MTV recently celebrated its 37th anniversary and while the days of the channel playing endless music videos are long behind us, the platform is largely responsible for launching music videos into mainstream popular culture. Once criticized for being the lowest form of the visual arts, music videos slowly but surely made the transition into high-budget, award-winning productions on par with the quality of many short films.
While most videos are simple in concept, usually featuring a band performing in concert, there are a number that have push the boundaries of the medium and stand out among the rest. The videos on this list are notable for their visuals, storytelling, and historical significance, making them some of the greatest of all time.
Spike Jonze was responsible for directing some of the greatest music videos of the late 90s and early 2000s, with Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You” standing as arguably his most clever effort. The hilarious concept features Jonze as the leader of the fictional Torrance Community Dance Group in a “flash mob” style performance outside of a local movie theater.
Shot in a guerrilla-style, the video cost just $800 to produce and captured the audience of moviegoers in confusion among the awkward dance routine. The video went on to win three MTV VMAs in 1999 and cemented Jonze as a music video genius.
19. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – Nirvana
This low-budget, grimy video defined the early 90s and specifically the grunge genre of music. Costing just $50,000 to produce, the video was directed by first-timer Samuel Bayer and conceptually follows the classic Ramones’ film Rock ‘n’ Roll High School. The visuals were a perfect fit for Kurt Cobain’s melodic and intense screeching vocals, which resonated with the youth of the era.
As the legend goes, the extras featured in the video were kept on set so long that they destroyed the set out of frustration and the footage made the final cut. One of the most influential rock music videos of all-time, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” would go on to win two VMAs in 1992 and made Nirvana a household name.
Directed by the husband and wife team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (who went on to create the film Little Miss Sunshine) the video for The Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight” was inspired by the classic George Melies film A Trip To The Moon. Asingle from The Smashing Pumpkins’ third studio album, Mellon Collie, and the Infinite Sadness, this epic song is driven by Billy Corgan’s urgently romantic lyrics, Jimmy Chamberlain’s speed-freak drumroll, and a thirty-piece string section pulled from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
The video is a visual masterpiece is a fitting accompaniment and used old fashioned special effects and a cinematic aesthetic reminiscent of silent era films from the early twentieth century. “Tonight, Tonight” won six VMAs in 1996, including Video of the Year, Breakthrough Video, and Best Direction in a Video.
17. “Humble” – Kendrick Lamar
Directed by music video legend Dave Meyers, “Humble”, the lead single off of Kendrick Lamar’s fourth studio album, Damn, is the most recent video featured on this list. Packed full of powerful imagery, the video starts with Lamar dressed like the pope in a cope. The scene then shows Lamar in all black lying on a table of money, “ignorantly” shooting loads of bills from a cash cannon. It also features a reenactment of Leonardo da Vinci’s 15th-century painting, The Last Supper.
“Humble” was nominated for eight categories at the 2017 MTV Video Music Awards, winning six awards, including Video of the Year, marking Dave Meyers’ third time winning the award.
OK Go is known almost exclusively for their complex single-take videos, which helped propel the group into mainstream popularity. It all kicked off on July 31, 2006, when the group posted the video for their song “Here It Goes Again” to YouTube. The Chicago-based rock band became a viral sensation overnight thanks to this video, as it quickly racked up millions of views.
The music video is an elaborate performance, featuring the band members dancing on treadmills in a single continuous take. Choreographed by Trish Sie and directed by Sie and the band, it took a total of seventeen attempts to complete the video. The video won a Grammy for Best Short Form Music Video in 2007, as well as a YouTube award for Most Creative Video.
15. Hurt – Johnny Cash
Album: American IV: The Man Comes Around
A cover of the 1994 Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt”, the Johnny Cash version was one of the singer’s final hits before his death in 2003. The accompanying video, featuring images from Cash’s life and directed by Mark Romanek, was named the best video of the year by the Grammy Awards and CMA Awards, and the best video of all time by NME in July 2011. Cash was battling serious health problems at the time and his frailty was laid bare for all to see, contrasted with footage of him as a younger man.
Cash’s wife, June Carter Cash, participated in the video but passed away three months after filming. Johnny himself died four months after her. The decay of life we all face is the theme here and has arguably never been more clearly expressed in music video form, with this particular video standing as the last bit of greatness Cash left behind.
The video for one of the most groundbreaking songs of all time combines one of the world’s most popular rock bands, Aerosmith, with one of the most popular hip-hop groups in RUN-D.M.C. The video starts with a literal wall between the two as the two groups feud, symbolizing the battle between rock and rap in 1986. The wall gets literally and figuratively broken down and the groups earn each other’s respect through performance, and wind up playing together by the end.
The message was simple but effective, with this extremely popular video becoming the first hip-hop hybrid video ever played in heavy rotation on MTV. It’s still regarded as a classic of the medium. According to VH1’s Pop Up Video, Run–D.M.C. could not afford to use the entire Aerosmith band, just Steven Tyler and Joe Perry. As only Tyler and Perry had traveled to record the cover with Run–D.M.C., they were the only real Aerosmith members to appear in the video.
13. “One” – Metallica
Album: And Justice For All
“One” was the first Metallica song for which a music video was created and it also happens to be their best effort. Directed by Bill Pope and Michael Salomon, the video was shot in Long Beach, California and premiered on MTV on January 20, 1989. The video is almost entirely shot in black and white, and features the band performing the song in a warehouse, interlaced with sporadic scenes from the 1971 film adaptation of Johnny Got His Gun. It’s a powerful video that provides a perfect backdrop for a thunderous song.
Like many other Metallica music videos, “One” puts great emphasis on the performances of the band members as musicians, with many shots of Hetfield, Newsted and Hammett’s hands picking and fretting. Combined with the powerful clips from the aforementioned anti-war film, the “One” video remains a classic among music fans.
“Around the World” is a song by the French electronic music duo Daft Punk and was released in 1997 as a single on their debut release Homework. Later that year, they worked with director Michel Gondry and came up with a concept that included groups of characters on a platform representing a vinyl record. Each group represents an element of the song and features dancers dressed as skeletons, swimmers, robots, athletes, and mummies.
The song is simple and repetitive, but the fact that Gondry was able to develop such an interesting concept with so little source material is something special. Seeing the dancers perform in perfect coordination to the energetic beat provides stylish and unique visual. The video helped launch Daft Punk’s career, who would go on to produce several critically acclaimed albums in the following decades.
11. “Like A Prayer” – Madonna
Album: Like A Prayer
A controversial video that prompted boycotts and was protested by the Vatican due to “blasphemous use of Christian imagery,” “Like A Prayer” truly was the perfect Madonna video. Madonna wanted the video to be more provocative than anything she had done before, and she certainly succeeded. In the video, she falls in love with a black man, who also turns out to be a Christ figure played by Leon Robinson (who later became the star of Cool Runnings).
Though the song was fantastic, the video directed by Mary Lambert was even better. It was nominated for Video of the Year in 1989 but failed to win, likely because of the controversy surrounding it, though it did win the coveted Viewer’s Choice award.
Heavily inspired by the traffic jam in the opening dream sequence of Fellini’s 8½, the video for R.E.M.’s 1992 hit single was a powerful and uplifting short film that stood out from other videos of the time. Directed by Jake Scott and filmed along the double deck portions of I-10 near the I-35 Interchange in downtown San Antonio, Texas, the video depicts the band stuck in a traffic jam with people from all walks of life. Subtitles provide the inner dialog of the people’s thoughts and feelings over the struggle of everyday life with the song’s lyrics acting as the voice of reason.
The video was looked over for most awards but remains one of the most touching and memorable in the art form’s history. The song is one of those unique cases where the video has added to its legacy and heightened the listening experience.
9. “Sledgehammer” – Peter Gabriel
A unique Peter Gabriel song that was released as the lead single on the 1986 album So, “Sledgehammer” has been described as dance-rock, blue-eyed soul, and funk. The accompanying video was equally unique, employing several techniques including stop-motion animation, claymation, and pixelation. Gabriel when to great lengths to help produce a video that would stand out in the early MTV generation. Gabriel lay under a sheet of glass for 16 hours while filming the video one frame at a time.
The hard work paid off, as the video is still recognized as one of the all-time greats. “Sledgehammer” won nine MTV Video Music Awards in 1987, the most awards a single video has ever won. It also ranked at number four on MTV’s 100 Greatest Music Videos Ever Made (1999).
“California Love” was released as 2Pac’s comeback single after his release from prison in 1995 and was his first single as the newest artist of Death Row Records. The video for the single (directed by Hype Williams) was inspired by the film Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome and was longtime friend Jada Pinkett Smith’s idea. The video takes place in the desert in the year 2095 and stars George Clinton as the evil tribal chief, as well as Chris Tucker in a supporting role. It ends with a cliffhanger cut by a “To Be Continued” closing, to which there was a second video where the premise is that the desert scenes of the previous video were merely a nightmare 2Pac was having.
The song’s first video was nominated for an MTV Video Music Award for Best Rap Video in 1996. It achieved number 9 of the top 10 on MTV’s 100 Greatest Videos Ever Made list in 1999. In April 2005 it reached the Bronze medal spot on MTV2 and XXL’s 25 Greatest West Coast Videos.
7. “Buddy Holly” – Weezer
Album:Weezer (The Blue Album)
“Buddy Holly” was the second single released from Weezer’s self-titled debut album in 1994. The music video for “Buddy Holly” was directed by Spike Jonze and filmed at Charlie Chaplin Studios in Hollywood over the course of one full day of shooting. The video’s concept involves the band performing at Arnold’s Drive-In from the 1970s television show Happy Days and combines contemporary footage of the band with clips from the show. The combination worked, and the video successfully blended the 90s sound with the 70s visuals.
“Buddy Holly” was extremely popular on MTV, receiving heavy play throughout the mid-90s. The innovative video scored four awards at the 1995 MTV Video Music Award, including prizes for Best Alternative Video, Breakthrough Video, Best Direction and Best Editing. It was also nominated for Video of the Year, which ended up being won by TLC for “Waterfalls”.
The video for “Bohemian Rhapsody” has been hailed as launching the MTV age and many consider it the first actual “music video”. Directed by Bruce Gowers, who had previously directed a video of Queen’s 1974 performance at the Rainbow Theatre in London. “Bohemian Rhapsody” was recorded in just four hours on 10 November 1975, at a cost of £4,500. Gowers reported that the band was involved in the discussion of the video and the end result “was a co-operative to that extent, but there was only one leader”. All of the video’s special effects were produced during the recording rather than in the editing room. The video was edited within five hours because it was due to be broadcast the same week in which it was taped.
Despite the quick turnaround, the group was able to produce a compelling video that accompanied the classic song extremely well. In connection with the 1992 film Wayne’s World, a new video was released, inter-cutting excerpts from the film with footage from the original Queen video, along with some live footage of the band. The Wayne’s World video version of “Bohemian Rhapsody” won Queen its only MTV Video Music Award for “Best Video from a Film”.
5. “Sabotage” – Beastie Boys
Yet another Spike Jonze joint, the video for the Beastie Boys’ lead single off their fourth studio album Ill Communication features a 1970s crime drama aesthetic. While more of a parody of the genre, the video is presented as the opening credits of a fictional 1970s-style police show called Sabotage, with the band members appearing as the show’s lead characters, complete with wigs and fake mustaches.
During the MTV awards season, “Sabotage” was unsuccessful in securing any VMAs. A pissed off MCA, aka Adam Yauch interrupted R.E.M.’s acceptance speech for “Everybody Hurts” and expressed the extent of his frustration. It was a Kanye move in a pre-Kanye world. In 2009, MTV finally handed the group an apology trophy for “Sabotage”.
Released in 2000 as the third single from Eminem’s third album The Marshal Mather LP, “Stan” reached number one in twelve different countries. The song features some beautiful lyrics from Dido, which are actually a remix of the opening lines from her song “Thank You”. The video paints a picture of Stan as an obsessed, mentally-unhinged fan who can’t deal with reality. The video features Devon Sawa as Stan and Dido as his pregnant girlfriend. Their performances are well executed and do a great job of bringing the lyrics of the song to life.
Easily Eminem’s most critically-acclaimed song and video, “Stan” surprisingly didn’t win any VMAs in 2001, despite receiving four nominations. IGN praised the song as “easily the most scathingly introspective rumination on fan adoration, idol assimilation, and borderline stalker etiquette.”
3. “Take On Me” – a-ha
Album: Hunting High and Low
“Take On Me” is a song by Norwegian synth-pop band a-ha, with the accompanying video featuring some unique visuals and a clever art style that made it stand out during MTV’s early years. Directed by Irish-born British film director Steve Barron, the video uses a pencil-sketch animation / live-action combination called rotoscoping, in which the live-action footage is traced over frame by frame to give the characters realistic movements. The video also includes a comic book romantic fantasy theme complete with an exciting motorcycle chase.
The video would go on to win six awards at the 1986 MTV Video Music Awards, including Best New Artist in a Video, Best Concept Video, Most Experimental Video, Best Direction in a Video, Best Special Effects in a Video, and Viewer’s Choice—and was nominated for two others, Best Group Video and Video of the Year. As of August 2018, the music video has nearly 700 million views on YouTube.
Directed by Andy Morahan, the music video for “November Rain” depicts Guns n’ Roses singer Axl Rose marrying his then-girlfriend Stephanie Seymour inter-cut with the band’s live performance at the Orpheum Theater in downtown Los Angeles. One of the most expensive music videos ever produced, the video had a budget of $1 million which was an astronomical figure at the time. The video features a memorable guitar solo from Slash outside a small chapel in the desert complete with a sequence of swooping helicopter pans.
The music videos for “November Rain”, “Don’t Cry” and “Estranged” form an unofficial trilogy of sorts. While never specifically confirmed by the band, Rose and Del James have made statements supporting this idea. On July 13, 2018, the music video became the first music video from the 20th century to reach one billion views on YouTube.
1. “Thriller” – Michael Jackson
A 14-minute long video for “Thriller”premiered on MTV on November 14, 1983, and featured Michael Jackson in a horror-themed performance that was more of short film than music video. Film director John Landis was brought in to direct the video, as Jackson was a huge fan of his work on An American Werewolf In London. “Thriller” set the stage for music videos to be viewed as an art form and paved the way for film directors in the music video world. The video featured a number of horror movie homages and a fantastic performance from Jackson. From the pervasive creepy Halloween feel to the dance sequence, everything is on point.
The production is the result of a star-studded collaboration including director Landis, Vincent Price, special effects makeup wizard Rick Baker, and costume designer Deborah Nadoolman Landis. The music video was nominated for six awards at the 1984 MTV Video Music Awards, winning three out of six of the nominations.
Charliee Rogers is a freelance writer, father of two, and video game player!