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Madonna featuring in one of the best music videos of all time
Photograph: REX Shutterstock

The absolute best music videos of all time

These gems combine groundbreaking visuals and timeless music to make our list of the best music videos of all time

Written by
Kristen Zwicker
&
Bryan Kerwin
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It’s been a long time since video killed the radio star, so all things considered, it’s kind of amazing that the music-video form is still thriving in the age of YouTube and TikTok. Now, with Beyoncé’s Lemonade and other blockbuster album-length videos on the rise, we might just be on the verge of a new music-video golden age. It’s a great time to be a fan, and it’s never been easier to cue up videos for your favorite party songs or pop songs from the comfort of your computer or phone (and there’s nothing to stop you from hitting that replay button over and over). For our money, these videos comprise the pinnacle of the art form—the best music videos of all time—so far at least.

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Best music videos of all time, ranked

1. ‘Thriller‘ by Michael Jackson

From the moment it was released in December 1983, ‘Thriller’ was destined to become one of the most legendary music videos of all time. Nearly 40 years later, it remains profoundly influential and supremely audacious, even to contemporary eyes. Burnishing its pedigree with loving allusions to seminal horror films—Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, Hitchcock’s Vertigo and director John Landis's own then-recent hit An American Werewolf in London, Jackson’s 13-minute chiller melds creepy authenticity with campy fun to an astonishingly successful degree. How successful? A behind-the-scenes home-video release of it sold over 9 million copies, and it’s currently the only music video preserved in the Library of Congress National Film Registry. Only a pop star with MJ’s vision could have pulled it off.

2. ‘Like a Prayer’ by Madonna

Burning crosses, stigmata, saintly seduction—it’s not hard to see why this 1989 music video caused a bit of a stir. Directed by Mary Lambert, who directed both Pet Sematary films, it was condemned by the Vatican, banned from Italian television and prompted Pepsi to abandon its $5 million ad campaign featuring the song. A striking examination of race and religion, the video may not have been great for peddling soda, but it definitely helped Madonna on her way to becoming a pop deity – one who definitely knew how to push the world’s buttons.

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3. ‘Karma Police’ by Radiohead

Radiohead re-teamed with director Jonathan Glazer—who also helmed their clip for ‘Street Spirit (Fade Out)’—for this masterpiece of moody abstraction from 1997's ‘OK Computer’. Its shadowy back-road setting recalls scenes from the Coen brothers’ Blood Simple and Fargo, and like those films, striking violence lies just around the corner from congeniality. The on-screen tension belies Thom Yorke’s slyly humorous lyrics and diplomatic piano chords until the fiery denouement. This is what you get when you mess with us.

4. ‘Runaway’ by Kanye West

This short-film music video, which adds a grandiose visual narrative to Ye’s nearly universally-acclaimed masterpiece, ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’, is maybe the most ambitious demonstration of the artist’s cosmic vision. In the film, Kanye strikes up a bizarre romance with a phoenix that crashes to earth as an enormous flaming meteorite, featuring images of circus fireworks, a giant bust of Michael Jackson, interpretive ballet dancers backing an extravagant ballroom dinner party and more. It’s awe-inspiring, it’s high-drama, it’s gorgeous, and most of all, it has a poignant sense of heart that’s as extravagant and ostentatious as the artist—a prime manifestation of what makes him so captivating.

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5. ‘Big Time Sensuality’ by Björk

When Björk decided to work with director Stéphane Sednaoui on the video for her 1993 single, ‘Big Time Sensuality’, there was no real budget to speak of. In fact, Sednaoui claims they almost abandoned doing a video at all, until he had a flash of inspiration during a cab ride. Fast forward to Björk, singing only the way Björk can, on the back of a flatbed truck moving through Manhattan. The song was her first to chart in the U.S., the video fell into heavy rotation on MTV and an international star was born.

6. ‘Humble’ by Kendrick Lamar

Kendrick’s first music videos were positively humble—take 2011's ‘A.D.H.D,’ which features simple visuals of the rapper riding bicycles around town to leave room, spotlighting his quicksilver verses. Fast-forward to 2017, and—despite this song’s protests—K.Dot has abandoned the modesty. Religious imagery abounds in ‘Humble,’ from a dynamic recreation of The Last Supper to its opening shot of Kendrick decked out in the garments of the Pope himself. Other images, such as a throng of faceless bodies wrapped in burning rope or the shadowy array of bald heads nodding to his flow, are unforgettably striking. Underneath it all lies a powerful thread of subverting classical images with Black symbolism.

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7. ‘Closer’ by Nine Inch Nails

Director Mark Romanek, who’s behind some of the best music videos of the last 25 years (Fiona Apple’s ‘Criminal’ and Jay-Z’s ‘99 Problems’ among others), set a high bar for haunting imagery with this 1994 video. By planting Trent Reznor into a David Lynch steampunk S&M dungeon and letting things get weirder from there, Romanek gave birth to indelible creations including: a paralytic, levitating Reznor; a crucified monkey; a machine-powered heart blowing smoke to the song's beat. Much of this didn’t sit well with the censors—multiple frames were replaced with ‘scene missing’ title cards to soften the video for regular broadcast.

8. ‘Hardest Button to Button’ by White Stripes

Director Michel Gondry’s idea for this video, which features Jack and Meg White performing the third single from their 2003 album ‘Elephant’ as their instruments continually multiply, was initially met with resistance from Mr. White. Thankfully, it was a rare instance where the ever adaptable Gondry refused to compromise, and this mesmerising masterpiece was born. For those keeping track, it contains 32 identical Ludwig drum kits, 32 amplifiers, 16 microphone stands and one Beck cameo.

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9. ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ by Nirvana

‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was the championship single from 1991’s massive ‘Nevermind’, and its video helped cement Nirvana as The Only Band That Mattered. Director Samuel Bayer captured the group’s gritty, grimy aesthetic by setting the action at a punk pep rally, complete with tatted cheerleaders sporting the anarchy symbol. Kurt Cobain’s irrepressible artistry shines through too—unhappy with Bayer’s initial cut, he re-edited this music video to include the unforgettable final close-up of his shaky Joker-smile, and it was on his orders that filming ended with a full-on mosh pit.

10. ‘The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)’ by Missy Elliott

For each one of us, there are images that will forever be burned in our memories, and, for folks of a certain age, one of them is Missy Elliott in that blow-up trash-bag jumpsuit. Directed by hip-hop music video titan Hype Williams and featuring cameos from SWV, Lil’ Kim, Total, Da Brat and Puff Daddy, this music video was the first in a long line of superb Missy visuals, and a proclamation that the rising Virginia native was a force to be reckoned with.

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11. ‘Sledgehammer’ by Peter Gabriel

Directed by Stephen R. Johnson and featuring the stop-motion and Claymation talents of Aardman Animations’ Nick Park (who went on to create the famous Wallace and Gromit and Shaun the Sheep shows), this playful vid required Gabriel to lie under a sheet of glass for 16 hours. Considering it went on to win nine prizes at the 1987 MTV Music Video Awards and still stands as one of the most-played music videos in the station’s history, we'd say it was time well spent.

12. ‘Here It Goes Again’ by OK GO

Back in 2006, this Chicago indie group ‘went viral’ by attracting close to a million video views in a couple of days – numbers that BTS or Billie Eilish could do in minutes now. Still, the video for their breakout hit remains mesmerising: a single continuous take of the band members nailing precisely choreographed moves on six treadmills. More than just fancy footwork, though, this top music video was a watershed moment in the development of amateur internet content, demonstrating the massive audience even a crudely-recorded DIY project can command in the age of Web 2.0.

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13. ‘Sabotage’ by Beastie Boys

Nineteen-ninety-four becomes 1974 in the Beasties’ kitschy parody of Hawaii 5-0–style cop dramas. An early outing for Spike Jonze, who would go on to direct acclaimed feature-length fare like Adaptation and Her, this music video features MCA, Ad-Rock and Mike D donning primo stashes, corralling bad guys, and eating donuts. The song’s frenetic grunge-rap energy pairs harmoniously with the kooky visuals, a combination that helped propel its parent album, ‘Ill Communication’, to triple platinum status.

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