There was a dark period for music videos for a while. After MTV stopped playing them, and the internet wasn’t quite sure how to take them on, it became harder to engage with the music video as an art form. No longer could you plop yourself on the couch and watch an endless stream of videos. But as the years went on, the internet adapted, and now there’s a wealth of music videos in the world, from amateur geniuses to big-budget pros — the only through line is that artists are being more ambitious than ever before with their videos, and that’s exciting. Here are the ten best ones we saw this year.
10. Sheck Wes, “Mo Bamba”
The concept of the “Mo Bamba” video is as simple as the song’s creation: Just Sheck and a few dozen of his homies mobbing around a Harlem basketball court with fat wads of cash. Oh, yeah, and Sheck’s leg is broken, so, hilariously, he’s wheeling around for most of it. And that money? An advance from two barely-out-of-college white label execs chasing Sheck’s one-hit hype with the greedy hope of him becoming their next cash cow. It’s a tale as old as music-industry time with a modern twist in that these viral stars are onto the game. It’s a delight to watch play out.
9. Kendrick Lamar and SZA, “All the Stars”
It’s not a year-end video-highlight reel without Kendrick Lamar, who previously topped this list two years in a row. His contribution this year comes from the Black Panther soundtrack, which he curated, for its centerpiece, “All the Stars.” Directed once again by Dave Meyers and Lamar, it’s a tableau of African beauty, from the fabrics to the dancing to the religious iconography. Every frame of the thing could be an art exhibit. The only knock against it remains its potentially shady origins.
8. Doja Cat, “Moo”
Sometimes, the best visual moments happen with very little thought or intention. Singer Doja Cat was sitting around her bedroom messing around on Logic Pro and Instagram Live when she remembered she had a cow costume and some green sheets lying around. Boom: A viral video was born. “Moo” is textbook GIF bait, from the green-screen farm scenery to the French fries stuck up her nose to slurping a milkshake in a matching denim getup and thong. There’s no sense in trying to resist this DIY masterpiece. Sorry, vegans.
7. Troye Sivan, “Bloom”
More and more, music videos are becoming resplendent mood boards. Enter Troye Sivan’s “Bloom,” the visual love child of Madonna, Bowie, George Michael, Annie Lennox, Perfume Genius, and Michelangelo. There’s not a whole lot of action happening here, but more than enough to feast your eyes on. Sivan poses in Valentino, a balaclava, a leather beret, a red lip, and more couture looks than the human eye can handle in one sitting. At last, Sivan has reached his final form: a living Pride float.
6. CupcakKe, “Duck Duck Goose” (NSFW)
The internet loves to police CupcakKe, the Chicago rapper redefining raunch. Her video for “Duck Duck Goose,” like so many others, was briefly banned from YouTube, but it and CupcakKe herself command all the eyes anyway. There is maybe not another living person owning their sexuality in this way — celebrating it, commodifying it, and not taking it too seriously. “Duck Duck Goose” has more dick than it knows what to do with (though, CupcakKe has plenty of ideas). Enough dildos to make American Vandal blush. If you’re not playing CupcakKe in your sex-ed classes, it’s time to reevaluate the curriculum.
5. Janelle Monáe, Dirty Computer
Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer is another world-building offering from the archandroid. Her latest “emotion picture,” as she calls these things, envisions a Handmaid’s Tale–esque version of events in the near future where otherness is a defect and the “defective” are sent to the House of the New Dawn to be stripped of their so-called virus. The standouts in the film are the San Junipero fever dream “Make Me Feel” and pussy power–themed “PYNK,” both co-starring Monáe’s new muse, Tessa Thompson, as one of her two love interests. The other? A man. This film was the moment when Monáe came out as herself.
4. 2 Chainz ft. YG and Offset, “Proud”
We are nothing without women, so for Mother’s Day this year, 2 Chainz put his mom in the video for “Proud,” which, you guessed it, is a dedication to doing right by her. But Mama Chainz isn’t merely the guest here; she’s the main event, mouthing her son’s verses like she’s been rapping all her life (and probably has), but she’s not alone. Why, yes, that is also Mama Offset counting up the cash in the trap house and Mama YG casually repping her set. Did you think these men were self-taught?
3. The Carters, “APESHIT”
In 2011, Jay-Z mused on Watch the Throne: “But why all the pretty icons always white? Put some colored girls in the MoMA.” This year, Beyoncé did him one better and inserted herself into the Louvre, graciously taking him as her plus-one. The Carters’ last two solo projects have been visual albums impossible to compare to anything else — nothing is touching Lemonade — but in marrying their music for the first time on a full-length joint project, they released just one stand-alone music video that represents a career-defining statement. It juxtaposes Beyoncé with the Mona Lisa, Great Sphinx of Tanis, Venus de Milo, and other historic works, positioning her as their equal — a modern marvel recognizable as art-world canon. But at this point, she’s not waiting around for permission to enter that space. The keys are hers to do with them whatever she damn well pleases.
2. Tierra Whack, Whack World
There’s not a minute to waste in Tierra Whack’s audiovisual splendor, Whack World. Literally. It’s a 15-minute collection of short stories each corresponding with the minute-long songs of her debut visual album, a medium that has grown the most in music now that the boundaries for art consumption are more blurred than ever. Its first two minutes are the most striking, told first through manicure art and then a facially disfigured Whack. The Philly performer is exceptionally animated, acting out every scene — each more absurd than the next — as if it were theater. She is comedic in some, like the pet cemetery, and dead-eyed elsewhere (“Sore Loser”), but consistently magnetic, emerging as rap’s next best talent.
1. Childish Gambino, “This Is America”
There are plenty of songs on this list that don’t hold up without their visual component. Chief among them is “This Is America,” arguably one of the most political pieces of art made this year, conceptualized for Donald Glover’s music alter ego Childish Gambino. It is black joy snuffed out by brutality. It is life interrupted. It is warfare on the playground. Brilliantly directed by Atlanta showrunner Hiro Murai, it is what effective wokeness should look like: disturbing, anxious, self-aware, mesmerizing, and never too pretty.