The Best 10-Second Music Riffs and Sound Bites

I found this old article about great music sound bites hidden away in the archives of the Interenet (at Seemed a waste not to dust it off and republish. – Lauren Q. Hill

nirvana-team-spiritIn an age of fragmentation, who bothers to listen through an entire song any more? Sure the mainstream music mags still roll out the obligatory “Album of Year” awards this month, but the real audiostream running through our days is more disjointed, musical notes scattered about like so many TCP/IP packets. Soundbites, samples, riffs, solos, refrains, intro chords — blurted out in commercials, lingering in the choppy wakes of channel surfers, all rigged together into a complex musical pastiche. In the spirit of this schizophrenic soundtrack, we hereby presents the “Best 10-Second Riffs,” in which a motley panel of critics, musicians, netheads — and you, gentle readers — nominate the fifty greatest pop music fragments of all time.

Our panel includes James Hunter of Rolling Stone, representatives from the acclaimed indie-rock bands Folk Implosion and Yo La Tengo, New Yorker and Slate critic Alex Ross, Ana Marie Cox of Suck, and performance artist and sampler extraordinaire Moby. We’ve now uploaded all fifty nominations — including fifteen write-in candidates from our readers.

We’ve tabulated the final results from our reader poll, and come up with a list of the ten greatest soundbites, in order of achievement. Enjoy!

Nirvana, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
The Beatles, “A Hard Day’s Night”
Bruce Springsteen, “Born To Run”
The Beatles, “Tomorrow Never Knows”
Jimi Hendrix, “Purple Haze”
Beethoven, “Symphony No. 5,”
Velvet Underground, “Heroin”
Patti Smith, “Horses”
James Brown, “Sex Machine”
Led Zeppelin, “When the Levee Breaks”

From Other Music Aficionados.

James Hunter, Spin, Rolling Stone, Village Voice

“Only Shallow,” My Bloody Valentine

The opening “guitar” riff. A couple innocent snare beats, then the gates of Saturn zoom open. Part noise, part sound effect, part teams-of-engineers-working-late. The wildest clarification and restatement of the song’s otherwise wiry, mumbled groove (to which it keeps returning), the part calls to mind a siren designed for 2030 freeways. But it really doesn’t sound like anything. Except itself.

pictures-of-you-cure“Pictures of You,” The Cure

In this contemporary blues, a man contemplates pictures of his lost girlfriend. He entertains the notion that the photography has replaced the actual history behind his memories and regret. As he keeps going, he grows saner, oddly. By the time he sings this bridge — “If only I’d thought of the right words/I could have held onto your heart” — he’s leaped beyond the creepiness of his original conception. He’s still in hell, but his faith in language changes things. All of this is put across by Robert Smith, who seizes this music as though the world contains no other songs.

“Down by the River,” Neil Young with Crazy Horse

A vamp of pure clarity and rattiness — guitar rhythms, acoustic drumming, lush bass, and an electric lead with an irrational streak — establishes the mood. In the verses, Young hints at major trouble: A woman with the capacity of taking him “over the rainbow” has chosen to leave. The chorus — stark, yet decked out with tie-dyed la-la-las — exclaims broadly. Too broadly, in fact: At its end, after Young has confessed murder, he and Crazy Horse turn around, land back on the earlier chord. “Dead,” Young sings, as though only this simultaneous combination of verbal bluntness and harmonic contrast might convince the narrator of his conduct. .

“Day Dreaming,” Aretha Franklin

The song is celebratory. The session is in Miami a thousand years before disco or post-disco or neo-soul or Massive Attack would finangle woodwinds into their own techno- groove specialty. Franklin’s verse, underlaid with electric piano and Cornell Dupree’s uncanny guitar, is togetherness itself. When she hits the chorus, Hubert Laws’s alto flute — shivering up the scale, gaining heft with each note — appears out of nowhere. Seconds later, as Franklin’s background singers testify, he travels back down. Here’s ecstasy done as composure.

“Montague Terrace (in Blue),” Scott Walker

From a great singer and ’60s English studio musicians out to fuse European grandeur and mid-century U.S. pop, a triumph of indie rock. The chorus of the song finds a guy insisting to his wife that better days are ahead, that dreams do matter . The string arrangement sketches enormous countermelodies — circles that Walker’s voice briefly touches upon, arcs, then soars past. Brass instruments come in; many triangles sound. In the history of orchestral pop, more finely balanced, played, and recorded moments exist. None quite catches — or recognizes — this exact emotion, however.

Ana Marie Cox, Suck

When it comes to indie rock — the decidedly non-punk, post-pop strains of bands like Cat Power and the Frogs — Greil Marcus’s secret histories will do you no good at all. Lou Barlow may have bought the Vaselines pretty early in his record collection, but the chances are good he heard Zeppelin first. So, herewith, not so much the secret history, just the one people are a little embarrassed about:

“Horses,” Patti Smith

Not everyone who bought the Velvet Underground and Nico started their own band. Some of them waited til after they bought Horses. Surely all the chicks did.

BuddyHollyChirpingCrickets“I Asked For Water (She Gave Me Gasoline),” Howlin’ Wolf

The misanthropic growl that lurks behind everyone from Tom Waits to Jon Spencer.

“That’ll be the Day,” Buddy Holly and the Crickets

An obvious pre-cursor to modern geek chic: The wry sarcasm, the undercurrent of self-loathing, the glasses.

“Big Black Car,” Big Star

Most critics are going to tell you the most important Big Star album is the decidedly more upbeat Number One Record. But listen close to Third and you’ll hear the future of sad-core, a moping echo of Mark Eiztel, Elliot Smith and the Red House Painters.

“When the Levee Breaks,” Led Zepplin

ZOSO was clearly the most scattered, most self-indulgent album from a band whose career isn’t short on either trait. But the neither Seattle nor “post-rock” would have happened without it.

Steven Johnson, FEED

“Tomorrow Never Knows,” The Beatles

Picking ten seconds out of the Beatles’ entire recording career is like choosing your favorite adjective from Wordsworth’s poetry: with such a wealth of options, selecting one over the others has to seem a little arbitrary. But if the criteria is innovation — ten seconds of music that sounded like nothing before it — then the opening of “Tomorrow Never Knows” has to be my nominee. Lennon and George Martin went on to produce more successful hybrids of the pop song and the tape loop free-for-all — most notably in “Strawberry Fields Forever,” and the chaotic fadeout of “I Am the Walrus.” But “Tomorrow Never Knows” dropped onto the music world like a meteorite from another pop universe: the screeching backward loops, descending like a flock of, well, seagulls; the Westernized sitar-style drone. Even Ringo’s turgid, unvarying rhthym sounded like nothing else on the radio. (The riff is currently all the rage in British techno and trip-hop.) Released in the strange interregnum between the teen idol years and the onset of psychedelia, “Tomorrow Never Knows” announced in no uncertain terms: more to come.

velvet-underground-heorin“Heroin,” Velvet Underground

While The Beatles recreated their acid trips in the Abbey Road studio, the Velvet Underground were nodding off on the Factory floor, performing oblique, dissonant love songs to their opiate habits. “It’s my wife, and it’s my life,” Lou Reed famously intoned. Even if no one outside of Chelsea heard the record for another ten years, the lyrics were a milestone in pop indecency. But the song’s enduring influence turned out to be musical: the noise-saturated buildup of Reed’s guitar and John Cale’s electric viola, rising frenetically over the steady rumbling of Mo Tuckers’s tom-toms — a mainline rush put to music. The textured, raucous crescendos of Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine have their roots in “Heroin”‘s bleak ascension.

“Marquee Moon,” Television

The mid-seventies heyday of Manhattan’s CBGB bar probably showcased more reckless, out-of-control performances than any other venue in the rock’n’roll canon — with the possible exception of Elvis’s cape-wearing gigs in Vegas. Hence the irony of Television’s “Marquee Moon”: out of the squalid blur of seventies punk arose the most delicately choreographed rock epic on record. A harsh, syncopated chord from Tom Verlaine’s guitar, strummed on the offbeat, almost reggae-style; then the fluttering lead from Richard Lloyd; then the drums and bass roll in, in synch with the down notes of Verlaine’s strumming. (The song is almost impossible to tap your feet to — which may have been part of the point.) Some riffs sound like significant innovations when they first appear, but then quickly assimilate themselves into the pop vernacular. “Marquee Moon” is one of those rare pop achievements that emerged out of nowhere and stayed there for good.

“Talk of the Town,” Pretenders

For years I’ve been cultivating a private list of “unwritten songs” — pop songs that seem so effortless, so irresistible that you can’t imagine anyone actually sitting down to write them. Some songs shatter our expectations, and prod us, tentatively, towards new musical appetites. Other songs arrive fully-realized, complete. They’re in the business of satisfying our appetites, not enlarging them. This is where pop enters the realm of the intangible. I can’t explain why the last verse from “Talk of the Town” sends shivers down my spine, but it does. It’s something in Chrissie Hynde’s inflection: “I watched you still from a distance, and go back to my room — you’ll never know. I want you, but now it’s the talk of the town.” There’s nothing that resonates with me personally here, and nothing terribly interesting musically — but the effect is still overwhelming. Like all great pop experiences, the song moves me in spite of myself.

“Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Nirvana

Every GenXer on the planet has the opening chords from “Smells Like Teen Spirit” hard-wired to their cerebral cortex, but the riff itself was recycled Boston — “More Than A Feeling” dropped down to a minor key. The riff caught people’s attention, of course, but it was Butch Vig’s production that made the song sound like a breakthrough, a generational call to arms. Five years later, the song’s real legacy turns out to be its dramatic shifts in amplitude, where the sonic fury of Kurt Cobain’s tube-screaming suddenly gives way to a languous, Pixies-style echo chamber, dominated by Krist Novoselic’s bass line. We are still laboring through the aftershock off that power surge; tune in to MTV’s 120 Minutes, and you’ll see dozens of bands — Bush, Better than Ezra, Sunny Day Real Estate– bouncing back and forth between noise and near silence, with a regularity that would have done well in the Brill Building. For better or worse, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” made it all possible.

Alex Ross, The New Yorker

“Rite of Spring,” Igor Stravinsky

The dissonant stamping chords near the beginning of “Rite of Spring” have become honorary rock ‘n’ roll before the fact. It makes sense — like most rockers, young Stravinsky manufactured rage at a comfortable distance. Despite the whiff of calculation, these sonorities are still mightily impressive for their cold, premeditated violence on the ears. No sound has ever been more shocking: Stravinsky had the twitching Parisian mob to prove it.

“European Son,” Velvet Underground

The sonic brushfire of the Velvet Underground’s “European Son” is set off by a hyperkinetic eight-note bass figure in which one note — the seventh — is exotically tweaked. Unlike the mesmerizing drones of early Velvets classics like “Heroin,” the obsessive repetition of “European Son” attacks the senses instead of caressing them. It’s a hugely seductive path down into the rock underground.

“Untitled,” Pere Ubu

This sequence from Pere Ubu’s “Untitled” (later to be revised as “The Modern Dance”) is my candidate for the most interesting guitar line in history. It’s in a traceable line of descent from “European Son”: a fast-moving swirl of notes, skirting conventional chords, spinning in space. The whole song is an onslaught of punk-rock sophistication.

bob dylan 115th dream“Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,” Bob Dylan

“I went into a restaurant, looking for the cook / I told him I was the editor of a famous etiquette book”: my favorite Dylan line. I can’t explain why — something about the propulsive sneer Dylan fastens to the words “etiquette book.” I’m ready to believe Dylan really did edit an etiquette book, late one night in the mid 60’s, when other avenues were temporarily blocked.

“Meat,” Chris Knox

Chris Knox’s grand three-line chorus from his solo anthem “Meat”–“Close your eyes and close your mind / Pretend with me that we have climbed / Out of the shadow of the grave” — is as earnest and radiant as Dylan is corrosive. To most, the 60’s were idealistic, the 80’s cynical: Dylan and Knox reverse the equation.

John Davis, Folk Implosion

James Brown “Sex Machine”

Ornette Coleman “Forerunner”

Left Banke “Pretty Ballerina”

Captain Beefheart “Bat Chain Puller”

john fahey steamboat gwine round the bendJohn Fahey “Steamboat Gwine ’round the bend”

Deciding on my favorite soundbites points to what I like best in music: things that are catchy, but elusive-sounding. I’ve always liked riffs, hits and hooks, but sometimes the ones you find in most “pop” aren’t layered enough to hold my interest when reduced to the length of 8 1/2 seconds. Most of the songs here come from my favorite bands, those strong enough as a unit to put some meat in the “bite”: Ornette Coleman’s 50’s quartet, the JB’s (with the Collins brothers), and Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band, (although a later version of the one that made some of my favorite records). Filling out the 5 are representatives of 2 other kinds of sound bites I like: frilly 60’s studio-pop, (the Left Banke), and solo instrumentalists where an idea has some room to breathe, (John Fahey, my favorite guitarist). While vocals to me need more time to really develop into something great, the music in each of these selections says something immediate and complete, and yet hard to grasp: it’s impossible to extend to the length of a song or album and keep that quality. But it’s fun to try.

Moby, Sampler Extraordinaire

My criterion in picking these soundbites is that one has to be able to sing or play no more than five seconds of each selection to any random citizen of the Western world ( and the Eastern, too, ideally) and have instant recognition. Beethoven’s Fifth is, for me, the hands down winner. It lends itself well to the Beavis and Butthead rendition (duh, duh, duh, duhhh) and you would have to find a proto-human living in a cave in Sumatra to find someone who’s not familiar with it.

rolling_stones_satisfactionRolling Stones, “Satisfaction”

Another big winner in the Beavis and Butthead-ification category (bah bah, bah bah bah, bah bah bah). Not quite as ubiquitous as Beethoven’s Fifth, but owing to its place in the rock canon and its use in any film or TV show that even so much as references the 60s, “Satisfaction” is a strong contender.

Happy Birthday song

In choosing the “Happy Birthday” song I’m making some pretty hefty assumptions about its universality. Its demographic penetration is pretty complete in the West (which alone justifies its inclusion here), but I don’t know if they sing “Happy Birthday” to each other in Uruguay or Afghanistan. If “Happy Birthday” is as universal as I assume it to be, it might be the big winner in this painful, bloody soundbite war.

Vivaldi, “Four Seasons”

When choosing these songs. I’m evaluating their viability from a multi-platform perspective. By this I mean that a soundbite needs to have proven itself in as many media platforms as possible (ie. radio, film, advertising, etc.). Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” is a possible contender because it’s been in so many advertisements and films, and it’s a pretty hardcore staple of commercial classical radio programming. It also passes the “sing it over the phone” test that is completely necessary in defining the uber-soundbite.

Jimi Hendrix, “Purple Haze”

The last choice for a small, but hopefully comprehensive list is as always the most difficult. “Purple Haze” finds its way onto the list because it’s been placed in even more 60s period films than “Satisfaction.” I’m happy that “Purple Haze” beat out so many other contenders (national anthems, show tunes, “Stairway”) because it’s subversive. There’s little pleasure to be had in recognizing the universality of a show-tune or a national anthem, but for me there’s a lot of satisfaction in knowing that a drug-soaked rock song written 30 years ago has more cultural and global resonance than “God Save The Queen.”

James McNew, Yo La Tengo

“Spinning Wheel,” NRBQ

Utilization of “The Magic Box,” a box placed at the front of the stage, in which audience members could place their requests, used to be a highlight of NRBQ performances. The rule was, no matter what song it was they pulled out of the Box, whether they actually knew the song or not, they had to play it. Here, drummer Tom Ardolino is about to read the piece of paper he’s pulled from the box, while the audience enthusiastically shouts its requests for “Rocket #9”. Tommy then intones, “Spinning Wheel”, and the crowd does not react well to this news. Al Anderson, guitarist, sounds genuinely peeved at the audience’s response, while keyboardist Terry Adams accepts the challenge immediately. High drama from the greatest live band in the universe.

Thin_Lizzy_-_Jailbreak_-_Front“Cowboy Song,” Thin Lizzy

When we listen to this song in the van, and it gets to the part where Phil Lynott says, “It’s okay, amigo”, everybody laughs. But I’m laughing out of love and respect for a time when there was absolutely nothing ironic about excellent six minute twin lead hard rock songs having to do with the rodeo and such.

“We Travel The Spaceways,” Sun Ra

At the very, very end, after all the instruments except the Solar Bell have faded out, it sounds like they’re watching a movie about duck calls on a very loud old film projector, which keeps stopping and starting. I’m serious, and I think I’m right.

“High School Tonight,” Half Japanese

There’s a part towards the end when the band kind of quiets down to an ominous thump, while Jad Fair sings about some things that sure would be bad if they happened at school. Then, all of a sudden, one guitar lets rip the most feral blast of feedback ever recorded. Must be heard to be believed.

“Where’s Jerry Lewis,” The Frogs

Second half of the second verse, where you can actually hear the other Frog think of his part, then sing it. And what a part it is! I swear I can hear little kids way in the background of this recording, and boy is that terrifying.

Related posts

2 Thoughts to “The Best 10-Second Music Riffs and Sound Bites”

  1. Cindy Faith Swain

    LOVE #4. I could add another 10 to this that would really round it out. Interested?

    1. Cindy,
      Send the article for us to review.

Comments are closed.