TV

The Best Music Videos of 2020 — Year in Review

Narrowing down any kind of list of music videos usually means separating the meaningful expressions of musical ideas from the flashy gimmicks. The best ones that you’ll see below manage to work in tandem with the songs, each elevating the other. Sometimes, this might mean that a great song has a leg up — it’s hard not to be wowed by something paired with a song that means a lot to you or has been stuck in your head for months.

But it works the other way, too. It’s easily as possible for a track that may not have clicked the first few listens to suddenly come alive with the right visual pairing.

Some of these will be easier to match to this calendar year than others, but each of them take a distinct stylistic approach to the songs they complement. Whether simple, elaborate, or in that area in between, these are all reminders that — at least when it comes to music — 2020 still had plenty to offer:

20. Real Estate, “Paper Cup” (dir. Nick Roney)

According to Real Estate frontman Martin Courtney, “Paper Cup” is “a song about questioning your chosen path in life and searching for meaning in what you do.” In the video that message is carried out by a washed-up audio-animatronic squirrel named Chipper whose spent his entire career performing a hair metal version of Country Bear Jamboree at a Chuck E. Cheese-style children’s arcade. Directed by Nick Roney and shot by Christopher Ripley, there’s both a subtle sadness to watching Chipper sluggishly go through the motions, cybernetically recalling the glory days of yore, and a tongue-in-cheek takedown of “woe is me” navel-gazing from the rich and famous. The ending is perfect combination of those two idea, a seemingly sweet swan song, followed by a disturbing, disgusting, and violent coda, wrapping back around to a sweet moment shared between artist and audience. Party time is all the time, indeed. – LAG

[Author’s note: To put the mindfuck that was 2020 in some context, when Steve put this on our nomination list, I was certain he was mistaken and that it had been released in 2019 because January feels like it was several years ago.]

19. The Beths, “Dying to Believe” (dir. Callum Devlin)

Anything less than the ideal balance of self-awareness could doom a premise like this one. Yet, this fake VHS how-to setup finds each member of this New Zealand rock quartet perfectly arranged in a four panel pan as each of them dispenses their own bits of wisdom. Right in the sweet spot between overstuffed or underdone, this gets to draw on jokes about songwriting, instrument technique, and concert attire and hold on them just long enough for them to register. At the very least: it’s always welcome to see a video that gives everyone in the band their own distinct arc and looks like it was genuinely fun to film. The back-and-forth motion is timed down to the frame (barely squeezing in the singalong ball on the word “Trying” is a wonderful little touch in a video filled with them) and it all culminates in a structure-busting finale right in line with the song’s overflowing energy. Hooray for teamwork! — SG

18. Jessie Ware, “Step Into My Life” (dir. Madison Shelpuk)

2020 certainly doesn’t have a monopoly on music videos built around one person dancing. But pointing a camera at someone and getting them to move is far from a guarantee of a compelling final product. So our hat goes off to Shelpuk and dancer Eric Schloesser for taking full advantage of this bowling alley escapade, halfway between a fantasy and a daydream. Just as Schloesser moves across different planes, sashaying and cartwheeling along with the song’s orchestral groove, the camera bends across its own axes in unexpected ways. Rest assured we’ll be sampling a bit of those arm and hip moves whenever our next trip back to the lanes happens. —SG

17. Harry Styles, “Watermelon Sugar” (dir. Bradley & Pablo)

There’s absolutely no pretense to the video for Harry Styles’ “Watermelon Sugar.” From the title card stating “This video is dedicated to touching” to watermelon serving as the most overt of metaphors, there’s little this video leaves to the imagination — and frankly, that’s the point. Filmed in January on a Malibu beach, the video is exactly what it purports to be: a musician and a bunch of good-looking models having a blast on a beautiful day. The pseudo-homage to Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing” video and the analog video aesthetic is nice, but the hero of the piece is Mr. Styles, knowingly chewing the scenery (and watermelon) with a sly grin and constant wink. – LAG

16. Lauv, “Modern Loneliness” (dir. Jason Lester)
15. Major Lazer ft. Marcus Mumford, “Lay Your Head on Me” (dir. Filip Nilsson)
14. Thao and the Get Down Stay Down, “Phenom” (dir. Erin S. Murray and Jeremy Schaulin-Rioux)

A choreographed group dance, a montage of performers, and a day-in-the-life chronicle of social media ennui: describing these three videos to anyone in 2019, it wouldn’t necessarily be obvious what they all shared. But viewed through the unavoidable lens of the year that they come from, they form a kind of unofficial trio. They represent some of the best of the lockdown-inspired offerings from artists and bands trying to find a way to channel the uneasiness of months spent alone into something that felt artistically relevant to an unfolding era.

In hindsight, it’s incredible how quickly Thao Nguyen and her team of collaborators not only saw how Zoom windows would come to be the dominant visual mode of the year, but also put together this impressive ode to distanced creativity. Crowdsourced contributions like those in “Lay Your Head on Me” became a way for some artists to connect with fans while also giving voice to the idea that no one was shielded from the events of this year. And with isolation becoming an even more universal theme than before, it made sense that someone would look to harness a view at life through screen time.

Many videos filmed in the months before March or with less obvious constraints may take on a retroactive significance (Jack Garratt twirling around to the chorus of “Better,” Moses Sumney in old-age makeup looking over the remains of a haunted bedroom in “Me in 20 Years”) and some filmed during it may end up being indicators of this time in their own way (HAIM strolling through the parking lot of The Forum, Jeff Tweedy lending the lower half of his face to a parade of famous guest lip-syncers). Regardless of the timing, no list of the year’s best would be complete without including the videos that were able to respond to an uncertain world in as close to real time as you can get. —SG

13. Lido Pimienta, “Eso Que Tu Haces” (dir. Lido Pimienta and Paz Ramirez)

On-location video shoots became something of an unintended balm in recent months, especially when showcasing large, joyous gatherings. Few of them had a place take centerstage as much as Palenque, Colombia does in this video, co-directed by Pimienta. “Eso Que Tu Haces” has a rainbow of color that feels as natural as the sunlight bathing the intersecting lines of dancers. There’s not much in the way of visual trickery, just clear and intricate dance steps from choreographer Matilde Herrerra. With Pimienta walking through the street with a smile on her face, there’s a feeling of just being grateful to be alive. And those who aren’t singing convey just as much as when they’re standing still as they do when they’re in motion. —SG

12. Phoebe Bridgers, “Savior Complex” (dir. Phoebe Waller-Bridge)

Playing characters on the verge of tears, haunted by something they can’t shake, isn’t the exclusive territory of Paul Mescal. But if his big TV breakout hadn’t already proved he was up for the task, this video would have proven he’s one of the best men for the job. In a year where plot-sparse, star-driven videos popped up in other places (see also: Aiden Gillen as a TV presenter with a sinister secret in Fontaines D.C.’s “A Hero’s Death” or Michael Sheen’s fascinating work as a man transfixed by a kitchen appliance in Kelly Lee Owens’ “Corner of My Sky”), this is the one that best tapped into its protagonist’s charms and made best use of its own ambiguities. It’s the tiny details that really make this — that picture frame! — all capped off by the frequent appearance of a dog that we’re pretty sure could carry a Hulu show all its own if it really wanted to. —SG

11. Open Mike Eagle, “Bucciarati (ft. Kari Faux)” (dir. Demi Adejuyigbe)

The video for Open Mike Eagle’s “Bucciarati” is a testament to the creatives at its center: the rapper, of course, but additionally his co-star Paul F. Tompkins, his director Demi Adejuyigbe, and his producer Liz Maupin. Filming anything mid-pandemic (as evidenced by the dearth of content not shot on an iPhone or via Zoom) was not an easy task, especially when music videos don’t tend to garner massive budgets. Which is why Adejuyigbe smartly pared back on the bells and whistles you’d likely see any other year (crowded jury box, cutaways to the gallery) and simply focused on the performances from Eagle and Tompkins as two lawyers vociferously pleading their lip-synced cases to a judge (played by trumpeter Jordan Katz). It’s a simple concept, used with comedic precision on “Drunk History,” with the “twist” here being that Eagle gifts all of his verses to Tompkins, taking Kari Faux’s lines for himself. The result is a video that mixes concept and performance, comedy and drama, real-life issues and Hollywood make-believe, all while likely having a crew of four in N95s behind the cameras. – LAG

10. SiR, “John Redcorn” (dir. Daniel Russell & Domonic Polcino)

Imitation is the greatest form of flattery, or so the saying goes. The level of care poured into SiR’s video for “John Redcorn” by SiR and directors Daniel Russell and Dominic Polcino clearly shows they hold Mike Judge‘s “King of the Hill” in high esteem. Copying the characters’ wardrobe, domicile, and vehicle (although now it levitates) to essentially lovingly re-staging Jon Redcorn’s relationship with Nancy Gribble (replacing Jon with SiR and Nancy with a woman named Neicy), the video is a glowing homage to the former Fox sitcom. Of course, no parody of “King of the Hill” would be complete without a shot of Hank and the boys drinking by the fence, and the video’s version does not disappoint, casting Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul, Schoolboy Q and Jay Rock in the roles of Hank, Dale, Bill, and Boomhauer, respectively. – LAG

9. Rina Sawayama, “Bad Friend” (dir. Ali Kurr)

Every point where it seems like this video locks into what it’s going to be for the remainder, there’s a shift. A barfly oner gives way to a two-person bender, which morphs into an out-and-out fistfight with a small audience unsure of what to do as it unfolds. This all pairs really well with one of the thematic takeaways from Sawayama’s song, that things can either change or get lost the wider that the scope of life gets. Between the shadowy grayscale, the beat-drop-synced punches, and the slow-motion objections of bystanders, it’s the kind of controlled chaos that best represents inner turmoil in its outward form. Even if you see that final shot coming, it’s still a striking place to leave people. —SG

8. Run The Jewels, “Ooh LA LA (feat. Greg Nice & DJ Premier)” (dir. Brian & Vanessa Beletic)

Filmed a few weeks before the pandemic hit, the video for Run The Jewels’ “Ooh LA LA” had an alternate dimension feel to it when it was released in April, a month into most states’ self-imposed shelter-in-place guidelines. Which is somewhat fitting as the video is the visual manifestation of “waking up on a day that there is no monetary system, no dividing line, no false construct to tell our fellow man that they are less or more than anyone else.” The world that Run The Jewels and directors Brian and Vanessa Beletic created in “Ooh LA LA” was already one that most viewers would want to step directly into, but in the wake of the presidential administration’s bungling COVID response, Mitch McConnell and the GOP’s downright evil stance on financial assistance, and the rich getting even richer via the invisible hand of the stock market, a world where “the whole meaning of money has vanished” seems less like a quaint dream and more like a necessity. And on that day, finally free of the shackles of our capitalistic caste system, Run The Jewels “will throw a motherfucking party.” In the words of Killer Mike, I need a bottle of Moet, garçon! (P.S. My favorite Easter Egg is Zack de la Rocha showing up in the video despite not being featured, because of course that dude wouldn’t miss dancing on capitalism’s grave.) – LAG

7. Sufjan Stevens, “Sugar” (dir. Ezra Hurwitz)

Cutting between four isolated performances (beautifully realized by Samantha Figgans, Raymond Pinto, Walter Russell III, and Celeste Mason) and in various combinations, Hurwitz and choreographer Kyle Abraham paint a portrait of a family dealing with a crumbling world around them. Whether the force causing fissures in every room is a trauma from within the walls or from outside them, the resulting ballet tries to put a movement to the turmoil. Adding in sweet food and drinks as a nod to the title and whatever connotations/associations come with it, the pressure borne by these four in their own private rooms builds until everything around them literally falls away. The final moment pointedly doesn’t feel like an easy triumphant finish, mainly because of all the swirling emotion that everyone involved is able to imbue into the tiny glimpses that come before. —SG

6. Beyoncé, Blue Ivy, SAINt JHN, and WizKid, “Brown Skin Girl” (dir. Jenn Nkiru)

“It was so important to me that we represented all different shades of brown, and I wanted every character to be shined on in a regal light,” Beyoncé said in an interview shortly after “Brown Skin Girl” was released on YouTube. The video, an excerpt from the Disney+ visual album “Black Is King” features cameos from Kelly Rowland, Lupita Nyong’o, Naomi Campbell and even Beyoncé’s daughter, Blue Ivy Carter. Variety referred to the Jenn Nkiru-directed video as “almost more like a series of paintings than a conventional video,” but that implies a passivity to the proceedings. It’s not just about locations and wardrobe, but rather, the kinetic motion of the camera in relation to its subjects, subtly panning up, zooming out, or spinning overhead. It really is a marvel. In the words of IndieWire’s Libby Hill, if the world of film and television awards were fair Beyoncé would win an Oscar, an Emmy, and a Grammy every year she released an album. -LAG

5. Dua Lipa, “Let’s Get Physical” (dir. CANADA)

CANADA perfectly harnesses the rainbow-colored Busby Berkeley energy that Edgar Wright was going for in his video for Beck’s “Colors.” Here, it’s coupled with an omnibus of color-wheel panache, piling in digital snippets from animation/VFX house Mathematic, some shadowplay-esque choreography from Charm La’Donna, and the implied danger of falling down an endless maintenance shaft. In lesser hands, all of the visual trickery — executed on a soundstage that seems like the size of a small airplane hangar — would feel like a simple proving ground for rotating platform and mirror matching shot technology. Instead, it all coalesces into a kinetic display that works whether it’s just the singer and another dancer (a pas de Dua?) or an entire platoon of monochromatic performers. —SG

4. Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion, “WAP” (dir. Colin Tilley)

No music video quite captured the zeitgeist the way Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP” did. From Carol Baskin (of “Tiger King” fame) bemoaning the “lurid” video for it’s glamorizing the use of tigers as pets to a Change.org petition to remove Kylie Jenner from the video to conservative blunderkind Ben Shapiro reading the lyrics on his show to prove… something, I’m sure, “WAP” was a lightning rod for very dumb controversy. Which is kind of a shame, because the video itself deserves praise. Filmed during the pandemic (the shoot spent $100k on testing alone), the Colin Tilley-helmed video is a mix of Hype Williams and Tim Burton by way of the strip club. It’s a video that demands one’s attention, which perhaps is what made it so uniquely ubiquitous in 2020. -LAG

3. Christine and the Queens, “La Vita Nuova” (dir. Colin Solal Cardo)

Sure, it’s a bit of a cheat to include Christine and the Queens’ “La vita nuova,” a 12-minute video that includes every track off an EP with the same name on this list, but it’s our list! [Plus, no one got mad when we included Girl Talk – Girl Walk // All Day on our Best of the Decade list.] The short film for “La vita nuova” was filmed pre-pandemic at the famed Palais Garnier opera house, and features gorgeous choreography by Ryan Heffington. Each song in the suite gets its own distinct setting and style, though the story roughly follows Héloïse Adélaïde Letissier’s “Black Swan”-esque relationship with a hellish faun figure, portrayed by Félix Maritaud. The video, ably directed by Colin Solal Cardo, is sprawling masterpiece featuring allusions to other Parisian works such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera, as well as more modern references, (the works of Bob Fosse and Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet”). As Vogue put it, “think the ‘Thriller’ music video meets “Paris is Burning.”” -LAG

2. FKA twigs, “sad day” (dir. Hiro Murai)

There’s something to be said for Hiro Murai’s ability to so convincingly blend lived-in spaces with the surreal. Nothing seems out of the ordinary, until everything is. The video for FKA twigs’ “sad day” is the latest in a long line of Murai-helmed videos that ostensibly begin as snapshots of everyday life in public eateries (Childish Gambino’s “Sober” and “Sweatpants” immediately come to mind) before morphing based on the emotions of the song. In the case of “sad day,” a track that sees twigs trying to salvage a fading relationship, that means a sword fight breaking out in the middle of a diner, spilling out into the street in a “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” manner, before coming to a visually arresting halt. The swordplay is to be commended as twigs and her antagonist Teake, a dancer she cast via social media, swap blows (a press release stated that FKA twigs’ swordsmanship is the result of three years’ training in the art of Wushu). -LAG

1. Phoebe Bridgers, “I Know the End” (dir. Alissa Torvinen)

It would be difficult to proclaim 2020 to be anybody’s year, both as an intellectual exercise and for the linked ignominy that might bring, but there was no artist who connected more viscerally to the isolation-drenched existential dread of watching the world eat itself whilst doomscrolling than Phoebe Bridgers. In the words of Vox’s Emily VanDerWerff, Bridgers’ “Punisher” “sounds like driving up the coast when the world is on fire.”

The video for the album’s closer “I Know the End” begins suspiciously quaint, a long dolly in on Bridgers singing in a tub of water, but the minute we exit is when things start to stutter and glitch, there’s magic, there’s apples, there’s the future meeting the present, to dissect it too fully robs it of something. Then the song shifts, and the video mimics it. Movement, floating, driving forward to something. Bridgers’ official uniform of a skeleton onesie has never looked more ominous than in the shots where she’s running in pitch black toward the camera / interspersed with her struggling to stay above water in the aforementioned tub which seemed so serene earlier. Then the video climaxes in an empty L.A. Memorial Coliseum in an explosion of fear and passion, as if fight and flight had become irrevocably intermingled. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this video, expertly directed by Alissa Torvinen and beautifully shot by Casey Stolberg, is the perfect marriage of time and place, image and song.

It’s the reason Steve and I broke our own self-imposed rule — to never to have more than one music video from one artist or director — for fear that we’d end up with a list that was 50% DANIELS and 50% Beyoncé. But “I Know the End” superseded that limitation. Hell, I even thought about including this live version from “Late Night with Seth Meyers” (directed by Jason Lester and shot by Powell Robinson). And that’s why it’s IndieWire’s Best Music Video of The Year. Phoebe, the Chili’s gift card is in the mail. -LAG

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