Friday, December 28, 2012

Playback 2012: 12 Great Music Videos

English rapper Plan B, aka Ben Drew.
His video for "ill Manors" made my list of 2012's greatest videos. 

Lots of people are proud of the fact that they can name the first music video to air on MTV back in 1981 -- "Video Killed the Radio Star" by The Buggles. What few people know is that the song went to number one in 16 countries, excluding the United States, in 1979. And airing on the network still couldn't rescue The Buggles from one-hit-wonder status.

Conceived primarily as a marketing device to promote sales, the music video has been around in some form or another since the 1960s. MTV, and later VH1, provided the outlet for the medium to flourish and suddenly every artist and band needed a video. When those networks abandoned music videos for reality-based programming, the Internet proved to be an even more perfect fit. Launched in 2005, YouTube has made viewing music videos fast and easy. Proof? Justin Bieber's "Baby" video has been viewed over 800 million times! (Feel free to weep for humanity). Can't find the video you're looking for on YouTube? It's probably on VEVO or Dailymotion.

So, what makes a great music video? We could debate this for an entire lost weekend. For me, it starts with a good song. Sometimes the artist/band is mesmerizing enough to hold my attention without a lot of bells and whistles. Then again, I love it when they come up with an unexpectedly clever or witty concept. But I can really appreciate a superbly choreographed and edited performance, too.  And finally, there are those rare music videos that transcend whatever's fashionable at the moment and introduces or advances a new aesthetic. Here are 12 of the videos I watched repeatedly in 2012. It's a diverse collection, selected for many different reasons, and I believe they're all truly great. Your reactions may vary, of course. Comments welcome.

"Gangnam Style" - PSY. Let's get things started with the video that finally surpassed Justin Bieber's "Baby" as the most-watched of all time on YouTube. Yes, "Gangnam Style" has over a billion views as I write this.  Psy is a South Korean songwriter/rapper/dancer/producer whose international hit refers to the affluent Gangnam district of Seoul. The video -- a satire of the lifestyle there -- is bursting with energy, comically brilliant ideas and zany dancing.

"Call Me Maybe" - The U.S. Marines Lip-dub Version. Carly Rae Jepsen's ubiquitous sugar-rush pop hit had a sweet little video that depicted her swooning over the boy next door, who looks like an Abercrombie & Fitch model and turns out to be -- spoiler alert! -- gay. The song inspired literally hundreds of spoofs, parodies and feel-good lip dub videos that you can find all over YouTube. The best, to me, is this one put together by a bunch of U.S. Marines stationed in Afghanistan. Confession: I'm a sucker for this kind of video. Some folks can't seem to appreciate watching military personnel cutting up and having fun, but I wholeheartedly approve of something this harmless, especially if it keeps them sane over there.

"Express Yourself" - Diplo (featuring Nicky Da B). Diplo is a Philadelphia-based DJ, producer and songwriter. Nicky Da B comes from the world of bounce rappers, a cultural creation emerging from New Orleans. Their musical collaboration is hyperactive, edgy and funky. The video is an intoxicating mash-up of rapping and ass-shaking on the streets of New Orleans. I'm serious about the ass-shaking.

"Losing You" - Solange. Solange Knowles is the younger sister of Beyonce. Feel free to make your comparisons. I believe she successfully emerges from her big sister's shadow with "Losing You," a terrific mixed-mood dance dirge. The video was shot in a section of Cape Town, South Africa, and features locals as well as Les Sapeurs (Society of Tastemakers and Elegant People), a group of men from the Congo who make and model colorful handmade suits. The captivating mixture of splendid fashion, unusual location and Solange's impossibly long legs is a fascinating juxtaposition to the lyrics.

"My Country" - tUne-yArDs. Tune-Yards (stylized as tUnE-yArDs) is the brainchild of New Englander Merrill Garbus, a woman with an extraordinarily versatile voice, described by the New York Times as "somewhere between Aretha Franklin and Yoko Ono. At times it's a roar, and at times it's coy, but her ability to modulate it shows off a rhythmic and artistic intelligence that echoes Bjork, and even to a degree M.I.A." The video for "My Country" features the kids of Brightworks School and San Francisco Rock Project, a non-profit dedicated to providing musical education for young musicians 7-18 in California's Bay Area. About the only thing that could upstage Garbus' show-stopping vocals are a mob of dancing, face-painted kids making goofy faces.

"The Full Retard" - El-P. If the title alone doesn't offend you, something in the clip probably will. Here we have Brooklyn rapper El-P teaming up with a demented, murderous, drug-addicted squirrel puppet. There's a crime spree. And debauchery. Yeah, the puppet goes to some dark, fucked up places. It's a bangin' song and a hilarious video (once you accept it as a parody of a million bad rap videos and terrible badass movies). It's totally NSFW (not safe for work). Seriously.

"How Deep is Your Love" - The Rapture. They're a New York-based post-punk revival indie band
that mixes a lot of genres. "How Deep is Your Love" is NOT a cover of the old Bee Gees hit, but rather a terrific gospel-disco number that really finds its groove about forty seconds in. The video is a loving ode to African-American church ladies. Vocalist Luke Jenner has been miniaturized and inserted into their Sunday rituals. It's sublime and ridiculous.

"Want it Back" - Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra. Alternative rockers Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra have a dark, but energetic sound. Palmer's voice is distinctive and memorable. So's this video, a beautiful stop-motion animation piece that features the song's lyrics written on a variety of surfaces, including Palmer's naked body. Taking three days to shoot and featuring the skills of tattoo-graffiti artist Curran James, this is one of the most visually arresting videos of the year. (So let's be clear: This is uncensored and NSFW.)

"Borrow and Bomb" / "I Got News For You" - OFF! Formed in 2009, OFF! is a hardcore punk band featuring members of other bands like Circle Jerks, Black Flag and Burning Brides. They specialize in aggressive songs that kick ass even if they only last about a minute. This video is a clever, lampoon of those local TV shows that were so prevalent back in the day. Divided into two parts, the first features Kids in the Hall alumni Dave Foley as the befuddled host of Teen Talk with special guests OFF! Then the whole thing switches to a workout program called Electracize that's hosted by a sweaty bear in a tank top and leg warmers. Even if you don't like punk, the video's aesthetic is genuinely hilarious. (And Canadian Dave Foley is one of that country's national treasures.)

"National Anthem" - Lana Del Rey. Singer/songwriter (and fashion model) Lana Del Rey uploaded some of her music to a YouTube channel in 2011, got discovered, and signed a recording contract. Her first album hit big, got positive reviews and led to a January 2012 appearance as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live. Her music is chilly, torchy and a little hip hoppy. She can get away with this line: Money is the anthem of success, so put on mascara and your party dress. This seven minute video for "National Anthem," is undeniably brazen and self-indulgent, featuring Del Rey as some kind of Marilyn Monroe/Jackie Kennedy hybrid married to a "president" played by rapper ASAP Rocky. A spin on the romantic myth of the Kennedy presidency unfolds in stunningly hypnotic Super-8 photography. And you'll know from the first minute where it's all headed -- a can't-look-away re-enactment of the JFK assassination that either embodies bad taste or transcends it, depending on who you are.

"iLL Manors" - Plan B. At 28, British rapper Ben Drew, AKA Plan B, wrote and directed the film ill Manors, then produced a soundtrack album for it as well. NPR said Plan B's burning scorn for society on the title track "is a bitterly articulate howl of underclass rage." It's one of the best songs of the year -- that no one in America seems to have heard. But then, it's protest music, a fairly elusive genre in the U.S. The video is a riveting, dizzying, seamlessly edited combination of scenes from the 2011 London riots and staged carnage. It's immersive, feeling more like a documentary than a music video.


"Let's Have a Kiki" - Scissor Sisters. First they recorded the best novelty dance track of 2012, then they put together an inspired, gloriously low-budget "instructional" video treatment to bring us all up to speed.

And if you'd like to see any of my 13 honorable mentions below, click on a title to take you to the video.

"Wut" - Le1f. The openly gay rapper recorded dance floor gold, then infused the video with his wicked sense of humor, hilarious fashion sense and moves. 

"Time to Dance" - The Shoes. This French dance/pop duo released a smashing remix of their 2011 hit and made it the soundtrack for a jarring eight-minute video that answers the question, "What if Jake Gyllenhaal was a deeply disturbed, chain-smoking gym rat with a propensity for killing hipsters?" Beware. You may never look at his earnest, puppy dog face the same way again. 

"Wandering Sailor" - Kingship. The song is a pretty solid retro-rocker with a great vocal. For the video, this Brooklyn-based duo (Paul Leschen and Chris Hall) delivered a highly-stylized, kitschy-sexy homage to the little-seen 1982 foreign film Querelle. You might have problems with the ending; I didn't. 

"Tightrope" - Walk the Moon.  These Ohio indie pop-rockers know how to write an infectious tune that makes you want to sing along. The video is jubilant, goofy and insanely cute. It's simply impossible to hate a video that represents fire with red-painted spirit fingers.

"Wildest Moments - Jessie Ware. One of my favorite discoveries in 2012, this lovely English singer/songwriter makes evocative electro-soul. The video keeps things minimal. It's just Ware, impeccably styled and placed against a blank background, slowly rotating in a circle for the camera as she sings. Not every video  -- or artist -- needs explosions, choreography, lasers or an impenetrable plot to sell a song. 

"Just Breathe" - Willie Nelson. Nelson, with his nasal voice and relaxed, jazzy singing style, can't simply be categorized as a country artist. He transcends the genre. Married four times, Nelson has fathered seven children, including Lukas, who duets with him on this Pearl jam cover. Lukas sounds eerily like his father and their collaboration is remarkably tender and raw. Their performance is served extraordinarily well by the no-frills video treatment.

"Her Fantasy" - Matthew Dear. Let me state my bias up front: I think Matthew Dear is brilliant. (And kinda quietly sexy.) I defy you not to move to his music. "Her Fantasy" is luscious synth-pop-dance perfection. The trippy video features a quirky cast of characters from a dance floor in an alternate universe -- where no one dances.

"Hold Me Back" - Rick Ross. Controversial rapper Rick Ross usually makes videos filled with bling, booty and badass posturing. You'll still find some of that in the stripped-down black and white clip for "Hold Me Back," but what sets this one apart is location - it was shot in the decaying Calliope Housing Projects of New Orleans.  Ross is sweaty, bare chested, angry and surrounded by real people - the kind that generally make mainstream white audiences very nervous. It feels a lot more genuine than his other videos. And Ross uses the word nigga about 45 times. I didn't count how many times he used the slang term for vagina. So you've been warned.

"The Descent" -  Bob Mould. The video for alternative rocker Bob Mould's song depicts the topical tale of an aging man who gets laid off from his corporate job. He leaves that world and the city behind, embracing a different kind of life altogether. I think most of us have had fleeting moments where we considered doing exactly what he does here. Even better, that's Bob Mould himself playing the corporate cast off. He's utterly convincing (and one pretty hot daddy.) The song is great, too - a chunky, powerful slab of guitar rock.

"Somebody" - Jukebox the Ghost. Shiny, happy indie pop. Clever video with swell choreography. Resistance is futile.

"Candy" - Robbie Williams. English singer/songwriter Robbie Williams has been around since the early '90s, first as part of the the boy band Take That, then emerging as a solo artist in the 2000s. He's the best-selling British solo artist of all time in the United Kingdom, but inexplicably ignored in the U.S. Here, he's some kind of sexy guardian angel-boyfriend having a particularly crazy day that includes getting set on fire and run over by cars. The song? Pure, unapologetic pop.

"How" - Regina Spektor. Born in the Soviet Union, singer-songwriter Regina Spektor came to America at the age of 9 -- during the period of Perestroika, when Soviet citizens were permitted to emigrate. As an adult, she eventually wound up in New York City and became involved in what's been called the anti-folk scene. Anti-folk has been described as a musical genre that takes the earnestness of politically-charged 1960s folk music and subverts it. It sounds a little more raw or experimental, and even mocks the seriousness and pretension of the established mainstream music scene. You get all that in Spektor's piano-driven break-up balled "How." The quirky video shifts between serious and loopy imagery that feels deliberately designed to keep you from settling into the sadness of the lyrics.

"The Diplomat" - Pig Destroyer. They're a grindcore band from Richmond, Virginia. "The Diplomat" is a better-than-average example of the genre, and the video is colorful, garish, cartoonish, violent and, most interestingly, brilliant social commentary. 

This is my last post of 2012. I'd like to thank the people who followed this blog faithfully and gave me lots of positive feedback. I'll be back in 2013, but I'm flirting with ideas for changing the format. Stay tuned.


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