The Best 100 Music Videos of All Time — Films Fatale (2023)

Written by Andreas Babiolakis

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We’ve covered every single decade and type of film, so I’m going to wrap up my top one hundred lists with a bit of fun. However, before I cover things like cinematography and screenwriting, we should have a look at music. If I just released a list on short films before I begin my favourite cinematic elements — which include scores and soundtracks — then a look at the top one hundred music videos only seemed like it made sense (they’re like a marriage of short films and song writing, right?). This will likely be the most subjective list I’ve made thus far. Let’s be honest: there are countless amounts of music videos. Given the budgets that go into these works, it’s incredibly difficult to have a bad video. There likely are more good music videos than not, quite frankly. Sifting through hundreds of these was a crazy task.

Why did I want to keep trying to complete this list? Well, I feel like I have one vantage point that would make this experiment different than any other similar ones. Music video lists are usually compiled on music and/or multimedia websites. Films Fatale is strictly cinema (and television) based content. I felt like it may be unique to rank the best music videos ever from a cinephile standpoint. Would I fall for the usual videos that get mentioned on all of these lists, or would I be persuaded by the cinematic, innovative works that wowed me as a film buff? You may find that both outcomes came true, in this tug-of-war of the two hemispheres of my brain: the part that loves cinema, and the half that adores music.

To try and make this a bit easier for me, I have a couple of conditions. I want these selections to be conjured up works, directed and orchestrated to be music videos. This means a hard pass on videos that are just recordings or documentations of live performances (or performances of any sort, if the video focused entirely on them); some older videos get a bit of a pass, considering the time period, as long as enough artistic, cinematic, and aesthetic creativity got put into them. Furthermore, any music video that is predominantly based on film clips aren’t included (consider Metallica’s “One” the highest honorary mention as a result). I want this list to be a celebration of music videos as an art form. With these regulations provided, let’s venture forth. Here are the best one hundred music videos of all time.

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Purple hues, the moon’s light pouring in through large windowpanes, and a pair of dancers that have been possessed by otherworldly spirits: “Running Up That Hill” has it all.Toss in an army of drones with the dancers’ faces plastered on them, and you have an unnerving number. Kate Bush infamously rarely toured, but her energy went into brilliant videos like this.

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A man on fire is sprinting to his destination. That’s the video. And yet Spike Jonze’s music video for Wax’s “California” is insanely mesmerizing: like an accident you can’t turn away from. Shot in slow motion and done in one take (reportedly made six times; I feel sorry for the poor gentleman that had to be doused in flames that many times), “California” is the capturing of panic and anxiety that we’ve all felt (but hopefully never to this degree).

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If Giorgio Moroder’s disco opus From Here to Eternity could be encapsulated in a single video, the visual for the title track fulfilled its purpose. Even with aviator sunglasses in a dark space, highly dated lighting effects, and all of the time slowdown one can have, this video somehow avoids feeling cheesy. It’s a heavenly dance party you don’t want to end, with the master of the click track at the helm.

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I could have selected the video where Pixies refused to play along and lip synch, or many other of their works, but “Debaser” just feels like a no brainer. It is barely sensical in form, outside of the occasional shots of band members and live performances, but that’s what makes it great. The song itself is a pop hit underneath layers of yelps, cacophony, and Buñelean references. The video replicates this lovely disharmony perfectly.

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Earl Sweathirt’s greatest video is washed out in these cool translucent figures, as if these are the visions of our sleep paralysis. The dark imagery matches his stream-of-consciousness tone against a moody, droning beat; these are the nightmares and ramblings of a man that has had enough of it all. Stick around for the unusual outro, and you’ll find that the “Grief” video has an answer for that as well.

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Sade’s music has always had this soulful liquidity to it, as if it streams all around you, so the “No Ordinary Love” video makes perfect sense. Sade Adu herself takes on two flowing forms: a mermaid underneath the surface of a turquoise abyss, and a bride whose dress and veil float behind her as she sprints in slow motion. Both themes are gorgeously orchestrated, and as soothing to watch as Sade’s melodies are to hear.

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The album covers by John Dyer Baizley seem endless in design (the amounts of symbols and details are never ending), so a Baroness video that comes close to representing his art style will do just the same. “Shock Me” is sprinkled with abstract imagery, where each shot presents a puzzle worth decoding. Baroness are a metal band who love to explore outside of the genre’s stereotypes, and a video like “Shock Me” is no different: this is exquisite visual poetry more than any form of catharsis.

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Wong Kar-wai is always finding ways to incorporate music in his films, so it only makes sense that he could nail making music videos as well. His signature brand of nostalgia works well with DJ Shadow’s appropriation-heavy style of sampling, since both artists yearn for the past. So, you get something like “Six Days”: the best ‘90s music video to be made in 2002. Juicy colours and blurry photography set to groovy music. What more could you ask for?

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Lady Gaga has shocked the world time and time again (especially when she was first on the scene), but she never stopped the world in its tracks quite like when the “Bad Romance” video initially dropped. The numerous outfits, the incredible antics, and the destruction of conventional music video settings all made this smash hit’s accompanying visual a must-see event of the summer. For someone who would eventually release an album titled Artpop, Lady Gaga would never combine both worlds as well as she did with “Bad Romance” ever again.

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Okay, part of this video’s appeal is the niche appreciation for how “well” these effects have aged, but this only adds to the nerdy-yet-awesome mythology surrounding David Byrne and all of the Talking Heads. Whether you’re seeing Byrne swim on the worst green screen waters, getting multiplied to form an insane dance, or whatever other miracle this video possesses, you’ll never forget the first time you saw “Once in a Lifetime”; its title is quite appropriate for this experience.

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Kurt Cobain was quite vocal about his influences of yesteryear, ranging from The Stooges to The Shaggs. Of course, the suits and the illusion of a ‘50s televised performance (live audience and all) is a jab at the mainstream attraction the band garnered after “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, but I’d like to think that part of this was Cobain’s fascination with rock history as a whole. Nirvana had more daring videos, but the “In Bloom” video still felt like the perfect dichotomy.

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I’m saddened to discover that Prince didn’t have many videos that weren’t linked to performances (a rule I have set in place for this list), so one of the rare times he will appear on this list is for “Raspberry Beret”: this is also a performance, but it has enough artistic liberties and video innovations to make it qualify (and, naturally, funky enough) for this list. This video is colourful enough to justify any effects that may have aged poorly: this is a fantastic time and no one will spoil it for me.

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Missy Elliott would go against the grain when it came to what music videos could look like in both hip hop and r&b. You can single out the unique outfits alone (“Rain” possesses what is arguably Elliott’s most iconic look: a black garbage bag of sorts), but there are also the strange effects she works with. These include extensive uses of fish eyed lenses and obvious CGI (intentionally, I feel). A lot of these gimmicks are things imitators tried and failed, or other artists misused before. Missy Elliott just knew how to take the biggest cliches or faux-pas and turn them into the next big trend.

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Part psychedelic and part monochromatic fever dream, “Go With The Flow”’s video is an animated trip out for the ages. The band is riding a truck booking it down the road at extreme speeds. Other hallucinations overtake your field of view, including bikini clad models (in case you forgot the imagery Queens of the Stone Age were obsessed with at one point). Things get even crazier, and your eyes won’t even know what to do with themselves once the insanity is resolved.

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Partially inspired by Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon — which featured an experimental score — Janelle Monáe’s much funkier “Tightrope” is a celebration of all of the misfits of society. Whether Monáe enters another dimension or an asylum busts a groove, every part of this session is a spectacle through and through. With one of the most fun songs of the 2010’s, a dance that should have taken off (the song’s namesake) is developed; maybe one day it’ll catch on.

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At once the most expensive music video ever made, it only makes sense that two of the biggest pop stars in history — brother and sister Michael and Janet Jackson — teamed up for a major video event of the ‘90s. Does “Scream” look a bit dated? No. It looks incredibly dated. Still, its ripple effect could be felt: borderline every pop music video tried to capture its futuristic world theme to usher in the new millennium. At least with “Scream”, there seems to be enough originality and sibling based fun that it doesn’t feel painful to watch now.

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In short, “Don’t Come Around Here No More” is inspired by the stories of Lewis Carroll (basically Alice in Wonderland), but it’s the video’s execution that has made it such a staple of the medium. Tom Petty’s straightforward rock song is met with distorted lenses, mind boggling effects, and phenomenal ‘80s-era backdrops; it doesn’t quite work, but for that reason it works entirely (given the whole theme of abnormality, of course). It’s a rock video that went against the macho competitions of glam; this video never takes itself seriously, and yet it’s still a far better made work.

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Grace Jones takes the Roxy Music hit and injects it with a boost of energy; otherwise, Jones was always synonymous with art within music. So, the video for her cover of “Love is the Drug” could only be told via flashes of portraits and other punchy visuals; if paintings could have adrenaline attributed to them, this is what they’d look like, and how they’d be presented. If you need a shock to your system, Grace Jones is the drug.

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I could harp on about the meme culture that grew out of Drake’s instantly-iconic “Hotline Bling” video, but that feels self explanatory. These references came out of a neon-lit hallway with Drake doing whatever the hell he felt like: the mixture of aesthetic with confidence is presentable and identifiable. Here is a hip hop set of the 2010’s with a singer-rapper just flailing around and making up moves on the spot. It’s unorthodox but it feels so good.

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The Cure’s “Lullaby” is already cinematic in and of itself: its lyrics talk about a spider man that will come and devour the narrator in his worst nightmare. Put that in video form, and you have Robert Smith facing his deepest fears in a state of complete vulnerability. Dressed in the gloomiest greens and darkest shadows, the “Lullaby” video is as close to a living version of the gorgeous Disintegration cover as we’re going to get; oh, how wonderful it is.

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As extreme as Converge are musically, they’re never afraid to go outside of their comfort zone. The separate images in “A Single Tear” may have come out of a pop video (at least some of them), but adding perfectly timed strobe effects (and perspective shifts) turn beautiful sequences into bursts of panic. Jacob Bannon’s lyrics came out of him being a new father; with that in mind, seeing symbols — like the chick fighting to get out of its egg — end up becoming painfully emotional, and actually breathtaking.

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David Bowie was able to finally take over the world as the next big rockstar when he began to don his many musical disguises. His breakthrough hit “Space Oddity” was matched by a red-and-green video, full of close ups, scientific equipment, and intriguing angles. When the world (especially a few notable countries) were hellbent on the space race, here came music’s next legend, who put it all into one of the all time greatest ballads, and a video that showed where both audible and visual art forms would go next.

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N.W.A. kicked the tail end of the ‘80s in its shins to make its statement about police brutality: they had to be heard. Their first mega hit “Straight Outta Compton” had three rap testimonies, and these acted as the basis for what the video would show. Paving the way for gangster rap videos forever, “Straight Outta Compton” possessed the rage of punk with the voices of entire communities that didn’t want to deal with oppression anymore.

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Björk sure knows how to find the right filmmakers to work with (she is one of the most frequently mentioned artists on this list). One early example is her collaboration with Spike Jonze, who took her cover of Betty Hutton’s “It’s Oh So Quiet” and turned it into a Jacques Demy playground. A musical explosion during a time when the film genre was very well dead, here was a burst of fun that reminded us that maybe the style wasn’t quite as bad as we were led to believe.

Flying Lotus’ “You’re Dead!” tried to capture the experience of a soul leaving one’s body, so the themes of life and demise are quite apparent. The video for the album’s hit single “Never Gonna Catch Me”, featuring some great bars by Kendrick Lamar, handle these ideas very well: with kids dancing at a funeral. Shot gracefully with moves that punctuate each and every beat, this video is as wholesome as it is deep.

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Kanye West’s former mascot — the Dropout Bear — has woken up late for his graduation, and so he has to rush to the ceremony. Directed by Takashi Murakami, the music video for “Good Morning” is a rush of psychedelic images, anthropomorphic animals, and other dreamlike images (in a song and storyline all about the moments after waking up, both literally and figuratively).

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If new wave could be encapsulated in a single video, Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” would do a damn good job of being the best example. Toss in some warm yellow lights and mirrored balls (because, well, the whole disco angle of the song), and you have a simplistic video that can still knock you off your seat. Music videos have certainly evolved since, but the video for “Heart of Glass” is undeniably sleek, and one of the great visual components of ‘70s music.

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Tyler, the Creator has definitely become a much more refined lyricist and producer, but he always had a good eye for visual content (album covers included). He still has yet to top the video for “Yonkers”: a monochromatic shock fest where Tyler battles his inner demons (vomit induced by a cockroach, soulless eyes, and an incredibly graphic conclusion to boot). Tyler understood virility when his group Odd Future was still trying to leave their mark. “Yonkers” made Tyler the most dangerous-feeling musician for a short while upon release, so I’d say mission accomplished.

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Polly Jean Harvey always desired to make art as effective as possible, and her roaring rock music burst speakers and captured listeners from the first riff. Her best video is the feminist statement “Dress”, where every single perspective involving the garment is represented in so many creative ways. Harvey lays like a mannequin being dressed up, but at the same time like the corpse at a crime scene. She (and the titular dress) are otherwise filmed very intrusively, as if the camera (and those looking through it) are driven by perversion. It’s three minutes of powerful confrontation.

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Show me a video that takes Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon and makes it audacious for an ‘80s audience, and it’s guaranteed to make a list like this. Myléne Farmer’s fantastic “Libertine” video fully embraces all of the taboo elements of being an aristocrat or royal, shoved into a nearly ten minute epic that holds nothing back. Being a tribute is one thing, but “Libertine” runs away with its homage premise and becomes a daring achievement of its own.

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Considering a debut album full of bangers, I always wondered why “L.E.S Artistes” took off more than any other Santigold (then Santogold) track at the time. Then I stumbled across the exhilarating video for the tune. Her affinity for symmetry is shown here, amidst nearly Lynchian imagery of doubles, horses, and the deep woods. Next we have war, where pummelled fruits and neon paint resemble blood (and are used extremely effectively). Her blending of surreality and metaphors with commentary is unforgettable here.

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Whether it was the gorgeous song, the numerous advertisements and features in films, or the lawsuit that followed, The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony” is unquestionably one of the most popular songs of the ‘90s, which would have catapulted anyone into the stratosphere. Naturally, the music video features Richard Ashcroft getting shoved aside by every member of society walking against him (in the decade’s signature slow motion, no less). This was meant to be an observation of feeling alone in the world, but it became a prophecy of celebrity culture. Nonetheless, we can all identify with Ashcroft here.

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When the “Boys Don’t Cry” magazine dropped, Frank Ocean shared his all time favourite films, and was dropping some amazing titles (a little bit of Buñuel, a little bit of Wong Kar-wai, and so many more great choices).Then came “Nikes”: a testament to his obsession with cinema, off of Blond (which played like a series of fading, damaged memories). Lo-fi footage is intercut with well shot cinematography, as if Ocean wanted to cover all bases of his filmic interests. Everything in between screams Fellini: symbolic art of the highest order, surrounding one of music’s most mysterious singers.

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Sometimes, the narrative of a music video supersedes the song it is promoting entirely. When you discuss Daft Punk’s “Da Funk”, the hypnotic house track only barely correlates with Spike Jonze’s video of Charles the dog and his struggles with his broken leg. Possessing a boom box that plays the instrumental track throughout the short, Charles’ good luck forever gets stymied by misfortune, including his biggest breakthrough being blocked by his inability to turn said musical device off. Derive whatever symbols you want, but I think Jonze was having a field day with a video that makes barely any sense, but also speaks volumes (and to everyone).

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There’s something amazing about “I Will Survive”: it’s musically simple after its developing introduction. The music video for Gloria Gaynor’s opus is as basic-yet-epic as its iconic song: the singer stands alone underneath a couple of stage lights, and lets go. We cut to a lone dancer occasionally, but otherwise “I Will Survive” is an exercise in impactful simplicity; it can stand on its own two feet just fine.

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Madonna’s music has the odd tie to old Hollywood, including a tribute to the noir opus White Heat. With David Fincher’s direction of the video for “Express Yourself”, there’s a “true blue” (different era, however) look at Metropolis, with working men being the machines that operate the entire city. Metaphors and innuendos galore, the “Express Yourself” video is a dynamic form of, well, expression.

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I adore Outkast, and their videos along with them. However, I can admit that the majority of their visual content — as amazing as they are — feel a little too dated. The one major exception is “Hey Ya!”, which is a throw back to the ‘50s and/or ‘60s anyway. André 3000 performs as his own band (every member within it) on this solo track from the Love Below portion of Outkast’s double album, and he embodies each character’s personalities so well. The screaming fans in the audience matched the pop culture phenomenon that “Hey Ya!” became, so it really is their most timeless video to date.

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Of all the theatrical videos Kate Bush put out, the one that sticks with me the most is perhaps her simplest. Her tribute to the Emily Brontë novel Wuthering Heights is mostly hinged on a ghostly dance, as she sings from the perspective of the soul of Cathy trying to revisit Heathcliff at the window. Most of what we see is interpretive, but it’s enough. Even if you have no context, Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” video is guaranteed to stay in your head rent free.

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Sure, Kylie Minogue’s song is catchy and addictive, but you watch the “Come Into my World” music video for the Michel Gondry magic. Minogue travels around a city with events happening around her (errands, a sour breakup, and then some), but every time she cycles back to the starting position, her story repeats itself (yet she, and all of the other players from the previous round, don’t disappear). By the end, you have a fractal of pop music visuals, and more pieces of the puzzle than you may have expected.

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There’s something very tongue-in-cheek with this video, with the Foo Fighters performing in a burning building as if nothing is the matter (I mean, this is a ‘90s rock song after all, and fire was basically a prerequisite to any of the genre’s promotional materials). An anonymous hero keeps going back into the structure to save whoever is left (outside of the Foos, of course, because they supposedly don’t need to be rescued), and each and every return is as glorious as the last. So much of “My Hero” is a given, but it’s still impossible to turn away from.

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With all of the guest appearances in Kanye West’s “All of the Lights”, a credits sequence was necessary. Naturally, West took inspiration from Gaspar Noé’s infamous intro to Enter the Void, vicious strobe lights and all. Once the video gets going, it’s as bombastic as possible, with bright neon lights, extravagant imagery, and the artistic maximalism of what a hip hop video could look like (it’s familiar but oh so different). Yes, it includes all of the lights a video could possibly conjure up.

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While being one of the most self aware epic music videos of all time, it’s impossible to shrug off “November Rain”: it’s a little too moving and exquisite to be overcome by cheese or over theatrics. Slash soloing outside of the church is a legitimately great shot, for instance. The narrative involving singer Axl Rose is done really well, and the story matches the magnitude of Guns N’ Roses and their accompanying orchestra. The ending is a juxtaposition of performance and devastating storytelling: a flurry of emotions that is bound to grip your heart when reached.

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In the same way that cinema can boast mesmerizing single takes, so can music videos. While there’s nothing dynamic about how “Private Life” is shot, Grace Jones is the perfect focal point, as her expressions — whilst singing — tell all of the stories one can tell. Clad in a red hood with warm lights behind her, Jones is as close to us as possible, and yet she never feels intrusive. The mask of her own face being put on and taken off is the extra bonus: the cherry of weirdness that this simple-yet-effective video needed to remain singular.

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Björk was in love, and found her own way to tell the world. Attached to a song off of the sublime Vespertine, the “Pagan Poetry” video is easily her most sexually explicit (well, maybe only just if we include “Cocoon”), with fornication filtered to the point of abstract confusion. Penetration is represented by the piercing of skin, with pearls and blood tying everything else together. “Pagan Poetry” wasn’t shot to be sexy, and yet it is perhaps one of the most gorgeous looks at love-making you’ll find in any music video.

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By the time the video for “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’” came out, the Wu-Tang Clan were beginning to not all be hidden underneath masks (well, some members anyway). GZA’s obsession with chess was put on full blast here, and the rest of the Clan joined in, with pieces representing various members within underground crime. As the group bless us with their wicked wordplay, the complexities of the game itself become magnified.

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Richard D. James — otherwise known as Aphex Twin — has some sort of fixation with having his face plastered everywhere (including bikini clad models in the “Windowlicker” music video, and the promotional artwork too). “Come to Daddy” is this nightmare at its worst, with a satirical look at celebrity culture, mass hysteria, and idolization put through a twisted lens. The song’s continual push of the need to consume one’s soul is fitting for a video that looks like a modern take on The Twilight Zone.

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The geeky camaraderie between producer Madlib and rapper MF DOOM (may he rest in peace) is unmistakable, and their opus Madvillainy played like a series of channel flips and darting thought processes. Matching this spastic enthusiasm is this comic book video for “All Caps”, which matches the superhero (and villain) tone of the album. This kind of concept has been done before and since, but “All Caps” is one of the best representations of what would happen if comic panels and pages came to life; it’s short, but it begs to be put on repeat.

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As great as Blur were, the “Coffee & TV” video seemingly became bigger than even they were; non-fans were obsessed with this story of the living milk carton on its quest to find a missing person. You see an entire lifetime flash before your eyes, as the carton goes through every possible emotion. The band is finally spotted, and even then the gimmick isn’t abandoned: the focus had to be on the cute narrative. The milk carton has become a separate part of pop culture, both next to and distanced from Blur: a sign of a strong band, and a phenomenal video.

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Fiona Apple has been able to convey the curse of a frantic mind musically for years, but her work in the new millennium has certainly prioritized this kind of mental miasma. The video for “Every Single Night” is no different, as Apple is isolated yet confined, illuminated yet kept in the dark, focused on and yet left blurry at times. If the image of an octopus latched onto one’s scalp isn’t the perfect metaphor for brain fog, anxiety and depression, then I don’t know what is.

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I’ll never forget that Jay-Z was planning on retiring when The Black Album came out. He certainly would have gone out with a bang. He knew he had something special with “99 Problems” (he even tells producer Rick Rubin he’s crazy for his beat during the outro of the song), so he needed a video to match the intensity and power of the track. Many quick cuts from Hova and various images (someone vomiting in their cell, a gospel choir, and et cetera) make for a collage of nuance; the featuring of the story mid-song, where Jay-Z is racially profiled by a corrupt officer, really ties the track and video together perfectly.

My Bloody Valentine had a number of trippy visuals to match the tracks off of their magnum opus Loveless, but the best of these examples is “To Here Knows When”. The repetition of frames to make ghostly trails feels like a ‘90s version of Norman McLaren’s Pas de deux: this results in the best shoegaze representation ever. Caught in a dream with neon Rorschach imagery, “To Here Knows When”’s video is an undeniable vibe of nostalgia and unconsciousness.

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TLC’s song about living without caution is full of a few hard hitting tales, which get showcased in the accompanying video. Otherwise, T-Boz, Left Eye, and Chilli set the bar for girl (and boy) group videos from there on: a nice, abstract backdrop, and as much synchronicity as there is individuality in each member’s moves. All three of them are water based, even for just a little while, as a reminder of our unity within the grand scheme of things. “Waterfalls” achieves its pop culture necessities with extra symbolic oomph to boot.

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The Knife’s greatest album Silent Shout is extremely creepy and eerie, but not without being catchy at the same time. The title track’s video had to match, and it flies with flying colours (well, coloured lights, maybe). Pulsating effects lead into abstract and unsettling imagery, as if this were a conventional music video that was shoved into a blender; it’s familiar but distant enough to send shivers down your spine. “Silent Shout” is right in the middle as a form of magnetism, being neither a cry for help or an open celebration; its draw is indescribable.

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Michael Jackson’s videos were made to be cinematic (we’ll know soon enough, as we reach his works that could be considered short films), but his visual component for “Billie Jean” isn’t much longer than the song itself is. It feels like we’re taking a walk with him and listening to his problems, until he busts out into a dance. Before the story continues, we get endearing old computer effects, light up parts of sidewalks, and debris floating around Jackson; we’re frozen in time with the king of pop himself.

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What eludes many non-Beastie Boys fans is that the trio were always mocking the ways of mainstream culture; they were music enthusiasts and cinephiles at heart (the late Adam Yauch founded Oscilloscope Laboratories to distribute indie and international films). The three MCs teamed up with Spike Jonze for “Sabotage”: a video that pokes fun at action films, shoestring budgets, and the art of filmmaking as a whole. As sarcastic as it all is, it secretly adores the whole process. I wish this film was coming soon to a theatre near me.

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For a brief moment during a politically heated United States, Childish Gambino won everyone over: fans, non-fans, and those who didn’t even know who this guy was. Any person you knew was talking about “This is America”: the celebration that became an incredibly difficult pill to swallow once Donald Glover shocks you with this difficult imagery of police brutality and systemic racism. Glover himself partakes in a dance that references the racist caricature Jim Crow: a reminder that a nation is willing to turn blind eyes to real issues that never seem to go away.

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Nirvana was highly influenced by Pixies overall, especially musically. Whereas Pixies lip-synched in one of their music videos, Nirvana embraced the stereotypes of pop culture in their breakthrough “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video. They’re in a high school, even with a cheerleading squad to boot. However, they’re singing directly to the misfits there, not the crowd that wants to buy a product or experiences FOMO. In a way, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was meant to be defiant, but it only set the tone for rock videos for years to come.

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The bling era of hip hop was on the rise, but Missy Elliott couldn’t care less. Rocking a Motorhead shirt and a bedazzled Canadian tux, she’s in her own element in “Get Ur Freak On”: it happens to be in the hearts of various secret societies, lairs, and locations. Gaudy visual effects were treated like the norm here, from freeze frame transitions to Missy’s neck growing in serpentine fashion. Anything could go in a Missy Elliott music video, and it made her as fresh as could be. With pale imitators ever since, “Get Ur Freak On” remains sensational nonetheless.

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Of all of the music videos that were inspired by films, perhaps one of the most endearing is what The Smashing Pumpkins achieved with “Tonight, Tonight”: a modernized version of Georges Méliès’ dreams in A Trip to the Moon nearly one hundred years afterwards. The make up, effects, and costumes are part throwback and part innovation, as we get caught in between both sides of the timeline of homage. For many ‘90s youngsters, this was their foray into the fascinating world of silent shorts; if a song could represent all of them, perhaps it’s the whimsical “Tonight, Tonight” that made the best fit after all.

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Adam Jones was a special effects artist in Hollywood before Tool took off; you can even spot him making dinosaurs in behind-the-scenes footage for Jurassic Park. Naturally, he was the primary mind behind most of Tool’s music videos, implementing stop motion chaos and incredible makeup designs. His best work is in “Schism”, where the complexities of the human anatomy become mathematical patterns, science experiments, and demented works of art. Part Švankmajer and part Parajanov, Jones goes the distance with his cryptic imagery in ways that don’t even seem human.

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The second video to be inspired by Metropolis on this list, Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” features pop singers as robots, with sharp moves that lock into place. Precision is always a necessity in dance, and Jackson and her crew are shockingly on time here. With steep camera angles and angular architecture to match the edgy moves, “Rhythm Nation” looks exactly what the title represents: a society built upon steps and choreography. It’s as cinematically aesthetic as pop music could be in the ‘80s.

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Fatboy Slim’s videos usually featured a niche and ran with it, and Christopher Walken hasn’t exactly ever stopped being a topic of conversation. He gets a chance to do one of his first loves — expressive dancing — in the “Weapon of Choice” video. If his enigmatic moves weren’t enough, the video allows him to explore the entire interior of a fancy hotel, proving that no one here will ever experience this level of glee (but we can get awfully close by watching this).

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Radiohead were still in the midst of disrupting their celebrity status (and pop culture) when Kid A’s sister album Amnesiac came out; it wasn’t quite as abrasive as the former, but still as different as a mainstream artist’s albums could be at the start of the twenty first century. Their strongest video during this time is “Pyramid Song”, which doesn’t really offer us anything concrete. We get a world that’s both frozen and under water, full of surreal designs and identifiable symbols (floating books, and the bones of the dead). This submerged abstract world will mean different things to every viewer, especially when attached to Thom Yorke’s gut wrenching lyrics.

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In short, the “GUV’NOR” video (by the duo of Jneiro Jarel and MF DOOM, effectively known as JJ DOOM) is two different sets of footage spliced down the middle. In a great case of bumping the lamp, this premise is taken to the extreme. At any instance, a new trick is experimented: a low angle high angle marriage, MF DOOM on bicycles colliding and converging into one being, and the usage of two different settings at once (and more). “GUV’NOR” is a complete mind scramble to watch, but that’s entirely the fun of it.

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What’s the connection between Björk and Michel Gondry? Neither are held back by genre or style conventions. Björk’s blending of string instruments and electronica on her Homogenic album is showcased in “Bachelorette”, which boasts a spellbinding video by Gondry. Similarly, his artistic angle includes the exaggerations of silent cinema, but part of this vision takes place in typically ‘90s colours and photography. All of this follows the tale of a book that grows, and a reader that dares to dream; this may be the most magical representation of how adaptations work that I’ve ever seen.

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If parents thought an unorthodox pop song whose chorus boasted the line “I wanna fuck you like an animal” was bad, then God help them if they saw the music video for “Closer” during the height of the time when music could be blamed for things. Trent Reznor’s concept album (The Downward Spiral) is full of self destruction, rage against all systems, and affinities for torture. You’ll find all of these in Nine Inch Nails’ video that plays like a demonic sideshow; even the “film” itself distorts with holes punched into frames and warping of the sides. If there was any way that industrial nightmares could be introduced to the mainstream, this was the closest we got.

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Since I Left You is made up of reportedly thousands of samples by the plunderphonics wizards in The Avalanches, and the best way to showcase how individual elements could work as a whole is in the visual orchestra for “Frontier Psychiatrist”. Each sample has its own person and/or group reenacting whatever sounds come out, resulting in one of the weirdest experiences within music videos. At the same time, one can get a taste of all of these unrelated worlds, whether you see a choir of ghosts, a cowboy shootout, or a turtle with a man’s head (what does that mean?).

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Michel Gondry took every instrument in Daft Punk’s “Around the World” incredibly literally, with each part of the song’s rhythm, melody, and vocal sampling being brought to life by the starting and stopping of peculiar beings: robotic astronauts, mummies, and synchronized swimmers galore. They loop around and around, like a record or the globe, and we don’t even see the “end” of the video; we just leave when we have to. Feeling like an endless zoetrope of sorts, “Around the World” is the perfect music video trance.

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Moonwalker was meant to house a number of Michael Jackson music videos within a narrative feature, but there was absolutely no way that “Smooth Criminal” could be contained. Even out of context (which is how the video has since been shown), the dancing miscreants in their shady hideout will feel like the coolest thing ever shown: you want to know where this place is, and how you can be a member. Out of nowhere, “Smooth Criminal” breaks out into a surreal escape that no one ever sees coming; I still don’t know what’s going on there, but it’s another curveball that the king of pop was willing to throw us to spice up the scene.

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“Closer” may have made a bigger splash, but Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor wasn’t done working with Mark Romanek just yet. This is as gothic as industrial videos could get, but I do mean in a Edward Gorey kind of way: costumes, architecture and all. “The Perfect Drug” is a painfully grim video, but so artistically strong that it feels like some sort of tough catharsis; addiction is used to cure the anguish that refuses to go away.

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Can a video be as brilliant as it is unfortunately damning? That might be the case for D’Angelo, who was cursed by the “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” video for the majority of his career (he even references the focus on his abdomen on his Black Messiah album). Still, this single shot look at a vulnerable person in love is a once in a lifetime connection between you and an artist and their lyrics. This is emotion with zero frills. I just wish it didn’t turn on D’Angelo in the way that it did.

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One of Radiohead’s saddest tracks is “No Surprises”: the call for one to be at peace when they try to end their life. The video featuring Thom Yorke in a helmet is a daring representation of depression and societal suffocation. His head case fills up with water, until he is holding his breath and submerged, staring at us blankly (as if we were death itself). Once the helmet empties and Yorke can breathe again, it is a feeling that is all too familiar in an anxious reality. Bold doesn’t even begin to describe this art.

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All that goes on in Jamiroquai’s “Virtual Insanity” is dancing, but it’s how the dancing is implemented that makes it special. You’ll find Jay Kay on a moving floor, where he essentially just moves in place and goes wherever he is taken (I think? The illusion is quite phenomenal). Furniture and objects begin to join him, as the space around this lone wolf becomes a part of the show. It’s music video minimalism done just right: here’s what you can do with limited environments and without any story at all.

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Eminem’s most iconic song is obviously driven by a clear cut story of obsessive fanaticism that turns into a toxic response to alienation (who doesn’t know the “Stan” story by now?). The video doesn’t deviate from this tale one iota, and that’s the best thing about it. You get the visual version of this harrowing, horrific tale, and you can see the extent that the titular character goes to look like, and effectively be, Marshall Mathers. Back when Eminem could tell a damn good narrative, there was luckily a visual component that matched him at his very best (and most thrilling).

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Björk lays dormant on a landscape, as if her face and body are part of the terrain. From a birds eye view, we see a projection of Björk herself being blasted onto her physical resting self; her dreams are subsequently featured on and around her as well. We always bounce back to her sleep state, as if it is the brief sense of security we need to anchor ourselves with, as subconscious Björk is unhinged. “Hyperballad”’s video is what the maximalism of intimacy can look like, and it’s the kind of euphoria that only artists like Björk and Michel Gondry can achieve.

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We’ll never forget when Kanye West stormed the Video Music Awards stage in defence of the “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” video. While the way he went about it wasn’t preferable, we wasn’t exactly wrong: Beyoncé did have “one of the best videos of all time!”. The trio of Queen Bey and her backup dancers was quite standard for pop videos, but she took it to a whole new level with lighting effects, hypnotic choreography, and other means of raising the bar. This is where her obsession with getting cinematic with her videos began (more on that later), but it was this bridge between the Beyoncé of old and of new that has resonated the most with audiences.

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At the height of their relationship, musical prodigy Fiona Apple and rising filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson collaborated on a video for her cover of The Beatles’ “Across the Universe”. The result is a video that floats in space, with Apple being completely invincible from the crashing world around her. The cinematic, sublime video, matched with Apple’s soothing vocals blend together for a transcendent experience; nothing was gonna change their world, indeed.

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In the video for Sinéad O’Connor’s magnum opus, the singer’s grievances are framed personally, externally, and abstractly. The majority of the visuals here are an extreme close up of O’Connor facing her darkest demons, with occasional fades to her walking in an empty world (or of symbolic settings, beings, or objects). As she tears up while looking squarely into our souls, that’s when we’ll know what heartbreak truly feels like.

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“Power”’s music video was a short teaser of the song, matched with a cinematic visual. The next My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy video that came out was “Runaway”: a nine minute song whose video ended up being a half hour (from one extreme to the other). Here, the entire album got promoted, but the more important story is Kanye West’s incredible vision as an artistic filmmaker. These thirty minutes with a fallen phoenix in a ruthless world will remain some of his finest moments as a visionary.

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Michael Jackson wasn’t done conquering the music video industry after the success of Thriller (a hint of what magnum opus has yet to come), so he teamed up with Martin Scorsese for the title track off of Bad. Jackson channels the kinds of peer pressure that many of his listeners may have felt they had to give in to in this full on story of juvenile delinquents and changes of heart. Despite being a video about the discovery of good within criminals, “Bad” is truly, well, bad: as cool as music videos could be.

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I mentioned Kanye West’s “Power” earlier, and you may have noticed it’s not on this list. As great as it is, I feel like FKA Twigs’ video for “Two Weeks” is similar but better. There’s the same slow pull from a focal point outwards, revealing a cinematic, massive backdrop. FKA Twigs accomplishes an entire song of this effect, plus the incorporation of her expertise in dance (she is surrounded by dancers, all played by her). This hypnotic visual won’t leave your head for at least the length of time mentioned in the song and title, and that’s exactly what FKA Twigs desired.

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Karma is in the name of this Radiohead hit, and it’s the predominant theme of Jonathan Glazer’s iconic music video. We sit with Thom Yorke in the backseat of a car that is chasing a helpless man down a dark street, only for us to find that the bullied individual has matches that can set this car ablaze. Comeuppance is a fantastic resolution, but it’s impossible to not feel guilty, like we’ve encouraged this chase to occur by watching; and yet we cannot turn away, even if we know what’s in store for us.

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Even at his worst, David Bowie just had to pump out some iconic releases. The Tonight and Never Let Me Down era had the late music legend at his creative lowest, but it also brought us Jazzin’ for Blue Jean: the extended music video for the track “Blue Jean”, featuring Bowie playing multiple characters, satirical jabs at all kinds of rockstar lifestyles, and a self awareness that continuously checks in on us viewers. This was a fun time in Bowie’s life, where nothing was too serious, and this may be the finest outcome of said era.

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Kendrick Lamar’s anthem during a decade mauled by political divide, police brutality, and systemic racism has a powerful video to boot. A lot of violence and damage happens during the “Alright” visual, as we take a step back and look at the atrocities of hatred. Lamar even gets knocked down during this video, only to assure us that he is okay, and all things shall pass; one day, or presently through perseverance and unity, we’re gonna be alright.

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Once a taboo video that caused the biggest backlashes, it always feels fitting to revisit Madonna’s controversial video for “Like a Prayer” (especially since I feel like it’s been grossly misunderstood). This isn’t a blasphemous use of shocking images, but rather a strong take on the racism that was still rampant. It could be hard to tell with a singer like Madonna, that thrived on catching audiences off guard. I think we can recognize her at her artistic peak (thanks to the help of director Mary Lambert as well).

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The Beatles accomplished a hell of a lot during their studio-only days (when they stopped touring), but this includes their experimentation with visuals as well. Fortunately, their all time greatest song — “A Day in the Life” — now has their greatest video attached to it; footage of the Fab Four and their acquaintances, as well as the recording of the song, were mashed together in a way that felt reminiscent of the underground film movements. The video was remastered and released as good as new back in 2015 for one of the countless Beatles compilation releases; it’s a superb time capsule of the band and era.

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The Pharcyde always marched to the beat of their own drum, and their music videos had to act accordingly. So the rap group teamed up with Spike Jonze for “Drop”: an exercise of performing entirely in reverse, only for the footage to be then reversed again. You’ll feel like something is off, like you’re within another dimension. Here is extreme dedication used in the name of music videos, and we’re left with a hip hop gem for the ages.

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Michel Gondry’s “Fell in Love with a Girl” video is one of the music videos that is guaranteed to show up on every single list of this nature. Considering that this anthem by The White Stripes isn’t even two minutes long, Gondry’s Lego-based visual is incredible enough to stay with you for a lifetime. All we see are animations of both Jack and Meg performing, as well as occasional effects and unrelated images, and yet this is one of the projects that revolutionized what a music video could be. It’s a child’s dream come true.

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I’ll be upfront and say I’m not the biggest fan of Peter Gabriel, but music videos are the solution to bringing naysayers on board with a musician’s work. His song “Sledgehammer” is alright, but it’s the Stephen R. Johnson directed video that has elevated the song to iconic status. Perhaps one of the greatest instances of stop motion animation, “Sledgehammer” goes through a handful of different looks, styles, and approaches. It’s not the kind of video that you can’t imagine how it was made, but rather the opposite: you’re aware of just how many hours this must have taken, and it hurts you as much as it astounds you.

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In a rare instance, this is one of those times where a music video has surpassed the legacies of both an artist and their hit single. Michel Gondry’s concept for singer Cibo Matto’s “Sugar Water” is unforgettable. You first see two visuals living simultaneously: one going forwards, and one in reverse. Once these moments meet in the middle and proceed to go their own ways, it’s when you’ll be tempted to go back and restart the video, knowing what’s to come, and trying to see how this was even made. At the same time, you’ll want to finish the video and see if everything lines up. It’s two for the price of one.

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Sometimes, everything about a release is just perfect. “Bohemian Rhapsody” is a song that almost everybody on Earth can agree on, and its video is just as brilliant. We all know the iconic shot of the four Queen members framed with precise lighting and at an up angle, but what about the rest (including the dated-but-perfect effects?). “Bohemian Rhapsody”’s video is as much of a product of the ‘70s as you can get, but that also means it’s one of the finer musical visuals of the decade; it’s as video as adventurous as the song it accompanies.

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Denis Lavant strolls down the road of a tunnel and gets hit by cars. That’s it. That’s the video. However, Jonathan Glazer’s “Rabbit in Your Headlights” visual is both parts devastating and breathtaking. Seeing the actor getting pummelled by vehicles is awful, but the turning point of the video — when the abused man becomes invincible — is an iconic moment in ‘90s pop culture: a triumphant exclamation point that all of us wish we could feel.

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Do I even need to say anything here? “Take On Me” is as memorable as music videos can get. It’s the kind of release where I’m surprised any filmmaker even bothered after Steve Barron’s animated wonderland graced television screens (it’s actually the second music video for A-ha’s iconic song, believe it or not). If anything, this is a breakthrough in visual storytelling entirely, to the point that the blending of animation and live action still feels incredibly convincing; you know it’s fake, but can’t help but feel like this feels so real.

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The Chemical Brothers managed to secure the greatest directors for their videos during the ‘90s (more on that shortly), so Spike Jonze directing their “Electrobank” video just made sense. Starring Jonze’s then-girlfriend Sofia Coppola, the video’s narrative surpasses the song (which ultimately becomes the backing track for this gripping story of an underdog gymnast giving a competition her all). If anything, “Electrobank” feels like a short film graced by a killer electronic track. Not many music videos will make your heart race like this.

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David Bowie’s greatest video just plants the singer in the middle of a bright-white backdrop, to the point that his physical body bleeds into the background (the shining of his hair and suit, and his pale skin). He sings his Sinatra-esque ballad “Life On Mars?” as if we’re the only people facing him, but his impact feels much more ambitious (like a radio transmission from another planet to Earth). Even though he only sings here, the way he is framed, the colour coordination of his get up, and his radiating passion were all strong enough to shape what music videos could be for decades.

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Towards the end of his life, Johnny Cash turned Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” into an apology for any mistakes he made in the past. Mark Romanek, who worked with Nine Inch Nails on a number of their previous videos, utilized this opportunity to encapsulate all of Cash’s life in this somber, heart-wrenching ballad. Cash and wife June Carter Cash (both of whom would die the same year of this video’s release) knew the end was near, and so did Romanek. Entire legacies and lifetimes (and the good and bad that comes with them) are all blurred together in this devastating video: the only music video to drive me to full, endless tears.

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Because this is “Thriller”. Before it was the in-thing to make short films that acted as music videos, Michael Jackson — at the height of his capabilities, no less — had this B-movie horror show video that dominated MTV and pop culture pretty much ever since; the scope of these channels may change, but “Thriller”’s power remains. Directed by An American Werewolf in London’s John Landis, “Thriller” is knowingly cheesy, but that’s entirely the fun of it all. Who didn’t want to be in this video living it up with the undead?

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The zenith of Björk’s amalgamation of organic beings and digital synthesis can be found in Chris Cunningham’s magnum opus “All is Full of Love”. Two androgynous androids fall in love, while machines operate on them; it’s as painfully beautiful as it is profound. Released right before the new millennium was set to open its doors to us, the world wondered about what would come next. In 2021, “All is Full of Love” still feels prophetic, like we’re this much closer to this spectacle becoming a reality. Love is everywhere, and both Björk and Cunningham knew exactly where to look to prove it.

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Prince’s music videos mostly featured The Purple One performing, which negated him for most of this list. Even though “When Doves Cry” features clips of Purple Rain, there’s enough performance and artistic imagery compiled here that it can qualify. I’m glad, because this is one of the most aesthetically gorgeous music videos maybe ever. We didn’t get many artistic Prince videos, but this rare instance is exactly what I’d imagine: lavish sets, extravagant colours (mostly purples, of course), and a look into the late icon’s magnificent psyche. Hell, this music video is even better than the film it stems from.

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It feels incredibly subjective, but I cannot think of a better music video than Michel Gondry’s genius work on The Chemical Brothers’ “Let Forever Be”. An unnamed girl’s entire life is consumed by ghostly trails and the conjuring of fractal patterns of her surroundings (and even herself). Seeing Gondry leap from cubist layouts to condensed reality will forever be a treat to watch. It ticks off every box that I have for a list like this. It compliments the music perfectly (street performer drummer and all). It brings you to a new world that only music videos can achieve (a pattern-based exercise in surreality). It sticks with you whenever you hear the song, even if it’s in your head. Gondry’s “Let Forever Be” video feels like a deconstruction of the music video medium, with each element spread out for us to analyze each piece. At the same time, it’s a mosaic of dance (shown as individual steps and as a complete choreography simultaneously). When I think of conventional music videos, this is the greatest example: a masterpiece of sound and vision.

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Now, I would never do this for any other list, but this exception felt absolutely necessary. Is Beyoncé’s Lemonade a music video? Yes and no. It is a visual accompaniment to her entire Lemonade album, so it’s actually a series of music videos pieced together into an over-hour long film. However, considering that this is a visual component of a song (well, songs), and it basically is a music video in a fundamental sense, I felt like this had to be included, mainly because this is the greatest project of its kind since music videos started. Beyoncé herself directed the film with some of the medium’s finest minds (Mark Romanek, Kahlil Joseph, and Melina Matsoukas to name a few), and it’s a love letter to the films of black and female directors. A powerful piece of the 2010’s political climate, this ambitious project is parts Julie Dash, parts Terrence Malick, but entirely Queen Bey: a mainstream musician that has continuously pushed herself as far as possible. As gorgeous as it is impactful, Beyoncé: Lemonade is the bar for the music video medium being raised impossibly high. If it counts as a music video, it is the greatest of all time. If you consider this just a film, it’s a fantastic one at that.

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Andreas Babiolakis has a Masters degree in Film and Photography Preservation and Collections Management from Ryerson University, as well as a Bachelors degree in Cinema Studies from York University. His favourite times of year are the Criterion Collection flash sales and the annual Toronto International Film Festival.

Decades Misc, insights, Insights

Andreas Babs

music videos, lists, decade lists, michel gondry, spike jonze

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