SPIN launched in the peak MTV era, when an innovative — or even just salacious — music video could make or break an artist. Thirty five years later, YouTube is an obligatory part of any promotional push, but no one’s counting on a mind-blowing clip to sell a record. (The views do often matter — just not always the creativity.)
A sizable chunk of the best videos came out during the ‘90s alternative bloom, when directors like Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry and Hype Williams experimented with the style and substance of this malleable medium. But the format hasn’t died with MTV: artists like Childish Gambino, Kendrick Lamar and Miley Cyrus all made this list for a reason — and it wasn’t to meet a decade quota.
Here are the top 35 from the last 35. Ready or not, here we go again. – Ryan Reed
35. Guns N Roses – “November Rain”
Nine minutes and 16 seconds of pure theater. A song that should be considered the second coming of “Stairway to Heaven” was paired with a short film about Axl Rose marrying and then mourning his wife (played by supermodel Stephanie Seymour). Nearly 30 years later, does anyone know how she died? Perhaps it was during the most dramatic rainstorm in music video history, which was overshadowed by Slash’s guitar playing. – Jason Stahl
34. DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince – “Summertime”
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air takes us on a tour of Philadelphia in the “Summertime” video, which features one hell of a cookout. You know you wanted to be there — whether it was for the fly honeys, family reunion, nostalgia or just to be a part of the happiest group of people in the city of brotherly love (who were actual friends and family of Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff). – J.S.
33. Chris Isaak – “Wicked Game”
Herb Ritts directed this ultra-sexy black-and-white video featuring Chris Isaac and supermodel Helena Christensen, both mostly discretely shirtless and sandy — frolicking, touching and splashing around on a beach. Undeniably one of the most sensual videos of all time, it took home MTV’s 1991 awards for Best Male Video, Best Cinematography and Best Video From a Film. – Liza Lentini
Listen up, all you nasty boys: Ms. Jackson makes all of her dance moves look effortless and flawless. It helps when the choreography is directed by Paula Abdul, who, by the way, makes an appearance at the 3:24 mark. But we’re not quite sure who decided to dress those Chicago Bears-looking fans in perv raincoats at the end. – J.S.
Tool guitarist Adam Jones directed this intricate stop-motion nightmare, populated by sand creatures, levitation, inaudible screams, nail swallowing, dismembered limbs, eyeless faces and mysterious tumors. The meaning of life could be embedded in the clip’s creepy symbols. Maybe it’s just super trippy. – Ryan Reed
30. “Weird” Al Yankovic – “Like a Surgeon”
The quote marks around his name are superfluous — he was certainly then, and probably is now, a very weird fellow. He was also, at his satirical height, a very funny mimic, whose first spoof video “Eat It” was a masterpiece, a perfect and hysterical take on Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” But that came out in 1984, so it doesn’t make this list, even though it just sort of did. In 1985 the comedian’s barbed lightning struck again, taking on Madonna and changing “Like a Virgin” to a nightmare realm of the gangly, curly hair helmeted and creepily mustached Yankovic as an incompetent intern at a hospital from Hell. He captures Madonna’s sing-song-y pop pitch like he thought of it first; and, like her, glides and writhes and teases — if that word can be so stretched to describe his perfectly Madonna-duplicating moves — like a demented, alternate universe sexpot. A very alternate universe, it must be said, and one we hope is very far away. Incredibly, this recording was his second single off his third album. He was a recording star too! – Bob Guccione, Jr.
29. Miley Cyrus – “Wrecking Ball”
Miley Cyrus makes erotic videos, is sexy as heck and pisses people off. Ergo, I love her. She’s politically incorrect — I now love her more — and doesn’t care. And, in the immortal words of David Spade, said about Lindsay Lohan, she looks like she’s having fun. She also makes great pop songs and has a fantastic voice. Here, gloriously and, given her song, very literally, she rides a wrecking ball, alternatively naked and in her underwear. There is nothing wrong with this. She licks the head of a sledgehammer. I think this is meant to be metaphorical. I also think it’s meant to make anyone who broke up with her regret it and spend the rest of their miserable lives in unrelenting agony. The video won MTV’s 2013 Video of the Year and has, to date, 1 billion and 97 million views, which would be about one seventh of the world’s population, although I suspect some people have watched it more than once. That makes it one of the most watched videos in video history. Vox Populi, baby. – B.G.J.
This jangle-pop nugget lasts just over two minutes — barely longer than the ridiculously goofy Mentos commercials that director Jesse Peretz parodies here. With its numerous thumbs up shots, fourth-wall-breaking grins and outlandish silliness (like the pre-teen Foo fan outsmarting venue security and sneaking onstage with a guitar), the clip expertly zooms in on the uncanny vibe of mid-90s ads and sitcoms. – R.R.
“The idea was to compile Arabic references — fantasized or not — into a pop video,” director Romain Gavras said of M.I.A.’s joyous “Bad Girls” clip. “Pop videos usually show American kids in their element. Here, you got Arab kids in an insane car rodeo element.” Inspired by deep-dive YouTube videos of Saudis drift-driving vehicles on two wheels, the filmmaker and rapper voyaged to Morocco and staged subtly innovative scenes that flip hip-hop car clichés on their heads. – R.R.
26. John Mellencamp – “Rain on the Scarecrow”
Before the music begins, the “Rain on the Scarecrow” video opens with three farmers offering their unscripted distrust of how the American government is supporting — or, rather, destroying — the small, family-owned American farmer. The unglamorous video, a first of its kind with its stark realism, powerfully depicts Farm Aid co-founder and Indiana native Mellencamp’s continuing call-to-action to preserve a dying American tradition. – L.L.
25. Kendrick Lamar – “Alright”
Kendrick Lamar’s best music videos have the same precise imagery that he uses to shape his albums — and that’s what director Colin Tilley and regular collaborators Dave Free and the Little Homies deliver with their black and white clip for “Alright,” set in the place the rapper calls home. Lamar appears free as can be throughout: freestyling with fellow Top Dawg rappers, jumping at the front of a crowd in a Compton courtyard, doing donuts with a kid passenger throwing cash and flying like a loose bill out the window. When a cop’s finger gun shoots him from atop a streetlamp, the screen goes black — then returns to his smiling face. – Tomas Miriti Pacheco
You might not expect a group named for refugees to splice A-Team-esque shots of helicopters and gunshots in the desert between their verses. But the trio slouched in the corner of a submarine is a vibe suited to the slow pressure of the song. – T.M.P.
23. Daft Punk – “Around the World”
Synchronized swimmers, gyrating skeletons, mummies wrapped in layers of bandage, robots literally doing “the Robot,” breakdancers with enormous torsos and tiny doll heads — these are the human tools Michel Gondry used to personify Daft Punk’s electronic funk. The director placed these mysterious humans on a massive platform, choreographed their dreamlike movements and seemingly backed away, with his camera only occasionally switching angles. It’s like spinning a colorful top and marveling at its motion. – R.R.
The seedy underbelly of ‘70s-paneled, suspiciously stained, shag-carpeted basements is the backdrop for some pretty provocative — and highly controversial at the time — teen debauchery, as depicted in the video for “Criminal,” the fifth single from Fiona Apple’s debut album. Part of the controversy was all of the suggestive unzipping amongst so many languid bodies, combined with an 18-year-old Apple, who’s said to have written the Grammy-winning hit when she was 17, in 45 minutes. – L.L.
21. Whitesnake – “Here I Go Again”
Raise your hand if, at any stage drunk or sober after watching this video, you’ve attempted a cartwheel, somersault or the splits over two parked cars. [RAISES HAND] Aside from featuring two of the most gorgeous humans in music history kissing while fake-driving a car, this video is the perfect trailer for all that was great about late ‘80s radio rock: huge hair, big smiles and an anthemic chorus you can still blast in your car to make the moment utterly perfect. – L.L.
20. Madonna – “Justify My Love”
The Queen of Pop once ranked “Justify My Love” the best video from her own sprawling catalog — and while we don’t completely agree (see below), it’s impossible not to consider this erotic slice of voyeurism. Within, director Jean-Baptiste Mondino wanders through the halls and bedrooms of a very accommodating hotel, documenting snippets of sexual encounters heavy on the BDSM. MTV banned the clip, which only gave the singer a publicity boost. Not that she needed it. – R.R.
19. Missy Elliott – “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)”
Of all her iconic music video looks, Missy shapeshifting and shimmying in a trashbag/puffer/jumpsuit reigns supreme. It’s the kind of fly that’s as effortless as it is dramatic. Her trademark fisheye lenses and color-coordinated green screens come together in this piece of simple genius, matching her easygoing flow and Timbaland’s sparse drums. – T.M.P.
18. Britney Spears – “Oops!… I Did It Again”
Britney Spears, inexplicably in space, bops around while singing apologies to her astronaut boyfriend for breaking his heart again. And no one could forget her iconic red catsuit, which officially announced to the world that the pop star is “not that innocent.” – Mary Elisabeth Gibson
17. Radiohead – “Karma Police”
We open inside a rickety car at night, headlights flicking on with Phil Selway’s first cymbal crash. Our path is a desolate road — until we see the target: a man, balding and sweaty, glancing around in terror. The camera pans to the back seat, where we glimpse Thom Yorke, almost narcotically sleepy in a sharp leather jacket. He props his face on the front passenger headrest, numbly mouthing the “Karma Police” chorus. The target seems to be tiring, and he sputters to a stop on the dividing white line. He stands and stares with menace, and the car backs up. The target fumbles for a match in his pocket, strikes it and drops the stick onto a trail of gasoline. Flames engulf the car — and eventually, we assume, the camera. But first, we cut to an empty back seat: Somehow we’ve lost Yorke, who’s already lost himself. – R.R.
16. PSY – “Gangnam Style”
First, let me say: If fat Elvis was Korean and had real moves (not those Trumpish, fake macho poses), an Alice in Wonderland-on-acid imagination, a sublime gift for choreography and a sense of humor about himself, he might — might! — have been as entertaining as Psy. Left up to me (but no one listens to me) this would have been No. 1 on our list, and, in respect, I would have left spots 2 – 5 empty. There are more moving and important videos, sure. More artistic — of course! Better songs, uh-huh, yes — your point? But there has never been a better video than this. Nothing so epic. This is the Lawrence of Arabia meets The Godfather of music videos, with lapping layers of luxurious insanity and playfulness. At one point Psy is Michael Jackson doing his West Side Story knock-off, but with sexier back-up dancers and better and completely un-self-conscious dancing, and lasers. Psy’s trademark horse riding move is the modern equivalent of the Jackson moonwalk, but less precious, more fun and more memorable. And his underground parking lot dance-off with the Gangnam area poser in the yellow suit is simply glorious and life-affirming. – B.G.J.
15. George Michael – “Freedom! ‘90”
Supermodels Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, Cindy Crawford and Tatjana Patitz came together to lip-sync in the video for “Freedom! 90,” the second single from George Michael’s 1990 LP, Listen Without Prejudice Vol., 1, simply because he refused to appear. The consolation is one of the most iconic videos of all time. You know that verse where Christy’s crawling on the floor and singing? She admitted in the 2017 documentary George Michael: Freedom that they put her in the dark because she didn’t know the words. – L.L.
14. Nine Inch Nails – “Closer”
Somewhere between A Clockwork Orange and Eyes Wide Shut lies NIN’s 1994 “Closer” video, which is roughly 41% sadist and 57% masochist. For the remaining 2%, we have to figure out those monkeys tied to crosses, pig heads spinning, beating hearts, ultra-real nude mannequins (or plastic-looking nudists) and Trent Reznor in bondage. Damn, those guys surely know how to make us want to be closer to God…and getting fucked like an animal is not one of them. – J.S.
13. Busta Rhymes – “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See”
Busta starts this video as a leopard-print Darth Maul, though he spends most of his time as an ancient prince touring a set equal parts Taj Mahal, Egyptian Tomb and Shaolin Temple. And that’s just the lobby — dip down the hallway into the spirit world for the real glow-in-the-dark body paint action. – T.M.P.
12. Jamiroquai – “Virtual Insanity”
Anyone else think they were trippin’ watching frontman Jay Kay pull off some serious video magic as a modern-day, furniture-moving MC Esher? Or were you too distracted by his hat? Or the bugs or blood? – J.S.
Eddie Vedder and director Mark Pellington explore the tragedy of teen suicide in this gripping video for the turbulent Ten anthem. The massive set pieces — Jeremy arguing with his parents at the dinner table; his classmates pointing and laughing, crystalizing adolescent social angst — make the MTV time capsule. But Vedder’s less-is-more performance, seething in an empty room, is also essential to the atmosphere. – R.R.
10. Fatboy Slim – “Weapon of Choice”
Once you see the video, you’ll understand that — no matter what Fat Boy Slim intended — our real weapon of choice will always and forever be Christopher Walken. Preferably dancing. The video, shot over a two-day period at a Los Angeles Marriott Hotel, was directed by Walken’s buddy and big-screen legend Spike Jonze. Mickey Rooney’s son Michael choreographed the clip, following the great actor as he dances through the building: on the elevator, the escalator and, ultimately, the walls. – L.L.
9. Soundgarden – “Black Hole Sun”
Director Howard Greenhalgh pairs Soundgarden’s psych-rock anthem with a glorious slab of suburban surrealism. An apocalyptic preacher bottle-feeds a baby goat near a white picket fence; a grey-haired gentleman smiles disturbingly into TV static; a pigtailed child, clutching a melted ice cream cone, watches her Barbie doll roast in a barbecue grill. Sheer terror. – R.R.
8. Nirvana – “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
If we could go back in time, we’d respond to the open-call for young 20-somethings to sit in the fake high school bleachers, breathe in dry ice and bang their heads to the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video. Not the anarchist-symbol-wearing cheerleaders, though — they were specifically recruited from a local strip club. The destructive freak-out at the end was said to have been authentically inspired by the 12-hour angst that went into the shoot itself: Everyone was so pissed off, they just wanted to go home. – L.L.
7. Childish Gambino – “This Is America”
We see a bare warehouse with one man playing the guitar. Enter Childish Gambino, dancing to the man’s strumming before shockingly pulling out a gun and shooting him in the head. From that point on, Hiro Murai directs a blur of violence and chaos, interspersed with African-inspired dances to distract from the horrors in the background. Meant to shed light on police brutality in America, “This Is America” is a layered, symbolic clip requiring multiple views — with a message not easily forgotten. – M.E.G.
Can’t believe they got Sir Stewart Wallace to play himself in what is perhaps the greatest ensemble of wigs, fake mustaches and cop stereotypes. This had to have been the inspiration for Reno 911. – J.S.
Happy days were here again thanks to director Spike Jonze’s Happy Days-themed video intersplicing classic clips from the hit ‘70s sitcom. The clip featured The Fonz doing his best “Hava Nagila” as Kenosha, Wisconsin never rocked so hard in their lives. It was on this night that Joanie dumped Chachi for drummer Patrick Wilson. – J.S.
4. R.E.M. – “Losing My Religion”
Michael Stipe, you’re such an angel. But an entire video devoted to spilled milk — that’s far out there. Or was that just a dream? Oh, wait, this was more of an abstract telling of that Gabriel Garcia Marquez story called “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings,” when a downtrodden-looking angel suddenly arrives and his founders charge others to see him. Beautifully done. And, Michael, that thought you had of us laughing? It was real, of us, at your dancing. – J.S.
3. Nirvana – “Heart-Shaped Box”
Former SPIN staff photographer Anton Corbijn faced a challenging task in directing the “Heart-Shaped Box” video: bringing Kurt Cobain’s surreal treatment to full bloom. The end result is both terrifying and bleakly comic in its visual contrasts: an elderly man in a Santa hat strapped onto a Christian cross, a winged woman with painted-on organs, a robed child grasping for fetuses that dangle from tree branches. Still, the most iconic moment is Cobain singing the song’s snarky chorus directly into the camera. – R.R.
2. Peter Gabriel – “Sledgehammer”
Peter Gabriel leapt boldly into soul music with his signature single “Sledgehammer,” embracing a bright, brassy arrangement that shared more DNA with Stax than Genesis. Naturally, he paired that groove with the most playful images of his career, as director Stephen R. Jackson used painstaking stop-motion animation and claymation to highlight the goofiness of Gabriel’s words. The dancing chickens, singing bumper cars, faces built into fruit, chalkboard-drawn roller coasters — the video, like the song, is full of quirky details designed for constant rediscovery. – R.R.
Madonna made high art out of sacrilege with her notorious “Like a Prayer” video, a molotov cocktail of melodrama, racial commentary and religious symbolism. Director Mary Lambert would release a film version of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary a month later — but for both cola brands and conservative Christians, this was the true horror project. The rapidly edited scenes — including stigmata, bleeding eyes and the spiritual laying of hands — smashed taboos with madcap zest. “I wanted to speak about ecstasy and to show the relationship between sexual and religious ecstasy,” Lambert told Rolling Stone. “I think that subconsciously a lot of people understood this and were either enthralled or outraged by it.” Maybe even both. – R.R.