Tommy performs in "Grace." by breathe.

What Were February’s Best Music Videos?

This month saw the end of a legendary pairing, and a music video that got both our lowest and highest rating. Neither made the list, but that’s why the intro gets to cheat and talk about them anyway.

Daft Punk said goodbye in “Epilogue”, which doesn’t even count as a music video because it’s a scene from their 2006 movie “Electroma”. It’s pretty final, though – it’s hard to reform your band when one of you blows the other up. I mean, I haven’t been in a band since high school, but I assume that hasn’t changed.

The house and electronic duo formed in 1993. I liked them well enough, but I was never a huge fan – until their score for “Tron: Legacy” in 2010, which I thought deserved the Oscar that year. It was the year Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross won for “The Social Network”, so hard to argue, but a nomination for something as creative and encompassing as “Tron: Legacy” would’ve been nice.

Personally, I’m hoping this is all a guerilla marketing campaign for “Tron 3” and it’ll be revealed they have to dive back in to rescue the Daft Punk characters for reasons, but um…not holding my breath.

This is the second month we’re doing this incarnation of a music video countdown, but we’ve done variations of it in the past. We do it by scouring music videos – this month, that job fell to Cleopatra Parnell and me. We whittled upwards of 200 music videos down to about 70. Those 70 then go to six voters who rate each on a scale of one through 10. We each have a single 12 to give to the video we think is the best of the month. Then we argue a lot, and the tiebreaker system we have is done away with because the Chelsea Wolfe fans and the Bryson Tiller fans go at each other for the last spot. Who wins that? K-pop. K-pop always wins.

I’m telling you this because we’ve used this system in the past and we use it now. Never before has a music video scored both a one and a 10. We’ve never seen something so divisive. Yet never before has Rebecca Black remixed “Friday” in a video that’s a giant troll. Is it really a giant troll, though? It’s sung in an Alvin and the Chipmunks hyperpop style and she’s literally driving in the car with trollface memes. I mean, not literally literally. It’s just CGI. I think. I hope. Bear witness:

Vanessa Tottle gave it a one. Cleopatra gave it a 10. The rest of us: somewhere in the middle, confused, alone, reaching out and wondering if this was collapse or singularity. Personally, I think they’re both right right, and few people have earned the right to troll the internet as much as she has. How do we factor that into deciding the best videos of the month? We don’t. There are some things humanity was never meant to measure. Rebecca Black has broken math.

Math historian Morris Kline tells us that complex mathematics was first recorded around 3,000 B.C. in Babylon and Egypt, so this month, we say goodbye to both Daft Punk, blown up by Daft Punk, and math, run over by Rebecca Black. They both had a good run.

In all seriousness, Black’s been putting out good music when she’s not trolling; “Girlfriend” is some quality synthpop.

S.L. Fevre, Eden O’Nuallain, Cleopatra Parnell, Amanda Smith, and Vanessa Tottle joined me in figuring out the chaos that is the top 10 music videos of the month:

10. Don’t Call Me – SHINee

It’s been a banner month for K-Pop music videos, with “Bicycle” by CHUNG HA, “Wings” by PIXY, and “Breaking Dawn” by The Boyz all landing. These dance videos each have unique strengths, but K-pop MVs usually incorporate specific core elements.

“Don’t Call Me” excels at each of these. The hip-hop choreography is absolutely tight, with hard hits and smooth lyrical bridges. The sets are a blend of lavish and surreal, centered on a theme of what’s been abandoned and broken down. The costume design is full of character. The constantly moving camera never loses its focal point.

It helps that the song has hooks in each section and packs a ridiculous amount into just four minutes. There’s a reason American listeners are so drawn to K-pop – don’t underestimate its complexity or the sheer range of genres it draws on from around the world.

9. Tell Me You Love Me – Sufjan Stevens
directed by Luca Guadagnino

Ask me to describe how this video does what it does and…I really can’t tell you. It feels cleansing, connective, whole. I just don’t know how or why. Four of us found it that way, two others thought it was threatening and carried an undercurrent of violence.

Read the comments and some are reading despair into the video, some are haunted by it, some are calling it healing. It’s almost like it’s a Rohrshach inkblot for what you place onto it. When I watch it now, I get the sense of threat that I didn’t see the first few times, but it’s still healing. Who the hell knows what that says?

If you’re someone who stopped listening to Sufjan Stevens for a few years, he’s worth revisiting. He never finished his 50 states project. He only got through Michigan and Illinois, which is about when I’d stop, too. He did release two superb albums last year – The Ascension as a solo project, and Aporia with his stepfather, electronic musician Lowell Brams.

If you recognize Luca Guadagnino’s name as director, he’s the one who remade “Suspiria”. Take from that what you will.

8. Bed Head – Manchester Orchestra
directed by Andrew Donoho

If you ask me the best music video director who’s ever graced the medium, it’s Emily Kai Bock. She only directed about 15 music videos over five years – barely a drop in the bucket compared to those who’ve directed hundreds. But in a handful of videos for Grimes, Grizzly Bear, Solange, and Lorde, she completely changed the approach to what shots and parts of a story are desirable. Her magnum opus was Arcade Fire’s first video for “Afterlife”, a contemplation on dreams and mortality that reflected its song by just taking one or two ideas from it and running with those into the dreams of a family.

“Bed Head” gets so close to that territory. The style is different; Andrew Donoho came into the medium about when Bock was leaving it to pursue narrative filmmaking. He’s had his own persuasive hand in the new directions music videos are taking. But the sentiment, the identification with someone who may as well be halfway around the world, the yearning for things to work out for someone you’ve known for four minutes, it gets so close to that same need. No other medium does that the way music videos do.

7. We’re Good – Dua Lipa
directed by Vania Heymann, Gal Muggia

Obviously, we’re playing with the term lobster now – the notion of a soulmate you’re supposed to belong with. It’s a romantic idea, but becoming convinced of it can also allow someone to abuse you. Seeing one lobster after the other plucked out and devoured – if you’ve been in a relationship like that, I think the video carries added significance.

I love the shallow depth-of-field the video plays with. Combined with the MV’s muted color palette, it makes it feel like it was filmed in the 70s. It’s hard to take something understated and make it feel so compelling, but when you do it feels utterly unique.

6. Sucker – Ellie Dixon
directed by Ellie Dixon

As I noted with Number One Pop Star and Noga Erez last month, a music video can become an immediate classic on the strength of a single performance. It’s a risky route to take, and one that sees a lot of MVs fall flat on their faces. Very few strike with the wit and commitment of Ellie Dixon’s “Sucker”.

As she notes, it was entirely filmed late at night in her back garden with a minimal set. They could only shoot 90 minutes at a time before camera operator Sophie Winter’s hands got too cold to shoot any more. It is a superb example of zero-budget filmmaking.

Dixon also directed and edited – and the editing here is about as good as you’ll see. There are people who make a lot of money who don’t know when to stay on performance and when to cut on movement this well, and I can tell you from experience it’s even more difficult when you’re editing yourself. If you asked me to pick the best editing on this list, it’d be a tough choice between this and SHINee’s “Don’t Call Me”, which easily cost hundreds of thousands of dollars – and I’d probably choose this.

5. Wish You the Best – Jay Oladokun ft. Jensen McRae
directed by Noah Tidmore

I love MVs that suggest a story without letting you know what it is. The usual pitfall is that the video gets too into the story it’s withholding from you, without connecting you to the characters. When you’re guarding a suggested story, it’s not the story that’s important. It’s the characters who are guarding it so well. That’s the part of it all that invests you, that makes you want to come back and watch again.

“Wish You the Best” is a beautiful and haunting duet, paired with a guarded story that we only get hints about. What makes it work is how deeply felt that story is by Jay Oladokun and Jensen McRae. If I connect with the story and you won’t tell me what the story is, that can make me bounce off an MV. If you connect me with the characters and how their story feels, the details of it are a mystery that can be appreciated. That creates an MV where you sense the shape of what’s missing but can’t fill it in, and I think that builds on the haunting quality of the music itself.

4. Grace. – breathe.
Directed by breathe.

I usually hate music videos that are done entirely in slow-motion. If you’re not giving me a reason to be at that speed every moment, then it feels like you’re wasting my time. “Grace.” by breathe. gives us a reason for three-and-a-half minutes. It teaches us who a person is, and it lets us glimpse and share their joy for that brief moment in time.

There are beautifully choreographed technical elements here – performer, camera, lighting. The slow-motion helps us learn who Tommy is, see their tattoos, the look on their face. And then sometimes what’s already beautiful is lifted by moments of capturing lightning in a bottle.

I always think of that first shooting star in “Jaws”, when the terror is building, the boat is taking on water, and Roy Scheider loads the flare gun. A shooting star passes behind and that one, little moment of beauty burrowed in everything else lifts the film into the territory of a fable, into unreal and ultra-real all at the same time.

It might seem weird to bring up “Jaws”; lightning in a bottle doesn’t need to be those specific emotions or genres, but it does need to be a moment of chance in a scene that’s already as good as it can be. When Tommy turns and their cross earring flashes in the light at 1:51 in, that’s lightning in a bottle. That’s a moment already being so perfect that a chance of unexpected beauty on top of it elevates what we’re watching into the magical. I’m not religious; that’s not what I’m talking about. What matters is that it’s something important to who we’re watching, something that they value and like for whatever reason, something that describes them, that they chose to wear, a detail of who they are shared for just a second before we lose that opportunity to know it.

And yes, the shine might be enhanced – hell, Spielberg added a second meteor in post-production. That it was there to begin with, that there was already such a high plateau for it to stand on – that’s what makes it.

As Sean Walker of breathe. describes the reason for the video, “In Dec. 2018, my twin Tommy was found unconscious on the side of the road after a horrific motorcycle accident. As I sat in the intensive care unit that night, I was told that they might not wake up, and I had to contemplate the devastating possibility of losing my other half. This film is a celebration of Tommy’s survival and strength, their queerness and their community who loves and cares deeply for them.

The clip features Tommy dancing inside Sydney’s Red Rattler Theatre — a space where, growing up, Tommy felt safe and comfortable to be wholeheartedly and completely themselves, a place where they found their family, and their identity. After spending months in a wheelchair with a broken back, ribs and pelvis, nerve damage and brain injury, Tommy can once again move and express themselves freely, an incredible thing to watch as their brother.
Forever my tomboy,
Sean from breathe.”

CW: graphic violence, implied child trafficking

3. All About Love – Sierra
directed by Parker Gayan

The best way to describe this is David Fincher-esque. Not just in style or presentation either – it’s difficult to tell what’s a literal story and what’s metaphor. Is it a video about a woman out to stop child traffickers? Is it about a woman literally killing the man who raised her? Is it a metaphor about closing a connection to your past, and gaining a level of control over abuse and trauma suffered in childhood?

All of those are potential reads, and they don’t necessarily disagree. It could be all of them, and that’s what elevates something that might otherwise come across as just a stylistic experiment. There’s a complexity in how we read this and what details we draw from to fill in the narrative.

2. Mate – Mobley
directed by Mobley

There have been a lot of MVs about two people connecting but unable to meet or touch. The theme reflects people’s experiences during a pandemic that’s entered its second year. Many have centered around people being able to be together in virtual worlds like MMOs, paired with a mix of both joy and added frustration that this brings. Yet this can also backseat a focus on characters themselves.

What I love about “Mate” by Mobley is that it’s most focused on what connects these characters, what they teach each other, what they find in each other that’s beautiful and shared. A lot of these videos focus on longing, but few focus on what makes their characters such a good match, few speak to the audience that what they’re teaching each other includes things that we should be learning as well.

1. Fireworks – Purple Disco Machine ft. Moss Kena & The Knocks
directed by Greg Barth

Nobody could have predicted the most perfect music video ever made would be a documentary beamed to us from the future.

Other videos we liked this month:

“Anhedonia” sees two of gothic rock’s most creative artists come together: Chelsea Wolfe & Emma Ruth Rundle. It’s a beautiful stop-motion video that creates a safe harbor for those in the midst of depression, that offers a space for patience that can sometimes seem very distant.

“Where the Time Went” is a return for Ex: Re, the solo project by Daughter frontwoman Elena Tonra. There are a lot of music videos documenting eerily empty spaces in the middle of a pandemic, but this one goes a little further by echoing the automation of a city still running, and of apartments that aren’t empty but that may as well be a thousand miles away to the passerby.

“Sorrows” by Bryson Tiller is a beautifully shot metaphor for coping badly with heartbreak. One of the most interesting discussions in this month’s email thread is whether or not it’s based on 1998 sci-fi noir “Dark City” – the billboard for a beach that doesn’t exist and the preponderance of clocks and figures using human faces is hard to overlook.

“The Princess and the Clock” is a painterly animation of a fairy tale, either hopeful or tragic depending on how you read it. Kero Kero Bonito have a habit for hiding thematic knives within bright, happy, synth-tickling dream pop.

“Client” by Waveshaper is a narrative about loss and the choices we make told with superb retro flourish.

“Man in Me” by Madi Diaz is an effective metaphor shot in a single take, but it’s impossible to describe without ruining the message it conveys.

“Blijven Slapen” by Snelle & Maan is a story about two people who – through the power of editing – keep falling into new places where more and more people dance with them. I don’t remember it all that well, but this is what life was like before the pandemic, right?

“Sunny in the Making” by Steady Holiday is a great single take video about anxiety, impostor syndrome, self-doubt, and that moment when you’re able to realize something artistic as passionately as you want.

I mentioned CHUNG HA’s “Bicycle” earlier when talking about K-pop, but the Korean-English-Spanish song and its superb dance video is absolutely worth highlighting on its own.

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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