Whether taking advantage of technological advances at the end of the 20th century, or simply channelling the unbridled joy of no-fuss plugging in and rocking out, the best 90s music videos captured an era of change both in society and in the music industry. With the internet in bloom and a new millennium looming, these 20 promo clips now stand as creative landmarks in a decade of seemingly limitless possibilities.
20: Green Day: Basket Case (1994)
Back in the summer of 1994, Green Day’s pop-punk stunner Basket Case was unavoidable, and its striking, colour-saturated video received constant MTV play. Shot in an abandoned psychiatric institution, the Agnews Developmental Center, in Santa Clara, California, the video reflected the song’s lyrics, which were written about Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong’s then undiagnosed anxiety disorder. “We found outpatient files of shock-treatment therapy, and this old dentistry [equipment] that was really awful-looking,” Armstrong told MTV. “We [found] mouldings of people’s teeth that were gross, so we brought them home to use them as ashtrays and stuff.” Helping Basket Case become a standout from the Dookie album while also securing the single’s place among the best Green Day songs, the video heavily referenced the 1975 film adaptation of One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest, Ken Kesey’s classic 60s countercultural novel.
Director: Mark Kohr
19: R.E.M.: Losing My Religion (1991)
Losing My Religion was the first single from R.E.M.’s seventh album, 1991’s Out Of Time, and the song that saw them really cross over into the mainstream. While frontman Michael Stipe had shied away from the spotlight for the first decade of the band’s career (he’d refused to lip-sync in any of their videos to this point), the Losing My Religion promo saw him take centre stage. Director Tarsem Singh later told Rolling Stone, “I went and saw Stipe and the guys for probably a day and a half. Something was missing from the idea, one little piece. I spent a day with him, in the evening we went clubbing. I saw him dance and I thought, That’s the missing element!” Stipe’s wild, uninhibited dancing provided a counterpoint to the heavily stylised religious imagery – and the singer even lip-synced for the first time in a promo. It was a magnetic performance that helped propel both the song and the band into the mainstream, ensuring the clip’s place among the best 90s music videos.
Director: Tarsem Singh
18: Alanis Morissette: Ironic (1996)
Released as the third single from 1995’s Jagged Little Pill album, Ironic arrived with a video that truly caught the public’s imagination. The clip featured Alanis Morissette[https://www.thisisdig.com/artist/alanis-morissette/] driving a black Lincoln Continental Mark V through a winter landscape; as it progresses, the viewer realises she has three passengers with her, all also played by the singer. In an interview with Vogue, Morissette revealed that the outfits she wore in the clip reflected the personalities of each character – the responsible driver, the “quirkster”, the “romantic – wistful and thoughtful and also the risk-taker”, and the head-banger in the back seat who “gets into trouble – she’s the girl you want with you when you are heading to the water park”. At the end of the video, the driver exits but her passengers are nowhere to be seen. A fittingly enigmatic treatment for one of the best Alanis Morissette songs, the clip reflected both Morissette’s lyrics and her persona, and it was nominated for multiple awards, eventually receiving the highest accolade in the form of a number of parodies, including one from “Weird Al” Yankovic.
Director: Stéphane Sednaoui
17: The Smashing Pumpkins: Tonight, Tonight (1996)
The Smashing Pumpkins’ third album, Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness, represented a leap in scale for the Chicago alt-rockers. Frontman Billy Corgan wanted the eclectic 28-track double album to stand up to landmarks of its type, such as Pink Floyd’s The Wall and The Beatles’ “White Album”, and the video for Tonight, Tonight reflected that ambition. Inspired by Georges Méliès 1902 short film A Trip To The Moon, the clip followed a couple on a surreal, incident-filled journey to the Moon as the band perform the song in period costume. Surprised at its success, Corgan told MTV, “I don’t think we’ve ever had people react [like this]… it just seemed to touch a nerve.” Tonight, Tonight won six MTV Video Music Awards and was nominated for a Grammy, helping its parent album sell over ten million copies in the US alone.
Directors: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
16: The Notorious B.I.G.: Hypnotize (1994)
Releasing the thrilling video for Hypnotize should have marked a triumphant moment for The Notorious B.I.G.. A budget-busting entry among the best 90s promo videos, the clip was filmed in February 1997 but wouldn’t be released until the end of March, just weeks after Biggie’s death, as director Paul Hunter told Spin that same year: “Biggie never got a chance to see it in completion. I showed him about a minute and a half in the early rounds and he was really excited. He smiled like a kid: this big, warm smile. He never got to see the final product.” The first single lifted from Biggie’s grandiose double album Life After Death, Hypnotize was given a larger-than-life promo which featured Biggie and Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs on a buddy-movie-style escapade, with Hunter’s glitzy treatment – more action film than music video – going on to define the Bad Boy Records aesthetic.
Director: Paul Hunter
15: Pulp: Common People (1995)
Pulp’s biggest single – and one of the defining moments of British pop music in the 90s – Common People saw frontman Jarvis Cocker deliver a biting satire on class tourism. Its video not only mirrored the song’s narrative, with actress Sadie Frost playing the middle-class wannabe on the receiving end of Cocker’s putdowns, but it truly introduced the world to Cocker’s magnetic presence as a frontman. Tailor-made for Britpop’s retro fetishism, the kitschy club scenes, in which Cocker leads the way in a dance routine, were filmed inside Stepney’s Nightclub, on Commercial Road, in London’s East End. When the club came under threat of demolition in 2007 it was described as a “cultural icon”, thanks to its appearance in what remains one of the best 90s music videos.
Director: Pedro Romhanyi
14: Red Hot Chili Peppers: Under The Bridge (1994)
Directed by acclaimed filmmaker Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting, Milk, My Own Private Idaho), the video for Under The Bridge represented a watershed moment for Red Hot Chili Peppers. Indeed, bassist Flea credited the video as “the thing that really made us break through the mainstream of American and worldwide pop culture”. Taken from the Blood Sugar Sex Magick album, the song showed a different side of the Chili Peppers, its contemplative reflection on frontman Anthony Kiedis’ struggles with drug addiction proving that the group were capable of real depth. Fitting the song’s mood, Van Sant superimposed colour-saturated shots of the band onto cityscapes and intercut them with footage of Kiedis walking the streets of Los Angeles. The singer later said, “The first time we shot [the video] it was all in a studio and that didn’t seem to capture everything we needed to capture. It needed more; it needed to be combined with an outdoor, streets-of-Los-Angeles thing.” Filming the extra footage proved to be a good call: Under The Bridge connected with a huge audience and remains highly regarded as one of the best 90s songs.
Director: Gus Van Sant
13: Prince And The New Power Generation: Gett Off (1991)
Gett Off was the first single from Prince’s 13th studio album, Diamonds And Pearls, and his first release co-credited to his new backing band, The New Power Generation. Its promo clip was suitably lavish, with up to 200 people on set for the raunchy, Caligula-inspired scenes shot by first-time director (and soon-to-be long-time Prince collaborator) Randee St Nicholas. A highlight among the best Prince videos, the clip inspired a similarly steamy set-piece during the Diamonds And Pearls Tour and a memorable performance at the 1992 MTV Music Awards – notable for Prince’s revealing “assless” chaps. Gett Off also marked the first appearance of dancers Lori Elle Werner (Diamond) and Robia LaMorte (Pearl) in a Prince video.
Director: Randee St Nicholas
12: Massive Attack: Unfinished Sympathy (1991)
The second single from Massive Attack’s groundbreaking debut album, Blue Lines, Unfinished Sympathy was an instant classic and heralded a new sound in R&B music, courtesy of its meditative beats, cinematic strings and inventive use of samples. Featured vocalist Shara Nelson’s insistent performance also ensured the striking track would be unforgettable. Fittingly, she was the star of the video, singing the song as she walked down LA’s West Pico Boulevard. Director Bailie Walsh later told Uncut, “The idea I had for Unfinished Sympathy was trying to capture the feel that you’re walking down the street and you’ve been so affected by love or hurt that you don’t know where you are, you walk in a daze and you haven’t noticed anything. So I wanted to take that emotion and make it big and cinematic, which is why I took it to LA. I liked the quality of light and the wide-open streets in the slightly run-down parts of town… It was quite a difficult shoot, but I love presenting myself with those challenges. It was a single shot, no cuts… I don’t think it had been done in a pop promo before.” The Verve later acknowledged Unfinished Sympathy’s place among the best 90s music videos when they paid homage to it with their own Bittersweet Symphony clip.
Director: Bailie Walsh
11: Radiohead: Just (1995)
By the time Just was released, as the fourth single from Radiohead’s second album, The Bends, the Oxford five-piece had already established themselves among the best 90s musicians, and were on their way to becoming one of the biggest rock bands on the planet. Still, they entrusted the song’s promo clip to Jamie Thraves, a filmmaker who had released some short art films but never directed a music video. On 31 July 1995, singer Thom Yorke wrote in his tour diary, “Video shoot for Just… It’s about a character who collapses in the street and then all these captions appear on the screen as if the song’s been translated. Apparently. But, there are three days of shooting and we’re only here for one so it’s pretty much out of our hands. That’s cool.” The video features a man lying on the pavement as he has a subtitled conversation with confused onlookers. After much prompting, the man is finally about to explain why he is lying down – and the subtitles end. The closing shot pans over the street from above, revealing that the onlookers have all taken their place alongside the man. All the while, the footage is intercut with Radiohead performing the song in an overlooking building, only stopping to check out the action below. When asked by Billboard just why the protagonist was lying in the street, Thraves simply said, “You don’t want to know, please believe me.”
Director: Jamie Thraves
10: Daft Punk: Around The World (1997)
For the second single from Daft Punk’s debut album, Homework, French filmmaker Michel Gondry hit upon a fantastically simple and effective concept which would only enhance the track’s reputation as one of the best Daft Punk songs. Using only a rotating stage and several choreographed dance troupes – each representing a different aspect of the song’s instrumentation – Gondry effectively produced a waveform-type representation of the music, using only humans. The bass parts were “played” by giants, robots performed the vocoder-heavy vocal refrain and synchronised swimmers represented the glissandos; it made for a stunning whole that was immediately received as one of the best 90s music videos. “This was my first try to do choreography and I was sick to see choreography being mistreated in videos like filler with fast cutting and fast editing, really shallow,” Gondry explained of his Daft Punk clip. “I don’t think choreography should be shot in close-ups.”
Director: Michel Gondry
8: Missy Elliott: Sock It 2 Me (1997)
We could pick any of Missy Elliot’s innovative clips for inclusion among the best 90s music videos, but Sock It 2 Me is a stunning example of her relationship with director Hype Williams and the game-changing Afrofuturist vision the pair brought to hip-hop towards the end of the decade. Acknowledging the increasing influence of Eastern culture on the US, Sock It 2 Me’s video adopts a Japanese animation style which also nods to the Nintendo game Mega Man. For this intergalactic interpretation of a standout cut from Missy Elliott’s debut album, Supa Dupa Fly, Lil’ Kim and Da Brat (along with a camouflaged, red-wigged paramilitary troupe) were recruited to help Elliott fight off anime-style robots. Interviewed during the making of the video, Elliott’s stylist June Ambrose told The New York Times, “She has lost her mind, and that’s a good thing.”
Director: Hype Williams
7: Sinéad O’Connor: Nothing Compares 2 U (1990)
Another music video that proves simplicity works wonders when it comes to communicating powerful emotions, the clip for Nothing Compares 2 U played a huge part in the single’s success. Written by Prince and originally recorded by his side-project group The Family, and issued on their 1985 self-titled album, the lovelorn ballad was reinvigorated in 1990, when Sinéad O’Connor turned a little-known entry among the best Prince songs into a heart-rending global hit. Director John Maybury’s masterstroke was to focus solely on O’Connor’s face as she sings; by the end of the video, there’s a tear streaming down each cheek. O’Connor would later claim that the tears were real and unplanned, deciding, “I should let this happen,” as emotion overwhelmed her during the performance. She explained that she had been thinking about her mother, who had died in a car accident five years earlier.
Director: John Maybury
6: Weezer: Buddy Holly (1994)
The video that put filmmaker Spike Jonze on the map, Buddy Holly combined new footage of Weezer performing their irresistible surf-pop hit with archive footage of the much-loved 70s sitcom Happy Days, making it appear as if the band were actually in Arnold’s diner during an episode of the show. Drummer Pat Wilson explained how they pulled the trick off: “We rebuilt the inside of Arnold’s, and we dressed up and we would film a scene. We bought some film footage of Happy Days and put it all together. When they filmed us, they processed it and made it look a little grainy so it matched the quality of the old footage of Happy Days.”
Director: Spike Jones
5: Madonna: Vogue (1991)
Strike a pose! Before David Fincher directed films such as Fight Club and The Social Network, he was the man behind this shoo-in among the best 90s music videos. Originally issued on Madonna’s Dick Tracy soundtrack album, I’m Breathless, and becoming another entry in a record-breaking run of Madonna No.1 singles, Vogue remains one of the best Madonna songs of all time. In keeping with its lyrics, the black-and-white, soft-focus visual evoked the golden age of Hollywood as, amid stylised vogueing, Madonna recreated the iconic poses of actresses Marilyn Monroe, Betty Davis, Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. The video was choreographed by – and featured – the dancers Jose Gutierez Xtravaganza and Luis Xtravaganza, of the House Of Xtravaganza, who flanked “The Queen Of Pop” as she took her place among the Old Hollywood greats she was paying tribute to.
Director: David Fincher
4: Britney Spears: … Baby One More Time (1998)
Showing a canny understanding of her audience and her appeal, Britney Spears insisted that the video for her debut single be set in a school rather than be given the cartoon-like treatment originally planned for the shoot. She also took the lead on the outfits, modifying the uniforms in order to better reflect her fans’ tastes, as she told People magazine: “The outfits looked kind of dorky, so I was like, ‘Let’s tie up our shirts and be cute.’” The video, complete with choreographed dance routines, was filmed in Venice High School, in LA; as well as serving as the location for one of the best 90s music videos, the school had been known to previous generations as the setting for the 1978 film musical Grease. Released in late September 1998, shortly after the start of the new school year, … Baby One More Time’s promo helped make the song an instant pop classic, launching Spears’ career in the process.
Director: Nigel Dick
3: Nirvana: Smells Like Teen Spirit (1991)
If you attended Nirvana’s show at The Roxy, in Los Angeles, one summer night in 1990, you might have been given a flyer reading, “Nirvana needs YOU to be appear in their upcoming music video, Smells Like Teen Spirit. You should be 18 to 25 years old and adapt a high school personna [sic], ie, preppy, punk, nerd, jock… Be prepared to stay for several hours! Come support Nirvana and have a great time!” Two days later, on 17 August, the band and their newly recruited extras gathered to shoot the promo video for the first single from Nevermind. Frontman Kurt Cobain had meticulously planned the whole thing, storyboarding every scene; his vision of a “pep rally from Hell” had was inspired by Ramones’ punk-era musical Rock’n’Roll High School and the cult teen rebellion film Over The Edge.
“I saw this movie Over The Edge,” Cobain told Melody Maker in 1993. “I remember leaving that theatre and almost everyone who was in there came running out screaming their heads off and breaking windows and vandalising and wanting to get high. It totally affected them and influenced them.”
Smells Like Teen Spirit caused just as strong a reaction, adding to Nevermind’s legacy as one of the best 90s albums. As Dave Grohl later told Louder: “The video was probably the key element in that song becoming a hit. People heard the song on the radio and they thought, This is great, but when kids saw the video on MTV they thought, This is cool. These guys are kinda ugly and they’re tearing up their fucking high school. And then with the video came more people and the clubs got bigger and bigger.”
Director: Samuel Bayer
2: Spice Girls: ‘Wannabe’ (1996)
While the video for Spice Girls’ debut single is hardly high concept – basically, “the band are let loose in a hotel; chaos ensues” – it served as the perfect introduction to the biggest pop group of the 90s. In her autobiography, Girl Power, Geri Halliwell recalled the shoot: “I remember the chaos and the cold. It wasn’t very controlled – we didn’t want it to be. We wanted the camera to capture the madness of Spice. I had very big shoes on and fell over many times. I watched it again recently and thought it was like a comedy, really. All the other girls gave me the award for being the biggest prat in it! It’s the most spontaneous of our videos.”
Recorded at the Midland Grand Hotel, in St Pancras, London, the Wannabe clip follows the five Spices as they gatecrash a bohemian party, performing backflips from tables, seducing guests and helping themselves to refreshments. Confidently taking its place among the best 90s music videos, it not only reflected the fun, anarchic spirit of Spice Girls, but gave viewers a flavour of the five distinct personalities that comprised the group – a vital part of their success.
Director: Johan Camitz
1: Beastie Boys: ‘Sabotage’ (1994)
Spike Jones first met Beastie Boys when he photographed them in the early 90s – but it was no typical shoot, as Adam “MCA” Yauch told New York magazine in 1999. “For years, Adam Horovitz had been talking about doing a photo session as undercover cops – wearing ties and fake moustaches and sitting in a car like we were on a stakeout,” Yauch said. The photographer was game. “Then, while he was taking the pictures, he was wearing this blond wig and moustache the whole time. For no apparent reason.”
The seed for Sabotage’s promo clip was sown. Filmed in 1994, the video found the three Beasties dressed like 70s detectives, fighting crime on the mean streets of Los Angeles. They took a spontaneous approach, asking Jonze to hire just a couple of assistants and run the production out of a van. MCA told New York, “We just ran around LA without any permits and made everything up as we went along.”
Topping our list of the best 90s music videos, Sabotage captured the playful, kitsch side of Beastie Boys and became an MTV staple. Helping the group to shed the frat-boy image they’d briefly cultivated in the 80s, it also added to a revival of interest in vintage fashion in the 90s.
Director: Spike Jones
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