Courtesy Photos; Design by Jessica Xie

The 20 Best Music Videos of 2019 (So Far): Staff Picks

A byproduct of the streaming era, both in terms of numbers and resources, has been the resurgence of the music video. Look no further than the ambitious video for Lil Nas X’s runaway smash “Old Town Road,” which is double the length of the song and was launched with a premiere party like a Hollywood blockbuster. The biz is in a boom time, and artists are channeling an increasing amount of their creative energy into their visual footprint.

There’s no throughline among the best videos of the year so far -- just rising stars, like Billie Eilish and Megan Thee Stallion, and certified veterans, like Madonna and the Jonas Brothers, trying to flex as imaginatively as possible. The results can be lewd, controversial, empowering, silly, and surprising. The playbook only requires that you stand out.

In no order but alphabetical, here are our 20 favorite music videos of the year so far.

Ariana Grande, "7 Rings" (dir. Hannah Lux Davis)

Ariana Grande went total glitz and glam for the music video for her No. 1 hit, “7 Rings.” Diamonds? Check. Seven-inch heels? Check. A glorious ponytail that stretches for miles? Check. Grande has described the Thank U, Next recording as a hang out with her closest friends -- plenty of snacks and bubbly. Watching “7 Rings” takes that energy and applies a layer of extreme polish. But for the most part, the champagne towers, video games and dancing doesn’t seem too far off from what a real Grande house party must be like. - KIRSTEN SPRUCH

Ashley O, "On a Roll" (dir. Anne Sewitsky)

"Hey, yeah, whoa-ho, I'm on a roll," Miley Cyrus-as-Ashley O sings on “On a Roll,” the bona fide earworm (and no, it’s not that other phrase people thought) that’s been taking over Twitter. The re-imagined Nine Inch Nails song was first heard in the Black Mirror episode "Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too,” along with snippets of an accompanying music video. The interwebs immediately demanded an official release and the full video, and Ashley obliged. The visual features Ashley in all of her popstar glory, wearing sexy popstar garb and performing the appropriate choreography. Actually, the purple wig and dance sequences might make you think of 2009-era Lady Gaga, and those swirling projections on the wall are more than a little reminiscent of Ariana Grande's "Problem" video. See also: both stars’ white boots. But because this is Black Mirror, at about 1:49, it all starts to go down the tubes, with literal cracks in the video reflecting Ashley O’s journey in the episode. The unhappy singer is caught giving the camera the finger, she makes a mess in a pink bathtub, and finally, we’re treated to some eerie frames of Aunt Catherine looking pissed. All together now: I’m such a huge fan. - GAB GINSBERG

Bad Bunny, "Caro" (dir. Fernando Lugo and Benito Martinez)

Bad Bunny has been unapologetically expressive since the beginning of his career, from donning neon-clawed manicures to rocking intricately detailed buzzcuts. In his co-directed video for "Caro," the Puerto Rican star dove deep into his feminine side. It starts with him getting his nails done before flipping to a female gaze -- a theme that feels unprecedented in the heavily masculinized Latin world. Model Jazmyne Joy plays Bunny's energetic tethered, encapsulating his kooky spirit and swagger. The artist also displays his LGBTQ+ allyship with a diverse selection of runway models before capping the video with a steamy make-out session between the two Bunnys -- marking an in-your-face expression of self-love that challenges the genre's status quo. - BIANCA GRACIE

Billie Eilish, "Bury a Friend" (dir. Michael Chaves)

Most conventional pop music videos aim to be dream-like escapes from the natural horrors of the outside world… but then, Billie Eilish doesn't make conventional pop music. It's only fitting that her videos should follow suit, especially with her sinister, spine-chilling video for "Bury a Friend." Starring as the monster under someone's bed, Eilish pulls out the most effective horror tropes to give life to her spooky song. Hypodermic needles pierce her back, darkness clouds her eyes, and lights flicker across her face as the star haunts her sleeping friend. Is it a visual representation of sleep paralysis? Is it a metaphor for the fear of loneliness? When you find yourself asking these questions about a music video, you know the artist has clearly done something right. - STEPHEN DAW

BTS feat. Halsey, "Boy With Luv" (dir. YongSeok Choi)

The concept behind "Boy With Luv" is simple: coat BTS and Halsey in pastel colors and have them dance everywhere. It’s exactly what fans, and the rest of the world, want right now -- joy so pure it has the power to turn your entire day around. Maybe that's why it became the most-viewed 24-hour debut in YouTube history. There’s something satisfying and uplifting about watching the seven members dance around an aesthetically pleasing movie theater, diner, and a giant set of piano keys. For such a sparkly, over-the-top pop anthem, you get what you deserve. - KIRSTEN SPRUCH

DaBaby, “Suge” (dir. Reel Goats)

There are many driving forces behind DaBaby's success with "Suge." First, the hook pops and pays homage to one of hip-hop's most vilified stars, former Death Row Records CEO Marion "Suge" Knight. Though "Suge" is tough on wax, the song's visual is pure comedy, with the South Carolina rapper flexing in a black turtleneck, muscles puffed out, like the CEO in his prime. It captures the brilliant balance of DaBaby, who blends serious shit-talking with humor in a way that never feels less than necessary. - CARL LAMARRE

FKA Twigs, “Cellophane” (dir. Andrew Thomas Huang)

For months, Twigs obsessives have watched the artist develop her pole skills in mirrored studios. What was she planning? The answer came with the fantastical video for “Cellophane,” her first new single since 2016. The lyrics are as unadorned as her pole-work is impressive, a juxtaposition of plain, artless language and strenuous performance. “We do twist ourselves into fantasies when we feel we aren’t enough,” my friend remarked about the video. “Why don’t I do it for you?” Twigs sings; she’s strong enough to handle whatever the response may be. - ROSS SCARANO

Jonas Brothers, "Sucker" (dir. Anthony Mandler)

For their long-awaited comeback single, the Jonas Brothers could have just filmed themselves playing "Sucker" in a garage and fans would have been happy. What Nick, Kevin and Joe Jonas did instead was one of the most delightfully glamorous music videos of the year: "Sucker" has all of the drama, flamboyant costumes, lavish sets and ridiculous acting that you want to see from a high-quality music video, along with starring roles for the self-dubbed "J Sisters," Sophie Turner, Priyanka Chopra and Danielle Jonas. Go ahead, try to name a better comeback music video. We'll wait. - STEPHEN DAW

Kacey Musgraves, "Rainbow"(dir. Hannah Lux Davis)

Musgraves tapped the go-to pop diva director of choice, Hannah Lux Davis, for this emotional clip that touches on the “struggle of staying above the rising water line” off her Grammy-winning album Golden Hour. From a harried young mom to a man in the throes of alcoholism and a teen exploring gender identity, the unhurried vignettes — each cued to a color of the rainbow — match the song’s majestic pace with a message of hope, and, yes, a rainbow that soars above the grey skies. - GIL KAUFMAN

The Killers, "Land of the Free" (dir. Spike Lee)

For their first song since 2017's Wonderful Wonderful, the Killers attacked a host of scourges plaguing America -- mass shootings, the prison-industrial complex, militarization at the Mexico-U.S. border -- through a dramatic piano ballad. Brandon Flowers and co. enlisted Spike Lee to direct its fittingly gripping video: filmed over a few weeks in late 2018, the clip includes rage-inducing footage of border patrol agents tear-gassing migrant families, alongside inspirational shots of communal celebration and solidarity. - CHRIS PAYNE

Lauren Jauregui, "More Than That” (dir. Lauren Dunn)

Ex-Fifth Harmony star Jauregui served as a creative director on this Botticelli-inspired fever dream, which unfolds at a woke strip club called Olympus. With LJ as Aphrodite, it’s a feminine fantasia packed with slow-motion pole dancing for an all-XX chromosome audience of sirens in gauzy robes cut with shots of the singer as the centerpiece of a living portrait version of B-Celli’s renaissance masterpiece “Primavera.” Director Lauren Dunn said the point was to flip the seedy, poorly-lit rap video strip club trope on its head and celebrate “women’s power and beauty, in every form.” - GIL KAUFMAN

Lil Nas X feat. Billy Ray Cyrus, “Old Town Road” (dir. Calmatic)

The “Old Town Road” video will likely be remembered for its more cinematic qualities: the extended run time, the interludes to advance the “story,” cameos that include Chris Rock, Diplo and Rico Nasty. The visual for the biggest song of the year so far, however, works because of the new artist at its center. Throughout the clip, Lil Nas X exudes an effortless charm while adopting and subverting every cowboy trope; as an idiosyncrasy in the modern world, he mugs for the camera when he needs to, but also makes enough room for his cohort Billy Ray Cyrus to dramatically tip his hat. Anyone who follows Lil Nas X on Twitter knows he’s charismatic, but the “Old Town Road” video let him shine as a legitimate new star. - JASON LIPSHUTZ

Madonna, "Dark Ballet" (dir. Emmanuel Adjei)

It's not hard to see why Madonna has long been obsessed with Joan of Arc, a fiercely independent warrior persecuted for heresy and cross-dressing, and eventually burned at the stake by the patriarchal Catholic Church in 1431 (and later canonized by the church). Madonna cast queer, black  HIV+ rapper Mykki Blanco as Joan in her "Dark Ballet" video because, as Blanco tells Billboard, she told him, "'If you had existed as you in her time — you would have been burned at the stake as well.’” The dark, sumptuous cinematography emphasizes the sinister, shadowy quality to Catholic imagery, and the scenes of Mykki/Joan burning don't shy away from the visceral pain of death by fire. Much like the song, the video itself goes totally bonkers at the halfway point, with rapid-cut editing as Blanco ballet dances to a synth-heavy interpolation of Tchaikovsky's "Dance of the Reed Flutes" from The Nutcracker Suite. - JOE LYNCH

Megan Thee Stallion, "Big Ole Freak" (dir. Munachi Osegbu)

It's wild to think the "Big Ole Freak" video was initially supposed to be, well, even freakier. "It took so long to come out because I wasn’t feeling it," Megan Thee Stallion previously told Billboard. "The first time I shot it in Houston, it was too sexual. It would’ve had to be on BET Uncut or something. We did it again, but it was missing my friends. Then we shot it a third time and finally got it right." Directed by Nigerian photographer Munachi Osegbu, the final version shows Megan rubbing on herself in a foam-filled tub, twerking in latex and seductively licking on lollipops as she lures you into her adult wonderland. While it may be tamer than planned, it still walks a sexually explicit line that only someone as confident as the Houston rapper could. - BIANCA GRACIE

Post Malone, "Wow." (dir. James DeFina)

After going viral with his improbably awesome dance routine to Post's hit, the grey-bearded 43-year old Mike Alancourt got to extend his time in the spotlight with a fittingly non sequitur appearance in the official "Wow." video. The video plays out as a vlog-esque behind-the-scenes look at Posty's touring lifestyle -- lots of beer pong, lots of Red Hot Chili Peppers tunes -- before Alancourt steals the show in the end, impressing an Arizona arena crowd with his goofy charisma. - CHRIS PAYNE

Shura, "Religion (U Can Lay Your Hands On Me)" (dir. Chloe Wallace)

Indie synth-pop artist Shura has been spending a lot of time in Brooklyn, and it’s clearly been good for the creative soul. Her striking visual for “Religion (U Can Lay Your Hands On Me),” a song about surviving time apart from your loved one, was inspired by Jude Law in The Young Pope. Basically, Shura and director Chloe Wallace dreamt up the dopest abbey ever, filled with nuns exploring their sexual proclivities. Shura rocks an all-white look, complete with a cape and hat, as she watches over her nuns, making sure they enjoy their Eden. Tourmates Tegan and Sara really summed it up: “This video.” - GAB GINSBERG

Taylor Swift, "You Need to Calm Down" (dir. Drew Kirsch & Taylor Swift)

Taylor brings the candy-coated colors of her Lover era to her LGBTQ inclusivity anthem "You Need to Calm Down," which takes place in a trailer park dipped in Easter egg pastels. Opening with a Cher quote cross-stitch and an early-morning champagne smoothie, the video is an effulgent ode to taking a breather from life's stressors and just letting yourself feel fabulous. The cast is a who's who of the LGBTQ community, from co-executive producer/Swift pal Todrick Hall to the cast of Queer Eye to Laverne Cox to a fainting Chester Lockhart to a Sno Cone-slinging Adam Rippon to an assortment of Drag Race queens portraying a panel of today's pop icons (plus RuPaul himself, naturally). Like all things T-Swift in 2019, the video has spawned several thinkpieces, but there's no denying the impact something like this has on the next generation of LGBTQ Americans not used to seeing themselves represented in clips from pop stars – especially ones who have made in-roads this far into middle America. - JOE LYNCH

Tierra Whack, “Unemployed” (dir. Cat Solen)

An anomaly among contemporary rappers, Tierra Whack sprang into the scene as a video artist, delivering 15 minute-long videos for her debut project Whack World in 2018. The pressure was on, then, for her first follow-up video. “Unemployed” is another slice of Whack’s brain, a cracked imagining of a kitchen where the food is very, very frightened. There’s a bit of Little Shop of Horrors at work here, but make no mistake, this is still Tierra’s show -- which makes us the captive audience. - ROSS SCARANO

Tove Lo, "Glad He's Gone" (dir. Vania Heymann and Gal Muggia)

Tove Lo is the ideal best friend. If you call her up to mourn a guy who just broke your heart, you can bet she’ll leave her lunch date to give you a damn good pep talk. In fact, that pep talk might be so effective, you two might lose track of time and walk all the way to some random farm before reaching snow-covered mountains, an unknown forest, and the desert. Hell, she might even go as far as to run with a herd of horses, travel through the tundras, board a sinking ship, stand on top of a moving train, fight through a wicked thunderstorm, murder a guy with a fish bowl and then get sent to prison just to claw her way back out through the toilet. Have to run from the police and create a whole new identity? That’s no problem for Tove. The real problem is that terrible dude you’re seeing, and she’s here to talk about it. There’s no better way to explain a friend’s willingness than with these extreme -- and hilariously clever -- measures. - KIRSTEN SPRUCH

Tyler, The Creator, “EARFQUAKE” (dir. Wolf Haley and Luis "Panch" Perez)

Once again, Tyler, The Creator colors outside the lines of conventionality and dons an extreme blonde wig and teal suit for the “EARFQUAKE” video. He’s a guest on the fictional Pearl Edwards Show, and he gives an idiosyncratic, yet commanding performance, leaving the stage literally ablaze. Tracee Ellis Ross matches Tyler’s weirdness as the highly neurotic Pearl Edwards, sprinkling comic relief during the song’s love cries. - CARL LAMARRE