Let’s do the damn thing. Here they are, in no particular order…
Scott Walker – “Epizoodics”
We have no problem calling Olivier Groulx’s video baffling. Any response we can conjure for its swamp of images seems inadequate or even besides the point, but it’s that mystery keeps us returning for another looped swing-dance with its ideas. It’s hard to imagine anything else standing next to the song, which pitches and shifts as it navigates the stormy seas of Walker’s genius. Both come together and create a remarkable, jazzily horrifying vibe that’s committed to engulfing, disorienting, and disappearing, like a thick and malevolent fog.
M.I.A. – “Bad Girls”
His video for “Born Free” stoked wildly undue controversy, but Romain Gavras got everyone back on his side, simply by flying to Morocco and filming cars as they levitated and punched block-long power slides. The white-knuckle, probably iconic stunts (which, importantly, M.I.A. participated in) and a breathtaking setting helped give the artist her second wind and, hopefully, handed Gavras a film deal or two.
The Black Keys – “Gold On The Ceiling”
I doubt that any director made as many people squirm this year as Harmony Korine, who forced millions to reevaluate the Black Keys with “Gold On The Ceiling.” True to form, Korine showcases another hellish sub-subsection of flyover America, with the Keys themselves and some hideous doppelgangers glitching about in filthy onesies. And as a master of VHS (see Trash Humpers) he actually makes the video look like it was found in an abandoned shopping trolley.
Mac Demarco – “She’s Really All I Need”
Every culture has trickster gods and bards, and Mac Demarco is both. And while one side usually overshadows the other in his songwriting, occasionally they line up for beautiful, hilarious results, like “She’s Really All I Need.” It’s a gorgeous and sincere song with devilish undertones that are visualized by WALTER TV (Mac’s other band).
Chairlift – “Met Before”
(Above is the non-interactive version of the video - experience the real thing here.)
“Met Before” is not a single music video. It’s a Choose-Your -Own-Adventure-styled interface that allows you to create a psychedelic romance for Caroline Polachek, by using the keyboard to control which path she takes. Play it through once and you’ll get a sense of the vast possibilities and outcomes that Jordan Fish and m ssng p eces have programmed. Don’t mistake it for novelty, though; this intuitive format for creating videos will spur reflection on the decisions that made you and the ones that could decide where you might go.
Drake – “HYFR”
The quality of Drake’s hip hop will always be debated, but few can dispute his willingness to try new things, and the reasonable can’t begrudge him even the occasional unequivocal success. “HYFR” is one of these, a visual triumph that merges a daring concept (Drake’s) with flawless execution (Director X). Its successes lie in looking like one hell of a sexy, fun time while still gently ribbing decades of rap video conventions. And thanks to all the cameos, it feels like the entire industry is in on the joke.
Kindness – “Gee Up”
We’re still not sure if “Gee Up” is a post-modern music video masquerading as a sketch or vice versa, but we’re sure that we love it. Adam Bainbridge’s extends his love of pop outside of the music itself and into the world it inhabits, skewering the more unpleasant sides: the aloof and snotty criticism, the interchangeability of pop stars, and the lines of communication that break down as readily as if we were speaking different languages.
Bear In Heaven – “Sinful Nature”
Yoonha Park’s “Sinful Nature” is a green-screened re-imagining of Pretty Woman, packed with ghoulishly inhuman masks and a croissant inserted at random intervals. It could be an inditement of the film’s portrayal of women, or a hilarious artistic exercise, but it’s undoubtedly one of the most beautiful ugly videos of the year.
Grimes – “Oblivion”
Emily Kai Bock’s best videos focus on wandering souls in surreal environments, but each wordless story and character are totally unique to their videos. Her video for Grizzly Bear’s “Yet Again” is easily the best realization of this, but “Oblivion” is even more thematically ambitious, and is also an important story, not just a good one, born from both Kai Bock and Grimes. Also, sure, we’re suckers for nostalgia: It also heralded the breakthrough of one of 2012′s most important musicians.
Die Antwoord – “Baby’s On Fire”
Maybe Die Antwoord’s vision was too volatile, too messy. Maybe they pissed off the wrong people when they dumped their major label. Whatever it was, 2012 saw their profile slide. Luckily, today music videos can make and remake artists overnight, and the band poured themselves into each visual endeavour. “Baby’s On Fire” is probably their best video, doubling down on their surrealistically sanitized depiction of the South African Zef subculture, and implanting a sitcom-y dynamic between the irascible Ninja and the coquettish Yolandi.
Odd Future – “Oldie”
The high-point of the media frenzy surrounding Earl Sweatshirt’s return came the day of his triumphant show with the group at New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom, his first since the group became a global youth-driven phenomenon. But for the ten minutes during the impromptu recording of “Oldie,” all the pressures, labels and fears, it all melted away. After watching no one can say that the “Free Earl” campaign was a ploy; they’re so deliriously happy they can’t even remember their verses. “Oldie” marked the beginning of Odd Future in earnest, and the expectations couldn’t be higher. But for a few minutes on a summer day in New York, not even being photographed in Terry Richardson’s studio could break the spell of their camaraderie.
arrange – “Caves”
Somewhere deep in the heart of the McMansion sprawl, something horrible is brewing underneath all those manicured landscapes. It’s difficult to make upper-middle class plight compelling, but Malcolm Lacey’s “Caves” video more than manages with an impressionistic portrait of lives whose plights depend on the heart of the viewer. But there’s more than enough for a foundation; allusions to therapy, racial tension, romantic entanglements are all present. And when the video’s MacGuffin goes up in smoke, we see some part of our past reflected in the flames.
Jack White – “Sixteen Saltines”
The solo song everyone knew Jack White would pen came with a video that no one expected. Since significantly bolstering Earl Sweatshirt’s hype with his “Earl” video, AG Rojas has only improved with each subsequent effort, though his “Sixteen Saltines” video is the only one that actually elevates the song.
Justice – “New Lands”
Helmed by Canada (those total geniuses behind the El Guincho’s “Bombay”), “New Lands” has the production value of ’80s bloodsport blockbuster shot in HD, and hits all their third act notes in under five minutes. There’s the underdogs and the bad team, the rich overlords who have it in for our heroes, death, betrayal, revenge and redemption (?). Oh, and it looks amazing.
Dirty Projectors – “Hi Custodian”
Following the release of their great new album Swing Lo Magellan, David Longstreth had a special treat for those still-hungry Dirty Projectors fans: he directed and released a short film. It’s a twenty minute fever dream epic comprised of several different Dirty Projectors videos that are still being individually released (we got another one today). If you’re confused, don’t worry: Longstreth himself classifies it as “this weird thing.” But you don’t need a coherent narrative to get swept up in some of the most beautiful scenes of the year from one of it’s standout albums.
Mykki Blanco – “Wavvy”
This was a tough one. Her music inspired another fantastic video this year, but in the end it was Mykki Blanco’s gate-crashing debut that grabbed a spot on our list. Both the street-savvy Blanco and scenery chewing Mykki get ample screen-time to show the world they’re both sides of a rapper that’s got her eyes set on world domination.
2 Chainz feat. Kanye West – “Birthday Song”
Ain’t no party like a 2 Chainz party as imagined by Andreas Nilsson. The reliably weird video director doesn’t hold back in creating Chainz’s birthday rampage, filmed with the eyes of someone that’s both aghast, fascinated, and enamored with hip-hop’s soulless extravagance (it’s not a coincidence that both Ye and Deuce look as bored as they ever have at the mayhem surrounding them).
Julia Holter – “Goddess Eyes II”
Julia Holter’s Ekstasis inspired a stream of provoking music videos this year that stuck with us long after we finished writing about them. Even the live ones left us rattled. For “Goddess Eyes II,” director Yelena Zolo drew inspiration from the “deus ex machina,” and turned Holter into her own “god in the machine.” The video goes deeper than most into the ambitions of the song, and confidently handles its own lofty concepts with grace and just the right amount of ecstatic absurdity.
Psy – “Gangnam Style”
The worldwide hit K-Pop was waiting for brought with it more pressing questions than just what the artist’s next move would be. Stocky and ceaseless energetic, yet as unthreatening as a Saturday morning cartoon, Psy and his video was something the western pop world had never seen, though perhaps not entirely; some asked whether his image comfortably fit the stereotypes that had been cultivated for generations. This may sound familiar: rap’s been asking the same questions since MC Hammer shucked and jived his way to a KFC endorsement. But “Gangnam Style” reset the dialogue for a totally different genre and people, more than enough to make it one of the best videos of the year.
Flying Lotus – “Until The Quiet Comes”
It opens deep beneath the water, bubbles streaming towards the surface as they escape from expired lungs. Khalil Joseph starts “Until The Quiet Comes” by invoking death, which flows beautifully through every poetic frame of his portrait of Nickerson Heights, LA. It’s all preparation for the video’s final and best sequence: a fatally wounded gunshot victim writhing out a reversed death throe ballet while his neighbours watch dispassionately, as if numbed by their own grim reality.
Ratking – “Comic”
Any underground hip-hop crew that broke this year automatically got compared to Odd Future. Honestly, it’s just way easier to make those surface level comparisons of “they’re young and play aggressive hip-hop” than to make any real analysis. But “Comic” helped make that association even more trite. A grim and plainly disturbed atmosphere pervades their abandoned building rehearsal session, aided by a few strobe lights and a lot of glitchy editing. For anyone that’s seen “Comic,” comparing Ratking to anything else out there feels more oafish now more than ever, making it a ringing success for the band.
Holly Herndon – “Movement”
One of the few agendas that united the 2012 Presidential candidates was an urge to neutralize China, which both sides painted as a brutal economic menace. “Movement” uses interpretive dance to take on China’s role and perception in American political discourse. Mat Dryhurst plays up the country’s alienness with tablet-inspired editing and sculpted humans, who probably seem threatening to many in a country with an obesity epidemic as they gyrate and contort in grotesque and beautiful fashions. But it’s not a nationalistic screed, rather a plea for a return to humanism and the reframing of a country.
Girls – “My Ma”
Wouldn’t it be perfect if it was Christopher Owens’ mother in the video? If the man who wrote such eloquent diary entries masked as songs with Girls showed us a definitive glimpse of that much-discussed past of his? Sure, but that would be almost greedy, given how great the clip is without that context. Each new shot adds a different dimension to its portrait of a woman lonely, aging, and struggling with everything down to the skin she’s wearing and the mind that controls it. So regardless of whether she’s Mrs. Owens or someone else entirely, her performance and the life she lives in the video hold us rapt.
Danny Brown – “Grown Up”
Spike Jonze made the gold standard of “rap videos starring kids” long ago, but Greg Brunkella’s “Grown Up” still competes in spite – or because of – a fraction of the budget and a decidedly unglamorous location. Playing young Danny Brown is Dante Hoagland, a ten year old who’s almost as charismatic as the rapper he’s impersonating. Having an awareness of the real Brown’s shit-kicking persona helps make the kid’s rampage that much more adorable, but no matter your Bruiser Brigade knowledge you’ll still be nodding at the end as Brown appears to declare himself the greatest.
Feist – “Anti-Pioneer”
It’s rare that videos can build so much with so few elements. It’s something we should all strive for. I’ll start now.