In an age where YouTube views affect the charts, a memorable video can be the gamechanger for an artist on the rise or a slam-dunk for established performers seeking their next smash hit. This year, our favorite videos included both of the above. Check them out below.
Director: Tom Scharpling
This video’s got everything, from zombie skateboarders to pottery to self-aware jokes about product placement and controversy-laden sponsored content. Director Tom Scharpling’s confessional intro, in which Scharpling is played by comedian Andy Daly, takes the concept of the music video and turns it into a spectacle in itself.
Directors: Aaron Duffy, Damian Kulash, Jr., Bob Partington
When you’re a band known to many people for a breakout hit of a music video, the bar’s set pretty high for everything that follows. Fortunately, OK GO didn’t disappoint this year with “The Writing’s on the Wall,” which employs enough mind-bending optical illusions to make you want to watch the whole thing over and over in slower and slower motion just to catch the quirks you may have missed.
Director: Chad VanGaalen
VanGaalen’s twisted cartoon fits perfectly with lyrics like “My skin that’s grown scaley and yellowish brown/And my mind is a cloud and it wants to come out” right from the beginning, and the darker imagery will stick with you long after the song has stopped bouncing around in your head. It’s this kind of recognizable, memorable work that gives music videos purpose—the visual calls the song and lyrics to mind, and vice versa.
Director: Tarik Saleh
This vintage-filtered video starts out with slow-dancing, wide-screen wandering and rustic romance, starring Lykke Li in an interracial romance with a rural setting. As the song plays on, the stares—both Li’s self conscious scattered ones and the icy, intimidating ones from onlooking townspeople—tell a story of isolation and hate. When the video closes with her lover struggling to stand, it’s hard not to cling a little tighter to lyrics like “I let my good one down.” It’s powerful stuff, and the kind of video that makes you listen to the song a little bit differently after viewing.
Director: Vice Cooler
Michael Shannon stars in a gritty interrogation video set to Deerhoof’s excellent “Exit Only,” and the tooth-spitting depravity between Shannon and, er, Shannon makes for compelling yet comical stuff. Just as you might expect in real life, the band’s intervention with pyrotechnics and guitar playing ultimately saves the day by making someone’s face explode. It’s awesome.
Director: Joseph Kahn
Swanky digs surround Swift as she casts herself in the same super-wealthy-stage-five-clinger role the media does, and the results are GIF-able enough to make your own mascara run—with tears of joy. If it’s true that “boys only want love if it’s torture,” Swift’s alarmingly spot-on performance in this video makes for an excellent theory as to why she’s got such a long list of ex-lovers (and a longer list waiting in line).
Director: Emile Sornin
This gravity-defying series of office mischief takes the concept of the productivity-killing manager in a hilarious and absurd direction, giving a fresh meaning to workplace harassment.
Director: Sing Howe Yam
In this late-year double video, Jack Black stars as an unhinged skydiving coach, follows the guys on a birthday free-fall that manages to include inter-band spats, killer bears, decapitation and broken bones, all in the span of under five minutes.
Director: Warren Fu
What’s the point in being in a band if you don’t get at least one opportunity for a retro video and a choreographed dance routine? The ladies of HAIM are usually too busy tearing it up on their respective instruments to worry about synchronized dancing in their live performances, so their deadpan expressions doing these over-the-top moves are all the more wonderful. I won’t share exactly how many times I watched this video, but I will say that I’ve got the timing on the hand snaps down, and if anyone wants to learn the dance for a potential flash-mob situation, I’m available.
Director: Bruno Mars, Cameron Duddy
Strutting through the streets in sharp, matching suits; grabbing a perm at the salon with your pals; going about your day in step with a catchy, retro-inspired musical number: just another day in the life of Bruno Mars, I’d assume. The video for “Uptown Funk” has all of the fun and embellishment and color and choreography that a music video needs to be a real classic, though, and if the song doesn’t get the job done, this visual certainly makes you want to move.
Beyonce has the means to make whatever music video she wants, so it’s a distinct treat to see her dressed-down and goofing off. The messy details in the background feel relatable, the silly smirk while she pulls of the dance moves feels genuine, and the video in general refreshingly furthers the fantasy of what it would be like to actually be best friends with Bey.
A good music video can be a game-changer for a mediocre song: that thing that pushes people to show their friends the hilarity of a clip or pull it up at a party. So when a song is already one of hugest, most ubiquitous of the year, it takes a damn good video to make even more of an impression. Director duo Daniels have done it, though, with a silliness that matches the song. You can’t help but crack up, share with a friend or even put it on in the background of your own absurd, silly, floor-splitting house party.
This surreal video tackles the concept of queer identity, anxiety and power through a series of bizarre events, including cheerleaders, Elvis impersonators, pigs and more. The video basically demands to be watched again and again, asking the viewer to look deeper for meaning and significance.
Director: Gia Coppola
In case you haven’t been paying attention for this entire list, choreographed dancing is a pretty good way to make a lasting impression in the music video landscape. This workout-video-meets-80s-concert-footage clip from Blood Orange nails it, feeling like a reclaimed classic from the likes of Michael Jackson.
Director: Jenny Lewis
All hail Jenny Lewis and her merry band of cool-girls, who dress up as all breeds of dudes for this catchy single from her latest release. The facial hair on Anne Hathaway and Kristen Stewart are reason enough to check out the video, but their expressions alternating with shots of Lewis and the all-girl band performing in her iconic technicolor suit are perfectly on-point with the song’s message and aesthetic.
Director: Joel Kefali
The puppet-filled Pee Wee’s Playhouse vibe of this bright video is colorful and creative enough to fit with Merrill Garbus’ out-there aura and inspired latest release, Nikki Nack. If this were a real kids show, we’d certainly watch it.
It was tough to pick just one video from FKA Twigs this year, particularly since the Video Girl has a history of impressing in the format that predates her own rise as an artist. But this stately video’s intense scenery and artful composition is enough to make the slow widening of the shot feel extraordinary—the idea FKA twigs as some sort of goddess lording over the rest of us seems pretty plausible, really.
Director: Chino Moya
Known for her attention to aesthetics on-stage, St. Vincent was bound to top the list for best video. “Digital Witness” shows brightly-colored future that revolves around synchronized movements (and probably also around her perfectly coiffed hair). Every shot looks like a perfectly planned photograph.
Director: Sia, Daniel Askill
Starring young dancer Maddie Zeigler in a wig that resembles Sia’s own recognizable ‘do, this video highlights just how communicative dance can be, while pointing to the more emotional lyrical moments in Sia’s smash hit. It’s a drama-filled video that’s damn interesting to watch, and just one more line on a long list of Sia’s wins this year.
Director: Hiro Murai
This video is as heartbreaking as it is soul-affirming, showing a child funeral that ultimately turns into fast-paced dancing between a young boy and girl after a high-speed chase. You’ll never catch them.