As a commercial artform, the music video is nowhere near as prevalent as it was only a few years ago. Blame the dwindling music industry, blame cheap camcorders and YouTube for allowing anybody to make and distribute their own terrible videos, blame MTV for airing nothing by Jersey Shore and The Hills. Like all artforms after they’ve fallen out of fashion, though, the music video has been picked up by smaller independent artists looking to make brief interesting statements, much as it was when the media first rose to prominence in the 1980s.
There were a few noteworthy clips that we chose not to include this year. Kanye West’s “Power” was fantastic, but a teaser for the impending release of the song, not a full treatment, and his 34-minute “Runaway” was intolerable. The Arcade Fire’s ambitious “The Wilderness Downtown (We Used To Wait)” was captivating and deeply emotionally effective, but it’s experimental interactive nature powered by Google Labs and HTML5 made it challenging to include because no two people’s experiences will be alike. Both Insane Clown Posse’s “Miracles” and Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” were fascinating moments in popular culture worthy of study and conversation, but we grew sick of them months ago and really don’t want to look a them again for a good long while.
That said, here are the ten music videos this year that kept us coming back for more, watching again and again, getting the music stuck in our heads and the visuals dancing through our dreams:
David E. Sugar – Party Killer
One incredibly simple trick of the camera. Sometimes that’s all it takes. We’ve seen the projected-video-over-live-video effect done countless times before, but by grabbing the base concept and just running with it, first time directors Arnold & Barber crafted a stark and attention-grabbing clip for the long-awaited full-length debut from established electronic powerhouse David E. Sugar. Effects like this are all in the minute details, and the London duo pull this off masterfully. Much respect to any artist willing to paint themselves white head-to-toe for art.
The xx – Islands
A Dolce & Gabana dance party becomes an exercise in ennui. You might think the video is just looping until you realize the band members are in the middle of the stage, continuing with the song uninterrupted as the high-fashion dancers find themselves trapped in a never-ending cycle. Soon enough, though, the dancers grow exhausted of this taudry affair and leave one-by-one without so much as a fond farewell. Ultimately the room is left charred and mangled, with but a single committed soul to occupy it with their continuing rhythm. Interesting, though, how one seven-second dance routine can apply itself so well to the entire length of the song.
Woodhands – Dissembler
It’s a tale as old as time itself. Two dudes are in a band, they meet the same girl at an afterparty, both have tender moments with said girl separately from the other, both believe girl was interested in themselves exclusively by end-of-night. This would be a pretty blah video if not for some curious but well-conceived editing decisions, namely the jittery time-lapsed photos in place of fluid video for an increased sense of disorientation and claustrophobia and the split-screen views to show the differing experiences of both Paul and Dan.
The Drums – Best Friend
Some videos tell stories. Some videos are direct riffs on the songs they are based upon. Some videos exist simply to introduce an audience to the core concept of what the artist is. “Best Friend” by the Drums falls into that third category. Jacob, Adam and Connor studiously go about band practice nonchalantly, even growing tired after the second chorus in favor of turning on a recording of their parts to pack up their instruments and go home. Frontman Jonathan, on the other hand, is all too comfortable slinking in the window, flaunting a charmingly awkward rhythmic dance and deftly avoiding any direct light on his shadowy visage. Aren’t you glad they went this route rather than illustrate lyrics like “you were my best friend, but then you died”?
Cloud Nothings – Hey Cool Kid
A certain aesthetic in independent short-form film has risen to prevalence in the past five years or so. Middle-American, soiled sweatpants, awkward stances, and unnecessary special effects and color correction for the sake of surrealism, enhancing a sense of hyper-reality in the mundane. You’ve seen it in Tim & Eric Awesome Show Great Job and Napoleon Dynamite, and you might have seen it in the work of Allen Cordell, who’s produced videos for likeminded madmen like Dan Deacon, Tobacco, and now Cloud Nothings. It starts off uneasy with garage tinkering and turns straight-up awesome with an unbelievable basketball match in a high school gym filled with scenesters. Don’t try to make sense of it, just relax your eyes and smile.
Ratatat – Drugs
Carl Burgess examines the absurdity that is stock footage in this impossible-to-look-away Ratatat clip. Even without his disturbingly inevitable effects, the footage calls to mind every insincere corporate memo, training video, sexual harassment lecture and public service announcement responsible adults are subject to on a daily basis. Do the people use drugs to escape the media or is the media a drug we use to escape people?
Letting Up Despite Great Faults – Our Younger Noise
Ah, to be young, casually cool and oh-so-fucking-adorable. This clip about young love explores the magical energy of counter-productivity and DIY culture, replete with romance, rebellion, and revelry. An entire generation (probably several) can easily place themselves in the lead male’s shoes, simultaneously excited and exhausted by the rambunctious mischief-maker tethered to his wrist, and feels the same emptiness in the reveal of the final shot.
Das Racist – Who’s That? Brooown!
Who doesn’t love retro videogames these days? Nobody, that’s who doesn’t. A lot of people out there are looking to make their new art projects look like old retro videogames to rekindle familiar feelings in their target audience. Das Racist don’t do anything the expected way, though, so when they wanted a retro game-inspired video, they actually hired an indie game developer to make a short game about them, then recorded a playthrough of the game as the music video, then released the game for free on their website. Shine on, your crazy brown bastards.
LCD Soundsystem – Drunk Girls
Sometimes, all you need is Spike Jonze. That man shows up and instant classic music videos just happen (see Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You”). Personal safety, of course, goes right out the window. The sacrifices we make for art…
Holy Fuck – Red Lights
FUCKING AWESOME. No great budget, no grand statement, just a very simple idea executed cleverly and adorably. This is one of those videos that is brilliant in that it doesn’t even need to hide the tricks used to pull off these shots, every director who sees it will be incensed that they didn’t think of it first. Have I mentioned that it’s also adorable? Because it is. You really can’t lose when the entire premise of your project is kittens.