In the early days of this century, you could still turn on your television and, every so often, catch a music video. It didn’t last. Music videos still exist on television, but niche ventures like the MTV Jams Channel only exist in the shadowy nether reaches of cable subscriptions, and that’s not where music videos get their attention.
Instead, music videos moved online — something that became all the more obvious when YouTube launched and when music became one of that site’s driving engines. The whole aesthetic of the art form changed. Budgets dropped, gimmickry increased, and a new cadre of elite directors rose to the forefront. Music videos were no longer central to culture, and the people who made the best ones seemed to be OK with that.
In 2018, something different happened: Music videos regained their centrality. An eye-grabbing, thoughtful, planned-out video could, if it appeared at the right moment, stop the world. It could make a star. It could take an existing star and change the narrative around that person. It could dominate Twitter chatter for hours at a time, which is the biggest impact any cultural artifact can hope to land in our corroded age.
It’s an exciting time for the music video. Low-budget, fringy videos still exist. Sometimes, they even make stars. But they’re competing for eyeballs with grand marketing visions — some of which can be as weirdly moving as their most low-budget counterparts. It’s an equal playing field and a totally unequal and corrupt system at the same time. There’s no cohesion to the list of this year’s best videos, and there are probably at least a few people in there who you absolutely hate. But within this list, you will find images that will capture you, whether you want them to or not.
In a year that Puerto Rico was shamefully forgotten, its people left to fend for themselves in the aftermath of natural disaster, this video did everything it could to capture beauty and devastation. It’s not a public service announcement. It’s a depiction of lives lived. It’s sad, and it’s hopeful, and it leaves me moved and angry.
Romain Gavras doesn’t seem to be making music videos anymore. He’s on to full-length motion pictures instead. (Gavras’ Netflix crime flick The World Is Yours is well worth your time.) But if Gavras was still making videos, this perverse little vision is the kind of thing he might make.
SSION mastermind Cody Critcheloe has been making glammed-out DIY head trips for years. In 2018, he took those foxy fantasias to a whole new level, and “At Least The Sky Is Blue” was both his prettiest and his most head-spinning. Ariel Pink, it turns out, was always meant to become Elizabeth Taylor.
Dr. Dre’s “The Next Episode” is no longer the best strip-club music video of all time.
A gloriously sunny, weirdly endearing pop-music hallucination, marred only by the worst hat that anyone has ever worn.
Bruno Mars, born in 1985, was four years old when In Living Color debuted on Fox, and he was nine when it aired its last episode. This may have been the perfect age to absorb the show’s dizzy, ecstatic sensibility without pulling in any of the raunch. Here, he pays loving tribute to the fashion, dancing, and flair of a bygone era, and it works well enough to send you on a YouTube bender.
Sure, it’s cynical: The asshole of the moment pumping up his secondhand empowerment anthem with images of famous pretty women. But if a cynical artifact can give you a real rush of exhilaration, then who cares how cynical it is? A Marvel movie might win Best Picture, and it might deserve it. Everything is on the table.
The charismatic mothers of charismatic men: A study.
Kevin Hart came very close to being the first person ever to host the Oscars and complain about “dick-hands on my jacket” in an artful rap video in the very same year.
So this is how they get down in Estonia. Good to know!
Staggering levels of creativity that went into this — 15 minute-long songs, strung together by candy-bright one-minute videos, each visually rich and surprising in different ways. Not all of the videos work, but the ones that don’t are over before they have time to get on your nerves. And a star was born. Mission accomplished.
An extended visual metaphor about race that manages to be both dazzling and moving. Anyone who can make a video like this deserves to direct a whole movie, if that’s what they want to do.
2018 was the year that TDE’s least showy rapper turned out to be a great music-video artist. The “King’s Dead” video, with its vertiginous ’70s-thriller zooms, got the most attention, but this slow-motion superhero cartoon — Kendrick Lamar skating across the foreground like Bugs Bunny — was my favorite.
What might’ve happened if mid-’80s MTV-stardom-era Peter Gabriel had decided to make one of his bright, funny visual feasts about total, soul-crushing human isolation.
A sharp, nasty, dark joke about life in black neighborhoods, as seen from afar. As its final trick, it might just implicate you, directly.
The Everything Is Love album was decent beach-reading, but it was a footnote to this video. The sheer audacity of using the fucking Louvre as a music-video set is a thing of beauty. But it’s nothing compared to the cinematography, the choreography, the styling, or the long moment of eye contact before two titans turn to regard the Mona Lisa up close.
A four-minute visual poem about human tenderness, golden-hour sunlight, and the joy of movement.
A hellacious skewering of our online habits that might make you want to go on an eight-hour YouTube binge and set your computer on fire simultaneously.
Nobody this year was better at being in music videos that Rosalía, who spent 2018 finding dazzling new ways to refract the imagery of pop stardom and of Spain itself. This video, the first that most of us saw, is on this list as a stand-in for all the incredible work she did this year, but it’s also a stunning piece of star-making iconography in its own right.
It’s possible that no piece of 2018 art mattered more than the “This Is America” video, a nasty and visceral and virtuosic vision of the joy and pride and terror and anxiety that come with being black in America’s end days. Donald Glover used the moment of his greatest cultural visibility to unleash this, a razor-laced valentine that let nobody, including himself, off the hook.