Next year, YouTube will celebrate its 10th anniversary. For nearly a decade, then, music videos have belonged almost entirely to the internet. Once upon a time, video directors made their work for TV, expecting you to run across their images when you were flipping through channels. By the time YouTube hit its second year, that was out the window. People were making videos without any expectation that they’d ever be on TV, and that meant an entirely different set of rules and aims and ideas. That’s been the case for long enough, now, that the internet music video has developed its own auteurs, filmmakers with bodies of work that can compete with what Hype Williams or Mark Romanek once did. In the past few years, the internet music video has even found its Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry, the brilliant minds who reshaped the form.
Nabil and Hiro Murai are two of the greatest music video directors we’ve ever seen, and both are peaking right now, making stunning videos with freaky regularity and developing their own visual and narrative sensibilities. 2014, for these two, feels a bit like 1997, the year Gondry came out with “Around The World” and “Bachelorette” and “Everlong,” finally equaling what Jonze was doing and maybe beating him at his own game. Nabil has dominated for the past few years, but he only shows up three times on this list. Murai is on there four times, and he’s got the highest spot on the list. He’s the head music video director in charge right now. Someone needs to let these two make their Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. (Grant Singer is on the list three times, as well, so throw him in that group as the Chris Cunningham.)
This list is entirely generated by one person, and that person is me. The list reflects my tastes and ideas and predilections. It’s not objective, and there’s no way it could be. Plenty of worthy and important videos did not make the list, and it might look different if I made it again tomorrow. I switched the #1 and #2 videos back and forth as I was writing it, and I might switch them back again if given a chance. But every one of the videos on the list below is worth your time.
40. Childish Gambino – “Telegraph Ave” (Dir. Hiro Murai)
A beautifully shot tropical love story suddenly becomes a genuinely unsettling monster movie, and I suddenly find myself wishing this was an entire feature.
39. Municipal Waste – “Miserable Failure” (Dir. Whitey McConnaughy)
The new gold standard for every skate-metal video, from now until forever.
38. YG – “My Nigga (Remix)” (Feat. Rich Homie Quan, Lil Wayne, Meek Mill & Nicki Minaj) (Dir. Motion Family)
The formula for black-and-white posse cut videos hasn’t changed since Hype Williams Made “Flava In Ya Ear (Remix).” It doesn’t need to. Sometimes, rampant charisma and liberal use of slow-motion is all you need. Sometimes, it ain’t broke.
37. Steve Gunn & Mike Cooper – “Pony Blues” (Dir. Champ Ensminger)
There are lots of Ensminger could’ve gone with this atmospheric Americana hymn. I wouldn’t have expected “a beautiful and absorbing retelling of an old Thai ghost story” to be one of them, but that’s why I’m not a music video director.
36. Queens Of The Stone Age – “Smooth Sailing” (Dir. Hiro Murai)
If you’re at the bar and you see Josh Homme and a crew of drunk Japanese businessmen walk in, just leave. Trouble’s a-brewing, and you don’t want any part of it.
35. Ariel Pink – “Put Your Number In My Phone” (Dir. Grant Singer)
I am on record hating Ariel Pink and almost everything he does. But this video exists at some uncanny nexus between Lynch, Kubrick, and Clueless, and how could I hate that?
34. Disclosure – “Grab Her!” (Dir. Emile Sornin)
The British Office was a television classic, but it had one fatal flaw: I didn’t give David Brent superpowers. Finally, years later, someone has come along and fixed that oversight.
33. Phantoms – “Broken Halo” (Feat. Nicholas Braun) (Dir. Ace Norton)
I have never been to a wedding this interesting, and that bothers me.
32. Shamir – “On The Regular” (Dir. Antony Sylvester)
The late-’90s/early-’00s Busta/Missy hyper-cartoon aesthetic, used in service of a teeage Vegas club kid who suddenly looks like he’s about to be a huge, shining star.
31. Dizzee Rascal – “Pagans” (Dir. Emile Sornin)
Dizzee opens the video practicing kung fu while in the Van Damme splits, and that’s somehow the most sedate part of the whole video. I don’t know why we don’t get more videos where rappers deal martial arts death to faceless opponents. It’s not like this approach has ever yielded a bad video.
30. Skrillex – “Fuck That” (Dir. Nabil)
Starts as a beautifully photographed and weirdly understated showcase for the French-Moroccan character actor Saïd Taghmaoui. Becomes an underground fighting movie, a car chase, a mystical vision, and, ultimately, a piece of Wu-Tang Clan product placement. Bong bong.
29. Action Bronson – “Easy Rider” (Dir. Tom Gould)
Best cinematic barfight of the year, unless we’re counting the nightclub massacre from John Wick. Best cinematic acid trip of the year, without qualification. Best cinematic guitar solo of the year, and nothing else was close.
28. “Weird Al” Yankovic – “Tacky” (Dir. “Weird Al” Yankovic)
Goofy costumes, parody videos, and music-video celebrity cameos are all thoroughly played-out ideas. You could even say the same about long tracking shots. And yet “Weird Al” took all of these things and made them sing. There’s a reason he’s been here longer than most of us have been alive.
27. Le1f – “Sup” (Dir. Jesse Miller-Gordon)
Le1f has made consistently great videos since we first met him a couple of years ago. But he’s never found a look better than “apocalyptic sci-fi traveler.” He should maybe stick with that one.
26. Trash Talk x Flatbush Zombies – “97.92” (Dir. APLUSFilmz)
It’s amazing how a new piece of technology — a 360-degree camera mounted on a drone — can make the world look like an entirely new, much cooler place.
25. Mark Ronson – “Uptown Funk” (Feat. Bruno Mars) (Dir. Bruno Mars & Cameron Duddy)
In which Bruno Mars figures out that the best — possibly the only — way to make himself look cool is to imagine a world in which circa-1986 Jonathan Demme had directed a movie about Morris Day & The Time.
24. Taylor Swift – “Blank Space” (Dir. Joseph Kahn)
There is a distinct possibility that Taylor Swift’s been a femme fatale this whole time, that she’s either just figuring it out now or we are. Either way, she just made her first-ever great video, so be afraid.
23. FKA twigs – “Video Girl” (Dir. Kahlil Joseph)
Worst thing about the Sony Pictures hack (other than everything else about it): The sad knowledge that nobody has yet floated the idea of a horror movie built around FKA twigs. These executives need to stop semi-illiterately threatening each other and start watching this video.
22. Sky Ferreira – “I Blame Myself” (Dir. Grant Singer)
Ferreira already did a nice job deflecting charges of racial weirdness in this particular video, so let’s all just hail her for bringing back the dancing-gangs video. That genre was away for far too long.
21. Garden City Movement – “Move On” (Dir. Michael Moshonov & Lael Utnik)
A story of love and loss, told so simply and filmed so beautifully that it comes out looking like one long filmic sigh.
20. Arca – “Thievery” (Dir. Jesse Kanda)
Sometimes, you twerk into the void. Sometimes, the void twerks back at you.
19. Nicki Minaj – “Pills N Potions” (Dir. Diane Martel)
Despair and attraction, hyper-stylized, with a cute bunny and a headless Game. If we want anything more from a Nicki Minaj video, we’re not being realistic. (We still got it, though. See #5.)
18. Ariel Pink – “Picture Me Gone” (Dir. Grant Singer)
There’s a cold sweep to Ariel Pink and Grant Singer’s two videos together. This is both the better and the more expansive of the two, and it tells a lovely story of human connection if and only if you can get around the galling creepiness of the whole latex-mask thing.
17. Warpaint – “Disco // Very” & “Keep It Healthy” (Dir. Laban Pheidias)
Charisma is a difficult thing to quantify. But the particular form of Californian girl-solidarity boho-stoner charisma on display in this video is a powerful force indeed.
16. Fucked Up – “The Art Of Patrons” (Dir. Andy Capper & Mike Haliechuk)
The tour-life stuff is great, complete and tangible in a way that tour-life music videos almost never are. But it’s the coming-home-to-kids stuff that knocks me dead.
15. Kiesza – “Hideaway” (Dir. Kiesza, Ljuba Castot & Rami Samir Afunik)
When a silly dance video is a masterfully executed silly dance video, it doesn’t really need to be anything else.
14. Real Estate – “Crime” (Dir. Tom Schapling)
The self-reflexive music video is a difficult thing to pull off. It helps to just pile on the ridiculousness. It helps even more to be Tom Scharpling.
13. Beyoncé – “7/11″ (Dir. Beyoncé)
Oh hey, Beyoncé apparently made this thing with just a GoPro and a selfie stick, possibly while drunk, in case you ever felt like you had any talent at anything.
12. Perfume Genius – “Grid” (Dir. Charlotte Rutherford)
History will show that, in 2014, Mike Hadreas saved glam rock forever, and that he did it by acting out extremely strange visions like this one.
11. Future Islands – “Seasons (Waiting On You)” (Dir. Jay Buim)
In a way, this video was a failure. The song was huge and omnipresent, and the video did nothing to shape its visual perception in the world at large. It would be hard for any video to overshadow the band’s incredible Letterman performance. But on its own merits, what a beautiful video — a rich and humane and sympathetic portrait of a family, and a lifestyle, and a part of America that never gets a chance to show up in music videos.
10. Bobby Shmurda – “Hot Nigga” (Dir. MainEFeTTi)
Kids bunch up on Brooklyn streetcorners, throw gang signs at cameras, rap over stolen instrumentals from established rappers. This isn’t exactly a new scenario. And yet this excessively low-budget burst of animosity was enough to get a hook-free mixtape freestyle into Billboard’s top 10 and to get major-label deals for not only Bobby Shmurda but also for Rowdy Rebel, who just dances in the background. Some of the credit goes to that great little Shmoney Dance interlude, the hat that flies into the air and never comes back down. Mostly, though, this is raw and unvarnished charisma of the sneering teenage variety. We could always use more of that.
9. Spoon – “Do You” (Dir. Hiro Murai)
Britt Daniel confronts apocalypse in exactly the way you’d hope, piloting his classic car through urban desolation and never adjusting his thousand-yard stare. Murai takes his time in revealing the exact nature of the apocalypse, and when it arrives, it’s maybe the single most weirdly joyous moment on this list.
8. FKA twigs – “Two Weeks” (Dir. Nabil)
The slow, languorous, unbroken pan-out was clearly the music-video camera move of the year, and it never got more rapturously strange than it did here. Music videos can make stars, or they can plunge us into a musicians’ dreamworld. Every once in a while, they do both.
7. Lydia Ainsworth – “Malachite” (Dir. Matthew Lessner)
Please, someone, make the nightmare-universe Step Up sequel that this video hints at.
6. HAIM – “If I Could Change Your Mind” (Dir. Warren Fu)
There’s probably a way to invoke instant joy more easily than showing people who don’t usually dance dancing really well. I just don’t know what it is.
5. Nicki Minaj – “Lookin’ Ass” (Dir. Nabil)
2014 may have given us no greater pop-feminist image than fishnet-catsuited desert princess warrior Nicki Minaj shooting two assault rifles at once, ripping up the sand dunes.
4. Freeway & Girl Talk – “Tolerated” (Feat. Waka Flocka Flame) (Dir. Allen Cordell)
The Verve’s “Bitter Sweet Symphony” video was a classic, but it had one big issue. Richard Ashcroft just bumped into passersby. He never, say, ripped off a random assailant’s arm and then threw it to Waka Flocka Flame. Somehow, I never realized this was a problem until now.
3. clipping. – “Work Work” (Feat. Cocc Pistol Cree) (Dir. Carlos Lopez Estrada)
I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve watched this thing, and I still have no idea what it means. But try getting that hovering foot or that stumbling headless body out of your mind. You can’t.
2. Perfume Genius – “Queen” (Dir. Cody Critcheloe)
Pointed, identity-based surrealism so vivid and evocative that it can swallow everything up around it, pulling you along on whatever inexplicable thing it wants to do next. This one lingers.
1. Flying Lotus – “Never Catch Me” (Feat. Kendrick Lamar) (Dir. Hiro Murai)
In the couple of months since this video hit the internet, it’s somehow become even more poignant, as we’ve been treated to the image of police departments nationwide bristling at the idea that they shouldn’t be murdering unarmed black kids with impunity. Here, we see two black kids exuberantly and beautifully dancing their way out of their own funeral, and it’s enough to break your heart. Black lives matter, you assholes. Obviously.