Since the dissolution of MTV’s regularly programmed rotations, music video distribution has shifted to the internet. This has opened up a tremendous amount of creative space in 2013 for independent directors and able-minded bands to create and circulate their art as they saw fit. Without the threat of censorship, the artistic areas they could exploit were vaster than they’d ever been before. While there were still music videos that operated well within the confines of what would’ve easily been cleared for air, there were just as many that would’ve been killed the instant their concepts were pitched. It’s allowed a fair and balanced playing field that welcomed forward-thinking classicists like Emily Kai Bock and gutsy envelope pushers like Nabil equally.
In addition, the shift in distribution enabled more popular artists to use the music video as a platform to create controversy and bring more exposure to their work. Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” video, for instance, caused a ruckus for displaying nude female bodies. However, YouTube kept the video on its website for curious viewers to decide for themselves whether or not it was problematic. Contrast this to music video distribution in the 1990s when pop stars like Madonna failed to air “Justify My Love” on MTV due to explicit sexual content, and we can begin to see the difference. Today, the internet has allowed artists like Thicke to get away with pushing the limits of what’s permissible in visual culture. This has benefited record sales ever since Billboard recently decided to include online video activity in consideration for the Billboard Hot 100 chart. “Blurred Lines” was number one for 12 consecutive weeks in the U.S., making it the most successful single of 2013. It is doubtful that the song would have been as popular without its controversial music video. The same can be said about Miley Cyrus, whose shocking “Wrecking Ball” video received over 100,000 million views on YouTube and earned Cyrus her first number one single in the U.S.
When everything’s said and done, 2013 will likely stand as a watershed moment for the resurgence of the music video as an art form. This list demonstrates that the music video remains worthy of discussion and debate.
“We Can’t Stop”
A year ago, no one would have predicted that Miley Cyrus would be the most talked about celebrity in 2013. With the help of a creative marketing campaign, a catchy new sound, and a controversial star image, Cyrus has firmly established herself as pop music’s most relevant contemporary artist. All of this began with the music video to her lead single “We Can’t Stop”, in which Cyrus twerks and thrusts with equal aplomb. Some loved it, many hated it, but everyone had an opinion. “We Can’t Stop” brings us back to a time when pop stars used the music video to create controversy, and when the public actually cared enough to talk about it. Jon Lisi
Pusha T (featuring Kendrick Lamar)
There were only a few rappers who could place a legitimate claim that they owned 2013 and these were two of the biggest. Pusha T released a heavily anticipated album and Kendrick showed up on guest spots for everyone, including that very record. The two came together again to shoot a black-and-white tracking shot of the two lip-syncing and miming their way through the track. “Nosetalgia”, for its simplicity, winds up being strangely hypnotic. This video is essentially boiled down to two artists playing up their personalities and undeniable charisma. There are a few moments where they’re slightly off their marks but the way they trade off is electrifying. Adding to that electricity is a natural chemistry that exists between the two, something that’s readily apparent as the video progresses. “Nosetalgia” may be simple, but it’s also a perfect example of hip-hop’s current state. Steven Spoerl
“Bring the Noize”
M.I.A. might not be the greatest artist of the 21st century, but she is certainly the coolest. She came back with real power in 2013 with the release of her most accomplished album Matangi, and the stylish music video for the single “Bring the Noize” underscores why the rapper has garnered a devoted following over the years. The video wasn’t as controversial as “Born Free” or “Bad Girls”, but it proves that artists can be creative within budget constraints. In the video, M.I.A. shows us what it’s like to hang with her and a group of dancers in an underground club. With a visual flare that recalls Kathryn Bigelow’s tense, kinetic action films, “Bring the Noize” plays like a jolt to the system. Jon Lisi
“Dust in the Gold Sack”
2013 had an abundance of serious videos, which made “Dust in the Gold Sack” stand out even more. Incorporating a home-movie aesthetic, Swearin’ managed one of the most improbable feel-good clips of the year. There’s no hidden subtext to be found in “Dust in the Gold Sack”, just a band enjoying its time together somewhere off the beaten path. It’s a direct look into how one of the most exciting young bands going interacts with each other and the results are charming. “Dust in the Gold Sack”, as a song, is pure exhilaration; as a video, it’s curiously revealing. There have been videos operating in this mode before but rarely have they seemed this personal. An infectious joy and affability permeate “Dust in the Gold Sack”, begging repeat views. Swearin’ found a way to make a video as fun to watch as it seemed like it was to make. That’s the most viable response to a year of seriousness that anyone seeking some form of escapism could hope for. Steven Spoerl
Nabil is one of the most talented music video directors in the game, lending his vision to such artists as Frank Ocean, Kanye West, and Bon Iver. His work on James Blake’s “Overgrown” may just be his finest. The video is beautifully shot, echoing the song’s atmospheric vibe with visuals that evoke an eerie mood. I’m not sure what any of it means, but the combination of aural and visual elements exists to stimulate the senses and give rise to an emotional, erotic viewing experience. Inspired by Romanticism, the film can be viewed as a visualization of the literature by Poe or Hawthorne. Like those great works, “Overgrown” is a strange masterpiece. Jon Lisi
5 – 1
Kronos Quartet with Bryce Dessner
There were quite a few videos that operated in the realms of sadness this year. None of them came even remotely close to the final minute of “Tour Eiffel”. While the majority of the video is made up of time lapse footage of highway travel, it’s the story behind the journey that lends the affair a deep emotional resonance. It’s not much more than a father finally taking his son on a road trip he had been intending for a long time. What happens when they finally reach their destination provides one of the fiercest gut-punches imaginable. “Tour Eiffel” itself provides a backdrop that alternates between hope, patience, suspense, and despair. All that’s left at the end is a sense of completion, a father’s longing, and one of the most moving tributes anyone could ask for. Steven Spoerl
“My Recurring Dream”
Cold Mailman released the music video to its song “My Recurring Dream” in February, and it remains the most overlooked artistic achievement of 2013. Making use of cinematic techniques like time lapse and backwards film, the video is a technical marvel. It has blown virtually everyone away who has seen it, but as the YouTube and Vimeo numbers indicate, it has not garnered the wide exposure it deserves. This is the band’s second collaboration with director André Chocron since 2011’s “Time is of the Essence”, and they prove to be a winning team. Here’s hoping that they continue to push the creative limits of the music video form in new and exciting directions. Jon Lisi
Truth be told, there were a number of Emily Kai Bock’s videos that could have made this list. The young photographer-director has already essentially set herself up as this generation’s Anton Corbijn and deserves to be placed alongside the likes of Nabil and the team of Alex Braverman and Poppy de Villeneuve. “Childhood’s End” was one of the year’s most striking visual feasts, utilizing Kai Bock’s composition mastery to a powerful effect. There’s a story to be found in the surprisingly moving plight of the video’s central character. Mortality is touched upon, as is increasingly the case with Kai Bock’s work, and one of the many standout tracks of Majical Cloudz‘s Impersonator causes it all to hit that much harder. There’s a sense of patience and implicit mystery on display that’s handled extraordinarily well. The central performance is a winning one, so much so that the suggested loss at the video’s close is a very real, very palpable one. In those closing moments, Kai Bock’s camera pulls up and the old man’s metaphorical coffin is lowered with the edges darkening around him. The moment makes a genuine impact and the video proves it’s worthy of the song. This is art operating on one of its highest levels. Don’t let it slip away. Steven Spoerl
The Y.N.RichKids are a rap group that emerged from the Beats & Rhymes after-school program at the YMCA in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Their 2012 video “Hot Cheetos & Takis” went viral, earning over seven million hits, and they returned in 2013 with “My Bike”, a follow-up ode to bicyclic mobility. The video gives each of these unique, talented kids a space to express their own distinct personality through hip-hop, thereby illuminating the importance of after-school programs like Beats & Rhymes. The viewer is bound to choose a favorite — mine is Ben10 — but all of the contributions are wonderful. Even if these kids don’t pursue rap careers in the future, “My Bike” serves as a testament to their creativity and originality. This video is guaranteed to put a smile on your face. Jon Lisi
“Reservoir” was one of the most visceral and immersive experiences any format in 2013 had to offer. PUP’s intensity gets ratcheted up to levels approaching the impossible and the filmmaking involved reflects that intensity to a terrifying degree. To try and attempt to cover everything that makes this video as perfect as it is would be an exercise in gross futility. At the very outset of this video, there’s a muffled cry of “Are you guys done dicking around?!” that sets the tone for what’s to come. From the moment someone flips a replacement drumstick to the drummer, who catches it in stride while drumming, to the absolutely stunning final shot of the band beaten all to hell and reeling over their busted equipment, there’s barely a moment that’s not ridiculously thrilling. There have been several directors who have attempted to make a video that captures the essence of what small venue punk shows are like, but by depicting a bloodletting as vicious as this, while painting a portrait of a band who’s going to finish a song at any and all costs, Chandler Levack and Jeremy Schaulin-Rioux are the first two to actually get it right. There’s even a moment where Kyle Fisher from the Dirty Nil comes flying out of nowhere to step in on drums after PUP’s drummer sustains a nasty cut and is getting his hand bandaged that perfectly mirrors the sort of supportive nature that’s been woven into this particular genre’s culture for years. Punk was never dead — but even if it was, as this video proves, you can revive just about anything. Steven Spoerl