Yesterday, we here at Billboard published a list of our picks for the 100 greatest music video artists of all time. The list was full of artists who’d made long careers out of memorable music videos, with multiple signature moments and often a video style entirely their own.
But what about the artists whose video legacies are mostly associated with just one clip? Here’s our list of the 15 artists who still made an indelible impact on MTV and/or YouTube with a single classic video — even if it that might be the only ones of theirs you’d still recognize years later.
The Buggles, “Video Killed the Radio Star” (1979)
One of the most enduring videos of the ’80s, in large part because it was famously the first-ever video played upon MTV’s launch on August 1, 1981. Though the simultaneously backwards- and forwards-looking “Video Killed the Radio Star” clip remains a captivating watch over 40 years later, it was the Buggles’ only major hit on the nascent channel. However, frontman Trevor Horn would continue to impact another few decades of MTV hits, both as a founding member of art-pop video fixtures The Art of Noise, and as producer on megahits from the likes of Yes and Seal.
Herbie Hancock, “Rockit” (1983)
While Herbie Hancock’s status as a jazz and fusion legend was long established by the 1980s, to much of the MTV generation he’s likely remembered primarily for the innovative Godley & Creme-directed clip for his 1983 electro hit “Rockit.” Set in a suburban home full of robotically controlled dummies, paper maché heads and disembodied legs, the visual was equal parts creepy and funky, the perfect accompaniment to Hancock’s eerie, slamming instrumental. The video was put into heavy rotation, and helped popularize record scratching in the American mainstream, though Hancock’s cameo in the pop mainstream was unsurprisingly short-lived.
Godley & Creme, “Cry” (1985)
Speaking of Godley & Creme — they were regular presences on MTV as directors, but only ever scored one hit as performing artists, with the melodramatic “Cry.” The black-and-white clip features a number of miscellaneous close-up faces singing the song’s lyrics, with dissolve and wipe effects transitioning between them as a sort of proto-morphing. The technology would be much improved by the time Michael Jackson used similar effects on his much-hyped “Black or White” clip in 1991, but nonetheless, “Cry” scored Godley & Creme three nominations at the 1986 Video Music Awards, including one for video of the year.
A-ha, “Take on Me” (1985)
Perhaps the most famous one-video wonder of the MTV era, A-ha’s “Take on Me” shot to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and became one of the defining hits of the ’80s, in large part to its Steve Barron-directed clip, which blurred live action and animation for an action-packed fantasy romance tale that had something for everyone. Actually, A-ha did have a second hit video — “The Sun Always Shines on TV,” both a top 20 Hot 100 hit and a VMA winner for best cinematography and best editing in 1986 — but the impact of “Take on Me” was so outsized it’s not surprising that few outside of the band’s Norway home remember any of their other clips 35 years later.
Neil Young, “This Note’s For You” (1988)
Neil Young has one of the most storied careers in rock history, spanning several decades and several bands and several generations of fans and acolytes. But when it comes to music videos, his legacy can mostly be condensed to one clip: “This Note’s For You,” a surprise winner for video of the year at the ’89 VMAs. The visual took aim at the increased commercialization of rock music, poking fun not only at beer ads but at MTV itself — with its ’89 upset being taken by many as a sign that the channel’s excess had gone too far at the end of its first decade.
Chris Isaak, “Wicked Game” (1990)
Chris Isaak managed a successful multi-decade career as a retro-molded crooner, but his lone brush with true pop stardom came in the early ’90s with his video for lovelorn ballad “Wicked Game.” The black-and-white clip, which was filmed by legendary photographer Herb Ritts and featured Isaak and supermodel Helena Christensen cavorting half-naked on a Hawaiian island, is frequently cited as one of the sexiest music videos of all time, and helped the song reach No. 6 on the Hot 100 in 1991 — the singer’s only visit to the top 40.
Sinéad O’Connor, “Nothing Compares 2 U” (1990)
While Sinéad O’Connor had become a college-rock sensation for her acclaimed 1987 LP The Lion and The Cobra, her chart success was limited until the release of 1990’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” a Prince-written megaballad that took O’Connor to No. 1 all over the world. That success was aided in no small part by the song’s unforgettable, John Maybury-directed video, which juxtaposed lush shots of Paris’ Parc de Saint-Cloud with close-ups of the singer’s anguished face, belting the song’s heartbroken lyrics. The clip took video of the year at the 1990 VMAs — making O’Connor the award’s first-ever female winner — but controversy shook her career in subsequent years, and she never returned to MTV stardom after.
Pearl Jam, “Jeremy” (1992)
Pearl Jam were already MTV stars by the time of “Jeremy,” with their live-shot clips for Ten singles “Alive” and “Even Flow” securing them heavy rotation. But the only true music video that the band filmed at their peak was for “Jeremy,” the chillingly topical anthem whose Mark Pellington-helmed visual starred teen actor Trevor Wilson as a troubled kid who takes his own life in front of his classmates. The clip — which also featured a star-making performance from frontman Eddie Vedder — became one of the biggest of its era, a response that put Wilson off acting altogether, and scared the band into swearing off videos for most of the rest of the ’90s.
Jamiroquai, “Virtual Insanity” (1996)
One of the purest examples of MTV making stars out of an act with little to no radio success, Jamiroquai never even hit the Hot 100 with their jazzy pop-funk single “Virtual Insanity,” but still remain a crucial part of mid-’90s pop culture (and even won video of the year at the 1997 VMAs) for the song’s video. The clip featured frontman Jay Kay dancing around a room of seemingly moving furniture — in reality, it was the room itself that was moving around the sofas — to represent the song’s lyrical themes of navigating a frightening future. While Jamiroquai would soundtrack one more unforgettable visual, it wasn’t with one of their own videos, but rather a Jon Heder dance routine from 2004 cult comedy Napoleon Dynamite.
D’Angelo, “Untitled (How Does It Feel?)” (2000)
D’Angelo had long achieved R&B stardom, earning a reputation as one of the leading voices of the neo-soul movement, by the time of the “Untitled” video in 2000. But the unignorable sensuality of that Paul Hunter-filmed clip still changed everything for the singer-songwriter, who became both an MTV star and a national sex symbol seemingly overnight — a status D’Angelo found himself extremely uncomfortable with, as he retreated from the spotlight for nearly a decade and a half to follow. “Untitled” was nominated for four awards at the 2000 VMAs, including video of the year, and was named the third-greatest video of the 21st century by Billboard in 2018.
Dirty Vegas, “Days Go By” (2001)
If you remember one thing about U.K. dance outfit Dirty Vegas, it was probably the music video for their 2001 hit “Days Go By,” which featured an anonymous breakdancer popping and locking outside a restaurant, as silent-but-subtitled dialogue from onlookers explained he was dancing to bring back a lost love. The video helped boost the song to the Hot 100’s top 20 in 2002, and scored a best dance video nomination at that year’s VMAs — while also inspiring a commercial to promote that year’s awards, starring host Jimmy Fallon as a much-less-impressive lone dancer.
Johnny Cash, “Hurt” (2003)
Johnny Cash’s resume as one of country’s all-time greats had spoken for itself for well over 40 years by the time he covered Nine Inch Nails’ bilious power ballad “Hurt,” for what would turn out to be the final album of his lifetime, 2002’s American IV: The Man Comes Around. That video still introduced him to a brand new audience thanks to its singularly overpowering music video, a Mark Romanek-directed homage to the musical legend in his final days, both glowing in its reverence and harrowing in its implications. Cash’s first clip to really break through on MTV, “Hurt” earned its creator six posthumous nods at the 2003 VMAs, including video of the year and best male video.
The Darkness, “I Believe in a Thing Called Love” (2003)
The Darkness were full on retro-rock sensations at home in the U.K., but in the U.S., we mostly just got them for one video. The clip for “I Believe in a Thing Called Love” took the band’s righteous rock fantasies to their logical extreme, featuring the band in an intergalactic adventure battling aliens and monsters, with the group’s mighty six-string majesty unsurprisingly saving the day. The video, filmed by Alex Smith, scored nominations for best rock video and best new artist at the ’04 VMAs, and helped debut album Permission to Land earn a Gold certification stateside –though the band largely kept to their side of the pond from there.
Justice, “D.A.N.C.E.” (2007)
“D.A.N.C.E.” wasn’t the only notable video from French duo Justice, who also had a memorably violent and kinetic video for their pulse-racing “Stress” and even helped earn a pre-Taylor Swift stagecrash from Kanye West at the 2006 Europe Music Awards for the video to their Simian remix “We Are Your Friends.” But in the U.S., they’re still mostly known for one clip: their “D.A.N.C.E.” visual, a sort of proto-lyric video in which the song’s words were reflected by constantly evolving T-shirt graphics. It was nominated for video of the year at the ’08 VMAs, and helped lead to none other than West himself hiring directors Jonas & Francois for his own “Good Life” vid later that year.
Gotye (feat. Kimbra), “Somebody That I Used to Know” (2011)
You know it’s a pretty big video when you get your own SNL parody, as Gotye did for his Kimbra-assisted “Somebody That I Used to Know” once the song started climbing the Hot 100 in 2012 and its visual took on a life its own. Featuring the two naked artists being painted into the background scenery as they wail about the fallout from their failed relationship, the Natasha Pincus-helmed “Somebody That I Used to Know” was a YouTube-era success story straight out of MTV’s early years: A captivating visual for a left-field pop song taking hold and briefly capturing the entire world’s imagination. And like many of those early-’80s wonders, it was not to be repeated — Gotye’s Making Mirrors follow-up singles and videos failed to find a similar audience, and he’s been little heard from since.