Despite being made to promote and showcase artists, music videos before Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” were quite simple. Videos usually entailed bands playing or singers singing alone on a stage. There are some examples from before the release of “Thriller” (for example, David Bowie), but it is safe to say that the shift in the power of music videos has mostly happened since this iconic moment in history. With platforms such as YouTube making music videos instantly accessible, artists are looking to get more creative than ever. In this article, I will look at 10 of the best music videos of all time, looking at what makes them so special and the recognition they received.
Michael Jackson’s iconic video “Thriller” smashed racial barriers, and made it possible for programs such as MTV to start playing black artists. “Thriller” is a cinematic juggernaut and masterpiece. Directed by well known director at the time, John Landis, the music video was actually a mini-movie. It featured more expensive technology than a few actual films that were featured in the movie theaters. Thriller was the most expensive music video at the time, and it is still in the top list of most expensive videos of all time. From well choreographed dancing zombies to Michael’s transformation into a werewolf, the 14 minute video was way ahead of its time. The video went on to win numerous awards, including a Grammy for best long-form video. As arguably the best 80s music video… we can see why!
Norwegian synth-pop band A-ha pushed creative boundaries with their music video “Take On Me“. The video tells a romantic story, and features pencil-sketch animation. The video starts out with a woman sitting in a restaurant while she is flipping through a comic book. One of the characters comes alive, reaches out to her and pulls her in. After an adventure, the comic book character joins her in the real world for a happily ever after.
Madonna has always been known for pushing the boundaries… and she definitely did so in her controversial music video for “Like A Prayer“. The video mainly takes place in a church. The main plot of the video entails Madonna witnessing a murder, and seeing a black man arrested for the crime which he didn’t commit. In a dream, she saw a black saint statue turned into the man that was falsely accused of the murder. After she wakes up, she goes to the prison, and informs them that the man is innocent. This controversial music video caused the Vatican to condemn it because it features a prominent shot of Madonna dancing in front of a burning cross, including the usage of religious symbols.
The music video for “You Got Me” by the Roots was directed by Charles Stone III. It features a cameo by rapper Common, and includes vocals by rapper Eve (who isn’t seen on screen). “You Got Me” is a thought provoking video that led to many speculations on what it meant. With haunting guest vocals from R&B siren Erykah Badu, the video for the song features lead rapper Black Thought walking by a sea of people lying on the ground as if they are dead or unconscious. As he walks by and raps his part, he looks at the various bodies lying on the ground. The video ends in chaos as everybody is up and running around frantically. The song garnered The Roots and Badu a Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group in 2000.
The “Opposites Attract” music video by dancer, choreographer and singer Paula Abdul featured her love interest as a cartoon cat called MC Skat Cat. The track and video are all about her loving a guy despite their differences. The video definitely went in an unconventional and odd but unique direction by having the cartoon cat playing her love interest. This music video stood out and became memorable because of this very reason. She and MC Skat Cat also danced alongside each other in well choreographed moves.
Like “Thriller”, the “Runaway” music video by Kanye West was a mini-movie that clocks in at 35 minutes long. The video features Kanye West playing a white piano as a ballet troupe all dressed in black dance close by. The visuals are stunning, alongside a lot of white backdrops.
The music film opens with West running down a road in a forest with his shirt unbuttoned, while “Lacrimosa” by Mozart is playing in the background. There is also a narration by Nicki Minaj in an English accent. West is then shown driving his car through the forest with “Dark Fantasy” playing in the background. A phoenix appearing as half-woman and half-phoenix crashes down to Earth as a meteorite, and West crashes his car simultaneously in the forest. Kanye West’s creative and artful masterpiece made this music video one to remember!
“Waterfalls” by TLC is an emotional music video directed by F. Gary Gray, with dual stories. One story entails a boy who is tragically killed in a drug deal after disobeying his mom to stop selling drugs. The other story features a man who contracts AIDS after having unprotected sex with a woman. The boy eventually returns in ghost form to greet his mother, but she can’t see him. Both the man and woman fades from the video. The music video also features groundbreaking special effects where the group performs in water and in liquefied forms in front of a waterfall. “Waterfalls” (unsurprisingly) was recognised as one of the best 90s music videos, and won video of the year at the MTV VMAs. Well deserved!
The music video for “Beat It” was filmed in the infamous and downtrodden section of Los Angeles called Skid Row. In the theme of street violence, the visual (written and directed by Bob Giraldi) featured over 50 real gang members. The video starts out in a diner as different members of two rival gangs begin to assemble for the ultimate face-off. Michael Jackson, playing peacekeeper, shows up and the battle turns into a dance off, with both rival gangs and Jackson performing the most skilled choreographed moves you can only find in a Michael Jackson video.
Fun fact – the guitar solo in this song was actually played by rock icon Eddie Van Halen as a free favor to Quincy Jones. Quincy Jones personally requested that Van Halen be featured on the song. Michael Jackson financed the music video to “Beat It”, and it cost him $150,000. The “Beat It” video premiered on MTV in early 1983, and went on to receive a number of awards, including being inducted into the Music Video Producer’s Hall of Fame.
David Bowie’s “Life On Mars” music video was filmed for the song’s release as a single. This is also the only video pre Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” that is on this list. Although the video is quite simple, it is incredibly mesmerizing. The video features David Bowie simply standing in front of a white background for almost the entire duration of the video (in typical David Bowie form, with bright orange hair, powder blue suit and distinctive blue eyeshadow). The visuals are vibrant and become even more mesmerizing as the video progresses.
The “Work It” music video by Missy Elliot also featured groundbreaking and interesting special effects. This featured outstanding CGI work for a music video in 2002. The music video also features some very memorable dance moves, including cameos from rapper Eve and super-producer Timbaland . Disney star Alyson Stoner shines bright in the video with some pretty cool moves as the lead child dancer. It is safe to say that there is a variety of different things going on in this video, from Missy Elliot being covered in bees to her swallowing a car. The video also features tributes to the late Aaliyah and Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes spray-painted on the hoods of cars. This video was indeed an exceptional visual music video that was ahead of its time. At the MTV VMAs “Work It” won video of the year, too.
Well, we hope you enjoyed our round up of some of the most thought-provoking, memorable and great music videos of all time. There are so many more that could make the cut, but we hope that you agree with our picks. If you don’t recognise any, they are well worth checking out for inspiration… or just something great to watch! Thinking of having a go? Check out our guide to making your own music video and music video distributors.
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