Music videos find themselves in a peculiar place. They’re no longer the backbone of a few dedicated cable networks, nor do most record labels have the millions to pony up for the over-the-top productions. Long gone are the days when the likes of Michael Jackson could drop $7 million on a clip like it was nothing.
Yet, there’s no better way to cut through all the noise than with eye-popping images. No one knows this better than Beyoncé, who has elevated herself to yet another level on the strength of her two “visual albums,” 2014’s Beyoncé and this year’s Lemonade.
Beyoncé may be an industry all her own, but you don’t need her brand or her resources to harness the power of a stylish clip. Take Sevdaliza, for example: The Netherlands-based singer has used shiny, surrealist videos to launch herself to the front of the futuristic R&B pack. Or check out SHINee, the K-Pop band whose candy-colored video transfixed us. We couldn’t understand a word of what they were singing about, but moving images don’t get lost in translation.
Here are a few of our favorite music videos of 2016, below.
ANOHNI, “Drone Bomb Me”
Director: Nabil Elderkin
Creating a music video for a song written from the point of view of an Afghan girl whose family has been killed by a drone bomb is a tricky proposition. But what better way to get people to pay attention to the lyrics than to have Naomi Campbell lip sync them? The model-turned-actress told us earlier this year she could cry on command, and she proves it in this moving video. Givenchy designer Riccardo Tisci handled the art direction, proving that style can elevate substance.
Benjamin Clementine, “I Can’t Complain”
Director: Craig McDean
The fashion photographer Craig McDean made his jump into directing music videos this year, most notably with Rihanna’s “Kiss It Better.” However, we prefer his Surrealism-informed clip for English singer-songwriter Benjamin Clementine’s “I Can’t Complain” just a little more.
Directors: Beyoncé Knowles, Kahlil Joseph, et al.
How do you fit Beyoncé’s Lemonade into a list like this? Do you give her multiple spots, do you pick one video to represent the greater project or do you consider the full work as one video? We’re going to cheat a bit here and go with the latter, but we do want to give a special mention to “Hold Up.” It provided the single best fashion moment in a music video all year, when Bey’s yellow Cavalli dress became instantly iconic. Drag queens produced their own facsimiles within a week [http://www.newnownext.com/roxxxy-andrews-turned-it-out-in-lemonade-drag-last-night/05/2016/] and the outfit went on to become one of Halloween 2016’s most-worn costumes, taking the look went beyond fashion statement and into cultural conversation. Was “Hold Up” the overall best segment from Lemonade? Perhaps not, but this was the single biggest style moment.
Francis and the Lights ft. Kanye West and Bon Iver, “Friends
Director: Jake Schreier
In a year when Kanye West commissioned full-scale nude sculptures of some of the most famous people on the planet for his “Famous” video, who would have guessed that his cameo in one of the simplest and most effective videos of the year would be his most beloved clip? It owes a lot to Francis Farewell Starlite and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon’s silly, utterly charming, oddly transfixing dance moves.
Grimes, “Kill V Maim”
Director: Claire Boucher and Mac Boucher
Of course, a Grimes song serves as the best soundtrack to a post-apocalyptic, underground feminist pep rally.
Gwen Stefani, “Misery”
Director: Sophie Muller
If your idea of stylish music videos involve gorgeous pop singers wistfully vamping around in head-to-toe high fashion looks like it’s a French perfume commercial, perhaps no one does it better than the ageless Gwen Stefani.
Kanye West, “Fade”
Director: Eli Linnetz
This is maybe the greatest introduction of an artist who’s been on the scene forever, when suddenly the entire world met Teyana Taylor. She’s not wearing much in the “Fade” video, but just a few weeks after its release she was a constant front row presence at New York Fashion Week.
Mary Kamosa, “Lost Me”
Director: Jan Komasa
During her youth, Polish-born singer/songwriter Mary Kamosa moved to Paris and briefly worked as a fashion model. She decided to channel that experience in her video for “Lost Me,” and brought in fellow Pole and bonafide supermodel Anja Rubik to star. The concept starts out simply enough: Rubik takes a stroll down the runway, but she soon ends up stripping down, crying and embarrassing Kamosa. Meanwhile, the front row seems at once transfixed and horrified by an actual display of humanity on the catwalk.
Mykki Blanco ft. Jean Deaux, “Loner”
Lady Gaga may be going for more a reserved image at the moment, but her former stylist Nicola Formichetti (credited here as “Nicopanda”) can still be counted on to bring strong looks to the world of music videos. He serves as fashion director for Mykki Blanco’s “Loner” and put the rapper in a series of over-the-top outfits. Incidentally, the video was funded by PornHub. They also helped sponsor Hood By Air’s latest runway show. PornHub: one of the year’s notable patrons of queer black creatives. Who would have thought?
Pussy Riot ft. Desi Mo & Leikeli47, “Straight Outta Vagina”
Director: Phillip R Lopez
There is perhaps no band on earth as politically relevant as Pussy Riot at the moment. The Russian dissidents have done battle with Vladimir Putin, and here they take aim at his BFF Donald Trump’s anti-feminist views with an over-the-top, gender-bending spectacle.
Rihanna, “Needed Me”
Director: Harmony Korine
Rihanna wakes up in a mansion overlooking Biscayne Bay, smokes a blunt in a sheer robe, then heads to an out-of-control strip club, which is more or less a normal Tuesday in Miami. Fittingly, it was helmed by Spring Breakers director Harmony Korine.
Sevdaliza, “Marilyn Monroe”
Director: Hirad Sab
Iran-born and Netherlands-raised Sevdaliza gave up a promising basketball career to become an avant-garde R&B queen. This video starts with surrealist, futuristic imagery until Sevdaliza herself shows up as a robotic queen.
SHINee, “1 of 1”
The video for K-Pop boyband SHINee’s single “1 of 1” take everything that everyone loved about Justin Bieber’s “Sorry”—colorful, vintage clothes and a load of “I have to try that” dance moves set against a simple white backdrop—and amplifies them time a million. The combination of candy colored visuals with a sugar-sweet song makes it almost impossible to get through this infectious video without smiling. Frankly, this is what Gap ads should look like in 2016.
Solange, “Cranes In The Sky”
Directors: Solange and Alan Ferguson
While her older sister dominated the monoculture this year, Solange finally came into her own as an urgent creative force with the release of her first full-length album in eight years. A Seat at the Table was a triumph both musically and politically, and the video for lead single “Cranes in the Sky” finds Solange decked out in fashions both couture and handmade.
Years & Years ft. Tove Lo, “Desire”
Director: Fred Rowson
There’s something distinctly 2016 about Years & Years’ “Desire.” Frontman Olly Alexander starts the video wearing a rose-quartz coat over a serenity-colored jogging suit—those two hues, better known as “Tumblr pink and blue,” were Pantone’s 2016 Colors of the Year. He then finds himself surrounded by backup dancers who look like they came straight from the Yeezy Season 3 show. The action moves onto a pansexual PG-13 orgy where all races, ages, and genders are welcomed. It’s all very, very of the moment, especially considering it’s a video for a remixed re-release of a song that originally debuted in 2014.