Written By: Nick Geremia
Edited By: Kyle @ The Flyover
Guest contributor Nick Geremia is an educator and musician from New Jersey. His band, Apollo Sonders, has just announced a vinyl edition of two new tracks, “Kind Of” and “Gotta Be Real,” and is quite adept at making interesting music videos of their own. Check them out at www.apollosonders.com/.
Music videos have long been a medium for artists to clarify and supplement the messages in their songs, allowing them to connect even deeper with their audience.
I struggled, at first, to create my own list of top music videos. Not only are there already so many “Top 10,” “Top 50,” “Top 100” lists out there, but they’re also always the same music videos. Sure, “Thriller,” “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and “Take on Me” are iconic, but are there really not any other recent videos that come close in terms of creativity, uniformity of message, and uniqueness?
I wanted my list to be a little more creative-minded, one that would feel unique and interesting, using the following criteria:
- Great Song – The song itself has to stand alone without the benefit of the video. In other words, “Can I vibe to this without a screen in front of me?”
- Innovative and Original Concept – The video needs to be something you haven’t seen before, and make you think differently about the song. “Is this what I expected when I visualized this song?” (Think anything OK Go has ever done)
- Continuity of Theme in Song and Video – The video should enhance the story and emotion of the song it’s portraying. “Is this video just a bunch of ad placements, or is there depth and substance related to the song?”
With these criteria in mind, let’s dive into the list, which I present to you in no particular order:
Jamiroquai - Virtual Insanity (1996)
“Virtual Insanity” may be one of the oldest songs and videos on this list, but incredibly, it still holds up, and could have just as easily been released in 2019.. The song itself is a soulful, funky jam that references exhaustion from the hyper-consumptive nature of modern, tech-based living.
The video dives right into the message, taking the viewer on a journey through constant distractions, optical diversions, and furniture that seemingly moves on its own, while lead singer Jay Kay uses slinky dance moves to traverse the ever-changing room. It serves as a great metaphor for how our society can suffer while consumed with tech and social media – stare at your phones long enough, and you’ll miss out on the world around you.
Childish Gambino - This is America (2018)
“This is America” is an achievement on all fronts, serving as a political and social landmark on the state of black life in America, so heavily stacked with innuendo and meaning that it reveals new meaning upon every rewatch.
The song and video challenge the listener to grapple with the realities of racial inequality, asking you to consider its content and commentary carefully. It serves as the modern day response to “What’s Going On,” immediately becoming a must-listen, and a must-watch.
D'Angelo - Untitled (How Does it Feel) (1999)
Anyone who knows me knows I love a slow bop. As my bandmate Laura and I often assert when writing songs: the drippier the better. Few songs can match the “drip,” that slow-burning intensity, D’Angelo pours into this simple song. Four chords, a free-flowing rhythm section, and lucious harmonies under that iconic falsetto, so charged in its anticipatory energy that you simply can’t get enough of it.
The video is equally no-frills but just as intriguing and drippy. Clad against a pitch-black background, we watch a shirtless, oiled-up D’Angelo, ripped as though carved from marble, belt out the words to the song, while the camera zooms in and out on various parts of his anatomy. The song alone is drippy enough, but the video only makes it drippier.
Lauryn Hill - Doo Wop (That Thing) (1998)
It is downright criminal that Lauryn Hill so often does not get credit as the musical tour-de-force she so assuredly is. “Doo Wop (That Thing),” the debut song off her legendary 1998 album, The Miseducation of Lauyn Hill, and was written, produced, and performed by Hill. The song itself is a reminder, almost a warning, to maintain integrity and take care of yourself before pursuing relationships, and especially that thing, with someone else. “How you gonna win when you ain’t right within,” she sings.
The video works hard to supplement the song by communicating the evolution of the black experience in New York using dance moves, social norms, and attire in two block parties set in 1967 and 1998. Cleverly, Lauren performs beside herself in both eras. On one side, she is backed by a choreographed choir of men in matching suits a la The Temptations; on the other, it’s a much more modern looking backing band, with guitars, a DJ, and loose, modern dancing. The two Lauryn’s singing side-by-side make clever use of the layered vocals on the song, and the video does well to supplement the song’s message.
Outkast - Ms. Jackson (2000)
Outkast, the Atlanta duo of Andre 3000 and Big Boi, transcends genre, both in their music and in their approach to music videos. It’s a struggle to pick just one video from their enviable catalog – they’re all fantastic. However, at 191 million views on YouTube, it’s clear that “Ms. Jackson” is not only great, but has stood the test of time.
The song is a unique expression of a familiar story, exploring the fine line we all sometimes find ourselves walking in our relationships. As a bass player, the slappy, funky bassline is an indelible favorite.
That can’t catch a break mentality is the basis for the entire music video, using a dilapidated house and a series of unfortunate events to illustrate the calamitous relationship falling apart in the song: the beautiful, antique car gets struck by lightning and explodes, the roof is leaking (despite Big Boi’s attempts to patch it in the middle of a rain storm), the power goes out, and ultimately the roof caves in.
In the world of this song and music video, sometimes you’re just damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
Radiohead - Burn the Witch (2016)
Radiohead has always been known to push the limits of creative musical endeavor. While “Karma Police” appears on many top video lists, it’s “Burn The Witch” that best captures the spirit of the band in video.
“Burn the Witch” is an eerie, tense song that feels like it is always building toward, never quite reaching, the expected dramatic climax. The music video echoes this nonstop tension in the strangest of ways, dropping us into the warm familiarity of 1960’s style stop-motion animation while depicting a faux-pagan ritual.
Ominous foreshadowing of ritualism and cultism follows, and with the ultimate call back to the Wicker Man, “Burn the Witch” creates the incredible sense of dread more commonly found in horror movies. It drags you into its vast open field of trepidation, and abandons you to grapple with its uncomfortable dichotomy.
OK Go - Here It Goes Again (2006)
When it comes to music videos, OK Go is in a class of its own. You could pick half a dozen of their videos to include on this list, but “Here It Goes Again” is the video that changed the game, not only for the band, but also for creativity in music videos.
By the end of 2006 it was ubiquitous. You’ve seen it, perhaps without even knowing the name of the song. Your parents have seen it. Hell, your grandmother has probably seen it.
Prior to the video, the song failed to make an impact on my elitist, teenage ears. But, the more I watched the video, the more I dug the song. A few more views, and suddenly I was singing along. If the supreme purpose of a music video is to sell the song, then this video was one hell of a salesman.
“Here it Goes Again,” despite the DIY appearance and obviously small budget, is a master-class in creative video-making: a camera on a tripod, a bunch of treadmills lined up underneath them, and a ton of creative dance moves that would have you believe the video was shot in the post-COVID modern world, rather than the mid-2000s. It was a groundbreaking video for the time, and continues to be a North Star in how to create and innovate on a miniscule budget.
Arctic Monkeys - Do I Wanna Know? (2013)
More than seven years after its release, this evocative song continues to be as omnipresent as ever, constantly appearing in sports promos, movies, and on satellite and indie radio.
The track is haunting, depicting an attempt to break away from something (or someone) addictive, and not being able to succeed. While the subject matter is all-too-relatable, the video has also continued to resonate, racking up more than one billion views on YouTube.
The video is more of a slow burner, opening with a single white line across the screen that vibrates like a soundwave in conjunction with the song. Over time, the plot develops and deepens in grotesque fashion, glorifying the most addictive parts of society: fast cars, drinking, women, etc. However, the crunching, factory-line rhythm of the song comes back to haunt us, offering us nothing but death and destruction at the end of every vice.
Janelle Monae - Q.U.E.E.N. (2013)
I have to admit, prior to researching this list, I was completely unaware of this music video. Sure, I knew and loved the song and artist, but had it not been for a suggestion from a friend, I may never have looked into the artistry of this music video.
This video somehow feels like every iconic music video you’ve ever seen, while still being uniquely fresh and innovative in its own right. The song is funky, the lyrical content is playful and poignant, and the musicality feels like Prince himself could have been a musical contributor on the track [Ed. Note: He later would be. Prince was also an early champion of Monae]. Add in R&B icon Erykah Badu, who delivers soft vocal tones over that indelible bassline, and the result is a flamboyant, drippy bop.
The video is as fun and playful as the music and Monae herself. Aesthetically, the video is reminiscent of Robert Palmers’ “Addicted to Love,” with its black, white, and red motif, and backing dancers seemingly dancing to their own choreography for much of the song. Its lush, interesting, and exaggerates the fun of the track without making it feel cheap or staged.
Most importantly, Monae, a female blend of James Brown, Prince, and Mick Jagger, is front-and-center throughout the entire video, her wild expressions, fabulous dance moves, and quirky approachability adding to the sense that what we’re witnessing is wild, weird, and beautiful.