Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Top 10 Music Videos of 2013

For music videos, 2013 stands as one of the most alternately minimalist and bombastic years in recent memory. We had videos shot for $13 (more on that later) rubbing elbows with clips that probably spent that in half-a-second. Some were content to just host an awesome dinner party, while others irreparably damaged dancing bears. We had cult-like pastors riding white horses, A$AP Rocky & Skrillex hanging out on rooftops in the Dominican Republic, and more than a few puppets. We also saw one of rock's all-time classics receive a 21st century makeover; blurring the lines between music video and channel surfing. Oh and Pharrell, a man whose own 2013 was about as crazy as everything on this list combined, dropped a 24-hour music video. There was only room for 10 though, so more than a few stirring visuals were left off. Rest assured everything that made it earned its place.    

10. "Suit & Tie" ft. Jay Z- Justin Timberlake (Dir. David Fincher)


This one could've been the most over-the-top video of 2013 and no one would've batted an eye. Two absurdly high-profile music figures teaming up in a video directed by Se7en/Fight Club/Social Network director David Fincher, how could it not be bombastic? Instead, "Suit & Tie" heads in the other direction. Timberlake and Hov' hang out in an apartment, eat cereal, and watch basketball. Both hide behind mics that would make Elvis envious and meticulously tinker in the studio, making the role of studio-rat the coolest thing ever. Filmed in a crisp black-and-white style that resembles Fincher's efforts for the iconic "Vogue" video, "Suit & Tie"s big-budget shows. Still Timberlake and Jay Z are relatable. They may arrive in tuxedos, but these are two are more comfortable kicking back in street clothes.

9. "Love is Lost (Hello Steve Reich Mix)"- David Bowie (Dir. David Bowie)

"Love is Lost"s Halloween release-date was perfect for more than one reason. Of course the imagery of ghostly apparitions and human-puppets is perfect for a day rife with ghouls and goblins. However, once you hear about the video's shoe-string budget, supposedly totaling $13 (the cost of a USB stick), the Halloween comparisons become even more appropriate. No genre thrives on micro-budgets quite like the horror-movie genre and the chameleonic Bowie tips his hat to that thriftiness with this skin-crawler. Begun in comeback video "Where Are We Now?", Bowie continues the trend of appending his face to lifeless dolls. And if that weren't enough, he wanders down the darkened halls of his New York office while mourning the loss of his marionette friends. James Murphy's remix of the Next Day cut suggests movement, though it's in short supply here. Do all the running you'd like, these lumbering specters will catch up to you.

8. "Hot Knife"- Fiona Apple (Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)


Much of Fiona Apple's excellent 2012 release The Idler Wheel... felt combustible, though the igniting spark didn't come until closer "Hot Knife." Where much of the record languished in relationship hell, "Hot Knife" danced like a "bird of paradise," coasting on little more than: echoing timpani, trilling piano, and a multi-tracked Fiona. Former-boyfriend Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights/There Will Be Blood/The Master) preserves that ecstatic, small-stakes feeling for the video. Apple exuberantly hollers key lines, tilting her head to-and-fro like the female lead singing the big love song during a Broadway musical. When she scorches, Anderson's stark black-and-white converts into color. Other than split-screening with sister Maude Maggart, Apple's all alone, and yet nothing in the indelible clip suggests loneliness. When you're on this high of a cloud what could possibly bring you down?

7. "Mind Mischief"- Tame Impala (Dir. David Wilson)

There's a slew of words that come to mind when I listen to Tame Impala: wide-eyed, trippy, Revolver-indebted, and quite often lonely; "sultry" doesn't even begin to figure in. Not so for the David Wilson directed video, which spotlights a naive male student getting special attention from a vivacious teacher. Kevin Parker's lyrics suggest an innocence being slowly crushed by a turbulent relationship, or in the case of the video: a high-heel. An extended slo-mo posterior shot risks being labelled misogynistic, but perfectly conveys the sort of fumbling grabassery that marks many teenage boys. And fumble our young lead does as he shares a joint and a close-quarters car romp with his teacher. Inevitably the drugs kick in and Wilson takes us to an animated cosmos where the two embrace, recalling Anchorman's "Pleasure-Town" scene in the process. Parker dreamily warbles "she remembers my name" over and over; unfortunately that dream is shattered when the teacher expels the student and drives off solo. It comes with the territory, a natural consequence of "
dreaming aloud."

6. "Worst Behavior"- Drake (Dir. Director X & Drake)



I'll admit I came close to hating "Worst Behavior," from Drake's junior release Nothing Was the Same. It had nothing to do with the booming trap-rap beat; my ire was exclusively reserved for Drake's chestpuffing persona. His snarl of "motherf***ers never loved" is more whining than menacing. And no amount of booming bass can give that bark added bite.

However, all that stops mattering the moment this ten-minute extravaganza begins. A love-letter to Drake's adopted hometown of Memphis, "Worst Behavior" privies us to: cut-up jazz sessions, Southern-pimping, enough pink Caddies to make Cam'ron nauseous, and a lengthy mid-section that includes Juicy J and Project Pat talking hush-puppies. Drake's own dad makes a lip-synching appearance, as does a compatriot in an OVO owl-suit (sadly no Ma$e). And if all that weren't enough, we hear choice bits of "Own It" and are teased by what may be an upcoming video for the toxic Jhené Aiko cut "From Time." Listing all of that, I'm still forgetting a few things, that's how dense "Worst Behavior" is. To some it's indulgent, to Drizzy its "just flexin."

5. "We Can't Stop"- Miley Cyrus (Dir. Diane Martel)

When's the last time something so-roundly labeled as irredeemable trash has inspired so many think-pieces? Maybe it has something to do with the gaudy video for "We Can't Stop" melting most of my functioning brain cells, but I can't think of anything in recent history that tops this. On-fire rap producer Mike Will Made It and Cyrus' teaming is relatively straightforward, catchy, electro-pop. Saying this video, directed by Diane Martel (who also shot "Blurred Lines"), is "straightforward" or "normal" is an incredible misnomer. "Bonkers" doesn't even begin to describe Cyrus' and Martel's grand vision. Miley continually chirps "it's our party we can do what we want to," though the visions more closely resemble a prepubescent acid trip where dancing bears haunt your dreams, meals consist of money sandwiches, marshmallows are lit by candlelight, and you spell out "TWERK" in your alphabet soup. Bash it for being: racist, gaudy, vulgar, or idiotic if you'd like, just know that no video in 2013 proves the adage "there's no such thing as bad publicity " quite like this one.

4. "Bound 2"- Kanye West (Dir. Nick Knight)

He has to be trolling us right? That's the first question you're likely to ask upon viewing this Nick Knight directed clip for closing Yeezus number "Bound 2." I know I found myself muttering that when I first saw the audacious video. When brought up in circles of friends, everyone was oddly hesitant to profess an unfettered admiration for it. Was the self-proclaimed "creative genius" simply f***ing around, including soaring eagles and galloping horses for a laugh? Not quite. Yeezus' greatest strength as an album is its fierce reliance on staunch-minimalism. "Bound 2"s "hokey" video is an illuminating reflection of that new-found aesthetic. West could've have given us flashing lights and lasers; he doesn't. What we get is mostly green-screened footage of West and wife Kim Kardashian getting tantric atop a motorcycle out in the desert. As Hari Sethi points out in his wonderful piece on the video, this "lone rider" role is exclusively reserved for white males. Seeing West in the role isn't silly, it's subtly groundbreaking. Not only is he challenging audience expectations, he's fighting to change longstanding archetypes. 

3. "Next"- Tim Vocals (Dir. @GetmJaf)

Rap, more than any other genre favors the notion of "keeping it real." And while larger-than-life characters like Rick Ross have blown a hole in that notion, there will always be room for rappers like Chief Keef who possess a near journalistic-eye in detailing the "real world." I hate to be hyperbolic, but no video in the rap/R&B world circa 2013 is as real as the sobering clip Harlem-native Tim Vocals crafted for his Weeknd interpolation of "Next." The self-proclaimed "goon singer" stalks the streets at night, insulated from the noisy hustle and bustle of the Big Apple by his Beats headphones. At surging moments when the measured piano explodes into clattering percussion, he drums along. 

On first watch nothing is particularly striking, until the end when a giant message sprawls across the screen reading: "FREE TIM VOCALS: GONE TILL NOVEMBER." It's then you realize when he croons "I wasn't selling drugs, I was up there smoking bud," and later, "How can I be so dumb to get pinched for a dime of the smoke?" the story he's telling is entirely autobiographical. Never has someone waiting in line been as harrowing as it is here, when we get one of the last glimpses of Vocals before he surrenders his freedom. This is Cinéma vérité masquerading as an R&B video. And like any great documentarian, Vocals doesn't outright celebrate or condemn the mistakes he's made, he "simply" acknowledges them.


2. "Diane Young"- Vampire Weekend (Dir. Primo Kahn)

Vampire Weekend's third album Modern Vampires of the City painstakingly detailed the transitory periods in our lives. Times when we focus on the sun at our back instead of the uncertain shadows in front of us. Religion acted as as Trojan horse for the New York four-piece, at one point using an all-loving God as an allegory for a one-sided (non-committal) relationship.
The first image in the video for auto-tuned rockabilly single "Diane Young" continues the charade, offering a comical reworking of the Last Supper where the main seat belongs to a man in a balaclava. Any pretense of religious commentary is quickly abandoned when the scene switches to a raucous party where: Sky Ferriera, Santigold, and the Dirty Projectors' Dave Longstreth bottle pop, and unleash their inner-MacGyver by reconstituting a saxophone as a densely packed bong. "Nobody knows what the future holds," Ezra Koenig sings in the critical breakdown. We're all going over the cliff at some point, so why not celebrate?

1. "Afterlife"- Arcade Fire (Dir. Emily Kai Bock)

It's almost kismet that Arcade Fire's crowning achievement in 2013 was also there most modest. When the video for "Afterlife" first appeared, I wrote "
One thing that gets lost in the midst of Arcade Fire's relentless promotion for Reflektor is the sense of humanity they've imbued the work with." After all, this is a band who began their debut album by resolving to dig a tunnel (yeah a tunnel) through the hard-packed snow to bridge the gap between distant young lovers.

Win Butler and company are bleeding hearts in the best way possible, and nowhere on the career redefining Reflektor is there more blood loss than "Afterlife." That childlike naiveté so prominent in parts of Funeral lingers, albeit tempered by hard-earned truths and world-weariness. Burning down the wick, Butler continues to believe a perilous relationship can be worked out through conversation, even if takes a trip into the afterlife to complete the task.

The father of this video is worn down as well. A widower, he struggles to make ends meet while dealing with one son who'd rather speak English than Spanish and another content to deceive him to attend a friend's party. That weariness becomes literal when the father and youngest son go to sleep, as the eldest sneaks out. Soon enough all of their dreams are projected before us. The father searches for his lost wife in construction sites and crowded dancehalls. Collapsing in the middle of the party the older brother sees visions of baptisms. The youngest imagines a terrifying scene of being trapped in a laundromat dryer with no one to help him out. Only the father's dreams are bathed in director Bock's warm black-and-white, suggesting the color of life left him when he lost his wife. The kids meanwhile keep up hope. They firmly believe after all of "the bad advice" dissipates and the hangers-on clear out, there remains a chance to retain a connection all the way into the afterlife. Sigmund Freud once posited "dream life is capable of extraordinary achievements," "Afterlife" offers the proof.


Honorable Mentions:

"Trying to Be Cool"- Phoenix
(Dir. Canada): Fueled by "mint-julep testosterone" Thomas Mars and friends display their own ideal of cool, which includes: cannonballs, primates in executive chairs, white dress-suits, and of course ping-pong.

"Wishes"- Beach House (Dir. Eric Wareheim): Baltimore dream-pop duo scores a "pagan pep rally" where Twin Peaks/Mad Men actor Ray Wise emcees a raffle to determine who will sacrificed to the local gods.

"Lilies"- Bats for Lashes" (Dir. Peter Sluszka): Natasha Khan looks heavenward for answers, only to be met by hellish puppets.

Editor's Notes: You'll notice Bob Dylan's innovative "video" for "Like a Rolling Stone" is noticeably absent from the list. I didn't forget Mr. Zimmerman, I just believe what he and director Vania Heymann offered up went well beyond the scope of a "music video" and rather than shoehorn it in, I left it off out of respect. Pharrell's 24-hour "Happy" video was left off not because I don't believe it doesn't merit inclusion, but I simply have been able to finish the whole thing, and including it without watching the whole thing would be extremely disingenuous. Finally, I hope everyone enjoined the list. If you think something is too high or too low or some grand omission was made, feel free to say so in the comment section.

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