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
Madonna
Photograph: REX Shutterstock
By Kristen Zwicker and 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. 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, workout songs or dance 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 out there—so far at least.

Best music videos of all time

1

Michael Jackson, Thriller

The “Thriller” video was iconic from the moment it was released in December, 1983, and 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 musical chiller opus 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 of MJ's cunning and talent could have pulled it off.—Bryan Kerwin

2

Nine Inch Nails, Closer

Director Mark Romanek, who's been behind some of the most memorable 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.—Bryan Kerwin

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3

Radiohead, Karma Police

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.—Bryan Kerwin

4

Kanye West, Runaway

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

Björk, Big Time Sensuality

When Björk decided to work with director Stéphane Sednaoui on the video for her 1993 single, "Big Time Sensuality," there wasn't much of a 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.—Kristen Zwicker

6

White Stripes, Hardest Button to Button

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 mesmerizing masterpiece was born. For those keeping track, it contains 32 identical Ludwig drum kits, 32 amplifiers, 16 microphone stands and one Beck cameo.—Kristen Zwicker

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7

Nirvana, Smells Like Teen Spirit

“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 the 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.—Bryan Kerwin

8

Missy Elliott, The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)

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, the 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.—Kristen Zwicker

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9

Peter Gabriel, Sledgehammer

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 programs), this playful vid required Gabriel to lie under a sheet of glass for 16 hours. Considering it went on to collect a record nine awards at the 1987 MTV Music Video Awards and still stands as one of the most-played videos in the station's history, we'd say it was time well spent.—Kristen Zwicker

10

OK GO, Here It Goes Again

This Chicago indie group achieved "viral YouTube fame," garnering nearly a million views in a couple days, back when both the status and the platform were only just becoming commonly known cultural phenomenon. The video for the breakout hit features a single mesmerizing continuous take of the members nailing precisely choreographed moves on six treadmills. More than just fancy footwork, though, the 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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