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The 25 Best Music Videos of 2015

More so than any year in recent memory, 2015 saw the music video being wielded as a political weapon.

The 25 Best Music Videos of 2015

More so than any year in recent memory, 2015 saw the music video being wielded as a political weapon. The clips that hold the top two positions on our list of the best videos of the year serve as blunt objects, direct responses to police brutality and fear of the other. Hip-hop, perhaps expectedly, dominated the social discussion: Further down the list, Kendrick Lamar and Vince Staples use the medium to lament urban and suburban decay, respectively, but pop and R&B artists like FKA twigs, Lana Del Rey, Grimes, and even Rihanna all attempted to resist convention or challenge and disrupt the status quo, even if it was simply their own. Of course, there’s always plenty of room for comic relief, old-fashioned eye candy, and, yes, even marionettes. Sal Cinquemani

25. Girl Band, “Pears for Lunch”

Video kills insecure masculinity in this prime-MTV-worthy clip from Dublin’s premier self-aware noise-punk purveyors. A man affixed with a television head goes through the motions of life—at work, with his girlfriend (who later becomes his fiancé), and in other normalizing social situations. All the while his screen/face flashes ads/stock footage that reflect less his honest emotional state in these situations than an aspirational version of the same, as encouraged by the broad influence of televised media culture. Girl Band themselves are present here too, in a lo-fi music video within the video that interrupts the more banal transmissions coming across our protagonist’s visage, and at the most inopportune moments. The reflexivity of the clip is such that we’re never sure if the band is subverting the boob tube’s stream of influence or merely contributing to it. The brilliance behind it is that they probably aren’t sure either. Sam C. Mac

24. Jack Ü f/ Justin Bieber, “Where Are You Now”

They invited fans (and others) to help create the video for their tune “Where Are You Now.” But maybe because Skrillex and Diplo’s song was a collaboration with the Biebs, what they got was a much more dazzling work of crowdsourced promotional synergy. At regular speed, it’s a charming flip book. But no one watching it on YouTube didn’t use the opportunity to randomly pause the stream of images, hoping to catch something tarnishing the singer’s image. (I landed on a vulgarity about once every dozen pauses.) Interactive schadenfreude never felt so good. Eric Henderson

23. Disclosure f/ Lorde, “Magnets”

Ella Yelich-O’Connor, better known as 18-year-old New Zealand pop star Lorde, has never been anything less than uncomfortably mature for her age, but the music video for Disclosure’s “Magnets,” a standout cut from the U.K. garage duo’s Caracal, transforms the gawky teen into a bona-fide femme fatale. The clip, directed by Ryan Hope, finds Lorde cavorting with a married man while his meek, buttoned-up, and sometimes bruised wife cautiously prepares his morning coffee and stares blankly out the window of their L.A. manse. “Let’s embrace the point of no return,” Lorde urges as she zombie-struts in her usual way down a glass-encased hallway in a patent-leather trench coat and blood-red lipstick. She gives the wife a knowing glance and pushes the man, tied to a chair, into the pool. Then, of course, she sets the whole thing on fire. Cinquemani

22. CL, “Hello Bitches”

Or, “Bitch, I’m CL!” K-pop’s most Western-minded artist answers “Bitch I’m Madonna” with every bit of the queen of pop’s confident swagger and an arsenal of whip-pans, rolling up to the club with an army of bad bitches (the Request Dance Crew from Taeyang’s “Ringa Linga” video) in skin-tight, tiger-printed leather jumpsuits. This is a power move for CL, a corrective to the video for her other big U.S.-targeted 2015 single, which ceded too much of the spotlight to overrated cloud-rap dudes like OG Maco and Riff Raff. There’s no distraction here from CL’s thrilling choreography or her deliriously debauched, bi-lingual raps (“Saki to soju/Nagasaki to Soyu/You know what these shots of baijiu do!”), and the last image—of a cackling CL against a backdrop engulfed in flames—sends exactly the right message for an artist poised to break the U.S. market: Say hello to your new pop queen, or say goodbye, bitches. Mac

21. Thundercat, “Them Changes”

One of the funkiest tracks from Thundercat or Flying Lotus is also one of the saddest, a breakup lament to rival the entirety of Vulnicura distilled into three-and-a-half lumbering, self-pitying minutes that make you embrace the fade out. But wounds that deep never heal, and the clip for “Them Changes” won’t soon let you forget it. In it, a samurai loses his livelihood when his rival in a millisecond slashes both his arms off. As a metaphor, it’s as blunt as the real-life experience of being rejected always is, and even the pulse of the Isley Brothers in the background can’t cover the sting of the conclusion: “Now I’m sitting here with a black hole in my chest/A heartless, broken mess.” Henderson

20. Tame Impala, “The Less I Know the Better”

Tame Impala’s “The Less I Know the Better” ejects traditional psychedelic tropes for basketballs, gorillas, and cunnilingus in order to make what ends up being the most psychedelic video of the year. Don’t do drugs, kids. James Rainis

19. Vince Staples, “Señorita”

Vince Staples doesn’t peddle in gangsta-rap dreams, but gangsta-rap reality. “Señorita” is a bleak, magical-realist portrait of decrepit neighborhoods and their trapped denizens. The reveal at the end is a perfect encapsulation of Staples’s unrelenting cynicism and his remarkable ability to dig up profound, uncomfortable truths. Rainis

18. Rihanna, “Bitch Better Have My Money”

Rihanna lives out her Tarantino-movie revenge fantasies in style, shooting cellphones thrown off yachts and cutting the balls off of rich white dudes. This video’s gratuitous nudity, drug use, and violence push pop-star provocation to new heights—so much so that Madonna herself would have to bow down to that delirious final shot. Rainis

17. Susanne Sundfør, “Accelerate”

Stian Anderson’s explicit black-and-white video for “Accelerate” gives visual representation to the song’s dense sonic landscape and (kind of rote, on the page anyway) love-versus-religion imagery, translating its post-“Like a Prayer” interracial sexuality into the abstract vocabulary of contemporary music-video erotica, specifically FKA twig’s “Papi Pacify.” Like the song itself, it overcomes its more empty provocations through sheer excess of ambition—that Bach-quoting interlude, here scoring an underwater nude ballet, or the general escalating intensity of the strobe-accented edit. It’s also neither narrative nor art object, but principally a propulsive dance video. In one set piece, Sundfør, alone on a haunted dance floor, grasps a helpless disco ball, which spills out a thousand points of light. “Accelerate” may add up to little more than what this gesture suggests—some Scandinavian’s gothic perversion of ABBA. Mac

16. Kendrick Lamar, “For Free? (Interlude)”

To Pimp a Butterfly’s most break-neck track gets an appropriately whiplash-inducing video, as Kendrick transcends mansplaining with an angry, phallic-centric screed against the legacy of oppression that taints black consumerism. The video is staged entirely on the grounds of a lavish plantation home, as its unsuspecting gold digger is taunted by Kendrick and his band. Finally, in the bowels of the property’s basement, a coal-shoveling Kendrick, clad in completely unsubtle Uncle Sam get-up, assertively pursues and drives the woman straight out of the house—and into a crowd of Kendricks playing all sorts of different roles (gardener, mai tai-sipping bourgeois aristocrat, contemplative book-reader), effectively implicating the rapper himself—and men in general—in this bedeviling paper chase. Mac

15. Tanya Tagaq, “Uja”

It’s all over in less than three minutes, and yet it still feels like an entire universe is contained in the Procter Brothers-directed clip for Tanya Tagaq’s wordless “Uja”—or that there’s at least a thesis paper waiting to be elucidated from these provocative images of manmade and natural violence. It begins with a kind of framing device, the animal fur fringe of an ethereal human woman’s winter coat, and gradually, over the track’s springy tick-toking rhythm, cycles through a neon-lit urban cityscape that becomes a stage for storming police forces and, not coincidentally, a cause for escape. The world of human violence is left for an even more carnage-strewn glimpse of nature, as wolves, bears, and birds spill buckets of crudely rendered CGI blood. Finally, humans return and complete the cycle of influence. All this registers as a deeply cynical portrait of nature’s tendency toward violence, but also an oddly beautiful message of concern from someone whose vocal technique—the disciplined practice of Inuit throat-singing doubled with a higher, more accessible register—demonstrates her profound faith in transformation. Mac

14. Sia, “Elastic Heart”

Sia’s palpitating “Elastic Heart” positions actor turned performance artist Shia LaBeouf inside a giant metal cage with the pop star’s favored surrogate, Maddie Ziegler, in a dance battle that’s tragic and humorous—at least when Shia makes funny faces after getting bonked on the head. Like the video for “Chandelier,” improvisation serves as an expressive mode to loosen up Sia’s calculating pop, and the two bravura performances, in particular the singer’s deeply sad rendering of a lover caught in his own heart’s cage, deepen the feelings of the song. Mac

13. Tink f/ Tazer, “Wet Dollars”

A recent editorial in the New York Times’s Sunday Review challenged perennial complaints that New York City is “dead.” The author’s angle, in a nutshell, was that the city’s—or any city’s—golden era is completely subjective, each person’s nostalgia tied directly to his or her peak of “hotness.” Though rapper Tink is from Chicago, and producer Tazer hails from the U.K., the music video for their single “Wet Dollars,” directed by Toronto-based Glenn Michael, is a testament to that ethos, a travelogue made by outsiders that celebrates Brooklyn as the thriving artists’ playpen it’s become since the graffiti got scrubbed from Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The clip follows Tink and her crew from the rooftop of a brownstone to the streets and subway platforms of Williamsburg, a simple, effective tribute to a borough some not-so-hot critics have already declared “dead.” Cinquemani

12. Justin Bieber, “Sorry”

Justin Bieber makes his best music video by not even showing up to the shoot. Parris Goebel’s choreography for the clip is flawless, imbuing joy and verve into a song that’s supposed to be about repentance, but is really about Bieber finding redemption in tropical house. Rainis

11. Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment, “Sunday Candy”

Chance the Rapper may have come up as the acid-addled suspended school kid, but at heart he’s the coolest nerd in the drama program. The homespun stage sets of “Sunday Candy” pair with daring juke choreography for a heartwarming performance of the year’s most endearingly welcoming song. The fact that it was all done in one take gives it the exhilarating thrill of a barely rehearsed school play, executed perfectly just in time for opening night. Rainis

10. Grimes, “Flesh Without Blood”

Claire Boucher’s video for “Flesh Without Blood” doubles as the year’s most ambitious look-book, a compendium of Grimes’s many sides: blood-stained 19th-century socialite, brooding gamer goth, high-fashion lounge lizard. Boucher manages to look devastatingly badass in every getup, reflecting her gleeful ability to integrate disparate pieces into an alluring, unprecedented whole. Rainis

9. Lana Del Rey, “High by the Beach”

“The truth is I never bought into your bullshit when you would pay tribute to me,” Lana Del Rey sings on “High by the Beach.” The lead single from her third album, Honeymoon, is a love song of sorts, but it doubles as a rebuke to a fickle press, represented in the Jake Nava-directed video by a paparazzo stalking Del Rey at a seaside rental. Dressed in a sheer nightgown and robe, the singer wanders through the notably empty beach house, wallowing in her ennui and evading the black chopper hovering just outside. When the shutterbug is out of sight, she runs down to the beach, grabs a guitar case hidden between the rocks, pulls out a grenade launcher, takes aim at her tabloid tormentor, and blows him—not to mention the myriad anti-media screeds that came before this one—away. Cinquemani

8. Oneohtrix Point Never, “Sticky Drama”

Oneohtrix Point Never’s spazzy, oozing electronics could easily soundtrack many of the apocalyptic futures popular culture has plotted out for us, but the video for “Sticky Drama” creates a singularly bizarre dystopia steeped in childhood nostalgia: LARPing, Japanese RPGs, Tamagotchis, slime, and CD dresses feature heavily in the year’s most epic playground battle. Rainis

7. Drake, “Hotline Bling”

The memes that piled up in this video’s wake were cute, but Drake trying to mask his bruised ego with the moves of a duckbilled platypus? Even cuter. At the risk of proverbially “dancing about architecture,” the moves of “Hotline Bling” are the very apotheosis of Drake’s entire geek-brah, man-sized boy appeal, and the fact that they line up so symmetrically with the self-pitying lyrics of the song just elevate the pathetic qualities of its DIY choreography, especially against that LED-lit Apple-store set design, all the more poignant. Henderson

6. FKA Twigs, “Glass & Patron”

That FKA twigs can out-vogue Channing Tatum has been out there for a while, but it took “Glass & Patron” to underline the point: “Am I dancing sexy yet?…Now hold that pose for me.” She couldn’t do a thing by the book if she were surrounded by highlighters, but even someone as willfully herself as twigs can’t resist the siren song of the catwalk in the end. Henderson

5. Mykki Blanco, “Coke White, Starlight”

Taking its cues from the works of João Pedro Rodrigues, in particular his extraordinary 2011 film To Die Like a Man, Tristan Patterson’s odyssey of a woman in trouble finds its protagonist (Blanco) leaving behind a life of drugs and depressing politics (television broadcast footage of Greece’s despicable, neo-fascist Golden Dawn party) for the lush forests and restorative waters of the coastline. Like the heroine of Rodrigues’s film, this decisive break from society affords the opportunity to completely reconstruct one’s gender identity, or to disregard it altogether, burdened less by the need to keep up an appearance than more practical concerns, like hunting for octopus on the ocean floor with a bowie knife. It’s a beautiful, strange, and ultimately very moving clip from one of rap’s true progressives. Mac

4. Kendrick Lamar, “Alright”

It takes some gall to stage a #BlackLivesMatter block party and cast yourself as the messianic force floating above it all. But the immense, vibrantly photographed hubris of Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” is, in itself, a galvanizing fulfillment of that same political concept, and a stern rebuke of the insidious #AllLivesMatter backlash. Whereas #BlackLivesMatter confirms the individuality of each person as self-evident and something to be celebrated, #AllLivesMatter insists on shutting down the conversation and stripping everyone of what makes them unique. The iconography of “Alright” is frequently contradictory and inscrutable. But it’s alive, and that’s all that matters. Henderson

3. Missy Elliott f/ Pharrell Williams, “WTF (Where They From)”

You can spit just one clause out to justify Missy Elliott’s placement on this list. Simply, “breakin’ marionettes.” Or “disco-ball tracksuit.” Or “hoverboard handstands.” Or “lens flare.” Or “that Biggie cap.” Or “hip-hop Shiva moves.” Or “two-faced pirouettes.” Or “funky crump of the living dead.” If just one of those things were all you could say, it would be a return to form for the woman who, a decade ago, seemed like she was on track to have as many classic videos as anyone else in the business. That all of those things can be said ensures that she still has a shot at fulfilling that goal. Henderson

2. M.I.A., “Borders”

With its soft, flattering cinematography and dazzling, kaleidoscopic set pieces, M.I.A.’s music video for her pointedly titled single “Borders” risks turning the life-or-death plight of refugees into a fashion runway for her decidedly understated duds: A jersey she sports reads, “fly pirates,” and at one point she literally walks on water. But the image of the artist as the fearless leader of an army of émigrés, trudging forward across land and water, is a simple, potent, and timely one. M.I.A. has often used her early life as a political refugee to highlight and subvert common perceptions of the immigrant experience, but perhaps never as bluntly, accessibly, or—yes—beautifully as she does here. Cinquemani

1. Run the Jewels, “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)”

Truthful, direct, impossible to misinterpret. Run the Jewels’s roaring “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)” is granted a stark counterpoint, as a white cop and a black youth struggle in a seemingly unwinnable battle pitched somewhere between DashCam video, the cover of Time magazine’s May 11, 2015 issue, and Dr. Seuss’s metaphorical butter battle. Killer Mike’s furious “We killin’ them for freedom ‘cause they tortured us for boredom” plays out in grim real time as the dueling figureheads wear each other down. In the video’s pointed punchline, it seems that neither side fully knows why they’re out for blood. But only one side represents the system that knows damn well why they are. Henderson

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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