The first ever music video played on MTV was Video Killed the Radio Star by The Buggles, at 12:01am on 1st August 1981 – and we truly hope the irony of that title isn’t lost on you.
The longest ever music video? That’d be Happy by Pharrell Williams, certified by the Guinness World Records in November 2013 as 24 hours long exactly. It features the four minute track, played on loop 360 times, with various people (including Pharrell himself at the top of every hour) dancing and singing along. So, now you’ll never have to shrug, “It’s probably Michael Jackson” when that question comes up at the pub quiz.
And yet neither video has made it onto this list. What follows is our pick of the best music videos of all time. Don’t see your favourite? Chuck a comment at the end of the piece – you probably won’t change our mind, but we do so love a good music video.
Take On Me by A-Ha (1985)
Partly filmed in Kim’s Café (now called Savoy Café) on Wandsworth Road in Lambeth, approximately 3,000 pencil-traced and free-sketched frames were needed for the video, which took over 16 weeks to complete. And it’s now been remastered in stunning 4K, hasn’t it?
Fun fact: the young woman in the video was played by Bunty Bailey, lead-singer Morten Harket’s real-life girlfriend at the time.
Thriller by Michael Jackson (1982)
It’s over 13 minutes and 40 seconds long, but Michael in both his werewolf and zombie guises and throwing all kinds of shapes simply can’t be reduced down and packaged into a standard-length music video.
Best bit: no sooner has Michael revealed himself as a zombie, the undead horde (who’d looked pretty scary up ’til that point) simply assemble in a perfect pyramid behind him. All they really needed was a bit of a dance after all.
November Rain by Guns N’ Roses (1992)
The fifth-most expensive music video ever made when it hit TVs in 1992, even now November Rain sits at number 21 in terms of costliest music videos – useful intel, if you’re thinking of doing our most expensive music videos quiz. Apparently, much of the expense was lavished on Stephanie Seymour’s wedding dress (Seymour was Axl Rose’s girlfriend at the time) as well as the helicopter for those aerial shots of Slash.
Fun fact: in July 2018, November Rain became the first video made before YouTube to surpass one billion views.
Fell in Love with a Girl by The White Stripes (2002)
Indisputably the Stripes’ breakthrough song, this stop motion animation is a must for Lego-lovers. The boy building numbers with the blocks at the top of the track is the son of Michel Gondry, the video’s director.
Fun fact: Jack White said he contacted Lego after the video was completed, hoping to strike a deal where a small Lego set could be packaged with each single of the record, including all you’d need to build Lego versions of Jack and Meg. Lego refused, saying: “We don’t market our product to people over the age of twelve”. The video became a hit and Lego contacted Jack again, having decided that it was in fact a great idea after all. Jack White refused.
Learn to Fly by Foo Fighters (1999)
Jack Black and Kyle Gass (from Tenacious D) play the airline’s useless mechanics, and the fact that they aren’t the best thing in this video is really all you need to know. Dave Grohl et al portray every other character on the passenger airline flight, from babies to FBI agents. Only their real-life personas manage to avoid the in-flight coffee, which has been inadvertently spiked by Tenacious D’s “World Domination brand ‘Erotic’ Sleeping Powder”. Honestly, you’d have thought Dave ‘Fresh Pots’ Grohl would have been the first to succumb.
If you need more Foo: Big Me – the best Mentos ad parody you’ll ever see.
When the Sun Goes Down by Arctic Monkeys (2005)
Seldom will you see such high production quality for a music video, and with very good reason. When the Sun Goes Down – which details a prostitute trying to escape her malevolent pimp in Sheffield’s Neepsend district – was also released as a short film, Scummy Man. Who’s that girl there? Nina, played by future BAFTA winner Lauren Socha, alongside This Is England and The Irishman star, Steven Graham, as George.
Best bit: Graham wearing both a pink feather boa and the sinister smile of someone about to indulge in a spot of light torture. He’s a scumbag, don’t you know…
Crazy by Aerosmith (1994)
Alicia Silverstone was something of an Aerosmith staple by the time she filmed Crazy – it marks her third appearance in the band’s videos. It was, however, the first time Steven’s then-teenaged daughter Liv Tyler appeared in one, and thus the first time we all went “wow, they really look alike”. If using your feminine wiles to steal from a petrol station on a Thelma and Louise-style roadtrip sounds like fun, this is the video for you.
Fun fact: Crazy was one of MTV’s most requested videos of 1994.
In Demand by Texas (2000)
The late, great, mesmeric Alan Rickman in a suit, comforting lucky minx Sharleen Spiteri in a chauffered Bentley Azure. If this weren’t maddening perfection enough for one video, the car pulls in for petrol and Rickman reveals himself as a milonguero to boot, leading her through a tango on the station forecourt. And this man supposedly dumped her and only wants her back because she’s popular?! We refuse to believe it.
Best bit: the very end. As swipes at your former squeeze go, this is right up there with Justin Timberlake’s Cry Me a River.
I Want to Break Free by Queen (1984)
OK, everyone remembers Freddie Mercury as Bet Lynch, Brian May as Hilda Ogden, Roger Taylor as Suzie Birchall and John Deacon as Ena Sharples, all from Coronation Street. But do you remember Freddie sans trademark ‘stache, bare-chested, pointy-eared and sat atop a writhing mass of dancers from the Royal Ballet? No. So watch it again.
Best bit: Freddie in full Nijinsky faun mode, being propelled across the stage by a mass of dancers rolling on the floor.
Go With the Flow by Queens of the Stone Age (2003)
If imitation be the sincerest form of flattery, then witness 2005 flick Sin City prostrating itself at the feet of this red-white-and-black banger from Josh Homme and co. Featuring a rendered QOTSA performing on the back of an out-of-control Chevrolet pickup truck on an acid-trip through the desert, it won Best Special Effects at the 2003 VMAs. Driving into the spread-eagled crotch of a busty maiden will do that to a judging panel.
If you like this: check out visual artist collective Shynola’s past work on U.N.K.L.E.’s An Eye for an Eye. That’s what got them this gig.
Into the Great Wide Open by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (1991)
Another fine example of Petty in full Mad Hatter regalia (only bettered, perhaps, by his efforts in Don’t Come Around Here), the video for Into the Great Wide Open also features Johnny Depp as Eddie, showcasing his musician chops early on, plus Faye Dunaway as his coy manager. Look a little harder and you should also be able to spot cameos by Terence Trent D’Arby, Chynna Phillips and Matt LeBlanc – a smorgasbord of early 90s stars.
Did you know? The video was shot during the filming of absurdist comedy Arizona Dream, in which Depp and Dunaway were supposed to be starring. Both were at a loose end though; the movie was on hiatus as its director Emir Kusturica reportedly suffered a nervous breakdown.
I Want Love by Elton John (2001)
A single shot of Robert Downey Jr., pre-sobriety, walking through Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills, lip-syncing the song. Director Sam Taylor-Wood shot 16 takes of the video, but Elton John insisted that the last take be used because “The way he underplays it is fantastic”.
Best bit: remember, when this video was shot, Downey had just been axed from Ally McBeal after wandering around Culver City barefoot, having been left by his then-wife. Thus, his delivery of the opening line, “I want love, but it’s impossible. A man like me? So irresponsible” is moving in the extreme.
Sabotage by The Beastie Boys (1994)
A world without Anchorman is an infinitely poorer place, but that’s exactly where we’d be if Mike D, MCA and Ad-Rock hadn’t dressed up as 1970s cops for this Spike Jonze-directed homage-cum-parody of Starsky and Hutch, Hawaii Five-O and The Streets of San Francisco. Jonze went on to win an Oscar for 2013’s Her – it’s not hard to see why. Music videos just aren’t supposed to be this good.
Did you know? Trainspotting director Danny Boyle loved Sabotage’s mid-video in-character credits sequence so much, he copied it for the opening of his 1996 Brit flick classic.
Just by Radiohead (1995)
Jamie Thrave was hand-picked by the band to direct this video after they saw several of his experimental short films. Filmed near Liverpool Street Station in London, a businessman lies down in the middle of the pavement. A heated, subtitled conversation (one that does not echo the lyrics of the song at all) ensues, and rather than being jarring, it’s actually brilliant.
Best bit: replaying the close-up of the man’s lips after the subtitles “God forgive me… and God help us all… because you don’t know what you ask of me” and still failing to work out what he said to upset every other commuter in London.
Coffee & TV by Blur (1999)
How does a milk carton feel when you drink it? Wonder no longer, as a sentient, anthropomorphic bottle of cow juice goes in search of the missing person (Blur guitarist Graham Coxon) displayed on his side, encountering motorcyclists, truant teens and ladies of the night en route. The parallels with Coxon’s own life – he wrote the song about his struggle with alcoholism and absenteeism from the band – only add to the narrative arc.
Best bit: his mission complete as our Graham returns to the family home, a resurrected Milky reunites in dairy heaven with love interest Strawberry Milk. No, you’re crying.
Sledgehammer by Peter Gabriel (1986)
A masterpiece of sculpture ‘claymation’ and stop-motion animation, the video won a record nine gongs at the 1987 MTV Video Music Awards, including Video of the Year, as well as Best British Video at the 1987 Brit Awards. In 2018, a remastered 4K version of the video was premiered on Apple Music.
Fun Fact: Gabriel had to lie horizontal under a sheet of glass for 16 hours while filming the video, one frame at a time. He said of the experience: “I was thinking at the time, ‘If anyone wants to try and copy this video, good luck to them'”.
Humble by Kendrick Lamar (2017)
Whether he’s dressed as a pope in a cope, sat in Christ’s seat in Da Vinci’s The Last Supper or mimicking a mustard commercial, Kendrick’s award-winning anti-conformist exercise in irony is a glorious middle finger to a streaming age in which music videos gain less traction.
Best bit: His head is on fiiiiiiiiiiirrrrrrrrre. (His head is on fiiiiiiiiiiirrrrrrrrre.)
Weapon of Choice by Fatboy Slim (2000)
The video that had us all yelling “I didn’t know Christopher Walken could dance!” was filmed in the dimly lit lobby of the Marriott Hotel (now the L.A. Grand Hotel Downtown) in Los Angeles. It was directed by Spike Jonze, whom Walken had apparently been trying to get hold of with the aim of filming his dancing anyway. Shoot a music vid instead? Yeah, sure.
Fun Fact: Norman Cook (aka Fatboy Slim) had originally been scheduled to do the flying shots in harness for the video, but was unavailable that weekend because his then-wife, Zoe Ball, was giving birth. Christopher Walken, eh? Good sport.
Runaway by Kanye West (2010)
Yes, it’s self-referential Kanye. Yes, it’s half an hour long. Yes, that full version is technically nine songs from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy stitched together. No, none of that matters. Of course, you could just watch the four-and-a-half minute single Runaway – you still get a ballet troupe and an ostentatious dinner party – but where’s the fun in that?
Did you know? As well as throwbacks to past Ye classics, there are cameos from Nicki Minaj and even Bon Iver here. Nice.
Like a Prayer by Madonna (1989)
Three of Madge’s music videos place second, third and fourth in terms of the most expensive music videos ever made. And none of them is this video. Leon Robinson (best known for his lead role in Cool Runnings) plays a crying, bleeding and eventually living saint in statue form. Although casts were taken of Robinson’s face, hands and feet to fashion the statue, it apparently didn’t look like him, so he was asked to re-shoot the scenes in person, wearing special makeup. Worth it in the end though – the song went on to sell over five million copies worldwide, making it one of the best-selling singles ever.
Fun facts: The gospel vocals were recorded by The Andraé Crouch Choir, who also appeared on Michael Jackson’s Man in the Mirror. For the intro, producer Patrick Leonard used guitar recordings by Prince, whom Madonna had asked to contribute to the track.
Here it Goes Again by OK Go (2006)
The video that launched a thousand spin-off treadmill memes is still unequivocally the best. Apparently it took 17 attempts to perform the single-shot take cleanly. Bet they could never do it again though, right? Actually, they performed it live at the 2006 MTV Music Awards. Nailed it.
Best bit: for us, 1:13 when the band either sit down or lie on their bellies and scoot through the treadmills’ hand-rails entirely.
The Rain by Missy Elliott (1997)
You know a music video’s got game if Timbaland’s sniffing around, but Missy Elliott can do no wrong here, proving once and for all that she really can look good in a bin-liner. Of course there’s a Hummer, of course there’s rain, but this was the first video of Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott’s career directed by Hype Williams and the iconic fisheye lens shots here became a new hip-hop staple.
Fun fact: as well as Timbaland, Tamar “Taj” Johnson George of SWV, Yo Yo, Lil’ Kim, 702, Da Brat Lil’ Cease and even Puff Daddy make cameos in the video.
Elastic Heart by Sia (2015)
The incredible Maddy Ziegler, who previously danced in Sia’s Big Girls Cry and Chandelier videos, appears in trademark blonde wig again, this time alongside a near-naked, dirty Shia LaBoeuf in a cage. Is it a cage fight? Is it a gurnathon? Either way, Maddy wins. But it’s mesmerising.
Best bit: LaBoeuf, realising he’s being utterly outdone by a child, flexes his muscles and scales the bars of the cage to hang from its centre like a budgie.
Come Daddy by Aphex Twin (1997)
Filmed on the same council estate Stanley Kubrick used to shoot several scenes in A Clockwork Orange, an elderly lady’s dog pees on an old telly and it all goes Pete Tong. As if the distorted and warping head of Richard D. James chanting the lyrics isn’t scary enough, it unleashes a gang of small children, all of whom bear James’s grinning face. It is the only music video that made it into the top 50 of the 100 Greatest Scary Moments, as voted by Channel 4 viewers in 2003.
If you need more Aphex: we can’t post the video because of the intense and continued swearing at the beginning, so please tread with caution, but Windowlicker is a piece of work.
Teardrop by Massive Attack (1998)
Massive Attack’s Robert “3D” Del Naja told The Guardian in 2010, “We kept the Teardrop baby but being made of old latex, it just doesn’t have the longevity. It’s now just a primitive animatronic half-creature in a puddle of rotten latex. It’s still quite scary: it’s like a museum piece, but for all the wrong reasons.”
The video, featuring the aforementioned (but much healthier) plastic phoetus singing the lyrics in the womb won the 1998 MTV Europe Music Award for Best Video.
Did you know? Elizabeth Fraser, the vocalist on the track, said her lyrics were inspired by the death of her one-time close friend, singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley. The news that Buckley had drowned whilst swimming came while Fraser was recording this song.
Wide Open by The Chemical Brothers (feat. Beck) (2015)
Sonoya Mizuno dances in a warehouse (choreographed by resident choreographer at the Royal Ballet, Wayne McGregor) as each of her limbs, torso and finally her head morph into metallic mesh. The video required the creation of over 7000 digital plates and a complete 3D mapping of Mizuno’s body. The result is sublime.
If you need more: have a gander at how Wide Open was made.
New Tribe by Powder (2019)
A Tokyo factory churns out resignation letters. A team of couriers drive into night with pallets full of the things, but there’s a human barricade on the famous Rainbow Bridge – the letters can’t get through. Oh wait, it’s all in one businesswoman’s mind! Thankfully, her inner turmoil dissolves when her brain bursts open, revealing a happy, fuzzy DJ peach ’bout to spin some tunes.
Best bit: arguing over whether the peach-brain lady resigned anyway.
Cellophane by FKA twigs
Look, we can waffle on about what the routine aims to convey (Twigs wanted it to feel like a confession of vulnerability, an embodiment of the laparoscopic surgery she underwent to remove six fibroid tumours from her uterus), the stunning costume, the falling sequence or the strange creatures who bathe her in mud at the end. Truth is, FKA twigs is a stone cold phenomenal pole dancer.
Interesting fact: the video is directed by long-time Bjӧrk video collaborator, Andrew Thomas Huang.
Night & Day by Hot Chip (2007)
Veteran Brit movie star Terence Stamp, American comedian/musician Reggie Watts and Australian supermodel Lara Stone all feature in this mental British romp involving dancing monks, a huge Faberge egg with eyes and a yin/yang UFO.
Did you know? Peter Serafinowicz is listed as the video’s director (yes, that Peter Serafinowicz) alongside the quote: “Many animals were harmed during the making of this video. Regrettably, none of them made the final edit.” We reckon he’s joking… He’s joking, right?
Frontier Psychiatrist by The Avalanches (2000)
A chorus of ghosts, a lead singer who is a terrapin with the head of an elderly gentleman, a skeleton DJ with a golden eyeball and an actual crazy coconut. There’s just so much to… enjoy.
Fun fact: The video was runner-up in the Best Music Video category at the 2002 Rushes Soho Shorts Film Festival, also coming in at no. 19 on Pitchfork Media’s Top 50 Music Videos of the 2000s.