In this space in past years, I’ve usually written about which music-video directors had the best years. It’s a variation of the auteur theory, as visionaries like Nabil and Hiro Murai have used artists as vehicles for their ideas and approaches. This year, though, it feels like the artists themselves who are driving things, and like directors are merely servicing the artists’ visions — except, that is, in the cases where the artists direct their own videos.
This year, we’re seeing more and more artists taking active roles, using videos to shape their aesthetics and adding to their legacies. Brockhampton, working with crew leader Kevin Abstract as their director, have used their silly, slapdash, home-recorded videos to help turn themselves into an internet-rap juggernaut. The combination of Moses Sumney and Allie Avital are the closest thing we have to an Aphex Twin/Chris Cunningham tandem — a pair of body-obsessed mystics whose sounds and images complement one another. HAIM have proven the power of unexpected choreography and long, languorous takes. Jay-Z used 4:44 as a jumping-off point for a series of sketch-length visions of black American life in 2017. The War On Drugs might not have a unifying music-video aesthetic, but they’ve got a hell of a sense of quality control; no rock band in recent memory has put out stronger videos.
And most importantly, we’re seeing Kendrick Lamar showing what, exactly, a music video can do and joining the upper ranks of the form’s greats. Not since peak Missy Elliott have we seen anyone go on a run like this. These days, every Kendrick Lamar video is an event. His clips are flashy, poignant, pretty, flossy, angry, energetic, and funny. He dominates this year’s list — which, I should stress, are all my personal choices. See the best of this year’s videos below.
A bright pastel wonderland that worked as a complete aesthetic reinvention for Annie Clark and allowed her to spin that big Astor Place cube like she was a stoned skateboarder on a Friday night.
A former boy-band idol goes soaring over the Scottish coastline, the harness suspending him from a helicopter digitally erased, his hair blowing around in ways that seem too perfect to be real. Maybe the fifth-best superhero movie of the year.
The infomercial-parody format seems a little passé during a period of history when nobody really watches infomercials, but Leo really puts his all into this deeply goofy performance. And his face is so shiny.
Frankie Faison — Commissioner Burrell from The Wire — stars in a lovely little indie pocket drama that turns out to be all about dealing with loss. The way the light hits the camera is sublime.
Every so often, we all feel like indistinguishable lumps of body-horror tissue, like Kaneda at the end of Akira. And every so often, we need Mike Hadreas to sing to us tenderly and theatrically anyway.
A high school explodes into sudden, explosive, euphoric anarchy, like the end of Over The Edge in fast forward. Paint flies, glass shatters, shit explodes, and axes, crossbows, and swords come into play. For some of us, this is all pretty cathartic.
An ultra-affecting ’70s variety-show performance, Chance duetting in the inexplicable rain with an enormous mascot-looking puppet. The final reveal is worthy of a Twilight Zone episode.
This video is utterly entrancing, but I have to imagine that it’s not nearly as absorbing as video of the pitch meeting might be: “So, um, you’re going to be naked, OK? And kind of covered with wax? And your hair is alive? Don’t worry, it’ll be very tasteful.”
It starts out as a fun, spooky claymation-skeleton lark. It ends up as a hard, unflinching condemnation of gentrification and of the criminal justice system. That’s versatility!
An Iggy Pop-narrated nature documentary about the wood mouse would probably be worth watching even if it didn’t end in the immediate aftermath of a post-robbery shootout,
There’s an entire genre of music — of musician — who seems to exist entirely as the basis for mind-boggling music videos. For instance: I cannot imagine listening to this French EDM-rap banger in any context other than its ridiculously orchestrated, choreographed-to-hell single-drone-shot video. I guess that makes OrelSan the French OK Go.
The symmetry is beautiful. Two good friends, living on different sides of the planet, sing each other’s words, all of it captured in gloriously crisp black-and-white. The Courtney Barnett/Kurt Vile album was good, but I don’t think anything about it was quite as great as this first look.
Music videos are built to convey exhilaration. This one conveys what might be that feeling’s polar opposite: The heedless, depthless darkness that descends when someone you love dies. It’s heavy, and it’s powerful.
After the few months we’ve just had, it’s really something to go back to this and to see a naked woman just going about her life, uncommented upon and unbothered. It’s cathartic, even.
You put a flaming sword into Janelle Monaé’s hands and you’ve automatically got one of the best videos of the year. Sometimes, it’s just that simple.
A vivid, absurdist pop-music vision and an oddly fitting elegy to bygone institutions like George Michael and Tower Records.
In terms of the stark simplicity and the intensity of the performance, this is right up there with “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Except this time, we have the added stunt-appeal of someone sneaking a GoPro onto a roller coaster. The guy in the pink shirt deserves some kind of supporting-actor award even though I’m not sure he even knows he’s in a music video.
This is both beautiful and creepy even before the final-shot plot twist, and then it somehow becomes both more beautiful and more creepy.
During the first Fever Ray run, the videos were all sparse, surreal, atmospheric, deeply Scandinavian mini-horror movies. I wouldn’t have guessed that Karin Dreijer would return as a black-metal clown who loves getting pissed on, but there it is.
You wouldn’t think there’s be that much comic potential in a torrid love affair between a girl and a guitar, but everyone involved really just goes for it. By the time this reaches the bathroom-humping stage, we know we’re looking at something special.
Virtuoso Vegas-entertainer chintz that effectively transforms Bruno Mars into a cartoon, which, from what I can tell, is all he ever wanted to be anyway.
29. Mike Will Made-It – “Perfect Pint” (Feat. Rae Sremmurd, Gucci Mane, & Kendrick Lamar) (Dir. Nabil)
Johnny Depp has spent the past 20 years paying homage to Hunter S. Thompson, and yet he’s never managed a tribute as effective as this four-minute rap video, in which Gucci Mane becomes a giant kaiju and Kendrick Lamar drives a flying lowrider.
A series of vivid, surreal visions of Los Angeles that pull us in completely, the whole becoming greater than the sum of the many, many parts. And when things turn apocalyptic at the end, it feels inevitable.
It’s a straight-ahead, beautifully shot performance video, with the band playing on a river barge, the sun glinting in their hair. But it’s also a loving portrait of the city of Philadelphia and its people. More than anything else, it reminds me of Juvenile’s “Ha” video. I don’t know if that’s what they were aiming for, but I’m glad they got there.
What starts off as obnoxious meta stuntery becomes really amazing meta stuntery, as the video’s goofy-as-hell storyline gets the space it needs to play out.
The song is butt, but the video is performatively silly megabudget mythbusting of the highest order. David Bowie once metaphorically killed Ziggy Stardust. He never stood atop a clamoring CGI pile of his old selves, but the spirit is the same.
Interactive music videos are usually bullshit. This one is transcendent. I wrote a couple of one liners for one of the endings, and it marks the greatest contribution I have ever made to the art form of the music video.
A stunningly beautiful and humane vision of life in Algeria — a world that I’d never really seen before, in any context. To watch this is to be upset that you’re not friends with more Algerian soccer-hooligan types.
Even before Kendrick Lamar shows up, rapping while eating Chinese food, this thing has a car shaped like a pyramid. More rap videos should have that. That’s amazing.
With the possible exception of Michael Jackson, Missy Elliott is the greatest music-video artist of all time, and she’s also probably the only person who could come back with a video where she leads a laser-lit underwater dance routine and still seems like she’s holding back.
It’s more of an arthouse comedy than a straight-up music video, but what a powerful piece of work. And the note-perfect recreation of the Friends opening credits, set to Whodini’s “Friends,” is god-level.
Camila Cabello is going to be a movie star one day, and she might still never deliver a better performance than the one she gives in this multiple-role video.
Guest-verses excluded, Kendrick Lamar made four major music videos in 2017. They’re all classics. And the worst of them is the one where Kendrick and Don Cheadle furiously lip-sync the song back and forth at each other in a police interrogation room. That’s historic.
When he isn’t kicking female photographers in the face, this guy has so much swagger.
There are so many beautiful little touches to this: the subtle nod to Romanek and Jay’s “99 Problems” video, the way that painting gets progressively more abstract, the way Jay turns into Dumbo after that thunderingly dumb DUMBO punchline. But all the details dull next to the throbbing pain at the center of this, at the way the video flips around racist iconography to prove its points. And it would’ve hit hard even if Donald Trump hadn’t spent the months afterward forcefully proving how right it was.
I can’t even imagine how much work went into this one: The road closures, the choreography, the precise camera placement during the unbroken single drone shot. But everyone involved still made it look effortless — just these three sisters clearly and visibly enjoying spending time together and pulling this whole thing off.
That scene from Breakin’ where Ozone dances on the ceiling, transformed into an abstract-impressionist horror movie. I have no idea how they made this, and I don’t want to know. Sometimes, magic should just be magic.
This one has glowing-eyed attack dogs and ritualistic-murdering strippers and Rihanna in scandalous evening wear and a great little callback to Evanescence’s “Bring Me To Life,” but what really puts it over the top is the fucking street sharks. Put those street sharks in everything.
Nika Roza Danilova wrote “Siphon” for a suicidal family member. Zia Anger dramatized it by putting Danilova in the searing beauty of a sun-dappled mountain afternoon, and then showering her with blood. The fear and love and intensity of their combined vision is enough to knock me sideways.
The most purely joyous thing that Paul Thomas Anderson has shot since the opening scene of Boogie Nights. And look, I’m sorry, but there is a 0% chance that Phantom Thread will be as good as this.
I never considered MØ and Cashmere Cat to be particularly fascinating people, even though I liked their music. This video makes them interesting, and it tells the story of a song that, while already good, really needed that extra little bit of context. And as a piece of pure filmmaking, it’s beautiful.
An ecstatic meditation on race and violence and the things that black Americans face everyday. There are subtle allusions in here to Civil Rights history, to blaxploitation cinema, to the photography of Charles Burnett. And when was the last time you saw anything use light and shadow like this?
In the whole amazing year that Brockhampton just had, this is the crowning achievement and the moment the whole movement really started to take shape. The energy is palpable — these friends, bursting with ideas, throwing everything at the wall. So: a Reservoir Dogs remake! With go-karts! And horse masks! And an alpaca! And everyone rapping at a GoPro while sticking their heads out of a sunroof!
The artist doesn’t show up to the shoot of his own $100,000 video until the very end of the shoot, and the moment he does, the cops on set shut the whole thing down. So what do you do if you’re the director? If you’re Ryan Staake, you make the “Frank Sinatra Has A Cold” of music videos. Nobody else should ever try this, but he pulled it off.
Boys did not come across very well in 2017! So all of us should feel delighted to have one three-minute video in which we came across as foxy desire-objects rather than dangerous shitbags.
A lot of people have posted YouTube videos that reverse this one, so that it plays out in regular chronology. But why? A huge part of the magic of this one is that it has a cinematic syntax that makes it a completely unique thing. A timely reminder that Russia has more going for it than state-enforced repression and election tampering.
Give Romain Chassaing credit for making a hyperviolent live-action crime-movie version of a Bugs Bunny cartoon. And give Dizzee Rascal credit for allowing himself to be cast as Yosemite Sam.
It’s all perfect: the snowmobiles, the Jackie O sunglasses, the huskies, the spear, the Pyrex on the campfire, the bow and arrow, the gorgeous aerial landscape shots. But can we focus on the fact that Takeoff is wearing an entire bear? The fact that this wasn’t the year’s best music video is nothing short of a miracle.
It has been many, many years since anyone has delivered a video with this much energy and force and importance. Kendrick Lamar was already a voice-of-a-generation type before this, but this video marks the moment where he became comfortable with it and where he started having fun with it. Every single frame of this video is iconic in one way or another, but when Kendrick Lamar dies, that image of his head on fire is the one that’s going to run next to the obit.