MTV has been putting its MTV Video Music Awards on TV for 30 years now, even though the network has only really cared much about airing music videos for maybe half that time. And every year, the network hands out its big Video Of The Year trophy, picking a winner through some mysterious process. The criteria seem to change every year: actual merit, overwhelming popularity, moment-defining iconography, vague ideas of prestige, weird back-room deals, the desire to get the winning artist into the room to accept the award on camera, who the hell knows. This year, Iggy Azalea, Beyoncé, Miley Cyrus, Sia, and Pharrell actually make for one of the strongest and most wide-open Video Of The Year fields in recent years, and they’ll all fight it out on Sunday. Over the past three decades, plenty of amazing videos have won the big award, but a handful of terrible videos have, too. Michael Jackson and Prince and Nirvana and Guns N’ Roses never won the award. Madonna and Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake did win, but they were all past their peaks when they pulled it off. Eminem somehow won two, despite his videos being mostly godawful. Spike Jonze and Michael Gondry and Hype Williams may be the greatest music-video directors in history, but none of the videos they’ve directed has ever won. We’ve ranked the past 30 years of winners for you, and please note that the rankings judge the quality of the video only, not the songs or the artists.
30. R.E.M. – “Losing My Religion” (Dir. Tarsem Singh) (1991)
The story we’ve been taught is that Nirvana wiped the hair bands from the face of the earth and singlehandedly made it safe for alt-rock. If that’s true, though, then R.E.M. must’ve made the world safe for Nirvana, by selling a bajillion copies of Out Of Time before Nevermind landed. The “Losing My Religion” video marked the first time Michael Stipe agreed to lip-sync for a camera. But his efforts, and his terrible spazzy dancing, are wasted on this pretentious snooze of a video, with its high-art leanings and its near-motionless Caravaggio tableaux. C+C Music Factory and Deee-Lite must’ve canceled each other out in the voting that year.
29. Justin Timberlake – “Mirrors” (Dir. Floria Sigismondi) (2013)
Endless self-serious boringness that only misses the bottom spot because Timberlake is a better dancer than Michael Stipe. Not even the best video Timberlake released that year. An indefensible choice. (Notable loser that year: Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.”)
28. Green Day – “Boulevard Of Broken Dreams” (Dir. Samuel Bayer) (2005)
This video has Green Day walking through the desert and then playing in a room full of holes. That’s it. That’s your video. And it’s not even a real desert; it’s a rear projection of a desert. Plenty of videos are this boring, but most videos this boring don’t win the Video Of The Year trophy. (Notable losers that year: Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks,” Snopp Dogg’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot.”)
27. Eminem – “The Real Slim Shady” (Dir. Phillip Atwell & Dr. Dre) (2000)
The scenes in the Eminem factory work as sly comments on the man’s blooming mega-fame, and we can credit Em with being game enough to dress up like Britney Spears or like a superhero with his plastic butt hanging out. But Kathy Griffin and Fred Durst cameos? The Burger King loogie scene? The color scheme that’s like Green Day’s “Basket Case” video but somehow uglier? Yee. And the face Em makes when he interrupts the gay wedding has aged worse than any other single thing on this list, Michael Stipe’s dancing included. (Notable losers that year: D’Angelo’s “Untitled [How Does It Feel?],” ’N Sync’s “Bye Bye Bye.”)
26. Neil Young – “This Note’s For You” (Dir. Julien Temple) (1989)
A fascinating historical footnote: A video that MTV initially banned, going on to win its biggest annual award. Still, it’s pretty fucked up that Michael Jackson never won a Video Of The Year award but this video for this marginal Neil Young song, which mocks Jackson’s hair-burning accident, scored one. The way the clip mocks MTV icons and then-current commercials must’ve seemed deeply subversive in 1989, but these days, it plays like a work of intense boomer anxiety, and Young’s holier-than-thou schtick hasn’t aged as well as the people he was mocking at the time. (Notable losers that year: Madonna’s “Like a Prayer,” Michael Jackson’s “Leave Me Alone.”)
25. Eminem – “Without Me” (Dir. Joseph Khan) (2002)
A slight improvement on the “Real Slim Shady” video, mostly because it’s fun to see Dr. Dre as Batman. (Hey, Dr. Dre is a muscled-up billionaire now! He could be Batman if he wanted to!) Still, the constant context-free pop culture references and the Z-grade celebrity cameos and the grossout jokes (Em licks a turd!) make this the music-video equivalent of one of those utterly half-assed Date Movie-style parody debacles. One of Em’s best singles deserved better. (Notable loser that year: the White Stripes’ “Fell In Love With A Girl.”)
24. Panic! At The Disco – “I Write Sins Not Tragedies” (Dir. Shane Drake) (2006)
How in the fuck is this video on this list? The MySpace Emo era deserves a better legacy than this one. Was 2006 really this bad? (Actually, yes. Yes it was.) The video at least has fun with its dumber-than-dirt mimes-invade-a-wedding conceit. But at the moment, this stands as the last time a rock band won the big trophy, which seems wrong on about every level. (Notable loser that year: Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie,” I guess? This was a bad year.)
23. Katy Perry – “Firework” (Dir. Dave Meyers) (2011)
Katy Perry comforts the sick and hopeless by shooting sparks out of her boobs. I still can’t believe this was ever a real thing. (Notable loser that year: Tyler, The Creator’s “Yonkers.”)
22. INXS – “Need You Tonight/Mediate” (Dir. Richard Lowenstein) (1988)
I might argue that “Need You Tonight” is the single best song that ever won one of these awards. Still, this is fairly rote and unremarkable performance video, with some light animation, which mostly just succeeds because 1988 Michael Hutchence was human sex in the flesh. This would rank a few spots higher if not for the “Mediate” section, which pointlessly recreates Bob Dylan’s iconic “Subterranean Homesick Blues” video for no apparent reason. It’s a bit funny that someone holds up a “sax solo” cue card before the sax solo, but it’s funnier still that the song had a sax solo in the first place.
21. Don Henley – “The Boys Of Summer” (Dir. Jean-Baptiste Mondino) (1985)
The image of Henley, hair blowing in the studio-fan breeze, staring into the middle distance, is an iconic one, and the video’s uses of French New Wave imagery and soft black-and-white were revelatory at the time. Watching it now, though, this is a very slow video, more a glossy magazine shoot than a kinetic moving image. Great song, though.
20. Britney Spears – “Piece Of Me” (Dir. Wayne Isham) (2008)
I’m pretty sure this video won just so that it could complete Spears’ redemption narrative. The previous year, MTV had thrown a clearly-not-ready-to-perform Spears onstage to lip-sync “Gimme More,” and this makeup move was just as cynical as the act of putting her out there in the first place. The video itself is nothing special — a facile tabloid-culture satire with no real points to make — and it was probably helped by the fact that none of the other nominees were that great. But Spears still carried the clip with an icy charisma that hadn’t really been depleted by the endless horrorshow saga of her public life. Her intensity is what keeps it from being a waste of time.
19. Pearl Jam – “Jeremy” (Dir. Mark Pellington) (1993)
My theory on the real reason Pearl Jam stopped making videos after “Jeremy”: The band realized what a drab, colorless slog their clip was and they didn’t understand why everyone made such a big deal about it. Social-issues videos almost never age well, and this one, with its Important Points About Bullying is especially self-serious and overbearing. Its one saving grace: Eddie Vedder’s fiery and possessed performance. That boy had the devil in him.
18. Rihanna – “Umbrella” (Feat. Jay-Z) (Dir. Chris Applebaum) (2007)
At the time, this mostly felt like a showcase for Rihanna’s new vaguely-goth haircut. In retrospect, though, this is the moment RiRi really learned to strut and preen like a star, and little moments like the silver-bodypaint scene really served to solidify her image. Still, this is a fairly generic pop video with a tremendous ascendant star at its center, and that really shouldn’t be enough to take home the award. (Notable losers that year: Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab,” Kanye West’s “Stronger,” Justice’s “D.A.N.C.E.”)
17. Van Halen – “Right Now” (Dir. Mark Fenske) (1992)
It’s a crime that the David Lee Roth-era Van Halen never won Video Of The Year for any of their amazing clips, but this Van Hagar goof somehow scored one in a stacked year. But it’s some consolation that Hagar is still mad at this video not focusing on him enough. The video, with its pseudo-profundities flashing across the screen, works as a nice time capsule for all the well-meaning cultural clumsiness of the early ’90s, and if you have any memory of Crystal Pepsi being a thing, the stab of nostalgia it brings can be acutely painful. (Notable loser that year: Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”)
16. The Smashing Pumpkins – “Tonight, Tonight” (Dir. Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris) (1996)
A better Georges Melies pastiche than Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, but mostly just because it’s way shorter. This one worked by capturing the strange, whimsical glamor of the silent French films that inspired it and by offering some context for Billy Corgan’s freaky paleness. Still, part of me thinks that videos like this one exist just so film students can feel smart for getting the references.
15. TLC – “Waterfalls” (Dir. F. Gary Gray) (1995)
Incredibly, it took a full decade of VMAs for a black artist to win Video Of The Year, which tells you things you might not want to know about early MTV and the way it saw itself. But when they finally corrected that unforgivable fuckup, the network went with a pretty good one. The social-issues stuff in “Waterfalls” comes off terribly hokey now: Crime! AIDS! Oh no! But the image of the three TLC ladies as morphing water-goddesses hasn’t aged a bit, even if the CGI technology looks paleolithic now. (Notable loser that year: Weezer’s “Buddy Holly.”)
14. Lauryn Hill – “Doo Wop (That Thing)” (Dir. Big TV) (1999)
If you ever doubt how dominant Lauryn Hill was in the late ’90s, consider the fact that she walked away with this award at the height of the TRL boy-band/rap-metal era. The video itself is a relatively unassuming trifle: A split-screen recreation of Washington Heights block parties in 1967 and 1998, one that points out the similarities between the two scenes more than the differences. But Hill made it work through the sheer force of her charisma, which is at least part of why she won every award that wasn’t nailed down that year.
13. The Cars – “You Might Think” (Dir. Jeff Stein, Alex Weil & Charli Levi) (1984)
Your first-ever Video Of The Year winner, this one inexplicably beat out “Thriller” and a bunch of other arguably more-deserving videos. (Actually, maybe it’s not so inexplicable. No black artist won Video Of The Year until TLC in 1995, and Michael Jackson never won the award.) This one used what passed for state-of-the-art CGI graphics in 1984 to make a live-action Looney Tunes video, and it moves quickly and piles on the visual gags. But there’s something genuinely creepy in seeing Cars frontman Ric Ocasek turning into a fly or King Kong to harass the model Susan Gallagher. No means no, Ric.
12. OutKast – “Hey Ya” (Dir. Bryan Barber) (2004)
A simple concept — a band full of Andre clones plays an Ed Sullivan-esque British TV show for an audience of screaming girls — executed well. Big Boi kills his saucy-manager cameo, and Andre does so well at investing his different clones with their own personalities that it’s still a shock his acting career peaked with Four Brothers and Semi-Pro. But did Barber have to keep the screaming sound effect running for the entire video? (Notable losers that year: Jay-Z’s “99 Problems,” Britney Spears’ “Toxic.”)
11. Christina Aguilera, Lil Kim, Mya & Pink – “Lady Marmalade” (Dir. Paul Hunter) (2001)
Moulin Rouge was an absolute piece-of-shit movie, but at least it gave us this delirious teenpop/R&B summit meeting and this hilariously glammed-out cheesecake video. The four women in the video all seem to be competing for who can wear the most absurd lingerie, and the resulting arms race leaves Aguilera looking like Dee Snider, but it’s hard to imagine a better monument to the excesses of the teenpop era. (Notable losers that year: Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On,” Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon Of Choice.”)
10. Aerosmith – “Cryin’” (Dir. Marty Callner) (1994)
If you weren’t there, you can’t possibly imagine what Alicia Silverstone did to the collective heart of young men around America when this video dropped. (Successive Aerosmith power-ballad videos, which would feature Silverstone and Liv Tyler, would only make things worse.) The goony story, about a young rebel girl on the run from asshole boyfriend Stephen Dorff, doesn’t make a lick of sense — what’s her endgame after the surprise bungee jump? — but thanks to Silverstone’s pre-Clueless charisma, it’s a lot of fun anyway. Features the first recorded evidence of Sawyer from Lost’s bad-boy con-man charm at work. (Notable loser that year: The Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage.” Spike Jonze just could not win this thing.)
09. Dire Straits – “Money For Nothing” (Dir. Steve Barron) (1986)
Early MTV sure loved its primitive computer graphics. And this song, with its half-ironic lyrical MTV plug, was always going to win everything. But Barron did an artful job cutting between the crude, blocky cartoon characters and the half-rotoscoped Dire Straits live footage, and he managed to sneak in some light MTV satire, as well. And even though they were grumpy middle-aged men with a love-hate relationship with their era’s synth-rock and video trends, Dire Straits look like they would’ve been a hell of a fun live show in 1986. (Notable losers that year: a-ha’s “Take On Me,” Godley & Creme’s “Cry.”)
08. Madonna – “Ray Of Light” (Dir. Jonas Akerlund) (1998)
It took way too goddamn long for Madonna to win one of these things, but at least she has one, which is more than Michael Jackson or Prince can say. The whole fun-with-time-lapse gimmick was nothing new, but most directors use it to capture the overwhelming, impersonal churn of city life. For Madonna and Akerlund, it was something fun and joyous: Look at all these amazing things happening around the world! The closing segment somehow makes it vaguely plausible that Madonna could be in a nightclub with commoners, no mean feat.
07. Rihanna – “We Found Love” (Feat. Calvin Harris) (Dir. Melina Matsoukas) (2012)
As this video’s moment fades into history, it matters less that the guy in it looks a whole lot like Rihanna’s real-life ex, Chris Brown, and it matters more that it’s a giddy, tangible, specific invocation of out-of-control self-destructive young love. The early-’90s London setting lends a fine layer of Trainspotting-esque scuzz to the whole affair, and the moment where Rihanna pukes streamers is a note-perfect surreal touch in what’s otherwise a naturalistic piece of work. And Rihanna is great in this: wild-eyed and beautiful and out of her head. (Notable losers that year: M.I.A.’s “Bad Girls,” Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know.”)
06. Missy Elliott – “Work It” (Dir. Dave Meyers) (2003)
If he had to keep making those colorfully cartoony joke-a-minute rap videos, Eminem could’ve learned something by watching Missy Elliott, who honestly should’ve won this award more than once. The freewheeling tone isn’t far off from those Em videos, but the surreal imagery and the dizzy energy worm their way into your mind and get stuck there. The dancing little white girl! The part where she eats a Lamborghini! The saluting soldier lip-syncing “give you some-some-some-some of this Cinnabon”! It’s all just wonderful. (Notable losers that year: Johnny Cash’s “Hurt,” Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me A River.”)
05. Peter Gabriel – “Sledgehammer” (Dir. Stephen R. Johnson) (1987)
A surreal bug-out masterpiece that turned Gabriel’s face into a human Bill Plympton cartoon. Its constant inventive goofiness hasn’t aged in the slightest, something you can’t say about the other two partly animated ’80s videos on this list, and it shows what a hotbed of weirdo experimental creativity early MTV could be at its best. Fun fact: Nick Park animated the dancing-chicken bit years before he started making Wallace & Gromit shorts.
04. Jamiroquai – “Virtual Insanity” (Dir. Jonathan Glazer) (1997)
The hat hasn’t aged especially well, but everything else has. The whole thing is a masterwork in hypnotic simplicity and how’d-they-do-that special-effects ingenuity. The floor appears to move madly in every direction while everything else remains stationary, allowing Jay Kay so much opportunity to glide-strut his way though the void and narrowly avoid death-by-moving-couch. And Glazer, who went on to make Sexy Beast and Under The Skin, might be the most visionary director ever to win one of these things.
03. Lady Gaga – “Bad Romance” (Dir. Francis Lawrence) (2010)
It’s hard to imagine a single piece of art causing this many people to stare bug-eyed at their computer screens (or, theoretically, TVs) and ask, “What the fuck was that?” This thing apparently had some sort of narrative — something about Gaga being sold to the Russian mafia and then getting her revenge — but you’d never know it, and anyway it doesn’t matter. What matters is the glammed-out Giger-damaged gleaming absurdity of these images, which linger in your brain long after you’ve watched the video. For plenty of artists, the image of the bearskin sliding across the floor alone would’ve been enough to hang a whole video on; for Gaga, it was just a throwaway moment. That year, her only real competition was herself; she was also nominated for her “Telephone” video, and that’s the only thing that could’ve even conceivably beat “Bad Romance.”
02. Beyoncé – “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)” (Dir. Jake Nava) (2009)
When Kanye West interrupted Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at that year’s VMAs, his tact was nonexistent and his sincerity was misplaced, but he wasn’t wrong. “Single Ladies” really is one of the best videos of all time, and Taylor had no place beating Beyoncé in any category. (Also, does it make any sense that this would lose Female Video Of The Year and win the big one? No. No, it doesn’t.) Beyoncé’s video crossed over in ways that videos are not supposed to be able to cross over anymore, and it did it with the simplest of tricks: Lighting, editing, and one hell of a ferocious and iconic performance. That closing pant/ring-flash/smile will probably always be the single most enduring image of Bey, no matter how many elevator fights she decides not to break up.
01. Sinead O’Connor – “Nothing Compares 2 U” (Dir. John Maybury) (1990)
The video is stunning in its simplicity. The performance is stunning in its feverish emotional power. In her five minutes onscreen, Sinead O’Connor communicated things that the medium of music video wasn’t supposed to be able to convey, and the camera knew well enough to point itself at her face and not move. No image on this list is quite as iconic as that first tear that slides down O’Connor’s smooth, unlined face. And no music video would ever quite create this same impression — that there was someone inside your TV, reaching out to you, trying to talk to you.