The best music videos of 2016

From Jamie xx’s stunning trip through a Chinese replica of Paris to Beyoncé’s instantly-memeable baseball bat rampage, these were the videos we couldn’t stop watching this year

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Jamie xx Gosh
Still from Jamie xx’s “Gosh” video

This year saw the music video bite back in a big way: after years of dwindling budgets, record labels were starting to offer directors more money to work with, coming up with inventive visual counterparts for their artist’s songs. Beyoncé dropped a full-length feature for Lemonade that was more accomplished than her self-titled effort in 2013, Rihanna worked with cult auteur Harmony Korine, artists like Drake turned even their most straightforward pop songs into cinematic shorts, Radiohead tapped invited a string of renowned filmmakers to turn songs from A Moon Shapes Pool into 15-second vignettes, and for every artist approaching their ‘visual albums’ with big ambitions (and bigger budgets), you had Grimes and Peaches getting creative their iPhones.

As 2016 comes to a close, we’ve picked out a handful of the music videos that wowed us the most.

10. GRIMES – “KILL V. MAIM” (DIR: CLAIRE BOUCHER)

No other video captures the madcap excellence of Grimes’ singular Art Angels as perfectly as “Kill V. Maim”. In the same way that Grimes commands full creative control of her musical vision, the video sees her take command of her visual presentation: directed by Claire Boucher with a co-assist from her brother Mac, it’s a cyberpunkish journey through a manga-esque, neon cityscape that ends in a Blade-styled blood rave.

09. BTS – “BLOOD SWEAT & TEARS” (DIR: LUMPENS)

Phenomenally successful K-Pop seven-piece BTS regularly work with directorial collective LUMPENS to create intricate visual universes for their music videos. Densely layered with metaphors, allegories, and literary references, the classical imagery and dark undertones of the six-minute “Blood Sweat & Tears” video rewards inquisitive fans with its musings on themes of destiny and mortality.

08. BEYONCÉ – “HOLD UP” (DIR: JONAS ÅKERLUND)

The video for “Formation” was Lemonade’s most politically-charged moment, but “Hold Up” was its most lighthearted. Bey’s baseball bat rampage, coupled with her instantly memeable lyrics – were deliberately designed for maximum virality, but the sense of genuine fun that everyone brings to the shoot (just look at those behind-the-scenes photos) kept it from seeming cynical. Plus, director Jonas Åkerlund’s stylish cinematography and intuitive understanding of colour gave it all an effortless sense of cool.

07. YEARS & YEARS – “DESIRE” (DIR: FRED ROWSON)

As we wrote back when it was released in March, Years & Years’ video for the Tove Lo-featuring “Desire” ends with a cast of queer and non-binary characters in a steamy make-out sesh: it’s surprising to watch, because even today LGBTQ+ people are underrepresented in music videos from mainstream pop acts, and certainly not when they’re expressing their sexuality so openly. “Most of the pop videos I’ve seen that have male and female interaction are usually centred around a romance, and that’s great,” the band’s Olly Alexander said in a Facebook post, “But there are a lot of other sexualities and identities that are well deserving of some shiny pop video love.”

06. KANYE WEST – “FADE” (DIR: ELI LINNETZ)

More stylish than the controversy-baiting clip for “Famous”, the eyebrow-raising (and headline-generating) “Fade” video stars frequent Kanye collaborator and G.O.O.D. Music signee Teyana Taylor and her IRL boyfriend Iman Shumpert, with Taylor pulling some Flashdance-inspired dance moves before transforming into a cat while surrounded by sheep (as you do). Director Eli Russell Linnetz, aged just 24 when Kanye asked him to helm the visual, told the New York Times that inspirations included Grace Jones’ work with Jean-Paul Goude, John Carpenter films, and 70s porn – “that was less about the imagery and more about the texture of the skin, the oiliness,” as he said.

05. MASSIVE ATTACK – “VOODOO IN MY BLOOD” (DIR: RINGAN LEDWIDGE)

Massive Attack released a lot of good videos this year – including the backwards-walking narrative of “Come Near Me” and the Cate Blanchett-starring “The Spoils” – but the pick of the crop was probably Ringan Ledwidge’s visual for “Voodoo In My Blood”. Drawing inspiration from Andrzej Żuławski’s cult horror film Possession and Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm, the video sees Rosamund Pike possessed by a floating metallic orb in an underpass. “I’d been thinking a lot about technology – about how it’s very seductive and sexy, but also very benign until you engage with it, and how that engagement takes over your life,” Ledwidge told Dazed when the video was released, “In a funny way it is sort of like possession.”

04. KLEIN – “MARKS OF WORSHIP” (DIR: AKINOLA DAVIES JR.)

South London singer/producer Klein builds an abstract, ethereal sound world on “Marks of Worship”. For its captivating video, directed by Akinola Davies Jr., she explores Nigerian traditions and her family’s religious background, building up to a spiritual release. “I genuinely thought of it as a non-song – it was a five minute interlude that I made for myself; I didn’t think it’d matter much,” Klein told us, “Akin hit it on the nail though when he sent me the treatment as that’s what the interlude was about – it was a celebration of me being cleansed.”

03. DAVID BOWIE – “LAZARUS” (DIR: JOHAN RENCK)

Having kept his 18-month battle with cancer secret, the hidden meaning behind “Lazarus” – the final music video featuring David Bowie – took on a new significance only after the legendary musician’s death. Released just a few days before he passed, the video was a dignified send-off: filled with the sort of occult imagery that Bowie had always been fascinated with, there’s a fixation on (and acceptance of) mortality, with Bowie lying on a deathbed with skulls at his work desk before finally retreating into a coffin-like wardrobe. “I just thought of it as the Biblical tale of Lazarus rising from the bed,” director Johan Renck told The Guardian, “In hindsight, he obviously saw it as the tale of a person in his last nights.”

02. MYKKI BLANCO – “HIGH SCHOOL NEVER ENDS” (DIR: MATT LAMBERT)

The visual counterpart to “High School Never Ends” matches the drama and cinema of Mykki Blanco’s music. It’s a queer retelling of Romeo & Juliet, shot in the German town of Freyenstein. With its backdrop of Neo-Nazism, it’s a particularly necessary story given the rise of the far right in 2016. “This video was born out of months of conversations and writing between Mykki and myself, and a world and character Mykki knew he wanted to inhabit,” director Matt Lambert told us when we picked the song as our #1 track of the year, “While commenting on the still-very-alive racism in old world Europe and timeless ideas of us vs. them, we also explore and humanize characters who weren’t often humanized as well as show the moral flaws in all who preach hate and violence.”

01. JAMIE XX – “GOSH” (DIR: ROMAIN GAVRAS)

Jamie xx’s “Gosh” featured high up in our music videos of the year last year, but this year it received a second official visual courtesy of director Romain Gavras – and it was one of the most astounding things we’d seen in years. The video takes place in Tianducheng, a replica of Paris constructed in east China. It stars Hassan Kone, a black man with albinism, who begins the story in a purple room, moves to a blue car, drives around a grey environment, and ends surrounded by 300 schoolkids with yellow hair. It’s a stunning piece of filmmaking, made all the more stunning when you learn that no CGI was used in it.

As Gavras explained, the video was also inspired by cultural appropriation debates. “It came about when I saw the pictures of the fake Paris in China,” he told Dazed earlier this year, “Everyone is talking about cultural appropriation and I was like, ‘That thing is the most insane fucking cultural appropriation.’ It’s almost like you don’t put it on a moral level – it’s not Iggy Azalea singing like a black woman, it’s fucking insane. It’s like a cultural appropriation vortex.”

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