Back when MTV was still “about the music, man” they helped bring a new storytelling apparatus to the masses: the music video. Occasionally criticized by film school teachers and ex-VJs as being “the lowest form of art,” they enjoyed a steady boom through the ’80s and ’90s. The bands got more famous, and the world got more Carson Daly. Less prevalent, and certainly less recognizable in a modern television landscape, today’s music videos are quickly forgotten unless they’re offensive.
Launching in 1981, MTV solidified the budding relationship between directors and musicians. Earlier releases like Pink Floyd’s legendary The Wall proved the endeavor was a worthy one, the medium was capable of infusing even more power into the songs themselves. So powerful, in fact, that their song and video “Another Brick In The Wall” was banned in South Africa after becoming a prominently recognized protest song. Other communities insist that watching The Wall is a rite of passage: revolutionaries, musicians, stoners, and those art kids from High School.
In 1982, Michael Jackson released renowned album “Thriller”, and in 1983 its video. Sitting at 13 minutes long, it is widely haled as the best music video of all time, period- and it’s not hard to see why. It’s production is the result of a star-studded collaboration including director John Landis, Vincent Price, special effects make-up wizard Rick Baker, and costume designer Deborah Nadoolman Landis- who is also responsible for Indiana Jones’ iconic hat and jacket. Traditional filmmaking techniques adapted for the musical medium were monumental in catapulting music videos into the mainstream.
In 1985 the pride of Norway, A-ha, released their Steve Barron-directed video for the ever-so-catchy “Take On Me” and audiences lost their collective mind. They were just getting used to the idea of music videos in the first place, so when an animated one came along, it got played a lot. Created using a method called rotoscoping, the illustrated sequences were labor intensive, hand drawn, and it took 16 weeks to complete.
Since those three important videos were made, there have been a whole slew of others – some good, some not – to hit the airwaves. Narrowing the field to 12 was hard enough, and ranking them would be impossible. In no particular order, here are our favorites since the dawn of MTV!
12. Pearl Jam – Do The Evolution
Album: Yield, 1998
Perpetual optimists grate on the nerves of even the most patient among us. Thankfully, we have Pearl Jam’s video for “Do The Evolution” to remove what little positivity still exists on this planet. Co-created by Kevin Altieri (Batman: The Animated Series) and Todd McFarlane (Spawn), the story follows a Death as she dances her way through mankind’s worst atrocities. Images of slavery, the Holocaust, capitalism, industrialization, and a villainous technocracy flash before your eyes as Eddie Vedder shrieks in the third person that “it’s evolution, baby.” Politicians, priests, and presidents are all shown manipulating the eager masses.
11. Björk – It’s Oh So Quiet
Album: Post, 1995
How often have you found yourself in public, remembering your favorite musical and thinking “I wish these strangers would burst into synchronized choreography!”? All the time? Us too.
Björk gets to live that life in the Spike Jonze-directed “It’s Oh So Quiet.” Released in 1995, the song is a cover of an earlier version recorded by Betty Hutton in 1951. She jigs with an anthropomorphic mailbox, gets trapped in a revolving door, and shushes her way down the street while dodging umbrella-wielding dancers.
For many audiences, this video was their first exposure to the eccentric Icelandic singer-songwriter, and they liked what they saw, earning this video a few award nominations. If viewers were still unfamiliar with Björk, they’d soon be able to identify her as “the one who wore a swan on the Oscars red carpet,” which would act as Halloween fodder for years to come.
10. Daft Punk – Around The World
Album: Homework, 1997
Daft Punk are musical mathematicians who continue to collaborate with creative minds to this day. In 1997 they worked with director Michael Gondry when it came time to release a video for their single “Around The World.” Featuring dancers dressed as skeletons, swimmers, robots, athletes, and mummies, it has a simple concept: the movement of each group represents an element of the song. They dance together on a record-shaped stage and literally show the audience what the music sounds like. Believing that dance should be the focal point and not an accessory, Gondry envisioned a simple approach to camera work and set design: no quick cuts, minimal distraction from the dance.
The performers are perfectly coordinated, and the resulting video is an ocular delight. Daft Punk are not unfamiliar with the relationship between music and video, and in the years since have been involved with original scores, including one for Tron: Legacy.
9. Peter Gabriel – Sledgehammer
Album: So, 1986
Claymation, stop motion animation, and pixilation converge in the infamous Stephen R. Johnson video for Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer.” A true labor of love for everyone involved, the shoot required Gabriel himself to lie under a sheet of glass for hours on end while the crew meticulously arranged the props from shot to shot. Noted across music publications for being hugely influential, the video swept up nine of MTV’s Video Music Awards, one Brit Award, and was nominated in the inaugural Soul Train Awards season.
The company responsible? Aardman Animations- who would later animate Wallace and Gromit, Shaun the Sheep, shorts, games, and advertisements. So far, they’ve won four Academy Awards for excellence in the field.
8. The White Stripes – Fell In Love With A Girl
Album: White Blood Cells, 2001 (video 2002)
Director Michael Gondry returns to this list with the video that put The White Stripes on the map, “Fell In Love With A Girl,” a single from their 2001 album White Blood Cells. Simply acting on what we all know to be true (that Lego is cool and you can do anything with it), Gondry uses it in a way that hadn’t been seen before. Like all great creations, people are still asking themselves why they didn’t think of it first. Pitchfork liked the video so much that they named it the best video of the decade.
Production was scrupulous and complex, but the final product is a fun visual laid overtop a hard-chugging, rock powerhouse of a song; a pretty honest representation of what The White Stripes are all about. One of their first hits, the video for “Fell In Love With A Girl” spread like wildfire, and launched Jack & Meg White into the musical forefront.
7. Jamiroquai – Virtual Insanity
Album: Traveling Without Moving, 1996
Jamiroquai enjoyed massive success for years in and around Europe, but for many in the west, their first experience was with the video for “Virtual Insanity.” Singer Jay Kay grooves around a modern grey room, singing at the camera from under his trademark ridiculous hat. As the sequence progresses the floor appears to move, sliding the furniture and Jay Kay around the room. The secret? The room’s walls were attached to each other but not the floor, allowing director Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast) to achieve the illusion of a shifting architectural underbelly. Any stationary furniture appeared that way because it was bolted to the walls.
Jay Kay and his fuzzy hat took home 4 MTV VMA’s for “Virtual Insanity,” and Jamiroquai enjoyed a brief surge in fame when their song “Canned Heat” was used during the legendary end dance of Napoleon Dynamite.
6. Ok Go – White Knuckles
Album: Of the Blue Color of the Sky, 2010
OK Go is a band hellbent on making the coolest music videos in existence. They’ve performed tandem treadmill routines, constructed labyrinthine optical illusions, dabbled in Rube Goldberg machines, and are a living testament to the glory of the GoPro. Experts agree that training one dog is hard, but training twelve dogs (and one goat) is impossible… but OK Go don’t understand the meaning of the word “impossible.”
The expertise on-screen (and off) in “White Knuckles” is outstanding. Using a combination of highly-trained rescue dogs and their highly-trained trainers, the band, along with director Trish Sie, choreographed a very specific canine routine that had even the most confident handlers skeptical. One of the crew discovered that the dogs responded most accurately when queued with a cheese-smeared tennis ball, and with a lot of reinforcement, were able to get a flawless, single-shot performance out of them.
5. God Lives Underwater – From Your Mouth
Album: Life In The So-Called Space Age, 1998
There are two people who look good when they eat: Brad Pitt and Japanese hot-dog eating champion Hirofumi Nakajima. The rest of us look like animals. When Roman Coppola (son of Francis Ford Coppola) agreed to direct the video for “From Your Mouth” by little-known band God Lives Underwater, he knew the talent pool of captivating diners was shallow. It’s unknown if Coppola approached Pitt about the video, but Nakajima nailed the audition.
Another single-shot music video, it plays in reverse as Nakajima eats various foods laid out on the table in front of him. If it sounds a little basic, a little “on the nose,” that’s because it is. Simple and satisfying, it is downright cool to see someone reverse speed-eat enough food for an entire family. And consider this: Nakajima ate that same spread six times in a row before Coppola got the take he wanted.
4. Weezer – Buddy Holly
Album: Weezer (a.k.a. The Blue Album), 1994
Spike Jonze is back with another hit, this time in the form of his collaboration with Weezer and their retro offering “Buddy Holly.” A miracle of editing, the band only needed one day to film their scenes, the rest was archive footage of the show that (re)introduced the world to The Fonz of Happy Days fame. Complete with an interlude and a laugh track, the video was included on the Windows 95 release CD where it first reached audiences. Having worked with the band on their earlier video for “Undone (The Sweater Song)” Jonze was able to highlight Weezer’s goofy side. Some argue that frontman Rivers Cuomo takes himself too seriously, but “Buddy Holly” begs to differ.
Sometimes referred to as “The Blue Album,” Weezer bolstered the band’s fanbase, many of whom lost interest when they released their next album, Pinkerton. Today, however, some critics are eating their words, and regard Weezer as being criminally underrated during the early part of their career.
3. Queens Of The Stone Age – Go With The Flow
Album: Songs For The Deaf, 2002
Don’t call the video for Queens of the Stone Age’s “Go With The Flow” a “cartoon.” It’s a sexy cartoon. Created by the geniuses over at London-based Shynola, the video tells the story of the greatest rock’n roll car accident (Rock’n’rollover?) ever drawn. Two vehicles race through the desert toward each other in a game of chicken, with one truck carrying the good guys, and one the bad. Occasionally the action shifts to a bikini-clad lady who swirls her hips and taunts us from behind the screen. It’s provocative, groovy and aggressive all at once, and perfect for a band like Queens of the Stone Age.
Composed of only red, white, and black segments, the likenesses are spot on despite Shynola’s minimalistic final product; no easy feat. The company has since worked on videos for Beck, ads for Honda and Playstation, and a handful of feature film title sequences.
2. Nirvana – Smells Like Teen Spirit
Album: Nevermind, 1991
Right from the opening riff, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” will sink its claws into your eardrums, and it won’t let go. The “anthem for apathetic teens” is still the song of choice for the rowdy youths of today. The accompanying video was a first for director Samuel Bayer. Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain wanted someone fresh to direct the project, but was not satisfied with Bayer’s final cut, and rearranged the footage to be in line with his own vision.
Set at a poorly lit high school pep rally, the band performs alongside anarchist cheerleaders to a collection of spiritless onlookers. Dave Grohl’s lengthy mane swirls around his head in slow motion, Cobain screams at the camera, and the audience are suddenly on their feet. Restless after an entire day of sitting still, the extras were happy to mosh around, and even took it upon themselves to trash the set.
1. Beastie Boys – Sabotage
Album: Ill Communication, 1994
Third time’s a charm for director Spike Jonze and his throwback to the forgotten world of 1970s cop dramas. The Beastie Boys are known for their unique approach to music, and their video for 1994’s “Sabotage” compliments their style. Mike D, MCA, and Ad-Rock are badass cops going about their badass day, getting from place to place in the most badass way. Complete with wigs, fake mustaches, and killer stunt work, “Sabotage” is a treat for the eyes and a favorite around Screen Rant.
During the MTV awards season, Sabotage was unsuccessful in securing any VMA’s. Pissed off, MCA interrupted one of acceptance speeches being given and expressed the extent of his pain. It was a Kanye move in a pre-Kanye world. In 2009 MTV finally handed them an apology trophy for “Sabotage,” Best Video (That Should Have Won A Moonman).
What do you think our list? Did we miss any of your favorites? Let us know about them in the comments below!