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

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

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

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3

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

4

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

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5

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

6

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

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7

Beastie Boys, Sabotage

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, the 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.—Bryan Kerwin

8

Madonna, Like a Prayer

Burning crosses, stigmata, saintly seduction—it's not hard to see why this 1989 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.—Kristen Zwicker

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9

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

10

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

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Comments

5 comments
Quarrel h

is this a joke? wtf is this ? best music videos of all time? pathetic. 

Glenn Z

Ho hum. The usual suspects.

Had you dug a little deeper and you might have found "Close (To The Edit)," by Art Of Noise, from 1984, which was filmed on the High Line. Before it was the High Line.