There's no precise way to define a sweet guitar riff, much less a criteria for such categorization. A sweet riff is, like love or God or truly excellent barbecue, something only realized upon experience. This, the second year of the second decade of the twenty first decade of the modern calendar, was a very good year for riffology. For the second installment of our Nitpick Six year end wrap-up, here are the six sweetest riffs of 2011. Feel free to let us know what we missed in the comments.
6. Foo Fighters - "Bridge Burning" There are certain elements of Foo Fighter's Wasting Light that felt like the band overcompensating for its success in the adult contemporary realm. "White Limo," with its no-fi screams and cameo from Motorhead's Lemmy, came off as a desperate cry of "We are still a rock band!" aimed at those obsessing over the Nevermind reissue. The album opener "Bridge Burning," however, nailed the amount of rocking that Dave Grohl and company do best, anchored by a big, dumb, rock 101 guitar hook. Three notes total, the lowest of which hits with the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the taint once the band enters the fold. This riff is not about re-shaping the wheel (which FF hasn't really done since 1996) as much as optimizing its mileage.
5. Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks - "Stick Figures In Love" Pavement reunited, The Pixies reunited, Bush headlined Pointfest. The '90s are back. Or something like that. Whatever, nevermind. Listening back to Pavement's clumsy pop rock, you'd hardly expect Stephen Malkmus to become a guitar god. But quite a few acts in recent memory seem to rip more than a few notes from Malkmus' fakebook -- Yuck, BOAT, Chad VanGaalen. Timing was perfect for his 2011, Beck-produced Jicks record Mirror Traffic to come off, intentional or not, as his version of Jay-Z and Kanye's Watch The Throne -- just replace Roc-a-fella with slack rocker fellow. Look no further than the slightly skewed riff from "Stick Figures In Love." So simple, so effective, static notes over fluid chords, a cute time signature change in the middle to make sure you're paying attention. Mirror Traffic is solid to its core, but "Stick Figures" is enough to keep Malkmus on top of the '90s indie rock game -- if only would have put it out as a cassingle.
4. Russian Circles - "Mladek" In 2006, Chicago instru-metal trio Russian Circles released a song called "The Devil Rides A Horse," a triumphant, technical jam worthy of scoring every battle scene ever filmed. It was the highlight of the band's better-than-average debut Enter, and Russian Circles seemingly spent its two subsequent albums acting like the song never existed, making sprawling post-rock that sounded like the trio forgot to add the lead guitar parts in the studio. The band's 2011 catalog entry Empros delves back into the heroics that made "Horse" so effective, particularly on "Mladek." The track blossoms -- slowly, but not irritatingly -- from a shimmering romp on the upper frets to a montage-worthy jog, and subversively melts into a doom breakdown. Guitarist Mike Sullivan's riff is sweet on its own, but his intelligent transformations push it into involuntary head-nod territory (a few choice drum fills from ex-Riddle Of Steel hometown boy Dave Turncrantz don't hurt the cause). The whole track develops like a classical exercise of theme-and-variation. If Beethooven wrote stoner metal, it might sound like this. 3. Deerhoof - "Let's Dance The Jet" Last month, a preteen saw a burned copy of Deerhoof's Apple O' amongst a stack of CDs and asked me what the band sounds like. I fumbled through some description that involved Led Zeppelin and Hello Kitty and "Low Rider" by War. I would have had an easier time explaining where babies come from. The band's oddly un-talked-about record Deerhoof Vs. Evil is excellent proof of its singularity; it doesn't sound like any of the band's other albums but sounds exactly like Deerhoof. Its songs are a bit scattershot, including the awesome instrumental "Let's Dance The Jet," a cover of an obscure Mikis Thedorakis song from an obscurer Greek-British comedy (The Day The Fish Came Out, for you cinephiles out there). Deerhoof's version lands somewhere between Austin Powers segue music and the underground music from the second level of Mario 2. The highlight of the brief track is the sporadic guitar melody that jumps in like Jimmy Page's searing pentatonics of "Black Dog" for three seconds at a time -- proof that a riff doesn't have to pound you over the head to achieve maximum sweetness.
2. Liturgy - "Generation" Heavy-handed quartet Liturgy pissed off quite a few people this year, just by making thoughtful, punishing rock music with terrible vocals and calling it "black metal." After all, nobody is expecting the members of Liturgy to shoot somebody from rival Brooklyn hipster metal band Behold... The Arctopus in the face and make jewelry from the bone fragments. If you look past the probably overdramatized drama, the band's full length Aesthethica completely rules. "Generation" is the album's strongest cut, and not only because the instrumental track spares the distraction of Hunter Hunt-Hendrix's acquired-taste screams. Hunter spends a majority of Aesthethica making his Gibson SG sound like a pipe organ, but on "Generation" the band finally gets into the meat of the instrument with a repetitious riff that owes more to early Philip Glass than to church-burning Norwegians. For all its braininess, Liturgy is a visceral band; listening to all seven minutes of "Generation" is physically exhausting and completely exhilarating.
1. Mastodon - "Blasteroid" This year, Mastodon took a break from intensive concept albums and cranked out The Hunter. Essentially, the band pulled the record from its collective ass. Let's be thankful - overthinking could have stifled the full-throttle rocker "Blasteroid." That riff, oh, that riff. It's Thin Lizzy's "The Boys Are Back In Town" and Johann Strauss's "Blue Danube" waltz joining the mile high club in Iron Maiden's private jet. Sweet enough to give you diabetes. If Mastodon is not the best band in metal today, then I will personally let Lars Ulrich sue me for illegally downloading the Loutallica record.