My Top 20 music videos of all time

1. "Our Lips Are Sealed," the Go-Go's (1981)

Grainy perfection from a rare naturalist of the medium, Derek Burbidge (who directed the Police's "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic"): The Go-Go's drive around what looks like low-rent Hollywood in a vintage convertible, play in a fountain. Did it take a young format to feel this fresh? I think it took the Go-Go's, who make lip-synching seem natural, and whose music seizes on its new eternal pop sound with female punk hunger.

Trivia: Trashy Lingerie at 402 North La Cienega Boulevard still stands--check out the website at www.trashy.com.

2. "This Is Radio Clash," the Clash (1981)

The Clash take Manhattan in May/June of '81, and the time and place are as key as the band. Director Don Letts cut his documentary footage of New York breakdancers, protesters, and police with shots of pre-cable TV randomness, boom boxes on parade, the Clash live and in slo-mo, and disguised graffiti artist Futura 2000 going to work--all to one of the group's eeriest sonic pastiches, a quasi-rap produced as dub. Not actually like anything on the radio at the time, but the sound (and look) of the future. (It even influenced Guns N Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle.")

Trivia: All footage taken from Letts's aborted doc The Clash on Broadway, about the band's over-sold '81 residency at Bond's casino (more here). The list of opening bands was amazing: the Slits, Funkapolitan, the Equators, Grandmaster Flash and the Treacherous Three, the Sirens, the Sugarhill Gang, Lee Perry, Joe Ely, the Nitecaps, Miller Miller Miller & Sloane, Kraut, the Dead Kennedys, Bad Brains, the Fall, the Bloods, ESG, and the Brattles (a high-school aged band).

The shows drew Scorsese's crowd as well: "Me and Paul once took De Niro and Christopher Walken down to Gaz's Rockin' Blues," frontman Joe Strummer later said. "They loved it. I think it was just what they wanted."

About 22 edited minutes of the doc appear on the DVD for Westway to the World, but the rest of the film was thought lost. ("As far as I know, the reels were stored in a rental place in New York," said Strummer. "[Manager] Bernie [Rhodes] forgot to pay the rent and the footage was destroyed.") Then some 50 reels of original footage turned up last year. Expect it to take some final form during Letts's lifetime.

3. "Borderline," Madonna (1984)

Casual-seeming now as her iconography flowers before our eyes, but Madonna was at her most natural and charming here, with director Mary Lambert transforming one of Madonna's best songs, using Latino Los Angeles locations, breakdancing in slo-mo, a story arc of romance-jealousy-reunion, pool tables and rooftops, color and black-and-white, that hair, and a fateful can of spray paint.

Trivia: John Leguizamo played Madonna's boyfriend's friend, according to the internets. I'd love to know more about the central location, which appears to be 1201 6th Street.

4. "Beat It," Michael Jackson (1983)

"Billie Jean" is the song, "Thriller" the icon, but this first-ever video-as-event is the definitive movie--Michael Jackson's best and most cinematic video. Captivating from its first moments, looking and sounding humid and grimy, it ultimately seizes on the directorial insights of Fred Astaire: Back up and show the dancing. Bob Giraldi and choreographer Michael Peters famously used real gang members, who probably look more New Wave (and grouped more interracially) than in life, but their moves are closer to breaking or the Lockers than to West Side Story. Even now you could watch this and believe Michael could bring gang peace: When did we ever agree on anything as much as we agreed on him in 1983?

5. "Sabotage," Beastie Boys (1994)

Deep down, it turns out, a lot of us had always wanted to be a '70s TV cop show. Ergo the career of Spike Jonze, launched with this welcome reminder that videos are supposed to be fun. Hipsters inherited the mustache.

Trivia: When "Sabotage" lost to REM's "Everybody Hurts" at the 1994 MTV Music Video Awards, a lederhosen-clad Adam Yauch (MCA) stormed out from backstage in a fake beard, hat, glasses, and wig, to take the mic away from Michael Stipe, and sputter the following in a thick accent before security intervened: "This is an outrage, because Spike is the director who has just... [sigh] I'm from Switzerland. Let me just tell everyone that. And since I was a small boy I had dreamed that Spike would win this. And now that this has happened, I want to tell everyone this is a farce, that I had all the ideas for Star Wars and everything."

6. "This Ain't No Picnic," Minutemen (1984)

Unearthed Ronald Reagan WWII propaganda footage cut by Randall Jahnson to show the president bombing the Minutemen, who keep raising a fist from the rubble. Still hilarious, exciting as music, and more iconic in its black-and-white cheapness (budget: $600!) than any Godley and Creme video.

Trivia: Jahnson used footage of German and Japanese planes to double as Reagan's.

7. "Twilight Zone," Golden Earring (1982)

Underrated as tune, and such an early-'80s Ur-video (Bunuel surrealism without satire, a narrative set to song structure, Nazi girls dancing) that it probably gets mistaken for the countless crappy videos it influenced. But this snappily edited masterpiece by Dutch director Dick Maas isn't too caught up in its little torture-noir-thriller to be hilarious. And a lot of its spawn (Rolling Stones'/Julien Temple's "Under Cover" for starters) was more fun than what passes for music video now.

Trivia: Though forever tied to '80s MTV, Golden Earring formed as teenagers in the Hague in 1961, and have performed with the same lineup since 1970, making them one of the oldest bands.

8. "Get Ya Hustle On," Juvenile (2006)

Best protest video ever: Eight years after Juvenile brought the Magnolia projects to the world with "Ha," Ben Mor directs this lump-in-throat dreamlike street theater on location already made surreal by federal disaster--post-Katrina Lower Ninth Ward New Orleans, December 2005, drained of failed-levee floodwater but still looking like a war zone. The lyrics should be taken in context (queasily pro-cocaine at the peak of drug rap, but also unusually community-minded). Best use of limo in a rap video.

Trivia: Despite being pilloried in this video, Mayor Ray Nagin handily won re-election the same year, after the black community rallied around him in response to what was seen as a white establishment power grab.

9. "Born in the U.S.A.," Bruce Springsteen (1984)

Even if you don't notice the check-cashing store, or the lyrics, there's always the Asian-looking toddler dissolving into endless rows of Vietnam war graves, as Springsteen lets out a high-pitched cry. This is the defeated invader's blues, a peace protest wrapped in colors that don't run, packaged to blur, and about a sadness that's still with us. Director John Sayles's finest moment.

10. "Smells Like Teen Spirit," Nirvana (1991)

We won: Punk takes over high school, which is to say, the world. Samuel Bayer works the same subconscious symbolic territory as countless movies, and even throws a wrench in his dream's motor--is that janitor with the phallic mop Nirvana, the director, or us (anyone not "over" high school enough to find this powerful)? Yet it's all so seductive, I never even noticed the repeated shots. Plus, obviously, Weird Al's best set-up.

11. "Beauty Lies In the Eye," Sonic Youth (1986)

An early sign that neither music, nor music video, needed to be anything we thought they were. The swirling imagery and half-heard chord changes still don't resemble anything else that ever played on MTV, and are still beautiful.

Trivia: Shot in the band's rehearsal space on Ludlow Street, Lower East Side. Director Kevin Kerslake went on to a successful career in music video, but not because of this one.

12. "Hot For Teacher," Van Halen (1984)

Double-kick-drum dazzle matches pre-adolescent purity of guy-guy satiric-erotic vision, so that the slapstick combo of classroom and strip club/beauty contest never actually demands that an actress play a teacher becoming a stripper--in fact, this is less a wet dream for Van Halen than a nightmare for Waldo. Which is probably why not only boys found David Lee Roth's directing debut harmlessly naughty and funny at the time, and why MTV refused to ban it.

Trivia: That's Phil Hartman as the voice of Waldo, according to the internets.

13. "Sunday Bloody Sunday," U2 (1983)

Fire and Red Rocks around them, the band seems to be burning itself into every cheap frame of video, on a song that somehow doesn't get less stirring with time or self-deprecation. Director Gavin Taylor isn't awed, just caught up.

14. "Walk This Way," Run-DMC ft. Aerosmith (1987)

Steve Tyler gives the comic pantomime of his career simply by looking taken-aback, as his song is stolen from him, then put-out and resigned. Run-DMC triple the oomph of their "King of Rock" by taking on (and reinvigorating!) an actual living band. Jon Small directs the surreal transitions so smoothly that you barely notice them. Rap won! But so did rock!

15. "Jump Around," House of Pain (1992)

For three and a half minutes, not only is everyone Irish, but everyone's an Irish thug. David Perez directs St. Patrick Day parade, bagpipes, and lager toasts in black and white alternated with seething bar-lit color.

16. "Drop," The Pharcyde (1995)

The unique backwards-forwards motion effect comes from the rappers doing everything backwards, then director Spike Jonze reversing the film so that the Pharcyde's forward motion defies gravity and biology. (They even lip-synch convincingly, though they had to do that backwards, too.) The result is funny and beautiful in a way that tells us something new about how human beings move.

17. "The Saints Are Coming," U2 and Green Day (2006)

Somehow subtler and more devastating than the sum of its parts: evocative Skids cover performed by U2 and Green Day, shot in Abbey Road Studio and live at the Louisiana Superdome, with a "House of the Rising Sun" intro, set to a news-footage-based CG fantasy of U.S. military redeployed from Iraq to rescue New Orleans from the post-Katrina floods. Director Chris Milk effectively said what Bono couldn't.

Trivia: U2 and Green Day debuted the song at the live pre-game show of the New Orleans Saints versus the Atlanta Falcons, September 25, 2006--the first game held in the Superdome since the hurricane. Before a sold-out arena, they performed with locals the New Birth Brass Band, the Rebirth Brass Band, and others, then made the performance available for sale online to benefit NOLA musicians. The Saints beat the Falcons that night, 23-3.

18. "Save a Prayer," Duran Duran (1982)

If you can forgive the overblown-shallow lyric (and plenty of former 12-year-olds do), this slither of Apocalypse Now synth and minor-key hook is irresistible Duran Duran. Set to their usual international playboy motif by usual director Russell Mulcahy, this one gets Sri Lanka and a spiritual vibe in place of sexualized vacation spots, statues and fishermen instead of anonybabes, and one Taylor or another splashed by an elephant.

19. "Once In A Lifetime," Talking Heads (1981)

This had the early-MTV effect of at once introducing and overshadowing its more timeless source material, but the video nonetheless tackles the lyrics visually without getting literal (co-director David Bryne's Toni Basil-choreographed spastic dance really does look like a preacher man becoming life's marionette), and it remains there in your subconscious every time you hear the song.

20. "Electric Relaxation," A Tribe Called Quest (1991)

New York in black and white set to one of A Tribe Called Quest's best songs, Q-Tip exchanging looks across cabs, bridges, and diners with a decidedly non-video-chick-looking video chick as they mimic conversation in lip-synching, with director Fab Five Freddy Baithwaite (the first host of Yo! MTV Raps) cutting perfectly ahead of the beat.


Runners up (a list in progress):

"Ain't No Half Steppin'," Big Daddy Kane (1988)

A rap battle becomes a boxing match, becomes a poker showdown, in a gym, with well-oiled honeys doing erotic workouts on the side, but most of all a master of the rhymed one-liner at the center, making it all look easy and funny well before LL entered the ring.

"Reggaeton Latino," Don Omar (2005)

A meeting of Che and Tito Puente, Panamanian nationalism and Puerto Rican radicalism, archive footage and studio documentary, all in celebration of the new beat. Less pointed than Calle 13's "Querido F.B.I.", and not as compelling musically as Daddy Yankee or Tego Calderon, this remains the most stirring audio-visual packaging reggaeton has produced.

"Big Me," Foo Fighters (1995)

You have to know the Mentos commercial it's making fun of, but this is still pure genius.

"Weapon of Choice," Fatboy Slim (2000)

The one with Christopher Walken dancing. A great Walken moment, but the song had entirely left my memory, and nearly took the video with it.

"Just a Friend," Biz Markie (1989)

That Beethoven wig alone made this the most iconic '80s rap video this side of Run-DMC.

"Little Red Corvette," Prince (1983)

Just Prince, his band, his smile, and his dance in red and white lights. His best video.

"All That I Wanted," Belfegore (1984)

A video that asks the timeless question: Can a band play and sing rock and roll while constantly running?

"Fu-Gee-La," the Fugees (1995)

A refreshing Third Worldist twist on Duran Duran, recasting "Sabotage" in the image of The Harder They Come.

"Big Time," Peter Gabriel (1985)

Both transcendently goofy satiric song and kitchen-sink-animated video are funnier to me than "Sledgehammer," but then I'm big on sarcasm. Eat the rich.

"Doin' It," LL Cool J (1995)

Honestly can't think of another video that's actually erotic--it's all about female agency, kids.

"Summertime," DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince (1991)

Pre-sold brand name has ease and perspective to immortalize Sunday barbecue.

"The Message," Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five (1982)

Social realism on its way.

"If I Can't Change Your Mind," Sugar (1993)

Bob Mould's coming out party, not a moment too soon.


Why are so many great videos missing? (a rant)

Because, first of all, they weren't as great as you remember. Most videos, even in the medium's supposed '80s heyday, were just delivery systems for great songs you could hear nowhere else. In many ways, MTV, BET, Friday Night Videos, the Box, and the various clubs that played videos were filling a musical void left by radio. They also delivered enticements that don't necessarily endure--like seeing an artist for the first time.

I went back to scores of beloved videos thinking I'd find gold, and discovered there were reasons why the songs stayed with me as the visuals faded. Videos were always supposed to be disposable ads for the artist and song. Even many of the celebrated exceptions date poorly, like Godley and Creme's "Wrapped Around Your Finger" for the Police--hopelessly self-serious in its Bob Guccione-soft-focus, though the slo-mo effect was amazing at the time.

Personal taste inevitably factors here: Videos are only as good as the music they use, and beauty lies in the ear. But I have slightly more confidence in my eye. Hype Williams bores me because I've grown up with the empty advertising he immitates, and slick new techniques lose their lustre after nearly 30 years of MTV viewing. Visual cliches that are evidently kosher with a new generation of viewers--lens flare, the constant fading-to-black beginning in the mid-'90s--irritate me to distraction. And mainstream music itself is now such a high-stakes blockbuster game that the videos all look equally "good" and equally dull, so that a whimsical little goof by OK Go becomes a big deal on Youtube.

That said, there are a lot of fun videos I've left out (Joseph mentions "Pressure"), and I'm still catching up with the various MTV offshoots, so any suggested additions or disagreements would be welcome.

Other lists:

Best rap videos ever (Status Ain't Hood)
Best music videos (ILX)
Best hip-hop videos evah (ILX)
Top 100 music videos of all time (Stylus)
100 awesome music videos (Pitchfork)
100 greatest music videos (Slant)



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