Coming of age in the 80s, the music video offered a whole new medium through which artists could express themselves. From slick performance pieces to high-concept clips, the best music videos have developed over the decades, sometimes outshining even the song they were created to promote.Here, then, are 30 of the greatest…
30: Kylie Minogue: Love At First Sight (2002)
A dreamy opus that still sounds as fresh as it did when it appeared on Kylie Minogue’s Fever album, Love At First Sight was given a Daft Punk-like promo treatment, with digital graphics and dozens of robotic dancers marching and rotating behind the “Princess Of Pop”. The choreography makes for a constantly shifting video that commands full attention, and its computerised effects set the template for pop-superstar clips for years to come, cementing Love At First Sight’s place among the best Kylie Minogue songs to boot.
29: Pretenders: Brass In Pocket (1979)
Chrissie Hynde makes for an excellent waitress in this video – which makes sense considering she was one during her time in the US, before moving to the UK and forming Pretenders. Satisfyingly authentic, Brass In Pocket, the breakthrough single from Pretenders’ self-titled debut album, appears to paint the wishes of a hopeful Hynde, however bleak her current position looks to be. Masterfully shot by director Mark Robinson, the video offers a portal to countless young people stuck in dead-end jobs. The subtle additions – as at the 1.18 mark, when Hynde flirts with bassist Pete Farndon while singing, “I gotta have some of your attention” – are the cherry on top of one of the best music videos of the post-punk era.
28: Madonna: Lucky Star (1984)
You can take your pick from any number of Madonna promos which could lay claim to a place among the best music videos of all time – as such, it’s easy to overlook Lucky Star’s impact on popular music. Created to promote the fourth of five singles lifted from Madonna’s self-titled debut album, when the video first aired, in 1984, viewers were witnessing a star in the making – one whose streetwise New York City look they could emulate themselves. With its white background and fleeting glimpses of supporting dancers, it’s a simple clip, but the focus is entirely on the soon-to-be “Queen Of Pop”. Since then, it has remained a blueprint for single-performer music videos across the world.
27: Prince: 1999 (1982)
It’s difficult to pick the best Prince music video, but 1999 has it all: the glamour of the supporting performers, the ostentatiousness of the stage setting and that all-important dose of magic delivered by The Purple One himself. Comfortably securing its place among the best music videos is the fact that it beat Michael Jackson’s Beat It promo to MTV by four months, making Prince the first black artist to gain mass play on the nascent channel. The clip remains a party all on its own; sticking it on is enough to make any shindig as big as all of 1999’s New Year’s Eve extravaganzas combined.
26: Duran Duran: Rio (1982)
There’s nothing quite so quintessentially 80s as Duran Duran frontman Simon Le Bon wearing a white blazer aboard a small luxury yacht, singing one of 1982’s finest summer anthems down a baby-blue telephone. The sea, the sand and the champagne fuel a clip that crams in as much wild imagery as it can into just five minutes (though the shoot itself took a full three days), with extravagant dresses, colourful cocktails and model Reema Ruspoli all ensuring that the title track from Duran Duran’s Rio album sailed into the UK Top 10 on the back of one of the best music videos of the 80s.
25: Blur: Parklife (1994)
If one video captures the innocence of Britpop before fame and “Cool Britannia” blew it out of all proportion, it’s Blur’s Parklife. Quadrophenia and EastEnders star Phil Daniels provides the iconic spoken-word portions of the track, and here he parades around in a plain suit, knocking on doors and driving a youthful Damon Albarn around suburban England (almost ploughing through the rest of the group on a zebra crossing), content to be living the happy, ordinary little life that Blur frontman Damon Albarn gently satirises in his lyrics.
24: The Prodigy: Smack My Bitch Up (1997)
The events that occur during this video are not exactly far-fetched (besides, perhaps, the protagonist ordering a kebab before painting the town red), but there’s something unnerving about watching a night out go south. Though routinely hailed as one of the best music videos of all time, controversy dogged Smack My Bitch Up from the start – and, over a quarter of a century since its release, the promo is still not officially available on YouTube. As The Prodigy’s Liam Howlett told Q in 1998: “There’s a realness to that video. Most people have had nights out like that, off their head on coke and drink… It’s not to everyone’s taste, but not everything we do is. No radio station was gonna play the song, so we thought we’d make a video that no one would play, either.”
23: Peter Gabriel: Sledgehammer (1986)
For ambition alone, Sledgehammer demands a place among the best music videos. Peter Gabriel’s classic comes up in almost every conversation about the form – and for good reason. The stop-motion effects were remarkable for the time, having only really previously been seen in the video for Talking Heads’ Road To Nowhere. According to journalist/researcher Alan Cross, Gabriel had to stay in position behind a glass sheet for over 16 hours while the production team (among them Nick Park, later of Wallace & Gromit fame) staged the action around him. The results proved immensely popular, and the song remains Peter Gabriel’s highest-charting single to date.
22: Red Hot Chili Peppers: Californication (2000)
With its PlayStation 2-era graphics, the Californication album’s title track was given a prescient music video. At the turn of the millennium, nobody really knew the impact that video games would have on society and pop culture alike, yet portraying Red Hot Chili Peppers as playable characters still feels like a radical choice that more than earns a spot among the best music videos of all time. The unseen player selects a shirtless John Frusciante and immediately sends the avatar out to traverse Hollywood before visiting far-flung destinations such as a mystical forest and the bottom of the ocean. This still looks like a game we’d want to play.
21: The Smashing Pumpkins: 1979 (1995)
Some get teary-eyed just thinking about their 90s youth, but it’s tougher not to let nostalgia fully take the reins in The Smashing Pumpkins’ 1979 – one of the best music videos of the 90s. There is nothing here that exaggerates or misdirects the feelings of the decade’s teens: just a camera following a group of friends as they take joyrides, attend wild parties and frolic through rocky hills without a care. The American dream may have been mis-sold, but this is as close to it as got before the cruel mistress of time took it all away.
20: Missy Elliott: Sock It 2 Me (1997)
In an era when hip-hop visuals were dominated by ostentatious displays of wealth and barely-dressed models hired to drape themselves over the featured star, Missy Elliott’s promo videos seemed to arrive from another planet. For Sock It 2 Me, the second single from her game-changing debut album, Supa Dupa Fly, Elliott and director Hype Williams – who had perhaps taken that other direction of hip-hop styling to its furthest point with some of his videos for The Notorious B.I.G. – aligned hip-hop with an Afrofuturist tradition that included Sun Ra and George Clinton’s P-Funk, opening the genre up for reimagination as the 90s came to a close. OutKast, Shabazz Palaces and Janelle Monáe were all watching; Missy wasn’t just outrunning space robots, she was leaping light years ahead of everybody else.
19: Daft Punk: One More Time (2000)
Along with other dance epics at the turn of the millennium – like Stardust’s Music Sounds Better With You and Modjo’s Lady (Hear Me Tonight) – Daft Punk’s One More Time helped popularise a new era of electrifying electronica that still holds sway over 20 years later. Predating Gorillaz’s first animated video (Clint Eastwood) by a year, the French duo depicted an alien, cartoonish world that embodied their larger-than-life computerisations.
18: OutKast: Hey Ya! (2003)
Immediately upon release, the Hey Ya! clip was massive. Its fun and light-hearted feel gave a younger audience an entry point to OutKast’s music, which in turn catapulted the group to international stardom (touring with New Order, selling over 20 million records, becoming the hottest hip-hop group on the planet, etc). While the schtick of dressing up as a vintage beat group had been done before – Weezer, for Buddy Holly; Nirvana, for In Bloom – never had it been done with such infectious energy, with just one performer (in this case, André 3000) playing every part. In directly placing themselves in rock’n’roll’s lineage, OutKast asserted hip-hop’s irrefutable commercial dominance in the 21st century.
17: Kate Bush: Wuthering Heights (1978)
There are two music videos for Kate Bush’s dreamy Wuthering Heights, the first centring on the eccentric singer in a blurry, soft-lit studio, the second depicting her fluttering around a misty forest in a striking red outfit. It’s the latter that deserves a spot on this list of the best music videos; better serving the song, it’s a little bid mad, a little bit lucid, and 100 per cent Kate Bush.
16: Paul Hardcastle: 19 (1985)
“In Vietnam, he was 19.” Paul Hardcastle’s anti-war hit was truly groundbreaking, making countless Cold War-era club-goers think twice about what really happened on the battlefield. Hardcastle’s samples of the documentary Vietnam Requiem (along with footage taken from the same film for the music video) somehow managed to keep Duran Duran off the No.1 spot in the UK, even with a new Bond theme (A View To A Kill) in their arsenal.
15: The Verve: Bittersweet Symphony (1997)
Verve frontman Richard Ashcroft’s ode to the working class and the throes of greater capitalism are all the more poignant considering all royalties from the song ended up going to The Rolling Stones’ former manager, Allen Klein, thanks to The Verve’s use of an orchestral version of the Mick Jagger and Keith Richards-penned song The Last Time. Still, one of the defining songs in British music history earned itself one of the best music videos of all time: intelligent in its simplicity, it reminds us that if we had a camera pointed at us on our darkest days, we’d love to be self-assured enough to charge through countless passers-by and yet miserable enough to be completely unfazed.
14: Queen: I Want To Break Free (1984)
For most of the I Want To Be Free video’s runtime, Queen are shot in drag, with frontman Freddie Mercury (still with his signature moustache) stealing the spotlight with a busy housewife routine. Here, the group parody the mundaneness of home economics (and British TV soap Coronation Street, in particular), before switching it up with more typically flamboyant scenes of Mercury bellowing the song in a large room with dozens of faceless, headtorch-bearing figures. The general view in the US at the time was that the video was obscene and promoted (dare we say it) homosexual values. Fortunately, the onslaught of intolerant homophobes did little to dampen Queen’s stateside reputation, especially once Bohemian Rhapsody featured in the 1992 comedy Wayne’s World.
13: New Radicals: You Get What You Give (1998)
Not only earning a place in our list of the best music videos, You Get What You Give is surely a contender for greatest one-hit wonder of all time, offering a sliver of something millions of teens didn’t even know they wanted. Like era-defining 80s movies The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the video for You Get What You Deserve finds New Radicals striving for a good time in a normal situation, trading Saturday detention or the Chicago streets for a shopping mall. With the group’s mastermind Gregg Alexander commanding the track as dogs are set loose and suits are left suitably caged, the video reveals a naive yet innocent necessity for American teens to rebel.
12: Britney Spears: Toxic (2004)
Toxic is often remembered for its impressively choreographed air-hostess sequence, but this actually only comprises the first minute or so of the video. Over the remainder of the clip we see Britney Spears turn superspy, breaking into science labs, leaping off motorcycles in Paris and poisoning handsome men in luxury apartments. Spears was already a star by this point, but her confidence, silky moves, stellar voice and magnificent outfits all hit a new peak on what remains one of the freshest, most inventive and hands-down best music videos of the era.
11: Dire Straits: Money For Nothing (1985)
Dire Straits certainly didn’t earn money for nothing – not with the 30-million-selling (and counting) Brothers In Arms album, anyway. Of equally colossal magnitude is the Money For Nothing music video, featuring computer-animated scenes of electrical retailers moving boxes after one employee is literally sucked into the TV, intercut with live performance footage. Frontman Mark Knopfler wasn’t initially sold on the idea; it took Steve Barron of Rushes Postproduction flying to Budapest to meet him, plus an intervention from Knopfler’s then-girlfriend, to convince him of the idea. The result was not only Dire Straits’ most memorable promo clip, but one of the best music videos of all time.
10: R.E.M.: Imitation Of Life (2001)
Shot entirely using a “pan and scan” technique over just 20 seconds, British film director Garth Jennings stretched the brilliant footage he captured across the almost four-minute song’s runtime. Key moments include frontman Michael Stipe dancing in the foreground, a man set on fire by a barbeque, and a woman throwing a drink in front of a snobbish storyteller. It’s an uplifting affair with hidden laughs that truly represents a newly optimistic R.E.M. after some darker, less-centred late-90s material.
9: The B-52’s: Love Shack (1989)
In a word: fun. And more fun than any of us unlucky punters will likely have in our lifetimes. The B-52’s hoist the famed Love Shack to almost mythical levels, from the enticing build-up in which the group speed through a forest in a Chrysler, all the way to the party in full swing. With assistance from an ever-luxurious RuPaul and enough colours to induce an acid trip, La Shaque D’Amour remains a sought-after promised land just out of reach.
8: Childish Gambino: This Is America (2018)
This Is America took the world by storm when it was released in 2018. On the surface, both the song and its video criticise contemporary US life, with gun violence, oppression against Black people and police brutality being the focal points. But This Is America’s promo is a typically complex work of art from Atlanta creator Donald Glover (aka Childish Gambino), and it rewards repeated viewing. In its short run time, the video covers everything from gospel choirs to full-scale riots, the roots of the blues and the sorry state of gun control in the US. Even the smaller details – the gun that’s used to murder the guitarist at the start is handled with care, while the victim’s body is simply dragged away – further Glover’s status as one of the most vital voices in the world right now.
7: David Bowie: Ashes To Ashes (1980)
More than any other artist in rock history, David Bowie understood the importance of image in pop music – and he was way ahead of the game with his groundbreaking video for Ashes To Ashes. The lead single from his 1980 album, Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), its David Mallet-directed clip was the most expensive ever made at the time, at a cost of £250,000, and with its quick edits, computer-enhanced colouring and Bowie’s memorable turn as a desolate Pierrot flanked by New Romantic scenesters from London’s Blitz club, it immediately showed a future generation of stars how to maximise their presentation on the small screen, a full year ahead of MTV’s launch in August 1981. Now seeming more retro-futurist than futurist, Ashes To Ashes nonetheless opened up new worlds of possibilities for the best music videos to come.
6: a-ha: Take On Me (1984)
Easily one of the best music videos of the 80s, a-ha’s clip for Take On Me will forever remain iconic for all the right reasons. Playful, original and packed with mass appeal, the Steve Barron-directed promo immortalised the group in film, and, by the time the 1986 MTV Awards rolled around (it won six, including Best Concept Video and Video Of The Year), a-ha were household names. With no small help from the video, Take On Me’s parent album, Hunting High And Low, would go platinum in the US, UK, Germany and Norway, forever cementing the track’s place among the best a-ha songs.
5: Buggles: Video Killed The Radio Star (1979)
The genius of Video Killed The Radio Star is less about the video itself, but more about what it meant for the future of popular music. Released in 1979 (after the original Bruce Woolley And The Camera Club version), the song marked the beginning of the end for conventional artists unwilling or unable to adapt to the new visual medium. Gone were the days of Toto, popular for their songs but wholly unappealing to look at on the small screen; here were the days of an exciting musical evolution: new wave.
4: Beastie Boys: Sabotage (1994)
Probably the only music video that still has fans crying out for a fully-realised series spin-off, Sabotage is a homage to the dozens of cop dramas that graced US TV screens in the 70s. Complete with drug busts, action sequences and plenty of donut-eating, the track flawlessly captures the excitement and over-elaborate nature of the shows. Plus, thanks to its proven ability to work with car chases, it was cool enough to get heard in JJ Abrams’ 2009 silver-screen addition to the Star Trek franchise, when a young Captain Kirk steals his stepdad’s Corvette.
3: Talking Heads: Once In A Lifetime (1980)
Displaying dated yet unforgettable green-screen sequences, the Once In A Lifetime video finds Talking Heads’ frontman David Byrne in his trademark suit, gesticulating like a crazed preacher before various images as he apparently questions the very fabric of reality. His ever-abnormal, nigh-on paranoid persona only adds to the video’s cleverness, sweating profusely and moving fast enough to make any viewer look back and wonder, “Wait a minute, how did I get here?”
2. Thriller: Michael Jackson (1983)
There are no half-measures when it comes to The King Of Pop’s best music videos. Be it the sci-fi adventures of Disneyland’s 3D attraction, Captain EO, the audaciousness of the Moonwalker movie, or the reinvention introduced by 1987’s Bad, Jackson always gave 100 per cent. The same applies to Thriller, the quintessential Halloween song whose video is perhaps bigger than the track itself – not to mention what is (by most accounts) the greatest-selling album of all time. The 14-minute nightmare builds with menace from minute to minute, until a zombified MJ bursts into expert choreography at the 8.28 mark.
1: Fatboy Slim: Weapon Of Choice (2001)
Topping our list of the best music videos of all time, Weapon Of Choice is Christopher Walken. Once you’ve seen the video of him soaring through a hotel lobby, you’ll think of it whenever Fatboy Slim or the song itself is mentioned. It’s almost as if Norman Cook was just missing something, that little spark that makes a single truly unforgettable – and that something was Walken. From The Deer Hunter’s cerebral plot to the playful antics of Weapon Of Choice, the Academy Award-winning actor knows no creative bounds, and neither does the remarkable team who put together this clip.
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