2012 was another great year for music videos. Why? Because many of the best music videos released this year stuck to their aural counterpart’s own aesthetic, creating a synergy that remains the most essential element of the artform and the one thing that will never change — no matter what the screen size. Each of the music videos listed below perfectly translated the song in question into a visual realm, really stripping down the track’s structure, energy, or lyrical intent to provide a visual accompaniment that can also stand on its own merits.
After digging through many music videos over the course of the year and revisiting my half-year round-up, I was able to narrow this list down to ten videos that stood out based on the qualities I just described. There may have been plenty of stylistic representations of music throughout 2012, but these ten truly represented their respective track’s aesthetics. Let’s start with #10:
10. Jack White – “Sixteen Saltines”
When news broke that Jack White was releasing a solo album, fans could easily make assumptions about the album’s sound, but after hearing the single “Sixteen Saltines” — an amalgamation of White’s many musical projects — who could have imagined what it would look like? Director AG Rojas tackles the song with this wonderfully unpredictable and twisted video, connecting absurd scenarios and using multiple camera styles that will more than likely confuse the hell out of you. But the varying degrees of adolescent madness manage to capture the anarchy and upheaval mentality that dwells deep within White’s aspirations to shake up the face of rock and roll. He may be struggling to escape a soon-to-be-burning, out-of-control car fire toward the end of the video, but for all we know, this is exactly the kind of situation White’s looking for to get people talking.
9. The xx – “Chained”
The mixture of oil and water dominates the symbolism of The xx’s sophomore effort, Coexist, and it is immaculately incorporated into the music video for the album’s single, “Chained.” Young Replicant crafts an abstract narrative that looks to answer the album’s cover art, using slow-moving, beautifully composed shots that magnify the band’s unique brand of minimalism and spacial textures. Its muted and lifeless atmosphere progressively breaks away as the song builds, eventually becoming more explorative and revelatory right until the moment we come up for breath at the end of the video. The video’s ability to loosen up over its duration resembles that of the track itself, which makes this video full-fledged proof that music and visuals were meant to be together.
8. School of Seven Bells – “The Night”
There’s a good reason why School of Seven Bells chose this music video as the winning Genero.tv submission for their track “The Night.” This is a music video that relishes its star, a young actress who appears to be lip-syncing the track, but her emotional display on screen is so jaw-droppingly believable that you’d think singer Alejandra Deheza was actually this young girl herself. She adds a youthful dimension to a song that is already quite exuberant, pitting her in realistic and “adult” settings that ultimately inscribe her as a symbol of childhood wanting. It avoids spoon-feeding us the details, instead expertly communicating them through the expressions of its star and her placement, and I now can’t imagine this song being visually portrayed in any other way.
7. Walk The Moon – “Tightrope”
No top music video list is complete without including one video that’s as artistically quirky and arresting as its song. That video this year is courtesy of 2012 favorites Walk The Moon with their hit single “Tightrope.” A poppy and animated song gets a video treatment of equal measure, as we watch the band sing along to the track as part of a stage play that looks like it came right out of the mind of Max Fischer (or any Wes Anderson film, really). Similar to last year’s “Bizness” by tUnE-yArDs, everyone acting in the video knows this world is in need of some fun, resulting in a lively and magically crafted atmosphere full of color, construction paper, and beat-centric choreography that is guaranteed to brighten up any day of the week.
6. St. Vincent and David Byrne – “Who”
“Who” would’ve guessed a music video from the two eccentric musicians behind this year’s collaborative album Love This Giant would be just as eccentric as the artists themselves? The single fuses the best of St. Vincent (Annie Clark) and David Byrne’s talents to form an enjoyable, horn-centric, toe-tap-inducing ditty, but the video pulls a “Lotus Flower,” utilizing the same elements that the Radiohead video did last year (right down to the use of black and white). Just seeing these performers dance and groove smack-dab in the middle of nowhere just because they are who they are is enough for us to find the video thoroughly amusing. The scenario is appropriate, nonetheless, transposing and reversing a story that may or may not make sense to the viewer, but the fact that director Martin de Thurah knows it makes sense to Byrne and St. Vincent is all that matters, and that impression is strewn all over this thing.
5. Atlas Genius – “Symptoms”
These artists-to-watch-in-2013 delivered a very satisfying and colorful music video to accompany their EP track “Symptoms.” This narrative involving a childhood fantasy is sleekly produced in its own right, but with its flashes of brilliant stylistic choices and the breeziness of its editing, the video’s aesthetic easily crosses paths with that of the song. They each conjure up a structure that’s natural, but then place their subjects into a kind of dreamy surrealism. We focus a lot on eyes, which work here both as a gateway into these adolescents’ hearts on screen, as well as a suggestion to look closer at the finer details, perhaps speaking specifically to what makes this marriage between music and video so wondrous.
4. Death Grips – “Hustle Bones”
Listening to Death Grips is like being put through a washing machine during its spin cycle, only coming up for breath long enough to realize that diving back into the agitation is actually more life-affirming. This simile is captured so perfectly in the music video for “Hustle Bones” from the band’s first of two releases this year, The Money Store. In the video, money and drugs and cheap beer are thrown into a machine as we spin along for the ride. The video dunks the viewer headfirst into the chaos of the track, nearly drowning us in Death Grips’ persona, before we pop back up here and there to watch MC Ride angrily rap over his apocalyptic lyrics. Even before the release of their major label debut, Death Grips had been making chopped and/or screwed music videos to accompany their experimental rap aesthetic, but no one music video sums up their style better than this.
3. Grimes – “Oblivion”
A football game isn’t the first place you’d think of to shoot a music video for an electronic artist, but maybe you’re just not thinking about Claire Boucher (aka Grimes). The energetic artist performs the lead single from her album Visions in front of football players in their locker room and joins cheering patrons at a stadium as if on-the-fly, initially making you wonder if what you hear and what you see aren’t really supposed to fit together. But Boucher’s fun, empowering, and borderline seductive energy juxtaposed with her dark synths and sinister beats penetrates the visuals in a way that, in hindsight, actually heightens these ordinary scenes into interesting caricatures of Grimes’ personality. Director Emily Kai Bock lets Grimes do her thing, and the result is a highly memorable video, ultimately preparing us for an album that further revealed Grimes’ frolic.
2. Purity Ring – “Lofticries”
Marking the second time filmmaker AG Rojas appears on this list, this conceptual and abstract music video for Purity Ring’s “Lofticries” is meant to be a conversation starter, similar to Rojas’ video for Jack White’s “Sixteen Saltines” mentioned earlier. Utilizing slow tracking shots that allow our focus on the song to melt into the visuals and cause our eyes to inherently follow four individuals that could very well be ourselves, this is a music video that manages to emphasize the song’s dark interiors and attach to the track a complex imagery that delivers a kind of subtext you wouldn’t ordinarily get from seeing the images cut to the track’s beats or stylistic inflections. Its depiction of the individuals’ journeys dealing with life and death and utilization of some of the coolest transitions in recent memory to connect these stories can be complicated, but that’s part of what makes “Lofticries” a wonderfully striking production that will be talked about for years.
1. Liars – “No. 1 Against The Rush”
I interviewed Liars about six months ago, and I revealed to them at the time that their music video for their single “No. 1 Against The Rush” was the best I had seen so far all year. It’s now the end of the year and dozens of music videos have since been released, but that sentiment remains the same. This is an incredibly eerie and provocative video from filmmaker Todd Cole that fully embraces the new and unknown direction the band takes on their latest album, WIXIW. It instills the track’s unsettling textures through a character who is suspiciously evil at his core, as well as through the seedy underbelly of the video’s Los Angeles setting — itself a character in the vein of the 2011 film Drive as well as an homage to the band’s home base. The video grabs your focus and lingers with you well after its dramatic ending, and knowing that the band members themselves appear as the man’s victims is just the icing on the cake.
Honorable Mention: PSY – “Gangnam Style”
One must not forget that the #1 most viewed video in YouTube history (and perhaps all of the Internet’s existence) was released in 2012. It’s quite impossible to listen to the song without envisioning the music video, which is exactly what makes the video so accomplished. Like any of the videos listed here, “Gangnam Style” works because it captures the aesthetic of its aural partner. Aside from its now-infamous choreography, the candy-colored saturation, slick production design, and robotic editing portray K-pop so spot-on that you can’t help but watch it over and over again. It’s accurately goofy with an admirable performance from the artist himself, and we couldn’t have a Top 10 Music Videos of 2012 list without at least mentioning it.
And that wraps up our list! 2012 was a pretty great year for music videos in terms of quality and quantity, and I anticipate 2013 will be another full year of musical and visual heaven.