10 Tastiest Indie Rock Guitar Riffs of the 2000s
Guitar riffage has been a big honking neon sign for bad-assity since rock 'n' roll's early days, but over the years, the popularity -- and acceptability -- of unleashing red-hot licks has come (Led Zeppelin, AC/DC et al.) and gone (New Wave, punk, hip-hop, etc.). The 1990s brought some of the taste back (see: the Pixies, Nirvana), but riffs seem to have gone the way of the dinosaurs in recent years. It’s as though a meteor struck the earth and broke everybody’s Gibson SGs and Fender Telecasters into pieces. What gives?
Nowadays, the majority of indie rock bands are squarely stuck in Jefferson Starship-worship mode. Not to mention all of those sons of Mumford that would rather pluck a banjo than melt faces with blistering displays of guitar heroics. So we’ve collected a list of the 10 Tastiest Indie Rock Guitar Riffs of the 2000s. Our hope is that they’ll help spawn a much-needed Lick Revolution.
A simple four-note repeater, this one barely made it on our list, because it’s not traditional riff material. It’s more of a calming agent before the storm that barrels in at the 1:21 mark. But Band of Horses guitarist and lead singer Ben Bridwell has a knack for filling space with memorable licks -- and as soon as this figure waltzes in, you are aware of the presence of some higher force. Those are the riff gods shuffling their feet.
The Shins showed signs of riff-friendliness all the way back to their debut album, and this one is a chip off the old block of sorts: Listen to the Hollies’ ‘60’s single ‘On A Carousel’ a few times, and you’ll understand what we mean. Add some reverb and a Motown backbeat, and this here riff is like the front doors to the Waldorf Astoria -- a grand entrance.
One might argue that this ‘riff’ is, in fact, the song’s melody line -- and we wouldn’t disagree. But you could say the same about a song like Modest Mouse’s ‘Float On’ (which almost made this list) and even the Beatles’ ‘Day Tripper’ (though the lead line changes key). But Broken Social Scene take it a step further, logging this one in at ‘7/4,’ a time signature you just don’t see all that often. It repeatedly bashes you like waves crashing up on a ... shoreline. Yep.
Our first thought about this riff is always the same: "What a strange little guy this is!" It almost has a Middle or Far Eastern quality to it. It’s hard to grasp. And what’s more: Death Cab isn’t really known as a "guitar band," so from time to time, when something like this pops out, you’ve gotta make/take note.
The Kings have disappeared off the face of the Earth of late, and let’s say that distance makes a hook grow fonder. ‘Only By the Night,’ their most widely known release, is riff-tastic, and the little offbeat dribble at the beginning of ‘Sex On Fire’ is so recognizable and dope that we couldn’t leave it off this list.
Vampire Weekend might someday get the Fake Grammy for Best ‘Graceland’ Knockoff Lifetime Achievement, but in an indie rock world full of pretentious blather, the band has brought riffage -- however derivative -- back into the forefront. ‘Cape Cod’ has an unforgettable riff that turns the lead guitar into a steel drum -- and makes us want to tie a sweater around our neck, pick up a tennis racket and play air guitar.
A-ha! You thought we’d forget this tasty little call-and-answer guitar play from Jet's 2003 smash-hit album ‘Get Born,’ didn’t you? We searched far and wide for riffs of all shapes and sizes, and this one made the list because it’s dirty, sexy and just plain money. We dare you to find a riff from ‘03 that was sweeter.
We’d like to argue that what makes this Killers song unforgettable is not the witty lyrics (‘it was only a kiss, it was only a kiss’) or the disco-danceable backbeat. It's not Brandon Flowers’ sex-drenched, ‘80s-aping vocals. Nope. It’s the understated, seismic intro riff by guitarist Dave Keuning.
We may be in the minority of folks that saw the movie ‘It Might Get Loud’ and wondered why Jack White or the Edge even got invited into the same room as Jimmy Page. But we can agree that the White Stripes’ songs boast riffs-a-plenty, and we might be the first to argue (to a chorus of disbelievers) that the ‘Icky Thump’ riff, which White plugs at the end of each verse, is way doper than the lead one in ‘Seven Nation Army.’ (Granted, ‘Thump’’s lyrics and supporting instrumentation are way less cool.)
We’re giving this song top billing not only because it’s from the newest band on our list, but because we’re hoping that it influences bands to pass the Riff Act of the 21st Century (legislation we wish were on the House floor right now). From one of 2011’s albums of the year, in our humble opinion, Middle Brother's ‘Blue Eyes’ is a giant guitar romp -- with a hooky riff only true students of the ‘70s could muster. It doesn’t hurt that the band is an indie supergroup that features members of Dawes, Deer Tick and Delta Spirit, all riff-friendly bands in their own right. Say hello to the future, people.