Given the type of year that 2016 was, many of the year's music videos deftly and vividly explored hurt, heartbreak and American chaos. There was also one where a young girl and a robot danced at a bus stop. Here are the year's best.
Director: Rodney Ascher
Though music videos get presented more and more like short films, complete with elaborate title cards and full cast and crew credits, others enthusiastically borrow online aesthetics, like the Tumblr dashboard scroll of Frank Ocean's "Nikes" or Lil Yachty's meme-ed out "1 Night." For "Wriggle" by Bay Area noise-rap crew Clipping, director Rodney Ascher (best known for The Shining fan theory documentary Room 237) plundered and edited together pop-culture GIFs, with a particular focus on Showgirls and Wonder Woman. Even Clipping rapper Daveed Diggs gets put on loop, following his Hamilton-promoting appearance on the Today show.
Director: Eli Russell Linnetz
Given the obvious suggestive possibilities, videos about exercise have been around since the earliest days of MTV, going back to Olivia Newton-John's 1981 clip for "Physical." (Other leotard-heavy entries over the years include Eric Prydz's "Call on Me," David Banner's "Play" and Ariana Grande's recent SoulCycle promo "Side to Side.") Teyana Taylor stretching, stalking, thrusting and showering in the video for Kanye West's "Fade" is a formidable new look at an old subject. Just in his mid-20s, director Eli Russell Linnetz wasn't born when the main inspirations for "Fade" were originally released: Flashdance, Ohio Players album covers, Jean-Paul Goude's images of Grace Jones and porn from the days when it was shot on film. Still, it's hard to imagine it existing anytime besides right now. Though West himself doesn't appear in "Fade," it was his concept, and captures his brash, often very weird vision of pop stardom.
Director: Johan Renck
The video for "Lazarus" was uploaded on January 7th – one day before the release of David Bowie's Blackstar LP and three days before he died of cancer. The figure lurking underneath the hospital bed, the writer reaching the end of the page, the theatrical retreat into the darkness of the wardrobe, the vertical black bars that evoke the confines of a coffin: The visual metaphors in "Lazarus" may be obvious, but given the context, that doesn't make them any less affecting.
Director: Jack Begert
Like his T.D.E. labelmate Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q still sees the possibilities in elaborate music videos. He made seven of them for his 2016 album Blank Face LP, including a three–parter that doubled as a short film. While Lamar has gone deeper into dark funk visions, Schoolboy Q is at his best with "Groovy Tony," which combines the nihilism of first-person shooter video games with disorienting dream logic. Smoking a joint that he lit off his own burning arm, Q casts himself as the lead villain in a twisted crime tale.
Naomi Campbell has been in great videos before, bringing her allure to George Michael's "Freedom! '90" and Michael Jackson's "In the Closet." In "Drone Bomb Me" she turns away from the supreme confidence she's known for in order to display intense vulnerability. Sitting in for Anohni, Campbell lip-syncs the song, tear-streaked and overwhelmed. A devastating performance.
This clip from the Internet is a subtle Nineties homage as director Calmatic brings back the sultry hangout vibes of Janet Jackson's "That's the Way Love Goes." In this modernized take, Tyler, the Creator is swapped in for Jennifer Lopez, a crew of young Los Angelinos with weed prescriptions replace the backup dancers, and frontwoman Syd the Kid is as beguiling as Janet, although with much heavier eyelids.
Director: Jeremy Schaulin-Rioux
Over the span of 2016, the Toronto band Pup and director Jeremy Schaulin-Rioux teamed up for a three-video hot streak, any of which would have landed in the MTV Buzz Bin if such a thing still existed. "DVP" brings humor and creativity to the uninspired world of lyrics videos by taking over sequences from cartridge-console video games like ToeJam & Earl and Super Mario Bros. 3. "If This Tour Doesn't Kill You, I Will" is a brutal, gimmicky tribute to touring bands' self-destructive tendencies. But their final video, "Sleep in the Heat," is the best. Featuring actor Finn Wolfhard from Stranger Things (who first appeared in a Pup video back in 2014), "Sleep in the Heat" is a soggy, self-mythologizing tale about companionship and sacrifice that could make a punk or pawn shop owner cry.
Directors: Solange and Alan Ferguson
When the world is terrible, create the one you wish you lived in. With "Cranes in the Sky," Solange and her husband, director Alan Ferguson, construct a vision of unmitigated beauty. Shot over the course of two road trips between the couple's home in New Orleans and White Sands National Monument in New Mexico, each of the dozens of gorgeous setups is a restorative act.
Director: Martin C. Pariseau
A throwback to when characters like Charles the man-dog in Daft Punk's "Da Funk" and Flat Eric from Mr. Oizo's "Flat Beat" helped dance music videos break out of screensaver monotony in the late Nineties. While those characters often acted as avatars for reluctant artists, in "Lite Spots" producer Kaytranada finds a little robot friend to be his equally charming foil. Together the pair team up and travel Los Angeles, making pals and picking up new moves. "Lite Spots" proves that for today's dance artists to be stars, they don't have to be massive or mysterious, they can be funny and endearing too.
Directors: Kahlil Joseph and Beyoncé Knowles Carter, with Melina Matsoukas, Todd Tourso, Dikayl Rimmasch, Jonas Åkerlund and Mark Romanek
Beyoncé's 65-minute visual album for Lemonade is the most ambitious music video project of the year, and she and her team of collaborators pulled it off perfectly. An exploration of heritage, betrayal and redemption, it burns with ideas about the personal and the political. Do you think anyone else making music right now could have pulled off something like this? Don't play yourself.