he music video may hardly be in top cultural form at the moment, with both the channels previously known as Music Television and Video Hits 1st becoming bigger misnomers by the day. But even if these previously monolithic video outlets don’t seem to care too much about spreading the gospel anymore, in actuality, possibilities for video watching are arguably greater than ever. Deluxe cable channels like MTV Jams and VH-1 Classic are living up to the 24-hour-a-day music promises previously made by their parent channels, and with larger and more diverse playlists than ever before. And far more miraculously, with the advent of YouTube, video freaks finally have the capabilities to view almost any video they want, whenever they want. Music video democracy is at an all-time high.
With that in mind, we here at Stylus have democratically selected our humble and largely unofficial picks for the 100 best videos ever made, and are presenting them here, fully equipped with YouTube links for your viewing pleasure. Our list spans over four decades of music videos, from Bob Dylan & D.A. Pennebacker’s arguable creation of the art form in 1965 right up to a barely month-old Hot Chip video by Garth Jennings. We’ll be unveiling 20 a day, so be sure to check back throughout the week to keep up. Relive some of your favorite music video memories, and hopefully make a few new ones as well, as we count down the greatest hits of the music video medium.
020. Talking Heads – “Once in a Lifetime”
(Dir. David Byrne & Toni Basil, 1980)
When it comes to music video performance, David Byrne is something of a nerdy Robert DeNiro, and “Once in a Lifetime” is his Raging Bull. He huffs, he puffs, and he generally freaks the fuck out, looking about four times as ragged as Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man (meaning he probably stayed up the last four nights straight before the shoot). Byrne is Jake LaMotta without an opponent, mentally and physically kicking his own ass as if the stress of the modern world had actually made him lose sense of his motor functions. And then comes the chorus, where Byrne surrenders completely, floating on a sea of blue screen and looking unsure as to whether he’s reached heaven or is merely stuck in limbo. Music video acting may have existed before “Once in a Lifetime,” but it’s Byrne that made it Strasberg worthy.
019. Juvenile – “Get Ya Hustle On”
(Dir. Ben Mor, 2006)
In the BBC’s miniseries Traffik, Fazal, a helpless Opium grower in rural Pakistan says to an British diplomatic visitor, “We just grow opium, it’s Europe that’s got the heroin problem.” Post-Katrina New Orleans and Juvenile paints a similar picture: a cheap, fractured suburban stone angel with a somber on-screen dedication gives way to the totems of gangsta life (SUV, limo, big house) smashed up and strewn between ditches, rivers, and fresh gulches. Horses pull the carcasses of dead, lost cars. Three young boys slowly peruse the wreckage and pull paper masks of Cheney, Nagin, and Bush with the message “HELP IS COMING” scrawled on the inside. Juve rattles off amoral survival instinct before plummeting the song into its most communal moment: a circle of dispossessed D-boys offering a dark, searing vision of post-Katrina reality, pantomiming crack preparation while singing what sounds like a feed-your-family nursery rhyme, “we take the Pyrex and we rock with it, roll with it!”
018. Smashing Pumpkins – “1979”
(Dir. Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Farris, 1996)
I was about ten years old when I first saw the video for “1979,” and I fully expected it to be a forecast of what the next ten years of my life were going to be like. Or, at least, I hoped as much. I couldn’t wait to skid my car in circles around parking lots, or to bowl with liquor bottles and soda 2-liters, or to throw all my friends’ patio furniture into their swimming pool (which I actually goaded a couple of my friends into doing once), or to go to the top of a big cliff overlooking my town and just flip them the big one. I doubt anyone ever has one night as ideal as this during their teenage years, but I only hope that when I think back on being eighteen a few decades from now, my memories will congeal into a Greatest Hits package like this. Billy Corgan can even ride in the back seat.
017. R.E.M. – “Losing My Religion”
(Dir. Tarsim, 1991)
Fans cited Caravaggio and Gabriel Garcia Marquez as referents in this beloved video, but, really, its most striking image is Michael Stipe, before canonization as Saint Hip of Baldness, doing the safety dance or something (hint: it involved twitching his elbows). Bill Berry glowers like he’s Charlie Watts and Stipe is Mick Jagger. A pink-mouthed youth, too pretty for rough trade, does a convincing Sebastian, although he looks annoyed rather than agonized by the arrows sticking out of him. As a visual representation of the most teasingly ambiguous hit song ever to hit the top five, it’s garish, a tenth-grader’s idea of surrealism; as a means of selling R.E.M. as four ugly men of mystery to a mass audience ready to welcome them, it was a gesture of consummate shrewdness.
016. The Chemical Brothers – “Star Guitar’
(Dir. Michel Gondry, 2002)
Director Michel Gondry took one of the oldest music clichés and wrote a symphony. He works with the gimmick of syncing supposedly candid moments of street life and the countryside to the music’s beat, but he makes it all look like a complete innovation. At first, it appears that nothing is going on. Through a moving train’s window, we first see a railroad crossing glide by right on the song’s beat, and then an identical one appears, and another as the rhythm quickens—an industrial European landscape becoming a musical instrument. Daylight suddenly fades into night and back to the sun again when a melody floats from the TV, a pedestrian walks by after each verse is sung, the window view flickers in perfect time to the Brothers’ chopped beats. The entire video plays tricks with the mind and reveals a new sight with every viewing. Well done.
015. Peter Gabriel – “Sledgehammer”
(Dir. Stephen R. Johnson, 1986)
Simply put, a work of absolute, cheeky genius. There’s a sense of childlike playfulness throughout, from the opening shots of blood pumping along to the music (What part of the body is that? Hmm.) to the literal manifestations of the countless sexual metaphors. Makes me laugh every time, especially during the lines “You could have a steam train / If you’d just lay down your tracks,” and “Show me round your fruit cage / Cause I will be your honeybee.” The impressive claymation and pixelation techniques gel perfectly with the playful atmosphere of the song while also expanding the boundaries of what a music video could be. I sometimes wonder if this video would air on MTV if it premiered nowadays, what with moral conservatism running rampant. Oh Peter Gabriel, we thought you were such a nice boy!
014. Beastie Boys – “Sabotage”
(Dir. Spike Jonze, 1994)
Spike Jonze’s talent for restaging the pop-culture crap of his childhood found its best expression in this video, in which the Beastie Boys make like Starsky and Hutch. Their Method seriousness would give Owen Wilson pause. Their hairpieces would be the envy of Robert Blake. Jonze’s frantic editing—you didn’t find that on “Beretta”—mistakenly creates the impression that “Sabotage” has a monster groove. In actuality, it’s closer to the Average White Band than Bad Brains, and I doubt the Beasties would get offended by that.
013. Bob Dylan – “Subterranean Homesick Blues”
(Dir. D.A. Pennebaker, 1967)
The hands down winner on this list for “artist who had the least fun making their video” (could Dylan look more bored?), and also probably a shoo-in in our “Least Precedented,” “Cheapest to Shoot,” and “Most Parodied” categories. This remains one of the simplest, strangest, and most indelible moments of Dylan’s career. He’s standing stage right, and his cue cards are as mixed and varied as his live renditions of the song. Allen Ginsberg seems to be having a blast, following his poet boy-toy around London. But this, as opposed to most of Dylan’s acting in the mid-60’s, was myth-making of the most passive order. Dylan was flippant, annoyed, even aggressive, and the scene seems glibly unscripted, even if you know that it was filmed three different times.
012. Pulp – “Bad Cover Version”
(Dir. Jarvis Cocker & Martin Wallace, 2002)
From Macca to Missy to Meatloaf, from Cher to Cobain to Cocker (!), celebrity impersonators get their comeuppance for one of Pulp's final singles. The song, of course, is about the lover that you jump to that's ever so slightly reminiscent of the one you've just lost. The video is one long sight gag riffing on celeb charity songs and the awkward and/or endearing quirks those crazy-famous mofos have, but the subtext is Pulp's own bizarre brush with the public eye—first we have a Cocker imitator and then Jarvis with a wig playing Brian May in the closing moments. What does it all mean? How the Hell should I know—how in the world did Pulp ever get big to begin with?
011. Fiona Apple – “Criminal”
(Dir. Mark Romanek, 1997)
Questions. It’s all you have after seeing the Mark Romanek directed video for Fiona Apple’s “Criminal.” Just who is the criminal here? Why is everyone half naked? Why does she have red eyes—are we taking pictures too? Why am I completely repulsed and strangely attracted to this person that hides in a closet and seems to have an eating disorder? What are those people doing swimming in that dolphin tank? Why are those stuffed animals staring at me? Whose foot is she trying to eat? Why is she in my parent’s rec room? What’s up with that TV that appears out of the floor? Who put oranges in the bathtub? What’s up with the car’s engine? Why does she squeeze that bottle with the soap? Oh. Ohhh.
010. Dr. Dre f/ Snoop Dogg – “Nuthin’ But a “G” Thang”
(Dir. Andre Young, 1993)
In late 1992, Dr. Dre & Snoop Doggy Dogg (as he shall forever be known by me) unleashed the “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang” video, and before you could say “one, two, three an’ to the four,” rap was forever changed. “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang” invited kids previously terrified by Gangsta Rap to the after-party for the first time, where they could just chill till the next episode. It wasn’t good time-y, but good times were certainly had—who wouldn’t want to chill with Dre and Snoop for a barbeque, go cruising down Crenshaw in a drop-top and spray the snotty girl at the party with some shook up St. Ides? But Dre saves the best shot for last, as an obviously inebriated Snoop Dogg gets dropped off and stumbles back to his house, the newly risen sun shining bright into the camera, and you know it’s just a matter of hours before they get up and do it all over again.
009. Daft Punk – “Around the World”
(Dir. Michel Gondry, 1997)
In a genre strewn with videos that sought to recreate Microsoft Screen Savers, Daft Punk’s decision to hire prominent music video directors for the singles of their seminal Homework album was sort of a revolution in and of itself. Following up Spike Jonze’s dog-with-a-boombox treatment of “Da Funk,” the two French robots tapped Michel Gondry. His idea? A cornucopia of Halloween costumes, each signifying one of the five elements of the song: drum machine (mummies), vocoder (robots), guitar (skeletons), bass (those weird tall guys with small heads), and synth (what Gondry termed “disco girls”), all dancing in front of the blinking disco lights set up by Gondry’s brother—a long-time collaborator. Gondry calls it one of his favorite videos that he has done. It’s also one of dance music’s most epochal.
008. Jay-Z – “99 Problems”
(Dir. Mark Romanek, 2004)
There’s so much wound into such a brief space here that it practically has to be cut down frame by frame to be analyzed. The most startling and memorable—the costumed dancer in the tunnel, the man holding the urn among the coffins—are further underscored by the jarring contrast between the jumpy, canted action shots and the smooth close-ups on people’s faces. The rest of the world might take umbrage at the New-York-is-all universality of human experience on display, but the only reason that Spike Lee-style NY-centricity fits at all is because it unquestionably suits Jay-Z. If Public Enemy was the ideal soundtrack for the colorful but angry “Do the Right Thing,” then Black Album-era Jay-Z is the music that could match The 25th Hour—dark, fuming, fearless, and held back only by its inability to single out a clear enemy from a crowd of people whose problems all seem too numerous to count.
007. Bjork – “All Is Full of Love”
(Dir. Chris Cunningham, 1999)
Its sound, its process, its arrangements, everything about Homogenic suggests its music should be cold and detached, emotionally devoid. And yet … and yet, as we’ve all surely come to experience, it is without question one of the most affecting albums you or I may ever hear. So for all that is made of the truly incredible and fruitful collaborative relationship between Bjork and Michel Gondry, it is Chris Cunningham, with his clip for “All Is Full of Love,” who visually perfectly captures Homogenic’s deceptive essence. With robots borne straight from Asimov’s own waking dreams, Cunningham, using little more than shadows and shades of whites and blacks and silvers, crafts an authentic and pure sensuality where none should conceivably exist. What results is one of the most visually stunning and deeply affecting music videos you or I may ever see.
006. The Replacements – “Bastards of Young”
(Dir. Unknown, 1985)
To a certain mindset, this is the Best Video Of All Time: One simple shot of an speaker, slowly pulling out to show the rest of the stereo and a bit of a rundown living room. Eventually someone comes in, sits down and smokes a cigarette, but the camera stays where it was—we barely see the guy. The sheer perversity of the video's lethargy in the face of the power of the music, its refusal to engage in the fledgling tropes of the medium, is still compelling today. Although it was created out of a disdain for MTV that seems woefully old fashioned now, it was also one of the first clips to show us that you didn't have to stick to the band playing, or even to anything involving the song, to make for riveting viewing.
005. Radiohead – “Just”
(Dir. Jamie Thraves, 1995)
To this day, some 11 years after it first appeared, you can go to any Radiohead message board, chat room or forum in the known universe, and somewhere, likely on the first page, will be that one question that has vexed so many—“What does the guy say at the end of the ‘Just’ video?” It is our generation’s version of “I buried Paul,” but for all director Jamie Thraves or anyone in the band has ever revealed, he may as well be saying “cranberry sauce” too. Whenever he’s been asked what few words compel the video’s hero to disconnect from the surrounding world and plop himself down on the pavement, Thom Yorke insists he’ll never tell. Most likely Yorke doesn’t know the phrase himself, as the ensuing decade has seen Radiohead striving with their music to solve just that kind of riddle themselves.
004. A-Ha – “Take on Me”
(Dir. Steve Barron, 1985)
Iconic. It's really the only sure way to describe the video for "Take on Me," one of the earliest examples of how an MTV clip propelled a song from being nothing to enumerating everything. It's also the first time I ever saw a video that depicted an actual story, or at least that curtailed montage techniques together to form some kind of narrative, albeit one of a fantastically Swedish bent. From the eyebrows-appealingly-raised initiation to the Pinocchio hammering-on-the-door-of-life finale, it also marks the debut of a love affair brought from contemplation to consummation in three minutes and 45 seconds time. The life-into-animation-into-life analogy and windswept 80's pencil drawings may have aged, but the neo-classical sentiments enshrined in "Take on Me" remain as a virtual bible of the video age.
003. Joy Divison – “Atmosphere”
(Dir. Anton Corbijn, 1988)
It’s a funeral of mourning and slapstick. Children or midgets dressed in Druid robes conduct the ceremony on a beach, and waddle around carrying a church steeple and iconic photographs of St. Ian Curtis. The first impression is that director Anton Corbjin made a tasteless tribute to Joy Division’s late singer and drifter of Britain’s post-industrial wasteland. Yet, the band’s brooding, hymnal melodies and tribal, danse macabre rhythms still takes hold of the viewer, and the visuals soon make sense. Corbjin lets the music flow with the gritty, decayed black and white cinematography, and he only displays the band and Curtis in still photographs, as if Joy Division is just a fading memory. Corbijn beautifully captures the moment when you lose a loved one, and you walk outside to see everything around you in stinging detail. Unforgettable.
002. Johnny Cash – “Hurt”
(Dir. Mark Romanek, 2003)
“You stay the hell away from me, you hear?” Even before American Recordings proved it beyond all doubt, JC' was a man with two careers in parallel: one bringing the poignancy, the other novelty tunes like “One Piece at a Time,” and that one where he does an impression of a guy being hung. So how better to close his career than by dovetailing the two: a novelty cover version paired with a video featuring poignancy laid on so thick as to crush your heart through sheer persistence. Cash as Jesus, Cash as the pouting rebel, Cash the American, Cash as America personified, Cash the husband, Cash the man in black, Cash the guy who sold records in their droves, Cash the lonely, scared, dying old man. It's hard to imagine there could have been a better way to close the piano lid on his career.
001. U.N.K.L.E. f/ Thom Yorke – “Rabbit in Your Headlights”
(Dir. Jonathan Glazer, 1998)
The first time I saw “Rabbit in Your Headlights” was during the full light of day, with friends, only paying half attention—I believe we laughed as the decrepit, muttering vagrant walking through an underpass was creamed by passing cars only to stumble to his feet again. The second time I saw the video it was late and I was alone; as it started I settled in for some prime comedy. But this time, actually watching the man's progress, it wasn't funny. It was sad and powerful and strangely damning; like Philip K. Dick's invented religion of Mercerism, it's hard to escape the impression that the muttering man is suffering for our catharsis. And then there's the end of the video, the part no-one forgets. As with the rest of “Rabbit in Your Headlights” it's utterly cryptic and undeniably powerful, stretching towards transcendence in a beautifully shot shower of broken glass and metal like some kind of weird apotheosis. It's almost impossible to say what it means, but it's equally hard to find someone who can watch it, really watch it, and remain unmoved.
By: Stylus Staff
Published on: 2006-07-21