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The 25 Best Music Videos of 2017

Whether personal or political, our selections prove that the video is still a potent form for communication.

The 25 Best Music Videos of 2017

Music videos can often serve as a barometer of the times, and the way that they’re consumed today—largely shared among like-minded friends on social media alongside news and other commentary—has rendered the medium an ideal vessel for socio-political missives and observations. Among the hot topics addressed in the clips on our list of the best videos of 2017: systemic racism (Jay-Z’s “The Story of O.J.”), the opioid crisis (Danny Brown’s “Ain’t It Funny”), female solidarity (Grimes and Janelle Monáe’s “Venus Fly”). Of course, some of the year’s best videos were decidedly apolitical, from Björk’s exploration of the metaphysical properties of love in “The Gate” to Bicep’s excavation of sacred sites of the rave scene in the nostalgic travelogue “Glue.” Whether personal or political—or, in the case of Kesha’s “Praying,” both—our selections prove that the video is still a potent form for communication. Sal Cinquemani


25. Run the Jewels, “Legend Has It”

The system is stacked against black people. That’s not a new message, and not a new cause, but this video’s depiction of the almost programmatic way that systemic racism persists feels disturbingly fresh. Killer Mike and El-P drop tabs of LSD prior to standing for a police lineup, and what follows is a series of seriocomic collisions between their hallucinations, of themselves and others, with the police’s calculated efforts to rig the system against them. Or, rather, Killer Mike. El-P shoots a stuffed bunny rabbit in the head and it’s still Killer Mike who gets thrown to the ground and arrested. Resistance, it seems, is futile, which is why Run the Jewels insists on cracking wise, for the sake of their, and our, sanity. Ed Gonzalez


24. Washed Out, “Get Lost”

When I was little, I had an unusual fascination with all things Hollywood, which, to a kid growing up in the Northeast, seemed like an exotic, luxurious wonderland. On a business trip to Los Angeles, my father brought back a book filled with charmingly dated images of the city from the late 1970s or early 1980s. Directed by Harvey Benschoter, the music video for Washed Out’s “Get Lost” is like that book from my childhood brought to life, craftily animated using cutouts from advertisements. All headbands, feathered hair, and vintage sports cars, the clip, like my memory, imagines L.A. as if it were preserved in amber. Cinquemani


23. Jay-Z,” “Moonlight”

At one point in the lyrics for “Moonlight,” Jay-Z decries what they did to Lauryn Hill. Just as there’s no doubt as to who “they” are, Lauryn’s own words from “Lost Ones” echo throughout this video: “Gain the whole world for the price of your soul.” In the clip, a who’s who of new black talent are tasked with reenacting an episode from Friends (here given its appropriate Whodini theme song). While the likes of Tiffany Haddish, Lil Rey Howery, Tessa Thompson, and Lakeith Stanfield cue up the laugh track, Jerrod Carmichael slowly comes to realize the fraudulence of every one of the entertainment complex’s promises. For all the meta swirling around in the clip for Jay-Z’s “Moonlight,” and there’s certainly no shortage there, it ultimately reveals itself to be an interlude of outrage for those who have had it. Call it The Unbearable Wokeness of Being. Eric Henderson


22. Katy Perry, “Chained to the Rhythm”

As is often the case in imaginings that romanticize the innocence of a recent American past, the future in Katy Perry’s “Chained to the Rhythm” is decidedly vintage. Helmed by longtime Perry collaborator Mathew Cullen, the video takes place at Oblivia, a utopian amusement park ostensibly inspired by the 2011 short film The Centrifuge Brain Project. Though its filled with all of the tongue-in-cheek eye candy one might expect from a Katy Perry video, as well as blink-and-you’ll-miss-them touches like a black couple being flung over a fence with the words “Safe Trip Home” painted on it, “Chained to the Rhythm” doesn’t take its premise—or the loss of her character’s state-sanctioned purity and subsequent awakening—to their logical conclusions: Rather than televise the revolution, Perry reluctantly becomes a cog in the machine. Cinquemani


21. The Shins, “Half a Million”

Now more than ever, in an era where the laziest and least self-made administration has the gall to ban the CDC from using the word “entitlement,” effort counts for something. The VEVO description speaks for itself: “Filmed on a white backdrop, edited, then printed out. ‘Half a Million’ was created with 5,566 stickers, hand cut from the 4,868 frames and animated by sticking them down on top of each other at each of the 40+ locations.” We may be stuck in a time where all but roughly half a million are going to have to do everything for themselves, but the fruits of the Shins’s labor here suggest that the DIY spirit will eventually lift us all. Henderson


20. Moon Duo, “Cold Fear”

It’s fitting that the first thing one sees in the video for “Cold Fear” by Portland-based psychonauts Moon Duo is a disembodied, dilated eyeball. Directed by animator Micah Buzan, it’s a hell of a trip, grazing on the history of psychedelic art from Rick Griffin to Adult Swim—where, incidentally, the video saw its original television premiere. By the end of Buzan’s torrent of bizarre, grotesque imagery, your eyes will probably be dilated too—with or without chemical aid. Zachary Hoskins


19. Lana Del Rey, “Love”

A devotional project that sees Lana Del Rey projecting her romantic nostalgia for youth onto future civilizations. Here, young love transcends all, breaking through the barriers of space and time. In this time when it feels as if Earth is spiraling toward oblivion, the video’s lusty earnestness feels transcendent. In the future, it’s the act of being lovestruck that will rise from every other planet’s primordial soup like so much cigarette smoke, keeping the hope of humanity alive. We’ll be all right as long as the kids are. Gonzalez


18. OK Go, “Obsession”

Demonstrating the meticulous attention to detail and singular focus befitting a song called “Obsession,” OK Go utilizes a precisely arranged wall of 567 printers and some nimble stop-motion practical effects—including suspending themselves in the air with wires—which serves as a refreshing change of pace from the glut of 21st-century CGI. This barrage of dizzying, technicolor visuals required an incredible amount of paper, but OK Go makes sure to let us know that every scrap was recycled, with proceeds going to Greenpeace, not that that’s much consolation to the poor sap tasked with sweeping it all up. Josh Goller


17. St. Vincent, “New York”

As she mourns not only the end of a relationship, but her own fading romanticism of New York City, a clear-plastic-umbrella-toting Annie Clark doesn’t resort to dreary, rain-drenched shots of the Big Apple, instead operating entirely within a vibrant, surreal world of her own making. Colors seem to pop through the screen throughout the video, thanks to the effective use of color-blocking, such as Clark, dressed in orange, sitting on a teal-hued steel girder jutting from a sky-blue wall. Clark also plays with textures, donning a pink velvet bikini, nudging a swan away from picking at the shimmering silver sequins on her dress, pulling red orchids from a vase full of neon-green soda, and lurking behind a burning head of lettuce. You know, the usual stuff you expect to find in a sorrowful piano ballad about lost love. Goller


16. Young Thug, “Wyclef Jean”

Even if it all had gone as planned, “Wyclef Jean” would have been a hilarious deconstruction of rap clichés. But the whole point is that it didn’t go as planned: Rapper Young Thug, the video’s star and conceptualist, blew off the shoot, leaving his “co-director” Ryan Staake to scramble to pick up the pieces. The result is a meta-narrative in which Staake, via intertitles and inventive editing, attempts to “explain how this video fell apart.” Yet the real brilliance of “Wyclef Jean” is the way Thug’s absence defines the video. We hear a recording of his voice explaining the concept, and we’re told that he appeared on set, then refused to leave his car and eventually drove away. The only time we see Young Thug on camera is in a few seconds of separately shot footage, most of which he spends eating Cheetos rather than rapping. Staake’s narration comes across as piqued, painting the rapper as an irresponsible diva, but in the end Young Thug comes out looking more like a mastermind provocateur. Either way, “Wyclef Jean” is as punk as John Lydon refusing to lip synch on American Bandstand. Hoskins


15. Kamasi Washington, “Truth”

Kamasi tackles Keats to find out if, indeed, “beauty is truth, truth beauty.” And though it takes him his customary quarter-hour to find out, the whole world stands to benefit. Gorgeousness in all its forms and imperfections is given center stage in what the closing title card accurately promises represented the “harmony of difference.” Taking introspective to the next level, this music video equivalent of slow cinema at one point interrupts its unifying, perfectly Instagram-style portraits of persistent humanity to hold on a static shot of a warehouse coatroom. The camera slowly zooms in while Kamasi tears into a life-affirming tenor sax solo, suggesting what Michael Snow could’ve done in the 1960s had John Coltrane felt like tackling a music video. Henderson


14. Kendrick Lamar, “Humble”

Director Dave Meyers lays the production value on thick in Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble”; this is exactly the type of video that gets nominations (and wins) in virtually every technical VMA category. Here’s Lamar cruising with a 360-degree camera. Here’s Lamar with his head on fire. Here’s Lamar handing over some Grey Poupon shit. But even though the world’s biggest rapper is shown, as he would be expected to, literally printing his own money, he’s not visibly happy about it; instead he uses it as ammo in a financial firearm. Throughout he decries Photoshop and subverts iconography, reducing his voice to just another in the crowd of potential messiahs who haven’t been given the chance to strike it lucky. Henderson


13. St. Vincent, “Los Ageless”

Annie Clark portrays Tinseltown as a vivid dystopia in “Los Ageless,” lampooning the superficiality of the showbiz capital as she endures a cosmetic procedure that pulls at flaps of excess facial skin, à la Brazil, or standing, Barbie-like, next to a shredder that destroys the word “No.” A woman’s legs stretch out through a TV screen and writhe before a quivering Clark; she swallows otherworldly, undulating organisms; the lime-green slime of a foot bath appears to gain sentience and climb her leg—all striking images that take to outlandish extremes the very real absurdity of adherence to oppressive beauty standards. Goller


12. Grimes f/ Janelle Monáe, “Venus Fly”

Adorned in some sequences in regalia that appears paradoxically both indigenous and extraterrestrial, while dressed as a steampunk-meets-Soul-Train getup in others, Janelle Monáe joins Grimes, who feverishly hammers away on drums, dons black angel wings, and bathes in crude oil in this slow-motion-heavy video for “Venus Fly.” Both directed and edited by Grimes, the video subverts fairy-tale princess tropes with the two artists cast as fierce warriors who shatter mirrors, devour apples, stomp roses, rip apart pearl necklaces, and wield flaming swords. Goller


11. Tyler, the Creator, “Who Dat Boy”

Flower Boy may have been Tyler, the Creator’s “mature” album, but his self-directed music video for “Who Dat Boy” is proof that he still hasn’t lost his demented touch. Over the song’s horror-movie beat, Tyler disfigures himself in a mad-science experiment gone wrong, gets guest A$AP Rocky to “fix” him by replacing his face with white rapper Action Bronson’s, and hits the road. But as arresting as those visuals are, the cherry on top is the non-sequitur closing sequence, in which four multi-exposed Tylers show up to croon “911” like a one-man New Edition. The whole thing crackles with manic energy. Hoskins


10. Run the Jewels, “Don’t Get Captured”

Director Chris Hopewell puts the underground rap duo of Killer Mike and El-P on a stop-motion agitprop carnival ride from hell, with Ray Harryhausen’s skeletons taking on the roles of top-hatted capitalists, the downtrodden people they exploit, and the corrupt justice system that enforces their interests. Think Corpse Bride but woke—and with much better music. Hoskins


9. Kesha, “Praying”

The video for Kesha’s comeback single, “Praying,” features the bright, glittery neon colors we’ve come to expect from the former queen of party anthems, but it’s in service of an entirely new sonic palette—and mission. The clip predates this year’s #MeToo movement, but it dovetails serendipitously with the current mood of the country. Directed by Jonas Akuerlund, the video opens with a shot of the singer lying in a makeshift coffin, flanked by two suited men wearing pig masks, saliva dripping from their mouth-holes, a neon cross glowing overhead. Messianic imagery abounds throughout, including a striking black-and-white shot of Kesha stranded at sea on a wooden raft, arms outstretched. In the end, Kesha emerges reborn, escaping her swine-faced tormentors, breaking free from a tangle of fishing nets (pun intended), and, in a triumphant final image, walking on water. Cinquemani


8. Leonard Cohen, “Leaving the Table”

Released weeks before the singer-songwriter’s death in November of last year, Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker was as purposeful and poignant a goodbye as David Bowie’s similarly timed Blackstar. With his posthumous video for “Leaving the Table,” Canadian animator Christopher Mills doesn’t avoid the inevitable Blackstar comparisons, dramatizing Cohen’s passing just as Bowie did his own in the video for “Lazarus.” But where Bowie was the engineer and star of his own cinematic funeral, Mills uses Cohen’s absence to the video’s advantage, depicting the artist as a two-dimensional, occasionally transparent figure drifting above the rooftops of Montreal, through his own psychic geography (note the literal bird on the wire, among other references), and finally “out of the game.” At once moving and whimsical, it’s a tribute worthy of Cohen’s idiosyncratic legacy. Hoskins


7. Kendrick Lamar, “DNA”

“Kendrick Lamar. Two first names, huh? What the fuck is up with that?” Don Cheadle’s sneering interrogator lays into the handcuffed, Compton-born rapper before sitting down, punching a button on a polygraph machine, and suffering a violent seizure as a sample plays of Fox News hosts deriding Kendrick’s lyrics about police brutality. When Cheadle snaps back to functionality, he’s possessed by Kendrick, looking around warily before rising and laying down bars that are equal parts braggadocio and an exploration of the duality of human nature, which is full of “power, poison, pain, and joy.” It’s a visual rendering of the internal struggle the artist wages with himself about both the oppressive forces he’s overcome and his own internal darkness. In a frenzied climax, the swaggering side of his psyche wins out and Kendrick, now filmed in black and white, frantically gestures at the camera and directly refutes the notion that anyone else should dictate how he lives his life. Goller


6. HAIM, “Want You Back”

In the single-take video for their single “Want You Back,” the Haim sisters make Ventura Boulevard their runway, strutting in time to the beat of the song and endearingly acting out their respective parts (a solitary kick drum here, an isolated backing vocal there—the little moments you might not have even noticed until now) like ardent fans pantomiming their favorite pop song on the radio. Cinquemani


5. Bicep, “Glue”

This is one for the motherfucking club heads of yesteryear, to leave them misty-eyed for those long-gone temples where the rave was the occasion for an act of near-spiritual communion. The video assembles images of the places where these sites once existed, of some of the roads that took you there, with text-on-screen remembrances from revelers who worshipped at the altar of the DJ. These missives, about days being off one’s box, laughing with friends, and coming down in ways like never before, suggest messages in a bottle: “It’s so hard to describe the feeling/25,000 people one with each other/No hassle/Just pure ecstasy.” Somehow, almost miraculously, the video captures the fullness of that sense of feeling by way of visions of places long abandoned by pleasure. Gonzalez


4. The Blaze, “Territory”

The opening of the Blaze’s poignant video for “Territory” parallels the trail of water churned by a ship that takes a man to Algiers with the tears that roil on the man’s face upon his homecoming. From there, the video proceeds as a symphony of movement, intimate grace notes that attest to how our memories are so often tied to our proximity to the people and places we love. Inside a medina, the man repeatedly jabs the air in perfect lockstep with the track’s synths. Throughout, the intensity of the beat is likened to the desperation of desire and the intensity of the bond between men, a story of kinship that’s subsequently passed on to the younger generation during an act of soul-giving playtime that sees the man surreally charged with the animating spirit that is home and tradition. Gonzalez


3. Danny Brown, “Ain’t It Funny”

It’s tempting, at first glance, to dismiss the concept for “Ain’t It Funny” as hackneyed and banal: Introduce Detroit hip-hop wildman Danny Brown into a lily-white, Growing Pains-via-Too Many Cooks ’80s sitcom family and watch as hilarity ensues. Once the jokey opening credits are over, however, it becomes clear that Brown and director Jonah Hill are doing more than just taking cheap shots at old trash-culture clichés. “I’m fucked up and everyone thinks it’s a joke,” says Uncle Danny between swigs of his 40-ounce; “I have a serious problem,” he declares to the camera like a beloved TV character delivering his catchphrase. By the end of the video, Brown is lying on the soundstage floor bleeding out while the studio audience leaps to their feet in applause. “Ain’t It Funny” may not be subtle, but its dramatization of the ways pop culture encourages and exploits self-destruction—especially in African-American entertainers—is damning and incisive. Hoskins


2. Björk, “The Gate”

Björk has leaned in extra hard on the talking point about Utopia being her Tinder album. But there’s nothing so remotely or summarily brief as a swipe in either direction from the video for the album’s lead single, though it certainly finds her reasserting her essential energy. Balanced between hardness and softness, light and dark, introspection and performance, it’s a celestial come-hither. In the same sense that Stéphane Sednaoui’s interpretation of “Big Time Sensuality” stripped away everything extemporaneous to find more than enough in that essential Björkish energy, director Andrew Thomas Huang sees the spectrum of life itself within his muse and assigns it the only appropriate visual analogue. Dressed in a corrugated prism, Björk gets her groove back in a spasmic frenzy of pure, OLED fireworks. In “All Neon Like,” she promised to weave a “marvelous web of glow-in-the-dark threads,” and with “The Gate,” she’s delivered. Henderson


1. Jay-Z, “The Story of O.J.”

In a year when emboldened, torch-carrying white supremacists march the streets, the burning crosses, slave ships, cotton fields, and white hoods portrayed in “The Story of O.J.” don’t seem nearly as antiquated as the animation, created in the style of Looney Tunes and Disney circa the 1930s. Jay-Z is portrayed here as Jaybo—a riff on the Sambo caricature—and he eats watermelon and sips orange drink as he runs through various stereotypical categorizations of African-Americans in a cartoon that’s both visually powerful in its 20th-century style and frightening in its 21st-century relevance. Goller

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