The 14 Most Visionary Music Videos of 2017
Put away your pitchforks and enjoy some of the best 2017 had to offer.
Because I pissed off so many people in sharing my favorite music videos of 2016, I've decided to go a slightly different route with this year's edition. We're all aware of it. The whole issue with every single one of these end-of-the-year lists that ranks music, film, TV shows, etc. is that—guess what?—art is subjective and everyone has different tastes. No one is wrong about their opinions!
As someone who has a very particular set of tastes, I am very aware that what I like isn't for everybody (just ask my dad). With that disclaimer in place, I'm sharing what I believe to be some of the most visionary music videos of the year. Rather than rank them, the music videos are listed in a way that, when played in order, should mash up into its own narrative.
Whether it's their budget, theme, or medium, these selections push boundaries in every sense of the word. Most importantly, they all highlight just how exciting the music video form can be. It's been a hard year for a lot of people, but one positive is an incredible urgency apparent in art, an outpouring of voices from every part of the world.
You can either sit back and let it ride or you can check out these highlights from 2017 in any order you'd like.
Kendrick Lamar - Element.
Director - Jonas Lindstroem & The Little Homies
This isn't the only time you'll see Kendrick Lamar on this list. King Kendrick put out three incredible music videos this year in Element., DNA, and HUMBLE., and each was fueled by either beautiful imagery, Don Cheadle, and/or strong societal messages. Element. presents us with the artist at his most powerful.
The juxtaposition between violence and beauty blends perfectly with Lamar's lyrical content. In fact, after several watches, it's hard to separate the music from the video. When you think of one, you immediately think of the other, and that's what makes this video great. Many of these images are direct recreations of the work of Gordon Parks, the photojournalist who captured much of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.
As Cassie da Costa wrote in The New Yorker back in June, "In Element., blackness, or the dynamic presence of black bodies and the lives that inhabit them, is reimagined not only lyrically and narratively but also visually. The video’s aesthetics are not additional but, rather, essential to the action within and significance of each scene."
Kamasi Washington - Truth
Director - AG Rojas
Yep, this one's a long one. That's no surprise considering Kamasi Washington's last album The Epic clocked in at almost a three hours long. This year's release, Harmony of a Difference, is a much easier album to digest for many reasons. Washington debuted his suite earlier this year at the Whitney Biennial, and since Truth acts as both the album's culmination and climax, it's only fitting that part of the installation includes this short film from celebrated music video director AG Rojas.
At just 37 minutes in length, it won't take an eighth-of-a-day to listen to, and its memorable theme weaves in and out through each track, guiding the listener along. The same could be said about the above video which moves back and forth through space, time, and subject, always returning to an image on which you can grasp while still maintaining a sense of cosmic mystery. Kinda like Terrence Malick, wouldn't you say?
Björk: The Gate
Director - Andrew Thomas Huang
Just Björk being Björk.
Oh Sees - Drowned Beast
Director - Dr. D Foothead
Not too many people can tell an epic work of science fiction in under five minutes. Dr. D Foothead, whose work is often featured on Adult Swim, is the rare exception. Having made a name for himself with his brand of cosmic, music video psychedelia, you might dismiss his art as "trippy," but the more apt way to describe it is "defined by hypnotic detail, hyper-saturated color and dynamic, flowing form. The characters in his work navigate inner and outer worlds, experiencing states of mental abstraction, mystical revelation, and transformation." The pen and paperwork is, quite simply, some next level shit.
This is also a sterling example of how a visual artist can build a narrative entirely of his own from just a grain of sonic inspiration. As Oh Sees frontman John Dwyer said of the animator/director, “I wrote this song mostly in the studio and it was, in my mind, about the insatiable hunger of mankind, but sort of bent in this weird fantastical way." Once Foothead got control of it, however, it seemed to transform into something else entirely. "I always love working with Dr. Foothead," Dwyer continued. "Because his take is always coming from some other world."
Pipe-Eye - Sweets & Treats
Director - Alex McLaren and Sean McAnulty
Jumping from pen and ink to stop-motion animation, Sweets & Treats is something along the lines of which you've probably never seen (or heard) before. Clay and candy aren't the primary tools you'd usually stumble across when viewing a multimedia project, but I'll be damned if the combination doesn't work perfectly for this sweet yet nightmarish clip.
St. Vincent - New York
Director - Alex Da Corte
This one certainly takes the cake for best use of color palettes and art direction. Da Corte also directed St. Vincent's music video for Los Ageless which acts as a companion piece to New York. Being a fan of Da Corte's visual art, St. Vincent apparently reached out to him with a pitch along the lines of "do whatever it is you do so well."
In an interview with Pitchfork, Da Corte pointed out one of the greatest benefits of the medium, stating, "Moving images and moving videos, set to music or not, are all artworks in themselves. What’s really special about making a music video is that it can be shared so quickly and so broadly. Everyone can have access to it. It’s really free."
Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile - Over Everything
Director - Danny Cohen
Whereas New York shows us the potential of vibrant color, Over Everything proves how its absence can prove just as effective. For those unfamiliar with this international supergroup, Kurt Vile, an American rock staple, and Courtney Barnett, an up and coming Australian artist, found their music tastes aligned so closely that they needed to come together from across the world to collaborate on an album together.
In Over Everything, we get a glimpse of just how similar these two really are as they literally swap verses. The real stars of the video, however, are the artists' respective backdrops. Danny Cohen shot the video in both Philadelphia and Melbourne, sourcing a new crew from each city. His excruciatingly close attention to detail is seen with each mirroring background. No matter how stark the contrast is between our two society's cultures, the settings reveal how music is able to bridge the gap. Special kudos to the location scout, a hat I can only imagine Cohen wore as well.
Manchester Orchestra - The Sunshine
Director - DANIELS
The DANIELS are always a divisive directing duo, but I am firmly on the side of "I will like whatever these guys put out because they truly do not give a f***." The two are no stranger to the art of music video, catching their biggest breakl with the iconic clip for Lil Jon's Turn Down For What back in 2014. However, with the success of their debut feature Swiss Army Man last year, some were bound to wonder if they'd outgrown the medium.
It appears they're at least willing to do it one more time for the man who scored their feature. Manchester Orchestra provided the sonic vibes for Swiss Army Man, so it was only fair to repay with a visual favor. The result is this video for The Sunshine, which features some of DANIELS' trademark out-there humor and ability to blend CGI oddness into seemingly normal situations.
The Babe Rainbow - Peace Blossom Boogie
Director - Kristofski
The Babe Rainbow is probably the closest thing to a band of traveling hippies that we have in today's music landscape. With Peace Blossom Boogie, director Kristofski masterfully captures the spirit of the band through what appears to be a Super 8 film straight out of 1964. The YouTube page also contains what I believe to be the most accurate comment of 2017 with "I can't believe these people exist." Everyone in Australia is apparently beautiful, driving double-decker buses to sunny fields where they can frolic the day away. Seems like an alright life.
Jay-Z - Moonlight
Director - Alan Yang
JAY-Z came out with his new album 4:44 this year and with the release came the opportunity to flex some TIDAL muscle. Many of the music videos he dropped were initially only available to watch on TIDAL for a lengthy window following their premiere. This, of course, was used as an incentive for people to sign up for the streaming service. If that money is being used to fuel the production of videos like Moonlight, then I'm all for it.
The hype around this music video was certainly real. A reboot of Friends starring some of the freshest African-American faces in Hollywood and directed by Master of None co-creator Alan Yang? Who wouldn't want to see what that looks like? The result is an allegory that is more melancholy than humorous, more short film than music video. It must've generated a lot of new subscribers for HOV.
Young Thug - Wyclef Jean
Director - Pomp&Clout
You do the best with what you got, and this video exemplifies that.
Tyler, The Creator - Who Dat Boy
Director - Tyler, The Creator
Tyler, The Creator is one of the rare few who can do it all. At only twenty-six years old, he's been, well, creating, since the beginning of the Odd Future movement back in 2008/2009. That includes everything from several albums to multiple TV shows, his own clothing line, and music festivals.
This year's release Flower Boy was clearly a big step forward for the artist. Previously criticized for leaning too heavily on sophomoric humor, Tyler, The Creator's video for Who Dat Boy is the result of years of fine-tuning his irreverent, destructive style. He has unleashed his personal struggles with identity out into the world, and if it's too horrifying for some to witness, then so be it.
Ty Segall - Break a Guitar
Director - Matt Yoka
Many guitars were harmed in the making of this film. The great Matt Yoka strikes again with his kaleidoscopic music video for Ty Segall's Break a Guitar. If you're a fan of the rock-and-roll, there's nothing quite as satisfying as watching guitars being obliterated to smithereens, especially when Jack Black, Henry Rollins and Fred Armisen are the ones responsible for their destruction.
The thing to note here is that none of these explosions were put together in post-production with VFX. They're all the practical work of the pyrotechnicians at Court Wizard, and this video simply wouldn't be the same if the effects weren't done on set. Don't worry, there was a set medic in place to ensure that no one got hurt. Cronenberg fans will also be pleased to find an almost frame for frame Scanners tribute at the very end.
Kendrick Lamar - HUMBLE.
Director - Dave Meyers & The Little Homies
As I mentioned in the beginning, this was Kendrick's year, so it's only fitting we feature at least two of his videos on this list. While Element. may be the more powerful of the two, HUMBLE will end up being the one that people most remember. It may just be the most iconic video of 2017.