Home » Music » The Greatest Music Videos Of All Time
MTV recently celebrated its 37th anniversary and while the days of the channel playing endless music videos are long behind us, the platform is largely responsible for launching music videos into mainstream popular culture. Once criticized for being the lowest form of the visual arts, music videos slowly but surely made the transition into high-budget, award-winning productions on par with the quality of many short films.
While most videos are simple in concept, usually featuring a band performing in concert, there are a number that have push the boundaries of the medium and stand out among the rest. The videos on this list are notable for their visuals, storytelling, and historical significance, making them some of the greatest of all time.
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20. “Praise You” – Fatboy Slim
Album: You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby
Spike Jonze was responsible for directing some of the greatest music videos of the late 90s and early 2000s,withFatboy Slim’s “Praise You” standing as arguably hismost clever effort. The hilarious concept features Jonze as the leader of the fictional Torrance Community Dance Group in a “flash mob” style performance outside of a local movie theater.
Shot in a guerrilla-style, the video cost just $800 to produce and captured the audience of moviegoers in confusion among the awkward dance routine. The video went on to win three MTV VMAs in 1999 and cemented Jonze as a music video genius.
19. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – Nirvana
This low-budget, grimy videodefined the early 90s and specifically the grunge genre of music. Costing just $50,000 to produce, the video was directed by first-timer Samuel Bayer and conceptually follows the classic Ramones’film Rock ‘n’ Roll High School. The visualswere a perfect fit for Kurt Cobain’s melodic and intense screeching vocals, which resonated with the youth of the era.
As the legend goes, the extras featured in the video were kept on set so long that they destroyed the set out of frustration and the footage made the final cut. One of the most influential rock music videos of all-time, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” would go on to win two VMAs in 1992 and madeNirvanaa household name.
18. “Tonight, Tonight” – Smashing Pumpkins
Album:Mellon Collie, and the Infinite Sadness
Directed by the husband and wife team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (who went on to create the filmLittle Miss Sunshine)the video for The Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight” was inspired by the classic George Melies film A Trip To The Moon. Asingle from The Smashing Pumpkins’ third studio album, Mellon Collie, and the Infinite Sadness, this epic song isdriven by Billy Corgan’s urgently romantic lyrics, Jimmy Chamberlain’s speed-freak drumroll, and a thirty-piece string section pulled from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
The video is avisual masterpiece is a fitting accompaniment and used old fashionedspecial effects and a cinematic aesthetic reminiscent of silent era films from theearly twentieth century.“Tonight, Tonight” won six VMAs in 1996, including Video of the Year, Breakthrough Video, and Best Direction in a Video.
17. “Humble” – Kendrick Lamar
Directed by music video legend Dave Meyers, “Humble”, the lead single off of Kendrick Lamar’s fourth studio album,Damn, is the most recent video featured on this list. Packed full of powerful imagery, the video starts with Lamar dressed like thepopein acope. The scene then shows Lamar in all black lying on a table of money, “ignorantly” shooting loads of bills from a cash cannon. It also features a reenactment ofLeonardo da Vinci’s 15th-century painting,The Last Supper.
“Humble” was nominated for eight categories at the2017 MTV Video Music Awards, winning six awards, includingVideo of the Year, marking Dave Meyers’ thirdtime winning the award.
16. “Here It Goes Again” – OK Go
Album: Oh No
Release Date: 2006
OK Gois known almost exclusively for their complex single-take videos, which helped propel the group into mainstream popularity. It all kicked off on July 31, 2006, when the group posted the video for their song “Here It Goes Again”to YouTube. The Chicago-based rock band became a viral sensation overnight thanks to this video, as it quickly racked up millions of views.
The music video is an elaborate performance, featuring the band members dancing ontreadmillsin asingle continuous take. Choreographed byTrish Sieand directed by Sie and the band, it took a total of seventeen attempts to complete the video. The video won a Grammy for Best Short Form Music Video in 2007, as well as a YouTube award for Most Creative Video.
15. Hurt – Johnny Cash
Album:American IV: The Man Comes Around
A cover of the 1994 Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt”, the Johnny Cashversion was one of the singer’s final hits before his death in 2003. The accompanying video, featuring images from Cash’s life and directed byMark Romanek, was named the best video of the year by theGrammy AwardsandCMA Awards, and the best video of all time byNMEin July 2011. Cash was battling serious health problems at the time and his frailty was laid bare for all to see, contrasted with footage of him as a younger man.
Cash’s wife,June Carter Cash, participated in the video but passed away three months after filming. Johnny himself died four months after her. The decay of life we all face is the theme here and has arguably never been more clearly expressed in music video form, with this particularvideo standing as the last bit of greatness Cash left behind.
14. “Walk This Way” – RUN-DMC Feat. Aerosmith
Album: Raising Hell
The video for one of the most groundbreaking songs of all time combines one of the world’s most popular rock bands,Aerosmith, with one of the most popular hip-hop groups in RUN-D.M.C. The video starts with a literal wall between the two as the two groups feud, symbolizingthe battle between rock and rap in 1986.The wall gets literally and figuratively broken down and the groups earn each other’s respect through performance, and wind up playing together by the end.
The message was simple but effective, with thisextremely popular video becoming the first hip-hop hybrid video ever played in heavy rotation onMTV. It’s still regarded as a classic of the medium. According toVH1’sPop Up Video, Run–D.M.C. could not afford to use the entire Aerosmith band, just Steven Tyler and Joe Perry. As only Tyler and Perry had traveled to record the cover with Run–D.M.C., they were the only real Aerosmith members to appear in the video.
13. “One” – Metallica
Album: And Justice For All
“One” was the first Metallica song for which amusic videowas created and it also happens to be their best effort. Directed byBill PopeandMichael Salomon, the video was shot inLong Beach, California and premiered on MTV on January 20, 1989. The video is almost entirely shot inblack and white, and features the band performing the song in a warehouse, interlaced with sporadic scenes from the 1971 film adaptation ofJohnny Got His Gun. It’s a powerful video that provides a perfect backdrop for a thunderous song.
Like many other Metallica music videos, “One” puts great emphasis on the performances of the band members as musicians, with many shots of Hetfield,Newstedand Hammett’s hands picking and fretting. Combined with the powerful clipsfrom the aforementioned anti-war film, the “One” video remains a classic among music fans.
12. “Around The World” – Daft Punk
“Around the World” is a song by theFrenchelectronic musicduoDaft Punk and was released in 1997 as a single on their debut release Homework.Later that year, they worked with director Michel Gondryand came up with a concept that included groups of characters on a platform representing a vinyl record. Each group represents an element of the songand features dancers dressed as skeletons, swimmers, robots, athletes, and mummies.
The song is simple and repetitive, but the fact that Gondry was able to develop such an interesting concept with so little source material is something special. Seeing the dancers perform in perfect coordination to the energetic beat provides stylish and unique visual. The video helped launch Daft Punk’s career, who would go on to produce several critically acclaimed albums in the following decades.
11. “Like A Prayer” – Madonna
Album: Like A Prayer
A controversial video that prompted boycotts and was protested by the Vatican due to “blasphemous use of Christian imagery,”“Like A Prayer”truly was the perfectMadonnavideo. Madonna wanted the video to be more provocative than anything she had done before, and she certainly succeeded.In the video, shefalls in love with a black man, who also turns out to be a Christ figure played by Leon Robinson (who later became the star ofCool Runnings).
Though the song was fantastic, the video directed by Mary Lambert was even better. It was nominated for Video of the Year in 1989 but failed to win, likely because of the controversy surrounding it, though it did win the coveted Viewer’s Choice award.
10. “Everybody Hurts” – R.E.M.
Album: Automatic For The People
Heavily inspired by the traffic jam in the opening dream sequence ofFellini’s8½, the video for R.E.M.’s 1992 hit single was a powerful anduplifting short film that stood out from other videos of the time. Directed byJake Scottand filmed along the double deck portions ofI-10near the I-35 Interchange in downtownSan Antonio, Texas, the videodepicts the band stuck in a traffic jam with people from all walks of life. Subtitles provide the inner dialog of the people’s thoughts and feelings over the struggle of everyday life with the song’s lyrics acting as the voice of reason.
The video was looked over for most awards but remains one of the most touching and memorable in the art form’s history. The song is one of those unique cases where the video has added to its legacy and heightened the listening experience.
9. “Sledgehammer” – Peter Gabriel
A unique Peter Gabriel song that was released as the lead single on the 1986 album So, “Sledgehammer” has been described asdance-rock, blue-eyed soul, andfunk. The accompanying video was equally unique, employing several techniques including stop-motion animation, claymation, and pixelation. Gabrielwhen to great lengths to help produce a video that would stand outin the early MTV generation.Gabriel lay under a sheet of glass for 16 hours while filming the video one frame at a time.
The hard work paid off, as the video is still recognized as one of the all-time greats. “Sledgehammer” won nineMTV Video Music Awardsin 1987,themost awards a single video has ever won. It also ranked at number four onMTV’s100 Greatest Music Videos Ever Made(1999).
8. “California Love” – 2Pac Feat. Dr. Dre
Album: All Eyez on Me
“California Love” was released as 2Pac’s comeback single after his release from prison in 1995 and was his first single as the newest artist ofDeath Row Records. The video for the single (directed by Hype Williams) was inspired by the filmMad Max: Beyond Thunderdomeand was longtime friend Jada Pinkett Smith’s idea. The video takes place in the desert in the year 2095 and stars George Clinton as the evil tribal chief, as well as Chris Tucker in a supporting role. It ends with acliffhangercut by a “To Be Continued” closing, to which there was a second video where the premise is that the desert scenes of the previous video were merely anightmare2Pac was having.
The song’s first video was nominated for anMTV Video Music AwardforBest Rap Video in 1996. It achieved number 9 of the top 10 onMTV’s 100 Greatest Videos Ever Made list in 1999. In April 2005 it reached theBronze medalspot onMTV2andXXL’s 25 Greatest West Coast Videos.
7. “Buddy Holly” – Weezer
Album:Weezer (The Blue Album)
“Buddy Holly” was the second single released from Weezer’s self-titled debut album in 1994. The music videofor “Buddy Holly” was directed bySpike Jonzeand filmed atCharlie Chaplin Studiosin Hollywood over the course of one full day of shooting. The video’s concept involves the band performing at Arnold’s Drive-In from the 1970s television show Happy Days and combines contemporary footage of the band with clips from the show. The combination worked, and the video successfully blended the 90s sound with the 70s visuals.
“Buddy Holly”was extremely popular on MTV, receiving heavy play throughout the mid-90s. The innovative video scored four awards at the1995MTV Video Music Award, including prizes forBest Alternative Video,Breakthrough Video,Best DirectionandBest Editing. It was also nominated forVideo of the Year, which ended up being won byTLCfor “Waterfalls”.
6. “Bohemian Rapsody” – Queen
Album: A Night At The Opera
The video for “Bohemian Rhapsody” has been hailed as launching the MTV age and many consider it the first actual “music video”. Directed byBruce Gowers, who had previously directed a video ofQueen’s 1974 performance at theRainbow Theatrein London. “Bohemian Rhapsody” was recorded in just four hours on 10 November 1975, at a cost of £4,500. Gowers reported that the band was involved in the discussion of the video and the end result “was a co-operative to that extent, but there was only one leader”. All of the video’s special effects were produced during the recording rather than in the editing room.The video was edited within five hours because it was due to be broadcast the same week in which it was taped.
Despite the quick turnaround, the group was able to produce a compelling video that accompanied the classic song extremely well.In connection with the 1992 filmWayne’s World, a new video was released, inter-cutting excerpts from the film with footage from the original Queen video, along with some live footage of the band.TheWayne’s Worldvideo version of “Bohemian Rhapsody” won Queen its onlyMTV Video Music Awardfor “Best Video from a Film”.
5. “Sabotage” – Beastie Boys
Album: Ill Communication
Yet another Spike Jonze joint, the video for the Beastie Boys’lead single off their fourth studio album Ill Communicationfeatures a 1970s crime drama aesthetic. While more of a parody of the genre, the video is presented as theopening creditsof a fictional 1970s-style police show calledSabotage, with the band members appearing as the show’slead characters, complete with wigs and fake mustaches.
During the MTV awards season, “Sabotage” was unsuccessful in securing any VMAs. A pissed off MCA, aka Adam Yauch interruptedR.E.M.’s acceptance speech for “Everybody Hurts” and expressed the extent of his frustration. It was a Kanye move in a pre-Kanye world. In 2009, MTV finally handedthe group an apology trophy for “Sabotage”.
4. “Stan” – Eminem
Album: The Marshall Mathers LP
Released in 2000 as the third single from Eminem’s third album The Marshal Mather LP,“Stan” reached number one in twelve different countries. The song features some beautiful lyrics from Dido, which are actually a remix of the opening lines from her song “Thank You”. The video paints a picture of Stan as an obsessed, mentally-unhinged fan who can’t deal with reality. The video features Devon Sawa as Stan and Dido as his pregnant girlfriend. Their performances are well executed and do a great job of bringing the lyrics of the song to life.
Easily Eminem’s most critically-acclaimed song and video,“Stan” surprisingly didn’t win any VMAs in 2001, despite receiving four nominations.IGNpraised the song as “easily the most scathingly introspective rumination on fan adoration, idol assimilation, and borderline stalker etiquette.”
3. “Take On Me” – a-ha
Album: Hunting High and Low
“Take On Me” is a song by Norwegiansynth-popband a-ha, with the accompanying video featuring some unique visuals and a clever art style that made it stand out during MTV’s early years. Directed by Irish-born British film directorSteve Barron, the video uses apencil-sketch animation / live-action combination calledrotoscoping, in which the live-action footage is traced over frame by frame to give the characters realistic movements. The video also includes a comic book romantic fantasy theme complete with an exciting motorcycle chase.
The video would go on to win six awards at the 1986 MTV Video Music Awards, includingBest New Artist in a Video,Best Concept Video,Most Experimental Video,Best Direction in a Video,Best Special Effects in a Video, andViewer’s Choice—and was nominated for two others,Best Group VideoandVideo of the Year. As of August 2018, the music video hasnearly 700 million views on YouTube.
2. “November Rain” – Guns n’ Roses
Album: Use Your Illusion I
Directed by Andy Morahan, the music video for “November Rain” depicts Guns n’ Roses singer Axl Rose marrying his then-girlfriend Stephanie Seymour inter-cut with the band’s live performance at theOrpheum Theater in downtownLos Angeles. One of the most expensive music videos ever produced, the video had a budget of $1 million which was an astronomical figure at the time.The video features a memorable guitar solo from Slash outside a small chapel in the desert complete with a sequence of swooping helicopter pans.
The music videos for “November Rain”, “Don’t Cry” and “Estranged” form an unofficial trilogy of sorts. While never specifically confirmed by the band, Rose andDel Jameshave made statements supporting this idea.On July 13, 2018, the music video became the first music video from the 20th century to reach one billion views onYouTube.
1. “Thriller” – Michael Jackson
A 14-minute long video for “Thriller”premiered on MTV on November 14, 1983, and featured Michael Jackson in a horror-themed performance that was more of short film than music video. Film director John Landis was brought in to direct the video, as Jackson was a huge fan of his work on An American Werewolf In London. “Thriller” set the stage for music videos to be viewed as an art form and paved the way for film directors in the music video world. The video featured a number of horror movie homages and a fantastic performance from Jackson. From the pervasive creepy Halloween feel to the dance sequence, everything is on point.
Theproduction is the result of a star-studded collaboration including director Landis, Vincent Price, special effects makeup wizard Rick Baker, and costume designer Deborah Nadoolman Landis. The music video was nominated for six awards at the1984 MTV Video Music Awards, winning three out of six of the nominations.
Charliee Rogers is a freelance writer, father of two, and video game player!