The idea of “music video” can mean a lot of things in 2013. On the internet, many of our most memorable experiences involving music and moving images have been fringey delights: An art-stunt of a late-night performance, a commercial that aired on a Coachella jumbotron, a spectacularly flubbed awards-show dive rendered in gif form. But the year has also been kind to the traditional music video, with directors like Nabil and Luke Monaghan coming further into their own and Western pop and rock music doing so well that I didn’t even see fit to include any K-pop. (Shout out to G-Dragon’s “Go,” though, which came close.) The videos below come from bazillionaire pop stars, scrappy indie bands, faceless studio entities, and after-school projects, and they are all great. Check out our list below.
25. Pusha T – “Numbers On The Boards” (Dir. So Me)
All rap videos should have this one’s senses of space and patience and restraint and atmosphere. Pusha T has a face that looks like it’s been carved from animated granite, and So Me knows that the best thing he can do is just leave the camera on that face for seconds at a time, that it’ll tell all the story he needs.
24. Bat For Lashes – “Lillies” (Dir. Peter Sluszka)
Expertly rendered euphoric dreamworld silliness. Those monsters are just adorable, and Natasha Khan projects all the same innocent wonder that Jennifer Connelly had when she entered her own dreamworld in Labyrinth.
23. Yo La Tengo – “I’ll Be Around” (Dir. Phil Morrison)
“Inspired by actual events,” reads the text on the screen near the beginning, and who knows, maybe it’s true. Maybe YLT’s old labelmate, Superchunk frontman Mac McCaughan, really did plaintively sing this song in the middle of the woods somewhere while old Yo La Tengo lyrics and tortilla soup recipes appeared from the ether around him. And maybe James McNew really did end up suddenly arrested for mysterious reasons during a peaceful Yo La Tengo band dinner. We really don’t know these guys that well.
22. Drake – “Started From The Bottom” (Dir. Director X & C. Papi)
Drake’s dancing next to the car: The reason gifs were invented. A ridiculous and disingenuous and fun and stylish celebration of Drake’s own self-confidence. This would be maybe five spots higher without that grating drug-store interlude.
21. Mikal Cronin – “Change” (Dir. Claire Marie Vogel)
We should all get to experience an ending this happy, at a party that looks like this much fun.
20. Disclosure – “You & Me” (Feat. Eliza Doolittle) (Dir. Luke Monaghan)
The people who tell you that your teenage years are the best of your life are obviously full of shit. But the people who say the same thing about your early 20s, when you’re in love and traveling across Europe, rapidly going broke, riding roller coasters and smacking each other with dildos and drinking flaming shots and doing flips off of things? Those people might be onto something.
19. Savages – “Shut Up” (Dir. Giorgio Testi)
If you’re trying to make a great music video, it’s probably not smart to just film a band playing live in a nightclub. But when you’re dealing with the severe knife-edge attack of Savages, it’s not just a smart approach; it might be the only one. Testi stays out of the band’s way, expertly cutting in all the right slow-mo scream-faces at all the right moments, elevating the song’s sense that something terrible could happen at any second.
18. Justin Timberlake – “Suit & Tie” (Feat. Jay-Z) (Dir. David Fincher)
Timberlake’s never needed much help in projecting dorked-out elegance, but he did have the resources and the instincts to recruit Fincher. Ever since making the switch from music videos to features, Fincher has used his remarkable geometric precision, his clear lines, to invoke ominous creep-out vibes. Here, though, they’re all flash and celebration, and they’re great for that too. We don’t get to see this level of glamor in music videos much anymore. We should appreciate it when it comes along.
17. Robin Thicke – “Blurred Lines” (Feat. T.I. & Pharrell) (NSFW) (Dir. Diane Martel)
A new apotheosis for corny middle-aged hornball rich-guy funk. Entire libraries of books have been dedicated to the plight of the corny middle-aged hornball rich guy, but T.I.’s dancing? That straw in Pharrell’s mouth? That thing Thicke does with his shoulders when he’s walking? It all looks pretty fun!
16. Mykki Blanco – “Kingpinning” (Dir. Clarence Fuller)
Look: It’s corny as fuck to talk about queer rappers like they’re all part of some trend army, but it’s still pretty striking to see someone apply ’90s floss-rap video flash to S&M-dungeon aesthetics, to make both cultures look like opposite sides of the same coin. And Blanco is an obvious star, a person who would demand attention even without everything else going on.
15. Atoms For Peace – “Ingenue” (Dir. Garth Jennings)
Here’s a recent development: We now get to watch Thom Yorke, happy and comfortable onscreen, dancing. We already got to see it once, in the “Lotus Flower” video, a couple of years ago, but now he’s reaching new levels of goofball expressiveness and holding his own with an actual professional dance artist. Is it remotely possible that we could get Yorke and T.I. into an on-camera old-man danceoff? Can somebody make that happen? Please?
14. Django Django – “WOR” (Dir. Jim Demuth)
The Place Beyond The Pines isn’t a great movie, but its opening scene is one for the ages: An endless tracking shot of Ryan Gosling, face-tatted and rat-tailed, slow-motion strutting through a carnival, past a screaming crowd, and into a motorcycle globe of death. This video is that scene, except real, in India, in a rickety wooden stadium, with an entire cast of psychopath heroes just as compelling as the Gosling character. The music is almost incidental, but the song’s headlong skeletal tension does help build the sense of exhilaration and add to the idea that someone could die at any second.
13. A$AP Rocky – “Wild For The Night” (Feat. Skrillex) (Dir. Chris Robinson & A$AP Rocky)
Once upon a time, cash-flush major labels would happily shell out seven figures to send, like, Mobb Deep down to some tropical country, along with a camera crew and a big-name director, to make a video. That doesn’t happen anymore. So it’s an uncommon joy to see Rocky, rap’s new king of silly-clothes glamor, getting the regal throwback treatment, with someone paying the guy who made ATL (good movie!) to film helicopter shots of a leggings-clad Rocky wilding out on a tin Dominican barrio rooftop. Also, if you can’t respect Skrillex’s spinkick game, I don’t know what to tell you.
12. The NSJ Crew – “Khaki Pants” (Dir. Ben Hughes)
The “My Bike” video is magical, too, but this one, with its school-uniform wilding and half-choreographed adorability, is the sort of thing that just makes me wish my generation was one tenth as cool as the one that produced this. Ben 10 is the early scene-stealer, but after way too many viewings, I can now report that dimpled wiseacre G6 is the one I’d most like to adopt. You think you’re fresher than him? Wake up from that dream.
11. Cold Mailman – “My Recurring Dream” (Dir. André Chocron)
A breathtakingly beautiful, impossibly precise fantasia of interconnected tracking shots, the sort of thing that just boggles the imagination. I have no idea how human beings could’ve planned something like this out and executed it, but here it is.
10. Foxygen – “San Francisco” (Dir. Cameron Dutra)
Foxygen’s retro-psych is stagey, fussy, impeccably designed, and attentive to the little minute details of its own aesthetic. And the same is true of this video, which casts the band members as characters in a Wes Anderson wonderland and gives them a certain stumbling-faun grace. If you’re a new band, a video like this announces you as a complete package, showing off that you have a completely developed aesthetic and you know exactly who you are. And in its way, that’s more important than any narrative explosives or eye-popping camera tricks.
9. Foals – “Late Night” (NSFW) (Dir. Nabil)
A series of hard, slow, bloody, sweaty soul-punches, in a Russian bar rendered with expertly crafted Edward Hopper atmosphere. Nabil knows what the fuck he’s doing. Those faces!
8. Kurt Vile – “Never Run Away” (Dir. HARRYS)
In which a slouching, angelic, blinding-white KV elects himself the poet laureate of Philly’s most beautifully dessicated ruins. I really thought that bus was going to flatten him for a second there.
7. Toro Y Moi – “Say That” (Dir. HARRYS)
Swear to god, I didn’t put this one back-to-back with “Never Run Away.” But Chaz Bundick and Kurt Vile have similar presences: Gawkily charismatic, awkward but slick, at home in their respective stillnesses. And the directing team HARRYS films both of them in that same ’70s analog glow, finding beauty in their isolation.
6. James Blake – “Overgrown” (Dir. Nabil)
It’s been a while since I’ve seen an entire horror movie with anything like this video’s sense of foreboding — or, for that matter, this video’s sense of dark, majestic beauty. Don’t let them take the ring, Frodo!
5. Kanye West – “New Slaves” (Dir. ?)
It’s the stare that gets me. The sheer mechanics of orchestrating this stunt, of projecting this little snatch of film across the world on the same night without letting anyone know beforehand, are staggering; Kanye’s event-making panache remains unrivaled in pop music. The song is incredible, too, and the dark-wet treatment that Kanye gave his skin drives its point home even harder. But the way Kanye looks when he isn’t rapping, when he’s motionless and just holding his gaze with absolute defiance, that’s why I keep running the YouTube clip back.
4. Cat Power – “Manhattan” (Dir. Chan Marshall & Greg Hunt)
Despite the pore-destroying subway-station air and the pervading summer garbage smell and the general near-impossible hassles of day-to-day life, or maybe sometimes because of those things, New York City, viewed in the right light, is the most beautiful place on this planet. Chan Marshall knows. As a former New York resident, I’ve never missed the city more than I do when I’m watching this video.
3. Beach House – “Wishes” (Dir. Eric Wareheim)
When the spirit of BOB possesses Leland Palmer, terrible things happen. But when Victoria Legrand creeps into his soul, the world becomes a whole lot more strangely beautiful. Nobody in the town of Twin Peaks can understand the singing or the horses or the pink fireworks or the rhythmic gymnasts, but everyone is just happy that nobody’s being horribly murdered.
2. Disclosure – “White Noise” (Feat. AlunaGeorge) (Dir. Luke Monaghan)
A welcome reminder that the right song can turn a shitty job and shittier surroundings into something transcendent. Also the best love story anyone has put on a screen this year.
1. Janelle Monáe – “Q.U.E.E.N.” (Feat. Erykah Badu) (Dir. Alan Ferguson)
On maybe my 50th viewing, I detected a slight plot hole: If they’re trying to keep the time-traveling rebels frozen in suspended animation, why would they have that skull-needle record player right there in the museum? That’s just inviting trouble. Otherwise, this is just pure liquefied molten starpower in video form, enough to melt your brain circuits. Even the backup dancers in this thing — like, the ones way on the edge of the frame — seem like they could stop a room by walking in. Even the editor deserves to be famous. Especially the editor deserves to be famous.