Tag Archives: Katy Perry

Guilty Pleasures — NIN Mashups

Trent Reznor NIN test

by Gabriel Valdez

I have a secret condition. I haven’t told anyone about it. You’re the first to know; I’m finally going to admit it here. You see, I have an addiction. I have an addiction to mashups.

I’m so sorry, I know it hurts the ones I love, but I just can’t stop. The premium stuff is so good, and the premium stuff is Nine Inch Nails mashups.

How deep does the rabbit hole go? In the spirit of a 70s Public Service Announcement, let me show you the worst case scenario: like the desolate underground cities of H.P. Lovecraft, built to worship unfathomable heathen horrors whose mere sight could drive a man insane, there’s an entire cottage industry out there that remixes NIN with My Little Pony songs.

This is the hard stuff. All but the most hopeless among us stay away from this. We know what madness lurks inside. People into this don’t just mess up their lives, they come out wholly different, as if time and space have ceased to matter and all is boundless shadow, a dead calm ocean that anchors you in place, the sun turned off, the stars pulled from the sky. Here’s a truly horrifying mashup of NIN’s “In This Twilight” and Fluttershy singing “So Many Wonders.”

What did I just make you listen to? You feel the insanity creeping in and yet…and yet, you want more. Curiosity’s the greatest addiction of them all. Fine then. But don’t say I didn’t warn you. Following are my five favorite NIN mashups:

“Shake It Off (The Perfect Drug)”

The newest kid on the block is one of the best. Most mashups just take the the bass and percussion from one song and tempo-adjust the lyrics of another on top of it. These are lazy as hell. This could have easily been one of those jobs, but there’s a lot more work that goes into creating a new duet from two existing solos.

There’s a clever musical humor here, too, saving a sort of Trent Reznor/Taylor Swift rap duet for the two-thirds mark where the rap solo has replaced what used to be the guitar solo. A good video mashup doesn’t hurt, and my favorite part of the video is that, when Swift starts to rap, Reznor reacts by giving up on life and taking absinthe. Meta-commentary, people.

What mind-numbing horror next awaits our vulnerable minds?

“Where is Everybody vs. ET”

Most of the dealers chucking out remixes stand on the corners of YouTube, enticing you with mashups as a way of hooking you into their own original material. What makes this remix different is that it involves frequent NIN member Danny Lohner. You can tell – it’s more complex and polished than most remixes out there. It’s not about being clever, it’s about delivering a brand new piece of music.

This is the harder-edged Katy Perry I’ve always wanted to hear:

But these are just practice rounds. I didn’t want to start you off on the really intense stuff.

“Come Closer Together”

The biggest danger in NIN mashups is that you’ll just take the percussion line from “Closer” and shove something else over it. Five minutes’ work, call it a day, everybody leave early!

Not good enough.

“Closer” is too easy and too iconic to just lay a vocal track over. Hell, that percussion line wouldn’t even work for “Closer” if Reznor wasn’t finding ever-more-complex layers to put on top of it. “Come Closer Together” just straight up moves, leaping from one moment of each song to the next. It barely sits still, blending each song’s most complex moments. The listener has to stay on his or her toes. It’s clever, evocative, and beautifully fuses together the musical styles of two completely different eras. Plus, it includes the immortal line, “I want to fuck you, right now, over me.”

“Closer in the Air Tonight”

Now you’re deep in it. I tried to tell you. This stuff will ruin your life! You don’t really want to know how Phil Collins’s iconic “In the Air Tonight” is combined with NIN’s “Closer,” do you?

Why would you want to know how two of the world’s most atmospheric songs are meshed? Why would you want to set your eyes upon such timeless mysteries? Why gaze into the abyss? It might do that thing. You know, gaze back.

Fine. When your family asks what’s wrong, what’s different, just keep this secret. Keep it safe. They can’t know. Wait, hold that thought – link them here, we could use the clicks.

This is another mashup that manages to take me on a musical journey, rather than just being a gimmick or earworm. Combining two of the greatest slow-build songs in history is fraught with musical peril. Instead of relying on either song’s atmospheric pace to dictate the mashup’s, the remixer breaks down each song and rebuilds them together. It’s not a fusion so much as a ground-up reconstruction, complete with red herrings and almost-climaxes that play with your expectations of what’s familiar.

“Only Billy Jean”

Rarely do mash-ups take the chance of creating an equal duet between two artists. Even more rarely is this done with Reznor, whose vocals are precise but whose attitude rarely fits into other songs. When that chance is taken, it’s usually not Michael Jackson chosen to play opposite Reznor.

The best mash-ups don’t just play the instrumentation in two songs against each other. They fuse the meanings of two songs to create something altogether new. “Only” becomes the subtext for “Billy Jean,” a sociopathic underbelly it hinted at but was always missing. “Billy Jean” gives “Only” the concrete motive for such an explosion of id. It’s a brilliant new creation, and one of the few mashups that’s as good as any of NIN’s or Michael Jackson’s songs on their own.

So concludes our brief trip into the vast plains of irresolute hopelessness, your mind shredded at the dark possibilities you’ve only briefly glimpsed.

What’s that? What did you say?

Where’s Carly Rae Jepsen?

Sigh, you’ve learned nothing in the end, have you?

The best mashups figure out how to get both vocalists in there at some point. As a duet, a call-and-response, even just getting the off-vocalist in as the chorus. That would’ve worked brilliantly for the “Call Me a Hole” mashup, especially given the storyline of Jepsen’s song. Picturing the two singers meeting at a party, hearing both songs as internal monologues…it’s just too perfect. But it’s just Jepsen’s music and Reznor’s voice.

As is, the Jepsen mashup is strong on concept alone, but leaves a lot on the table that could make it better. It’s a cute hipster moment to share with your kids one day so they can roll their eyes before going back to their rooms, pulling out their hidden Downward Spiral 30th Anniversary editions, dousing themselves in eyeliner, and downloading straight into their brain all those Clive Barker novels that President Bristol Palin outlawed after you voted for her cause you’re a Republican now. What’s that you’re making for dinner? Last Polar Bear Ever Stew? What an interesting name. I wonder what’s in it.

I can only hope your children don’t find those My Little Pony mashups. You don’t know how to communicate with them anymore. They grow up so fast. You don’t understand them. You worry. Were you ever like that? Have your polar bear, honey. That’s what Carly Rae Jepsen brings to the table. You hypocrite.

Guilty Pleasures is a new occasional series that will feature various writers’…you guessed it: guilty pleasures.

What Went Wrong — Lea Michele’s “Louder”

Lea Michele Louder lead

by Amanda Smith & Gabe Valdez

What happens when you take a Broadway singer and stuff her into a Katy Perry pop mold? Some good things, some bad.

Louder is Lea Michele’s debut album (free of Broadway or Glee soundtracks) and she uses 29 writers and 21 producers in just 11 songs. Or maybe they use her.

When it was released on February 28, Michele was roundly trashed, getting 1.5 stars (out of 5) from Rolling Stone. Idolator was the kindest around, rating Michele 3.5 stars. Very occasionally, they even remembered to grade the album, too.

They were in the ballpark, though. The album has some disastrous moments. So what went wrong? That’s easier to find if we start with what went right.

“Cannonball” is a strong opener. It hits listeners with Michele’s Broadway chops via the repetitive chorus: “I’ll fly like a cannonball.” This is an appropriate metaphor. As any Glee viewer can tell you, Michele is best when she’s allowed to sing to the back of the room.

Pop star Sia Furler wrote “Cannonball” and Norwegian duo Stargate produced it. They’re smart to strip the power ballad to basics: Michele’s only accompaniments are canned drums set to 1980s riff and a walking synth line that revisits the same five chords for three minutes straight. Soft electric string tones join in the middle to add a cathartic note (literally, they add only one note). An airy piano, which hands the walking line to the synth at the beginning, returns at the end to reflect Michele shedding the song’s dark, depressing opening lyrics and finding strength.

With the most basic level of instrumentation, the song is forced to rely on Michele and her background singers. This is great: it fits into Glee‘s semi-a cappella mode that’s been designed for Michele over 121 hours of TV. There’s nothing extraneous in “Cannonball,” and that puts the burden on her vocals.

(More voice means more emotion. This was the theory when Peter Gabriel and Real World Studios first re-engineered pop music around canned drum cycles in the mid-1980s.)

Portamento (pitch sliding) is not Michele’s forte. She hits a note perfectly, but when she’s asked to slur from one to the next in a single syllable, it doesn’t often sound right. More consistent production could have done a better job of hiding or orchestrating around this, and the best production on the album does.

Not surprisingly, the songs written by Sia are the album’s standouts – “Cannonball,” “Battlefield,” “You’re Mine,” and “If You Say So.” Not all of them were originally written for Michele, and maybe that’s why they work.

Lea Michele

“Battlefield” is also the only song produced by Josh Abraham. He began his career in the production booth for heavy metal groups Danzig and Orgy and rap-rock bands that don’t know how to spell Limp Bizkit, Staind, and Linkin Park. Love or hate them, these are all bands that limit the number of sounds that take place in their songs. They’re loud, but they’re not complicated. There’s no Wall of Sound to deal with.

“Battlefield” is Michele accompanied by piano and drums. There’s also an African chorus that feels like it entered the wrong recording booth, but it finds its way out quickly enough. “Battlefield” is the song that feels closest to a Broadway solo.

“You’re Mine” sounds more like a Selena Gomez song. Michele’s wanting portamento is replaced with quick, staccato note changes. She’s accompanied by canned drums, emotive strings (synthed), and occasional piano. This is one of two songs on Louder that Chris Braide produced. He’s previously produced for Sia, Lana Del Rey, and Malaysian singer Yuna. His synthesized strings are a trademark.

As he does for those artists, he makes sure to keep the instrumental elements in the background, supportive of Michele. The drums use reverb to complement Michele’s ability to assertively hold notes, and pull back to soft clapping for a relaxed three-quarter break. The strings are held to a walking series of choruses so they can’t become a focus. Like “Cannonball,” “You’re Mine” rightly places the weight of the song on Michele’s aggressive delivery.

“If You Say So” is a good performance in the wrong song. Unlike “Cannonball,” Sia wrote it with Michele in mind, but it feels like it was written for Sia by Sia. Lyrics like “I check my phone and wait to hear from you in a crowded room” could ache with Sia’s delivery, but feel misplaced with Michele’s. Michele is still singing to the back of the room. Sia would sing it to herself. It’s the difference between a performance (even though it’s a good one) and a heart wrenching personal portrait.

It’s the mistake the whole album makes. It isn’t Michele’s fault. She’s stepping into unfamiliar places by recording an album and putting herself in the hands of so many different writers (29) and producers (21). By relying on so many different personalities, though, too much gets asked of Michele. The picture she’s trying to paint is too big, and looking closely reveals gaps in detail.

Michele had a hand in writing two songs on the album, “If You Say So,” and “Cue the Rain.”

“The city was on fire for us
we would have died for us
up in flames
cue the rain…”

It’s the kind of nonsense Michele can make you picture. She’s a cinematic singer, but like most pop stars, she has a big Achilles heel in her delivery. Michele’s happens when singing introspectively.

Britney Spears can pull off mess like “I know my heart’s too drunk to drive,” but Michele can’t. Britney is an introspective singer (stylistically, not effectively). Michele is the polar opposite.

Consider the Lecture Hall Test. If Michele’s at the front of a lecture hall and pointing at you and singing about fire and dying and rain, you’re not looking anywhere else. You’re thinking, this is going to be an awesome semester. If she’s boring holes through you with her eyes while she goes on about her heart getting a DUI, you’re heading to the academic department and hoping the add/drop deadline hasn’t passed.

The best pop singers can sing to the back of the room and to themselves, depending on what the song needs. For all the other faults in her music, Katy Perry’s ability to shift gears quickly and effortlessly is why she dominates the field. She can overcome the kind of lackluster production Michele faces on “On My Way,” “Louder,” “Don’t Let Go,” and “Empty Handed.”

Lea Michele Glee 1

Anne Preven is one of the most constant producers on the album. She’s worked extensively with Miley Cyrus and Demi Lovato. These are singers geared toward safe, radio-friendly songs whose direction is decided more by orchestration than by vocal. Michele isn’t suited to that kind of quick, hoppy delivery. She doesn’t know how to follow her instrumentation, and her stage and TV experiences have offered her next to no training in how to do so. She leads the charge; all her experience is in orchestrations being built around her.

Our hope would be for a second album to settle on a more limited field of writers and producers. And maybe that was the purpose of this album – to see who Michele works best with and what direction offers the best musical future.

Our hope? “Thousand Needles” works because Michele’s strong voice lends itself to the instrumental spareness, elongated delivery, and emotional catharsis of R&B. It’s Michele’s best vocal delivery on the album and it’s the only one in which her portamento isn’t brutal, perhaps because the tempo isn’t rushed.

It’s also the only song Ali Payami produces, and one of the few Kuk Harrell has a hand in. Payami is a deceptively clever remixer of club and house music. Harrell has produced for Rihanna, Usher, and The-Dream. He also has a hand in producing “You’re Mine” (pro) and “On My Way” (con). We think he needs more opportunities with Michele.

“Cannonball” is produced by Stargate. When writing this article, we kept e-mailing each other, “You know who should produce for Michele? Whoever did Selena Gomez’s ‘Come and Get It.’

Turns out that’s Stargate, too. Great minds, people, great minds…

Stargate is a Norwegian production team composed of Tor Erik Hermansen and Mikkel Storleer Eriksen. Their experience mixing R&B with hip-hop and the electronic nuances of Scandinavian pop lends well to Michele’s strengths, but they rarely produce an entire album.

A cut down lineup of producers Abraham, Braide, Harrell, and Payami would help to focus the direction of the album, with Stargate engineering the intended singles.

As for writers, Sia needs to stay, but this is a no-brainer. She’s one of the most sought-after writers in pop music, and four of Louder‘s best songs were written by her hand. Michele needs to keep hitting up Scandinavia – “Thousand Needles” was cowritten by Tove Nilsson (Swedish pop star Tove Lo) while Stargate helped write “Cannonball.” Michele also needs to take a stronger lead in writing her own material, becoming more aware of the big, sprawling, cinematic metaphors that play to her delivery and the personal, everyday, in-the-moment images she doesn’t perform believably.

Many of the writers and producers we haven’t named here come from a Cyrus/Lovato/Kelly Clarkson/American Idol/America’s Got Talent background. They can’t return. Michele needs to be treated more experimentally – some combination of Broadway, R&B, and Scandinavian pop. Anything country or folk needs to be kept very far away from her.

There’s a clear path forward for Michele’s inevitable follow-up to Louder, which wasn’t necessarily a bad album. It was just one half of a very good album and one half of a soporific disaster. Very few efforts this year so starkly demonstrate the influence that writers and producers have in how a pop album comes together…or doesn’t.

What Went Wrong/What Went Right will be a returning series that puts the emphasis in music criticism on the music itself, and not the celebrity or lifestyle behind it. If you enjoyed it, please check back, and feel free to browse our music video criticism in the meantime.

Lea Michele Louder cap

The Top 35 Music Videos of 2014 (So Far) — The Full List

Hideaway Kiesza

by S.L. Fevre, Cleopatra Parnell, Vanessa Tottle, & Gabe Valdez

Last week, we ran a four-part reveal of the best music videos of the year (so far). Below, find the recap of every music video we chose. Want to watch them? Click on the title of each one to view it on YouTube. Enjoy!

Read our comments on #35-26!
35. “Hideaway” by Kiesza
34. “Dark Horse” by Katy Perry
33. “Shatter Me” by Lindsey Stirling feat. Lzzy Hale
32. “Shades of Cool” by Lana Del Rey
31. “Fall in Love” by Phantogram
30. “Birthday (lyric video)” by Katy Perry
29. “Play it Right” by Sylvan Esso
28. “Double Bubble Trouble” by M.I.A.
27. “Red Light” by f(x)
26. “King of Sorrow” by William Wolf

Read our comments on #25-16!
25. “Really Don’t Care” by Demi Lovato feat. Cher Lloyd
24. “Sweatpants/Urn” by Childish Gambino
23. “90s Music” by Kimbra
22. “Busy Earnin'” by Jungle
21. “Au Revoir” by Chancellor Warhol
20. “No Rest for the Wicked” by Lykke Li
19. “Crime” by Real Estate
18. “Sword in Mouth, Fire Eyes” by Norma Jean
17. “Down on My Luck” by Vic Mensa
16. “Black” by The-Dream

Read our comments on #15-6!
15. “You’re Not Good Enough” by Blood Orange
14. “Summertime” by The Head and the Heart
13. “Girl You Look Amazing” by Nicole Atkins
12. “Magic” by Coldplay
11. “The Writing’s on the Wall” by OK Go
10. “Work Work” by clipping. feat. Cocc Pistol Cree
9. “State of Grace” by Talib Kweli feat. Abby Dobson
8. “West Coast” by Lana Del Rey
7. “Problem” by Ariana Grande feat. Iggy Azalea
6. “Wrong or Right” by Kwabs

Read our comments on the Top 5!
5. “Re” by Nils Frahm
4. “25 Bucks” by Danny Brown feat. Purity Ring
3. “We Exist” by Arcade Fire
2. “What is This Heart” trilogy by How to Dress Well
1. “Chandelier” by Sia

Thanks for joining us! We’ve had a superb response and great involvement from writers on our music video coverage, so we’ll be keeping it up!

The Top 5 Music Videos of 2014 (So Far)

Maddie Ziegler in Chandelier by Sia

by S.L. Fevre, Cleopatra Parnell, Vanessa Tottle, & Gabe Valdez

Vanessa here. I asked to do the intro today, because of what music videos mean to me. Music videos are the most watched form of short film. They come in all different flavors – performance videos of your favorite band, dance videos, comedies, dramas, experimental, arthouse. People say the musical’s dead, but it’s very much alive – billions of people across the world watch music videos every day. It’s our modern version of opera, touching narratives and social messages condensed into musical storytelling. And if you worry that speaks ill of our society, you’re watching the wrong music videos.

Our top 5 videos run the gamut – an animation with an ecological message, a socially conscious rap video, an angry social comment starring everybody’s favorite web-slinger, a tearjerking drama, and perhaps the most singular dance performance in recent music video history. But first, allow me to feature a personal favorite of mine.

Roar – Addy
The Make-A-Wish Foundation

This is what music videos mean to me. Here’s a little girl named Addy. She got stage IV cancer when she was just four years old. She went through chemo and radiation. What she says got her through it all is watching her favorite musicians on YouTube. The Make-A-Wish Foundation, a non-profit organization that grants dying children their one wish, was able to make a music video of Addy, thankfully after her recovery, performing Katy Perry’s “Roar.”

What do music videos mean to me? They mean a way to reach out into the world, across cultures, to perceive someone else’s story, their pain, their suffering, their success, five minutes at a time. Five minutes can change someone’s life, give them hope, and communicate the most urgent messages we have the capability to speak.

Music videos were Addy’s lifeblood, and she’s just one little girl. How many little girls, little boys, teenagers, men, women, those suffering pain, heartache or loss, find those five minutes that keep them going another day?

Why this music video? Because not everyone gets to make it out of being a kid, that’s why. Why the next one? Because I don’t own my body in the United States. Why the next one? Because thousands of underprivileged black families’ water is being turned off in Detroit. Why the next one? Because the LGBTQ community still isn’t accepted, and outed people still get beaten in certain places. There are countless next ones.

One of my co-writers, Cleopatra Parnell, wrote about Lykke Li’s “No Rest for the Wicked” (#20 in our countdown) that every country that wages war on a race, gender, religion, or lifestyle has a chance to show “whether we learned…or history repeats itself. The role of musicians and artists today is to be the conscience that refuses repetition.”

Music videos create a major part of our social consciousness now. They are our most readily accessible way to translate stories at no charge across cultures. That can save a lot of Addy’s. That can be a strong conscience that crosses borders. That can change lives. Enough changed lives can change entire cultures. And even if nothing else, at least they saved the lives of girls named Addy and Vanessa when they were unsure if they could make it another day.

Enjoy our top 5, and please keep watching and making every piece of art you can.

-Vanessa Tottle

P.S. Due to music copyright law, you may have to click through to YouTube to watch certain videos.

5. Re – Nils Frahm
directed by Balazs Simon

This is quiet, lyrically animated. It’s a story repeated day after day in a world we care about in voice, but often refuse to take action to save. What’s it like to be the last, lone beast in the scraps of a ruined wilderness? You can run, you can leap, you can be gallant and noble and beautiful, but if something’s meant to die and no one’s there to witness you, what does your beauty and talent mean? One of the best animated music videos I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing.   -Gabe Valdez

4. 25 Bucks – Danny Brown feat. Purity Ring
directed by NORTON

There’s a violence in day-to-day struggle more and more families are feeling. It’s not the obvious violence I see in movies about black gangsters and brown drug-dealers and white heroes. The violence is internal and families feel it against themselves. It’s the violence of disappointment and discouragement. When you realize you’re up against something bigger than yourself, the system’s stacked against you, and you can’t win, where else is violence supposed to turn but on yourself and your loved ones?   -S.L. Fevre

3. We Exist – Arcade Fire
directed by David Wilson

It shouldn’t matter anymore whether someone is gay. It shouldn’t get anyone beaten or killed. You would think those two statements are so obvious it would be stupid to write them. Yet we live in a world that’s wasting its time and resources on holding the LGBTQ community down when it wouldn’t make a damn difference to the world what that community does. So it’s still a big deal when Andrew Garfield stars as a transvestite in a major music video released two weeks after his role as Spider-Man in The Amazing Spider-Man 2.

But it’s not the old moment when we used to celebrate the specialness of someone’s difference. That moment now is angry – we look at the normalcy of someone’s difference, and instead feel despair and frustration at the violent holdouts who hold back a world that needs to get on with doing something more important than clinging to hate.   -Vanessa Tottle & Gabe Valdez

2. “What is This Heart?” trilogy
Part 1: Repeat Pleasure – How to Dress Well
Part 2: Face Again – How to Dress Well
Part 3: Childhood Faith in Love – How to Dress Well
directed by Johannes Greve Muskat

A young man sacrifices having any life of his own to take care of his grandfather. His grandfather’s nurse falls in love with him. Together, they steal the grandfather away to visit his childhood home. Things go wrong. And the rest of it is about coping, how to learn to rely on someone else, how to learn to give into moments you can’t control. It’s a trilogy of videos still reeling around in my head, being turned over this way and that to get ahold of the story from every angle. Each time I watch the trilogy, I find something new in it. The performances are dramatically sterling. By the third video, the mythical power of the trilogy is astounding. Watch it through. You won’t regret it.   -Gabe Valdez

1. Chandelier – Sia
directed by Sia & Daniel Askill

This was a unanimous choice for #1. If you knew how much this group bickers about every little detail, that would blow your mind. None of us pretended anything else can be here, though, not even for a second. You don’t even need to understand why. You just need to watch “Chandelier.” The level of performance is what you get when you watch Jackie Chan or Mikhail Baryshnikov – less refined but at such a singular level nonetheless that it’s impossible to replicate or find a similar moment anywhere else you look. Maddie Ziegler shares dance solo at its finest, choreographed and performed by an 11-year-old. It’s the most unexpected music video.   -Vanessa Tottle

In any form of art there’s genius. You can’t point to what makes it up, but you know it when you see it. Maddie Ziegler’s choreography and dance here is feral, animal, chaotic, and yet so brilliantly nuanced – every move means something. She’s 11 and yet there’s a maturity that speaks to emotional moments and struggle and pushing forward despite being held back…there are times you think there’s a 30-year-old, weathered dance veteran on-screen. At the same time, there’s an immaturity, a free attitude and irreverence in the moves she’s chosen that reminds me of the experience of being a kid, of overcoming that sense of being overwhelmed in order to learn you can push your own boundaries. How she captures that, how an 11-year-old’s artistic discretion pulls from both ends of the spectrum to create and then perform a dance that speaks to you and sends chills up your spine…it’s an impossible performance, and yet there it is.   -Gabe Valdez

Enjoy the rest of our rankings:
Music videos #15-6.
Music videos #25-16.
Music videos #35-26.

The 35 Best Music Videos of 2014 (So Far) — #35-26

chosen by S.L. Fevre, Cleopatra Parnell, Vanessa Tottle, & Gabe Valdez

Here it is, our rundown of the top 35 music videos of 2014 (so far). Before anything else, I want to congratulate four friends of the blog for their music video accomplishments – Hayley Williams has helped us in the past and has my eternal thanks for her support. I can’t recommend Paramore’s video for “Ain’t It Fun” enough. The first version of the video was dropped, and even though the song represents a more adult direction for a band she had to reassemble overnight, this second video remembers to celebrate the enthusiasm that’s always run through her music.

On the other end of the musical spectrum, one of our writers today, S.L. Fevre, appeared in Machine Gun Kelly’s “Sail.” The man raps his guts out and put together a complex, charged music video.

Michael Nikolla directed La Sera’s “Fall Into Place,” a beautiful, summery music video that highlights the laid back, dreamy charm of the band’s music.

Lara Hemingway did a bang-up job on the costume design for SVE’s glamorous and suggestive post-apocalypse video “Talking to the Walls.” Her work and the cinematography are my favorite parts of the vid.

Because of these personal relationships, we won’t be ranking the videos I just mentioned, but check them out to see some of the amazing places music videos are heading.

Enjoy our rankings!

-Gabe Valdez

P.S. Because of music copyright law that still doesn’t get this whole Internet thing, we can only feature some videos here, but you can always click on each title to watch it directly on YouTube.

Hideaway Kiesza

35. Hideaway – Kiesza
directed by Kiesza, Ljuba Castot, & Rami Samir Afuni

If dancers are not going to hit every step, they should at least feel every step so much the audience doesn’t notice. Kiesza is not the best dancer, but she feels the music and her atypical crew stands out. There are many little flaws in this single, four-and-a-half minute shot, but there’s so much feeling in it I really couldn’t care less.   -Vanessa Tottle

Katy Perry Dark Horse

34. Dark Horse – Katy Perry feat. Juicy J
directed by Matthew Cullen

My vote put this one in. I fully expect to get in trouble here, but you know what? It’s colorful. It’s cute and cheerful and inconsequentially bubblegum. It’s so thoroughly B-movie that I wouldn’t be shocked to see Kiefer Sutherland waltz into the middle of it chewing scenery. Truth be told, there was a spot earlier in the year when this was on the heavy rotation I normally reserve for dance videos. Guilty pleasure? Absolutely. But as a guilty pleasure, it’s wickedly done, and its ridiculousness was put over the top when the Internet exploded with accusations of “Dark Horse” being Illuminati propaganda. That argument paled only in comparison to the debate as to whether Katy Perry is an Illuminati queen or simply a powerless peon. Because I guess even the Illuminati haven’t figured feminism out yet.   -Gabe Valdez

33. Shatter Me – Lindsey Stirling feat. Lzzy Hale
directed by Everdream

I cannot play the violin and Irish step dance at the same time. Lindsey Stirling can. She mixes a Celtic sensibility with the kind of complex hip-hop backdrops Emancipator have made their bread and butter, a dubstep percussion driving the whole thing insistently forward. As music videos go, there’s nothing particularly special about Stirling’s team-up with Halestorm frontwoman Lzzy Hale. Stirling’s been tearing up YouTube with her hip-hop stepdancing violinist performances for a few years now. “Shatter Me” stands out for some of its imagery, yes, particularly Stirling’s snowglobe figurine. What makes it really stand out, though, is the meeting of two dynamic and powerful female performers who’ve used the internet to carve the sorts of followings that even a few years ago weren’t available to women of their talents.   -Gabe Valdez

Shades of Cool Lana Del Rey

32. Shades of Cool – Lana Del Rey
directed by Jake Nava

I wish the original cut of this had been released instead. I had a chance to see it and its message is much clearer. In the original cut, Lana Del Rey is murdered, presumably traded in for a younger model, but one philosophical comment about death in a magazine and Francis Bean Cobain is shoving herself into talented people’s business. So things got recut, or so the explanation goes. It still ends with Gatsby eyes over a David Lynch road. The message is clear: men still control a woman’s image, not just personally but through the media. Critics complain Lana Del Rey glamorizes a trophy girlfriend lifestyle instead of calling it out, but whether music critics are living vicariously or trolling for readers, they’re bigger purveyors of that lifestyle than musicians today. Lana’s a hero for a lot of people who work in L.A. and understand how much the dream factory huffs its own fumes. It won’t be the first time the new prophet gets dumped by the old religion.   -S.L. Fevre

Fall in Love Phantogram

31. Fall in Love – Phantogram
directed by Timothy Saccenti

This video has flash and creativity. By putting all its effects and angles in black-and-white, my eye’s constantly drawn somewhere new. If it was in color, it might be too ordinary. Watching human forms in front of shifting fractals hints at the out-of-body experience of performing. It also shadows the song’s use of bass refrains, combating synth loops, percussion fills, and vocal codettas.   -Cleopatra Parnell

Birthday Katy Perry

30. Birthday (lyric video) – Katy Perry
directed by Aya Tanimura

I mean the lyric video (and not the horrifying music video that suggests anti-Semitism). Taking you on a tour of a bakery with every silly innuendo written on cakes and muffins makes the song more coy than it really is. Criticize her for terrible metaphors (“It’s time to bring out the big balloons”), but I enjoy a woman who can sing about sex as shamelessly as Whitesnake.   -Cleopatra Parnell

Play It Right Sylvan Esso

29. Play it Right – Sylvan Esso
directed by Remedy & Sylvan Esso

Performance videos are difficult. They have to blend simple ideas that don’t get in the way of the performers with visually arresting devices that differentiate your video of a band playing from everyone else’s. Sylvan Esso uses darkness and simple lines of color to meld the song’s steady bass line and evolving chorus. They use an accessible choreography that’s nonetheless interesting to look at. It keeps us visually interested, but in its simplicity it always refocuses us on the music. The brilliance is that this is a music video any of us could film tomorrow, but few can edit properly. There’s an expert visual rhythm here that’s always in service to the music itself, and that’s what makes this such a great video.   -Gabe Valdez

28. Double Bubble Trouble – M.I.A.
directed by M.I.A.

Essentially a big mash of GIF-ready imagery ready to go viral, M.I.A. fills a deceptively complex video full of 1984 references, “Drone Survival Guide” posters, 3-D printed assault rifles in toy gun colors, and more epilepsy triggers than that famous Pokemon episode where Pikachu sent children across Japan to the hospital. M.I.A. has been the most important cyberpunk musician working since her politically charged 2010 releases of Maya and Vicki Leekx. Hybridizing Britain’s punk imagery, Southeast Asia’s GIF montaging, India’s own habit for anachronistic iconography, and her own anti-Imperialist sensibilities, she’s making a play to become a crucial cyberpunk music video director, too. Aggressive, loud, colorful, bombastic, garish, and pissed as hell, it’s the purest music video reflection of M.I.A. as an artist that we’ve had yet.   -Gabe Valdez

27. Red Light – f(x)

Only in South Korea could f(x)’s new album, just a year off their award-winning Pink Tape, be referred to as a “comeback.” K-pop, or Korean pop, is known for upbeat tempos, flashy group numbers, simple choreography, and above all its amazing sense of schoolgirl-goth-glam fashion. f(x) is one of the guiltiest bands around – I don’t believe anyone expected their new flagship music video to be a piece of anti-government agitprop. Suffice to say, there’s much to be criticized about the bureaucracy and corruption that has put money before lives, allowing a string of avoidable disasters culminating in the MV Sewol ferry incident that cost 296 lives. f(x) uses agitprop imagery – gasmasks, burning books, a 1984 movie theater, programmable audiences – and even updates their fashion to include symbols of rebellion.   -Vanessa Tottle

26. King of Sorrow – William Wolf
directed by Casey Culver

Seedy, steamy, and very alone. I ask you who’s sadder? Women who have sex for a living or a man who has sex to cope with living? He’s stuck in his drink. He’s so sad about himself he can’t interact with the women he’s with. The women are glamorous. Their tattoos speak to individual identities. He’s in designer threads, designer drink, designer bar. What’s his identity? He returns to a silhouette that goes in and out of focus. If he doesn’t want to join in, the women enjoy themselves as if he isn’t there. He can sing into his drink. The spoils of victory – everything you ever wanted and nothing to want anymore. Welcome to Hollywood.   -S.L. Fevre

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“300: Rise of an Empire” a Colossal Disappointment

300r Eva Green.tiff

The first 300 was, ostensibly, a movie about men in their underwear hacking at each other with swords in slow-motion. Needless to say, the girl I was dating at the time declared it her “new favorite movie ever.” It was also an art movie told through action scenes.

What I remember best from 300 isn’t any particular fight, though. I remember the field in which Sparta’s King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) says his goodbyes to Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) before heading off to battle. As much as that film glorified war, it also glorified a field of wheat in sunrise as the wind carried through it. It made going to battle a bittersweet, complex choice, and it glorified the reasons to stay home just as much. It was the rare action movie from which liberals and conservatives both lifted messages, and that both sides still argue is “theirs.”


The sequel, 300: Rise of an Empire, is not an art movie. It’s an action movie that looks artful because if it didn’t, it couldn’t call itself 300. What it champions is warmongering. There’s not a single scene that shows us what’s at stake. Our Athenian hero Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton), who dreams of a united Greece, treats Athens like his own private, military dictatorship. You might expect this in itself to be a strong political statement, but nope – it just hurries the plot along faster if the screenwriters don’t require anyone else to speak.

300: Rise of an Empire also makes its villain far more interesting than its hero, but commits the cardinal sin of not realizing this. We cheered for Leonidas in the first film because Butler knew a movie filmed entirely in front of a green screen needed an anchor. He needed to act like the audience was 1,000 feet away, so he had to shout and wink and chew every piece of nonexistent scenery just to match the tone of his CG surroundings. This time around, it’s Eva Green (Casino Royale) who snarls and sneers and stares piercingly through every line of dialogue. She plays the evil Persian general Artemisia as if Darth Vader found the goth section of Katy Perry’s wardrobe.


The film gives Artemisia such a tragic backstory that you’d be a terrible person to root against such a survivor. I tire of boys in genre movies being captured and trained to be gruff and manly and fight as noble gladiators while the narrative equivalent for girls is to be sexually abused. It’s needless, lazy, and offensive. Combine such tragedy with Green acting circles around the rest of the cast and Themistokles’s incessant blandness, and I found myself rooting hard for Artemisia to win the day.

Yes, in the film, Greece represents democracy, Persia represents slavery, and Themistokles can’t sneeze without trumpeting the word “freedom,” but the movie does an awful job of championing any of these ideas or showing them in practice. When Themistokles isn’t outguiling bad guys, he spends all his time trying to get Mel Gibson’s Braveheart monologue right. I stopped counting at the sixth attempt. There’s some fresh air when Sparta’s Queen Gorgo finally gets involved (I’d much rather the movie had followed her into battle), but it’s too little too late.


Some of the art direction is inspired – particularly in the first two battles when the actors are the focus. As more CG is involved, however, the mostly naval battles feel increasingly generic and fast-forwarded. Zack Snyder, who directed the first 300, was smart enough to treat his visual effects in a painterly way. Graphics were to add background and tone, to emphasize the human form or, at most, to create some unspeakable enemy. When there was blood and viscera, it was strangely beautiful, and clarified each move of the fight choreography by extending it into an arc of unreal color. In Noam Murro’s sequel, the effects increasingly take over the battles and play both hero and enemy. Blood gushes everywhere for the shock of it and, like most shocking effects, becomes quickly tiresome.

As for 3D, Murro often washes out his backgrounds with shafts of sunlight or flashes of light in darkness. These are nice effects in 2D, but have the tendency to blur out details and strain viewers’ eyes in 3D. 300: Rise of an Empire is rated R for pretty much everything – bloody violence, sex, nudity, and some language. The first 300 used these things to make a point. It’s hard to forgive its sequel for not bothering to have one.