The music-video event of 2016 was easily the HBO premiere of Beyoncé’s Lemonade — inarguably one of the best albums of the year, and maybe one of the best movies, too. Lemonade was a leap — an indulgent artistic vision that could’ve easily fallen flat on its face and somehow instead transcended the music-video form, becoming something personal and moving and cohesive. It succeeded so completely that I didn’t include any of the component parts from Lemonade on this list, with one big standalone exception. Nobody else could’ve pulled off a stunt like Lemonade, and plenty of others tried.
With streaming-service money flying around and artistic ambitions going unchecked, 2016 was the year of the surprise album and also, for many of the same reasons, the long-form video. After Beyoncé’s watershed, big stars like Drake and the Weeknd attempted to make their own short films — long-form music videos that stretched four minutes’ worth of ideas across 14 and included as many songs as possible. They didn’t work. The only non-Beyoncé person who did make that concept work was Vince Staples, who is emerging as one of the great music-video artists of our time. And on the other end, there was Frank Ocean, who got revenge for record-label woes by forcing the world to watch a fascinatingly boring video of himself constructing some stairs. This was artistic iconoclasm at work, but it did not make for good viewing.
The best music videos of the year were, by and large, the short ones — the ones with ideas but without the drive to force you to contemplate the grandeur of those ideas. And while music videos have often been a great incubator for cinematic talent — directors like David Fincher, Michael Bay, Spike Jonze, and Michel Gondry all come from the medium — this was the year that some of the great ones moved into television, with Hiro Murai working on Atlanta and Melina Matsoukas working on Insecure. Both are represented on this list.
While some directors, like Maegan Houang and (weirdly) Harmony Korine, did great work this year, the real standouts were the artists who pursued their own visions over multiple videos. Oftentimes, that meant artist/director pairings that will hopefully continue to do great work in the years ahead: PUP/Jeremy Schaulin-Rioux, Slayer/BJ McDonnell, Grimes/Grimes.
But really, there aren’t too many overarching trends evident in the list below. Instead, there are just a whole lot of great videos — videos with different tones, that express different things in different ways. Things within the medium may have gotten a little stranger this year, but the medium itself remains healthy.
50. CL – “Lifted” (Dir. Dave Meyers)
So much corporate brainstorming and focus-grouping must be going into the attempt to make K-pop queen CL into a Western pop star, and yet it still comes up with something as deliriously silly as this. Credit Method Man for being a good enough sport to mug his way through a video that absolutely cheese-ifies his greatest solo single.
49. Mount Moriah – “Precita” (Dir. Fidel Ruiz-Healy)
An entire imaginary bank-robbery movie — and a pretty good one, I’d imagine — boiled down to one ecstatically ridiculous slow-motion escape scene.
48. D.R.A.M. – “Cash Machine” (Dir. Lacey Duke)
Sometimes, you just want to watch things that are going to make you feel good. This video is for those times.
47. Chance The Rapper – “Angels” (Feat. Saba) (Dir. Austin Vesely)
Some of us have long thought of Chance as a superhero, and so this video just confirms what we already knew.
46. Tegan And Sara – “Faint Of Heart” (Dir. Devon Kirkpatrick)
A lovely little statement about the way we use pop icons to define ourselves, and the way music can be an escape from whatever boundaries the world might try to impose on us.
45. Kero Kero Bonito – “Break” (Dir. Kero Kero Bonito)
Sarah Midori Perry beat the rest of the world to the Mannequin Challenge by months, and she actually had a narrative reason for it.
44. PWR BTTM – “I Wanna Boi” (Dir. Liv Bruce & Anneliese Cooper)
There is such a thing as music-video acting. At its peak, it’s completely its own form, one that’s divorced from other ideas about acting. I don’t know if I could come up with a workable definition, but if you want a good example, watch Liv Bruce in this.
43. Skrillex & Rick Ross – “Purple Lamborghini” (Dir. Colin Tilley)
The best crass commercial tie-ins are the ones that go all the way in. And when you’re shameless enough to put the Jared Leto Joker on the hood of a speedboat with Skrillex and Rick Ross, you’re doing it right.
42. Mykki Blanco – “High School Never Ends” (Feat. Woodkid) (Dir. Matt Lambert)
In the category of contemporary reimaginings of Romeo And Juliet, I’ll take this over West Side Story or Baz Luhrmann.
41. Massive Attack – “Voodoo In My Blood” (Feat. Young Fathers) (Dir. Ringan Ledwidge)
This year, Angus Scrimm, the actor who has played the villainous and otherworldly Tall Man in every Phantasm movie since 1979, starred in the fifth and final installment in the series, shortly before dying. Also, Rosamund Pike starred in a Massive Attack video that basically served as a Phantasm tribute, so that was cool, too.