Top Five (or so) Videos of 2009

5. Kanye West: "We Were Once a Fairytale" [dir. Spike Jonze] A year ago I might have put this higher, but honestly, after that MTV Awards fiasco, I'm starting to have my misgivings about Kanye's ongoing self-dramatization of his burdensome ego, whether it amounts to crocodile tears. Still, there's no getting around the fact that this video is incredible. It's maybe not as simple and elegantly devastating as "Flashing Lights," also directed by Jonze, but it pushes his self-critique into a disturbing yet compelling terrain of psychosis. It also works as a riff on Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are - Kanye is Max, disavowing the animal embodiment of his inner child.

4. Matt & Kim: "Lessons Learned" [dir. Taylor Cohen, Otto Arsenault, and Matt Johnson]
What's a music video countdown without a one-take wonder? This one has a great mix of the staged and the spontaneous, and the last twist puts an edge on what could be read as an exercise in indie obnoxiousness.

3. Nyle: "Let the Beat Build" [dir. Chad Harbold]

Works as a rebuff to Kanye - bring it back to your peoples, kid, and make it joyful.

2. Major Lazer: "Pon de Floor" [dir. Eric Wareheim]

From the folks who brought us Flying Lotus' "Parisian Goldfish", a video I found it horribly offensive a year ago, but have a new appreciation for thanks to this new one. He celebrates sex in all its color, its audacity, its music. Aggressive, violent, scary and rapturous.

Honorable mention to Massive Attack's "Paradise Circus" featuring 73 year old ex-porn actress Georgina Spelvin reflecting on her career, interspersed with footage from her performance in Behind the Green Door. I'm a bit shy about putting such a graphic video on my list, but it's a striking, Errol Morris-like work that toys with the idea of the camera as an enabler of inner demons to be unleashed.

1. (tie) Grizzly Bear: "Two Weeks" [dir Patrick Daughters; dir. Gabe Askew]

The official video is by Patrick Daughters, arguably the most sought-after video director working today. The other is a fan video created by Gabe Askew over four months' worth of nights and weekends. Daughters finds a visual motif correlating to the music's cherubic creepiness; Askew uses the lyrics to launch into romantic reverie. Daughters explores face; Askew space. Regardless of which you prefer, that they are of a comparable level of achievement attests to the democratized nature of online visual media.

Patrick Daughters:

Gabe Askew:

Top 10 Music Videos of 2008: to be continued elsewhere....

I'm happy to report that the countdown of the Top 10 Music Videos of 2008 is moving to Spout Blog where the final five videos will be disclosed later this week. I'll post the link here when it's up.

In the meantime, here are some honorable mentions that almost made the top ten. See what you think:
AC/DC: Rock N Roll Train 
if only for novelty's sake: the first music video that plays in a Microsoft Excel file.
Bjork: Wanderlust 
as featured in Hayao Miyazaki's upcoming "Tibetan Yak Lemmings"
The BPA [ft. David Byrne & Dizzee Rascal]: "Toe Jam"
Somewhere Busby Berkeley is rolling in his grave...
Janet Jackson - Rock With U
Probably the most accomplished single-take video, a true musical number in the classic sense. If only its sense of 80s nightclub nostalgia wasn't so creepy...
Lil' Wayne - A Milli
A quasi-one take toss-off that was supposed to serve as a ramp-up to a more elaborate video but, like the song, becomes an unexpected showcase of Lil' Wayne's unlikely star qualities. It also works as a satire of the superrapper lifestyle, photo ops and all.

Best Music Videos of 2008. #7

M83, "Graveyard Girl." Directed by Mathew Frost

In the concept-and-spectacle-driven world of music video, once in a while you have to stand up for old-fashioned narrative, especially when it's done right.  The most accomplished demonstration of linear storytelling in a music video came courtesy of French shoegaze band M83 and director Mathew Frost.

in his unparalleled appraisal of the videos of M83, Brandon Soderberg astutely describes the video as a dreamily anachronistic vision of a high school situated somewhere between the cigarette-wielding 1980s teens of John Hughes movies and the cell phone infested campuses of the present.  The grainy, Maysles-style handheld documentary shots lend vintage authenticity to this concocted microcosm, while the tightness of most of the shots suggest the claustrophobic worldview of the protagonist.

The heroine is the cutest social misfit this side of Ally Sheedy, enhanced with Molly Ringwald's hair.  She haunts the campus like a goth ghost in a black hoodie, losing herself in sketch sessions at the local pet cemetery - where she meets the dreamboat campus jock in a moment of quintessentially cute vulnerability, tending to his dead dog's grave. From there the video takes us on a vivid journey, both narratively and emotionally, through a quick succession of shots, none lasting longer than 5 seconds.  It's clean, efficient and yet breathtakingly evocative, using an economy and purity of gesture and image worthy of Bresson.  Details like the girl's writing "Would you?? NEVER" in her notebook, or photo of the boy and his dog prominently placed on her dresser are tossed off like throwaways, but brim with wondrous suggestion over this girl's rampant inner life. Bless the wonders of YouTube to allow viewers to dwell on these lyrical flashes with instant rewind.

The video is not without its shortcomings - I could do without the goofy vision of dog heaven midway through, because it literalizes the imaginative depths of this girl that had otherwise been suggested through the swift, subtle details of her real existence. And the ending is such an out of left field Hollywood dream come true that I'm more inclined to view it as her imagination spilling onto the screen, thus rhyming with the dog heaven sequence - certainly a more interesting reading than believing that this guy would run after her; he hardly knows her! Still, what precedes this climax is a stunning display of music video storytelling, brisk, precise, poetic.

Equal if not greater attention has been paid to M83's other video from this year, the Eva Husson-helmed "Kim and Jessie," a delightfully choreographed teen dance video suggesting sexual initiation on wheels. If only it didn't owe so much to dance routines from Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video and The Big Lebowski... but it's a surreal joy to watch all the same.

Top Ten Music Videos of 2008. #9

Gnarls Barkley - "Who's Gonna Save My Soul?" Directed by Chris Milk

Literally the most heart-wrenching video of the year. Gnarls Barkley and director Chris Milk take a concept that in the wrong hands could be a crude literalizing of a romantic cliche (a jilted lover surrendering his heart) and turns out a video that is by turns absurd, wise, funny and harrowing. Their winning approach is explicitness and candor, as featured in the second minute: a raw, breathtakingly honest dialogue (possibly played out in the man's heartbroken imagination) in which the endgame scenarios are laid bare.  By spelling out the emotional mechanics of the breakup, the two characters become more than just types - they acknowledge the futility of the situation as well as we do, and we respect them more for it.

Dialogue drowns out the music in the first half of the video (almost to the point that the song is being underserved), but when the talking settles and the singing takes over (by the heart, now appended with Cee-Lo's lips) the song acquires new resonance. The dead-end analytics of the first half gives way to lyricism in the second; all everyone can do is shake their heads in a shared sadness. (Look for Gnarls Barkley commiserating from the kitchen).

Lest we think the film ends on this note of well-earned self pity, there's a possible twist at the end, signified by the way the heart pulls the boyfriend out from itself in a bloody rebirth. It adds a layer of meaning to the final exchange, when he answers her question, "Are you even listening to me?" with a flat "No."  It suggests that, having played out this mournful scenario in his own head, he doesn't need to proceed with the real-time breakup; that he has achieved, on his own, some measure of sobriety.

For more of Chris Milk's work, watch Gnarls Barkley's "Gone Daddy Gone" or Kanye West's "Touch the Sky"

Top Ten Videos of 2008. #10 (User Generated Content Day)

By now it's become a platitude to praise the wild world of user generated content (including, but nowhere near limited to: fan videos, mash-ups, and yes, the video essays produced for this blog) for its sheer abundance and diversity of creativity and skill with the video medium.  To be fair, there is a lot of junk out there that has to be sifted through in order to get to the good stuff.  There's also the issue of relative visibility - why some videos get millions of hits while other, arguably more deserving ones, languish in obscurity.  I like to think that the videos I produce with a host of esteemed collaborators on the greatest films of all time are deserving of people's attention, given the many hours I spend coordinating with commentators, assembling clips from films and editing it all together.  So please forgive me for being a tad jealous when I see that my videos get only a fraction of the views garnered by a Japanese girl staring at her webcam for 30 seconds or a pervert secretly videotaping his girlfriend playing Wii Fit in her panties, clips that take only seconds to shoot and upload.  But I'll just shrug it off and stick to the high road (for now). On the other hand, there are homemade videos that truly humble me for their brilliance. Sometimes that brilliance can occur with utter simplicity, yet yield results that are forehead-slappingly mesmerizing. Take J.T. Helms' fan video from last year for The Arcade Fire's "My Body Is a Cage." 

On the YouTube page for the video, Helms writes that the track "evoked an intense spaghetti western scenerio in my mind. I created a music video for the song with edited clips from Sergio Leone's "Once Upon a Time in the West" [TSPDT #80]... my favorite western."

The match between the song and the selected scene, the climax of Leone's film (warning: video contains spoilers), is uncanny - in their shared crescendoing progression, the synching of drumbeats and gunshots, and in the link of image to lyric (note where "my mind holds the key / standing next to me" and "just because you've forgotten doesn't mean you're forgiven" fall in sequence).  The result is a exciting rock revisioning of Leone's sequence, turning it into a completely self-sufficient music video while preserving the scene's original essence.

None of this year's fan mashups have been as classic movie relevant or as transformative with existing source material, but there's plenty of wit on display. My favorite is an uncredited recontextualization of Brit act Wiley's "Wearing My Rolex" to the Paul McCartney/Heather Mills divorce.  

It's particularly worthy of praise when you compare its cleverness to the overly slick, under-inspired official video, which is so vapid that reportedly Wiley walked out of the shoot.

There are also hundreds if not thousands of user-created videos submitted to contests held by music acts for their songs. Of the relatively few that I've had the chance to review, two stand out. The first is by "that go" who submitted a video for the contest hosted by Thunderheist for their song "Jerk It":

Animal patterns figure prominently here, as well as implied visual plays on the words "jerk" and "cock" - a concept as gutter-mindedly simple as filming a girl playing Wii Fit in her underwear. But when it's executed with a superheightened sense of the erotic beauty of visual textures set in motion, it becomes something sublime.  The isolated, microsopically detailed closeups (rendered by the amazing Red HD videocamera), of feathers, blonde hair brushing over a bare shoulder, zebra print leggings and gold chains fragment a woman and a chicken into a mesmerizing montage of surfaces. Around the one minute mark the jerking commences with the subtlest of vibrations; punctuated by images of the girl's clenched fist and slight tremulations of hair, skin and muscle tissue, it's a showcase of understated bodily motion suggesting tighly coiled erotic energy.  With apologies to Charlie Kaufman, the best synechdoche of the year is this girl's taut shoulder suggesting waves of sexual exertion.

Unfortunately, the video climaxes at 2:15 and suffers a flaccid, refractory last third.  But up to that point, it's a highly sensual rendering of an bizarre state of anticipatory motion masking crudely metaphoric activity. 

Another contest video that I like even more - and is therefore today's #10 music video of 2008 - was brought to my attention by fellow movie blogger and site visitor Matthew Kane Parker, who linked to this video made by Scottish art school student James Houston for a fan video contest held by Radiohead for their remix of "Nude." 

Not only did Houston shoot the video, he re-recorded the song using audio presumably sourced from the outmoded computer and office hardware featured onscreen. Shot with sterile, precise angles and processed to look like faded, decades-old film stock, it's a haunting, ingeniously resourceful, and strangely moving work. The final shots of the brand labels of each device suggest an auto-eulogy being delivered collectively through inadequate squeaks and clatters, transforming Radiohead's song into a technologic death-rattle. 

Sadly, Houston missed the deadline for the contest, but posterity (aided by viral distribution) will hopefully vindicate his brilliance. It's certainly miles ahead of the official video of the original Radiohead mix. In all honesty, this video probably deserves higher placement in the top ten - as it's the video that's most recently come to my attention, I'm only beginning to process its artistry. But we'll see where you feel it belongs as the other entries place tomorrow and onward.

Last call for music video recommendations - countdown starts Monday

I've gone through nearly 200 videos in the last two weeks, and I've narrowed down my list to a pool that I'm pretty pleased with.  So I'm starting the countdown a week early and will continue it over the next couple of weeks.  You're still encouraged to send me your recommendations, if only to get the conversation started a little early. Otherwise, if you feel you have a pretty solid handle on the videos of this year, you can start placing bets on the top spot. To hold us over the weekend, here's one that technically is 2007 so I won't count it, but I love it all the same.  To my mind few videos capture the spirit of indie rock at it's most DIY/inclusive/collaborative.

The Mae Shi, "Run To Your Grave"

Seeking nominations for best music video of the year

My admittedly sporadic interest in the art of music video has accumulated over enough days of Thanksgiving vacation online viewing that I feel I'm in enough of a position to compile a list of the best videos this year.  I've narrowed it down to about 25 candidates, which I'll be re-reviewing over the next week or so. At the same time I'm sure there are dozens other worthy clips I haven't encountered yet, so if anyone out there would be so kind as to nominate some of their favorite videos of the year, I'd be grateful. I will either post a top ten over the last two weeks of the year - or, if time permits, I'll do something more interactive, a quasi-tournament-style exercise that will take your votes/feedback into consideration.  But first let's get a sense of the pool of candidates. Please comment with your recommendations this week.

In the meantime, here's my favorite video from last year, "Work It Out" by RJD2, directed by Joey Garfield and featuring artist Bill Shannon. One of the most stunning one-take videos I've seen, especially in how it combines choreography and spontaneity, a virtuoso performer with unsuspecting spectators, to transform a mundane real life location (Cadman Plaza in downtown Brooklyn, where I used to live, actually) into something magical.

From the description on Spinner:

"Shannon, born with a degenerative hip condition, developed a way to express himself through dance (and even skateboarding) on crutches. Director Joey Garfield took to the streets of New York and captured one continuous shot of Shannon, injecting RJD2 into random roles throughout the video."