What’s a song without its visual counterpart? Video is more than just fertile terrain for the elaboration and experimentation of a band’s musical message.
It is an opportunity for musicians to translate their vision to a fresh, challenging medium, and to thus connect with the heart and mind in provocative, immersive ways.
It allows a song to transcend its immaterial reality, and find its footing in the world of form, of texture, of light gradients.
It is both a departure and a reckoning- allowing a song to enter the canon of artistic heritage, becoming in effect a cultural artifact. Here are some of the best examples of this in our list of the best music videos of all time.
1. “Pictures of You” by The Cure
Strange, idiosyncratic, otherworldly. Hypnotically sincere and compellingly bizarre.
Trying to describe “Pictures of You” is like playing a game of choose the adjective – there’s so many ways to explain this cryptic, surreal piece of cinematic output.
It features all of the endearing, disconcerting gothic romanticism that makes The Cure leaders in their class.
There is a terrible, tender poignancy to the whole charade that keeps me coming back for more. This is one of the best music videos of all time – and certainly one of the trippiest.
2. “Into The Great Wide Open” by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
Chock-full of the spirited, earnest, eyes-wide-open ethos that permeates all of Petty’s work, this heartland anthem is unquenchable and life-affirming in its intimate, uplifting narrative.
We have our protagonist hopping a retro bus to Hollywood, and we watch vignettes of his aspirations coming to pass.
And what makes the heart beat faster than Petty himself in a Mad Hatter getup, or Johnny Depp and Faye Dunaway sitting on the stoop of a California abode sharing a laugh?
There are a multitude of reasons why this is one of the most popular music videos of all time.
3. “Like a Virgin” by Madonna
Where to start with this confection of high-camp, low brow cinematic magic?
A case could be made that this music video summarized the whole trajectory of eighties glam pop: you’ve got the provocative premise, the dazzling sartorial experimentation, the curious blending of fact and fiction.
It is a veritable masterpiece of strangely alluring fan-fiction: just what is that creature? Is this a Beauty and the Beast eighties redux? We’ll never know for sure.
4. “5:06 AM (Every Stranger’s Eyes)” by Roger Waters
As a bonafide Pink Floyd addict, you don’t think I’d leave out this masterpiece of Water’s solo career do you?
This video brought tears to my eyes when I first saw it because it exemplified the sorrow and fragility of life, the tenderness of a kind passing smile, the truth that we are all ultimately alone, forging out our own path on the highway of life.
I swear I had to rest after watching this, because the tumult of emotions that were raised were so peculiarly raw.
This is road culture at its most sensitive and mature, and this is one of the most underrated, best music videos I’ve seen.
5. “Walk of Life” by Dire Straits
One of the most uplifting anthems of all time, “Walk of Life” is a quasi-spiritual listening experience for me.
Dramatics aside, the awesome music video is so earnest and so delightfully invigorating that it is the visual equivalent of a pre-game pep talk.
There’s a generosity of spirit contained within the video that is completely non-contrived – a lofty task indeed. The sweatbands and eighties sports fervor are truly everything.
6. “Another Brick in the Wall” by Pink Floyd
The moody, cerebral anthem of the alienated and introspective everywhere, the video certainly doesn’t disappoint.
There is a haunting cast here, something worth parsing with your psychotherapist.
In an elusive yet confronting way, the visuals conjure up something unsettling about our post-war society, about our infatuation with rigidity and conformity.
It begs us to peer behind the veneer of respectability to encounter the vulnerability that lies therein.
7. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana
Well, I couldn’t go and leave this one out now, could I?
While I don’t necessarily think, viewed from the perspective of 2022, that the video is particularly tasteful or creatively groundbreaking, I think it holds unarguable cultural resonance for another reason entirely.
The video announced the coming of age of a youth movement that appeared to come out of nowhere.
Just who were all of these disaffected, disgruntled youth and where did they come from?
What did they want, these Gen X suburban young’uns? This video went as long a way as any in providing an answer.
8. “Disco 2000” by Pulp
Pulp were on fire in the mid nineties, and they are without doubt one of the top ten British bands of all time.
“Disco 2000” is chock full of the hopes and ambivalences of youth and the metamorphosis of adulthood.
The captions, the laundromat close-ups, the creative and cheeky wit that permeates the video – it remains one of the best in its class.
This is a beautiful synthesis of retro silhouettes with an intimate stream of consciousness narration. Best music video of all time? You decide
9. “Take On Me” by A-HA
Despite the glaring grammatical no-no that makes the song title so charmingly obtuse, the video was a moment of transformative cultural power.
A paradigm shift, perhaps? The comic book comes to life trope feels at once fresh and also weirdly melancholic.
The graphics leave much to be desired for our wearied tech-ed out eyes, but at the time it was something audacious and eminently disarming.
Did you know 3000 pencil-traced frames were needed for the video?
Considering that it is constantly listed as one of the greatest music videos of all time, all that hard work was certainly worth it.
10. “November Rain” by Guns N’ Roses
A sweeping, cinematic song deserves a video that reflects the same, no?
Well, “November Rain” does not disappoint: it is a melodrama, a telenovela, an epic of soaring emotional proportions.
A wedding gone awry, tears and anguish, tender recollections – it’s all there in droves, and Axl Rose gives a no holds barred performance.
This is a screening that will have you throwing roses (but hopefully not guns) at the screen. A top ten music video list wouldn’t be complete without it.
11. “Ironic” by Alanis Morisette
Alanis is the slacker queen of the nineties, and “Ironic” would be a good nominee for most relatable lyrics of all time.
The video is no less culture-defining, with our Canadian queen decked out in a red toque, aquamarine gloves, and a striped scarf.
Northern winters are no joke. The whole driving alone in the cold singing solo has become a cult-moment, and spawned thousands of memes.
Who knew a cold Canadian road trip would qualify one for the coolest music video of all time?
12. “Mr. Brightside” by The Killers
For all the millennial readers here, this video hardly needs an introduction.
This popular music video marked something of a watershed moment, the birth of one of the biggest songs of the new century, and the re-emergence of unapologetically flamboyant rock.
The flavor of the video is all debauched circus, melancholic carnival gothic and we are here for it.
The ambiance is sinister, malevolent, tender, and strangely surreal. It brings to mind a mainstream reimagining of The Cure’s best.
13. “Lullaby” by The Cure
The strange, alluring forcefulness of Robert Smith’s performance in this totally off-kilter video is the stuff of gothic camp legend.
The effect makes your skin crawl with both delight and apprehension.
The offbeat symbolism and disconcerting lyrics create a veneer of mildly pleasant malevolence.
Smith appears like a postmodern, dark Dionysus, imbibing in the strange and occult with a disjointed fervor.
14. “When the Sun Goes Down” by Arctic Monkeys
Finally, a gritty, cinema verite style video that actually became its own short film.
More suited to Tribeca than MTV, this video is a difficult watch, portraying the trials and travails of an urban prostitute and her vile pimp.
The acting is intimate, the emotional texture is uncontrived, and there is not an ounce of romanticization or glamor to the grim scene.
The video confirmed Arctic Monkeys as stand-alones in the Brit Rock renaissance, and a creative force to be reckoned with.
Many film lovers consider this the best music video ever made.
15. “Crazy” by Aerosmith
Honestly, who doesn’t want to watch nineties icons Alicia Silverstone and Liv Tyler (lead Steven Tyler’s daughter) pull a Thelma and Louise crime spree and take their gambit on the American road?
This amazing music video has all the wild optimism and audacious confidence of youth, and makes for a delightful watch.
A hair-metal anthem needs a corny, tongue-in-cheek video to match and with “Crazy” our wishes come true.
16. “Sledgehammer” by Peter Gabriel
“Sledgehammer” is considered by many in these circles to be the best music video of all time.
Gabriel gets points for creativity, strength of vision, and panache – all on display in this zany, whimsical little number.
Who doesn’t love some spermatozoa, model trains, trippy wallpaper, and cotton candy all bundled up into one offbeat visual journey?
Does the video pay heed to the chaos that exists just beyond the boundaries of all of our consciousnesses? Or does it suggest that we are part and parcel with that chaos?
17. “Pretty Pimpin” by Kurt Vile
You can argue with me on this but I consider Kurt Vile one of the most talented, albeit lowkey, musicians of our generation.
The rollicking, sardonic, delightfully off-kilter hit “Pretty Pimpin” provides ample evidence of my opinion.
Vile is all nonchalant, unbothered cool, with a certain charming insouciance that can’t be packaged and sold.
The video sees the slacker icon dazed, confused, and nonplussed as hell, wandering around wondering what the heck is going on.
18. “I Want To Break Free” by Queen
Queen have long been a staple of the rock canon, and it is easy to forget just how brazen and groundbreaking they truly were.
Many pearls were clutched upon the release of their icon video for “I Want to Break Free”.
Four men in frivolous, daring, cheeky drag? This needs to be recognized for what it is: not only a dashing, riotous video but a cultural breakthrough, a moment of extreme bravery and courage.
19. “Everywhere” by Fleetwood Mac
This song is as addictive as candy, and the music video added a sumptuous complexity that only heightened its appeal.
With fog, lace, hazy intoxicated visuals, and a dreamy chorus – the experience is eminently compelling.
It transports the viewer into a fairytale romance, one heavy on playful camp and witchy occultism.
This is one of the most satisfying, intriguing, cool music videos of all time and deserves its lasting fame.
20. “Common People” by Pulp
The pub anthem to rule them all, “Common People” is a romping song with a biting, satirical social message.
The video is heavy on British charm, nineties sartorial flourishes, and unvarnished emotional weight.
The gaudy color scheme, the glittering community disco, the wildly dated hairstyles.
It’s candy for the eyes, and the juxtaposition with the song’s grimmer social commentary is brilliant.
21. “Teardrop” by Massive Attack
A seductive, sumptuous song that is used for yoga sessions and makeout sessions alike, the music video doesn’t disappoint, putting the pulsating, intoxicating beat to good use.
Well, good use if you’ve ever been curious about what goes on in the womb.
The video follows a fetus as it glides through primordial fluids and experiences awareness for the first time.
Weird stuff, to be sure.
22. “This Is America” by Childish Gambino
One of the newest contributions to this list, the music video for “This Is America” certainly ruffled some feathers and prompted some much-needed, albeit uncomfortable conversations and confrontations.
The video is a powerful watch, showing an unblemished, unflattering portrait of American life in the 21st century via Donald Glover’s powerful gesticulations and allusions.
Nothing is holy and everything is fair game: systemic racism, police corruption, gun violence.
23. “First Date” by Blink-182
Unpretentious, cheeky, and funny as hell, this video is half parody, half SNL skit and is a hell of a time.
It offers up a nostalgic taste of the halcyon days of California pop-punk and remains one of the best Blink videos (of which there are many).
The outrageous seventies get-ups, the outlandish braces, the defiant youthful energy – it’s all there in droves. For Gen Xers and Millennials alike, this is an iconic music video.
24. “You Might Think” by The Cars
Okay, so this whole music video is super dated and super creepy by 2022 standards, but hear me out – it’s so brazen and patently ridiculous that I think it is an absolute artifact of eighties kitsch.
Therein lies its power: it is campy, unapologetically misinformed, and corny beyond words.
The whole voyeurism element is off-color, but in that vaguely endearing retro kind of way. Right?
25. “Loser” by Beck
Before Napoleon Dynamite, before geekcore was a movement, before the rise of the indie anti-hero, there was Beck.
And “Loser” is his Anna Karenina, albeit unarguably jauntier and more uplifting. This blends all the best of Clerks, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, and the early days of Trailer Park Boys.
Unmotivated, disenchanted, and unbothered, this video gives us all permission to grab a skateboard or walk aimlessly.
Employment and external markers of success – how gauche!
26. “Subdivisions” by Rush
A lush piece of progressive rock with an immensely relatable music video to boot. “Subdivisions” explores the unsettling obsession with conformity, suburbia, consumerism, and the status quo.
It is a scathing, unflinching critique of a system that condemns the dreamers, the sensitive souls, and the thinkers.
It is also a delectable time machine to the dark side of eighties youth culture.
27. “Coffee and TV” by Blur
One of the most tender, wistfully, poignant songs to come out of that most emotive decade, “Coffee and TV” exemplifies the best of what Blur is capable of.
The heartrending, precious animation will pull on those heart strings of yours, and there will be nary a dry eye on you after this riveting viewing experience.
One part cute, one part wistful, the video paints a portrait of middle class British life with a playful twist.
28. “Waitin Around to Die” by Townes Van Zandt
The name of the documentary that lends its footage to this music video, Heartworn Highways, is so poignantly apt that it could break a bohemian heart.
Infused with the most raw, intimate pathos and lonesomeness, the video transcends the range of emotions to create something so confronting and powerful that it needs to be experienced to be believed.
Van Zandt’s own demons, and his ultimately fatal alcoholism, lend the quiver of unbridled pain in his voice a troubling, captivating dimension.
29. “Here It Goes Again” by OK GO
“Here it Goes Again” doesn’t have 60 million views for nothing.
Indie pop kings Ok Go spawned far too many treadmill dances to watch in one lifetime, but if you watch one, make sure its the big, bad original.
The coordination is a pure riot and a sheer delight, and for some unexplained reason, it always keeps me on my toes – like I’m waiting for one of the guy to fall off and break a limb.
The corny, inappropriately formal outfits and the self-deprecating ‘weird uncle’ humor are too much – this is funnier than most live comedy skits i’ve seen.
30. “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen
One of the most famous songs of the 20th century needs a powerhouse video to match, and Queen certainly delivers on that front.
The close-ups on Mercury’s bangs, shoulder length bob, and heady eye liner will live on in musical and artistic history, as will the shadowed shots of the quartet singing in smoky chiaroscuro lighting.
There is an alluring, pagan cult moodiness to the intro, and a distinctly glam rock posturing to the end. A cultural artifact of a bygone time. Watch it or regret it.
31. “Like a Prayer” by Madonna
Videos always get extra street cred for controversy, and none was more controversial in its time than Madonna’s anti-clerical, heretic “Like a Prayer”.
At least that’s the stance taken by the Catholic Church, who rushed to condemn the artist and her sacreligious symbolism.
Haters aside, the video succeeds in its mission, on all fronts: it is brooding, terribly sensual, performative, and histrionic.
It’s Madonna at her diva, devil may care best, and it is an audacious, courageous piece of cinematic erotica.
32. “Stolen Dance” by Milky Chance
Conceptually, this is probably the simplest, most minimalist iteration on our list. But the video was revolutionary in its own way, spawning a sleeper hit in rock and alternative circles.
Never has a laissez-faire, no frills video enhanced the rhythmic import and power of a song to such mesmerizing effect.
The twangy, earnest vitality of the song is perfectly matched to the downtempo, emotive video. Just a man on a chair with his guitar – the intimacy is almost unbearable.
33. “Thriller” by Michael Jackson
Here it is, the most famous music video of all time, and one that solidified Jackson’s position as a culture-maker of the MTV generation.
The video is big budget, big attitude, and big ambition all rolled into one.
The dancing alone has become legendary in its own time, and don’t get me started on the bold, brash, and brilliantly OTT sartorial expressionism.
The occult, mythical, make-believe elements turn this video into a horror-movie in miniature, and I hope it stands the test of time for that reason alone.
34. “Sometimes Always” by Jesus and Mary Chain
One of my favorite tracks has one of the best music videos to match.
It features Hope Sandoval, of Mazzy Star fame, and Jim Reid fighting it out in a downtempo lover’s quarrel in a hectic British neighborhood pub.
The pared-down cinematography is all realism, with a nonchalant low budget feel that perfectly encapsulates the anti-establishment nineties.
It’s a pensive, authentic take on matters of the heart.
35. “Losing My Religion” by R.E.M.
Just a casual one billion views on this one.
“Losing My Religion” was the nineties: despondent, rebellious, neurotic, intransigent – all rolled into one strangely cheerful, pleasantly miserable song.
The gloomy visuals and provocative agnosticism are otherworldly, and kind of horrifying, particularly when juxtaposed against colorful vignettes of fallen angels that look more Teletubbies than thought-provoking.
36. “Big Time Sensuality” by Bjork
Bjork is the best – she has never deviated from being her zany, unpredictable, unconventional self.
Who knows what it would be like to be inside her head? This video might give some indication – it’s eclectic, disarmingly original, and weird with a capital W.
Bjork wearing her alternative best, having a great ol’ time on a flatbed truck driving through NYC.
In grainy black and white, of course. What can I say, this is a great music video.
37. “Sabotage” by Beastie Boys
NYPD Blue meets Watergate in “Sabotage”, a nineties reimagining of seventies chauvinisms and cinematic conventions.
They’ve got the porn mustaches, the virile aviators, the melodramatic car chases, and the synchronized parkour.
The video is a total romp, a satirical, wildly energizing blast from the past. Whose down to make a parody of the parody? Sabotage 2022, anyone?
38. “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” by Missy Elliott
Futuristic, lively, and self-assured, this video confirmed to the world Elliott’s innovative, fearless style and served as a cinematic exploration of her sartorial flair.
It’s lively, colorful, and the wide-angle lens creates some surreal, surprising visuals. She nails the robotic-rapper silhouette with killer moves and bold gesticulations.
This is one of the iconic music videos of its time, and its legacy endures.
39. “Copperhead Road” by Steve Earle
Heartland Americana at its rough and wild best. This is small town, rural, Southern country in all its bravado and assertiveness.
It’s got the rolling country roads, the pick up trucks, the porch swings, the Vietnam War rhetoric.
It’s quite simply an iconic moment in the corpus of outcast, rebel without a cause rock. It brings you back to that time and that place with a magnetism that can’t be denied.
40. “One” by U2
Sensual, melancholic, plaintive like no other, Bono is the undisputed star of “One”, a hypnotic lament, a visual poem, and a love song that gives you pause.
The video is elusive, romantic, erotic – and yet laced with a powerful veracity.
The throbbing blue lights add a frenetic ambiance to the scene, drawing you in and engulfing you completely.
41. “Gimme All Your Lovin” by ZZ Top
Crude, vulgar, and nothing less than proud of it, “Gimme All Your Lovin” showcases the swaggering best that ZZ Top has to offer rock lovers everywhere.
It’s got all the elements of a cult Americana road movie: endless tarmac, denim-clad rockers, cherry-red Ford pickups, and mechanics on the roadside soaking in the sunshine.
It’s all performance, bravado, and macho pomp. This is a truck stop I’d love to get stranded at personally, but give me a few months while I grow out my beard.
42. “Tonight Tonight” by The Smashing Pumpkins
A whimsical and dashing flight of fancy into a nostalgic circus world.
It brings to mind the first movie, 1901’s pithy “A Trip to the Moon” with its references to the dawn of cinema.
Its mechanical set pieces recall the textural beauty of the silent film age.
The visuals are sumptuous and the creative wonder runs deep, leaving an eerie impression, sort of like the double exposure of a long forgotten daguerreotype.
43. “Fell In Love With a Girl” by The White Stripes
What can we say – it’s a dynamic, quasi-interactive Lego songscape.
Leave it to The White Stripes to experiment with a daring new approach, assertively breaking the boundaries of what a rock video can and should look like.
The result is vibrant, densely pigmented, and kind of impossible to turn away from. Who knew the Whites had Lego doppelgangers?
44. “99 Problems” by Jay-Z
This video will go down in history as foundational to the roots and origins of NYC rap in the early nineties.
Jay Z, captured from shaky, handheld camera angles doing his thing makes for compulsive viewing.
There is swagger, bravado, and an insatiable energy that animates the video, despite its black and white cast.
It’s a great taste of life, a glimpse into the street-view experiences of Brooklyn.
45. “Wonderwall” by Oasis
I apologize in advance for anyone whose feelings are hurt by my inclusion of “Wonderwall” on the list.
I know, I know – how contrived! But hear me out, the music video is a transformative cultural moment, and an absolute turning point in Brit rock.
It’s languid, hypnotic, and cooler-than-thou. Those shades, the spinning chairs, the eyebrows with personalities of their own.
If you hate the song just mute it and let the music video transport you to the rough and tumble London of 1995.
46. “Hunger Strike” by Temple of the Dog
The only hit of concept collab band Temple of the Dog, the lovechild of Eddie Vedder and Chris Cornell, distilled the essence of Gen X into a melancholic lament.
The politically motivated slacker energy is at a fever pitch in this one.
You’ve got the bleak autumn landscapes, the Pacific Northwest insouciance, and Vedder singing in a patch of high grass.
Add long, unkempt hair and a whole lotta soul and this is the iconic outcome.
47. “Weapon Of Choice” by Fatboy Slim
It’s Christopher Walken – in the flesh.
You know this video is a winner before you even press play.
He’s dancing, frollicking, flying through the air. Add a luxe hotel as a backdrop and you have all the ingredients for a Tarantino gangster flick.
Fatboy Slim always broke boundaries in subtle, wildly confident ways – and this video is no different.
48. “Video Killed The Radio Star” by The Buggles
The veritable video that started it all.
It was the first music video to air on MTV and helped usher in the MTV age, a generation weaned on candy-colored monoculture and mullets.
There’s no polite way to say it: this video is so eighties it hurts, and it remains an absolute artifact of our collective historical inheritance.
Who else wants to go back to analog animations and fearless, unapologetic grainy visual feedback? Bring me back, for one.
49. “Teenage Dirtbag” by Wheatus
Yikes, this one is so bad that it is very, very good.
This is the coming of age, Y2K teen angst daydream coming to brilliantly kitschy life.
The style, the toque, the reject come-uppance – it smacks of late nineties monoculture so intently that it could be considered a veritable time machine.
The song is anthemic, culture-making, and the video is no less so: whiny, moody, stroppy and a whole bundle of fun. Bring me back to 1999, am I right?
50. “Just” by Radiohead
The lofi kings of moody disaffection, “Just” encapsulates all their alienated, brooding tendencies.
A man falls down on the sidewalk, refuses help, makes cryptic asides, and insinuates a weariness with the status quo – all very in keeping with the Radiohead ethos.
The music video certainly hints at the fear and trembling that lies latent beneath the surface of modern life, and brings the emptiness of our culture into the frame.
Lie down and skip the office for the day – the nineties said you’re allowed.
Best Music Videos – Final Thoughts
There you have it, my ultra-educated, and relentlessly high-brow picks for the best music videos of all time.
I won’t hold it against you if you have a difference of opinion, but go take a sick day and spend the day immersed in a visual feast that charts four decades of musical creativity and cinematic magic.