Music videos are art forms in their own right – an amalgamation of a director’s vision, a musician’s performance, and an immersive experience for the audience. MTV built the platform in the ’80s. Michael Jackson, Madonna, and a-Ha capitalized on the medium. But I think the ’90s really took advantage of the resources and stretched their potential into all sorts of interesting audiovisual shapes. TRL inflated the music video into a commercial spectacle. Big budgets and big cameos. And then the Internet decimated the playing field, which has led to more creative approaches under tighter means. With accessible equipment, editing software, and YouTube, the music video is hitting a new stride. Tsunamis of music videos now – good, bad, and ugly. But, rarely great.
Which led me to wax nostalgic about my favorite music videos of all time. These aren’t necessarily my favorite songs or my favorite artists. They may not even be my favorite genres. These are just the films that have stayed with me since I was a kid, and have shaped the emotion, appreciation, and capabilities of the Music Video.
1. “November Rain” – Guns N’ Roses
Is this the best music video of all time? I thought so in 1991, and still think so today. It’s an epic love story, full of triumph, tragedy, and Stephanie Seymour’s getaway sticks. You could never imagine a label greenlighting the pricetag on this blockbuster today, but how could you say no to Slash’s guitar solo against the lonely church? We paid homage to this video with a T-shirt last year, and nobody cared – or remembered. “Nothing lasts forever.”
2. “Smack my Bitch Up” – Prodigy
There’s nothing that sticks with you like a powerful twist ending. O.Henry knew it, so did M.Night Shyamalan, and the writer of the Crying Game. This is the best in music video form.
3. Every Björk video ever
I can’t choose one. I’d like to choose all. I can end with the superfuturistic “All is Full of Love” or the Kricfalusi-animated “I Miss You.” But shall we begin with the more simple and straightforward “Big Time Sensuality” to state that in the end, it’s really not all the pomp and production, it’s just the power of Björk?
4. Every Beastie Boys video ever
The kings of the music video. They deserve all the praise. I know you want me to say “Sabotage” or “Intergalactic,” but I’m gonna go with “So What Cha Want,” because it inspired a generation of pre-X-Games snowboarders, skaters, and Southern Californian suburban youth. Like me!
5. “What You See is What You Get” – Xzibit
Xzibit? There was a time when X was a pugnacious lyricist, down with Tha Liks, generating a solid buzz in the hip-hop underground. This video is highly underrated in the rap annals, and I think it’s time we pay our respects. Gotta remember, this was long before the growling emcee was cartoonized on Pimp My Ride, and had the streets on lock. Case in point:
6. “California” – Wax
I could make an entire Spike Jonze list here. But this was his finest:
7. “Earl” – Earl Sweatshirt
This is what put Odd Future on everyone’s radar. And it was all so simple and authentic! You can see how generations of Jackass/CKY, skate video antics, and indie hip-hop attitude collide in this low-budget, high-shock, short doc on Fairfax’s Little Rascals. It seemingly came out of nowhere, the music industry was befuddled, and tastemakers worldwide were trying to claim first. A great example of how the unheard youth used whatever resources they had to grab the world’s attention.
8. “New Noise” – Refused
One of the only videos on the list that doubles as one of my favorite songs. There’s not much I can say here without gushing. It’s beautiful and chaotic. It’s exciting and weird. There’s so much spirit and rawness. It’s just…cool. So cool.
9. “Bad Girls” – M.I.A.
Only M.I.A. can enter a world so fantastic and unreal and make it totally her own.
10. “Hurt” – Johnny Cash
You could know nothing about Johnny Cash, watch this entire video on the eve of his death, and fall in love with his story. I don’t think any other music video has captured the essence of life, in all its complexities and rigors, as does this NIN-cover.
11. “We Found Love” – Rihanna
Yeah! Rihanna! “We Found Love” is a phenomenal pop song, but it’s the video that I always turn to. It captures the 2010s exactly – the Instagram filter colors, the festival hipster tones, the projected clouds and drug-addled-edits – against the backdrop of our generation’s Ike/Tina affair.
12. “Triumph” – Wu-Tang Clan
This video is almost 20 years old and it’s still as aggressive and gully as EVER. Wu-Tang FOREVER. That is all.
13. “Scream” – Michael and Janet Jackson
How can you watch this video and not get excited? Both Jackson siblings in their prime; both on top of the world. It was like the ’90s’ rendition of Batman vs. Superman.
14. “Rabbit in your Headlights” – UNKLE
Legendary artist(s) (UNKLE). Perfect album (Psyence Fiction) and album art (Futura). And the lead single is regarded as the best music video in history within journalists’ circles. Thom Yorke’s brooding vocals swing around on top of a dark and weighty picture – you have to see this to believe it.
15. “Mo Money Mo Problems” – BIG
As I was saying, the ’90s took the music video to new heights, from a production and cinematic standpoint. Almost like how the urban streetwear industry was knocking out $2Million tradeshow booths, hip-hop was dumping just as much into their music videos. The pinnacle may have been the posthumous “Mo Money Mo Problems” by the Notorious B.I.G. Puff Daddy and Ma$e take the lead and skyrocket into the mainstream stratosphere with the celebratory rap anthem of the mid-’90s.
16. “Wild Heart” (improv in the makeup room) – Stevie Nicks
I wish I knew the backstory here, but maybe it’s more magical without one. Stevie Nicks croons “Wild Heart” backstage somewhere as her makeup girl tries desperately to get her ready. It’s almost as if Nicks can’t control herself, seized with the spirit to sing. What really makes this moment is the sense of voyeurism we have as YouTube viewers decades later. What was an invisible memory for a select few is now on the stage for all to see. It’s beautiful and permanent because it was pure and unknowing. Will we ever have anything like this again?
17. “Nuthin’ but a G Thang” – Dr. Dre f/ Snoop Doggy Dogg
Oh man. When this video debuted. Man…
It was dangerous. It was real (you can tell in Snoop’s awkwardness on camera). And it was all about attitude. This video is what makes me miss the days when Dre wasn’t a buff billionaire and Snoop wasn’t a rich rastafarian. Nothing would make me happier to see the two back in starched Dickies and white snapbacks.
18. “Pursuit” – Gesaffelstein
Eh… I don’t even know how to explain this one. Just watch it.
19. “Institutionalized“- Suicidal Tendencies
Venice Beach skateboarding white kids dressed as gangster cholos playing metal/punk about parental issues might seem like a very 2015 idea, but this was the early ’80s, and it was very much a thing. We’re coming off the heels of the Z-Boys, at the crossroads of street culture, and dare I say the birthing grounds of what would later become rap-rock? I at least think I can say that the modern idea of Southern California Streetwear was planted here. Anyway, the video has it all – teen angst, humor, and the immortal Venice lifestyle.
20. “All Falls Down” – Kanye West
Kanye West has had hit after hit, but I’m gonna stick my neck out here and say his music videos haven’t garnered the same type of notoriety or success. That being said, “All Falls Down” is my personal favorite Kanye video. If you haven’t noticed already (from the “Smack My Bitch Up” nomination and the one video on this list that I directed myself), I’m a big fan of the first-person video perspective. Or maybe I just love this video for the obvious: a braless, distressed Stacey Dash bouncing around in a baby blue dress.
21. “Bad Romance” – Lady Gaga
What’s going on with Gaga? I’ve always professed my adoration for the pop queen (yes, I’m claiming early-adopter status on Lady Gaga here). I’m drawn to – and inspired by – massive music artists, pairing unlimited budgets with unlimited ego and unlimited creativity. Lady Gaga defines this trifecta here:
22. “Waiting Room” (LIVE) – Fugazi
This isn’t a music video, but a live performance, and maybe my favorite at that. The thing with punk and hardcore/punk music is that you can’t totally appreciate it without attending a live show. This is the closest most of you will get to a Fugazi concert, and may it make a believer out of you.
23. “I’m the One” – Descendents
The ’90s punk scene made music videos the same way many Internet artists do today – without money. Maybe someone had access to a fisheye lens. Maybe they could cast friends as extras. The results were a uniform theme of spastic cuts, bleached-haired girls in ringer tees, and kooky narratives involving band members in backyards.
24. “Cannonball” – The Breeders
The ’90s grunge/rock scene had more toys to play with, but without much of a precedent, their videos became a collage of early editing gimmicks and analog resourcefulness. This is one of my favorite songs by one of my favorite bands ever. The result? One of my favorite videos.
25. “REAL RSWD” – Alexander Spit
Disclaimer: I directed this one. Wink.
Would love to hear your opinion.. Which ones did I miss? Leave ’em below…