On August 1st of 1981, a new network premiered on cable called MTV, and “Music Television” soon exploded as an incredible new way for listeners to engage with artists. While music performance clips existed well before 1981, MTV itself rewrote how artists presented and marketed themselves visually. Some labels viewed it as just another form of product, while some artists starting using it as a whole new means of expressing themselves.
As the decades rolled on, music videos themselves turned into an art form, with pioneers like Michael Jackson and Björk pushing the format’s visual limit. Music videos, if done right, can become nothing short of pop culture events, and the most high-profile directors would take their clout in the MTV world and transition into proper film careers, which is how icons like David Fincher, Spike Jonze, and Francis Lawrence all got their start. MTV prophetically debuted with a too-appropriately-titled Buggles clip for “Video Killed the Radio Star”, and the debate about whether video did that rages on to this day. Music lovers, here are the 50 Greatest Music Videos of All Time.
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Bob Dylan “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (1967)
Record Label: Columbia
One of the most famous precursors to the music video format as we know it, the clip for Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is about as DIY as you can get. For this clip, Dylan is filmed in the alley of the Savoy Hotel in London as he simply flips through cue cards on camera (yes, that’s Allen Ginsberg and Bob Neuwirth rummaging around in the background). Synced with Dylan’s rapid-fire lyrics, the cue cards largely touch on the ending rhymes of each verse, but with so many lines packed into one song, even Dylan himself is having a hard time keeping up. While The Beatles too were merging the music and film worlds with their own multimedia empire, the simplicity of Dylan’s concept, itself shot for D.A. Pennebaker’s legendary “Don’t Look Back” documentary, summed up everything we needed to know about what music videos would soon do: making us think about music in a strange new optical way.
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Michael Jackson “Billie Jean” (1983)
Record Label: Epic / CBS
Longer and weirder than you remember, the actual clip for Michael Jackson’s legendary single “Billie Jean” has quite a bit of story. In a city street, Jackson is trying to meet up with hot press item Billie Jean just as a paparazzo is trying to get a compromising photo of him. Thankfully, MJ outsmarts him with his magical ability to light up everything he touches: lampposts, bedsheets, and even concrete tiles. Jackson walking across those light-up squares is a memorable, lasting image, and, amazingly, MTV didn’t want to play it. For all the great moments that MTV provided the world as a platform, their first few years were largely dominated by white artists. When the CBS Records president discovered that MTV was refusing to play it, he threatened to pull their entire roster off the channel and go public with such obvious, racist bias. MTV relented, and what do you know: “Billie Jean” helped turn Jackson into one of the biggest pop stars of all time. Helmed by Steve Barron (one of the first music video directing titans), “Billie Jean” is a star-making clip as there ever has been.
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Michael Jackson “Thriller” (1983)
Record Label: Epic / CBS
Often cited as the greatest music video of all time, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” is nothing short of pure entertainment. Taking the song’s horror movie themes and giving it an appropriately epic treatment, John Landis’ clip for “Thriller” features Jackson trying to scare his girlfriend with the verses to “Thriller” before eventually coming across a graveyard full of the living dead. She’s properly scared but is soon horrified to discover that Michael has turned into a zombie himself. While the production value and storytelling are all top-notch (especially given the full official clip clocks in at a then-unheard-of 13-minute runtime), the zombie dance sequence retains all of its punch nearly 40 years after the fact. The choreography is unbelievably tight, the dancers have incredible precision, and we can rewatch it time and time again and still be just as thrilled as when we saw it the first time. When “Thriller” premiered, it was as big-budget as music videos could get; its impact on the form was even bigger.
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a-ha “Take On Me” (1985)
Record Label: Warner Bros.
An outstanding feat of technical innovation, “Take On Me” pulled off the impossible task of completely reversing a flop single’s commercial fortunes. The original 1984 mix of “Take On Me” was ignored everywhere save for a-ha’s native Norway, but a solid rerecording of the synthpop number, when paired with a stunning live-action/animated hybrid video, lead to it become not only a worldwide smash but also a-ha’s signature song. Directed by “Billie Jean” mastermind Steve Barron, the video saw a-ha frontman Morten Harket and actress Bunty Bailey try to escape from a hand-drawn animated world together, with each frame painfully etched via a technique called rotoscoping. Eye-popping when it premiered, the video for “Take On Me” has taken on a life all its own, parodied and ripped-off too many times to count. The song became so popular that their follow-up single “The Sun Always Shines on T.V.” was again lensed by Barron and even has a cameo of Harket’s “animated” alter-ego. The band couldn’t escape the legacy of “Take On Me”, so they wisely went on to embrace it instead and are still recording new music up to this day.
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Peter Gabriel “Sledgehammer” (1986)
Record Label: Charisma / Geffen
Often rivaling “Thriller” in the conversation of what truly is the greatest music video of all time, Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” is nothing short of a visual tour de force. Featuring a who’s-who of generation-defining animators (the Brothers Quay, Nick Park of Aardman Animations) and directed by Stephen R. Johnson, this truly nutty stop-animation adventure was achieved by having Gabriel lay under a sheet of glass for 16 hours as teams of designers worked on getting every frame right. Exploding with color and style, the visual component of “Sledgehammer” completely rewrote the public perception of Gabriel, who was often viewed as the art-rock weirdo in Genesis who took that weirdness with him when he went solo. Now, seeing his wacky faces and various animated poses recast him as an oddball pop star, “Sledgehammer” soon becoming his only U.S. chart-topper. Winning nine out of the ten MTV Video Music Awards it was nominated for, “Sledgehammer” still hits like its namesake with total creative force.
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“Weird Al” Yankovic “Fat” (1988)
Record Label: Scotti Brothers
As MTV grew into a cultural force, so did its sense of self-seriousness. There were popstar goofballs that showed up from time to time, but by the time Michael Jackson secured the services of none other than Martin Scorsese to take the reigns of his big new single “Bad”, the line between MTV and Hollywood blurred to the point of disappearing entirely. Thankfully, the accordion-playing “Weird Al” Yankovic knew how to deflate self-aggrandizing personalities (politely, of course), and when it came to his second MJ music video parody (his first being “Eat It”), “Fat” proved to be a game-changer. Helmed by his manager Jay Levey and featuring a custom fat suit developed by Kevin Yagher, Yankovic’s beautiful and loving skewering of Jackson’s leather-clad persona ended up being iconic in its own right, as “Fat Yankovic” would often end his live shows for years. Imitating everything from the tracking shots to the various MJ moves that trigger sound effects to Jackson’s too-dramatic intro, Yankovic had the time of his life proving that parody songs and videos could be commercially viable in their own right. In pointing out that we shouldn’t take our pop stars too seriously, Yankovic ended up becoming a pop star himself, and all because he too knew the power of music videos as an entertainment medium.
Record Label: A&M
As the art of the music video evolved, some artists leaned a bit too far into the medium, trying to make mini-movies with their narrative clips. Others, meanwhile, arguably prioritized wild visuals and clever concepts over quality songs. Yet even prior to the MTV era, musicians always had the power to break through on little more than their raw performance ability. Even with the heavy expectations coming from a pop music family, Janet Jackson proved to be working on a performance level all her own. While clips like “The Pleasure Principle” and “Miss You Much” showed how well she worked both solo and with group choreography, the military precision that graces “Rhythm Nation” is a feat unto itself. Directed by Dominic Sena and shot in crisp black & white, Janet and her expert team of dancers take over what appears to be a steam factory to deliver legendary moves with astonishing uniformity. From the poses to the costuming to the ballroom-inspired dance break, Jackson proved that in order to make a lasting impact on viewers’ eyes, sometimes all you need is a clear concept and some of the best dance moves ever filmed.
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Sinéad O’Connor “Nothing Compares 2 U” (1990)
Record Label: Chrysalis
As MTV was reaching its first decade of existence, the music video format had already evolved countless times over, up to the point where labels were budgeting for videos, and some new acts were dismissed as “MTV bands,” thinking of their visuals before their sonics. With such colorful excess, “Nothing Compares 2 U” served as a sharp contrast to all of the noise, as the relatively unknown Irish singer Sinéad O’Connor became an instant superstar with nothing more than the power of her face and voice. Shot by John Maybury, O’Connor’s cover of one of Prince’s finest B-sides gets an appropriately dramatic visual treatment, as shots of her walking around Paris parks are juxtaposed against her face looking directly at the camera against a black backdrop. She sells every emotion of Prince’s dramatic ballad up to the very end when actual tears roll out of her eyes. A clip with no camera tricks, no caveats, and nothing else going on felt like a bold, rebellious move as MTV closed in on its first decade of existence, and for that reason, “Nothing” stood out all the more. Such a simple and effective delivery helped turn the song into a global #1, even netting the Video Music Award for Video of the Year in the process. This concept has been imitated several times over, but rarely has it ever been bettered.
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Madonna “Vogue” (1990)
Record Label: Sire / Warner Bros.
In the MTV era, both Michael Jackson and Madonna often came down as the artists who best understood how to consistently present their songs in a visual medium. While Jackson was all about large sets and elaborate production numbers, Madonna was an unquestioned provocateur, often pushing the boundary of what could be considered both acceptable and commercial. (Heck, when the sexy clip for “Justify My Love” proved too risqué for video networks, she made a fortune selling it as a VHS video single.) While many of her clips are iconic, “Vogue” is arguably her crowning visual achievement. Shot in striking black & white by director David Fincher and given a “classic film” sheen of the 20s and 30s, “Vogue” works because she is casting herself as a legendary blonde bombshell, implying her beauty is classic and eternal, all while nailing every pose and dance-move in the process. Starting a dance craze by letting the world see what ballroom dancing was all about, “Vogue” has gone through countless copycat attempts that couldn’t possibly live up to Madonna’s original work of art.
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Nirvana “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (1991)
Record Label: DGC
Shot for a little under $50,000, Samuel Bayer’s clip for Nirvana’s first major-label single is pretty simple: what appears to be a high school assembly devolves into a moshpit from hell, complete with fire pits and glad-happy janitors swaying to the chaos. With gratuitous amounts of slow-mo and a hazy, washed-out color palette, what “Smells Like Teen Spirit” captures best is less an optical representation of the song and more of the attitude of an entire generation. The spandex-clad stars of hair metal meant nothing to a disaffected generation of youngsters, so seeing dudes in button-down shirts, Kurt Cobain in his striped sweatshirt and unkempt hair, and Krist Novoselic rocking out in blue jeans and bare feet let these kids feel like they were being represented for once. This was a band that looked authentic, and when coupled with a rock number as catchy as “Teen Spirit”, the song became a disruptive force, instantly making the entire hair metal industry look like a joke. Much like the song itself, the video became instantly iconic, with the band and extras’ fashion all becoming the new go-to in the newly rising grunge movement. Even the guitar Cobain played in the video hangs up at the Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle, Washington. No one expected “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to become a generation-defining hit, but in seeing the music video, it’s easy to see what set Nirvana apart from every other band that came before them.
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Beck “Loser” (1993)
Record Label: Bong Load Custom / DGC
Following the revival of big-budget blockbusters in the 1980s, American cinema in the 1990s was renewed afresh with an independent spirit. As cameras became cheaper, more and more people began experimenting with the tools of filmmaking on their own time. The debut album from Beck Hansen featured a slapdash cut-n-paste style that mixed genres in previously inconceivable ways, which itself would come to define most alternative music in the ’90s. Beck’s debut single was the perfect example of this: “Loser” mixed hip-hop drum beats with sitar, country guitars, and whiteboy rapping to create a sound no one ever really heard before, and the accompanying video, directed by Beck’s buddy Steve Hanft, was equally strange and no less striking. Reportedly made on a budget of less than $15,000, Hanft relied on outrageous ideas to create a memorable visual, ranging from negative-image footage of two girls doing aerobics in a graveyard to the grim reaper giving a blood squeegee on a car windshield to a coffin moving itself across the city to Beck strumming an acoustic guitar that’s on fire. It’s DIY as hell, absolutely non-sensical, and still managed to open the doors to a whole new generation of filmmakers. It’s almost as if MTV’s very existence allowed a blurred-helmet fever dream of a visual like this to happen. As it turned out, crisscrossing wild visuals together helped create a generational touchstone of a moment. “Loser” proved that you only need big ideas, and not a big budget, to make a lasting impact.
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Tool “Prıson Sex” (1993)
Record Label: Zoo
Unsettling in just about every possible way imaginable, Tool’s music video for “Prıson Sex” uses haunting stop motion puppetry to tackle the harrowing subject of child abuse. A severed porcelain doll faints every time a large shadowy figure approaches it, and after the figure carries out its actions on the doll multiple times, the doll begins doing those same actions to itself, as if carrying on a cycle of abuse by internalizing it. Banned and scrutinized when it was first released, the video, like most of the band’s visual output, was helmed by guitarist Adam Jones, who has a background in Hollywood visual effects. While Jones is a great musician, he’s an artist at heart who fully understands the meaning behind singer Maynard James Keenan’s lyrics. For that reason, “Prıson Sex” is the band’s visual zenith, using horrific imagery to interpret a horrifying situation. With so much care given to all aspects of the video’s design, not only did “Prıson Sex” assert the band as a metal force to be reckoned with, but it also pushed the very limits of music video craft itself, elevating the form while also pushing a narrative that was more akin to a horror movie. Unquestionably groundbreaking, few videos since have rivaled “Prıson Sex”‘s unnerving power (save, of course, for all of Tool’s other videos).
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Beastie Boys “Sabotage” (1994)
Record Label: Grand Royal
When it comes to forming the Great Hall of Music Video Directors, there are a few guaranteed names that’ll be there: Diane Martel, Michel Gondry, Mark Romanek, Sophie Muller, Hype Williams, Melina Matsoukas, Chris Milk, etc. Yet before becoming the Oscar-winning oddball that he is, Spike Jonze made his name by directing some of the most inventive clips of all time, several of which appear on this list. “Sabotage”, the thrilling hard-rock single by the Beastie Boys, already feels like the soundtrack to an action movie, so leave it up to Jonze to turn it into a three-minute intro to a ’70s cop show, with all of the Beasties donning fake mustaches to play ridiculous caricatures. There’s action, there are dummies being thrown off of bridges, there’s one guy tackling another into a swimming pool: all the top-notch clichés delivered here with manic comic energy. Immensely appealing, the Beastie Boys never played to one single audience, but more critically, their buy-in to every wacky video concept is what ultimately elevated the comic value of “Sabotage” to masterclass levels. Listen all’a’y’all: it’s “Sabotage”.
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Nine Inch Nails “Closer” (1994)
Record Label: Nothing / TVT / Interscope / Atlantic
The chorus to Nine Inch Nails’ breakthrough single contains the line “I want to f— you like an animal,” which means that it would not be suitable for airplay in its original form. When director Mark Romanek began collaborating with Trent Reznor on a video concept, he too wanted to do something that would not get played on the usual music video channels, which resonated deeply with Reznor. As such, “Closer” was born as a haunting nightmare of a vision, and the song and video worked in tandem to bring industrial music to a mainstream audience. Opening with a realistic heart beating on a chair, the damaged film reel promo carries a litany of provocative images, ranging from a crucified monkey to a spinning pig’s head to Reznor singing into a microphone with a nipple on the tip. Unsettling but not unpalatable, “Closer” read more like a living, breathing Hieronymus Bosch painting, literate in how it unnerved its viewers. With female nudity and fetish equipment sprinkled in, the clip was met with both acclaim and controversy. Certain scenes were edited out entirely before making it into MTV rotation, with those especially graphic moments instead replaced with a title card that reads “Scene Missing.” An unlikely hit, it set Reznor on the course of being quite a provocateur, proving that no matter how grotesque your concept, presenting it as high art may very well be the thing that sneaks it into the cracks of the mainstream. This is the kind of video that some people base their entire personalities around.
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Weezer “Buddy Holly” (1994)
Record Label: DGC
An absolute technical marvel, “Buddy Holly” feels so ahead of its time that it’s hard to believe it came out over 25 years ago. Cluing into the era-specific namedrops in the chorus, this Spike Jonze clip featured the previously unknown band Weezer play on a replica set of Arnold’s Drive-Inn, the main location from the 1970s sitcom “Happy Days”. Merging new cameos, archival footage from the show, and blended shots of the band and the original TV stars together at the same time, “Buddy Holly” was inventive, goofy, and the kind of watercooler pop culture moment that was virtually impossible to ignore. Between this and the comedic slow-mo clip that Jonze also helmed for “Undone (The Sweater Song)”, Weezer quickly became known as music video stylists, skyrocketing them to fame so quickly that they soon made a policy against having visually stimulating clips distract from their music (a policy that, in short order, they abandoned). Pushing music videos as an art form to a new technical limit, “Buddy Holly” feels like it hasn’t aged a day.
Record Label: Virgin
The Smashing Pumpkins were particularly deft at combining alt-rock’s self-seriousness with gorgeous artistic temperaments, leading to a litany of visually stunning (if only somewhat pretentious) music videos. King among them all is “Tonight, Tonight”, a beautiful retelling of Georges Méliès’s silent 1902 masterpiece “A Trip to the Moon”. Lensed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (who also were behind the Pumpkins’ “1979” video and later the film “Little Miss Sunshine”), and starring the man who would later voice SpongeBob SquarePants (Tom Kenny), a litany of film techniques are used to bring singer Billy Corgan’s orchestral rock number to life. Telling a full “silent” narrative while inserting the band as celestial beings in the prop stars, “Tonight, Tonight” is nothing short of a visual feast, marrying film’s storied past with what was then considered the future of rock music. It was a bold gambit, but the result is a music video dripping with visual splendor, nearly every frame portrait-worthy.
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The Pharcyde “Drop” (1995)
Record Label: Delicious Vinyl
Oftentimes, music videos with clever concepts do a lot of heavy lifting in turning a regular recording artist into a true blue superstar. Yet sometimes, a music video’s cleverness may very well outlive a band’s legacy. While the Pharcyde will always have a place in rap history for their 1993 hit “Passin’ Me By”, the Spike Jonze-helmed clip for 1995’s “Drop” is a stunner. In this joyously fun backward-motion promo, the quartet of MCs managed to convincingly spit their verses backward as they jump great heights, roll up a flight of stairs, and send water flying back into the sky. While the shot-in-reverse concept is somewhat of a staple at this point, the sheer level of visual inventiveness on display here is what elevates it to greatness status, to say nothing of the fact that a linguist helped the band learn how to enunciate all their complex lines backward so it looked like they were rapping in time in the final product. Endlessly rewatchable, The Pharcyde’s “Drop” was the kind of video that showed how rap groups didn’t have to adhere to one particular genre aesthetic to get their work across. As gangster rap exploded in 1993 and lingered in the years that followed, The Pharcyde used their inventive clip to cut out their own lane and stand out from the pack.
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Björk “It’s Oh So Quiet” (1995)
Record Label: One Little Indian
Following the success of her college rock band The Sugarcubes, Björk launched her proper solo career with a litany of visually stunning music videos, and even if she never reached the commercial heights of big-budget pop stars like Michael Jackson or Madonna, her complete videography rivals (and some would argue bests) them in terms of iconic imagery. Almost every major video director in the ’90s collaborated with Björk at some point or another, and Spike Jonze couldn’t possibly be more suited to bring an oddball number like “It’s Oh So Quiet” to life. The song itself is a brassy cover of a 1950’s jazz number that segues from serene, romantic orchestral flourishes to a loud, horn-driven chorus. In the video, a super slow-mo Björk wanders through a city with dreamy eyes, but when the music kicks up a notch, so does her surroundings: tire shop employees break out into dance, a mailbox starts doing some soft shoe, and businessmen start doing backflips. Inspired by the 1962 French musical “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”, Björk and Jonze understood the assignment and gave a defiantly out-of-trend single a can’t-take-your-eyes-away treatment, rebranding Björk as an alt-pop oddball who never made the same song twice, and one of the premier music video makers of her generation.
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Jamiroquai “Virtual Insanity” (1996)
Record Label: Sony Soho Square
“Virtual Insanity “is the rare kind of music video that became such an instantly recognizable piece of pop culture canon that it ended up defining the band. Brilliantly conceived by Jonathan Glazer, the clip shows Jamiroquai singer and songwriter Jay Kay dancing around a lounge-y sci-fi room. Yet as he moves about, the furniture moves with him — except when it doesn’t. He dances on the couch and next to a chair, but the couch can move and the chair can’t? When it premiered, everyone watched the clip asking, “How did they do that?” Featuring in-camera visual effects at their most eye-popping, Kay’s physical duets with the furniture feels like a contemporary update to a Fred Astaire number. Simultaneously, hints of sinister elements (ravens, cockroaches, pooled blood) imply something darker behind this manufactured aesthetic. A must-see event when it dropped, the “Virtual Insanity” music video propelled Jamiroquai into stardom but also defined the band to such an extent that when it came to their Video Music Awards performance, Kay was bouncing across moving runways they installed on the stage as if recreating the video live. This video is so enmeshed in the band’s identity that despite many attempts (and many similarly funky hats worn by Kay), they have never managed to outrun the iconography of Glazer’s clip. Yet that’s a risk you run when you make one of the most visually outstanding clips of its kind.
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Cibo Matto “Sugar Water” (1996)
Record Label: Warner Bros.
Of all of the artists on this list, the Shibuya-Kei alternative pop group Cibo Matto is, without question, the least known. Yet that doesn’t take away from the jaw-dropping brilliance of the Michel Gondry-helmed promo for their single “Sugar Water”. Featuring members Miho Hatori and Yuka Honda waking up and going about their day, this remarkable split-screen clip has been timed out to the very second, with one side going forwards in time and the other side going backward, the two narratives meeting up halfway through the continuous take. One-half eye-candy, one-half “how the hell did they do it?”, “Sugar Water” signified Michel Gondry’s singularly offbeat style, as matching up moments where one member is showering while the other is pouring sugar over themselves (which makes sugar water, you see) or having a cat reverse jump into a mailbox in one timeline only to pop out of another in perfect unison is the kind of overthought miracle that could only come from an intense amount of planning and envelopment. A unique visual complement to Cibo Matto’s already-obtuse brand of dance-pop, few other music video clips this decade are as daring or as satisfying as “Sugar Water”.
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Spice Girls “Wannabe” (1996)
Record Label: Virgin
Whenever you’re marketing a pop group, the listening audience must become immediately familiar with each member’s distinct personality. With the clip for the Spice Girls’ debut single “Wannabe”, you learned everything you needed to know about Scary, Baby, Sporty, Ginger, and Posh in less than four minutes. Dressed in outfits that came to define their entire careers, the girls walk into a highfalutin hotel party and proceed to cause mischief, from stealing hats and glasses to doing backflips on dinner tables. Presented as a single take (but cleverly cut from two separate ones), the beautifully choreographed chaos of “Wannabe” mixed well with the immediate smack of that piano-pound chorus. After all, this was our first time seeing the Spice Girls ever, and already it seemed like they had been friends for years with fully developed stage personalities. Their enthusiasm bled through the screen, and it didn’t take long for them to become the biggest girl group in the world. While the song was dynamite on its own, this simple-yet-effective video proved so good at its job that few groups have even come close to matching its instantaneous star-making success.
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The Prodigy “Smack My Bıtch Up” (1997)
Record Label: XL / Maverick / Sony
“No radio station was gonna play the song, so we thought we’d make a video that no one would play either.” This statement from The Prodigy frontman Liam Howlett sums up exactly why “Smack My Bıtch Up” became a lightning road for controversy. In a wildly explicit promo lensed by the great Jonas Åkerlund, we see through the eyes of a rave scene Londoner, going out to bars, getting in fights on the dance floor, and maybe committing a hit-and-run while trying to sleep with a stripper. Sometimes feeling more like a Gaspar Noé film than a pop art piece of entertainment, “Smack My Bıtch Up” proved polarizing. While its casual violence and degrading treatment of women were understandably frowned upon, the last-minute reveal that we’ve been watching all of this through the eyes of a woman proved to be a brilliant twist, as in such a male-dominated space as hardcore techno, women too could be messy participants, and seeing her looking forlorn in her apartment mirror at the end of the video challenges all of our assumptions up to that point. Banned across a litany of video networks but never forgotten, “Smack My Bıtch Up” proved that there’s a difference between “controversial” and “tasteless,” because tasteless concepts are often dismissed, but the only way something can be seen as “controversial” is because there is a value to it worth debating. Over two decades later, we’re still debating it.
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Aphex Twin “Come to Daddy” (1997)
Record Label: Warp
When it comes to great music video directors, Chris Cunningham is nothing short of a stylist, one who merges his technical know-how with a grimdark worldview that elevates the most uncommercial of songs into cultural flashpoints. (Even Madonna hired him to lens the clip for her single “Frozen”.) Yet Cunningham’s most notable musical collaborator is Aphex Twin, the innovative ambient and techno provocateur who never knew a digital form that he couldn’t attack with feverish intensity. “Come to Daddy” is as violent a drill-n-bass song as you could imagine, with the distorted vocals saying “I want your soul / I will eat your soul” over blistering hardcore electronics. The legendary clip that accompanies the song features a bunch of children wearing creepy masks of Aphex Twin mastermind Richard D. James’ face, causing chaos in a council estate before a horror-movie creature emerges from an abandoned television to shriek at an old woman. Without resorting to gore or shocking imagery, “Come to Daddy” works because it is so very unsettling, with the movie-caliber production values elevating this terrifying track up to something that borders on digestible. There is more demonic chaos in this six-minute video than there is in most two-hour horror movies.
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Janet Jackson “Got ‘Til It’s Gone” (1997)
Record Label: Virgin
As rap and hip-hop grew into an even larger commercial force in the 1990s, some criticism was directed at how Black women were portrayed in music videos. Most of the time, they were scantily clad dancers, mere objects for the predominantly male rappers to toss money at or spray champagne on. This wasn’t the case with every hip-hop act, but the imagery was dominant enough to form a stereotype. For “Got ‘Til It’s Gone”, the remarkably low-key single from Janet Jackson’s legendary album “The Velvet Rope”, Jackson and director Mark Romanek wanted to serve a complete counterbalance to that narrative.
Inspired by the Apartheid-era Drum Magazine out of South Africa, and especially its gorgeous slice-of-life photography as done by Jürgen Schadeberg, “Got ‘Til It’s Gone” focused on celebrating Black culture, specifically emphasizing the joy of the parties in South African townships where every people with everyday style celebrated in perfect harmony. Jackson is singing but notably sweaty, not wearing any makeup. Women are filmed under slow-motion showers of water but aren’t overly sexualized. Men look nerdy, men have bruised eyes swollen shut, men stand in their underwear, men get goofy when they turn flirty. It’s a genuinely beautiful and humanizing portrait of Black culture at its finest, and even with a beer bottle breaking in the clip’s final shot, we aren’t sure if revelry is out of hand or if the party is being broken up by outside forces. Perhaps it is best if we don’t know because at the end of the day, “Got ‘Til It’s Gone” remains a transcendent and still-underrated masterpiece.
Record Label: Work / Columbia
In the late ’90s, music videos started moving in a new direction, less concerned about erotic objectification and more interested in exploring sexuality. Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” was an absolute flashpoint, as the video wasn’t explicit with its imagery but let its viewers imply things that may or may not be there. Lensed by Mark Romanek, the clip for “Criminal” examines the comedown of what appears to be a wild party. Lit only by a single light placed on top of the camera, the entire clip of “Criminal” has a voyeuristic feel to it, as if we, the viewers, are seeing something we’re not supposed to. Full of phallic imagery, half-naked bodies strewn about carpeted floors, and a provocative shot of Apple in a bathtub as two manly feet move around her head, “Criminal” radiated sexual energy and wasn’t shy about it, but wisely never crossed the line to become anything explicit. While the video generated quite a bit of buzz, Apple was apparently unhappy with just how almost-exploitative the end product was, upset with Romanek for years before finally saying she’d come to accept its artistic aims and would agree to make another video with him in a 2005 documentary. To date, it hasn’t happened, but no worry: “Criminal” is a taboo-breaking game changer no matter which way you look at it.
Record Label: Jive
There are music videos on this list that are more technically achieved and artistically ambitious than Nigel Dıck’s promo for “…Baby One More Time”. Yet much like “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, Britney Spears’ debut single became an instant piece of cultural iconography. With a concept that was largely Spears’ conception, “…Baby One More Time” played around with suggestive Catholic schoolgirl fantasies, but nothing overt or heated, as this was designed to play to the tweens growing up on MTV’s “Total Request Live” program. Yet the second those iconic piano pounds start up, it’s all Spears’ show: her on-camera confidence, her solid dance moves (which only got more intense over time), and her palpable charisma. The knotted shirt was also a Spears’ decision. In the decades that followed, it would still be associated as one of her most iconic looks (next to the action flight attendant uniform from “Toxic” and her red jumpsuit from “Oops!… I Did It Again”, naturally). Yet even more than that, the cool professionalism of “…Baby One More Time” signaled the start of the turn-of-the-millennium teen pop revolution, and amazingly, this was her very first video. If you’re going to be iconic, it doesn’t hurt that you’re iconic right out the gate.
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Fatboy Slim “Praise You” (1998)
Record Label: Astralwerks
Before YouTube came into prominence, there were a disparate amount of sites that had video players wherein clips could go properly “viral.” Back in 1998, Spike Jonze’s movie theater-crashing dance troupe flashmob set to the tune of Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You” was a must-see experience like no other, no matter what site you viewed it on. In real guerrilla-style, Jonze (along with co-director Roman Coppola) and a fictional group of amateur dancers go through community theater-style choreography in front of a genuinely suspicious group of people lining up to see a movie, all filmed on handheld cameras and spliced together. So annoyed with the spontaneous display, a movie theater employee walks over at one point and turns off the boom box the song is blasting from. They get it back and complete the number, but the giddy I-can’t-believe-this-is-happening thrill of a dance flashmob happening right in front of an unsuspecting public is what made “Praise You” a can’t-miss event. Unsurprisingly, the video went into heavy rotation on music video networks, which, in turn, pushed the song onto radio and gave Fatboy Slim his only Top 40 hit in the U.S. Not a bad payoff for a promo that reportedly cost only $800 to produce.
The only thing you need to know about a Missy Elliott music video is that it’s going to be fantastic. One of the most consistently creative music video makers on the planet, Elliott has collaborated with greats like Dave Meyers and Paul Hunter to deliver captivating, otherworldly visuals, with her clips for “Get Ur Freak On” and “Lose Control” cementing her as a both a musical and fashion pioneer. Yet her earliest clips contain some of her most recognizable imagery, and while the puffy black suit of “The Rain (Super Dupa Fly)” will always stick with us, it is of our opinion that “She’s a Bıtch” took even bigger chances. Directed by the king of music video set design, Hype Williams, “She’s a Bıtch” casts Missy in a futuristic light. Snatched bald one minute, in a light-up techno cube the next, and then dancing in a sci-fi cowboy getup right after that, there are lasting, powerful visual moments throughout this promo, but when a giant “M” platform rises from a black ocean complete with spiked backup dancers, it’s clear that Missy was delivering on a level that no other rappers were even close to touching at the time. Actually, let’s rephrase that: Missy Elliott remains absolutely untouchable.
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The Chemical Brothers “Let Forever Be” (1999)
Record Label: Virgin / Astralwerks
Without question, The Chemical Brothers are perhaps one of the most underrated groups in the canon of great music video makers, as their clips for “Out of Control”, “Star Guitar”, “The Golden Path”, and “Midnight Madness” are all visually stimulating and often perfectly compliment the song in question. While they care more of a cult act in the U.S. despite being a heavy commercial force in the U.K., no one on either side of the pond can say a bad word about the psychedelic head trip that is “Let Forever Be”. With a vocal take from Noel Gallagher and a clip helmed by the ever-inventive Michel Gondry, a woman wakes up to go work at a mall but has frequent warped distortions of what her reality is. With handheld video footage used to extrapolate giant sets for a field of lookalike dancers, “Let Forever Be” has some of the cleverest set design and most stunning “how did they do that?” editing that we’ve ever seen. Encapsulating everything great about the song and taking it to its most illogical extremes, “Let Forever Be” is a tour-de-force like no other, proving that even the short run time of a music video can be a breeding ground for endless innovation.
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Björk “All is Full of Love” (1999)
Record Label: One Little Indian / Elektra
The list of great Björk music videos is damn near endless: the beautiful simplicity of “Hunter”, the wild meta concept of “Bachelorette”, the distorted action of “Army of Me”, the endlessly stimulating “Hyerballad”, etc. Yet her greatest clip may be for one of her most heartbreaking of songs: “All is Full of Love”. An absolute marvel of special effects, the Chris Cunningham-directed promo for “All is Full of Love” depicts Bjork as an android being slowly assembled, singing of unrequited romance. As another android enters the picture, they are soon seen kissing as machines continue to assemble and tweak them from behind. Hauntingly portrayed, the video opens up questions akin to a Philip K. Dıck or Isaac Asimov novel: could robots love? What would intimacy be like for an A.I.? It’s a bunch of big questions posed by a four-minute promo, but its lingering aftereffects will stay with you for years to come. Pushing the format to a higher artistic plane, “All is Full of Love” is a magnificent achievement.
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Blur “Coffee + TV” (1999)
Record Label: Food / EMI
In the great Britpop revolution of the ’90s, many bands competed, but only a select few (think Oasis and Pulp) managed to have actual, lasting careers. Unfortunately, most of their videographies were pretty staid, full of clips that were fun to look at but rarely had a lasting impact, ultimately documenting this era more than anything else. This all changed, however, with Blur’s legendary promo for “Coffee + TV”. Written and sung by guitarist Graham Coxon, this ambling tune tells the tale of an anthropomorphic milk carton with a “Missing” notice on its side for Coxon. While his family is too grief-stricken to do anything, the milk carton ambles about his town, looking for him. Directed by Hammer & Tongs (a.k.a. Garth Jennings), the cartoonish narrative bursts of real sweetness, as the milk carton does eventually find Coxon at band rehearsal and convinces him to go back to his family, but not before drinking the milk, which in effect kills him and sends him flying off to Milk Heaven. With playful puppetry and a keen sense of style, “Coffee + TV” was so attractive and welcoming that it soon became not only one of Blur’s most lasting visuals but also one of the best clips of the Britpop era.
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D’Angelo “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” (2000)
Record Label: Virgin / EMI
D’Angelo’s career has been almost defiantly non-linear, careening from sugary sweet neo-soul to pointed political activism and with years if not decades of space between releases. Yet for the release of his heralded sophomore album “Voodoo”, D’Angelo’s manager pushed for a revamp of his public image, getting him to a point where he was working out for months and looking absolutely shredded. Picking the very Prince-esque “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” as the single, the video concept was simple: what would the POV be of someone getting intimate with D’Angelo? Directed by Paul Hunter, the single-shot clip does little more than get intensely close to D’Angelo’s sweat-covered body. The camera is warm, inviting, and examining D’Angelo’s body at its rugged peak. Sexually charged, voyeuristic, and turning the male gaze around on itself, the clip marked a change in sexual politics in pop music, sparking immense interest in D’Angelo’s career and questions as to whether or not it should be censored (because that camera drifts seductively close to his v-line). Celebrated, debated, and parodied within an inch of its life, “Untitled” still gives us all the good feelings.
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Robbie Williams “Rock DJ” (2000)
Record Label: Chrysalis
If you live in North America, you may or may not have heard of former boy band member Robbie Williams breaking out on his own for a solo career. If you live in any other part of the world, you know that Robbie Williams is a global superstar. While his commercial and critical peak has come to pass, Williams’ unmistakable charisma and appeal are what allowed him to get a video as insane as “Rock DJ” on the air. Helmed by his frequent collaborator Vaughan Arnell, a room full of stylish rollerskating ladies circle an elevated platform that Williams soon emerges from, confident in his sex appeal. Yet the more he grooves and dances to his disco-tastic pop song, the more he realizes that no one is gazing at him. He takes off his shirt to no avail, followed by his pants and even his underwear. Totally naked and with no attention, he decides to go one step further by stripping off … his skin. Suddenly, everyone wants Robbie: every blood-drenched piece of him. Grotesque, hilarious, and surprisingly dark for what is otherwise the smarmiest pop star in Britain, who knew that literally ripping your butt off could net you a chart-topping single? An underrated gem.
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Fatboy Slim “Weapon of Choice” (2001)
Record Label: Astralwerks
It’s Christopher Walken. Dancing. Then flying. What else could you possibly want? Truth be told, even with the ace vocal assist from Bootsy Collins, “Weapon of Choice” is not a top-tier Fatboy Slim single. However, Spike Jonze’s inventive, hilarious, and unexpected promo for the song is what elevated it to a completely different plane. Walken, who trained as a dancer in musical theater long before he became an Oscar-winning film actor, is more than game to participate in this absurd concept, and per interviews with the crew, Walken added his own little flourishes to the choreography as he practically takes over the empty hotel he’s sitting in. So popular this clip was, it inspired a litany of pseudo-copycats where big-name celebrities stood in for musicians (including a two-peat attempt by Elton John, wherein Justin Timberlake and Robert Downey, Jr. lip-synced for Sir Elton on the clips for “This Train Don’t Stop There Anymore” and “I Want Love” respectively). Even two decades after it premiered, “Weapon of Choice” still feels like a joy injection.
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The White Stripes “Fell in Love with a Girl” (2002)
Record Label: XL
As The White Stripes breakthrough single clocked in at less than two minutes, doing a music video for it was going to have to be something that grabs you immediately. Thankfully, in working with director Michel Gondry, the result is only one of the greatest music videos of all time. Filmed one frame at a time by constructing Legos to match a pose and then resetting, this animated clip for “Fell in Love with a Girl” is based on real footage that Gondry shot of Jack and Meg, albeit with garishly overdone makeup so that each frame would “translate” when translated into detail-restrictive lego blocks. The final product is nothing short of a marvel: watching a drum cymbal swirl in a Lego block format or seeing Meg and Jack White mouth the lyrics with eerie accuracy is a sight to behold, and in an era where music videos increasingly rely on CGI and green screen effects to tell their narratives, there is something both familiar and new about seeing something as basic as Legos being used to create this illusion. A must-watch promo the second it dropped, the buzzy clip helped break The White Stripes into the mainstream, where they only got bigger and weirder and wilder. (Honorable mention: one of the Stripes’ other Gondry collaborations, “Dead Leaves on the Dirty Ground”, uses projectors to a rather astonishing effect.)
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Johnny Cash “Hurt” (2003)
Record Label: American / Lost Highway
When director Mark Romanek heard Johnny Cash’s heart-rendering cover of Nine Inch Nail’s “Hurt” for the first time, he knew he had to do the music video. Despite being one of the most celebrated music video directors ever, he still had to beg Cash to let him film a video treatment. The aging Cash finally was swayed, and both he and June Carter appear in the video. While filming at the House of Cash museum, Romanek’s crew had access to Cash’s dense video archive, featuring everything from home movies to his acting roles in films. After putting together a rough cut of the video with present-day Cash, Romaneks’ editors dropped in a contrasting clip of Cash from his younger years, and the contrasting effect was chilling.
Paired with Cash’s interpretation of the already-dramatic number, the visual component of “Hurt” is deeply affecting, as we see an old legend look back on his life and remembers all the highs and lows before seeing where he is now: at the end. Quite possibly one of the most emotional music videos ever made, there is a power to “Hurt” that feels otherworldly. Compacting visceral, spiritual power into such a small space, the dramatic promo broke out in a powerful way, introducing Cash to a whole new generation of listeners. While he was happy to be nominated for an MTV Video Music Award, sadly, both Johnny and June Carter passed away the year it came out. This clip only added to an already-dense legacy that will never be forgotten.
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Britney Spears “Toxic” (2004)
Record Label: Jive
At this point in the list, we’ve talked about low-budget DIY clips with big ideas, groundbreaking visual effects, and challenges to the very form of music videos itself. Yet sometimes, you just want that giddy rush of pure pop escapism. Thankfully the clip for “Toxic” does that in spades. Filmed by Joseph Khan, the man you go to when you’re looking for big-budget sensation in four minutes, “Toxic” casts Spears in the role of a sexy spy, one who uses multiple disguises and her incredible moves to break in to steal a special toxin to kill her ex-lover with. With a budget of over a million dollars, Khan crams every second of spectacle he can into “Toxic”. In each of her outfits, Spears comes off as a seductress in full control of her power. Of course, all of this action is anchored by one of her all-time best dance-pop hits, and Khan proved to be the perfect person to bring this clip to life. Sometimes, you just want your popstars to live out their wildest indulgences, and in the case of “Toxic”, the level of indulgence approaches God-tier.
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Jay-Z “99 Problems” (2004)
Record Label: Roc-A-Fella / Def Jam
Jay-Z’s power as a rapper lies in how he always reintroduces himself to a new generation of listeners. Although 2003’s “The Black Album” was billed as his retirement record (which didn’t end up being the case), he found a way to go out with a bang. Dissatisfied with the video treatment for the second single, “Dirt Off Your Shoulders”, he hired wizkid, Mark Romanek, to give his Rick Rubin-produced rap-rock hybrid “99 Problems” a clip that was visceral, distinct, and ultimately, one of the best rap videos ever made.
Filmed in black and white and almost entirely in slow-mo, everything from dog fights to motorcycle stunt clubs to funeral directors gets woven together to craft a terse, powerful visual that makes you feel each one of Jay’s muscled bars. Some lyrics are given full visual representation, while others are left for interpretation and analysis. Yet its most shocking moment comes at the end in which Jay-Z is murdered in a spray of gunfire, which was a scene so shocking that some video channels carried a disclaimer before airing it. To hear Romanek tell the story, the footage they shot was great, but the rhythm of the edit never hit that gut-punch impact he was going for. He hired three different editors to give it a go and was still unhappy with the results. The video budget was fully drained at this point, so Romanek asked his longtime standby editor Robert Duffy to tackle it pro bono. That is the cut that was ultimately used, winning Video Music Awards for Director, Editing, Cinematography, and Best Rap Video. It makes sense: it hits just as hard now as it did when it first came out.
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OK GO “Here It Goes Again” (2006)
Record Label: Capitol / EMI
It’s of no mistake that YouTube was launched the same year that OK Go, a lovely but underperforming pop-rock powerhouse, released the music video for their song “A Million Ways”. Featuring the four-piece band in singer Damien Kulash’s backyard performing a remarkably intricate dance routine, the clip went viral and brought the band into a new kind of internet attention. For the fifth and final single from their sophomore album, they decided to go the “viral choreography” route again for “Here It Goes Again”. While sequels to viral clips often fail miserably, OK Go ended up completely outdoing themselves. Elaborately staged across eight remarkably sturdy treadmills, the quartet feels more confident in their performances, using the moving platforms and their unique charisma to bring the feel-good guitar romp that is “Here It Goes Again” to life. Conceived, choreographed, and directed by Kulash’s sister Trish Sie, “Here It Goes Again” became a sensation, soon sending the song into the Top 40 and even winning a Grammy for Best Short Form Music Video. While two quirky viral videos in a row would normally be enough for people to dismiss a band as nothing more than trendy, the group instead embraced the title and have continued to push what the music video format could do, using everything from Rube Goldberg machines to optical illusions to make hugely memorable clips. To some, the band is gimmicky, but it takes a lot of talent to pull off innovations like this every time.
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Red Hot Chili Peppers “Dani California” (2006)
Record Label: Warner Bros.
The thing about the Red Hot Chili Peppers is that no matter what context they’re placed in, they light up the room with their performance ability. Their live shows are overflowing with manic, groovy energy, and their music videos often capture the wild nature of Anthony Kiedis, Flea, Chad Smith, and whoever is their guitarist at the time. Working with a litany of music video greats ranging from Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris to Anton Corbijn to Gus Van Sant to the great Stéphane Sednaoui, their clip for their late-era single “Dani California” may be their crowning achievement.
Supremely entertaining as it rolls through rock history, all four members of the band are more than game to get up in a series of ridiculous outfits as they perform their song in a variety of filmed styles: black-and-white British Invasion, MTV Unplugged acoustic, spandex-clad hair metal, robotic industrial, etc. It’s playful and surprisingly detailed, nailing the specifics of each era in a way that is both mocking and loving. Yet the masterstroke of the clip comes at the end, wherein the band, having done all of these styles leading up to modern times, reveal that the most contemporary musical “era” is themselves: Kiedis wearing a tie with shorts, Flea shirtless, Chad Smith sleeveless, and John Frusciante just looks like a guy you’d find off the streets. They’re inserting themselves into rock history, and as grand a notion as it is, the clip almost convinces you they’ve earned it. Lensed by “American History X” director Tony Kaye (allegedly after Mark Romanek was unavailable), the music video for “Dani” ended up pushing the song into the U.S. Top 10 and scored multiple VMA nominations as well as a Grammy nod. It was a late-career highlight for the boys and remains another great entry in their remarkably strong videography.
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Beyoncé “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)” (2008)
Record Label: Columbia
These days, there aren’t B-sides the way there once was. Rarely do pop artists tuck away bonus little songs on the back of singles, largely because (almost) everything is available for streaming. To introduce her third album, “I Am… Sasha Fierce”, to the world, her label decided to put out two singles at the same time, kind of giving an A-side/B-side feel. The clear A-side was the dramatic ballad “If I Were a Boy”, which was given a dramatic big-budget music video directed by Jake Nava. As Nava would later describe this period, “Boy” ate up all of the budget, so they didn’t have anything left for the “B-side” song, the Sasha Fierce-featuring “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)”. Choreographed by Frank Gatson Jr. and JaQuel Knight, all “Single Ladies” does is show Beyoncé with backup dancers Ebony Williams and Ashley Everett on a plain white photo set, a last-minute concept if there ever was one. The camera moves and the lighting changes, but all we’re looking at is the intricate, memorable, and ultimately era-defining dance moves performed by the trio — all while Beyoncé dons a jeweled metal arm. While it may not have been the promotional focus for the album rollout, “Single Ladies” quickly overtook “Boy” to become not only another chart-topper for Beyoncé but also one of her signature songs. “If I Were a Boy” is still a great song with an emotional video, but all the money in the world can’t beat out a clip with a great concept and even better execution, doubly so when the person executing it is someone as iconic as Beyoncé.
Record Label: Cherrytree / Interscope
When Lady Gaga’s debut single “Just Dance” went to #1, some thought it was a fluke hit by an industry plant. Yet the more music that she dropped and the more visuals she put out, it became very clear that Lady Gaga was a genuine oddball who loved embracing the lunatic fringe of pop music excess. Her confidence only grew with time, and while her debut album was very much a label-friendly mix of styles and genres, “Bad Romance” signaled the start of a new era, one where she had full control of her sound, her look, and her persona.
Directed by Frances Lawrence, “Bad Romance” was a mind-boggling visual spectacle, telling the story of working in an industry where you’re forced to perform for the highest bidder. With a bit of Kubrick-ian edge to the production design, “Bad Romance” looked like nothing else at the time. Memorable visual elements? Where to start: the crab gown, the enlarged bathtub eyes, the “Thriller”-esque choreography nods, the man with the gold chin, the stop-motion camera spin around cascading diamonds, the spark bra — it was the kind of clip where even if you didn’t understand what was going on, your eyes were nonetheless delighted by the sheer amount of indulgence presented. Quickly becoming one of the most-viewed items on this newly-rising video platform called YouTube, it helped give Gaga her first Diamond-certified single, tied the record for the most Video Music Award nominations in a single year, and even won a Grammy for Best Short Form Music Video. It was an absolute pop culture moment, which in turn only gave Gaga more confidence to go bigger and get weirder — which she did.
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Psy “Gangnam Style” (2012)
Record Label: YG / Universal Republic
“Gangnam Style” may very well go down as one of the most influential songs ever released, and that’s largely because of its music video. While Psy’s dance-pop confection, like most of his singles, is immediate, fun, and supremely catchy, it’s still sung largely in Korean, which as a default rule made it a hard sell for Western markets at the time. The music video for “Gangnam Style” ultimately gave it its international appeal because comedy is a universal language. Directed by Cho Soo-Hyun, “Gangnam Style” jumps from one visual gag to the next, as Psy seems more than game to look ridiculous at any given moment. From the visual gags of him resting on a beach (which is actually a child’s sandbox) to his amazing “horse dance” to him doing deep dives in a hot tub to its random action movie explosions, it feels that Psy’s intention with the video was to cram every second he could with a joke or ridiculous moment. Yet Psy sells it with his commitment to the bit, and his confident goofiness made “Gangnam Style” not only go viral but become a worldwide game-changer.
“Gangnam Style” the first music video on YouTube to pass a billion views, and its meme-ready popularity helped it even gain traction on international radio, hitting #1 in most countries and pulling off the then-unprecedented feat of hitting #2 in the United States. This music video helped break down language barriers, especially in the U.S., where non-English songs rarely received play on the airwaves. Since then, tracks like the predominantly Spanish-language “Despacito” and a whole new wave of K-pop artists have managed to break into the West in previously unthinkable ways. “Gangnam Style” pulled that off all on its own, and despite some worthy challengers, it remains the most-watched K-pop video of all time.
Record Label: RCA
You can almost set your watch to the time when a former Disney TV star goes into music and eventually wants to start their “mature” phase. The examples are numerous, but there is perhaps no iteration more hilarious than Miley Cyrus’ 2010 bomb of a record “Can’t Be Tamed”. Featuring a lead single where she is a sexy dancing bird-type thing, the clip was a horrifically misguided attempt to come off as a serious adult, swallowed in dramatic self-seriousness. Fully conscious of the reception, Cyrus course-corrected rather wisely with 2013’s “Bangerz”, a rowdy party record that introduced the world to the twerking Miley who always sticks her tongue out. Cyrus’s attention-grabbing ways helped push her out of the “Disney kid” box and into something approaching legitimate music fame. As a pop star now writing her own rulebook, the visuals from this era were genuinely a sight to behold.
While the beautifully outrageous and surreal house party of the Diane Martel-lensed clip for “We Can’t Stop” was a sight to behold, it was her controversial collaboration with notorious photographer/director Terry Richardson on the ballad “Wrecking Ball” that left the world stunned. It’s a video that you can tell was based around a simple image of Cyrus riding an actual wrecking ball while naked. There’s some dramatic buildup to get to that moment (including a Sinéad O’Connor-referencing open where Cyrus is tearfully singing into the camera with nothing else around). While the video does have other defining images (including her tonguing a sledgehammer), this provocative clip put the new, mature, and sexualized Miley front and center for the whole world to see. The video raised many questions about what is acceptable in today’s pop culture marketplace. While there are sexier music videos out there, rarely would something this overtly erotic be pushed as far into the mainstream without Cyrus’ name attached to it. Love it or loathe it, there is no denying the power that this “Wrecking Ball” had on the world.
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Sia “Chandelier” (2014)
Record Label: Monkey Puzzle / RCA
Sia’s career has been full of odd turns, as she’s transitioned from an indie singer-songwriter to a noted guest-spot pop vocalist and go-to co-writer on gigantic Top 40 smashes. Yet as soon as she put on a wig that covered her face, that’s when people started to pay attention to her — and that’s when she dropped “Chandelier”. A sad and longing pop number rife with vocal histrionics, one can’t help but feel that it would be a hit no matter what visual was attached to it. Yet lucky for Sia, her instincts lead her in the right direction, and she decided to base a video around “Dance Moms” breakout star Maddie Ziegler, who was 11 years old at the time.
Dancing around a dumpy, abandoned apartment with choreography by Ryan Heffington and direction by Daniel Askill and Sia, the clip is a sight to behold. With no parents around, it feels as if Ziegler is going through domestic motions, imitating things she picked up from parents or neighbors, ranging from wagging of fingers to pounding the kitchen table for food to creepily curtsying at the video’s end. The choreography carries a lot of thematic weight, but all of that would be nothing were it not for Ziegler’s committed performance and jaw-dropping athleticism. At times dancing so frantically, the camera has a hard time keeping her in frame, there is kinetic energy contained in this video that is hard to describe, with Ziegler’s exaggerated movements extended by the floppy Sia wig on her head. A shock viral moment, the video helped power the song to become a global hit, and Sia was so taken with Ziegler that the two continued to collaborate multiple times over the next several years. It could be argued, however, that this first time their talents mixed was still their finest.
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Kendrick Lamar “Alright” (2015)
Record Label: Top Dawg / Aftermath / Interscope
In a remarkably short amount of time, Kendrick Lamar has turned into one of the greatest MCs alive, willing to take wild risks with his art while still sliding in on the occasional radio-friendly guest verse. His third studio record, “To Pimp a Butterfly”, was a dense, provocative record about race relations in America. While it was not his most commercial release, it was considered one of the decade’s greatest rap records. As Kendrick got increasingly confident with his craft, he also got bolder with his visuals. While his wild run of imagery in the promo clip for “Humble” took him to the top of the charts, it’s his powerful anthem “Alright” that left its strongest impression on us.
Directed by Colin Tilley and The Little Homies, this black-and-white treatment runs through a gamut of seemingly unrelated scenes and setups, but all of them are tied to the theme of black relations with white police officers. The eye-popping opener has Kendrick behind the wheel of a car with no tires, the camera panning down to show all the axles are being held up, emperor style, by cops. Then, as the song kicks into high gear, Kendrick is almost ethereal, floating through neighborhoods, dancing on streetlamps, hovering over his posse upside down, tossing out reams of cash while doing donuts around cop cars. It’s surreal, beautiful, and powerful, but at the very end, in the dead of daylight, a cop sees Kendrick standing on a streetlamp and shoots him using only fingers. There’s still a bloody exit wound, Kendrick taking a long fall to the ground, before reciting his frequent mantra: “I remember you was conflicted. Misusing your influence. Sometimes I did the same.” As the song became a chanted anthem during the police brutality protests of 2015, the accompanying promo clip remains harrowing, celebratory, and powerful all at once. When we see Kendrick’s smile in the last shot, it convinces us that despite the horrors going on in the world, maybe, just for a moment, we are gonna be alright.
Record Label: 300 / Atlantic
We’re going to hedge our bets and say that of all the clips listed here, this is probably the one readers will be the least familiar with. Young Thug’s “Wyclef Jean” was a minor hit on the charts, and it was initially granted a music video budget to the tune of $100,000. The only problem was that Young Thug never showed up for any of the shoots. Over a series of explanatory title cards, director Ryan Staake’s music video for “Wyclef Jean” has very little to do with the song itself, but more has to do with the realistic challenges of filming a music video. Balancing out screaming label reps, Young Thug’s wishes for specific visuals, and the simple fact that when it came to shooting his scenes, Young Thug wasn’t there, “Wyclef Jean” will go down as one of the funniest music videos ever made. Staake’s text bumps are hilarious and self-deprecating, full of jokes, wry observations, and a real behind-the-scenes look at how videos are made (specifically when your star doesn’t show up, you might as well film some outrageous B-roll with the models). Staake notes near the end that one of his pitches for the video was to light the production budget on fire, but none of that matters now. Except for the fact that even by the time the song ends, we’re still watching, so maybe it wasn’t all for nothing. The result? Staake won the Video Music Award for Best Editing, and we’re still laughing over the fact that this meta clip even got released in the first place.
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Jay-Z “The Story of O.J.” (2017)
Record Label: Roc Nation / Universal
“4:44” was a remarkable late-stage album from Jay-Z, as after years of audacious rhymes and thrilling braggadocio, “4:44” painted him in a humble light, as he was reflecting, apologizing, and making amends for this past actions. The video for “The Story of O.J.”, co-directed by Jova himself and Mark Romanek, is done in the early Warner Bros. animation style, specifically evoking an era in which Black people were portrayed in horrifically stereotypical ways. “O.J.” embraces that style, casting Jay as “Jaybo,” who walks through various backdrops commenting on the Black experience, all while riding on that beat based on a wonderful Nina Simone sample.
The resulting clip is quite harrowing, taking us from slave ships to cotton fields and using the power of cartoons to push forth hard-to-swallow metaphors, like how all the cotton bundles loaded onto the Cotton Mill conveyor belts spit out nothing but hooded KKK members. We see Jaybo counting stacks of money at one point and Jaybo being lynched by the clip’s end. The animation style and the acts depicted within the clip are at odds with each other, giving viewers a brittle sense of tension that never once ebbs. Intensely controversial when it was released, “The Story of O.J.” is an argumentative video that doesn’t once apologize for its worldview. At this point in his career, Jay-Z doesn’t even care about making hits so much as being able to provoke and engage in a cultural dialogue. No matter what you think of it, there’s no denying that “The Story of O.J.” remains quite the conversation starter.
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Childish Gambino “This is America” (2018)
Record Label: RCA
Released right as he was finishing up his duties hosting an episode of “Saturday Night Live”, Donald Glover’s clip for the Childish Gambino song “This is America” took everyone by surprise. Through a series of elaborately choreographed long takes, a shirtless Glover is seen doing many viral meme dances with a group of young kids in a giant warehouse that is slowly descending into apocalyptic chaos. Cars are on fire, people are falling from rafters, horses are galloping by, and it’s Glover himself using a pistol to shoot a guitarist in the head and then an assault rifle to murder an entire backup choir. Frank in its violence and wry in its tone, “This is America” is a clip that sparked large-scale discussion the second it finished premiering. Speaking about gun violence in America, this promo (directed by Glover’s frequent collaborator Hiro Murai) is rife with metaphor: why are the guns being treated with more reverence than the bodies? Who are the people chasing after Glover at the very end? Why does all the chaos stop when he decides it’s time for a smoke? Endlessly debated even today, “This is America” was a true viral sensation that pushed the out-of-left-field song to the top of the charts, eventually winning every Grammy it was nominated for. Then, when it came to finally drop his fourth studio record, “This is America” wasn’t anywhere on the tracklist, making for a meteoric one-off unlike anything else out there. So instantly iconic this clip became, it’s nearly impossible to hear the song without thinking about its visual counterpart.
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FKA Twigs “Cellophane” (2019)
Record Label: Young Turks
Taking the lessons learned from a video innovator like Björk, FKA Twigs treats every promo as a challenge to outdo herself and give us something we have never seen before. Following a difficult experience with having fibroid tumors removed, FKA Twigs wanted to reclaim her body and her physicality, finding release in the form of pole dancing. For the promo of her haunting ballad of unrequited love “Cellophane”, she worked with frequent Björk collaborator Andrew Thomas Huang to craft a clip that is sexy, sad, and beautiful all at once. Performing for an undisclosed audience, Twigs’ dons stripper heels, and a gorgeous outfit reveal her muscular frame. Astoundingly flexible, her pole routine leads her to meet up with a multi-faced creature from the heavens, and after putting her heel in its mouth, she proceeds to spiral down to the underground before masked denizens cover her in clay.
It sounds strange on paper, but when married to her heartbreaking audio, “Cellophane” proves haunting and gutting, poetic and pointed, proving that sexy and sad can exist within one’s self at the same time. The song proved to be a critical breakthrough for Twigs, with the video even netting a Grammy nomination for Best Music Video. In 2021, Lil Nas X released his comic and controversial clip for “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)”, which had a sequence in which he too rides a stripper pole all the way down to hell. He, FKA Twigs, and Huang all shared social media posts acknowledging the clear line of inspiration between “Cellophane” and “Montero”. Both clips challenged conventions while proving to be iconic in the process. “Didn’t I do it for you?” Twigs pleads in her melody, but after watching “Cellophane”, it’s clear that she did it for us.