"Don't Judge Me" music video by FKA Twigs

What Were January’s Best Music Videos?

I started writing on this platform again a year ago. I got a lot of initial requests to bring this feature back and it’s been tempting me ever since. Music videos are my favorite form of storytelling. They’re condensed and only have a certain amount of time to connect. They span every genre. They offer opportunity to many forms of visual and performance art that audiences don’t have the patience for in full-length movies.

I ran the Awkward Playlist feature to talk about themed music video playlists. That will still continue now and then, but I wanted to get back to the monthly rundown. This site used to cover music videos in depth, but that was when we had a number of different writers to contribute. I didn’t want to bring it back without them.

For whatever reason, it feels important to watch and discuss music videos with a group. I’m still doing the writing here, but I wanted to build it on more than just what I thought. Five others are helping me with the ratings – S.C. Himura, Cleopatra Parnell, Amanda Smith, Olivia Smith (no relation), and Vanessa Tottle. That group might shift from month to month depending on time.

The way we do this is that one or two of us runs through a bunch of music videos to filter out what’s probably not going to be rated highly. Whittling down this initial selection makes it easier for everyone to watch. It can reduce 200+ videos down to around 80. Amanda did that job every month when we did this years back, and I’ll be eternally grateful to her for it. This month it was Olivia and myself. We might rotate it or split it up – who knows? All I know is it’s not easy; I had to watch Weezer.

How do we rate them? We all give the remaining videos a rating one through 10. Each of us also has a single 12 to give only to what we think is the very best video of that month. Then math happens. Is this a good system? I’m not a scientist. It is an interesting one, though. Across six people, the top videos tend to separate themselves from the rest pretty decisively.

Inevitably, everyone gets angry that one or another video didn’t make the cut, but we do all feel that the 10 videos that did all deserve to be here. To avoid friendships dissolving due to music videos, however, there is a follow-up section with descriptions and links to additional MVs that also scored highly.

Let’s dive in:

10. “I Hate Running” by Number One Pop Star
directed by Kate Jean Hollowell

Sometimes a music video is elevated by a singular performance. Don’t get me wrong, the staging of this is on point, from the cigarette tiara to the book launch from hell at a…I’m going to guess a mission somewhere on the West Coast.

Kate Hollowell is singer, director, actor, producer, stylist, and probably some other things on the video. Neither is this a one-off. On her previous MV for “Psycho”, her performance is just as skillfully ridiculous. In an interview for PAPER Magazine, Hollowell described Number One Pop Star as if “Ariel Pink and Dua Lipa had a child who also wanted to be a comedian when they grow up”.

Hollowell also directs outside of her bands Number One Pop Star and, er, Slut Island. She directed the MV for Katy Perry’s “Champagne Problems” and co-directed “Jealousy” for SASAMI.

CW: dismemberment (in a fake, comedic style)

9. “Peur des Filles” by L’Imperatrice
directed by Aube Perrie

A woman (from space?) murders all the men so she can dance with them and serve their heads at a picnic. Few things decide to bridge giallo horror to the visual style of 60s sitcoms, and this makes me upset it hasn’t been done more often.

Part of what gives “Peur des Filles” its unique look is that it’s shot on film. There’s a visual softness to it that’s still difficult to emulate on video. Video can get to that soft look, but it’s usually not deep through the whole picture – it’s applied more like a surface filter, which still feels less natural.

Watching the video multiple times, not only do you see some extra sight gags in the choreography, but you can also see how specifically the lighting takes advantage of film’s qualities and directs your eye. It’s an easygoing video that’s already enjoyable on the first go, but that has a lot of craft hiding under the surface.

8. “Solstice” by The Antlers
directed by Derrick Belcham, Emily Terndrup

Tangent time: Andrew Wyeth painted masterpieces that often centered on the absence of their central figures. His paintings gave huge amounts of information through what was missing from the image we saw. His most famous painting, or at least his most lasting today, is Christina’s World.

Groundhog Day may’ve been the one that tested his audience the most. Its most important feature was the figure missing from the painting. We had to infer a life from the sparse details that were present, and from the suggestions the painter had made: a wintry yard whose color mirrored the loneliness and threat of the slanted light indoors and the knife on the table.

Why am I going on about Andrew Wyeth? “Solstice” is hardly foreboding or threatening, but it does craft a picture by the absence of a figure – or at least an absence that runs against convention. There’s an evolution in the choreography of dancer Bobbi-Jene Smith and the barest elements of narrative that describes an emotional journey. That expands the video far beyond a dance and a woman with a baby. It creates a character who’s dealing with that absence. To describe that through dance and the lightest touch in editing, without ever mentioning or suggesting that in any other way, does in a music video what Wyeth could do in painting. It gives us a story by refusing us the story, by holding us out of it even as we gaze straight into it.

That absence of a figure describes either a woman deciding to have a child on her own, or someone else deciding for her by leaving. The lyrics suggest very gently someone passing or about to pass. The result tells us a story and relies on our assumptions, biases, and inferences to fill in the details. That is so much of what describes American Regionalism as a style throughout mediums. I’m not sure I can recall a music video that accomplishes this so well through substance and presentation and not just through outright visual style.

7. “Hardline” by Julien Baker
directed by Joe Baughman

This is a stunning accomplishment in stop-motion animation. Underpinning it all is the story of a friend who’s loyal, who enables, endures, and is harmed by their own friend’s pursuit of self-destruction.

There’s a technical mastery here that feels hidden underneath the DIY set construction. Cinematic elements like a rack focus and tracking shots are done to perfection without being obvious, and they’re a big part of what legitimizes the emotional experience of this poor dog we’re following. The look on their face before they have to light the fuse is a brilliant moment of performance, and matches an emotion a lot of us have felt watching someone destroy themselves.

6. “We All Have” by Julia Stone ft. Matt Berninger
directed by Gabriel Gasparinatos

This beautifully reflects the need to still feel the presence of someone who’s passed, to echo in your mind a moment when they were beside you. It’s an easing that makes the impossible barely manageable.

Removing it to a specific and realistic story – even with moments of metaphor, makes it feel distinct. It reminds me a bit of Arcade Fire’s dreamlike MV for “Afterlife”. Pretending that person still exists, is still present in the world – it’s not a place you want to get trapped, but it is a place that can remind you that part of them lives in you, can still be evoked by you, can still be felt.

It doesn’t matter that it’s a lonely stand against entropy, it matters that you make it now and then, it matters that we still care to. It matters to understand just how universal that loneliness is.

5. “Alive After Death” by John Carpenter
directed by Liam Brazier

Is this John Carpenter’s best film since “The Thing”? OK, that’s comparing apples to oranges, but what’s captured here has such a Carpenter-esque vibe. If you’re confused, 70s and 80s horror director John Carpenter often composed the music for his films, including the famous theme from “Halloween”.

He’s more recently taken up creating albums of music as lost themes from movies that never were. “Alive After Death” arises from “Lost Themes III: Alive After Death”. The result so far is engrossing, and the music video genuinely feels like a Carpenter mini-film. What recalls his style most are those personal moments of quiet and decision in otherwise strange, outlandish, and terrifying cinematic moments.

4. “Hate Myself” by dodie
directed by Sammy Paul

It’s utterly wild to think that dodie hasn’t actually released a full-length album yet. Off the strength of 3 EPs, she’s already become one of the most important musicians of Gen Z, and one who tackles mental health in an extremely forthright way through her music videos. Whenever she releases an MV, I know there’s a good chance I’m going to end up crying, because she creates stories around mental health issues that we barely even talked about 10 years ago.

What gets me about “Hate Myself” is that it’s so succinct. That might seem an artless description for something with so much style, but dodie’s become exceptional at communicating the experience of emotional struggles like anxiety. She puts something on-screen that’s removed from reality, but that feels emotionally real. The impression of what she’s doing is familiar even if what’s taking place is fantastical. It’s easy to identify, it’s easy to know exactly what’s being felt no matter the moment.

If you’re interested in more dodie, I recommend her MVs for “Guiltless”, “Secret for the Mad”, and “If I’m Being Honest”.

3. “Delicate Limbs” by Virgil Abloh ft. serpentwithfeet
directed by Kordae Jatafa Henry

I’m much more familiar with the work of serpentwithfeet than Virgil Abloh, who is primarily known as a fashion designer. The result here is genuinely impressive, and the video feels absolutely in line with serpentwithfeet’s astounding and overlooked oeuvre.

The video builds itself around singular visual moments. The slow motion aesthetic lends itself to appreciating the images more like tableaus than as a music video. There’s a sense of leading from one perfect picture to the next.

2. “Howler” by Martin Gore
directed by NYSU

Martin Gore is better known as one of the members of 80s band Depeche Mode. As for “Howler”, at first it tests some patience. It’s a slow build, but it leaves a trail of bread crumbs in its iterative visuals. New information gets introduced in every repeat, changing the context of what you saw before so that it communicates something different each time. While it’s threatening from the start, the iterations of its visuals increasingly suggest versions of the threat’s nature – who it’s aimed at, how it’s experienced. There’s enough there to be thinking about it constantly, and enough missing to feel like that thought process needs to be urgent.

The experience of watching it reminds me of Gesaffelstein’s “Pursuit”. It constantly introduces new information about the nature of what we’re watching without giving us enough time to process it. We’re still figuring out what we’ve seen as even more new information is introduced. Both MVs evoke the sensation of perceiving a threat without having the knowledge to regain control in the experience.

1. “Don’t Judge Me” by FKA Twigs ft. Headie One, Fred Again
directed by Emmanuel Adjei, FKA Twigs

Every time FKA Twigs releases a video, it’s probably going to end up on a list like this. There’s no artist who’s so relentlessly pushed the medium in the last few years.

The sculpture, the choreography, the lighting, the floor under the dancers echoing that dappled water pattern, the frozen figures in front of statues, the suggestion of movement in that terrifying fucking shark, that brief moment of hyperventilation in the music and performance suddenly ceased, the mime-ing of police brutality, everything here is so detailed toward a whole while still being viscerally felt.

Other videos we liked this month:

The Weeknd’s unnerving and threatening video for “Save Your Tears”.

Selena Gomez and Rauw Alejandro’s exceptionally filmed “Baila Conmigo”. Wait, Selena Gomez? Really? Yes, her Spanish-language stuff is leagues ahead of her English-language material.

Israeli artist Noga Erez delivered in a simple video for “End of the Road” that leans almost entirely on the strength of her performance.

UK duo Leyya have a beautifully animated video in “I’m Not Sure” that speaks volumes if you deal with anxiety.

Somehow, all six of us are angry at each other that “Saku” by Bicep didn’t make the list. The Irish duo feature Clara La San on the track.

Lana del Rey’s been working hard to burn bridges following what many thought was the album of our times in 2019’s “Norman Fucking Rockwell!” If you were hoping the video for “Chemtrails Over the Country Club” would clear anything up, you must be new here.

I thought “Talk About Love” should’ve made the top 10. The song by Zara Larsson and featuring Young Thug boasts a superbly choreographed dance video. It remembers that rare feat of choreographing the camera as well, creating a dance piece that’s bursting with energy.

“I’m Not Cool” by HyunA follows a lot of the conventions of K-Pop videos, but those elements are rarely this well done. The reliance on extreme shaky-cam during hip-hop choreo is a trend that’s often bothered me in K-Pop videos, but there’s some really clever use of motion tracking that creates that sense of movement in the viewer without being as visually frustrating.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to continue writing articles like this one.

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