by Cleopatra Parnell, Vanessa Tottle, & Gabriel Valdez
special thanks to Hayley Williams
Let’s dive right in, shall we?
#10: “Q.U.E.E.N.” – Janelle Monae feat. Erykah Badu
directed by Alan Ferguson
“It’s hard to stop rebels that time travel.” So begins one of the best performance videos of the year, feeding off the visual history of artists ranging from Paula Abdul to Prince to Kate Bush. It fits into Monae’s continuing ArchAndroid narrative of a future dictatorship rebelled against only by artists, singers, and dancers. In an odd way, Monae’s wacky refraction of today’s protest movements reminds us of the crucial and unique role art has in influencing and shaping our society. Hers might be one of the most influential voices around, if only because the seriousness and urgency of her message is accompanied by so much performance and joy. It makes those moments she chooses to buckle down and teach all the more poignant.
#9: “When That Head Splits” – Esben and the Witch
directed by Rafael Bonilla, Jr.
Watching this makes me feel like Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind: “This means something!” Damned if I know what, but it’s touching and sends chills up my spine. The crudity of its creature design belies a painstaking complexity in its stop-motion animation. I’d also note that Esben and the Witch’s Wash the Sins Not Only the Face is one of the most overlooked albums of 2013, and won my coveted “Best Scandinavian Band You’ve Never Heard Of Award.” They’re the very first non-Scandinavians to do that.
#8: “Hot Knife” – Fiona Apple
directed by P. T. Anderson
Welcome to P. T. Anderson’s masterclass on editing and lighting. Anderson (Magnolia, There Will Be Blood) highlights Fiona Apple’s multiple vocal tracks by giving each its own distinct look: the competing backups are profiled in side panels, backlit in high-contrast black-and-white. The central chorus, Apple’s most intense performance, is introduced in a frontlit, black-and-white close-up that anchors us – both in auditory and visual senses – throughout the rest of the video. It evolves later as more vocal layers are added beneath it – we pull away to a medium shot and the coloration becomes deeply oversaturated by the conclusion.
As the song grows more layers, those backup profiles are again introduced, first frontlit and then later in silhouette. This last time they’re given lowlit schemes of muted orange and pale purple that complement – and lead your eye back to – the oversaturation of Apple’s intense performance at the center. With stoic profiles at the edge and emotion anchored to the center, additional layers interrupt where they can. Her pulsing timpani performance keeps pulling back to black-and-white. We end by drawing closer and closer to each performance, creating a visual intensity that reflects the song’s crescendo, until Anderson gives each visual and vocal its own send-off.
Essays could be done on this. Classes should be taught on this. I just launched an exploratory committee to start an experimental college based entirely around analyzing this video.
#7: “Without You” – Lapalux feat. Kerry Leatham
directed by Nick Rutter
Happening in a world that could only be invented by David Lynch, but wasn’t, this is a damning allegory for how we adjust our worlds to fit the expectations of those around us. Whether you view it as living life for someone else or as a metaphor for the treatment of outsiders, Rutter shows us the inevitable outcome of living out the values of others rather than developing our own.
#6: “Sacrilege” – Yeah Yeah Yeahs
directed by Megaforce
We used to burn witches. We used to gang up on those less fortunate and blame them for the ill outcomes of our own bad decisions. We used to make scapegoats of women for the same things that men do. Now we just shame them in the media. Now we just blame their desire for rights to their own bodies for the mythical dissolution of American morals. Now we just block them out of the political process. We still burn witches, but now we just do it real civil-like.
#5: “Collider” – Jon Hopkins
directed by Tom Haines
A dance piece about the psychological impacts of being raped, playing out the sequence a thousand times in your head as attacker, as victim, as bystander. One vicious, searing, heartbreaking, violent, irrecoverable moment. The most important dance piece last year.
#4: “Like a Rolling Stone” – Bob Dylan
directed by Vania Heymann
This interactive video will require you to watch it off-site.
There’s no quantifying this one. An interactive video for a song that came out 49 years ago, which lets you flip from one reality show to the next to see familiar semi-celebrities lip synching their way through the classic rock song. You can sit on one channel the entire time – the shows go on as normal save for the lip synching – or flip constantly.
It allows the user to create narrative links and select the incongruities that speak to them, to assign meaning to the repetitious meaninglessness of reality TV. It redrafts “Like a Rolling Stone” as a blank slate for our own modern habits, and as such becomes a mirror on which to project our own self-criticisms. After the gimmick wears off, all we’re left with is a meditation on Dylan’s original song and the images that have become most recognizable in our own daily lives – images of false comforts and falser narratives on a TV screen.
#3: “Meltdown” – Ghostpoet
directed by Dave Ma
Two continuous shots enjoy one moment of intersection, creating one of the most powerful visual moments in recent memory. The video, combined with Ghostpoet’s hauntingly uncomfortable song about inhabiting a doomed relationship, replicated a moment we’ve all had – one in which we yearn for what we once had, but don’t reach for it because we’re afraid of losing something we know won’t last. It’s a weird artifact of human nature, and possibly the one we repeat the most in our lives.
#2: “You & I” – Local Natives
directed by Daniel Portrait with Kamp Grizzly
We can’t really tell you anything about this video without ruining it. We’ve shown it to about 20 people so far. They’ve each broken down by the end of it, not just crying but sobbing. None of us wants to do some deeper analysis on it. We don’t want to poke something we love so much.
#1: “Afterlife” – Arcade Fire
directed by Emily Kai Bock
(her 3rd appearance on this list)
Dreams are for lost opportunities, for testing out paths not taken, for expressing our fears and pangs of loss. I had a grandmother I never knew, not when I was old enough to form solid memories of her. Every once in a while, some dream-form of my father’s mother takes shape, guides me, reassures me, stands in the way of the things I fear most. Religion might have me believe she’s an angel. Psychology might have me believe she symbolizes some deeper, definable meaning. I believe it doesn’t matter either way. She or my subconscious would give me a clue if it mattered. It doesn’t. I just know what she does and what it means to me. Those personal meanings, those moments in dreams…that’s what Emily Kai Bock captures in “Afterlife.” – Gabriel Valdez
It’s funny because we all chose this as our #2 video. We whittled things down to a top 60. After that, we were blind to each other’s rankings. Cleopatra chose “Meltdown” by Ghostpoet because it was the most challenging. Gabe chose “You & I” by Local Natives because he’s a big sap. I chose “Collider” by Jon Hopkins because I couldn’t stop watching how the dancer translated a narrative of abuse. But we each chose “Afterlife” for our #2 video, and this gave it the best average. I’m happy it did. I’m not close with my family anymore. I was removed by a distant relative. That means “Afterlife” is a fantasy to me, but it’s a really lovely one to have. It makes me yearn for parents and religion other than the ones I had access to. It makes me miss some humbleness of childhood I never got. It’s like being an archaeologist or some sci-fi pioneer, watching another civilization through a membrane. I’m unable to grasp it, but seeing it is fascinating and it makes me angry and it makes me proud. – Vanessa Tottle
I took care of my grandparents for a very long time. I still check in on my grandmother regularly. She tells me stories about a different time when she grew up. I hear a lot about my grandpa, who passed away but was never really with it for the last decade of his life. “Afterlife” is like one of her stories. They’re completely different from my experiences, but sometimes when she talks to me it’s like having my grandpa back. I imagine he’s listening right next to me. When I’m in a hurry and I ask her to stop, I feel bad later on. I feel like I denied my grandpa a chance to sit next to me again and smile at my grandmother’s stories. I imagine he sits next to me when I watch “Afterlife.” I imagine that he understands how much I miss him and that we found a common story we can wordlessly share. – Cleopatra Parnell