The 50 Greatest Music Videos of All Time, Ranked by AV Club

It’s not an espe­cial­ly straight­for­ward mat­ter to pin down when music videos first emerged. In a sense, the Bea­t­les were already mak­ing them back in the late six­ties, but then, MTV, where the music video as we know it rapid­ly took shape, did­n’t start broad­cast­ing until 1981. The very first video aired on the chan­nel, “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Bug­gles, had actu­al­ly been made almost two years ear­li­er, in 1979. But that did­n’t stop it from doing a good deal to define the form that would, itself, define the pop­u­lar cul­ture of the eight­ies. Nor did it stop it from appear­ing, 40-odd years lat­er, on The AV Club’s list of the 50 great­est music videos of all time. They’re view­able as a Youtube playlist here, or you can stream them all above.

Not that it ranks espe­cial­ly high. In fact, it comes in at num­ber 50, lead­ing into a selec­tion of videos from artists pop­u­lar in a range of sub­se­quent peri­ods: Talk­ing Heads, George Michael, Nir­vana, LL Cool J, Brit­ney Spears, Tay­lor Swift. As the artis­tic ambi­tions of the music video grew, it reflect­ed not just a song’s cul­tur­al moment, but put sev­er­al such moments in play at once.

In Son­ic Youth’s “Teen Age Riot,” “a clip of Elvis Pres­ley is fol­lowed by space-jazz pio­neer Sun Ra; a snatch of under­ground com­ic book auteur Har­vey Pekar on Late Night with David Let­ter­man flits by.” For the “high water mark for kitschy 1990s irony” that is Weez­er’s “Bud­dy Hol­ly,” “Spike Jonze sets the video in the 1950s… but it’s the ’50s as seen on Hap­py Days, a sit­com that paint­ed a rosy pic­ture of the Eisen­how­er years.”

Jonze also draws inspi­ra­tion from sev­en­ties tele­vi­sion for the Beast­ie Boys’ “Sab­o­tage,” a trib­ute to the cop shows of that era that makes up for an appar­ent lack of bud­get with sheer humor and ener­gy (a reminder of the direc­tor’s ori­gin in skate­board­ing videos). I remem­ber my mil­len­ni­al peers get­ting excit­ed about that video in the 90s, as, in the 200s, they’d get excit­ed about Michel Gondry’s all-LEGO ani­ma­tion of the White Stripes’ “Fell in Love with a Girl.” This was rough­ly when Brit­ney Spears was break­ing through to super­star­dom, thanks not least to videos like “Baby One More Time,” which com­bines the slick­ness of teen pop with the chintz of teen life. “The idea for Britney’s icon­ic school­girl uni­form and pig­tails came from the singer her­self: direc­tor Nigel Dick fol­lowed her lead, then had wardrobe buy every stitch of cloth­ing in the video from Kmart.”

This was also before Youtube, whose ascent made the music video more viable than it had been in years. The AV Club’s list does include a few videos from the past decade and a half— Bey­on­cé’s “Sin­gle Ladies,” Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” — but on the whole, it under­scores that there’s nev­er been anoth­er time like the eight­ies. That decade that went from “Ash­es to Ash­es” to “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” “Relax,” “Mon­ey for Noth­ing,” “Walk This Way,”Take on Me,” and “Rhythm Nation” — to say noth­ing of insti­tu­tions like Duran Duran, Madon­na, and Michael Jack­son, all of whom make the list more than once, but none of whom take its top spot. That goes to Peter Gabriel, whose stop-motion fan­ta­sia “Sledge­ham­mer” is MTV’s all-time most-played music video. “If any­one wants to try and copy this video, good luck to them,” Gabriel once said. He meant its painstak­ing pro­duc­tion, but he could just as eas­i­ly have been talk­ing about the place it attained in pop cul­ture.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Watch the First Two Hours of MTV’s Inau­gur­al Broad­cast (August 1, 1981)

Michel Gondry’s Finest Music Videos for Björk, Radio­head & More: The Last of the Music Video Gods

All the Music Played on MTV’s 120 Min­utes: A 2,500-Video Youtube Playlist

David Bowie Releas­es 36 Music Videos of His Clas­sic Songs from the 1970s and 1980s

Hans Zim­mer Was in the First-Ever Video Aired on MTV, The Bug­gles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star”

David Lynch’s Music Videos: Nine Inch Nails, Moby, Chris Isaak & More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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