Music videos are the perfect bastard child of art and commerce, even more than pop music itself. A promotional visual accompaniment to a popular song doesn’t need a coherent narrative (although on rare occasions, they do). It just needs to suit the song, sell the record, and possibly make the artist look cool. But since the launch of MTV 40 years ago this week, a select few recording artists have helped raise music videos to an art form — sometimes by accident, and sometimes by carefully curating the work of brilliant directors like Mark Romanek, Hype Williams, and Spike Jonze. Here are 40 artists from the last four decades that helped video kill the radio star.
40. Lil Kim
Although earlier female MCs like Salt-N-Pepa and Queen Latifah used music videos to help launch their careers, Lil Kim’s instantly iconic 1997 video appearances positioned her as something like the Madonna of hip-hop. From the color-coded sets, outfits and wigs in Lance Rivera’s “Crush On You” to her spotlight-stealing appearance in Paul Hunter’s video for Puff Daddy’s “It’s All About The Benjamins,” Lil Kim became the reigning queen of MTV Jams. And the Black Barbie theme in Francis Lawrence’s video for 2000’s “How Many Licks?” inarguably inspired a couple generations of rap dolls.
39. Pearl Jam
Music videos were not just the best, but practically the only way to thrive in popular music in the early ‘90s — but Pearl Jam challenged that status quo by becoming MTV’s most famous holdouts. Their performance-driven videos for “Alive” and “Even Flow” pushed the band’s 1991 debut album, Ten, to platinum sales. But Mark Pellington’s dramatic clip for “Jeremy” was what made Pearl Jam into a cultural phenomenon, winning Best Video of the Year at MTV’s 1993 Video Music Awards. Then the band hit the brakes. Their next video, “Oceans,” only aired outside of America, and they refused to shoot a video for “Black” or any song from their next three albums. Nonetheless, Pearl Jam remained a hugely popular band on radio and the touring circuit without MTV. When they finally did return to making videos, they did things their way, including comic book icon Todd McFarlane’s animated 1998 clip for “Do the Evolution.”
Following in Rick Springfield’s footsteps, Aubrey “Drake” Graham was a TV star before he was a music video star. He rose to fame acting on Degrassi: The Next Generation before taking the hip-hop world by storm in 2009 — although the Kanye West-directed video for his breakthrough hit, “Best I Ever Had,” was an unfunny misfire. Eventually, Drake found his footing with Director X, who helmed 2012’s Bar Mitzvah-themed “HYFR” and the 2015 video for “Hotline Bling” that made Drizzy’s dance moves a viral sensation.
37. Split Enz
Though national treasures in their home country of New Zealand, Split Enz were far less known in other parts of the world — breaking into the Hot 100 just once with 1980’s “I Got You.” But they were an unusually image-conscious and visually imaginative art rock band when they started out in the mid-‘70s, with percussionist Neil Crombie creating outlandish costumes, hairstyles, and stage sets while directing many videos for the band. Being so far ahead of the curve on music videos eventually paid off, as four different Split Enz videos aired in MTV’s first 24 hours of programming on Aug. 1, 1981.
36. Kate Bush
When a teenage Kate Bush signed to EMI Records, she spent some of her advance on interpretive dance classes and mime training — filling her first tour in 1979 with complex choreography and frequent costume changes. But then she didn’t tour again for 35 years, focusing her energies on recording an ambitious series of albums and transferring her theatrical sensibilities to music videos.
35. Foo Fighters
Anticipation for Dave Grohl’s post-Nirvana solo project was sky-high in 1995, but he declined to make a video for the first Foo Fighters single, “This Is A Call.” But the Foo Fighters soon became known for entertaining videos with a much lighter tone than Nirvana’s, like the “Big Me” video that parodies the then-ubiquitous Mentos commercials and was directed by former Lemonheads bassist Jesse Peretz. But the surreal Michel Gondry-directed clip for 1997’s “Everlong” remains the band’s signature song and best video.
From the moment “My Name Is” aired for the first time, Eminem was a star. The bright, playful visuals directed by Philip G. Atwell and Dr. Dre helped give the Detroit rapper’s dark sense of humor a cartoonish all-ages appeal. But the video for “Stan” also allowed Eminem to flex his storytelling skills, turning one of his most ambitious songs into an epic mini-movie.
33. Aphex Twin
Early Aphex Twin videos like the Jarvis Cocker-directed time-lapse film for “On” highlight the otherworldly beauty of Richard D. James’s experimental electronica. But when the late ‘90s explosion of the genre brought bigger video budgets, Aphex Twin and director Chris Cunningham teamed up for a series of confrontationally bizarre videos like “Come To Daddy” and “Windowlicker” — which used early CGI to put James’s menacing grin on all sorts of unexpected bodies.
Few acts used videos to reinvent themselves as much as U2 did. In the ‘80s, the Irish quartet were earnest political rockers who paid tribute to their American influences and political heroes. But in the ‘90s, U2 reemerged as a hip, ironic band with Bono poking fun at the cable TV age of information and his own rock star image in a series of postmodern videos for 1991’s Achtung Baby and 1993’s Zooropa.
31. Britney Spears
Britney Spears ruled the Total Request Live era with an iron fist. First, it was ‘80s hair metal director Nigel Dick’s campy clips for “…Baby One More Time” and “Oops! I Did It Again” that dominated the airwaves. But as Y2K pop evolved, so did she, with stylishly choreographed videos like the Francis Lawrence-directed “I’m A Slave 4 U” and Joseph Khan’s playful spy movie satire, “Toxic.”
Shiny suits, fisheye lenses, dramatic interludes and dance breaks — whether he went by Puff Daddy or Diddy, Sean Combs has always done it big. When he found out how much Guns N’ Roses’ epic videos cost, he set out to spend more, casting Dennis Hopper and Danny DeVito in his dystopian “Victory” video and expanding the scale and scope of hip-hop videos forever.
Whether they were the weirdest metal band of the ‘90s or the heaviest alternative band, Primus made entertainingly twisted videos that got played on both Headbanger’s Ball as well as 120 Minutes. Singer/bassist Les Claypool masterminded some of the band’s most memorable videos, including the one-take “Mr. Krinkle” and “Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver,” which featured the band performing in bizarre foam rubber cowboy outfits.
28. Linkin Park
Linkin Park turntablist Joe Hahn directed many of the band’s music videos, helping give the band a futuristic visual aesthetic to match their hi-tech fusion of rap, rock, and electronica. Hahn’s videos ranged from the CGI-filled performance video for “In the End” to the full-on anime of “Breaking the Habit” and the gorgeous digital distortion of “Waiting for the End.”
Devo was always one of new wave’s most visually conscious groups, designing band uniforms like the famous red “energy dome” hats and screening Chuck Statler’s The Truth About De-Evolution short at film festivals before the band had a record deal. Their flashy, satirical videos for songs like “Whip It” arrived in the ‘80s just in time for heavy MTV rotation. Devo bassist Jerry Casale directed most of the band’s videos — sometimes co-directing with Statler — and went on to direct videos for other bands, including The Cars and Foo Fighters.
26. ZZ Top
The members of ZZ Top were only 33 when they released 1983’s Eliminator, but the long beards on guitarist Billy Gibbons and late bassist Dusty Hill made the band look like ancient blues-rock wizards. It was a sharp contrast from how other rockers looked — like Bruce Springsteen, who was the same age and sported a clean-shaven look with tight blue jeans for the video age — but ZZ Top dominated MTV as well as anyone with an iconic series of videos.
The members of Tool have almost never appeared in their own music videos. Instead, their videos generally star a series of grotesque stop-motion animated creatures designed by guitarist Adam Jones. The strange and intriguing visuals match the knotty progressive grooves of songs like “Sober” and “Schism.”
24. Smashing Pumpkins
The husband-and-wife directing team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris helped Smashing Pumpkins become one of the most grandly ambitious alt-rock bands of the ‘90s with lavish videos for “Tonight, Tonight,” “1979,” “Rocket,” and “The End is the Beginning is the End.” Along the way, singer/guitarist Billy Corgan evolved from the boyish frontman of “Today” to the villainous, bald figure of videos like “Zero.”
Radiohead excel at making gripping videos where relatively little happens. Singer Thom Yorke spends the entire “Karma Police” video in the backseat of a car, whereas he faces the camera from some kind of water tank in “No Surprises.” “Just” concerns a man laying on the sidewalk, and “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” features members of the band barely moving in slow motion. But the stillness of those videos belies the turmoil in their stories and imagery, making them perfect companions for Radiohead’s increasingly ambitious albums. While they may seem like the least likely band to inspire a dancing meme, the 2011 video for “Lotus Flower” also went viral for Yorke’s wild moves.
Although his films Under the Cherry Moon and Graffiti Bridge drew poor reviews, Prince’s directorial skills were clearly well-suited for music videos based on his success helming clips like “When Doves Cry” and “Raspberry Beret.” But some of the best Prince videos just gave the icon room to strut his stuff and display his irrepressible sexual charisma, whether leaping around in “Kiss” or literally showing his ass in “Gett Off.”
R.E.M. became one of the most respected bands of the ‘80s with a series of videos that projected a sort of anti-stardom, keeping the band members entirely out of “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” and “Fall On Me,” while only glimpsed in passing as supporting characters in other videos. But when R.E.M. did put their unconventional frontman in the spotlight, Michael Stipe was always a compelling presence, particularly in Tarsem Singh’s unforgettably rich and textured video for “Losing My Religion.”
20. Tom Petty
Some heartland rockers like John Mellencamp became MTV stars with blue jeans and rural iconography, but Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers tended to go a little more high-concept with videos like the apocalyptic sci-fi of “You Got Lucky” and Alice In Wonderland-themed “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” Those kinds of flourishes — as well as cameos from movie stars like Johnny Depp and Kim Basinger — made Petty one of the few boomer rock icons who remained an MTV staple well into the ‘90s.
Just as Nirvana made a huge musical impact in a woefully short period of time, their half-dozen music videos put them in MTV’s hall of fame. The anarchic high school gym concert of Samuel Bayer’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Kevin Kerslake’s Beatlemania-inspired “In Bloom” are like funhouse mirror images of the effect Nevermind had on the world. But the haunting colors and imagery in the band’s final video, “Heart-Shaped Box” — directed by Anton Corbijn from a treatment by Kurt Cobain himself — are perhaps the most bittersweet reminder that the band’s frontman died at his creative peak.
18. Talking Heads
David Byrne directed many of Talking Heads’ videos himself, including the band’s first and most famous video, “Once In a Lifetime” (co-directed and choreographed by another early MTV fixture, Toni Basil). Over the course of the ‘80s, Talking Heads painted on larger visual canvases, including Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense becoming perhaps the most acclaimed concert film of all time and True Stories, Byrne’s film that accompanied their 1986 album of the same name. But the band also continued making great short-form videos, including Jim Blashfield’s wonderfully textured cut-and-paste for “And She Was.”
17. Van Halen
Most of Van Halen’s early videos feature the band simply miming their stage show while getting by on the charisma of an acrobatic young David Lee Roth and the magic of Eddie Van Halen with a guitar. But eventually, Roth’s bizarre sense of humor inspired more involved videos like “(Oh) Pretty Woman” and the deliriously entertaining “Hot For Teacher.” Even in the band’s less-heralded era with Sammy Hagar on vocals, they continued making memorable videos like Mark Fenske’s creatively text-driven 1992 clip for “Right Now.”
16. David Bowie
David Bowie was an early adopter of music videos long before they were a standard promotional tool for all artists, dating back to the “Space Oddity” video he shot for the song’s 1973 American re-release. 1980’s “Ashes To Ashes” — which cost a half-million dollars at the time — holds the distinction of being the most expensive music video made before the advent of MTV. When MTV arrived, Bowie reinvented himself once again with the pop spectacle of “Let’s Dance” (as well as, less flatteringly, his “Dancing in the Street” remake with Mick Jagger). In later years, Bowie continued to make innovative arresting videos, like Mark Romanek’s clip for 1993’s “Jump They Say.”
15. Beastie Boys
MTV made the Beastie Boys stars when they turned their rowdy, fratty take on hip-hop into comedic videos like “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party).” As the Beasties matured and diversified their sound, they gravitated towards the retro kitsch of videos like “Hey Ladies” and the unforgettable Spike Jonze cop drama parody for “Sabotage.” Adam Yauch (under the alias Nathanial Hornblower) directed some of the band’s most entertaining videos, including “So Whatcha Want” and “Intergalactic.”
14. Guns N’ Roses
From Slash’s top hat to Axl Rose’s slithering dance moves, Guns N’ Roses looked like they were made to rule MTV. While the band’s Appetite for Destruction videos successfully made them look as cool as possible, their ambition scaled up in the ‘90s for a trilogy of Andy Morahan-directed videos based on a short story by Axl Rose and friend Del James. “Estranged” was hilariously indulgent, costing $4 million to feature Rose swimming with dolphins and Slash rising out of the ocean to rip a guitar solo. But there’s no doubting the enduring appeal of GNR’s epic approach to videos. “November Rain” was the first music video from the 20th century to surpass a billion views on YouTube.
13. Lady Gaga
From the sci-fi high fashion of “Poker Face” and “Born This Way” to the campy crime epics “Paparazzi” and “Telephone,” Lady Gaga brought a sense of spectacle back to pop videos that had been sorely missed. The Francis Lawrence-directed “Bad Romance” is probably the greatest music video of the YouTube era — a perfect union of memorable choreography and otherworldly costuming and set design.
12. Janet Jackson
Janet Jackson grew up in the public eye, so when she became a pop star, she continued evolving her persona through music videos. Her early Control videos had a girl-next-door charm, but she soon became the futuristic revolutionary of “Rhythm Nation,” the rock star of “Black Cat,” and the sensual sex symbol of “Love Will Never Do (Without You).” And at every stage of her career, there was almost always incredible choreography.
11. Nine Inch Nails
In the ‘90s, Nine Inch Nails pushed the envelope for what dark, disturbing imagery was allowed on MTV, particularly in the Mark Romanek-directed “Closer” and “Perfect Drug.” In recent years, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have become prolific film score composers, and they’ve used that experience to link up with some of the same directors for Nine Inch Nails videos, including David Fincher for “Only” and David Lynch for “Came Back Haunted.”
10. Kanye West
Few recording artists have put more effort into creating consistently stellar videos than Kanye West, from his self-funded scrapbook for “Through the Wire” to three different videos for “Jesus Walks.” Hype Williams has been West’s director of choice for stylized efforts like the Akira homage “Stronger” and the retro pinup girl aesthetic of “Gold Digger,” while Spike Jonze has helped West think outside the box for videos like “Flashing Lights” and “Otis.”
9. Busta Rhymes
Busta Rhymes practically burst through the screen in the videos for his star-making early guest appearances in A Tribe Called Quest’s “Scenario” and Craig Mack’s “Flava In Ya Ear (Remix).” When he went solo, he became a muse for Hype Williams’s most outlandish ideas — from the extreme fisheye lens effects of “Woo Ha!! Got You All in Check” to the glow-in-the-dark body paint of “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See” to the CGI fantasy world of “What’s It Gonna Be?!”
8. Peter Gabriel
In Genesis, Peter Gabriel made himself into a special effect, wearing bizarre costumes during the band’s concerts to create a theatrical experience. After he left the band and went solo, Gabriel began performing without costumes, but lent his visual flair to a wildly imaginative series of music videos. As Gabriel’s star rose and MTV debuted, his video budgets got bigger, culminating in Stephen R. Johnson’s groundbreaking stop-motion animation in the video for the singer’s biggest hit, “Sledgehammer.”
In early videos like the Sean Combs-directed “Player’s Ball,” Outkast gave Atlanta’s bubbling hip-hop scene some of its first glimpses of national exposure. But as Andre 3000 and Big Boi took their music in ambitious and diverse new directions, their videos like “B.o.B.” and “Rosa Parks” also exploded with color and creativity. When each of them made solo tracks for 2003’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, director Bryan Barber gave both halves memorable visuals, from the band full of Andre 3000s in “Hey Ya!” to the surreal CGI dance party of “The Way You Move.”
Many artists have made videos for every song on an album, including Beyoncé for 2006’s B’Day. But it was Bey’s 2013 self-titled opus and the 2016 follow-up Lemonade — both released simultaneously in audio and video formats — that brought the phrase “visual album” into popular vernacular. By that point, Beyoncé had already left an indelible mark on music video history with the trendsetting choreography of “Single Ladies” and “Crazy in Love,” to say nothing of her earlier work with Destiny’s Child.
5. “Weird Al” Yankovic
“Weird Al” Yankovic was hardly the first musical comedian to cover a popular song with funny new lyrics. But Yankovic’s commitment to the bit — with nearly identical recreations of the songs he parodied — made him into a pop star in his own right. When MTV debuted early in his career, Yankovic took the same rigorously silly approach to videos. “Eat It” (directed by frequent collaborator Jay Levey) epitomized Yankovic’s blueprint, mimicking Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” shot by shot and then adding as many visual gags as possible to supplement the goofy spectacle of the mustachioed architect attempting the King of Pop’s dance moves.
Madonna became the queen of pop in part by borrowing cleverly. She shrewdly put her own spin on Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in “Material Girl,” had David Fincher recreate Metropolis in “Express Yourself,” and took Harlem ballroom dance culture to the mainstream in “Vogue.” But just as many Madonna videos are clever original creations, from the frolic through Venice in “Like A Virgin” to the provocative “Like A Prayer” and Chris Cunningham’s darkly haunting “Frozen.”
Beginning with the eye-popping video for 1993’s “Human Behavior,” Björk and frequent director Michel Gondry instantly set the Icelandic singer’s solo career apart from her previous success with her old band, The Sugarcubes, with an incredible run of visually innovative eye candy. Soon, other great directors did some of their finest work with Björk, from Spike Jonze’s whimsical movie musical pastiche, “It’s Oh So Quiet,” to Chris Cunningham’s robot love story, “All is Full of Love.”
2. Missy Elliott
From the moment Missy Elliott danced in an inflated trash bag in the Hype Williams clip for her debut solo video, “The Rain,” she established herself as a one-of-a-kind rapper and a new breed of video star. Nearly every Missy Elliott video seemed to take place at a killer party on another planet, with frequent collaborator Dave Meyers providing Elliott with wild color palettes for “Get Ur Freak On” and “Gossip Folks,” and then letting her defy gravity in “Lose Control.” And that’s not even counting one of the greatest music videos of all time in “Work It.”
1. Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson is the King of Pop, but he’s also the king of music videos. First, he permanently shattered the color barrier of MTV’s whitebread early years with the record-breaking success of 1982’s Thriller and its trio of incredible videos. Jackson’s electric dance movies only needed some clever lighting to become unforgettable in “Billie Jean,” but as the album continued to sell, Jackson set his ambitions higher, hiring director John Landis for the epic 13-minute “Thriller” video. The scary yet funny leap forward in the nascent art of zombie choreography is still considered one of the top music videos of all time, but Jackson continued to make amazing flicks like “Smooth Criminal” and “Remember the Time” for a couple of decades. He never quite topped “Thriller,” but neither has anybody else.