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Best Music Videos: 20 Must-See Promos That Broke The Mould
List & Guides

Best Music Videos: 20 Must-See Promos That Broke The Mould

From slick performance pieces to high-concept clips, the best music videos sometimes outshine even the song they were created to promote.


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.

20: 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.

19: OK Go: Here It Goes Again (2006)

Presumably costing next to nothing to film, indie rockers OK Go found their biggest hit going viral before the term was even properly realised. While now known for their ambitious promo videos (including shooting a mammoth Rube Goldberg machine for This Too Shall Pass and taking a ride in a zero-gravity aircraft for Upside Down & Inside Out), Here It Goes Again proves that an original idea made simple is enough to elevate a single to unprecedented levels of success.

18: 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.

17: 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.

16: 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.

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: 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. 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.”

12: 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.

11: Soundgarden: Black Hole Sun (1994)

Among the fatalism of grunge and its typically hasty (or “underground”) approach towards making music videos there lies Black Hole Sun, a five-minute moment of clarity. The largely psychedelic video that accompanies the single aims to portray Soundgarden’s distrust in the music industry, beautifully displayed by a spin on American suburbia. A fitting metaphor for 90s alt-rock as a whole, things may have looked pretty sleek on the outside, but a closer look reveals something far more sinister…

10: 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.

9: 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.

8: 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.

7: 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.

6: 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.

5: 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.

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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