The Top Tens, 2011: Best Music Videos


For some reason this year’s Top Ten Music Videos feature a lot of abuse. I’m not sure if that’s a reflection of the collective mood in the music/music video business, or of the country as a whole, or if it just says something about my taste these days. Anyway, here’s the ten videos that stood out for me in 2011:

10. Los Campesinos! – “Hello Sadness” (Dir. Casey Raymond & Ewan Jones Morris)

Expertly toeing the line between visceral playfulness and disturbing masochism, this oddly compelling clip for the incongruously cheerful “Hello Sadness” places the members of Los Campesinos! into a series of surreally askew situations that play like enhanced interrogation-meets-Martha Stewart living.

9. St. Vincent – “Cruel” (Dir. Terry Timely)

Annie Clark a.k.a. St. Vincent seems to relish placing her high-cheekboned beauty with disturbing and subversive images (check out this press photo). Her music video for “Cruel” may be the apotheosis of this juxtaposition. Clark plays a harried, dead-eyed housewife whose family crushes her with banal domestic duties and then literally buries her alive.

8. Chromeo – “When the Night Falls” (Dir. DANIELS)

This admittedly one-joke video gets bonus points for sheer audacity – Chromeo is so awesome that their music gets all the ladies pregnant! But directing team DANIELS brings uncommon craft and narrative zing to the video. Before the video ends, our heroes’ situation veers into to The Walking Dead territory and then breathes surprising pathos into the clichéd “all a dream” ending.

7. Tune-Yards – “Bizness” (Dir. Mimi Cave)

This disjointed but infectiously enjoyable music video, directed by Mimi Cave, is essentially two music videos in one. One features a kid-version of Tune-Yards’ mastermind Merrill Garbus leading a group of rowdy elementary school kids in a sing-along. The second half features an equally rowdy modern dance troop smeared with colorful paint dancing and mugging around hand-built sets. A great example of a wan concept that is so exuberantly executed that it just works.

6. Manchester Orchestra – “Simple Math” (Dir. DANIELS)

The life-flashes-before-your-eyes plot of this video may be every bit as ripe as Manchester Orchestra’s emo epic “Simple Math,” but there’s no denying the incredible special effects work and directorial brilliance on display by DANIELS. Though they borrow heavily from the dream weaving, hand-made aesthetic of Michel Gondry’s best work, DANIELS nonetheless creates an utterly unique vision whose complexity paradoxically enhances and validates the song’s simple, direct emotional sincerity.

5. Man Man – “Piranha’s Club” (Dir. Lex Halaby)

I’m pretty sure that if I was ten years old, this would be my favorite music video of all time. Director Lex Hallaby curates a kid-“Sabotage” vibe in this tale of a child who pulls together a crew of elementary school greasers to take on the neighborhood’s teenage bullies. What’s great about “Piranha’s Club” is that the kids are allowed to do truly objectionable, dangerous things (cat lovers beware) that set them outside the usual, “irresponsible kids learn a lesson” narrative. These kids are bad, and we love them for it.

4. The Dø – “Too Insistent” (Dir. Noel Paul)

Though I lament the loss of a centralized hub for music videos (shakes fist at MTV), one exciting thing about the wild-West world of Internet music videos is the completely out of left field gems you can find there. Finnish-French pop band The Dø may not have much of an imprint in the United States (yet?) but their video for “Too Insistent” feels like the work of major artists, both in front of and behind the camera. Frontwoman Olivia Merilahti exudes mysterious, weird sexiness, while director Noel Paul weaves the intensely surreal fractured personality narrative this side of Black Swan without ever losing the emotional impact of the song.

3. Lykke Li – “Sadness is a Blessing” (Dir. Tarik Saleh)

As a music video lover, I believe the form can produce impeccable craft and occasionally great art. Great drama, not usually. Therefore it’s doubly impressive that Swedish chanteuse Lykke Li’s video for “Sadness is a Blessing” works as a deftly funny and emotionally fulfilling short film. The wordless exchange between Li and sad-eyed thespian Stellan Skarsgaard that begins the video speaks volumes about the characters’ strained relationship, and the awkwardly beautiful dance number that follows is a rapturous liberation before the warmly comforting (if slightly creepy) conclusion.

2. Tyler, The Creator – “Yonkers” (Dir. Tyler, the Creator)

Early in 2011, the shock-rap collective Odd Future (a.k.a OFWGKTA a.k.a Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All) took the blogosphere by storm with their confrontational style and undeniably impressive raw talent. Was this a Wu-Tang Clan for a new generation? Attention most fully, rightly, focused around Tyler The Creator’s self-directed video for “Yonkers” off his solo record, Goblin. Even as the group has become more well known for its homophobic lyrics and erratic on- and off-stage behavior, the video’s brilliance still shines through. Shot in stark black and white featuring a staggeringly visceral solo performance by Tyler, “Yonkers,” with its seasick camera focus and cleverly, grossly subtle special effects, cast a weirdly transfixing spell that begs for repeat viewing.

1. Is Tropical? – “The Greeks” (Dir. Megaforce)

I think French directors MEGAFORCE can officially be called the next Michel Gondry. Aside from the simplistic fact that they’re both French, MEGAFORCE’S videos feature a brilliant combination of handmade aesthetic with masterful cinematic trickery. But I don’t know if even Gondry could have pulled off “The Greeks,” a cheeky yet ultraviolent video for French rockers Is Tropical? By animating the dark, often militaristic/animalistic play of pre-teen boys, MEGAFORCE have pulled off the rare trick of subverting the action-film aesthetic while simultaneously delivering a kick-ass action-film. With its grotesque yet comic-like effects and the unbridled enthusiasm of its young stars, “The Greek” turns the inner-life of boys into obscene visual poetry – an R-rated Where the Wild Things Are – in ways that are awe-inspiring, thrilling and more than a little unsettling. It’s the most daring, visceral, entertaining and best music video of 2011.

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