Since 1984, MTV has awarded the best in music videos to everyone from Neil Young to Taylor Swift. The art of making an excellent music video in an underrated talent; only a precious few can match the tone of an existing song with captivating visuals that recontextualize and heighten the greatness of the music. A great video can make a terrible song bearable or throw a band into superstardom.
Last year, we ranked the VMA nominees for 2016 and our favorite, Beyoncé’s “Formation,” ended up the big winner of the night. This year, Kendrick Lamar leads the pack with seven nominations for his video “HUMBLE.,” which is one more than “Formation” received. Following behind is The Weeknd’s “Reminder” with four nominations, and DJ Khaled, Alessia Cara, Katy Perry and Bruno Mars all tied for third with individual videos receiving three nods apiece.
For the second straight year, we’re digging through all of MTV’s nominees for the annual Video Music Awards, set to air 8 p.m. Sunday. Dig into all 48 videos below as we rank them from worst to best.
48. Taboo ft. Shailene Woodley, “Stand Up / Stand N Rock #NoDAPL” (1 nomination – Best Fight Against The System)
Any attention paid to Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline is important, and putting this in last place isn’t meant to diminish that fact. But this awkward and uninformative video, made to gain awareness about the DAPL, isn’t going to change any minds. Shailene Woodley recites slam poetry about oil, and Taboo from The Black Eyed Peas raps about the horrors of the pipeline. It’s exciting to see so many Native American musicians gather for this song, but instead of making a music video with scant benefit to the cause, an informative, non-musical video might have been the way to go. The lyrics are weak, and the whole video gives off a “We Are the World” vibe that is disappointing, considering the message’s importance. The heart is there in “Stand Up / Stand N Rock #NoDAPL,” but that’s really all that works.
47. Afrojack ft. Ty Dolla $ign, “Gone” (1 nomination – Best Dance)
Quite possibly the most lazy and boring music video trope of all time is surrounding the artist with women and alcohol and hitting “record.” It’s been done for decades and rarely changes, which is why it’s almost never interesting. This is true of “Gone,” in which Ty Dolla $ign does just that, after getting the go-ahead to go to Afrojack’s party (via video chat, at that). And that’s it. Dance-focused nominees are often either inventive in their approach or unbelievably lifeless (Best Dance is a new category, presumably taking over for last year’s Best Electronic category in name). For “Gone,” Afrojack and Ty Dolla $ign go for as dull and indifferent as possible.
46. Kygo x Selena Gomez, “It Ain’t Me” (1 nomination – Best Dance)
Speaking of lifeless dance nominees, “It Ain’t Me” is essentially a screensaver that occasionally shows the faces of Kygo and Selena Gomez. This lacking nominee only gets higher than “Gone” because it’s pretty to look at, and “It Ain’t Me” is a better song than “Gone.” But both “It Ain’t Me” and “Gone” scream the bare minimum. It’s hard to imagine what didn’t get nominated if these bottom-of-the-barrel videos are making the cut.
45. DJ Khaled ft. Justin Bieber, Quavo, Chance the Rapper & Lil Wayne, “I’m the One” (1 nomination – Best Hip Hop)
Really the only difference between “I’m the One” and “Gone” is that the former at least goes slightly bigger with its concept. “I’m the One” is again a bunch of musicians going to a house with a ridiculous amount of scantily clad women (one rides a horse around for no discernible reason) for DJ Khaled’s “celebration of life.” Watching Khaled and Justin Bieber’s terrible dancing almost makes the video worthwhile, and Chance the Rapper makes even the worst video tolerable, but again, there’s nothing remotely compelling about this bland concept.
44. Alessia Cara, “Scars to Your Beautiful” (3 nominations – Video of the Year, Best Fight Against the System & Best Direction)
Like 2016 nominee “Wild Things,” “Scars to Your Beautiful” features Alessia Cara singing to the camera far too earnestly. At least “Wild Things” looked great, but despite being nominated for Best Direction, it doesn’t try anything remotely deserving of that nomination. As for its Best Fight Against the System nomination, the message is strong enough, that “everyone is beautiful in their own way.” Yet, “Scars to Your Beautiful” still primarily showcases classically beautiful people, and even the smallest scars and differences are presented as evidence of imperfections that can still be seen as beauty. Thank you for shining light on this obvious point; such a great fight against the system. The lowest-ranked “Video of the Year” nominee, “Scars to Your Beautiful” has good intent, but the message is told in a particularly poor way.
43. Katy Perry ft. Migos, “Bon Appétit” (1 nomination – Best Art Direction)
“Bon Appétit” as a song is nothing but food-based double entendres, but as a video, production designer Natalie Groce decides to make this message literal. The result is Katy Perry playing food—covered in flour, left in a pot like a Looney Tunes villain, and served on a platter. It’s unclear if the ending is supposed to be subversive, as Perry murders her captors, only to cannibalize them in a giant pie. But really, it’s just a bunch of gross visuals that attempt to be sexy in the weirdest possible way, all as Migos watch in the distance. It’s strange how this odd video gets nominated, while Perry’s much more sumptuous video “Chained to the Rhythm” misses the art direction nomination it actually deserves.
42. Fall Out Boy, “Young and Menace” (1 nomination – Best Rock)
Like several videos so far on the list, “Young and Menace” tries to send an important message, but muddles it with a video that’s a terrible mishandling of tone. “Young and Menace” follows a young girl who thinks she’s losing her mind by wanting a semblance of normalcy in her family life. Even when she interacts with other people, they don’t understand the language that she’s speaking. But here’s the thing: for some dumb reason, her parents are Muppet llama creatures. The big reveal at the end is that they were actually abusive parents all along, which, duh. The important message and silly imagery don’t coalesce in the way that was intended.
41. The Chainsmokers ft. Halsey, “Closer” (2 nominations – Best Collaboration & Best Editing)
Let’s get this straight: “Closer” is about how two people have gotten older and more mature over the years, yet, the song’s main refrain states, “We ain’t ever getting older.” The video depicts the people in this relationship as formerly hot and heavy, broken up for some unknown reason, and then seeing each other again years later and wanting each other still or again. “Closer” is a good looking video, but it’s always bordering on obnoxious, as the two lovers sing directly into each other’s faces while they roll around in bed. “Closer” Neither Chainsmokers’ lead singer Andrew Taggart nor Halsey has the screen presence to provide anything but indifference from its audience.
40. Ariana Grande ft. Nicki Minaj, “Side to Side” (1 nomination – Best Choreography)
Ariana Grande’s nominated video “Let Me Love You” from last year felt moments away from becoming a porn shoot, and “Side to Side” doubles down on that. Like a modern-day update of Olivia Newton-John’s comically sexual “Physical,” Grande takes to the gym for some suggestive exercises. It’s basically filming a spin class. Nicki Minaj saves the video and the song with her verse, but the interplay between Grande and Minaj is unexpectedly irritating, with Grande bobbing her head along to Minaj’s rapping and to the two sharing jokes. “Side to Side” is like a strange sex dream that no one would actually want to have.
39. Green Day, “Bang Bang” (1 nomination – Best Rock)
have stated that their “Bang Bang” video is about gun violence, mass shootings and social media. But in the final product, it’s hard to see this as anything other than a Green Day-themed bank robbery, intercut with a house party. The lyrics might present this idea, but the video almost relishes in the type of celebrity that both the robbery and party incites. Like their fellow nominees Fall Out Boy, Green Day’s intent doesn’t quite match up with what makes it into the final video.
38. Zedd and Alessia Cara, “Stay” (1 nomination – Best Dance)
“Stay” is a poorly edited take on the Sliding Doors format that could’ve been successful had it not tried to match up with the song. For example, whenever “Stay” hits its distorted chorus, the editing also rewinds, fast-forwards, stops and changes timelines to the music in a way that can get confusing with the slightly variating story lines.
37. Calvin Harris ft. Pharrell Williams, Katy Perry & Big Sean, “Feels” (1 nomination – Best Collaboration)
As with many of the Best Collaboration nominations, the videos are hardly more than getting the various artists together in one room and performing the song. “Feels” puts all four artists on one soundstage, yet in distinctly separate-looking sections, possibly so they could just splice them all into looking like they’re in the same place at the same time. For the first time on this list, “Feels”’ musical style matches the tone of the video nicely.
36. Shawn Mendes, “Treat You Better” (1 nomination – Best Pop)
Possibly the mopiest of the nominees, “Treat You Better” is another good idea handled poorly. In another typical video trope, Mendes plays a guy who’s singing about how much better a boyfriend he could be to a girl whose current boyfriend is a jerk. The video splits its time between the girl Mendes pines for and Mendes, who is busy whining around an empty room like a generic version of Michael Stipe in the “Losing My Religion” video. The girl’s story is certainly the more intriguing of the two, especially when they cut back to Mendes throwing his tantrum.
35. Zayn & Taylor Swift, “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever (Fifty Shades Darker)” (1 nomination – Best Collaboration)
As previously mentioned, Best Collaboration is usually just an excuse to get your favorite artists together. But when it looks as good as the “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever (Fifty Shades Darker)” video, it’s hard to complain too much. It stars Zayn and Taylor Swift being dark, broody and sexy, a video seemingly made for the VMAs. “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever” (Fifty Shades Darker)” knows exactly what it is—a promotional tool for the film and a video the MTV crowd will go nuts for. In both cases, it’s a pretty solid success.
34. Halsey, “Now or Never” (1 nomination – Best Cinematography)
Considering it’s only nominated for Best Cinematography, “Now or Never” deserves that nomination, since Kristof Brandl shot Halsey’s video gorgeously. But thematically, “Now or Never” is nothing more than a shorter version of Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet—creating basically a copy of a copy with diminishing returns. The few breaks the song takes for narrative sake are unintentionally hilarious, filled with poor acting moments. At a certain point, “Now or Never” becomes less of an homage to Luhrmann’s film and more a ripoff, taking huge parts of that adaptation with no real purpose.
33. twenty one pilots, “Heavydirtysoul” (1 nomination – Best Rock)
“Heavydirtysoul” is only an interesting video thanks to its sporadically cool visual ideas. One member of twenty one pilots, who is siting in a car with no driver and a sparking flat tire, heads toward the other member who is playing a flaming drum set. It’s all pretty pedestrian badassery. But the ending, in which the band performs together at night, lit by flaming car and drum kit, is actually pretty visually impressive. This segment only takes up about a minute of the video, but it more than makes up for the rest.
32. Major Lazer ft. Justin Bieber and MØ, “Cold Water” (1 nomination – Best Dance)
“Cold Water” is sort of perfect in its simplicity: Get a bunch of dancers to perform in gorgeous locales while the song plays. It’s just enough to be alluring, and as the first video on this list that doesn’t feature the actual artists, it proves that you don’t really need them anyway. It’s also crazy that “Cold Water” is the only nominee in the Best Dance category to feature actual dancing.
31. KYLE ft. Lil Yachty, “iSpy” (1 nomination – Best Visual Effects)
Every year, there seems to be at least one video in which an artist’s face is transposed onto the head of someone else. Last year, it was 2 Chainz with his “Watch Out” video, and this year, it’s “iSpy” by KYLE ft. Lil Yachty. Granted, it’s a good fit for the song’s playful style, but this effect doesn’t seem deserving of a Best Visual Effects nomination. Considering how common this style has become, and considering how visually alluring director Colin Tilley usually is (he’s also nominated this year for “Wild Thoughts” and “Mask Off”), “iSpy” is an odd inclusion in this category.
30. DJ Khaled ft. Rihanna & Bryson Tiller, “Wild Thoughts” (3 nominations – Video of the Year, Best Collaboration & Best Art Direction)
DJ Khaled’s song “Wild Thoughts” relies heavily on Santana’s “Maria Maria” guitar lick, and the video follows suit, as it’s almost a remake of the Santana video. Replacing Santana, The Project G&B and Wyclef Jean are Rihanna being seductive, with Bryson Tiller rapping in the dark and Khaled dancing around like an idiot. The colors pop beautifully throughout the video and the fireworks make for a nice capper, but that still doesn’t stop “Wild Thoughts” from being one of the weaker Video of the Year nominees.
29. Imagine Dragons, “Thunder” (1 nomination – Best Cinematography)
In terms of its sole nomination for Best Cinematography, “Thunder”’s luscious black-and-white video deserves its recognition. Beyond that, “Thunder” is a bunch of nonsense in a good-looking package. “Thunder” features aliens and Ferraris in Dubai, while Imagine Dragons stand around and are multiplied far more than the world could possible need. Directed by VMA favorite Joseph Kahn, who won Video of the Year awards for Eminem and Taylor Swift, is often great with integrating staggering imagery into his music videos, but here, it’s just too weird, despite its beauty.
In his video for “Light,” Big Sean plays a sort of spiritual coroner, picking up the souls of the deceased from acts of senseless violence. Of the Best Fight Against the System nominees so far, this is the first to combine song and the “fight” in a succinct way. In “Light,” we see a child gunned down in a drive-by, two hooded teens shot by cops and a woman in a hijab stabbed while being robbed. With “Light,” Big Sean is showing the spirit that will never die, no matter the disheartening deaths that occur far too often nowadays.
27. Fifth Harmony ft. Gucci Mane, “Down” (2 nominations – Best Pop & Best Choreography)
With their video for “Down,” Fifth Harmony turns the mundane into a sexy neon surprise. “Down” is relatively simple, as Fifth Harmony pull into a typical roadside motel. Yet the shimmer and style of the set makes the basic location look almost otherworldly. Fifth Harmony tried a similar tactic to lesser success with last year’s “Work From Home,” but “Down” embraces the ‘90s pop videos of old with flashier effects and better cinematography.
26. The Hamilton Mixtape, “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done)” (1 nomination – Best Fight Against the System)
In many years, the VMAs will introduce a category for no apparent reason other than to get the winner to appear at their show. Last year, that was Breakthrough Long Form Video, a addition clearly made for Beyoncé’s “Lemonade.” This year, Best Fight Against the System is that category, with the creators of The Hamilton Mixtape likely taking home the award. Their video for “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done)” isn’t the best in the category—it’s like an abbreviated version of the film Snowpiercer—but it is powerful enough to warrant a win. Especially with Riz Ahmed’s rapid-fire verse stealing the show, this seems like a sure-fire winner in a category that looks made for this video.