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Stylus Magazine

Staff Top 10 
Top Ten Indie Guitar Riffs of All Time 

Let’s get this out of the way: 
I have a bad association with the word “Riff”. Every time I go into a  music store it’s the same thing: 

Me: “Oh shit, Eddie Van Halen is in the store!?” 

Manager: “No, that’s Bob Jones. He really shreds huh?!” 

I peek around the corner and see said Bob Jones. He is 30 and wearing a 
5150 T-shirt that is only ten years younger than he is. The manager is 
right—this guy does shred—which is exactly why I fucking hate him. I find 
a guitar and head to the most isolated spot in the store. I strum the 
chord pattern to “Just Like Heaven.” If a metal head walks by, I might 
change it up to “Sunshine of Your Love” just so I don’t have to deal with 
his...hair. Being an indie rocker in a cock-rocker’s world is tough. It 
really is. 

Redemption and revenge are what life is about. Well, not if you’re normal, 
but if you’re me. So, today I will honor the ten best riffs in indie rock 
history. My criteria are simple: The band must have been on an independent 
label at some point— this rules out a lot of stuff, so check the facts 
before throwing a hissy fit. Obviously it must be a “Riff.” I am choosing 
to define a riff as a musical phrase of one or two notes that repeats (3 
notes make a chord, thus a chord progression). One more thing: I realize 
independent rock goes back to the garage bands of the 60s, but I am 
focusing on the American indie rock era (1982-present). 

10. The Pixies – Here Comes your Man (Doolittle) 

The Pixies were content to be white college rock for white college kids. I 
guess if you are a band with limited talent you have to keep your 
aspirations low. But, as the adage goes, “Even a blind squirrel finds an 
acorn.” Besides being flat out catchy, it also enforces the lyrical idea 
and actually sounds like a woman running to her man. The Pixies never 
really did much else worth a damn, but I’m glad they left this gem behind. 

9. The Grifters – Bummer (One Sock Missing) 

You could put The Grifters in any musical time period and they would fail. 
They took lo-fi and noise to levels that fans of lo-fi noise couldn’t even 
accept. So how could they ever succeed with a larger audience? They 
couldn’t. But they did succeed in creating a cock-rock masterpiece. The 
guitar line from “Bummer” sounds like The Kinks trying to play “All Day 
and All of the Night” while they are being anally fucked by The Rolling 
Stones on acid. Sounds good right? It is. Although they went on to make 
more accomplished music—The Eureka E.P. being their highpoint—this is 
easily their greatest piece of riff-rock. 

8. Sebadoh – Brand New Love (Weed Forestin) 

“Brand New Love” first appeared on Weed Forestin, an underrated collection 
of Lou Barlow’s home recorded dementia. The song’s descending 3-note 
pattern lulls the listener to sleep and, in this dreamy state, we wonder 
exactly where he is taking us. We pray—oh god do we pray—that it’s the ice 
cream shop or the mall...and not more of his self-created hell! When the 
chorus kicks in we awake to find that all is well and Lou is in rare 
optimistic form. “Anyone can be a brand new love”, he sings, and it’s 
true. The song was later given studio treatment for 1992’s Smash Your Head 
on the Punk Rock and was covered by Superchunk that same year. But this 
fragile, sloppily picked home recording remains the definitive version. 

7. Apples in Stereo – Tidal Wave (Fun Trick Noisemaker) 

It’s angular, manic, intricate and fun. “Tidal Wave” kicks off The Apples 
in Stereo’s career with a garage rocking bang. Surfing from low notes to 
high and left speaker to right, Rob Schneider is able to create the audial 
equivalent of a tidal wave. Keyboard swooshes embellish the idea and give 
the song it’s light hearted feel. The Apples took that feel to extremes on 
future releases but Fun Trick Noisemaker was a breath of fresh air at the 
time and the crashing “Tidal Wave” put a damper on the slacker philosophy 
that dominated the early 90s. 

6. Polvo – Time Isn’t on My Side (Today’s Active Lifestyles) 

Listen to this song and you will know exactly why Ash Bowie gets to fuck 
Mary Timony and you don’t. Eastern scales played with a jabbing, staccato 
rhythm are enough to make any woman wild. It also makes me pretty wild, 
but ...um, for other reasons. As good as the opening riff is, the one 
during the vocal melody is even better. By sliding up and down the neck 
and avoiding their infamous dissonance, they are able to slide onto this 
elite list of mine...and more importantly, into Mary’s pants. 

5. Sonic Youth – Teenage Riot (Daydream Nation) 

Once upon a time, Sonic Youth almost created the greatest opening track in 
the history of independent rock music. But, by being Sonic Youth they were 
already predestined to fail. You see young chaps and lasses, in order to 
attain this greatness they had to defeat their one true love—creating 
unlistenable noise. Did they succeed? I’m glad you asked Bobby. No, they 
didn’t. But they came close with this one song, “Teenage Riot”. It’s 
really catchy, and has TWO guitars — you all like guitars right!? — 
playing dueling riffs. If it weren’t for this woman, Kim Gordon, moaning 
and groaning like a cow for a minute and a half at the beginning of the 
song, they would have done it. Ok, that’s all for today boys and girls. I 
hope to see all of you next week when I tell the tragic story of Tommy 
Lee’s overgrown penis. 

4. Guided by Voices – Shocker in Gloomtown (The Grand Hour E.P.) 

This song sounds like dirt. The low end is AWOL, the high end is MIA, and 
the drums sound like pinball machines. So how is it the 4th best riff 
ever? Fuck you, it just is. 

3. The Swirlies – Tall Ships (What to Do About Them) 

A bass riff? Off that bat that’s what it seems like. The bass line could 
stand on its own too. It’s that good. But wait until the vocals come in 
and then listen closely. Do you hear that feedback spiking up and down? 
Bingo. That’s our riff. For imagination alone this has to be top 5, but to 
actually control the feedback so it forms a repeating melody is pretty 
ingenious. The Swirlies always got lumped into the MBV offspring camp 
which was just a critical cop out. Anyone familiar with the band knows 
they were a distinctly different band that could go from lo-fi to white 
noise at the drop of a hat. Poor distribution, a sub par live show, a 
rotating cast of band members (possible explanation for the poor live 
shows), and critical laziness has kept them in obscurity. 

2. Dinosaur Jr. – Sludgefeast (You’re Living All Over Me) 

I almost picked the entire record since it’s one giant riff after another. 
I finally decided on “Sludgefeast” since it best symbolizes their SST-era 
sound and the sound of the revolution they incited. The band had a huge 
influence on sonic expansion in early 90s – Note to kids: Without Dinosaur 
Jr there is no Loveless. I’m not even going to bother describing this 
riff. It’s classic, and if you don’t know it by now you should be shot. 

1. Yo La Tengo – The Ballad of Red Buckets (Electro-Pura) 

Even hardcore Yo La Tengo fans overlook this song. It’s not as fun or 
obvious as say... ”Blue Line Swinger” —A great riff in its own right — but 
it’s a great example of true minimalism. Every sound serves a function; 
there is no extraneous activity in the drums, bass, or guitar. It’s all 
about rhythm and counterpoint: The drums map out the path for the guitar, 
which implies its own rhythm and harmony with both the notes it plays and 
the notes it chooses not to. The song rolls along the rhythmic roller 
coaster until finally climaxing when Ira sings, “It was sure to come. Here 
it comes again.” The drums release tension via light cymbal crashes as the 
guitars bang out the stomping/droning riff in question. This is the 
wallflower in Yo La Tengos songbook. It has been ignored for years. Today 
it gets some redemption, as I crown it the best indie rock riff ever.