant and women swooned with feminine modesty. It was subtitled The Death of the Sweetheart and was rife with thwarted love affairs, boiling sexual tension and declarations of desire. More often than not, however, Jack came across as a rascally old-school chauvinist. Along with his mannered vocal style and the ludicrous insistence that he and Meg were siblings, fans gobbled it up as part of the White Stripes' theatrical intrigue. This was the occasion when the Detroit odd couple triumphed on their own irresistible terms. Righteous fury, melodramatic wit, hookline-and-sinker choruses – it was all here, in one brilliant package.

Buy this Sunday's Observer for the full top 50 countdown, plus an interview with the winner


Sarah Boden

The GuardianTramp

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