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The 100 Greatest Music Videos

From Adele to ZZ Top — our ranked list of the best music videos of all time

Photo illustration by Griffin Lotz. Images using in illustration via Scanrail/Adobe Stock; Youtube

In the wee hours of August 1st, 1981, someone flipping through their channels might have come across the image of a rocket blasting into space. The familiar sight of Neil Armstrong exiting his lunar module and walking on the moon would fill the TV screen. And then they’d hear a voiceover, with all the smooth patter of an FM disc jockey: “Ladies and gentlemen, rock & roll.” Cue power chords, and a flag with a network logo — something called MTV — that rapidly changed colors and patterns. This wasn’t a news channel; it was “Music Television.” If they kept tuning in, they’d see clips and hear VJs talk about bringing you the latest in music videos. At this point, viewers might have a few questions, like: Is this like a radio station on TV? What is a “VJ”? And what the hell is a “music video”?

A year later, no one was asking that last question. Virtually everyone knew what a music video was, and they wanted their MTV. The network revolutionized the music industry, inspired a multitude of copycat programming, made many careers, and broke more than a few. Entire genres and subgenres — from hip-hop to grunge to boy-band pop to nu metal — became part of the mainstream. The format proved so durable that when MTV decided to switch things up and devote its air time to game shows, reality TV, and scripted series, thus shutting down the primary pipeline for these promos, artists still kept making them. The internet soon stepped in to fill the void. Four decades after the channel’s launch and long after it stopped playing them, music videos still complement songs, create mythologies, and cause chatter and controversy. We no longer want our MTV. We continue to want our music videos.

In honor of MTV’s 40th anniversary, we’ve decided to rank the top 100 music videos of all time. You’ll notice some significant changes from the last time we did this. (Yes, Michael Jackson is on here. No, “Thriller” is not.) A few pre-date the channel; several have never played on MTV at all. But all of these picks are perfect examples of how pairing sound and vision created an entire artistic vocabulary, gave us a handful of miniature-movie masterpieces, and changed how we heard (and saw) music. From Adele’s “Hello” to ZZ Top’s “Gimme All Your Lovin’” — these are the videos that continue to thrill us, delight us, disturb us, and remind us just how much you can do in three to four minutes with a song, a camera, a concept, a pose, some mood lighting, and an iconic hand gesture or two.

From Rolling Stone US


Nine Inch Nails, “Closer”

“Closer” likely never would have badgered its way into the mainstream if it weren’t for director Mark Romanek’s disturbing video, filled with imagery of Trent Reznor in various bondage positions, a crucified monkey (next to a Jack Nicholson poster), and a nude woman spinning eggs on her fingers, among other surrealistic frights and delights. ​”Trent said, ​’Fuck it … If MTV won’t show it, fuck MTV,’” Romanek once recalled. The clip, which blends the vibe of David Lynch’s Erasherhead with the voyeurism of Blue Velvet, was just so weird that the channel couldn’t help but play it — albeit in a heavily censored version with “scenes missing.” But the truth was while most of the uncanny imagery was indeed real (yes, that’s a decapitated pig’s head), they kept things professional (the monkey was supervised and not harmed). And Romanek shot the video with a hand-cranked camera from 1919 and distressed the film by hand with cigarette lighters and aerosol shellac, adding to the mood. “[The video] set a tone that made the song sound better to me,” Reznor said, “and I think that’s an achievement.” —K.G.

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Backstreet Boys, “I Want It That Way”

As the lead single for Backstreet Boys’ Millennium, “I Want It That Way” would usher in a powerful era for boy bands and pop music. Directed by Wayne Isham, the video takes place at LAX, with the boys in matching white or black outfits, dancing and slow-walking throughout the airport. As they prepare to board their plane, they’re surrounded by screaming girls with loads of headshots and merch for the group to sign. It’s one of the most popular visuals in the boy-band canon, embodying the type of fervent fandom that acts like BSB bask in. The clip became so popular and pervasive in the late Nineties that Blink-182 parodied it for what would become their equally iconic “All the Small Things” video. —B.S.

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LL Cool J, “Going Back to Cali”

Ric Menello, a college dorm security guard and film savant who befriended Rick Rubin at NYU, had already co-directed the insanity of Beasties’ “Fight for Your Right” video. Now, taking cues from his favorite films Touch of Evil and Rebel Without a Cause, Menello turned LL Cool J’s ambivalence about moving cross-country into rap’s greatest arthouse video. Mimicking the song’s unhurried pace, images of LL slowly cruising in his Corvette and Automaton dancers robotically dancing remain indelible more than three decades later. LL originally hated the video. He has since gone on to embrace it as the masterpiece that it is. —J.N.

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Madonna, “Material Girl”

Not everyone can out-icon Marilyn Monroe, but Madonna just about pulled it off with this 1984 clip — nearly a shot-by-shot remake of Monroe’s “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” number from 1953’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. While Monroe swooned over sparkles, however, Madonna is after something deeper: financial security and, sure, love. During the course of the video, she’s wooed by a rich director (played by Keith Carradine) who pretends to be poor to win her heart; in the end, she’s more impressed with his humble daisies than a fleet of suited men laden with bling. Shot by Mary Lambert — who also directed the 1989 film adaptation of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary — “Material Girl” would become the blueprint for feminist videos for decades to come. —B.E.

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Janet Jackson, “Rhythm Nation”

If this video made you want to suit up and join the fight against … well, anything, you were not alone. Militarism has never seemed so cool as when Janet — Miss Jackson, if you’re nasty — began executing her precision moves with an army of stone-faced dancers behind her, all clad in matching uniforms, gloves, and boots. (Janet’s in particular now lives in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.) Filmed in smoky black and white and set in what appears to be an abandoned power plant, the video announces the singer and her crew as soldiers of social justice, as she sings about breaking color lines and joining our voices in protest. Does the title track of her 1989 concept album, Rhythm Nation 1814, propose that we can end racism through dance and music? Yes. Is that incorrect? Patently. But there is no denying that it snapped a bunch of people the hell awake. —M.F.

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Herbie Hancock, “Rockit”

It’s the scratching that gets you first — that needle-on-the-record squeal that still sounded novel enough in 1983 to stop you in your tracks. No sooner had GrandMixer DXT’s work on the wheels of steel kicked in then: Boom! We’re transported to an apartment full of robots, each jittering and whirring along to the beat. Three pairs of legs kick in sync over a couch. Two mannequin heads, rocking an admirably vintage Carl Sagan look, watch something mechanical splashing in a soapy sink. A robo-wife hits her robo-husband at a robo-brekafast table. And when the camera pans past a tiny TV set, you can glimpse a pair of hands — human hands — plinking out a keyboard line. Without MTV O.G.s Kevin Godley and Lol Creme’s video for Herbie Hancock’s unclassifiable melding of jazz, electro-funk, and early hip-hop, it might have been just another musical gumbo from a longtime fusion pioneer. With it, the song became the soundtrack to some sort of techno-utopian future and a genuine WTF mindblower. You’d never seen anything like it. You still haven’t seen anything like it. —D.F.

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Run the Jewels, “Close Your Eyes (and Count to Fuck)”

The twentysomething African-American everyman looks battered and exhausted. So does the white cop, who’s yelling, “Don’t you fucking move!” as the other man turns and runs. They tussle in the street, punch-drunk and exhausted. Day turns to night. They move the fight to an apartment, eventually sitting on opposite ends of a bed, catching their breath. This isn’t the first time they’ve done this. It won’t be the last. Filmed in black and white and featuring Lakeith Stanfield and Boardwalk Empire‘s Shea Wigham, this video for Run the Jewels’ standout RTJ2 track (featuring an incendiary verse from Rage Against the Machine’s Zack de la Rocha, who makes a cameo alongside the rap duo) turns the hot-button issue of police violence against the black community into an endless rinse-repeat cycle of agony. Whoever wins, we all lose. “This video represents the futile and exhausting existence of a purgatory-like law enforcement system,” Killer Mike said in a statement after the video hit the internet. “There is no neat solution at the end because there is no neat solution in the real world.” —D.F.