Despite our compilations of the week’s best videos, it’s difficult to remember many of them for long. Each week brings something new to marvel at and yada yada yada your mind totally erases any memory of that Kanye West video you gasped at while eating cereal one Thursday in April. Whereas you can essentially live with a song, most videos are consumed with what amounts to a glance and a nod.
Granted, that’s not the case for all of them, and, hey, wouldn’t you know that’s why we’re sitting here with 25 of them in December. So, grab some holiday cookies (or celery and hot sauce, if you’re also on the no carb diet), sit back, and appreciate a collection of videos that we’ll no doubt take with us into 2013.
Don’t forget to check back tomorrow for our Top 50 Songs of the Year. Then stay tuned next week as our 2012 Annual Report continues with our picks for Live Acts of the Year, Artist of the Year, Band of the Year, Music Festival of the Year, and Top 50 Albums of the Year.
25. Cults – “You Know What I Mean”
“You Know What I Mean” features the archetypal, star-crossed guy and girl in love, courting underneath a disapproving father-figure-boss-man. But toss in dangerous circus stunts, third-degree burns, Madeline Follin’s pouty foot stomping, and suddenly we’ve made a break from the traditional story. Now, Follin and Brian Oblivion are both students of film, so a cinematic wash should feel natural. Each frame gels to the next with orchestrated slow motion edits and a consistent, dusky color palette. There’s also a line of grasping tension that stems from Oblivion’s trials and tribulations that refuse to let up until the conclusion. When it does, however, it’s a tender victory for those who still believe in a crazy little thing called love. -Dan Pfleegor
24. Drake – “HYFR”
In which Drizzy gets “re-Bar Mitzvah’d”, we learn that the crossroads of hip-hop and Judaism sort of look like a scene from that insane party movie Project X. The man behind the shoot, Director X – who has worked on videos for R. Kelly, Usher, and Kanye – said, “It was by far the craziest shoot ever. It was bat-shit crazy.” And that man has surely seen some shit go down. After watching one Aubrey Graham read the torah, Lil Wayne takes an already rowdy after-party to the next level with the help of a panda mask, a vase-smashing skateboard, and some dreadlock-swinging head-banging. But long before Weezy shows up, we’re given a cute, visual gift of one 7-year-old Drake dancing at his cousin’s bar mitvah. There’s all the swag in the world in this clip. -Amanda Koellner
23. The Pass – “Without Warning”
Director Zach Hart (of We Listen for You) took the ever popular lyric video to the next level, turning something remedial into an art piece. As a longtime admirer of Louisville psychedelic rockers The Pass, Hart appropriately dedicated many grueling hours applying the song’s endless lyrics to multiple eyelids. It’s a catchy, agreeable gimmick on paper that becomes a startling, trippy aesthetic when put to fine use. When paired with the crisp, black and white performance shots of the band, it’s no longer a lyric video at all. Perhaps podcasts and a witty knack for sarcasm aren’t the only things Mr. Hart has up his sleeve, hmm? -Michael Roffman
22. Chairlift – “Met Before”
As a child of the ’80s, I owned several of those Choose Your Own Adventure books. Unfortunately, I was that guy who always got eaten by a dragon at the end of his first try. For Chairlift’s “Met Before”, you get to similarly play god and guide Caroline Polchek through a multiverse of possibility and even choose the visuals for Patrick Wimberly’s magic mushroom trip. Will she find romance, certain doom, or merely good research? Do not bother with the YouTube version of the video, for it’s an empty shell of a facsimile. It’s all about the interaction. -Frank Mojica
21. Bon Iver – “Towers”
In his canonical Walden, Henry David Thoreau wrote, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” so that he might “not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Something tells me the protagonist of Bon Iver’s “Towers” video felt a kinship with HDT. Exactly why this old man has chosen to live in these woods, apparently caring for these mysterious towers built in the sea, is left ambiguous – much like Bon Iver’s lyrics, really. Yet, you grow to be fascinated by the man and his mission, even if you don’t quite understand what that is. Beautiful cinematography of the rich forest and ocean settings do as much to captivate as the delicate song itself. When the ending comes, your own sadness is startling, and Thoreau’s final words come back in the form of a question: had he lived? -Ben Kaye
20. Action Bronson – “The Symbol”
Maybe it’s the red beard, the giant belly, or his unending love of fine food, but Action Bronson doesn’t come off as the most traditional action hero ever. But like he’s done with the rules of albums and mixtapes, the Queens rapper rewrites what is possible in the music video for “The Symbol”. In it, Action gets to be the chunkier, whiter version of blaxploitation heroes like Dolemite, Black Belt Jones, and even Sonny Carson; karate chopping hoes and jokers alike, having hair like an urban Fabio, and generally being a stone-cold bad ass. And while it’s meant to be this big joke, because who can take this portly, out-of-breath hero serious as he dishes out street justice, there’s something refreshing and encouraging in how Bronson maintains his tone of severity. -Chris Coplan
19. Sigur Rós - “Ekki Mukk”
A British snail, a decaying fox, and The Wire’s Mayor Carcetti. What does it all mean? What’s going on in this video? Director Nick Abrahams calls it “a magical journey through an English field,” while also insisting that it’s really just a smaller piece to a bigger puzzle. Not sure he needs to break it out anymore, as the scope in this 10 minute sweeper is far and wide. What “Ekki Mukk” grasps at is the universal themes of loss and discovery and how it’s truly impossible to go at it alone. Death may be inevitable, but there’s always time. As the elemental vocals of Jónsi surface over the song’s twinkling instrumentation, it’s hard to watch that stop motion animation towards the end without a box of tissues. Sigh. -Michael Roffman
18. Wilco – “Dawned on Me”
There may be better videos in 2012, but none are as happy as this Wilco offering. The big ticket here is the presence of Popeye in “the first hand-drawn, frame-by-frame drawing for Popeye cell animation” in 25 years. (Will those liberals ever stop telling us what to eat? I can’t take it no more!) Watch as Popeye learns to temper his jealousy for the inevitable coupling of Jeff Tweedy and Olive Oyl. Behold John Stirratt’s lust for Olive Oyl causing his heart to beat straight into his upright bass. Cheer as Popeye uses Wilco-brand spinach to knock Bluto into the ocean. But most importantly, enjoy Nels Cline using Swee’Pea as a pick/bow for his guitar. Ha, and we thought Weezer’s use of Happy Days was novel. –Justin Gerber
17. The Shoes – “Time to Dance”
There were a number of music videos involving psychotic killers all throughout 2012, which is sort of alarming. (Was everyone just now reading Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho? Was it the extra-long stretch of summer heat?) But it was director Daniel Wolfe who carved out the year’s snazziest. It didn’t hurt that he also happened to tag one of the more promising male leads in Hollywood today: Mr. Jake Gyllenhaal. Questions linger by the end of “Time to Dance” — question one: how does he get away with all of these kills? — but are quickly tossed aside. What’s important to note is how Wolfe takes an insanely repetitive indie pop dance track and keeps it from becoming insufferable over the video’s bloated eight minutes. How does he do it? Look no further than the perfect Mormon marriage of cool, mystery, and intrigue. -Michael Roffman
16. Odd Future – “Rella”
It takes a lot of balls to show up in a music video without any. But that’s just what Tyler, The Creator does for Odd Future’s suburban-destroying “Rella”. Joined by Hodgy Beats and Domo Genesis, the collective once again prove they will do just about anything to shock the more fainthearted of the general public, that includes phallic imagery. Keeping in line with their absurd lyricism, Tyler casts himself as a cocaine-snorting Centaur, thus erasing two centuries-worth of prestige associated with the mystical creature. If the individual members of Odd Future do continue to grow within the hip-hop ranks, this is a reminder of the antics they were capable of before major labels, industry politics, and maturity got in the way of dick jokes. -Derek Staples
15. Purity Ring – “Lofticries”
Sometimes a director just gets the source material and that’s the case for AG Rojas. With “Lofticries”, Rojas eschews the song’s bleak story of childhood abuse and murder, capturing instead its druggy, morbid ambiance. It’s a simple format that focuses on a string of handheld serials, all featuring central figures in motion that are tied together with these surreal, digital warps. This mechanism goes well with the track’s ghostly chorus, specifically when Megan James sings, “You must be hovering over yourself, watching us drip on each other’s side.” It’s not an explicit facet here, but Rojas does capitalize on the film industry’s recent obsession with found footage, recalling recent film V/H/S. The end result is a charged, spooky few minutes that throws the bones into the fridge. -Michael Roffman
14. Killer Mike – “Big Beast”
Killer Mike turns vigilante in the Thomas C. Bingham-directed video for R.A.P. Music’s “Big Beast”. Not only does the nine-minute thriller feature staples of Hollywood blockbusters (strippers, car chases, excess gore, nudity and zombies), Bingham adds subtle nuisances to keep the mini-flick as provocative as Mike’s verses: the Reagan mask is an ode to Mike’s hatred of the former-president, the burglars’ outfits are tribute to Charles Bronson’s Death Wish, and the car chase sequence was lifted from 1968’s Bullitt. It’s a plot-based video that will keep getting hits as long as YouTube visitors like watching cars speed and zombie strippers eat the remains of an armed assailant. -Derek Staples
13. Grizzly Bear – “Yet Again”
Grizzly Bear’s dulcet harmonies are the stuff of dreams, with their sometimes harsh guitar sounds perpetually threatening to explode and flip everything into full nightmare mode. Similarly, the surrealist narrative of “Yet Again” follows a figure skater striving for that out of reach perfection before she fumbles, crashing through the rink’s surface, where she’s engulfed by the lake’s abyssal doom. Such doom takes the viewer through a kaleidoscope of events — from a carnival to the woods — and it’s here that director Emily Kai Bock really exudes her talents through clever shots and choice framing. Darkness is rarely as gorgeously shot as it is in this perfect visual accompaniment to one of the band’s finest storms of cacophony yet. -Frank Mojica
12. Fiona Apple – “Every Single Night”
At various points throughout the video for “Every Single Night”, Fiona Apple wears a squid on her head, talks to snails, feeds fish to a crocodile, walks along a bridge overlooking a giant octopus monster, and sits in an aquarium exhibit. The snails were her idea, but much of the rest came from director Joey Cahill, who seems to consider Apple’s spirit animal as some kind of invertebrate sea creature. Yeah, her tiny stature, nervous mannerisms, and general cuteness might suggest “chipmunk” or “squirrel,” but those aren’t quite accurate for the same reasons that Apple was never just another ‘90s female pop star: There’s a certain extra bite and a squirm to her work that you just don’t see in the others, and to that, this video is Exhibit A. It’s probably why she finally broke her 10-year silence: She looks like she couldn’t possibly sit still for another single night. -Steven Arroyo
11. El-P – “The Full Retard”
El-P’s video for “The Full Retard” sits at a cultural nexus. It’s, in somehow equal qualities, an immature celebration of drugs and depravity whilst also a stern warning against such wanton self-destruction, utilizing the melding of “cartoon-esque” elements and reality — so, like a modern, disturbing take on Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. While many might laugh at Mr. Killums addictions and brutal game of Russian roulette, there’s an inherent sleaze and grime to both his actions and the look of the film. The young girl’s monologue (despite her later fate) and Mr. Producto’s moving ode to late friend/employee Camu Tao make this emotionally moving, impactful, and yet also entertaining. That’s something that’s lacking in this market of visual extremes and phony concepts. And if you don’t agree and pay the respect that’s due, Mr. Killums will stab you in the left eye. -Chris Coplan
10. St. Vincent – “Cheerleader”
There are no cheerleading uniforms to be had in St. Vincent’s music video for “Cheerleader”. No literal film representations of good times with bad guys and certainly no naked America. But self-evident is rarely a word used to describe the visuals that accompany this singer’s songs, so instead of the obvious, we get an over-sized Annie Clark recalling a Damien Hirst shark as she lies face down on a museum floor. Director Hiro Murai’s inspiration for a giant Clark sparked from the work of Australian sculptor Ron Mueck, whose past projects of people three or four times as large as their spectators elicit feelings both “voyeuristic and weird” for the director. Those adjectives serve as apt descriptors of the events that transpire, as a perfect, porcelain version of the singer is hoisted into a sitting position, better able to mouth the lyrics to a taciturn troop of onlookers whose reactions are stoic, spellbound, and sometimes sympathetic to the captive Clark.
The rope harness holding her up snaps and allows her giant hand to grasp the museum wall, eventually causing the accidental amputation of her ceramic arm. “It should feel like a release rather than a death,” the director said of her slow-motion disintegration into dust. “I wanted the collapsing scene to feel like it was what she wanted.” As pieces of her plummet to the cement floor, Clark’s haunting grin recalls the same seemingly relieved expression we saw as her fictional family buried her alive in last year’s video for “Cruel”. This half-smile (perhaps the one she told whole lies with) that creeps onto her hardened face proves Murai’s vision successful. In the end, half of Clark lies on the museum floor, a fateful finale, but hey, she doesn’t have to be a cheerleader no more. -Amanda Koellner
09. Real Estate – “Easy”
Real Estate went for the funny bone with their video for “Easy”, which follows an uncomfortably aggressive street team trying to promote the band’s music. And while it’s great fun to see the gang of indie fanatics swear at passersby and physically force headphones onto their skulls, all to the tune of one of the crispest, most relaxed tracks of 2011, there’s also a deeper message at play. It comes at the end of the song, when they’ve kidnapped a New York radio DJ who has refused to play Days, and have taken him into the New Jersey woods to pump him full of buckshot.
It’s a great sequence that comes off like an indie rock version of the intro to The Sopranos: we see their van plunge into the Lincoln Tunnel, leaving the urban sprawl of The Big Apple to gradually dissolve into the sylvan silence of the Garden State suburbs. But then one of the team members suddenly has a change of heart. They decide to let the DJ live (although they never unbind him) and each get back in touch with what actually makes them happy: spending time with family, helping pick up trash around the city, and learning how to read.
The latter activity keeps things delightfully silly until the end, but the video’s conclusion encourages music snobs everywhere (and yes, that certainly includes us critics) to never lose sight of why they got into a particular band in the first place. It’s about the sound, not the scene. -Dan Caffrey
08. Menomena – “Plumage”
In concept, it’s incredibly simple: Take band members Justin Harris and Danny Seim and have them walk towards each other for a long time, changing one article of ‘plumage’ between each cut. But, c’mon, changing costumes at every shot? That’s a lot of work, especially when the outfits are as outrageous as they are here. Plus, according to director Trevor McMahan, that wasn’t the only problem they had to deal with during the shoot. There was also a bomb threat, a helicopter crash, a shooting, and one nasty storm to handle. Somehow, the team persevered (as McMahan said, “we had more chest hair”), and they came out with one heck of a cool Mexican standoff.
“Plumage” refers to the mating displays we all put on for the opposite sex, because, in the end, we’re really just animals trying to attract a partner. Since we don’t have colorful feathers to show off, what exactly is human plumage? At first, it’s the basics: your footwear, your attire, your drink of choice (keg beer or bourbon). Then, it’s your scars and tattoos, your mustache and mutton chops, your Evel Knievel outfit and your firefighting gear – all of it makes up the persona you present, and all of it puts you in competition for the attention of others. Maybe it would be simpler if we just wore the symbols of our many facets together at once – boxing glove, camo hunting shirt, football pads, and trophy. Or maybe it would be simpler if we were just in our briefs, almost naked as we came.
By the way, that lightening strike at the end? Completely real, and perfectly timed. -Ben Kaye
07. Jack White – “Sixteen Saltines”
See Jack White. See feral children. See feral children swill Robitussin and defy the laws of Newtonian physics. See feral children torch the last adult left in town. See Jack run. Run Jack run! Director AG Rojas took some rough stylistic liberties with his video for “Sixteen Saltines”. The blonde sun worshiper, the basement P-90X workout session, and the general sense of school being out forever are clear nods to filmmaker Harmony Korine’s cult classic Gummo, only here, one gets the sense that the X-Men’s Marvel universe has somehow melded with the dirt roads of small town Tennessee.
At the time of its premiere, certain mainstream music television channels (whose identity will remain hidden in plain site) labeled the video controversial, and perhaps by some banal standard of mediocrity, it is. Were this to come from the underground or somewhere else outside the norm, it’d be relegated to midnight rotation and left alone. But the fact that guitar virtuoso and fan-favorite Jack White decided to slap his name on it raised some eyebrows. Given his long career, though, should anyone take for granted that this kind of thing is right up White’s alley?
White’s notoriously avant-garde in his approach to music videos. Whether working alongside the meticulously exquisite French director Michel Gondry (“Fell in Love with a Girl”, “Dead Leaves and The Dirty Ground”), or setting off with Alex Courtes and Martin Fougero to trip fantastic (“Seven Nation Army”), he’s always pushing the visual envelope and allowing other artists to Frankenstein his own bluesy masterpieces. What “Sixteen Saltines” does is challenges us with a refreshing kick in the teeth. See Jack succeed. Go Jack go! -Dan Pfleegor
06. Danny Brown – “Grown Up”
The video for “Grown Up” embodies the childlike mischief that pins through much of Danny Brown’s work. Even when he’s rhyming about sex and drugs, that trademark smirk says it all. Showing him as a kid, aggressively riding a coin-operated grocery store horse, menacing with a squirt gun, and jumping on a couch hits on the disconnect of posturing rap bravado, the joy of success, and the wonder at beating the odds in the lyrics. Plus, it gives Brown’s tooth-gap a mythic origin story, the shocked gasp on the tyke’s face as he falls to the pavement is as serious as it gets. Director Greg Brunkalla shoots the whole thing like it’s a gangster video, making the antics that much funnier.
The icing on the cake is the video interview of Dante Hoagland explaining how much fun it was to play young Danny Brown. His summary of the experience, of meeting Brown, of how the fake blood tasted… it’s all gold. “They had to paint my tooth black,” he explains. “They had to put a wig in my hair. It was fun.” And that fun shows, the kid acting out everyone’s fantasies. Who hasn’t wished that they could knock over some library books or throw toilet paper at a guy, either as a kid or today? -Adam Kivel
05. Grimes – “Oblivion”
“Oblivion” is a perfect example of guerrilla filmmaking. Director Emily Kai Bock and cinematographer Evan Prosofsky sent Claire Boucher, aka Grimes, to a college football game and a motocross event with a boombox and a pair of headphones. That was the extent of the pre-production. The end result is a spontaneous montage of Boucher lip syncing, flailing her arms, and mingling with players, shirtless fans, and cheerleaders. Undaunted, she moves deeper into the crowd, where people start to catch on and even begin miming Boucher’s flail-dance. Except for a few annoyed fans, everybody appears to be enjoying themselves.
For the duration, Boucher is surrounded by masculinity, which is the point, according to Bock’s interview with Pitchfork: “I really like the metaphor of Claire entering these typically-male territories and being like, ‘What’s up, I’m here to sing my song.'” This subtext is high-minded and certainly apparent, but it’s just that—a subtext. Boucher is a tiny girl surrounded by ripped guys; however, you don’t need a sociological understanding of gender disparity to enjoy the video for “Oblivion”. It thrives on its mood. The gorgeous slow-mo shots of football, the ambient stadium lighting—Bock and Prosofsky capture an atmosphere that meshes with the song’s spacy pulses and unassuming melody. -Jon Hadusek
04. PSY – “Gangnam Style”
The music video for PSY’s “Gangnam Style” has over 800 million YouTube views—the most ever in the site’s history. It’s popular in its native country of South Korea; it’s popular in America; it’s popular, everywhere. The song’s corresponding dance (cross your wrists and gallop like a pony) is the most ubiquitous dance since “(Crank Dat) Soulja Boy”. But even that seems like a limp comparison.
To put it in perspective: I went to a football game and during a timeout “Gangnam Style” appeared on the jumbotron. Pandemonium ensued. Little kids, teenagers, frat guys, and even some elderly people were galloping in their seats and smiling big smiles. Collectively, the crowd got more pumped during that song than at anything that occurred during the game itself. Need more proof? MC Hammer did the Gangnam Style at the American Music Awards. It’s a fucking phenomenon, and it all started with a charmingly bombastic video full of sunshine and confetti.
While wearing a variety of stylish sunglasses, PSY does his dance all over the place: barns, buses, boats, and beaches. The song’s conceit, which is lost on most non-Korean speakers, is about a hedonistic sect of South Korean culture that indulges in lavish lifestyles when they don’t have the means to do so (i.e. buying Starbucks when you can hardly afford the price of drinking water, as a means of proving status). Dressed in shiny suits and surrounded by sexy women, PSY appears equally lavish and comes off as the most jovial guy on the planet. And that’s why it’s impossible to hate “Gangnam Style”. Sure, it’s a simple techno song, but the chorus is catchy (“Op op op op, oppan Gangnam Style!”), the dance is ridiculous, and the video is a riot. What more do you need? -Jon Hadusek
03. Japandroids – “The House That Heaven Built”
Director Jim Larson somehow entered into the murky media terrain of performance videos and came out alive — and with tasty, savory carrion to boot. From the looks of it, he hardly had a bummer of a time, either: He simply followed Japandroids members Brian King and David Prowse around as they did what they do best on tour, and that’s play rock ‘n’ roll and be interesting, entertaining human beings. So, why the hell has every other director who’s tried to accomplish this style of video failed?
It’s all about timing and context. Hypothesis: “The House That Heaven Built” will long live out to be one of the genre’s great choose-your-own-anthems, whether it reminds one of adolescence, reeling in the years, brilliant and bold accomplishments, wasted summer nights, or that time you told your best friend you were happy enough to die. It’s like chicken soup for the rock ‘n’ roll lover’s soul, only with less sodium and more distortion.
What Larson managed to do was not only time his footage to precision, but grasp what makes the song so hard-hitting in the first place, which is the energy and emotions tied to it. Both forces ricochet throughout this video, and it’s not just from King and Prowse, but the people around them. That marrow-sucking ethos to living is on the face of everyone here, and that’s how it measures up to an almost immeasurable song. That last part at the end is just sprinkles. -Michael Roffman
02. M.I.A. – “Bad Girls”
Earlier this year, Newsweek published a controversial cover story by Ayaan Hirsi Ali with the headline “Muslim Rage” which drew a mass of criticism from, oh, just about everyone. Merely the title itself coupled with the histrionic image on the front of screaming, wide-eyed Islamic men in turbans and beards was seen as a xenophobic and sensationalistic headline — which was handled by some wonderful people with deft irony.
But you won’t find a better counter-example to that stereotype than M.I.A.’s video for “Bad Girls”, released seven and a half months before the article ran. Romain Garvas (son of famous political thriller director Costa-Garvas) returns to work with M.I.A. again after the two previously teamed up with the gingercide video for “Born Free” to combine elements of Arabian culture, cars and horses, past and present, a time-spanning rodeo — and no one is even coming close to raging. Women dressed in chic, leopard print hajibs get fast and furious in white Beamers, while men in ghutras and igals skate on the pavement from the backseat as the car is goin’ Hagwalah.
It bucks sexual and cultural stereotypes and has a lot of fun doing it. There’s no CGI with any shot here — the cars are actually driving on two wheels like that. It’s mesmerizing and emblematic of the braggadocio stunting that translates to and from any culture. -Jeremy D. Larson
01. Tom Waits – “Hell Broke Luce”
Tom Waits let some teaser images out sometime near the end of July promising some sort of special announcement. Speculation ran from a new record to a tour behind one of 2011’s best albums, Bad as Me. In the end, the nautical-themed pictures turned out to be stills from the video for one of 2011’s best songs, “Hell Broke Luce”. With all the speculation running about (Rolling Stone even considered the possibility of a Tom Waits concert cruise), a simple video might have seemed a bit of a let down at first. But once you watched the clip, you saw it wasn’t so simple, and not nearly a disappointment at all.
Director Matt Mahurin turned in a video equally as intense and pummeling as the song itself. The sooty metallic color scheme is just the right palette to paint the devastation of war. Surrealist imagery abounds, from a general actually being part of his desk to shark-faced submarines. At the center of it all is the grizzled Waits trudging through the battleground as he pulls his house behind him by a rope. The concept is a literal interpretation of soldiers at war far from home, still carrying the weight of all they left behind as they fight to, supposedly, protect it. One of the most memorable shots sees Waits staring at the ground he’s dredged up, filled with the graves of the fallen: nameless individuals who, like him, were just dragging their homes behind them.
Over the last decade-plus, war has been a wearing constant on American minds. Here, Waits focuses in on not just the violence, but all the disturbing truths that come along with it. It’s an entertaining and impressive video, but it’s the hard message that comes across strongest of all. This is what a modern war protest song looks like. -Ben Kaye