The 30 best music videos of all time
Director Spike Jonze: have any of his videos made the list? (Spoiler alert: yes.) © Silvia Otte/Corbis
From the outset, we knew that compiling a list of the greatest music videos of all time was going to be tricky. You could have almost endless arguments about which was the first, whether they still matter (they're rarely shown on mainstream TV channels these days, yet rack up millions of views on YouTube) and, of course, what actually makes a good video? Does it need to have a brilliant song to back it up, or can the visuals transcend the music and become great in their own right?
Call us cowardly if you like, but these are questions that we didn't even attempt to answer. Instead, we threw this thing open to you, asking for your nominations and then votes for the best music video in history.
We don't doubt that there are some classics missing from our list (and we invite you to tell us about them in the comments), but there are certainly some gems in here, too. Happy viewing.
30. Les Rythmes Digitales – Sometimes
Director: Mike Mills, 1999
Children's toys coming to life at night might not be a new idea, but this heart-wrenching tale of one cuddly toy's suicide is certainly original. The soft darkness of both the look and concept accompanies the melancholy vocal provided by Nik Kershaw.
The video is another example of expert contrasting: the happy play of toys and glum sadness of the story complements the music, which marries bright, upbeat synths to darker vocals and lyrics. Lovely stuff.
29. The Notwist - Pick Up the Phone
Director: Luis Briceno, 2002
The patchwork mixture of styles in this video perfectly matches the off-beat production style of the music. Rough around the edges, simple in style yet expertly original and loaded with emotion, it tells a simple tale in a quite unique and brilliant way.
The melancholy story has a feeling surrounding it that is hard to describe. There's no single element that makes this video great; it's the combination of the story, style and music as a package. The perfect audio-visual cocktail.
28. Missy Elliot - The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)
Director: Harold "Hype" Williams, 1997
If you're going to start redefining the sound of hip-hop/R&B, you might as well come up with a memorable video to help you on your way. And memorable this certainly is, with Missy being possibly the only person to ever look good while wearing what appears to be a semi-inflated bin liner.
The clip makes creative use of the fisheye lens, which was something if a signature of director Harold "Hype" Williams for a time.
27. Arcade Fire - We Used To Wait (The Wilderness Downtown)
Director: Chris Milk, 2010
Chris Milk's interactive video for Arcade Fire's We Used To Wait uses Google Earth to take the viewer on a nostalgic trip down the street they grew up on.
Sure, it doesn't work unless you've got a decent internet connection, has a tendency to crash your browser and doesn't lend itself to be watched by more than one person at a time, but it's pretty cool nonetheless.
The video above is an example of hot it works; try it out for yourself here.
NEXT: Rihanna - Rude Boy
26. Rihanna - Rude Boy
Director: Melina Matsoukas, 2010
Despite the fact that it features Rihanna riding a stuffed lion and zebra, the Rude Boy promo actually feels rather restrained in comparison with some of the Barbadian's more recent videos, but it's certainly three and three quarter minutes of greenscreened goodness.
Playing nicely on her Caribbean roots, many have noted the similarities between this clip and the one made for M.I.A.'s Boyz, but both are worthy of repeated viewing.
NEXT: Madonna - Like A Prayer
25. Madonna - Like A Prayer
Director: Mary Lambert, 1989
The sight of Madonna shaking it in front of burning crosses in a video that mixed religious themes and racial bigotry proved to be too much for Pepsi - the company scrapped a promotional campaign with The Material Girl after seeing this clip.
Madonna and director Lambert pushed all the right buttons in Like A Prayer. The shots of a joyous gospel choir will lift your heart to the sky, while the scenes depicting prejudice fill it with fury.
NEXT: Kanye West - Runaway
24. Kanye West - Runaway
Director: Kanye West, 2010
Say what you want about Kanye West, but you can't knock his ambition. Who else would direct and star in a 35-minute, high-budget music video about getting off with a half-woman/half-phoenix?
Over its half-hour duration, Runaway packs in multiple needless explosions, troupes of interpretive dancers, a giant papier-mâché bust of Michael Jackson, Kanye wigging-out with an MPC and some terribly stilted dialogue. What more could you want from a music video?
NEXT: Beyonce - Single Ladies
23. Beyonce - Single Ladies
Director: Jake Nava, 2008
You don't have to shoot on multiple locations to make a great video: sometimes, all that's required is a single camera, a great song and an iconic dance routine. It helps to have a global superstar who you can't take your eyes off, too.
Oh, and if you're not a fan of the Single Ladies video, best not mention to Kanye West, as we hear he has rather strong feelings on the subject.
22. The Chemical Brothers - Star Guitar
Director: Michel Gondry, 2002
How do you make a dance music video interesting without pop stars or dancers? Well, it's not easy, especially when it's an instrumental track. That is unless you're the immense French video genius that is Michel Gondry.
Using DV footage of his train journeys around France he comps together a rhythmical landscape that synchronises perfectly to the music. Watch and listen closely as every element of the scenery sequences and syncopates to the song. It blows our minds every time we watch it.
NEXT: Fatboy Slim - Praise You
21. Fatboy Slim - Praise You
Director: Spike Jonze, 1999
Literally cheap and cheerful, this guerilla comedy masterpiece reputedly cost just $800 to produce.
Spike Jonze, starring as Torrance Community Dance Group leader Richard Koufey leads his, um, limited charges in a routine that owes much, much more to heartwarming enthusiasm than technical prowess.
The eagle-eyed among you may also want to watch out for Fatboy Slim Norman Cook in the bemused crowd of onlookers.
NEXT: Outkast - Hey Ya
20. Outkast - Hey Ya
Director: Bryan Barber, 2003
A cast of Andre 3000s - including, brilliantly, three backing singers dressed as jockeys - gives an ebullient performance of The kast's biggest hit in this homage to The Beatles 1964 performance on The Ed Sullivan Show. The twist, of course, is that this clip is set in London.
You can't help but smile when you watch this, and the grins on the faces of the bosses at Polaroid must have been widest of all.
19. The White Stripes - Fell In Love With A Girl
Director: Michel Gondry, 2002
According to Jack White, this collaboration with Michel Gondry came about totally by accident: White told the label he wanted to work with the director behind Beck's Devil's Haircut video, and the label simply hired the wrong guy.
Fortunately, the mix-up resulted in a classic promo. Gondry's LEGO collage - made with a mixture of stop motion animation and post-production effects - is a great example of a brilliantly simple concept, perfectly executed.
18. Talking Heads - Once In A Lifetime
Director: Toni Basil, 1980
Apparently, when director and choreographer Toni Basil was preparing Talking Heads' David Byrne for his starring role in the Once In A Lifetime video, she showed him video footage of epilepsy sufferers having fits as inspiration. You'd never have guessed, right?
These days, the whole video is exhibited in the New York Museum Of Modern Art. And you thought it was just a funny dance…
17. Chris Isaak - Wicked Game
Director: Herb Ritts, 1991
Although the definition of 'sexy' is entirely subjective, for many people it could mean model Helena Christensen or singer Chris Isaak. Put the two together half nude in a video and… yeah, that works.
Photographer Herb Ritts shot Wicked Game on a beach in Hawaii, and his languid, slow-motion visual style - volcanic clouds, surging surf and all that body heat - was the perfect match for Isaak's aching, reverb-drenched love ballad.
NEXT: Weezer - Buddy Holly
16. Weezer - Buddy Holly
Director: Spike Jonze, 1994
There's no doubt that the infectious fuzz pop of Weezer's breakthrough single was always destined to be a hit, but it was the accompanying video of the band performing in Arnold's Drive-in diner from '70s US television comedy Happy Days that embedded it firmly in the consciousness of '90s teenagers, elevated it to classic status and put Spike Jonze on the map.
NEXT: Daft Punk - Da Funk
15. Daft Punk - Da Funk
Director: Spike Jonze, 1995
Never did we think we'd shed a tear over a polite, lonely, anthropomorphic dog while listening to the thick techno soundtrack of Daft Punk. But this superbly directed video captures emotions in a bustling cityscape where Charles the dog randomly runs into his old neighbour Beatrice.
According to Daft Punk's Thomas Banglater, the video has no hidden messages or meanings. It's a story that had a sequel in the form of Daft Punk's self-directed Fresh promo, where we meet up with Charles again. But nothing can match the cinematic tension of Spike Jonze's original.
14. Björk - All Is Full Of Love
Director: Chris Cunningham, 1999
Can robots actually be sexy? You bet. It took a pretty special video to do justice to this breathtakingly beautiful piece of music, but Chris Cunningham managed to create one of the most visually striking promos of Björk's career; no mean feat considering how enthusiastically the Icelandic songstress embraced the form as a component part of her art.
13. OK Go - Here It Goes Again
Director: Trish Sie, 2006
Who says treadmills have to be boring? Director/ choreographer Trish Sie put OK Go through their paces on the exercise machines to brilliant effect in a clip that Time magazine called one of The 30 All-TIME Best Music Videos.
With Christopher Walken-like precision, the band members dance, leap, cavort and mix it up on four separate treadmills in one single, continuous and mesmerizing take - which required 17 attempts. Sometimes you've gotta suffer for your art.
NEXT: Radiohead - Just
12. Radiohead - Just
Director: Jamie Thraves, 1995
Just was a classic '90s alt-rock moment from back when Radiohead were still a bunch of slackers with electric guitars.
Everything about the cryptic, political-hinting video is perfectly geared towards long evenings sat in your mate's garage, wearing your best flannel shirt, lighting a couple of 'doobs' and debating what that guy says to make all those people want to lie down. Deep, man. Deep.
11. The Beatles - Strawberry Fields Forever
Director: Peter Goldman, 1967
Lennon's half of what may well be the greatest pop single in history found its author presenting a more introspective, psychoanalytical spin on the kaleidoscopic childhood nostalgia that also informed McCartney's Penny Lane.
This early example of the music video form - then considered a 'promotional film' - saw Goldman employ jump cuts and reverse footage to disconcerting effect, providing the first uneasy hints that although the Summer Of Love was in full swing, mind expansion would lead some of its disciples into dark corners with no guarantee of a safe return.
10. Nirvana - Heart-Shaped Box
Director: Anton Corbijn, 1993
The lead single from Nirvana's final studio album, In Utero, saw the band's trademark quiet-loud dynamic hit a visceral new level. Stark biological imagery, documentaries about children with terminal cancer and Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love's rollercoaster media ride all inform a lyric that is still as black a love letter as the rock mainstream has ever witnessed.
The video treatment began life as a storyboard sketched out in Cobain's journal, with Dutch photographer and director Corbijn enlisted to add vivid flesh to the bones, dragging The Wizard Of Oz through the darkest of looking glasses.
NEXT: Foo Fighters - Everlong
9. Foo Fighters - Everlong
Director: Michael Gondry, 1997
You've got axe- and chainsaw-wielding crazies, a party gone seriously awry, danger at a cabin in the woods and Dave Grohl dressed up like Sid Vicious - all the essential elements of a can't-miss vid.
Reportedly, director Michael Gondry used to dream about having a giant hand like the kind Grohl uses to fend off his attackers (played by Foo members Pat Smear and Nate Mendel) in this surreal tribute to the horror classic Evil Dead. But how to explain Taylor Hawkins in drag?
NEXT: Beastie Boys - Sabotage
8. Beastie Boys - Sabotage
Director: Spike Jonze, 1994
Spike Jonze, director of no fewer than four of your top 30 videos (that's a massive 13%, percentage fans), pays loving homage to '70s US cop shows, with the B-boys shamelessly hamming it up as Cochese, Bobby "The Rookie", The Chief and, best of all, Sir Stewart Wallace.
7. The Prodigy - Smack My Bitch Up
Director: Jonas Åkerlund, 1997
Nothing makes for a good music video like a nice bit of controversy, and with a song titled like this, the controversy wasn't going to be difficult to create. The clip follows someone on a typical English city night out and is shot in the first person.
The excellent twist at the end is slightly softened if you happen to have been out in Cardiff on a Saturday night or seen the video before, but regardless, it's still one of the most rip-roaringly, edge-of-your-seat promos we've ever seen.
6. Aphex Twin - Windowlicker
Director: Chris Cunningham, 1999
Director Chris Cunningham - also responsible for Bjork's All Is Full of Love, which you'll find at number 14 in this list - corrupts everything he touches in Windowlicker's deeply unsettling promo.
Wannabe gangsta bluster is comprehensively out-spooked by leering Aphex-faced bikini babes, Jacko-esque moves and, finally, Windowlicker herself, a hideous buck-toothed creature based on a sketch by HR Giger.
In summary, then; Brrrr.
5. Peter Gabriel - Sledgehammer
Director: Stephen Johnson, 1986
Peter Gabriel endured 16 hours under a glass sheet to produce this stop-motion landmark, which features work by a pre-Wallace and Gromit Aardman animations.
It was definitely worth it, though, as this became the most played clip in MTV's history and winner of a still-record nine VMA awards in 1987.
NEXT: Johnny Cash - Hurt
4. Johnny Cash - Hurt
Director: Mark Romanek, 2003
Nine Inch Nails mainman Trent Reznor was initially concerned that Johnny Cash's version of his song might end up being "a bit gimmicky," yet the result gave birth to one of the most emotionally resonant, moving syntheses of sound and images in music video history.
Amidst the faded grandeur of the derelict House Of Cash seven months before his death and accompanied by his wife June Carter Cash who passed just three months after filming took place, Cash lends Reznor's already desolate lines a hitherto unimaginable weight. "Everyone I know goes away in the end" in particular, is a wrecking ball for even the hardest of hearts.
3. Queen - Bohemian Rhapsody
Director: Bruce Gowers, 1975
17 years before Wayne's World, Queen's 'promotional video' for their mini-opera masterpiece got people thinking that there might be something to this marriage of music and images.
When you've got a band like Queen, the only concept you need for a video is… Queen. Like the song itself, the visuals (especially the famous 'cascading face' of Freddie Mercury) come at you from all directions. Shot in just four hours (at a cost of £4,500), it's a stunning portrait of one of the world's best-loved bands in all their power and glory.
2. Lady Gaga ft Beyonce - Telephone
Director: Jonas Åkerlund, 2010
The two biggest female music stars on the planet, girls fighting, lesbianism, semi-nudity and mass murder: what could possibly have attracted more than 128 million views on YouTube?
The nods to Tarantino are almost as obvious as the product placement, but Telephone proved that, even in 2010, it was possible to make a pop video that inspired water cooler chat.
1. Michael Jackson - Thriller
Director: John Landis, 1983
Winner of the Video Vanguard Award for The Greatest Video in the History of the World no less, Thriller saw the birth of the pop promo as cultural event.
Clocking in at a then-unprecedented 14 minutes, the screenplay, co-written by Jackson and An American Werewolf in London director John Landis, reputedly cost a cool $500,000 dollars to film.