Thursday, February 10, 2011

Top 30 Music Videos of All-Time

A history of my love for film would make no sense without considering the tremendous influence the music video had coinciding with my discovery of art cinema. Barred from watching MTV until the age of 13, I couldn't consume enough when the floodgates were opened. I'm talking summer beach house, vast journals filled with weekly top 20 logs, "Alternative Nation", the Buzz Bin, "Beavis and Butt-head", VH1's "Crossroads", The Box coming in through massive UHF static on the non-cable television. I think I don't fully understand Sergei Eisenstein's Film Sense without these formative years in front of the television.

The music video is a dying art. YouTube tries to pick up the slack where three dozen "Road Rules" spin-offs had already done the damage. But watching music videos on YouTube is kinda like experiencing movies only on a DVD player: there is no sense of time or community. I have no regrets imbibing in '90s nostalgia on my 16-DVD bootleg set of unedited "Beavis and Butt-head" episodes, but its sad that today's youth doesn't really have anything like "120 Minutes" (or in a world of iThings, would it have an audience?)

The annual (or so) MTV event of counting down the top 100 (or once in May 2007, a top 500; trust me, I have the notebooks) was always an event for me. Sure, it was off-putting for an alt-kid to have to see so much Bon Jovi in such a short period of time, but this brief capsule is meant to hearken back to when to me, an important film was about three and a half minutes long. To lay some ground rules, I have limited the videos to one per artist. Be forewarned, this is highly subjective and highly personal.

30. Peter, Bjorn and John - "Young Folks" (2006)

Part of a great music video is its ability to take an already great song more enjoyable. In the YouTube-era, the video for "Young Folks" went nearly viral to follow up the critical hype. I'm not saying a video needs to be as literal as this one, but the slightly disconcerting animation by Graham Samuels and simple "quaint"-ness makes this work on multiple viewings.

29. Missy Elliott - "Lose Control" (2005)

Though far from my favorite Missy song (spots reserved for "Get Ur Freak On" and the criminally underrated "Pass That Dutch"), the video for "Lose Control" (d. Dave Meyers) features Missy buried in sand, Ciara suspending from a wall in sepia-tone, Tommy Lee emerging from a post-apocalyptic trash can, and even switches songs half way through. Anachronistic as only Missy can be, yet somehow thematically consistent and hip-hop purism.

28. Sinéad O'Connor - "Nothing Compares 2 U" (1990)

One of Prince's best written songs, a breathtakingly simple concept imitated countless times for good (D'Angelo's "Untitled") and bad (Alanis Morissette's "Head Over Feet"), but you know the reason this video makes the list. It's right around the lyric "All the flowers that you planted, mama, in the back yard / all died when you went away." That tear can't be concocted.

27. Wu-Tang Clan - "Triumph" (1997)

O.K., so Ol' Dirty threatens suicide and terrorism by killer bee from atop a skyscraper, and is saved by Spider-Man-esque Inspectah Deck who joins Method Man's fireball motorcycle gang as the bees escape to Cappadonna's (then not even in the Clan) secret underground lair. Then U-God AKA Golden Arms suspends from what appears to be a tree in Dante's horrid forest before RZA, an angel, breaks into a jail releasing prisoners. The omniscient GZA gives the words to his prophet Masta Killa who enlightens the world to true hip-hop. Then Ghostface and Raekwon perform a show to the newly recruited behind bars. There is no chorus. There is no continuity. There is no sensible narrative. Too many cooks? Not in the case of director Brett Ratner, as this is the only watchable thing he's ever had his hand in.

Also of note, in 1997 my grandfather and I watched this video together and he asked me if the news bulletin was real. Moral of the story? Wu-Tang is for the children.

26. Chris Isaak - "Wicked Game" (1991)

The finest installment of director Herb Ritts, translating what he did best (black-and-white portrait, Greek sculpture influence, homoerotic gaze, relations with supermodels) into the music video form. I'd be lying if I said that moments of Madonna's "Cherish" (and to a lesse...r extent Janet's "Love Will Never Do (Without You) and Michael's "In The Closet") haven't stuck with me to this day. But "Wicked Game" is quite possibly the sexiest video of all time. Supposedly model Helena Christensen didn't get along with Isaak on the shoot, and the increase in tension makes the video all the better for it.
Keep in mind, this version trumps the one directed by David Lynch.

25. Peter Gabriel - "Sledgehammer" (1986)

An obvious pick, yes, but always a true innovator of the music video, even if his later work was often ignored due, in part, to a creative drought musically (see "Kiss That Frog"). Still what is surprising to me is that this was immediately followed by "Don't Give Up". Feast or famine.

24. Pavement - "Shady Lane" (1997)

Spike Jonze doing what he does best: assimilating art and expressing complex emotion by animating music in shadows and light. In "Shady Lane" (one of the best songs on the best Pavement album), Jonze expounds upon, rather than being literal to Malkmus's narrative. A disconnect, an isolation, and a suggestion that in a slacker generation, maybe easier isn't all that easy.

23. Talking Heads - "Once In A Lifetime" (1980)

Eerily not too dissimilar to what will be #7 on this list, both thematically and choreographically. Claustrophobic, estranged, an uncontrollable marionette in an uncontrollable universe--yet unmistakably exuberant and hopeful. Also of note, this is co-directed and choreographed by Toni Basil.

Talking Heads - Once In A Lifetime
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22. The Cranberries - "Linger" (1994)

Director Melodie McDaniel immerses this video in spotlights, mirrors, film and cameras. Much like her work in Madonna's "Secret", she takes on the feminine image as a sort of reverse-scopophilia as Dolores O'Riordan traipses through a rundown hotel, projecting layers of herself onto two dopplegangers straight out of a John Cassavettes movie.

21. The Cars - "You Might Think" (1984)

At the first ever MTV Video Music Awards, "You Might Think" trumped Herbie Hancock's "Rockit", Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Want To Have Fun", The Police's "Every Breath You Take" and Michael Jackson's "Thriller". Think about that for a minute. It trumped Lauper's anthemic (and genre-undefining) work by presenting a model as a subject of male gaze. It out-visualized "Rockit" with hilarious, gimmicky special effects that still hold up. The thing beat "Thriller" for crying out loud, maybe by being concise, and out stalkered the stalker anthem "Every Breath You Take". The subtext is creepy, the effects are aged, the ditty is almost a throw-away compared to The Cars' cerebral standards. It almost has no right to work as well as it does. And Ric Ocasek looks like the coolest guy of all time.

20. Radiohead - "Karma Police" (1997)

It amazes me that, as obtuse as Radiohead has become this decade, most of their great mid-'90s video output was rather straightforward (see also: "No Surprises", "Just"). In their best video, Jonathan Glazer's "Karma Police", we are shown an obvious paranoia metaphor excellently crafted with very deliberate, calculated long-shot mounting unease. Even the viewer is forced to be an unlikeable character in a way that attempts to break the fourth wall.

19. The Smiths - "Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before" (1987)

Is it hypocritical for me to find thousands of people singing-a-long with Trent Reznor to "Hurt" disingenuous, but to find something charming about 100 Morrisseys riding bicycles? I don't know. I don't know.

The Smiths - Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before
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18. Kanye West - "Touch The Sky" (2005)

This video cost a million dollars and has Pamela Anderson in it. One of the best videos of ALL TIME.

Kanye West - Touch The Sky
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17. The White Stripes - "Fell In Love With A Girl" (2002)

Such a perfectly concise video to a perfectly concise single. I never get sick of watching this, although, 1:21-1:26 has GOT to be CGI, right?

From Wikipedia: "The White Stripes contacted LEGO Group in hopes of having a small LEGO set packaged with each single of the record, with which one could build a LEGO version of Jack and Meg White. LEGO Group refused, saying: "We don't market our product to people over the age of twelve." Once the video became a hit, however, LEGO contacted The White Stripes again and asked if they could reconstruct the deal to have LEGO packaged with the single. This time, however, Jack White refused, out of anger."

16. Yo La Tengo - "Sugarcube" (1997)

Do you ever wonder why the name Yo La Tengo keeps showing up in every indie joke by The Onion? Yo La Tengo made that joke first.

Yo La Tengo - Sugarcube
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15. Kylie Minogue - "Come Into My World" (2002)

No matter how many times I've seen this video, I see something new each time. I know that sounds cliché, but seriously, have you seen this thing? The real Paris, je t'aime.

Kylie Minogue - Come Into My World
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14. They Might Be Giants - "Ana Ng" (1988) / Frank Black - "Headache" (1994)

Two videos cut from the same cloth. Songs so catchy they disguise the haunting depth below, about feeling like an ant in an overwhelming universe with the only hope of relief a world away. Wacky, disjointed imagery ensues.

13. Lisa Loeb and Nine Stories - "Stay (I Missed You)" (1994)

Directed (and discovered) by Lisa Loeb's neighbor, Ethan Hawke, the video for "Stay" makes the list over complex one-shots like Gondry's "Lucas With The Lid Off" and Jonze's "Undone (The Sweater Song)" because it is such a perfect example of form serving function. It doesn't need to make a showcase of its carefully choreographed spots being hit because, at the end of the day, it's still about that dress, those glasses, that crinkle of her nose and that kitty cat.

12. The Smashing Pumpkins - "Today" (1994)

Senior year of high school, I got into a debate with a classmate about the relevancy of music video. He stood the fairly common, purist ground of claiming music video is superfluous, often taking away from, rather than adding to the primary art in question: the song. While eventually agreeing to disagree, there was a small victory in that we both agreed that "Today" was a perfect example of a video that adds to the spirit of the song without either stealing the show ("Tonight, Tonight"), being too literal ("Zero"), or missing the point altogether ("Tarantula"). Twelve years after this discussion, "Today"--both song and video--is even more powerful for me as capturing the alternative aesthetic. Not simply nostalgia, but all-encompassing time capsule.

Smashing Pumpkins - Today
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11. Massive Attack - "Teardrop" (1998)

I like to imagine this (and not 2010) as the sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey via Ray and Charles Eames' Powers of Ten.

Massive Attack - Teardrop
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10. OutKast - "Hey Ya!" (2003)

You all knew this one was coming. Who knew splitting up OutKast would produce so many memorable characters? A play on the British Invasion, flipping the scripts to a British Ed Sullivan via Ryan Seacrest (compare to how this outperforms "In Bloom" by leaps and bounds), "Hey Ya!" was able to become everything to everyone. Andre picks up an acoustic guitar and writes an emotionally poignant and mature song with the first four chords he learns (that, technically, don't even really go together) and crafts the most-loved, biggest crossover song of the decade. Has my love for "Hey Ya!" waned since 2003? Well, I don't listen to it 40 times a day anymore, but, damn, if there is a more unifying cultural relic in the history of pop music, I'd like to hear it.

Outkast - Hey Ya
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9. Beastie Boys - "Sabotage" (1994)

Turns out Nathaniel Hornblower was right all along. For years I've been dying for a Fred "Bunny" Kelly spin-off.

8. Minutemen - "This Ain't No Picnic" (1984)

Ronald Reagan bombs the Minutemen and they raise their skinny fists like antennae to heaven! One of the most brilliant, concise punk rock statements ever (through different from what will be #3 on the list).

7. R.E.M. - "Losing My Religion" (1991)

I was in fifth grade in 1991. That year, classmate, Adam Stewart asked my teacher, Ms. Shepherd if she "got it" when it came to understanding R.E.M.'s top five single, "Losing My Religion". "Do you get it?" he asked again. She finally responded that she did and they looked at each other knowingly. As R.E.M. became my favorite band within three years, I never much minded the opacity of Stipe's lyrics (brought to life by equally obtuse imagery in the video), even if it took several years to realize that neither Adam nor my teacher had any idea what they were talking about. "Losing My Religion" is, in many ways, the perfect R.E.M. song--minor chord progressions, strong melody despite mandolin and lack of any real chorus, a message that is at once universal and incomprehensible. R.E.M.'s breakthrough success is often diminished in the wake of Kurt Cobain's deity, but I pine for the day when a song like this can be as big as it was.

R.E.M. - Losing My Religion
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6. Madonna - "Like A Prayer" (1989)

Don't pretend Madonna didn't know exactly what she was doing--iconic use of religious imagery, comparing womanly eroticism to God's life-nurturing vitality, personifying love for God with a literal (gasp, BLACK) man, BEING NAMED MADONNA. It is blasphemy? Is the Song of Songs blasphemy? On the surface it is a well-intended diatribe against racism with very little promiscuity. The song itself is a masterwork. Instrumentation builds piece by piece until we are reminded in the end that rock music originally grew out of gospel. With no exaggeration, Madonna is, at times, a genius.

Madonna - Like A Prayer [Video]
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5. Björk - "All Is Full Of Love" (1999)

Although my love for Björk has significantly dropped off since her decision to make Dancer In The Dark, it's pretty safe to say that, from Debut to today, she has released the most consistently great music videos of any artist. Period. Though I was very tempted to feature "Bachelorette" over this (not only do I prefer the song, but I really like that it was Synechdoche, New York ten years early), I picked a Chris Cunningham to avoid making this the Michel Gondry show. But honestly, any Björk video is a visual masterpiece.

4. Michael Jackson - "Black or White" (1991)

There was a time when the release of a Michael Jackson song was a full-fledged EVENT. I was too young to remember these for "Thriller" or "Bad", but, come 1991, "Black or White" was simulcast on five networks, giving FOX its highest rating ever when the video aired after an episode of "The Simpsons".

This event was a big deal to me. It, in many ways, was my introduction to the music video. Only Michael Jackson could get away with fairly stereotypical representations of race, but doing it in such a well-intended way (at times, admittedly, a little insane), there was a sense of unity--not only in the songs lyrics, but in the EVENT that was Michael Jackson. Trust me, there were no "KKK"-markings on those glass panes in the original video. Jackson dances through silence and smashes a car for no discernible reason. He morphs into a black panther (Black Panther?), grabs himself an inordinate amount of times (I'm sure a fair number of parents in 1991 could tell you exactly how many times), and, generally, looks like the coolest person in the world. Much of my youth, Jackson was a punchline. This didn't change in the late '90s. But, man, the bridge with MJ flying through the flames, the Macaulay rap sequence, the morph at the end that is cooler than Terminator 2, the babies sitting on top of the world--you can't convince me, to this day, that Michael didn't have but the best intentions for mankind.

3. The Replacements - "Bastards of Young" (1985)

Paul Westerberg delivers one of most beautiful and truthful verses at the end of "Bastards of Young", claming: "The ones who love us best are the ones we'll lay to rest and visit their graves on holidays at best/ The ones who love us least are the ones we'll die to please, if it's any consolation, I don't begin to understand them". How do The Replacements practice what they preach? By making the video for their "breakthrough" single anything but pleasing to the record company, proving they are not sell-outs, rewarding their fans with their greatest song, and staying true to their punk roots. Most punk video of all time.

The Replacements - Bastards of Young
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2. Daft Punk - "Around The World" (1997)

Michel Gondry is kinda the Steven Spielberg of music video. I was blown away by his quote on his director's series DVD in which he says, in choosing which music videos to include, "I chose quantity over quality, because quantity lasts longer." He's very populist, prolific, and an unparalleled visual storyteller. On the big screen, he's hit or miss (The Science of Sleep proved that he NEEDS a strong writer, but then again, there was also Human Nature), but on the small screen, the format is made for his imagination. "Around The World", like so much of his work, is just so...WATCHable. And re-watchable. Meticulously choreographed mummies, skeletons, synchronized swimmers, pinhead giants and astronauts (each personifying different instrumentation), dance a Busby Berkeley-a-go-go. I love this daggum video.

1. Pulp - "Bad Cover Version" (2001)

How many layers upon layers is it possible to cram in one music video? Let's start with the song: a metaphor, comparing a failed, embittered love affair to "the second side of 'Til The Band Comes In" (the Scott Walker album. The same Scott Walker who produced this very song.) Consider it also an arrogant caveat to pop-music, in Pulp's brilliant swansong. Enter the video: A bad cover version of their OWN song, save for one line of recorded vocal that remains--the line mimed by a Jarvis Cocker lookalike, while Cocker himself parodies Brian May. The video parodies "Do They Know It's Christmas?"--co-written by Bob Geldof, who appears shortly after Mick Jagger sings about what a sham the Stones have been since the '80s (amazing, considering Pulp was around in FOUR decades). Even the Gallagher brothers finally pay tribute to the one Brit-pop band that truly mattered in the midst of the mid-'90s Oasis/Blur debate. Every last appearance is brilliant in a video that outdoes its own brilliant song by leaps and bounds. "Bad Cover Version" is the most fully-realized, genius, self-referential, hilarious, commentary video ever made. So much so that it obliterates the single in order to do so. Well done, Pulp. Pop music misses you.

Pulp - Bad Cover Version
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  1. I'm glad to see Bad Cover Version is still reigning supreme as number 1 on your list of lists.

  2. I totally dig this site and the lists and the films. Way to go. Cheers.