When I put this list together last year, the big story was the emergence of auteurs in the online era of the music video. For the past decade, music videos have mostly lived online, far away from the cable networks that once nurtured the art form. Back in the ’90s, when cable networks were starting to find excuses not to show music videos anymore, we still saw these great directors who were using music videos like playgrounds: Spike Jonze, Hype Williams, Michel Gondry. And we’ve begun to see those again. Last year, the list was dominated by Nabil and Hiro Murai, both of them in a knife-fight to determine who the best music-video director in the world was.
Well, that time is over. Nabil and Murai had four videos apiece on last year’s list. This year, the two of them together only have one appearance on the list. This year’s MVP is Grant Singer, who also did well on last year’s list and who has four videos on this year’s countdown. Last year, Singer was sneaking up behind Nabil and Murai. This year, thanks to an unlikely alliance with a fast-rising pop star, he’s completely eclipsed both of them.
But then, Singer wasn’t the big story this year. Instead, the big story was the partnerships we’ve seen forming between musicians and directors: Colin Tilley and Kendrick Lamar, Paul Thomas Anderson and Joanna Newsom, Bob Gallagher and Girl Band, Allie Avital and Autre Ne Veut, FKA twigs and FKA twigs, Grimes and Grimes. These artists are figuring out that these directors understand their visions and aesthetics, that their music and these people’s visual sensibilities just make sense together. (And when the artist and the director are one and the same, they’re just that much more symbiotic.)
So Grant Singer is both the greatest director of this age and the greatest beneficiary of it. He started out the year working with Ariel Pink, and he ended it working with the Weeknd. With Ariel Pink, he worked up a sticky, Kubrickian sense of transgression. Everything in his Pink videos seemed somehow wrong, in all these compelling ways that you couldn’t quite parse. And with his videos for the Weeknd, he’s turned evil and chaos and self-destructive urges into these seductive widescreen things. He’s made darkness work as pop, which is not easy to do.
But Singer didn’t have the best video of the year. And there were plenty more voices involved in this year’s videos — people who had their own singular visions and who made those visions intertwine with music in fun and fascinating ways. This list — which reflects my opinion and my opinion only — has so many great videos, and each one is entirely unlike the one before or after it. We’re living through a great time for music videos, and there are 50 pieces of evidence of that below.
50. Despot – “House Of Bricks” (Dir. Evan Mast)
Things that should appear in more rap videos, an incomplete list: (1) Falcons, (2) warm and humanistic portrayals of the rapper’s family members, (3) iguanas, (4) gold rings shaped like apartment complexes, (5) falcons.
49. The Mountain Goats – “The Legend Of Chavo Guerrero” (Dir. Scott Jacobson)
A cartoonish tribute to professional wrestling, that most cartoonish of great American art forms. Check out 66-year-old Guerrero, out here throwing scoop slams and moonsault presses.
48. Chris Brown & Tyga – “Ayo” (Dir. Colin Tilley)
Both of these guys are loathsome human beings who had terrible years. But if you can resist the charms of a bulldozer dumping a load of $50 bills into a swimming pool, or a tiger casually sauntering through a mansion, then maybe you don’t like music videos that much.
47. Royal Blood – “Out Of The Black” (Dir. David Wilson & Christy Karacas)
If you’re going to do psychedelic hyperviolent animation, do it right, you know?
46. Autre Ne Veut – “The Age Of Transparency” (Dir. Allie Avital)
Shout out to any artist willing to portray himself as a terrifying narcissistic self-Googling supervillain sociopath.
45. Flight Facilities – “Down To Earth” (Dir. Rhett Wade-Ferrell)
You have to love the idea that someone would watch Moon and think, “You know what that Sam Rockwell really needs? His own ‘Weapon Of Choice.'”
44. Royal Headache – “Carolina” (Dir. Damian Sawyers)
Dynamic, wiry, exciting, weird rock frontman are absolutely crucial for so many reasons. But one of those reasons is that without them, you don’t get any videos like this. My favorite part: All the other guys in the band legitimately cracking up when Shogun comes careening back into the frame at the end.
43. FIDLAR – “40oz On Repeat” (Dir. Ryan Baxley)
One of the great things about being a music-video nerd: Being able to giggle with delight everytime this video launches into another parody. My favorite is the “Virtual Insanity” moment, but they’re all great.
42. Run The Jewels – “Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck)” (Feat. Zach De La Rocha) (Dir. AG Rojas)
The funny thing about the way this video depicts police brutality: If bloody, intense one-on-one fistfights were the norm, we’d be in a much better place as a society.
41. The Weeknd – “Tell Your Friends” (Dir. Grant Singer)
Who was the last pop star who regularly put visions this bleak and heavy onscreen? DMX? Marilyn Manson? Has there ever even been one?
40. Childish Gambino – “Sober” (Dir. Hiro Murai)
Donald Glover is so good at playing a creepy, intense alien-stalker type that I wonder if this hasn’t always secretly been his rap persona. It would explain a lot.
39. Girl Band – “Paul” (Dir. Bob Gallagher)
The whole “wouldn’t it be funny if the people on kids’ TV?” thing doesn’t much appeal to me. But this is a video with vivid, surreal imagery and a cogent narrative. And it works with the music. And it has an oddly encouraging conclusion. These things are not easy! At least 60% of the videos I’ve watched this year don’t have a single one of those things.
38. Action Bronson – “Baby Blue” (Feat. Chance The Rapper) (Dir. Lil Chris)
Coming To America is a perfect movie. You can’t improve on it. What you can do is you can pay tribute to it by making it into an antic, warmhearted rap-video romp. You can do that all day.
37. GENER8ION & M.I.A. – “The New International Sound (Part II)” (Dir. Inigo Westmeier)
This one is sort of a cheat, since it’s composed entirely of clips from a documentary about China’s biggest fighting school for kids. But goddam, it is so full of incredible sights. I eagerly await the era when tiny Chinese girls utterly dominate the UFC.
36. Oneohtrix Point Never – “Sticky Drama” (Dir. Jon Rafman & Daniel Lopatin)
Season six of Game Of Thrones turned out to be weirder than anyone could’ve anticipated.
35. Kelela – “A Message” (Dir. Daniel Sannwald)
It’s like someone turned Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” video into an experimental sci-fi short without skimping on its emotional force.
34. Twin Shadow – “I’m Ready” (Dir. Lance Drake)
Top-shelf ’90s VH1 black-and-white sexiness, except with mobsters and a giant laser-sword.
33. Brodinski – “Us” (feat. Bloody Jay) (Dir. Jérémie Rozan)
Judging by this video, it’s an absolute fucking crime that we don’t just film every music video in Shanghai.
32. Kanye West – “Only One” (Feat. Paul McCartney) (Dir. Spike Jonze)
Arguably the greatest music-video director of all time returns to shoot this simple, moving mood-piece about how much Kanye West loves his daughter.
31. The Chemical Brothers – “Sometimes I Feel So Deserted” (Dir. Ninian Doff)
The Chems are secretly one of the greatest music-video acts of all time. And this video, a Mad Max/Tetsuo The Ironman body-horror romp, is all the better for its stark simplicity and its refusal to explain a single goddam thing.
30. U2 – “Song For Someone” (Dir. Vincent Haycock)
The best reason for this U2 song to exist: It gave Woody Harrelson an excuse to spend eight minutes eloquently emoting about loss and regret.
29. FKA twigs – “Pendulum” (Dir. FKA twigs)
When twigs sings, “I’m a sweet little lovemaker” on record, it means one thing. When she sings it while she’s staring down the camera and tied up and suspended over an undulating black CGI void, it means something else.
28. Grimes – “REALiTi” (Dir. Grimes)
When most artists bring cameras on tour to document the proceedings, the results are interminable. But most artists don’t have Claire Boucher’s eye. Every frame of this thing glows.
27. Tame Impala – “Let It Happen” (Dir. David Wilson)
The most cartoonish death-hallucination captured on film since Waking Life — which was, lest we forget, an actual cartoon.
26. Vince Staples – “Norf Norf” (Dir. Spike Jordan)
A furious condemnation of the way the law treats young black men. We got plenty of those this year, just as we should every year. But the thing that makes this one sing is how goddam bored Staples looks throughout. He’s been through all this before, and he’ll go through it all again.
25. The Weeknd – “Can’t Feel My Face” (Dir. Grant Singer)
This video’s burst-into-flames climax is: (a) an extended metaphor about the demands of a larger audience, (b) a sly reference to what happened to Michael Jackson’s hair on the set of that Pepsi commercial, (c) a cool effect, or (d) all of the above.
24. Will Butler – “Anna” (Dir. Brantley Gutierrez)
The best Emma Stone performance since, what, Easy A? Superbad? Could it seriously be the best Emma Stone performance ever? (Let’s not talk about Birdman. Fuck Birdman.)
23. Mark Ronson – “Feel Right” (Feat. Mystikal) (Dir. Bruno Mars & Cameron Duddy)
Is it possible that Bruno Mars is a great music-video director? And if so, how do we feel about it? If the Buffy reference here was his idea, I feel pretty goddam good about it.
22. Future Islands – “A Song For Our Grandfathers” (Dir. Jay Buim)
A beautiful, earnest, happy little vision about returning to the place that made you and going to see the people who will always love you the most. How badly do you want to be at that barbecue?
21. Chvrches – “Empty Threat” (Dir. Austin Peters)
On paper, “a trip to a Florida waterpark with a car full of drunk high-school goths” does not look like the best use of a day. This video makes it look absolutely idyllic.
20. Girl Band – “Why They Hide Their Bodies Under My Garage?” (NSFW) (Dir. Bob Gallagher)
If your parents ever try to ask you why you didn’t go to medical school, just show them this video.
19. Rae Sremmurd – “Come Get Her” (Dir. Motion Family)
I never thought I would see this happen, but all of a sudden, Master P’s “Oooh Wee” is not the most beautifully, absurdly stupid cowboy-themed rap video of all time.
18. N.A.S.A. – “Meltdown” (Feat. DMX & Priyanka Chopra) (Dir. Ty Evans)
If you ever want to convince me that it’s OK to hear DMX reduced to playing hypeman on a cheesed-out EDM tune, just show me these incredible, death-defying images of dudes skateboarding in Dubai.
17. Missy Elliott – “WTF (Where They From)” (Feat. Pharrell Williams) (Dir. Hype Williams)
The triumphant return of an American hero, all her bugged-out theatrical weirdness fully intact.
16. Kendrick Lamar – “These Walls” (Dir. Colin Tilley & The Little Homies)
There’s a moment in the IHeartMemphis “Hit The Quan” video when IHeartMemphis watches Kendrick Lamar and Terry Crews doing his dance in this video. He loses his mind. I did, too, for different reasons.
15. The Weeknd – “The Hills” (Dir. Grant Singer)
It’s impossible to pinpoint this sort of thing exactly, but I’m pretty sure the moment the car blows up is the moment that Abel Tesfaye becomes a generational icon.
14. BigBang – “Bang Bang Bang” (Dir. Seo Hyun-Seung)
Lately, BigBang, the current reigning South Korean boy band, have been dropping hints that they might break up. And honestly, I hope they do. They won’t be able to keep topping themselves in the absurd-spectacle department much longer. It’s just not possible.
13. Kendrick Lamar – “King Kunta” (Dir. Director X & The Little Homies)
Director X and Kendrick Lamar reimagine the classic G-funk video as a burst of kinetic energy, and they film it in the sort of aspect ratio that immediately recalls cell-phone police brutality videos.
12. Lana Del Rey – “High By The Beach” (Dir. Jake Nava)
When Lana Del Rey dies, we should mount a framed photo of her with that grenade launcher on her tombstone. I can’t imagine she’s ever going to have a more iconic moment.
11. Slayer – “Repentless” (Dir. BJ McDonnell)
See, this kind of thing is why Slayer don’t get booked to perform in prison yards very often.
10. Joanna Newsom – “Sapokanikan” (Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
A rare and valuable opportunity to watch a human being just glow.
9. Ariel Pink – “Dayzed Inn Daydreams” (Dir. Grant Singer)
Rick Wilder, the aging and deeply distinctive-looking glam rocker, would spend most of 2015 as a lurking, demonic presence in Singer’s videos for the Weeknd. Here, he’s the star of a slice-of-life verite drama that’s freaky just for the sheer fact that he’s in it, interacting with everyday people.
8. Rihanna – “Bitch Better Have My Money” (NSFW) (Dir. Rihanna & Megaforce)
One day, future societies will build statues of the blood-drenched Rihanna we see at the end of this video. And they will wonder, just as we wonder, what the fuck Rihanna’s accountant did.
7. M.I.A. – “Borders” (Dir. M.I.A.)
At the exact moment that America’s shittiest politicians are attempting to capitalize on anti-immigrant hysteria, M.I.A. comes along and makes this visual poem about the struggle of people who are forced to move. And she makes it look fucking breathtaking. That matters, too.
6. FKA twigs – M3LL155X (Dir. FKA twigs)
Other people just make a video for one song and call it a day. Twigs makes videos for five songs, directs them all herself, and finds ways to loosely connect them, largely through ideas about objectification and pregnancy and femininity and dance. And they’re all varying degrees of incredible. That’s a high bar, you know?
5. Grimes – “Flesh Without Blood/Life In The Vivid Dream” (Dir. Grimes)
Anyone can make a video with a bunch of weird shit happening. Only Grimes can give it this sort of style, can make it sing like this.
4. Vince Staples – “Señorita” (Dir. Ian Pons Jewell)
The unforgettable final shot turns this into one hell of a visual metaphor for the way people like me watch rap videos. For the way we watch everything, really.
3. Kendrick Lamar – “Alright” (Dir. Colin Tilley & The Little Homies)
We can, and probably should, talk all day about the layers of meaning flying around in this thing. But do you see the way it’s shot? It’s so beautiful.
2. Nicki Minaj – “Feeling Myself” (Feat. Beyoncé) (Dir. Nick Walker)
I had a good time at Coachella this year, but I definitely did not have this good of a time. Maybe I was hanging out with the wrong people. (Watch this at Tidal, or, you know, Google around.)
1. Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment – “Sunday Candy” (Feat. Chance The Rapper & Jamila Woods) (Dir. Austin Vesely, Ian Eastwood, & Chance The Rapper)
The best song Chance The Rapper has ever written is a love song for his grandmother, and to make a visual out of it, he staged this incandescently beautiful one-take high-school musical. There is enormous love in every second of this. Imagine being Chance’s grandmother and watching this for the first time.