homesick blues

The project

Why on earth am I doing this?

In a fit of work-related boredom recently, I compiled a list of my 100 favorite music videos of all time. (Yes, in order. It was an especially boring day.) This was hardly new; I had made similar lists before on all sorts of topics, including one music video list about three or four years ago. The difference here, though, was the existence of YouTube and similar services, leaving me the option of actually going back and watching these things, even some of the more obscure ones.

That got me to thinking, which is never a good thing.

So here's the project: I will be presenting my list of the 100 greatest music videos of all time, counting down from #100 all the way to number 1, a video a days. 100 Days, 100 Videos, he said plagiaristically (and with sincere apologies to the American Film Institute). Yes, I'm out of my beady little mind.

The List, and its criteria

First of all, I need to once again emphasize that this list is the result one man's opinion, and not an especially mentally stable man at that. Videos may appear here for any number of reasons: concept, cinematography, editing, on-screen performance, sense of humor, production design, or what-have-you. A number of these come down to the dreaded "je ne sais quoi," which means I'll have my work cut out for me explaining my reasons for these things. The one criterion that all videos on this list must meet is that they appear somewhere on YouTube, which is not my favorite site in the world, but it has the widest variety of available materials, including some things that shocked me to discover I wasn't the only one alive who remebered them. Unfortunately, this did mean cutting some titles that otherwise would be considered essential; at some point, I'll list some of these, but I'll hold off in the hopes that someone will save me on those counts. (In the meantime, if you happen to have a copy of "Kiko and the Lavender Moon" by Los Lobos or "Long Way Down (Look What the Cat Drug In)" by Michael Penn, be a dear and upload, if you would. Thanks.)

My tastes, it must be admitted, are rather quirky (rafaela, who has seen the list, agrees with my assertion that it's "weird"). Some obvious choices will appear, and you can probably guess a lot of them, but there's a bunch that I'm guessing I'm in the minority on. In addition, I'm noticing that the list has some definite biases, such as:

* too many videos from the '90s, and not enough from other eras (I firmly believe that the '90s were a renaissance era for music video, but I'm probably leaning on that decade too hard)
* a definite preference for certain directors (I think better than 10% of the videos represented are from Michel Gondry, for Pete's sake)
* very, very few rap and country videos

I'm not happy about these skewings of the data, but again, it's one man's opinion; your mileage may vary.

So, that's it. I hope you and I both enjoy the ride, and I look forward to reading your comments. Cheers.
homesick blues

#4: "Close to the Edit," Art of Noise

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Rank: 4
Artist: Art of Noise
Title: Close to the Edit
Director: Zbigniew Rybczynski
Year: 1984

If "Subterranean Homesick Blues" [q.v.] is where the art of music video began, then "Close to the Edit" is where it exploded. In the earliest days of MTV, videos were mostly limited to performance clips of one sort or another, without much variation beyond stage dressing. Early attempts at innovation centered around making clips more cinematic—highly admirable, but still keeping within familiar parameters. Director Zbigniew Rybczynski, however, came along and demonstrated how far the art form truly could be taken, and how wide the playing field truly was (and to everyone's surprise, it was a lot wider than they'd thought it was). Yes, the early-to-mid 80's was a time of enormous creativity and vision in the music video field, and there are any number of clips that demonstrate that (e.g. Herbie Hancock's "Rockit," much of Michael Jackson's early work). The reason "Close to the Edit" occupies this slot, though, is how I react to it now. Four things strike me about it as I watch it today: 1) It has aged amazingly well. This is the rare video of the period that they could release tomorrow without missing a beat; it's so fresh and cutting-edge, in fact, that MTV would occasionally screen it during "Amp," their hip, hypermodern late-night techno show of the late 90's, and it blended in as pretty as you please. 2) Even after becoming jaded by years of dark and creepy Tool and Nine Inch Nails video freak-outs, it still manages to shock. The members of Art of Noise, notably Anne Dudley, didn't care for the concept, thinking the idea of destroying classical instruments to illustrate the breaking down of musical tradition was trite and obvious, but they quickly changed their minds once they saw the final product. No matter how urbane I've become, something about watching three men grind a violin into the dust with their sneakers makes me recoil a bit to this day. And don't even get me started on that unnerving girl dolled up as a New Wave club floozie.... 3) The choice of setting is flawless: an abandoned train track somewhere above the streets of Brooklyn, if memory serves. (FYI: As of a few years ago, reports confirmed that the burned husk of that piano is still there.) 4) Watch the editing. I'd never noticed until recently just how tightly this thing is cut. All the movements, all the steps and the swings of the hammers and strokes of the chain saws land on the beats of the music, but it look closely: it took a snotload of work on Rybczynski's part to get it that way. He swings between regular and fast motion with reckless abandon; at times he seems to be cutting it on a frame-by-frame basis, which succeeds in sending the whole enterprise another few notches up on the "unnerving" scale. From here on out, there would be no limitations, no boundaries, and no end to what music video could become, but this, one of the first, is to this day one of the best.
homesick blues

#5: "Trouble," Coldplay

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Rank: 5
Artist: Coldplay
Title: Trouble
Director: Tim Hope
Year: 2001

Here it is: the most heartbreakingly beautiful video ever made. I've mentioned director Tim Hope in this journal before, when I called him "something of a one trick pony, but oh, what a trick it is." This was the point at which everything fell together: the song was right, the mood was right, the visuals were right, the moon was in the seventh house and Jupiter aligned with Mars. The problem with computer-based animation and composition (of the 2-D variety) is that you run the risk of sterility, of having your finished work seem distant and cold. Granted, this can work in your favor, depending, but if the music you're working with is gray and moody, you're left with a disconnect that can be rather off-putting. Not so with "Trouble." Going through the clip again while trying to pick out a single frame to use for a screenshot (which wasn't easy, believe you me), I was struck by how alive this video is. It's certainly surreal—not just overt stuff like the woman watering the flower patch in the middle of her living room floor, but also things on the design level, like the cockeyed shape of birds and animals. But instead of just making a surreal video, Hope created a surreal world, and just happened to set the video in its environment. Everything works together to shape the universe on the screen, down to the smallest details: the insects among the flowers, the rows of houses in the background, the pollen that flutters anywhere and everywhere. There is so, so much going on here, but it never seems cluttered or overdone; instead, it comes off as a recognition of how many layers there are in any world, even ours. There are moments so breathtaking I almost literally want to stop breathing, like that view across the plains toward the millhouse atop that absurd mountain. It's all so beautiful that when it all starts to crumble before our eyes no less breathtakingly (watch that shot of the flock of birds raining fire in silhouette as they fly past the mountains), we can't bear to see it go. Most importantly, even though I'm not a Coldplay fan by any stretch, I can't imagine a better song to fit these visuals, or a better video to fit that song. (For the record, this is actually the second video filmed for "Trouble," but the only one released in the U.S.) Tim Hope has only made a handful of videos since, including ones for "My Culture" by 1 Giant Leap [q.v.] and "Bad Day" by R.E.M., but every one of them in its own way has startled and amazed me. Here's hoping we hear from him again soon.
homesick blues

#6: "Push It," Garbage

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Rank: 6
Artist: Garbage
Title: Push It
Director: Andrea Giacobbe
Year: 1998

Many, many moons ago, Rolling Stone published a music video review that began with the line, "Every now and then, something comes on MTV that makes you sit up and say, 'What the hell is that?'" The review and the line were written about something else entirely—"Hobo Humpin' Slobo Babe," if memory serves—but I've always associated it with "Push It," one of the most imaginative, engrossing, and bat-whack bizarre visual onslaughts ever inflicted on the video-watching public. Director Andrea Giacobbe has a bag of tricks roughly the size of Bulgaria, and here he pulls out all the stops; it's the sort of video where, when the director lobs in the kitchen sink, he's just getting started. Even the look of the thing is weird, as he starts with several different types of old film stock, flips willy-nilly from color to black and white to sepia to hand-tinting, and tweaks and tinkers with just about every frame in digital post-production. But in the weirdness department, the look of the clip ain't got nothin' on the content. There's a vague attempt at narrative, at least at the beginning: we see Shirley Manson and her beau, a fellow who's been scribbled out (don't ask, just work with me here), shopping at a surrealist's Safeway until they're set upon by three commando nuns who blow Mr. Scribble-Guy up with their Crucifix o' Doom. From their, we meet Shirley's next boyfriend, a guy with a light bulb for a head, at their comfortable suburban home, where they're interrupted by three gray-skinned kids in business suits with dollar signs tattooed on their foreheads, who lead him away with a butterfly net. Now, if my preceding skeletal plot synopsis is making you think you're not taking enough drugs, you have no idea. After some business with the offspring of these two couplings, Giacobbe starts flinging one-off images at you as fast as he can come up with them, and any one of them is the most bizarre thing you've ever seen, at least until the next one comes up. Fish tanks, reindeer, SWAT teams, Japanese businessmen foot-fetishistic naval officers, the most twisted horsey-ride game EVER—it all comes flying at you, as if the director is saying, "Yeah, and here's all the stuff we didn't use," and you're left wondering if any of this has anything to do with the half-story that came before, and if it does, or even if it doesn't, what's that narrative really about anyway, and...and.... There's so much that you can't really absorb it all unless you watch it again, and again, and yet again. The thing is, it's all so imaginative, so well-filmed, so masterfully composed as to bring a galaxy of elements together under the same circus tent as if they'd belonged together all along, that you actually want to watch it again, and again, and yet again. And I do. To this day, I do.
homesick blues

#7: "Losing My Religion," R.E.M.

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Rank: 7
Artist: R.E.M.
Title: Losing My Religion
Director: Tarsem
Year: 1991

The other obvious choice in my top 10—so obvious and taken for granted that it's almost beyond commentary. I recall how everyone was struck at the time by how the thing looked, the art direction and editing and so on (even if they didn't phrase it as such), and how everyone had their own interpretation of what exactly it was all about (my own pet analysis: flight as a metaphor for enlightenment, from Christianity and the Age of Reason to the Communist Revolution to Eastern philosophy to knowledge itself). But watching it again now for this project after all this time, it finally dawned on me just how important this video was: Tarsem, who made few videos after this one and became an international critics' piñata for directing The Cell years later, had managed to do more with the media form since its heyday in the mid-80s. It was pretty much the point at which critics started using the words "music video" and "art" in the same sentence. More than that, after years of nothing but cookie-cutter hair-metal stage performance clips (and the occasional Madonna innovation), "Losing My Religion" marked the moment when the pendulum finally, finally swung back in favor of concept. Tarsem and R.E.M. had pretty much kicked the door open; in their wake came the Spike Jonzes and Samuel Bayers and Mark Romaneks of the world, as well as MTV's decision to start listing director names on their video info crawls, quite possibly the most important thing the network ever did to preserve and promote the art form. There's a reason we take it for granted now: for many years after, this was Music Video, its shape and style and scope and vision. I cannot name any one video that changed the art form itself this radically, and it did it quietly, with four band members in a plain room with a piece of paper taped to the wall at the last minute, and a doubting Thomas in Renaissance regalia, and a team of blacksmiths, and a book with wings. That's not much, when you spell it out like that, but in the end, it was why I was able to do this list in the first place.
homesick blues

#8: "Jeremy," Pearl Jam

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Rank: 8
Artist: Pearl Jam
Title: Jeremy
Director: Mark Pellington
Year: 1992

*tap*tap* Hey, does this thing still work? (And is anyone still reading?) I'm so sorry there's been such a long lag time, but first the holidays threw me off, and then a very busy January, and then a whole lot of inertia. It's all the more frustrating knowing that there's only eight more of these to go. Whad'ya say we plow forward through this last bit, eh?

When I originally assembled this list ages ago, I made a deliberate effort to highlight videos that weren't necessarily going to turn up on the major media lists; in other words, I didn't want reader reaction to be, "Oh, gee, 'Thriller' at number 1. I'm so, um, surprised, or something." That said, there are some videos that are best-of list clichés for a damn good reason: they really are that good. Frankly, I couldn't even conceive of putting forth such a list that didn't include "Jeremy." It's one of those videos that I started hearing about well before I saw it, and yet even knowing what I was about to see, it was still a kick to the gut that still resonates 16 years later. It's simply perfection, from concept to cinematography to art direction to editing—especially the editing—right down to (and this is something I don't think I've ever said about a lip-sync video shoot) an amazing performance by Eddie Vedder. I am, however, breaking with a small behind-the-scenes tradition: every time I've posted one of these things, I've searched for the highest-quality copy of the clip in question on YouTube, in terms of both sound and image. There is, indeed, a gorgeous, pristine version posted by the folks at Sony, but I'm not using that one, because someone was good enough to post the unedited version, aired outside the U.S. but not seen by most Americans. It's mostly the same, with two crucial differences. One, the quick flash of the classroom full of kids giving the Nazi salute is lingered on for several seconds in a long pan, ending with a shirtless Jeremy in the back. And two, where the American ending went to static-filled TV fade-out, the complete version shows him placing the barrel of a handgun in his mouth, his eyes clamping shut as he pulls the trigger. Small differences, but if you thought the video was disturbing and deeply unsettling before, you don't know just how disturbing it can get. As I said, 16 years after the fact, it still makes me lose sleep.
homesick blues

#9: "El Scorcho," Weezer

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Rank: 9
Artist: Weezer
Title: El Scorcho
Director: Mark Romanek
Year: 1996

[NOTE: The YouTube clip above is the version that aired on MTV. The director's cut has been posted by Universal Music Group, which sadly does not allow embedding; you can find that preferred version at this link.]

There's a rule of thumb that film critic Roger Ebert mentions frequently in his reviews: It's not what the movie is about, it's how it's about it. Remind me to thank him for that, because I find that the only way I can talk about why I think "El Scorcho" is one of the best videos ever made is to quote Ebert, replacing "movie" with "video." There is no inherent reason why it should be so brilliant. The basic setup is your old been-there, done-that, band-playing-together-in-a-room-recording-studio-or-what-have-you bit. There is one bit of "concept" involved—how many videos do you know of that are all about the lighting?—but even that isn't something to get totally jazzed over. Within these mundane walls, however, Mark Romanek wields some major directorial genius. What we have here is a goofy, wonky song by a goofy, wonky album; were they to play it live in a studio or rehearsal space, it would be a goofy, wonky performance. Fair enough. What Romanek does is to turn expections on their ear, by taking that goofiness as seriously as possible. He moves what should be a casual living room setting to the middle of a vast rehearsal/performance space. He has the band goof around as expected, but to do so completely deadpan. (My favorite moment is the most bored drumbeat in the history of rock and roll, just after the 2:40 mark.) And then he films the whole thing with some of the most loving and meticulous cinematography I've ever seen in a music video. It's shot like a 35mm widescreen documentary, as if they were capturing what is predicted to be an important moment in musical history—a moment that involved a guy sticking his tongue through a piece of paper with a cartoon face scrawled on it. And let's not forget the lighting thing, which turns out to be even more radical than it sounds on paper. Romanek hadn't entered the world of feature films at that point, not yet, but with "El Scorcho," you can tell that not only did he so, so want to, but that, without a doubt, he absolutely should.
homesick blues

#10: "Bastards of Young," The Replacements

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Rank: 10
Artist: The Replacements
Title: Bastards of Young
Director: unknown
Year: 1986

At long, long last, we reach the top 10 of this sprawling list-thing with the most poignant argument against the existence of music videos ever made. Swell. The term "anti-video" is one that gets bandied about in critical circles quite a bit, and almost always incorrectly. It tends to get attached to clips like Cake's "Short Skirt, Long Jacket" and blink182's "Rock Show," which thumb their noses at conventional direction, narrative and visuals. But that doesn't make them anti-videos; they may be iconoclastic, but in the end they're "just" videos that call for an expansion of the definition of what a video is, rather than anything designed to attack the art of music video itself. (And videos that are parodies of videos don't even enter the question.) To the best of my knowledge, the only band ever to truly indulge in honest-to-God anti-videos was the Replacements, and they never did it better than they did with "Bastards of Young." Those who oppose music video as an art form argue that it robs music lovers of the opportunity to form their own associations with the songs used. Music, they say, is very personal and experiential, and a song can strike powerful attachments with our memories and emotions; by splashing someone else's narrative across the screen, the folks at MTV are forcing a particular association on the viewer, stuck there for all time. The only visuals that should be involved are the album cover and the room the listener is in. And that's exactly what the Replacements give us: a single shot over some guy's shoulder of the stereo playing the album. Period. That's all. In the middle of MTV's usual visual onslaught, it's a reminder of what music was like before MTV ever existed, and a middle finger aimed at the very networks that put it into rotation. As for us, we're forced to accept the song on the band's own terms as a piece of music, not a soundtrack. Yes, at the end there's a bit of post-punk property damage to keep it from drifting into Warholian pretension, but even that comes off as, "We're just another rock and roll band. Don't take us seriously, either." And now, two decades later, I'm sitting in this chair, having devoted a year to my music video obsession, and "Bastards of Young" is making me feel sheepish and ashamed for ever doing so. F***ing brilliant.
homesick blues

#11: "Dear God," XTC

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Rank: 11
Artist: XTC
Title: Dear God
Director: Nick Brandt
Year: 1987

The delays between posts keep getting longer and longer, and I apologize for that. I have to admit, though, that for a while the foot-dragging was for a very specific reason: "Dear God" had completely vanished from YouTube, and I refused to go on without it. (In the end, I found a copy elsewhere and uploaded it myself. It was either that, or link to the only other YouTube copy, which for reasons unknown had been subtitled.) The wait, however, may have been a blessing in disguise, because it's given me a chance to process why I adore this clip so much. I've never seen anything like it, but it's not immediately obvious why it's so unique. I mean, yes, the concept is brilliant, and yes, the swooping crane shots are second to none, and yes, that ancient, grappling tree in the middle of a field may be the greatest setting ever used on a video, but there's something more, a left-of-center vibe that I couldn't quite place. Then it dawned on me: it's the editing. The vast majority of music videos fall in one of two categories, editing-wise. In most cases, the cutting lands somewhere in the frenetic-to-spastic continuum. Those that don't usually are single-shot videos, either as rtistic statements or as bravura demonstrations of directorial skill. Director Nick Brandt, on the other hand, does neither on "Dear God." His editing style here is more cinematic, and slow to the point of luxury. The first two shots alone take nearly a full minute, and further shots take nearly as long (or even longer, in the case of the first bit after night falls). This gives us a chance to ponder the images of people in the trees, representing the Protestant ideal that Andy Partridge is rejecting. It's a contemplative, philosophical song, and by lingering Brandt gives us the chance to ponder the same questions the song poses. Until, of course, the drumbeat begins to pound, Andy begins to shout God down, and the hatchets begin to fly. "Dear God" was only a B-side, and not even included on Skylarking, the album it supported, but it was on the strength of both the song and this video (a multiple VMA nominee) that it became XTC's biggest hit, and quite possibly the classiest moment MTV had experienced that decade. Continue this list without it? Not on your life.