It’s been another blockbuster year for music videos – but which were the best? Here are our favourites in order, and the stories behind them by the visionaries who made them.
From the visceral black protest of Beyonce’s ‘Formation’ to the celebrity critique of Kanye West’s ‘Famous’, music videos have continued to show their capacity to dominate the pop culture agenda in 2016, well into an age where they might easily have been left behind. Delve beyond the videos that sparked thousands of think-pieces, however, and you’ll find it was also a banner year for less starry visuals that pushed the boundaries of what can be done with the format. Dawn Richard and Bjork dipped their toes further into the world of VR, with ‘Not Above That’ and ‘Family’ respectively. There was a further surge of interactive videos too, from Santigold’s clever, webcam-interfacing ‘Can’t Get Enough Of Myself’ clip, to Cassius’ ‘The Missing’.
For all these technological advances, though, not much has changed about what makes a great video in 2016 compared to a decade ago, or even three. A great music video still takes a song and weaves its story and sonics into a visual accompaniment that animates it in new colors, lending new context and meaning to the track. Which is why our list below of this year’s best videos sees innovation rub shoulders with story-telling, weird brain-melting graphics sit alongside graphics, and big budget clips sit along austere, simple promos. The only constant is ingenuity.
Here’s the top 10 with their insight on the winning videos and how they came to be. Special shout-out to the youngest director on this list, Ryan Weir, who shot his entry here at age 12. 2017 – the bar for amazing videos has been set…
10. Danny Brown – ‘When It Rain’
Dir. Mimi Cave
Mimi Cave: “Danny is an artist with a vision and from my experience he knows what he wants and what he likes. I knew he wanted to shoot a distorted video in Detroit with an element of Detroit-specific dance styles included. Jittin’ is a dance style born out of Detroit and it was important to Danny we incorporated that somehow. I took those ideas and our conversations to plan an approach and tried to get all the dancers I wanted in Detroit to come out. The video had to exude that city – this was also important to Danny. We shot on three different cameras because I really wanted the analog vibes to be real. It’s like the difference of am mp3 and vinyl. The texture is just not the same.
The main challenge was honestly budget, as with most music videos. Other than that we didn’t have a lot of issues. Detroit is a really fun town to shoot in and as someone who grew up in Chicago it felt very familiar to me. We had a tiny crew and only a few days, but the talent in Detroit came through in a big way. Detroiters love Danny and everyone was psyched to represent his music. It was honestly one of the more fun shoots I’ve done. Good people, interesting ideas, talented dancers and insanely relevant music.
I tried really hard to have Danny’s visions incorporated into how I executed the shoot and the edit. He referenced Talking Heads’ Once In A Lifetime documentary. After we agreed on a general aesthetic and approach, he trusted me to do the rest – which is the best feeling in the world to get from an artist. The dance element and the edit on this video is where I felt like I got to bring some of myself into it. My editor Blake Bogosian killed it and we had a ton of fun scratching up all the footage with an analog video mixer.
Reaction has all been positive. I’m so psyched I got to work with such a unique voice in rap music, and such a talented performer. Danny’s style and lyrics are incredible in my opinion. The aim of a music video for me is always to enhance and support the music and not overshadow it. ‘When It Rain is intense’. This year is intense. There’s a heaviness we all feel and for me, a physical urge to push through it. The video needed to match that freneticism and fight. A mix of distortion, nostalgia and good old fashioned dance-till-you-die mentality based in one of the most resilient cities in America.”
9. Schoolboy Q – ‘Groovy Tony’
Dir. Jack Begert
Jack Begert: “The process for this project was very collaborative, with input from Q and TDE. There are so many different concepts playing out in the different sections of the video, so we were able to mix and match different ideas while still keeping them tied together to the central aesthetic. A lot of people compare the video to the movie Hardcore Henry, but it actually came out before the film was released. I had definitely seen a shoot-em-up vodka commercial from the same director and was impressed by the challenge of doing first-person POV. The gritty, hectic style and frenetic editing was inspired in part by Justice’s video for ‘Stress’.
Schoolboy was still in the middle of recording Blank Face when we were working on the video, and much of the concept was actually developed hanging around the studio in between sessions. It was very important to Q that the visual matched the dark aggressive vibe of the song. I like that we also got some of his funny side in there too.
This was a particularly tough one to shoot because we had so many locations, effects, and moving parts. My favorite part about it was how many practical stunts we were able to pack in there – the car crushing, the AK, the fire, not to mention all the Blank Face makeup. It was tight to see him kick the car and actually have it skid away.
Originally, the junkyard sequence wasn’t going to be as extensive, but when we got to the location we realized that the guys running the place were huge Schoolboy fans – they let us use all of those giant machines and everything. Shout out Francisco and the boys.
What’s the reaction been like since it dropped? My mom called me. She really doesn’t like this video.”
8. Elon Katz – ‘The Rhino Power Of New Sensitivity’
Dir. Elon Katz and Will Galperin
Elon Katz: “My original idea was more voyeuristic and raw. Imagine D’Angelo’s ‘Untitled’ video meets ’70s video art like Bruce Nauman or Vito Acconci, with a Paranormal Activity webcam / Benny’s Video camcorder aesthetic. I would be in a empty loft space, naked and filming myself, singing to the camera, flesh stretching and morphing along with the track. This was before the record came together, so as things started to materialize – label, artwork, presentation, I became interested in the idea of branding and how we advertise ourselves as musicians, selecting parts of our self we’d like the public to consume.
My co-director and producer Will Galperin, who works in advertising, was really the driving force of the whole project, acting as a motivator and guiding force to make my insane ideas come to life. After shooting and editing, we spent a few weeks with VFX artist Evan Stalker creating the dysmorphic characters. I had a hard time portraying myself as sexy or cool – it seemed pointless – so the goal of the video became to ‘advertise’ the ideas in the song with as few visual cues as possible. The song touches on the idea of truth in an accelerated world and in the video I wanted the theme of dysmorphic self-reflection and damaged ego to play out in a quite literal way.
As the video illustrates, in the age of Ego Media, we inevitably view ourselves more than we see the others around us. The general reaction to the video was an uneasy one- which is how I feel when viewing an advert or dealing with a damaged ego, so I think we hit our mark! One person said it was like a Francis Bacon painting that turned into a Magritte. I like that read best.”
7. Sevdaliza – ‘Marilyn Monroe’
Dir. Hirad Sab
Hirad Sab: “Sevda reached out to me and her idea was to take Frida’s “The Broken Column” and draw upon that in conjunction with steam punk elements to illustrate a woman going through a mechanical transformation from a natural being to machine.
The initial idea was pretty busy and required many elements. At the time I was very inspired by the appearance of gadgets and technological inventions, if you want to call “lab aesthetics” and the video started gravitating towards that, which in turn changed the idea of a full transformation to more of an integration of the body and the machine and its acceptance.
The challenge was being responsible for every aspect of the project, from modeling, lighting, shading and animation to rendering and that also contributed to the minimalistic feeling of the piece. It’s much easier to worry about one thing than many!”
6. Aphex Twin – ‘CIRKLON3 [ Колхозная mix ]’
Dir. Ryan Weir
Ryan Weir: “I like Aphex Twin’s creepy videos and I think he is the best electronic musician of all time. The ‘Come To Daddy’ video was creepy with the creature screaming at the old lady’s face. I was like surprised, excited and also nervous when I got asked to make a video for Aphex Twin but I like to stay calm and not get all crazy! I was told to do my own thing as they loved my work on the ‘Minipops 67’ video that I made 2 years ago. I done all the editing too It took a lot of time and work but I loved it. I wanted it to be crazy and funny just like me! Afterwards, Richard told me to keep up the good work that I was doing a great job.
I like to stay calm but the response was huge. I was so happy and everyone thought it was the best ever. Some Aphex Twin fans said some bad comments on the video but I think they were just jealous and I don’t care about the bad comments, there was so many good ones and lots of people trying to contact me from everywhere. My family and friends thought it was so cool and couldn’t believe it, they’re very proud of me. Now I would like to make videos for Autechre, Squarepusher, Cut Hands, Justice and more Aphex Twin videos.
I love electronic, glitch and death metal music.”
5. Miike Snow – ‘Genghis Khan’
Dir. Ninian Doff
Ninian Doff: “I was intrigued by the main chorus line, “I get a bit Genghis Khan,” in a song which was about relationships. Genghis Khan killed 40 million people so is quite an odd reference in a song about love. So that got me thinking about evil people falling in love. Which led to classic movie tropes of good guys and bad guys dealing with love.
I had a strong feeling that the only way to make this idea work and not be cheesy was to treat it very sincerely and seriously. Really make it feel like a long lost movie scene not a pop promo. So that meant a very strict attention to detail, camera work, set, casting and even shooting on 35mm film for the first time in my life. Getting that kind of detail in the shooting schedule and budget of music video is pretty tough. Hats off to all the crew who helped me achieve that.
The obvious one for the look is the 1960s and 70s movies of a famous spy who I won’t mention for copyright reasons. Also old LIFE magazine photo spreads for the scenes at home. I watched a lot of early musicals – Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly – to look at how dance was shot back in the classic musical days. I also actually referenced films like Footloose and Grease too, so it was a big mix.
The reaction has been beyond my wildest dreams really – it’s got a real cult following. If you go on Tumblr you’ll finds hundreds for pieces of amazing fan art, fan fiction and even cosplay of people going to conventions as the characters (complete with golden noses). It’s really special to have made something that people care that much about.
Any fun anecdotes from the shoot? Well, the heat of the electrical generator set off the fire sprinklers which no one could turn off and it flooded half the set and then all the electricity cut off for the whole location… oh wait sorry, you said “fun” not “nervous breakdown-inducing total nightmare”. My bad.”
4. Peaches – ‘Rub’
Dir. A.L. Steiner, Lex Vaughn, and Peaches
Peaches: “The message of the video is to feel free. The concept came about when my friend told me how she likes to squirt off buildings and I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be cool to do that with women in the desert?’ I wanted to bring together incredible woman and showcase their diverse beauty and performance talent. The reaction was very immediate. Unfortunately YouTube shut it down at almost a million views.”
3. Mitski – ‘Happy’
Dir. Maegan Houang
Maegan Houang: “When I listened to the song, it instantly reminded me of 1950s melodramas and how we are all often striving for a definition of happiness that does not necessarily exist. Almost always in those films, despite whatever sensational scenarios are on the surface, the true source of emotion and angst is often something more insidiously universal.
The main character in our video, Eleanor, hopes to achieve the American dream as dictated to her by society, but it’s not fully attainable. It’s just an ideal. And the reality ends up being much worse than she ever imagined, even after she began to see cracks in the facade.
This video is also in part a fictionalized version of a time when I felt duped by love and my own delusions of what determines a perfect relationship. Like Eleanor, I knew things were bad, but I was devastated when I finally had to face what ended up being a more horrible reality. Of course, none of my exes are serial killers… that I know of.
Mitski and I discussed what was most important to both of us, which included having a female protagonist of color. After that, I sent her a treatment for the video, which was a little left field from our initial conversation to say the least. I’m not sure they expected the gruesomeness of the twist. I feel very fortunate and grateful that Mitski and her team loved the idea and completely believed in my vision.
As someone who grew up with very few role models on screen that look like me, I’ve been honored by the positive feedback from other Asian American women. I was most humbled when I found out someone dressed up as the main character for Halloween. As I continue my career as a filmmaker, it’s become increasingly important to me to tell stories and cast characters that we don’t typically witness. It’s unfortunate the extent to which filmmakers, especially women, minorities, and LGTBQ+, must continue to prove our own humanity. At this point, mere visibility is an achievement, let alone rich character development. Hopefully greater inclusion on screen will help convince people that we also matter. Especially at this moment in time, we should all be fighting for inclusivity in every medium.”
2. Kaytranada – ‘Lite Spots’
Dir. Martin C. Pariseau
Martin C. Pariseau: “At first, I wanted to do something around Kay building a spaceship for himself to travel through space. But since Kay really wanted to showcase his dance skills, the spaceship morphed into a robot. Kay was there from start to finish. He first came to my studio, we then picked the song together and started bouncing ideas that same night. He’s the lead protagonist and was acting with an imaginary robot the whole time, so I’d say he was pretty closely involved. I was really inspired by Spike Jonze’s short film I’m Here. Kay was channeling a lot of actors from a lot of different movies during the shoot. Can you spot when he emulates Denzel?”
1. Mr Oizo – ‘All Wet’
Dir. Quentin Dupieux (Mr Oizo)
Mr Oizo: “Music videos are annoying and useless. When YouTube forces me to watch one, you usually get bored after 20 seconds, even if the music is cool. That’s why I got the idea to shoot this teaser with random ideas and stupid feelings inspired by my album. No thinking. Just fun. Bye.”