It’s easy to see an MTV award show and overlook it as silly, over-the-top or ridiculous. Sure, it’s all of those things, but the Video Music Awards is also one of the only opportunities for great music videos to get the credit they deserve. Rather than nominate simply what is popular, the VMAs often take the opportunity to give reverence to the actual greatest music videos of the year. Of course there are some exceptions, as you will see in this list, but consider that the VMAs have nominated such diverse artists in the past as Johnny Cash, Talking Heads, Kanye West, TLC, Fatboy Slim, Beck and Missy Elliott for their best video of the year.
It’s understandable, sure, that desire to pass the VMAs, but there’s some true art going on in the medium of music videos. Such great directors as David Fincher, Spike Jonze and Sofia Coppola got their starts in music videos, and very easily the next big directors could come from these nominees.
So let’s look at the 41 music videos that have—for better or for worse—been deemed the best of the past year, in anticipation of this weekend’s 2016 MTV Video Music Awards, airing Sunday at 9pm.
41. All Time Low, “Missing You” (1 nomination – Best Rock Video)
You can tell that All Time Low thinks they’re doing something incredibly kind in their video for “Missing You,” where they Skype call a bunch of their biggest fans, but “Missing You” comes out incredibly self-indulgent and self-congratulatory. It is fantastic that so many people have found friends and solace in the music of All Time Low, but in the video, the band gets their fans to talk about how important their band is, how much their music has changed their lives and in the most cringe moment of the video, slyly advertise their own fan club. “Missing You” ends up not being about how much the fans mean to All Time Low, but instead is one big advertisement for how great they are.
40. Ariana Grande ft. Lil Wayne, “Let Me Love You” (1 nomination – Best Collaboration)
The majority of the Best Collaboration videos often just place the two collaborating artists together in one location and having them perform. While this is usually just unbelievably boring, in the case of “Let Me Love You,” it comes off as creepy, too. Ariana Grande’s part of the video simply looks like a soft-core porn shoot, but the introduction of Lil Wayne into the mix is so awkward and strange. Grande sings along to his part while inches away from him and their glances at the camera during the line “I’m gonna give her that love” makes me scared they’re both going to make some bad decisions once the camera turns off. You know it’s a bad video when Wayne’s “Make America Skate Again” hat is the best part.
39. The Chainsmokers ft. Daya, “Don’t Let Me Down” (1 nomination – Best Electronic Video)
Even worse than the Best Collaboration category is the completely dire one for Best Electronic Video. The reason behind this seems to be that electronic music seems like the hardest to translate into this medium. No one does a worse job in this category than “Don’t Let Me Down,” which on paper must’ve been the most idiotic of all the nominees. “Uhhhh….let’s have The Chainsmokers in a bouncing car facing off against Daya and four unknown dancing women.” What these two have in common with each other, we’ll never know, besides the fact that they’re trapped in a garbage video. “Don’t Let Me Down” is one of the best examples of music and visual interpretation of that music not blending well together, at all.
38. Fifth Harmony ft. Ty Dolla $ign, “Work From Home” (1 nomination – Best Collaboration)
Fifth Harmony and Ty Dolla $ign apparently had access to a construction site in “Work From Home” and the video feels like it would be the blandest entry on a 1997 episode of TRL. Made by the obnoxiously-named Director X, “Work From Home” continues his trend of utilizing the style of overly sexualized women dancing to a dumb song that has made him a success with such videos as “Shake Ya Ass,” “Wait (The Whisper Song”) and Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy.” If you’re doing something different with that style of video, sure it can work, but “Work From Home” is just paint-by-numbers pop video.
37. twenty one pilots, “Heathens” (1 nomination – Best Rock Video)
You know what this world doesn’t need? Another reminder that Suicide Squad exists. But at least if you’re going to make a music video for a song on the Suicide Squad soundtrack, at least make it more than just 70% of film footage, mixed with the band wandering aimlessly around a prison and then performing. In “Heathens,” twenty one pilots are trying to come off as “damaged” as the cast of the film, but really all they do is sulk and meander. At least that Skrillex & Rick Ross video off the same soundtrack tried to integrate the film and the music somewhat. But “Heathens” is more blatant advertisement than the actual music video.
36. Afrojack ft. Mike Taylor, “SummerThing!” (1 nomination – Best Electronic Video)
Unlike the other videos so far on this list, at least “SummerThing!” is fun. But that’s also pretty much all it is. “SummerThing!” takes us to a desert hotel/gas station for the weirdest impromptu party that at night turns into a wedding. It sort of makes sense for the song, which talks about a fling turning into something more, but it’s mostly just watching people dance, jump and play in pools. “SummerThing!” is the first video on this list that isn’t bad, it’s just completely generic in a way that doesn’t really deserve a nomination.
35. Calvin Harris & Disciples, “How Deep Is Your Love” (1 nomination – Best Electronic Video)
Generic in a completely different way—one that is present in the rest of the Best Electronic Video nominees—are videos that pretend like they’re doing something profound, but is actually terribly empty. “How Deep Is Your Love” is just model Gigi Hadid walking around and being transported to various places like clubs, beaches, tattoo parlors and rooftops. That’s it. Every once in a while, the video is funny by accident, as Hadid stares into the camera and does a little dance that can best be described as “Gigi Hadid discovers she has hands for the first time.” Both Harris and Hadid have much better videos nominated this year, but together, “How Deep is Your Love” is just inadvertently silly.
34. Fergie, “M.I.L.F.$” (2 nominations – Best Art Direction & Best Editing)
For the two awards it’s nominated for—Best Art Direction & Best Editing—sure, it makes sense that “M.I.L.F.$” got some nods. The sets in this video are among the best of all the nominees, visually stunning and interesting to look at, while the editing works quite well with the beat of the song. But still, this is a terrible song. “M.I.L.F.$” is almost as if Fergie saw director Colin Tilley’s work with Nicki Minaj for “Anaconda” and decided she wanted to rip that off with a ‘50s-style decor and attempts at sexy milk ads. The result is just strange. “M.I.L.F.$” isn’t a great video by any stretch of the imagination, but at least it does deserve the nominations it has received.
33. Alessia Cara, “Wild Things” (1 nomination – Best Pop Video)
“Wild Things” is essentially trying to capture the spirit of Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are—even stating that’s what it’s going at the beginning—but pretty much fails beyond style and cinematography. “Wild Things” is so unbelievably self-serious about the simple idea of having fun with friends. The video is beautifully shot, but it’s also unintentionally hilarious. A music video like this doesn’t actually need narration or for its audience to know the names of the characters that will hang out in the background (which include a hoodie-wearing dude named Zippy). “Wild Things” could’ve been a simple, gorgeous looking video, but its pretentiousness gets the best of it.
32. Mike Posner, “I Took A Pill In Ibiza” (1 nomination – Best Electronic Video)
One idea that comes up with many of the nominated videos is that they will take a visually interesting idea, present it, but have no idea what to do with it beyond the initial idea. For “I Took A Pill In Ibiza,” Mike Posner, takes a pill, then sees himself with a giant papier-mâchéd head while at a club. Posner has things happening around him in the video, but director Jon Jon Augustavo seems content to just zoom in and out on Posner gigantic head. The idea looks cool—sort of—but it’s hard not to think of Arcade Fire’s “Reflektor” video and it’s not as if Augustavo is doing anything fresh with the concept, anyway.
31. Rihanna ft. Drake, “Work” (2 nominations – Best Female Video & Best Collaboration)
On paper, “Work” isn’t all that different from “Let Me Love You:” they both feature the two artists simply performing in one location. But the difference is that “Work” is fun rather than the creepy. Plus, this song is simply better. Together, Rihanna and Drakeare dynamic and that electricity allows Drake to apparently bring back his “Anaconda” character of “Drake, who sits and watches a girl dance and looks like he can’t take it anymore.” Despite being a relatively boring video, the pink-tinted aesthetic and these two performers together push it above how bland it is technically.