From a rock legend’s self-penned epitaph to a pop queen’s new creative peak to unclassifiable oddities from hip-hop newcomers, 2016 featured a lot of music videos that went beyond our expectations to refine the art form and redefine how people look at the world. These are the year’s 10 best.
10. Rihanna, “Needed Me”
Ignoring Battleship, Rihanna’s Harmony Korine-directed “Needed Me” video makes the case that the (obscenely photogenic) superstar deserves a starring role in an action-thriller at some point. The cinematic clip is a slow build to Rihanna’s execution-style shooting of a dude making it rain in a strip club in the finale. At the very least, she better make an appearance in a James Bond movie in the near future.
9. Radiohead, “Burn the Witch”
From Wallace and Gromit to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, stop-motion animation tends to look precious and adorable by default. So a stop-motion story of a quaint British village coming together to burn a woman at the stake Wicker Man-style is a particularly memorable and unsettling visual — particularly during a year when bandwagon pitchfork-wielding seems to have enjoyed a worldwide resurgence.
8. Lil Uzi Vert, “You Was Right”
A far more entertaining detour into the world of Lewis Carroll than anything starring Johnny Depp, Lil Uzi Vert’s “You Was Right” is a mesmerizing clip where Alice In Wonderland rabbits and tea parties meet Donnie Darko-esque liquid spears that snake through the surreal landscape. While his female party guests’ eyes spiral like spinning tops, Lil Uzi Vert parades around like it’s all just a day in the life for him.
7. David Bowie, “Lazarus”
Not only did Bowie write his own epitaph with the art rock masterpiece Blackstar, but he enacted his own impending death with the “Lazarus” video. With his head wrapped in bandages and buttons in place of his eyes, Bowie writhes on his deathbed while singing his swan song. Bowie also semi-comically acts out the process of composing his parting artistic statement in the “Lazarus” video, as we see him scribbling away in the Bible-esque Blackstar book, which featured prominently in his previous video for the 10-minute title track. Like Bowie himself, it’s easy to get a read on the video’s overall tone, but the details remain inscrutable.
6. Lil Yachty, “1 Night”
While Yachty’s Zamboni ride in the “Minnesota” video was wonderfully understated, the Everything Is Terrible-styled “1 Night” clip is stuffed with cross-generational cultural references in a low-budget green screen context: Everything from online memes (Crying Jordan, cats) to established music icons (Jay Z and Sgt. Pepper’s) pop up. What’s it all mean? Hard to say, but it’s easy to love.
5. Grimes, “Kill v. Maim”
Grimes’ “Kill v. Maim” video is a frenetic visual celebration of all things nerd culture: Cyberpunk, offbeat superheroes, anime, video games, vampires and more. The directing — from Grimes and her brother — is impressively energetic, but it’s the editing (also done by Grimes herself) that flawlessly pulls it all together into a cohesive piece that plays like highlights from the craziest, coolest action movie that doesn’t (yet?) exist.
4. PWR BTTM, “I Wanna Boi”
If you’re listening to PWR BTTM’s coy “I Wanna Boi,” you get a sweet-but-not-twee rock song about wanting to find the perfect boi to keep you warm during the cold winter months. If you’re watching the video, though, you get the frowny-face reality that if you want a partner who checks every box on your ‘must have’ list, your future probably involves a blow-up doll. PWR BTTM’s “I Wanna Boi” video is vaguely like a gender-nonconforming, power pop version of the tale spun in Roxy Music’s “In Every Dream Home a Heartache” — only funnier and with cuter dresses.
3. Solange, “Don’t Touch My Hair”
Solange’s silky but firm anthem to reclaiming respect in the face of racial microaggression is complemented by a visual that Solange co-directed with Alan Ferguson. Always a bit more esoteric than her peers, Solange’s choreography has more to do with Pina Bausch than MTV. More than 100 years ago French writer Colette wrote “There is nothing real but giving rhythm to one’s thoughts and translating them into beautiful movements” in Vagabond, and Solange’s entrancing, empowering dancing in 2016 makes a strong case that she was right.
2. Anohni, “Drone Bomb Me”
Naomi Campbell deserves some sort of special acting award for lip-syncing Anohni’s plea to be drone bombed into oblivion in the “Drone Bomb Me” music video. Her performance teases out the subversive romantic undertone to the gorgeous synthpop song, and her shimmering tears speak to the empathetic desperation of Anohni’s delivery. Everything else in the minimalist video — from the dancers’ contorted choreography to the militaristic model outfit Campbell wears to the smoky, blue-hued cinematography — is similarly beautiful and unsettling.
Drone Bomb Me – by ANOHNI from nabil elderkin on Vimeo.
1. Beyonce, Lemonade
Sometimes the obvious choice is the correct one. As 2016 comes to a close, Lemonade fatigue has already set in, with some bemoaning Bey’s opus topping so many ‘best of 2016’ lists. Well, too bad. The Lemonade visual album weaves macro political concerns with acutely felt individual pain, as well as greater historical context with personal family details. Let’s be real: Beyonce’s Lemonade stacks up against any album in history that simultaneously speaks to personal pain and omnipresent worries for the world at large — and the visuals are almost as essential as the music. Plus, unlike most albums with this much melancholy, the Lemonade visual album at least offer the viewer a few empowering smiles, from the scenes of Beyonce gleefully wielding a baseball bat in that gorgeous ruffled dress to the image of Bey, hat pulled over her eyes, raising both middle fingers to the sky with defiance.