The 10 Best Rock Riffs of the 21st Century

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You might have noticed that, here at Flavorpill, we occasionally get frustrated with people who perpetuate the myth that everything good in rock ‘n’ roll was done at least 20 years ago, and that there’s no original music these days, etc. The increasing tyranny of this sort of cultural orthodoxy becomes more depressing as the years go by -– and it’s not helped by articles like this alleged round-up of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll riffs of all time, which suggests that no one has written a decent riff since 1991. Anyone who actually listens to contemporary music knows this isn’t even vaguely true -– so to redress the balance, here’s our pick of the best riffs of the 2000s. (Sorry, Muse fans -– but if we hear “Plug In Baby” one more time we’re going to plug ourselves.)

Franz Ferdinand – “Take Me Out” (2004)

True story: a friend of ours was in the room at an early showcase gig Franz Ferdinand played in London, long before they signed to Domino and went on to conquer the world. When the now-iconic breakdown of “Take Me Out” dropped, the whole room stopped talking, turned, and stared at the stage, realizing they were seeing a band who were going to be very big indeed. Years later, this song remains one of the best dynamic shifts in music, and home to one of the best riffs of the 2000s, namely the melodic line from about 1:04 to 1:14.

At the Drive-In – “One-Armed Scissor” (2000)

For all the ridiculously intricate and difficult guitar lines that Omar Rodríguez-López has written over the years, we reckon his finest moment remains the big dumb power chord riff in the chorus of this song. Honestly, if you can listen to “One-Armed Scissor” without breaking out the air guitar, you’ve got way more self-control than we do.

Boris – “Rattlesnake” (2002)

Boris are generally known for epic, slow-burning guitar textures that sound like they were recorded at the other end of an aircraft hangar, but they can also unleash epic riffage with the best of them. This song crams about a bazillion killer riffs into two minutes and is best accompanied by the sound of awestruck metalheads saying, “Dude, wait… That guitarist’s a chick?”

Marnie Stern – “Every Single Line Means Something” (2007)

Also on the misogyny-bustin’ front, indie guitar heroine Marnie Stern can tear up the fretboard with the best of them, and although she’s a little too prone to showing off her tapping skills sometimes, she’s also written some fantastic songs. We’re particularly partial to the up- and down-shifting intro to this song, which is from her 2007 debut album In Advance of the Broken Arm.

Mastodon – “Burning Man” (2002)

Our metal-lovin’ friends would probably never speak to us again if we didn’t include at least one song by Mastodon here. Listening to a Mastodon record is like flipping through a fat mail-order catalogue of epic riffs, all of which you’re never, ever going to be able to play. The band has a penchant for combining more guitar figures in one song than most bands manage in an album, which means that picking any particular single riff for a feature like this is a bit of a crapshoot. For sheer fretboard-melting immediacy, though, it’s hard to look past the blistering intro to “Burning Man” –- our fingers and brains are hurting just thinking about trying to play this.

The Black Keys – “Thickfreakness” (2003)

Dan Auerbach’s guitar tone is just as thick and nasty as the goop that adorns the cover of Thickfreakness, and it churns out killer riff after killer riff on his band’s second album. You could pretty much pick any song from this record and find a memorable riff therein, but we especially like the title track, and specifically, the very first riff you hear –- a simple but memorable four-bar sequence that sets the scene for what’s to follow.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs – “Rich” (2003)

While we’re on memorable introductions to albums, there haven’t been many album-opening riffs better than the arresting, high-register intro to “Rich.” Taking a leaf out of The Edge’s book and using a delay pedal to generate an unfolding texture out of a simple sequence of notes, Nick Zinner crafted one of the most distinctive and memorable riffs of the last decade –- and, arguably, what’s still his band’s best song.

McLusky – “Collagen Rock” (2002)

Flavorpill fave Andy Falkous has always talked down his guitar technique in his characteristically self-effacing manner, but don’t be fooled –- he’s written some fantastic riffs over the years, guitar figures that echo his lyrical ability to be both intimidatingly angry and mighty catchy. Our favorite is the chorus riff for this cut off McLusky Do Dallas, a song that also features some of Falkous’s finest (and most hilarious) lyricism.

Death from Above 1979 – “Black History Month” (2004)

The news that DFA1979 were returning from MSTRKRFT purgatory has been one of the most welcome pieces of news of 2011. Their first (and thus far only) album, 2004’s You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine, contained at least two contenders for Best Riff of the 2000s –- the scratchy, muted intro to “Romantic Rights” and the more restrained, melodic underpinning of “Black History Month.” Our vote goes to the latter, but it’s a close race.

The White Stripes – “Seven Nation Army” (2003)

Ha – you didn’t think we were going to forget this one, did you?