Chemical Brothers - "Let Forever Be"
With a vocal take from Noel Gallagher and a clip helmed by the ever-inventive Michel Gondry, a woman wakes up to go work at a mall but has frequent warped distortions of what her reality is. With handheld video footage used to extrapolate giant sets for a field of lookalike dancers, "Let Forever Be" has some of the cleverest set design and most stunning "how did they do that?" editing that we've ever seen. Encapsulating everything great about the song and taking it to its most illogical extremes, "Let Forever Be" is a tour-de-force like no other, proving that even the short run time of a music video can be a breeding ground for endless innovation.
Fatboy Slim - “Praise You”
Before YouTube came into prominence, there were a disparate amount of sites that had video players wherein clips could go properly "viral." Back in 1998, Spike Jonze's movie theater-crashing dance troupe flashmob set to the tune of Fatboy Slim's "Praise You" was a must-see experience like no other, no matter what site you viewed it on. In real guerrilla-style, Jonze (along with co-director Roman Coppola) and a fictional group of amateur dancers go through community theater-style choreography in front of a genuinely suspicious group of people lining up to see a movie, all filmed on handheld cameras and spliced together. So annoyed with the spontaneous display, a movie theater employee walks over at one point and turns off the boom box the song is blasting from. They get it back and complete the number, but the giddy I-can't-believe-this-is-happening thrill of a dance flashmob happening right in front of an unsuspecting public is what made "Praise You" a can't-miss event. Unsurprisingly, the video went into heavy rotation on music video networks, which, in turn, pushed the song onto radio and gave Fatboy Slim his only Top 40 hit in the U.S.
Jamiroquai - “Virtual Insanity”
"Virtual Insanity "is the rare kind of music video that became such an instantly recognizable piece of pop culture canon that it ended up defining the band. Brilliantly conceived by Jonathan Glazer, the clip shows Jamiroquai singer and songwriter Jay Kay dancing around a lounge-y sci-fi room. Yet as he moves about, the furniture moves with him -- except when it doesn't. He dances on the couch and next to a chair, but the couch can move and the chair can't? When it premiered, everyone watched the clip asking, "How did they do that?" Featuring in-camera visual effects at their most eye-popping, Kay's physical duets with the furniture feels like a contemporary update to a Fred Astaire number. Simultaneously, hints of sinister elements (ravens, cockroaches, pooled blood) imply something darker behind this manufactured aesthetic. A must-see event when it dropped, the "Virtual Insanity" music video propelled Jamiroquai into stardom but also defined the band to such an extent that when it came to their Video Music Awards performance, Kay was bouncing across moving runways they installed on the stage as if recreating the video live.
Beastie Boys – “Sabotage”
When it comes to forming the Great Hall of Music Video Directors, there are a few guaranteed names that'll be there: Diane Martel, Michel Gondry, Mark Romanek, Sophie Muller, Hype Williams, Melina Matsoukas, Chris Milk, etc. Yet before becoming the Oscar-winning oddball that he is, Spike Jonze made his name by directing some of the most inventive clips of all time, several of which appear on this list. "Sabotage", the thrilling hard-rock single by the Beastie Boys, already feels like the soundtrack to an action movie, so leave it up to Jonze to turn it into a three-minute intro to a '70s cop show, with all of the Beasties donning fake mustaches to play ridiculous caricatures. There's action, there are dummies being thrown off of bridges, there's one guy tackling another into a swimming pool: all the top-notch clichés delivered here with manic comic energy. Immensely appealing, the Beastie Boys never played to one single audience, but more critically, their buy-in to every wacky video concept is what ultimately elevated the comic value of "Sabotage" to masterclass levels.
Childish Gambino – “This is America”
"This is America" is a clip that sparked large-scale discussion the second it finished premiering. Speaking about gun violence in America, this promo (directed by Glover's frequent collaborator Hiro Murai) is rife with metaphor: why are the guns being treated with more reverence than the bodies? Who are the people chasing after Glover at the very end? Why does all the chaos stop when he decides it's time for a smoke? Endlessly debated even today, "This is America" was a true viral sensation that pushed the out-of-left-field song to the top of the charts, eventually winning every Grammy it was nominated for. Then, when it came to finally drop his fourth studio record, "This is America" wasn't anywhere on the tracklist, making for a meteoric one-off unlike anything else out there. So instantly iconic this clip became, it's nearly impossible to hear the song without thinking about its visual counterpart.
Peter Gabriel - “Sledgehammer”
“I’m not sure [‘Sledgehammer’] would have been as big a hit … without the video,” Peter Gabriel told Rolling Stone in 1987. “I think [the clip] had a sense both of humor and of fun, neither of which were particularly associated with me.” Although Gabriel loved surrealism (just look up his Genesis costumes), the “Sledgehammer” video overflowed with rare whimsy from the singer. He even managed to smile throughout the excruciatingly slow stop-motion shoot, which found steam trains chugging in front of his face, happy bumper cars tussling his cotton-candy hair, a Giuseppe Arcimboldo tribute (fruit shaped like Gabriel’s face singing), Claymation sledgehammers bashing an Adam out of his head, and of course two supermarket chickens dancing (animated by the same folks who later made Chicken Run). Somehow director Stephen Johnson shot everything in a week’s time. The clip went on to win nine VMAs, including Video of the Year, and, according to Gabriel’s website, it’s the most-aired video in MTV’s history.
Duran Duran, “Hungry Like the Wolf”
Nobody reveled in the wild early days of MTV like Duran Duran. “Video to us is like stereo was to Pink Floyd,” synth wizard Nick Rhodes told Rolling Stone in 1984. “It was new, it was just happening. And we saw we could do a lot with it.” Five androgynous boys on film, surrendering to the female gaze. They pounced on the new format with flair and wit, jet-setting to locales like Sri Lanka and Antigua with director Russell Mulcahy. “Hungry Like the Wolf” kicked off their Rio trilogy, capped by “Rio” and “Save a Prayer.” Simon Le Bon runs through the rain forest, searching for a muse (Bermudian model Sheila Ming) who leaves her claw marks on his throat. Meanwhile, John Taylor steals the show with the sensible fashion choice of a white blazer he refuses to button.
OK Go - “Here It Goes Again”
“Here It Goes Again,” which premiered on the fledgling video-sharing site, took those early efforts to a new level, depicting the band dancing across eight treadmills in one continuous shot. It also set the gold standard for viral music videos going forward — and proved much more effective at garnering attention for the band than a handful of burned DVDs. “For a few minutes that was awesome and then it was like, ‘Oh shit. This is us now,'” guitarist-vocalist Damian Kulash said later, reflecting on the band’s sudden fame spike after the clip caught on.
Talking Heads, Once in a Lifetime
It is reported that Basil and Byrne studied archive footage of preachers, evangelists, people in trances, African tribes and Japanese religious sects to see how Byrne could incorporate them into his performance. Basil set up a camera in a room, left Byrne alone and let him do his thing. They then edited together what was on the film and made the video needing only a small budget to complete it. Toni Basil discussed the choreography for this video in the 2011 book MTV Ruled the World - The Early Years of Music Video:
"He [Byrne] wanted to research movement, but he wanted to research movement more as an actor, as does David Bowie, as does Mick Jagger. They come to movement in another way, not as a trained dancer. Or not really interested in dance steps. He wanted to research people in trances - different trances in church and different trances with snakes. So we went over to UCLA and USC, and we viewed a lot of footage of documentaries on that subject. And then he took the ideas, and he 'physicalized' the ideas from these documentary-style films."
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