While most music videos are merely slick, soulless promotional vehicles for potential hit singles, with no more substance or purpose than a Shamwow infomercial, occasionally a video comes out that transcends crass commercialism and actually stands alone as a work of visual art. Happily, quite a few such artworks hit TV screens and computer monitors for three or so minutes at a time this year, and when we added all those minutes together...well, we realized we spent much of 2011 enjoying some really awesome music videos.
So here, in ascending order of awesomeness, are our picks for the top 20 videos of the year.
20) Noel Gallagher - "AKA...What A Life"
This epic road movie stars ex-Oasis man Noel's real-life friend Russell Brand as some sort of wicked Wonderland mad hatter who lures a golden-haired lass into his dark lair and then forces her to go on a psychedelic trip. The casting is certainly ironic, considering the now-sober Mr. Perry's very well-documented past struggles with drug addiction. But certainly, this is the role Russell was born to play.
19) Stars - "We Don't Want Your Body"
This bizarre sweating-to-the-newies clip tells the musclebound love story of a male and female bodybuilder, who lip-synch to the song while pumping iron in the gym (while "Physical"-style, speedo-sheathed himbos strike poses in the background). And all along, the sexual tension, and hilarity, builds between them. The Vaseline-lensed video is a clear homage to the '80s fitness craze, when excited new VCR owners stocked up on cruddy jazzercise workout videos, Jamie Lee Curtis and John Travolta donned legwarmers and leotards for Perfect, and, yes, Olivia Newton-John cavorted with sweaty jocks in "Physical." It's sure to get your heart pumping, or at least make your abdominals ache from all your laughing.
18) Rihanna - "We Found Love"
Art imitates life, in the artiest way possible, in this gorgeously shot clip starring RiRi and a bleached-blonde actor who bears a disturbing resemblance to her ex, Chris Brown. The scene where Rihanna and the fake Chris fight in the car will haunt you for days, but you won't be able to look away.
17) Foo Fighters - "White Limo"
The Foos are known for making hilarious big-budget videos, but they actually outdid themselves with this cheapo clip. Apparently all of this video's budget was spent on getting Lemmy from Motorhead to play a starring role...but it was money very well spent.
16) Battles with Gary Numan - "My Machines"
Experimental rockers Battles teamed with electric friend Numan and the folks at the Creators Project--and the result is the singularly best chronicle of one man's attempt to scale a shopping-mall escalator ever committed to film.
15) tUnE-YarDs - "Bizness"
Like a classic Talking Heads video on steroids or a Keith Haring painting come to life, Merrill Garbus and company's "Bizness" is one of the most colorful, original, and joyous video sprees of 2011. We dare you not to smile, or even scream like a giddy banshee, when watching this.
14) Matt & Kim - "Cameras"
This bizarre but compulsively watchable clip depicts the usually lovey-dovey Matt and Kim, who are a couple in real life, beating each other to bloody pulps during a rehearsal gone very, very awry--with musical instruments, mic stands, drum stools, cartons of Chinese takeout, fists, and droplets of (hopefully fake) blood flying in all directions. Considering the duo's behind-the-scenes personal relationship, the domestic-violence overtones of the video would be a bit unsettling if a) we didn't know that Matt and Kim underwent stunt training before the shoot, b) Kim fights just as down 'n' dirty as her male counterpart here, and c) the song wasn't just so darn cute.
13) Breakbot - "Fantasy"
This video by 30-year-old French producer/DJ Breakbot (real name: Thibaut Berland) depicts an art class full of worked-up male students who just can't seem to concentrate on their canvases once their subject, a brunette beauty, drops her trenchcoat and strikes an unclothed pose. Then one particularly creative, and particularly distracted, pupil starts fantasizing about the model...and it all culminates in an "A-ha moment," so to speak. This one's a real work of art.
12) Cee Lo Green - "Cry Baby"
This Broadway-style romp stars Jaleel White--aka Urkel from "Family Matters," all grown up--hoofing and lip-synching up a storm. Come to think of it, with credentials like that, maybe this video should be higher up on this list...
11) Best Coast - "Crazy For You"
One of 2011's finest meshing of the feline minds comes from Los Angeles indie-pop band Best Coast, who thrillingly teamed with the LOLcats over at icanhascheezburger.com for this caption-tastic tour de force. I can has great music video? Yes, you can, Best Coast. We still can't stop LOLing over this.
10) Beastie Boys - "Make Some Noise"
Videos vanguards the Beasties added two more amazing clips to their videography this year, starting with this VMA-nominated allstar short film. Starring actors Elijah Wood, Danny McBride, and Seth Rogen as the Beasties circa 1987 (along with cameos by Will Ferrell, Jack Black, John C. Reilly, Ted Danson, Rashida Jones, Will Arnett, Amy Poehler, Mary Steenburgen, Jason Schwartzman, Rainn Wilson, Steve Buscemi, Chloe Sevigny, Kirsten Dunst, Maya Rudolph, Malin Akerman, and Orlando Bloom), this is the prequel to "Fight For Your Right (To Party)" that we'd always dreamed of.
9) Manchester Orchestra - "Simple Math"
Detailing a horrific car accident and the "life flashing before your eyes" phenomenon that the driver experiences during the harrowing slow-mo crash, this is certainly one of the most unique and haunting videos of the year. It requires multiple viewings to fully grasp, but it will take only one viewing to stick with you forever.
8) OK Go - "Muppet Show Theme"
OK Go have landed places on multiple year-end video lists, and have starred in landmark videos with dogs, treadmills, and marching bands. But in this video, they star with Muppets. 'Nuff said. It's time to play the music, it's time to light the lights. Watch it now.
7) Radiohead - "Lotus Flower"
This bizarre clip consists of little more than Thom Yorke going bonkers in black-and-white, thrashing about a barren warehouse in what appears to be a totally improvised, totally unhinged modern dance. It's an incredibly simple concept...and it's incredibly awesome, better than most big-budget videos out there. Who knew Thom had such awesome moves? He truly is the king of (flailing) limbs. And even better than this video? All the hilarious parodies that flooded YouTube within hours of its release.
6) Pink - "F***in Perfect"
This video is controversial, as its troubled main character deals with schoolyard bullies, mean girls, unsympathetic teachers, controlling parents, anorexia, shoplifting, and, in the clip's most unsettling (and, be warned, bloodiest) scene, cutting--all in her attempts to find herself and finally feel that she's "perfect." But the video's surprise ending should bolster the confidence of many self-doubting viewers who can relate to the girl's story. This video is pretty much perfect, and so very timely in a year when the problem of bullying has been in the spotlight. Just try not to get teary-eyed by the end.
5) Duran Duran - "Girl Panic"
There was a time, back in the hallowed 1980s, when supermodels were superstars, practically on the same A-list level as the pop singers who recruited them for their bombastic music videos. And in this nine-and-a-half-minute mini-movie, the "Supers" are back in the gauze-lensed spotlight, recapturing all the celluloid glamour of THE ultimate '80s band's heyday. Starring Naomi Campbell as frontman Simon Le Bon, Cindy Crawford as bassist John Taylor, Helena Christensen as drummer Roger Taylor, and Eva Herzigova as keyboardist Nick Rhodes, along with Simon's own real-life model wife Yasmin, this video perfectly epitomizes the glamour and excess of Duran's champagne-swilling, yacht-hopping glory days.
4) Ke$ha - "Blow"
We thought it was awesome enough when Ke$ha engaged in drag-queen chainsaw battles and romped with white tigers in the unofficial "Ke$ha 'n' Friends" day-glo version of her "Take It Off" video last year. But that was nuthin' compared to "Blow," in which the party girl makes out with unicorns (maybe the best use of the white-unicorn motif in a music video since Muse's "Knights Of Cydonia") AND spars with James Van Der Beek in a lazer-rainbow gunfight to end all lazer-rainbow gunfights. Because hey, if there's anything more awesome than a drag-queen chainsaw war, it's a Dawson rainbow war. Right?
3) The Black Keys - "Howlin' For You"
A grindhouse trailer of which Quentin Tarantino or Ed Wood themselves would be proud, the howlingly funny "Howlin' For You" stars Maxim Hot 100 actress Tricia Helfer as Alexa Wolff, "a sexy assassin with a troubled past" according IMDB.com, who leaves "a trail of bloody corpses and broken hearts in her wake" as she avenges her father's murder. Along that trail, she meets "Diff'rent Strokes" icon Todd Bridges (perfectly cast as a sassy, lecherous priest), snowboarder Shaun White (one of Alexa's many conquests/victims), and actors Sean Patrick Flanery and Corbin Bernsen. Pass the popcorn and enjoy a screening of this instant cult classic now.
2) Katy Perry - "Last Friday Night"
The greatest John Hughes movie never made, this totally awesome eight-minute teen flick stars Katy--or more specifically, "Kathy Beth Terry," her orthodontically challenged, heavily mouth-breathing geek-girl alter ego--along with "Glee's" Kevin McHale as the knight in Medieval Times armor of her nerdy dreams, and Kevin's "Glee" castmate Darren Criss as the big man on campus (the role Emilio Estevez probably would've landed if this video had actually been filmed in 1985). But that is just the beginning of all the teenage dreaminess. Former tween heartthrobs Hanson also make a cameo as the band playing at Kathy's outta-control house party, '80s teen sensations Corey Feldman and Debbie Gibson portray her hard-partyin' parents, and Rebecca Black plays Kathy's cool (yes, cool) BFF. And then, as a little something for older viewers, the original sexy sax man, Kenny G, stars as..."Uncle Kenny." And yes, he's got his saxophone with him. Seriously, all that's missing here is Jake Ryan driving up in a red sports car at the end.
1) Beastie Boys - "Don't Play No Game That I Can't Win"
What's cooler than Beastie Boys? Beastie dolls! Spike Jonze, the genius director behind classic Beastie vids like "Sabotage" and "Sure Shot," reteamed with the trio and cast a bunch of plastic action figures in the most action-packed video of 2011. In a year when the Beasties landed on the list of new Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame inductees, it was also great to see them land on this list twice.