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Many music videos are slick, soulless, product-placement-crammed promos, but some transcend crass commercialism and stand alone as true works of visual art. Here, in ascending order of amazingness, are our picks for the top 22 such artworks of 2017; the fact that we couldn’t stop at an even 20 shows just how good a year this was for the music video medium.
22. Depeche Mode, “Where’s the Revolution”
The synthpop/post-punk legends returned in 2017 with their 14th full-length opus, Spirit, a stark and dark album for dark times, led by this dystopian propaganda reel by longtime visual collaborator Anton Corbijn. “Come on, people, you’re letting me down,” Depeche dictator Dave Gahan intones from behind his pulpit to an army of flag-brandishing soldiers. Make America Mode Again!
21. Elbow, “Gentle Storm”
Thirty-two years after Godley & Creme released the breakthrough “Cry” video — a pioneering clip that used analog cross-fading (face-morphing) years before Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” clip — Kevin Godley has revisited that technology for fellow Mancunian Elbow’s “Gentle Storm” video. Elbow’s remake (directed by Godley, who co-directed “Cry” with Creme) is a faithful shot-by-dissolving-shot homage to the original, with one major exception: Benedict Cumberbatch is one of the familiar morphing faces. With or without Cumberbatch, the effect is still as compelling as it was in 1985.
20. Harry Styles, “Kiwi”
“Kiwi” is undoubtedly the sexiest track on the ex-One Directioner’s self-titled solo debut, so Styles could have gone the obvious route and shot a video with a cast of scantily clad supermodels. Instead, the career-reinventing former teen heartthrob made a food-fight romp filled with cupcake-hurling schoolchildren and puppies. Harry Styles is simply the coolest.
19. The Weeknd, “I Feel It Coming”
Any time we get to see ever-elusive Parisian popbots Daft Punk onscreen, it’s cause for celebration. But this pastel-washed fantasy clip has so much more to offer than just a couple of space-helmet cameos. Described as “a love story in a cursed land” by director Warren Fu, the sci-fi mini-movie evokes Clash of the Titans, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Dark Crystal, Knight Rider, Terminator 2, and many other ’80s dusty treasures in your VHS movie collection. Be kind, rewind, and watch this instant classic again and again.
18. Sharon Needles, “Battle Axe”
The RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 4 winner’s 2017 viral offering plays like a supersized episode of “Snatch Game” — with the queen of darkness channeling Mommie Dearest-era Faye Dunaway, an especially devilish Miranda Priestley, and, most sickeningly, a hilarious Dynasty-spoofing catfight scene with her Drag Race nemesis-turned-good friend Phi Phi O’Hara. You betta watch.
17. St. Vincent, “Los Ageless”
The artist also known as Annie Clark just gets better with age — her latest album, Masseduction, ranked high on our year-end albums list — and her eye-popping, almost literally skin-crawling “Los Ageless” video just might be her best visual yet. The Willo Perron-directed clip provides startling social commentary on the beauty and plastic surgery industries; Clark suffers for beauty, and for her art, and the effect is startling.
16. Foo Fighters, “Run”
Dave Grohl and company make aging seem a lot more fun as they don Oscar-level special effects makeup to metamorphose into octogenarians and proceed to turn a nursing home living room into a gray-hair-whipping mosh pit. The Foos are timeless.
15. Gorillaz, “Saturnz Barz (Spirit House)” [360 version]
This haunted house clip generated more than 3 million views in its first 48 hours on YouTube (it’s up to 10 million now) — biggest debut for a virtual reality music video in YouTube history. This is unsurprising, since Damon Albarn’s cartoon band, as visualized by animator Jamie Hewlett, has been breaking since 2001. Get out your VR viewer and watch the 360 below, or check out the equally dazzling regular version, which is up to 55 million well-deserved YouTube spins.
14. Bleachers, “Don’t Take the Money”
This colorful, wacky vid, directed by band leader Jack Antonoff’s girlfriend Lena Dunham, depicts a backyard New Jersey wedding between Antonoff and a mail-order bride, then turns into a Russian spy caper straight out of the ’80s era Antonoff so obviously adores. It’s silly and fun, but its political overtones give it some added weight.
13. Superfruit, “Heartthrob”
The Pentatonix-spinoff duo go totally ‘90s for the feel-good clip of the year — fondly recalling a simpler time of Tigerbeat magazine; teenhood bedrooms decorated with Delia’s catalog furnishings and posters of Freddie Prinze Jr., Chad Michael Murray, and John Taylor Thomas; and communication that took place entirely via Sidekicks and hamburger-shaped landline phones. Pop this song in your Discman and sing along doing your best hairbrush karaoke, to have your best slumber party EVER.
12. Blondie, “Doom or Destiny”
How fitting in a year of political unrest and #MeToo that Debbie Harry has joined forces with fellow female badass Joan Jett for this amusing but apocalyptic news broadcast. The best scene is the “grab ’em by the pussy” reference, featuring a press conference in which a Trumpian orange sock puppet gets attacked by a kitty-cat. (“Pussy Grabs Back!”) This is the kind of “fake news” we can all get behind.
11. Garbage, “No Horses”
Blondie’s recent “Rage and Rapture” tourmates also get political here, although this video is unlikely to elicit any laughs. The chilling clip cold-opens with a Handmaid’s Tale-inspired scene depicting red-hooded frontgoddess Shirley Manson washing her older male bandmates’ feet, then violently explodes into a quick-cut newsreel of street riots, environmental destruction, starving Third World children, and Wall Street greed. “There will be no cops, just men with guns/ In their shiny black uniforms and their big black boots/ With their shiny black batons and their sleek black cars/ With their fingers on the trigger,” Manson warns. Brutal but required viewing in 2017.
10. Young Thug, “Wyclef Jean”
Making the best out of a situation that is every director’s nightmare, enterprising Ryan Staake managed to make one of the buzziest videos of the year even though its planned star, Young Thug, never showed up to the set. Staake told Rolling Stone, “I was a shell of a director afterwards; I was not optimistic about the future of the video,” but instead his humorous account of the disastrous shoot, cobbled together from imagery he captured in Thug’s absence, went instantly viral.
9. Plan B, “In the Name of Man”
The U.K. hip-hop star and collaborators the Flabbergast Theatre employ crude leather puppets and disturbing historical footage to tell a tale of mass upheaval, domestic displacement, and manmade disaster. This artsy, intense offering warrants repeated viewings, and it’s worth watching the “making-of” companion clip as well.
8. Kesha, “Praying”
Paying a visit to Southern California’s decaying Salvation Mountain, 2017’s comeback queen throws off the shackles of her recent legally troubled years, replaces them with angel wings, and finally takes flight with the best music of her career. A Jonas Akerlund-lensed triumph.
7. Fergie, “A Little Work”
The MVPea — whose visual album Double Dutchess was one of 2017’s most overlooked pop releases and should have been a comeback — wrestles with her own demons in this 11-minute short film (also directed by Jonas Akerlund). The recently divorced recovered meth addict stumbles on the streets in a sequined minidress and then ends up in an abandoned, crumbing church, where she finally finds redemption. And all the while, she narrates her harrowing journey to hell and back with surprisingly unflinching and occasionally cringe-inducing candor. It’s completely indulgent, but it’s epic, and it’s honest. More than a little work went into this.
6. P!nk, “Beautiful Trauma”
With the help of her perfectly cast Stepford husband, Channing Tatum, the pop diva depicts a pastel nightmare of ‘50s housewifery, complete with prescription pill-popping and liberally spiked morning coffee. It’s only when they engage in secret S&M sessions and cross-dressing that the Ginger-and-Fred-esque couple manage to enjoy a bit of domestic bliss. This is good naughty fun as only the party-starting, genre- and gender-flipping P!nk can deliver.
5. Danny Brown, “Ain’t It Funny”
This totally twisted video by the eccentric Detroit MC, directed by Jonah Hill and starring Gus Van Sant and Growing Pains’ Joanna Kerns as the parents, really needs to be greenlit as an actual sitcom in 2018 — although it would have to air way after prime time, and definitely on cable. “Uncle Danny” is clearly the role Danny Brown was born to play.
4. Kendrick Lamar, “Humble”
This Dave Meyers-directed, Grammy-nominated video got a lot of attention for casting a real-woman model with actual visible stretch marks, but its lightning-quick three minutes and three seconds are packed with iconic imagery, from a Last Supper Da Vinci reenactment (with Lamar in Jesus’s center chair), to an amusing Grey Poupon transaction, to a scene that is quite literally pure fire. Sit down and watch this over and over again.
3. Jay-Z, “The Story of O.J.”
Co-conceived by Hova and arguably the greatest music video director of all time, Mark Romanek, this spoof of racist cartoons from the ’30s and ’40s and the 1899 children’s book The Story of Little Black Sambo packs a punch in this politically charged year. And the attention to antique detail by animators the Mill is just incredible, shot for shot, still for still. If any video can beat Kendrick in the Grammys’ Best Music Video category, it’s this.
2. The Killers, “The Man”
Brandon Flowers is indeed the Man. Playing a trailer-park-dwelling, USDA-certified-lean-steak-grilling, cash-flashing, Evel Knievel-worshipping Sin City hustler who wins and loses everything, the rock star comes across like a grizzled ’70s-flick antihero in this Casino/Leaving Las Vegas-esque tour de force. “I got gas in the tank/ I got money in the bank/ I got news for you baby, you’re looking at the man,” he boasts, and every word is 100 percent believable.
1. Charli XCX, “Boys”
British electropop goddess Charli makes our hearts go boom clap with this subversively script-flipping video positively crammed with male eye candy. Seventy-five Charli’s angels — including Wiz Khalifa, Mark Ronson, Charlie Puth, will.i.am, Ty Dolla $ign, Joe Jonas, Khalid, Mac DeMarco, Joey Bada$$, the Libertines’ Carl Barât, Panic! At the Disco’s Brendon Urie, Diplo, G-Eazy, Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig, Jack Antonoff, Tinie Tempah, Vance Joy, Bastille’s Dan Smith, Chromeo, Frank Carter and Stormzy — strike a pose and work the camera to full effect. (And there are puppies, too! No wonder this video racked up 3 million views in a single day.) “[The men are] basically doing all the sexy things that girls usually do in videos,” Charli XCX explained to the BBC. “I started thinking about all the guys that I’ve worked with or met [throughout all] my years in the industry. … I just want to flip the male gaze on its head and have you guys do the sexy stuff.” Keep doing your good work in 2018, Charli.