In the grand tradition of our month-plus-early list of the year’s best albums so far, here’s a look at the music videos that made us look twice this year. We get bombarded with these things every day, and so many of them seem to be made with minimal effort: Fuzzy stock footage, all-lens-flare romantic cinematography, bits of imagery that barely relate to each other, let alone the song. But if the selection of clips below teaches us anything, it’s that there are about a million different ways to make an effective video; all you really need is a strong idea and a sharp visual sensibility. Watch our picks below.
25. Sleigh Bells – “Comeback Kid” (Dir. Derek Miller & Gregory Kohn)
Our comments section seemed very split on this one, but its sunshiney cheeriness, and Alexis Krauss’s world-devouring charisma, are more than enough to earn it a spot high up on this list. I can’t think of any band I’d rather watch swagger through a supermarket.
24. Flatbush Zombies – “Thug Waffle” (Dir. Luke Monaghan)
Ol’ Dirty Bastard drunken-boxing cadences and spiky crust-punk vests finally make their way to the Tumblr-rap generation. Suddenly, I’m incredibly hungry.
23. Perfume Genius – “Hood” (Dir. Winston Case)
When you’re a fragile-voiced singer-songwriter whose great subject is growing up gay and traumatized, this video, in which a hulking gay porn star lovingly brushes your hair and puts makeup on you, is basically the most punk-rock thing you could possibly ever do. A rare case where a music video manages to find room for all sorts of confusing imagery without sacrificing the tiniest little bit of tenderness. Bonus points for pulling off the sexy Freddy Krueger look.
22. Trash Talk – “Slander” (Dir. Jim Dirschberger)
A great example of how to make an animated music video. This one’s a fun time: The band’s vengeful blast rendered in vivid and hyperactive color, with a nasty punchline that just goes on forever. Ideally, this is what happens when punks figure out how to use computers.
21. French Montana – “Shot Caller Remix” (Feat. Diddy & Rick Ross) (Dir. Colin Tilley)
Old-school rap-video largesse of the type that we rarely see anymore, shot in black-and-white so sumptuous that it doesn’t look low-budget. Diddy’s asymmetrical-haircutted girlfriend Cassie steals the whole thing with one cold, hard stare at the camera. I have no idea why those Chuck Taylors and basketball nets are on fire, but it works. And is that Waka Flocka playing trumpet? I hope so.
20. Spiritualized – “Hey Jane” (Dir. AG Rojas) (NSFW)
This video has a new type of hero: A transwoman who attempts to raise kids while turning tricks, stripping, and — in one unforgettable long tracking shot — getting into an absolutely brutal fight. There’s probably a term paper to be written about the video’s treatment of race, class, gender, sexuality, and violence. This is the sort of video that lingers in your head for a long time and snaps back into focus every time you hear the song.
19. Hospitality – “Friends Of Friends” (Dir. Scott Jacobson)
Hey, look! Gabe! Bonus points for dressing him in a skull-covered porkpie hat and for pairing him with an actress from Arrested Development. But the video’s central concept — a sweetly funny riff on geographical displacement — is what puts this one all the way over.
18. Lambchop – “Gone Tomorrow” (Dir. Zack Spiger)
So far this year, we’ve gotten to see a mini-wave of low-budget videos that pull power and pathos by showing us relatively small-time pro wrestlers up close, videos like Caveman’s “Thankful” and Smoke DZA’s “New Jack.” But Lambchop’s “Gone Tomorrow” is the first and best. One of the great truths about professional wrestling: Even in its shittiest, most low-budget and backwater incarnations, it’s still an inspiring thing: A base, simplistic form of theater, not that far removed from what the Greeks invented, performed by people who love the art and have virtually no chance of making an honest living off of it. This video captures all of that, and I love it.
17. Screaming Females – “It All Means Nothing” (Dir. Screaming Females & Ken Castellano) (NSFW)
In which we learn that this trio’s rhythm section has serious sketch-comedy chops. Unlike in the Islands video, the joke’s gruesomeness here does kind of overwhelm the punchline, but it’s pretty funny regardless. Also, those performance shots of the band in the backyard are straight fire.
16. Real Estate – “Easy” (Dir. Tom Scharpling)
Hey, look! Gabe again! Even without our Videogum colleague, though, this is further proof of Tom Scharpling’s iron-fisted grip on the indie rock video game. Given a limited budget, this man can tell a perfectly compelling story and make it visually interesting and straight-up funny. If you’re an indie band and you’re not at least trying to get him to do your next clip, you are doing it wrong.
15. Nicki Minaj – “Stupid Hoe” (Dir. Hype Williams)
This one started comments-section fights like Sleigh Bells’ “Comeback Kid,” but just like that one, this one that works because of its freakilly garish color scheme and because of the titanic personality at its center. Nicki Minaj seems perfectly happy to turn herself into a clown — not in the rap-slang sense but in the actual rubber-nose sense — and the genre hasn’t seen any star figure this willing to look ridiculous since late-’90s Busta Rhymes.
14. tUnE-yArDs – “My Country” (Dir. Mimi Cave)
Merill Garbus and a whole bunch of little kids in matching facepaint, everyone going absolutely nuts. It’s absolutely adorable and a lot of fun, and it actually reveals something about Garbus: Her whole thing makes a lot more sense, in some ways, if you imagine her as an overgrown child.
13. The Shins – “Simple Song (Dir. DANIELS)
An impeccably shot shaggy-dog family story that manages to create pretty fully-formed characters without the benefit of dialog and then gives them all a heartwarming ending. Shout out to James Mercer for not embarrassing himself in the acting department. (I also like how he cast himself as his new bandmates’ father.) And somehow, a perfectly timed shattered vase to the head is always funny.
12. SpaceGhostPurrp – “The Black God” (Dir. SpaceGhostPurrp)
Method Man’s “Bring The Pain” might by my favorite music video of all time: A no-budget attack on your senses that gets over on nothing but menacing immediacy and its star’s dangerous levels of charisma (and, of course, the eerie monster of a song). When I was in ninth grade, that clip would air every 10 minutes on the all-request music-video network the Box, and I’d watch for hours just so I could see it over and over. Nobody makes music videos like that anymore, but here’s one.
11. SoKo – “We Might Be Dead By Tomorrow” (Dir. SoKo) (NSFW)
A perfectly lovely vision of two people happy and in love, with enough footage of headstones that we know how urgent the song’s central idea is. That’s a simple idea, but it’s presented with an overwhelming warmth and honesty. And SoKo deserves serious credit for being brave enough to show her and her girlfriend in complete (and sometimes naked) domestic bliss. At least, I assume that’s her real-life girlfriend. If it’s not, then she deserves even more credit for her acting skills.
10. Explosions In The Sky – “Postcard From 1952? (Dir. Peter Simonite & Annie Gunn)
Here’s the concept: A bunch of ancient archival photos recreated and turned into moving images. But with Simonite, The Tree Of Life 2nd unit shooter, co-directing, it plays like a dizzily beautiful slow-motion seven-minute statement about the magic of life itself. I don’t know if I would’ve felt this way before becoming a father, but I can’t really watch those shots of the kid taking his first few tentative steps without wanting to cry.
9. Nas – “The Don” (Dir. Aristotle)
See, this is how you make a big-money rap video.
8. The Flaming Lips – “Supermoon Made Me Want To Pee” (Feat. Prefuse 73) (Dir. Okayvideo) (NSFW)
Apocalyptic animated mayhem so intense and absurd and well-rendered that it belongs in the Looney Toons universe. But there’s also a story arc, if you watch it enough times: Even the astronaut in space can’t escape the insanity-apocalypse. And when he goes through a time-wormhole and lands on the prehistoric earth, the caveman who discovers his skull decides not to have a civilization-building moment and just pisses on it instead.
7. Chairlift – “Met Before” (Dir. Jordan Fish)
An ambitious concept carried out better than anyone could’ve hoped. This is an interactive choose-your-own-adventure music video, which seems like the sort of thing that’ll freeze up your computer the second you click it. It’s not. The interface is easy and intuitive, the actual game part is fun, and it’s all too easy to spend half an hour clicking all the different decision points and trying to find the different endings. (This means it’s a smart music video, too, since you end up hearing the pretty great song enough times for it to leave a serious impression.) Somehow, every one of the versions I’ve clicked has turned out to be an entirely decent music video, which feels like a massive achievement. My one quibble is that Caroline Polachek doesn’t make an especially convincing science nerd, but I guess that’s not a problem per se.
6. Jack White – “Sixteen Saltines” (Dir. AG Rojas)
I would probably watch an entire movie of all these kids losing their shit. My favorites: The kid who flies while krumping, the extremely intense cheerleader, the really little one with the face tats. But really, they’re all winners. Jack White’s string of ridiculously great music videos is more than a decade long at this point, and it doesn’t seem likely to let up anytime soon.
5. Drake – “HYFR” (Feat. Lil Wayne) (Dir. Director X)
When you’re a rap star and friends with a gang of other rap stars, getting re-Bar Mitzvahed, which I didn’t realize was a thing, is apparently the funnest thing ever. This video makes me want to get re-First Communioned.
4. Odd Future – “Oldie” (Dir. Lance Bangs)
Best thing: Earl! Second-best thing: Frank Ocean can rap! Third-best thing: Jasper Dolphin: “I don’t know my verse!” Fourth-best thing: Left Brain’s Thor hammer. I wonder how Corin Tucker feels about Lance Bangs hanging out with all these Odd Future kids.
3. Grimes – “Oblivion” (Dir. Emily Kai Bock) (NSFW-ish)
This one doesn’t draw its power from throwing Claire Boucher into all sorts of unexpected situations, though that is fun. Instead, that power comes from how utterly ebullient Boucher looks in every one of those situations, dancing around looking starry-eyed and unselfconscious no matter who happens to be surrounding her at that particular moment. And in its gorgeous hi-def cinematography and its general all-consuming happiness, it makes the blurpy sidelong electro-jam signify as actual pop music. Salute.
2. BigBang – “Fantastic Baby” (Dir. Seo Hyun Seung)
As Frank Sobatka once said, we used to make things in this country. Among those things were nonsensical high-gloss music videos that made your brain explode in another way every five seconds or so. Not anymore. We’ve totally given up worldwide-leader status in that department to South Korea, where incredible stuff like this comes out all the time. BigBang, almost certainly the greatest boy band on earth right now, came close to topping this list last week with their breezily ridiculous “Bad Boy” video. That was awesome, but this — a candy-colored dystopia of dancing dragons and gas-masked rioters and hairstyles that laugh in the face of God — this is another thing entirely. If you’re in an indie band, please watch this and thing long and hard before releasing another Instagram-looking mediocrity into the world.
M.I.A. – “Bad Girls” (Dir. Romain Gavras)
It’s oddly reassuring that M.I.A. can just swoop in and reclaim her coolest-person-on-Earth anytime she feels like it. I was worried for a minute there.