1. Madonna, Like A Prayer
Madonna was at her provocative best when she conjured up this unholy trinity of religious imagery, KKK symbolism, and a risqué-for-1989 interracial kiss with a man who was dressed as a saint. Pepsi was uncomfortable enough to drop its ads that were to feature the Material Girl, and the Vatican condemned it, which meant everyone had to see it. Madonna made provocation mainstream with this song and video, which is why it has been a classic for 20+ years.
2. A-Ha, Take On Me
The Norwegian synth band’s number one song in the UK needed an impressive video to stir up the love of US audiences. They delivered with a comics-inspired, rotoscoped video directed by Steve Barron, who was also responsible for Michael Jackson’s “Billie-Jean”. It was incredibly fresh and innovative for the time, and references are still being detected, such as in this Family Guy clip. The video garnered a nomination for MTV’s Video of the Year in 1986.
3. Peter Gabriel, Sledgehammer
In this video, Peter Gabriel layered on every special effect we could think of, and some we never had before. With Gabriel’s face put to Claymation, pixilation, and stop-motion animation, the video is a strange and un-look-away-able.To produce the effect, Gabriel had to lay under a sheet of glass for 16 hours while filming the video one from a time. The video won nine MTV Video Music Awards in 1987, a record for the most awards a single video has ever won.
4. Jamiroquai, Virtual Insanity
Jay Kay, the singer of the UK funk band Jamiroquai, dazzled the world with this breakthrough video. It featured only Jay Kay dancing as the walls and floors move around, proving that sometimes simple ideas can have a huge impact. Trippy, and weirdly compulsive, the video was nominated for ten VMA awards and won Video of the Year in 1997.
5. Beyonce’s Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)
The female empowerment song was catchy, but the video was an obsession for all of 2009. The simple black and white video featured three dancers clad in leotards and heels performing some of the best video choreography seen in years. It sparked a craze and inspired a hilarious parody by Justin Timberlake (among others).
6. Britney Spears, Baby One More Time
With this video story that was reportedly her own idea, Britney Spears created one of the most notable videos in history. Shot at Venice High School, Los Angeles, the video captured a 16-year-old Britney in dancing among lockers and gym halls while dressed in school uniform. It instantly made her name.
7. Bjork, Bachelorette
The story is a mind-bending story of a young writer setting out to find fame and fortune in the big city. Michael Gondry, who directed ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’, creates a world inside a world with beautiful hand-made sets dance through a mock-up of a Broadway stage. The effect is harrowing and lovely and crazy.
8. Michael Jackson, Thriller
The record-setting album Thriller spawned an enthralling and iconic video catalogue – with Thriller being one of the best videos of all time. This mini-movie showed that the medium was ripe for experimentation and humor – a story could be told with dialogue, music, choreography, acting. It widened the possibilities for the entire genre.
9. Johnny Cash, Hurt
Johnny Cash’s rendition of the Nine Inch Nails song is harrowing and maudlin, but the videoshows you exactly what that means – the depth and texture and mood of it. The montage of images from Cash’s life fill the viewer with nostalgia – but the greater purpose was realized seven months later, after Cash died. It was a kind of visual epitaph. It is nearly flawless from start to finish.
10. Chris Isaak, Wicked Game
Back in 1989, there was no hotter photographer than Herb Ritts. He was one of Madonna’s favorites, and Cindy Crawford’s too. His work was sensual, deeply erotic, and seemed to contain epochs. So it seemed fitting that he was the director behind this intensely sexy video between Isaak and supermodel Helena Christensen, which features the duo making out. While hip-hop culture has made booty shaking de riguer in music videos, the unstudied sexiness of this video makes it completely unique.