1. 1. “Formation” — Beyoncé
First point of order: To keep a level playing field, there are no repeat artists and no longform music videos on this list. It was extremely difficult to not include “Hold Up” or any of the other Lemonade videos for songs released as singles. Lemonade is best viewed as a cohesive unit; “Formation,” on the other hand, is a music video that stands best on its own.
It beautifully and succinctly represents all the themes of Beyoncé’s album: It’s as hard-hitting as it is joyous; a Southern Gothic fashion film that also manages to be a love letter to a New Orleans (still healing from Hurricane Katrina); and deeply researched, utilizing footage from The B.E.A.T. and samples from NOLA personalities Big Freedia and Messy Mya. Plus, lyrics about baby hair paired with a little black boy in a hoodie dancing in front of graffiti that says “Stop Shooting Us” is a perfect example of how the video shows a full portrait of black love, black life, and black loss. Sans higher meaning, it’s still thrilling to see Bey and a team of dancers decked out in Gucci sweatsuits perform a dance number in an empty pool.
2. 2. “Lazarus” — David Bowie
Even in a vacuum, this video deserves to be on the list; considering the context of how Bowie used it to say goodbye to his adoring fans prior to his passing is further evidence of his creative genius. What a rare chance for an artist to have control over how they say farewell, especially when we have lost so many greats so unexpectedly in recent years. The metaphors within the video were a bit overlooked when it was first released — like the personification of death — but Bowie’s giving his performance all the energy he had left is the only thing the audience can see.
3. 3. “Fade” — Kanye West
This planet didn’t need another homage to Flashdance, but Kanye still insisted, and it pays off. Teyana Taylor — with a exquisitely sculpted body to launch a thousands of gym memberships — exhibits charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent with each dance move. The actor/artist and Iman Shumpert, her husband, glisten as they embrace in the shower in a scene that feels almost too intimate, but the tension is quickly cut with Taylor’s WTF moment as she poses as a cat woman surrounded by lambs, holding on to her man and baby Junie. Even when he isn’t starring in them, Kanye’s videos continue to pleasantly surprise.
The title credits in the style of Law and Order: SVU. The cyberpunk fashions. The doodles popping up onscreen. The blood rave straight out of Blade. There are so many things to love about this video from Grimes, an artist who gives way more consideration than most to her visuals, often directing or co-directing the best of them. The frenetic energy is infectious — quite the headbanging departure from Grimes’ airy breakout single “Oblivion.” There’s something new to notices upon each viewing.
5. 5. “JoHn Muir” — ScHoolboy Q
Anyone who loves music videos should do themselves a favor and go through all the ones ScHoolboy Q put out this year. It’s as hard a choice to pick favorites from the rapper’s set as it is to pick the best video in Lemonade. The Blank Face LP videos tend to play around with perspective: Here, we’re given the story of a car going through the streets of LA in a much grittier take on a day-in-the-life video, exploring the haunting idea of how our possessions sometimes outlive us.
This video came out in April, but it’s gained relevance as the year has gone on since it’s become clearer that Americans have some pretty divergent ideas of what being American means and looks like. Mitski has said that the song is simply about personal differences leading to a breakup. But the video very much hits on the complicated feelings that come with being a woman of color with a white significant other, worrying about not fitting the “Best American Girl” mold. Identity politics aside, it’s also rad to see Mitski shred on the guitar in a regal gold dress.
7. 7. “False Alarm” — The Weeknd
Regardless of how you feel about his music, The Weeknd has great visuals. Sure, you could write this video off as just a short version of Hardcore Henry (a 2016 action film shot entirely through POV) since they share the same director, but Hardcore Henry didn’t get as many millions of views as “False Alarm.”
As a stunning showcase of black joy — birthed from a collaboration between Solange and her director husband Alan Ferguson — this video was desperately needed during the darkest times of 2016. And that’s especially notable, given the song title describes an uncomfortable situation that all too many black women find themselves in. Solange brings so much comfort: taking us to church with her hand waves as she gets down next to Sampha, who is wearing what looks like a duvet.
9. 9. “Genghis Khan” — Miike Snow
Quite a few videos this year had twists on romantic tropes, like the excellent “What’s It Going To Be” by Shura. But “Genghis Khan” is the most special. Male villains have so often been coded as gay, heroes and antagonists can get flirty, but nothing ever seems to come of it except the destruction of a terror plot. Here, we get that romantic payoff — and that’s not even the big twist! Not to mention the mens’ dance number rivals those in La La Land.
10. 10. “Work” — Rihanna feat. Drake
It’s deeply satisfying witnessing Rihanna return to her roots, not only giving us the patois she brought with “Pon De Replay,” but collaborating again with that video’s director, X, and many of its dancers a decade later. While it’s fun to see her dance with her rumored ex Drake, the real liberation comes from how engaged Rihanna is, dancing with herself in the mirror in a Jamaican restaurant, enamored with herself as much as the audience is with her.
11. 11. “1 Night” — Lil Yachty
Not bowing down to rap’s old guard has made Lil Boat divisive to audiences, and this video is proof he knows it, and does not care one bit. Jokes, memes, and genuine laughter abounds, from entourage to eye candy. By the end of the video, you can’t help but to adopt the nautical emojis for yourself, singing along to this earworm.
If you’re going to make a music video about a boy and his dog, it’s smart to cast an actor named Finn Wolfhard. And it’s even smarter to cast him when he also happens to be one of the kids from the breakout hit Stranger Things (though Pup featured him first, in another video from 2014). “Sleep in the Heat” is part punk Marley and Me; part tour diary with preteen stand-ins; part ode to the band’s pets. There is no shame in tearing up to this cathartic video.
13. 13. “Superlove” — Tinashe
There wasn’t a better summer video than this late entry from Tinashe. Director Hannah Lux Davis is a master of making colors pop and talent sparkle while Tinashe gives us the choreography the rest of the latest crop of music stars has been severely lacking. They can keep the Baywatch reboot: This video scratches that itch, with hot lifeguards and hot beach dwellers pulling rescue stunts to catch each other’s’ romantic attention.
14. 14. “Caroline” — Aminé
It’s not like we haven’t seen a video with a group of guys having fun, rapping to the camera and cruising down the road sitting on top of the car. But this video is executed well enough that the audience has about as much fun watching it as Aminé had making it. The black, red, and yellow color scheme, Aminé’s unique haircut, the Tarantino movie Easter eggs, the random bananas in the backseat, and the acknowledgement of the random bananas in the backseat mid-video make for arguably the most successful video to introduce a new artist this year.
15. 15. “Boy Problems” — Carly Rae Jepsen
This video, directed by Petra Collins, premiered on hip teen site Rookie and both pokes fun at and deeply appreciates its core audience of teen girls. The witty, satirical image of the fashionable young woman taking selfies in an open casket — unable to pick the best photo, and ignorant of the friends surrounding and mourning her — by itself is the most awesome, unapologetic single shot in a music video released this year.
16. 16. “Nobody Speak” — DJ Shadow feat. Run The Jewels
Kudos to this video for having the foresight to reveal what our country’s congressional meetings will probably look like in the next four years. “Nobody Speak” has better lipsyncing than anything on the Spike channel (the actors’ weathered faces are so expressive!). Enjoy this video of politicians arguing their way into a Battle Royale while we still find it funny and totally not plausible.
17. 17. “Technique” — Mai Lan
This video is bonkers beyond words. Hats off for Mai Lan’s amazing hair and for reminding us to moisturize and take breaks. Very important stuff, especially in a year like 2016.
18. 18. “You’re The One” — Kaytranada feat. SYD
Kaytranada is another artist who had a number of videos this year that deserve to be on Best Of 2016 lists. The appeal of this particular video is the homage to Coming to America and ’90s black sitcoms like Martin. It’s also rewarding to see Kaytranada get down to his own music — the man can really dance. Bonus points if you can spot the song’s vocalist SYD (lead singer of The Internet) in the video.
19. 19. “Why You Always Hatin?” — YG feat. Drake, Kamaiyah
As good as Drake’s singles were this year, none of his own videos were as good as the ones he’s simply featured in. This video from LA rapper YG really takes us back to the turn of the millennium where rap videos were peak opulence. The musicians all look like they’re living their best lives, from YG hanging out of a helicopter acting brazy, to Kamaiyah sitting rightfully atop a throne, to Drake doing the running man next to a slow moving Lamborghini.