Thursday, December 21, 2006

The 20 Best Music Videos of 2006

Our week-long look back at the year that was culminates today with the Internet's most definitive listing of 2006's best overall music videos...

The widespread availability of digital camcorders and the arrival of YouTube meant anybody with some talent and six treadmills could make a life-changing music video in 2006. But the sheer amount of footage out there meant that artists had to really step it up to truly stand-out, and our year-end list reflects a heated battle between indie and pop that can be seen as nothing but healthy for the future of the music video as an art form.

We've been talking about some of these videos all year, others we haven't, and still others that we have mentioned with praise in the past have been cut from the final twenty. Essentially this is where we stand as of today, at the very moment that we are posting this list. Certainly if you asked us tomorrow things might be quite different, but regardless this list serves as an overview of the great work being done in music videos, and twenty soaring pieces of evidence that an artist's video is more than just an advertisement for a song - it can be equally, if not more, breathtaking.

20. Barzin "Leaving Time"
- It's a slow building thing, but in it's gradual dissonance it underlines the distance that can build between people who where initially drawn to each other so forcibly by the power of lust and attraction, but grow apart over time. Yet the final longer shots also allow us a more complete look at the beauty of each individual woman (even as they are obscured in the darkness), and there is something to be said for growth in a relationship. Perhaps the loss of that first intimacy is lessened by the knowledge that is gained in the long run; either way it's an unforgettable series of images.

19. El Perro Del Mar "God Knows (You've Got To Give to Get)" - The song is pristine but the video lifts curtains on meanings that previously remained closed behind the beauty of El Perro's one-of-a-kind voice. The attention to detail is astounding, and yet so seemingly simple in construction. It may be a personal story of redemption or a larger comment on the craft of music making; regardless it's one of the more quietly beautiful videos of the year.

18. Arctic Monkeys "When The Sun Goes Down" - It was a good year for the Monkeys. Not only did they release a Grammy-nominated insanely popular debut album, but they produced three top-notch music videos as well, two of which appear on this list. The album is all about the struggles of the working class, but with this first video about a poor young woman on the streets of Sheffield their critique becomes an opera of inequality and suffocating desperation.

17. Prodigy "Mac 10 Handle" - It's a claustrophobic experience filled with a Taxi Driver-esque sense of dread from the opening shots. While it might be easy to say the harmful addictions led to the murder and subsequent hallucinatory paranoia, it seems more obvious that a history of guilt, shame and pain is actually why we find our protagonist engulfed in drugs and alcohol. The stabbing of the bloody couch is a chilling visualization of the mental anguish that accompanies the many consequences of vigilante violence and justice.

16. Hot Chip "Over and Over" - This is not only the most fun and hilarious video of the year, it also happens to be a particularly insightful look at the tailor-made nature of typical music videos. The critique is mostly tongue-in-cheek but it does make us question how many of the fans in that K-Fed video where real, and how many where computer generated.

15. Bonnie "Prince" Billy "Cursed Sleep"
- Will Oldham once again shines as an actor, but the real power of this video lies in the dramatic narrative. A study of love, jealousy and freedom it grows to a frightful conclusion that requires multiple views to fully comprehend.

14. Thom Yorke "Harrowdown Hill"
- We all have a hand in both the creative and destructive actions of the world, and in this Yorke finds both hope and drowning sorrow. But in our continued collective resistance and seeking of the truth we can overcome fear through sheer power - "there are too many of us."

13. Gnarls Barkley "Crazy" - In all the discussion of the soul-baring greatness of Cee-Lo's vocals and the hypnotic production of Danger Mouse not much is ever said about the unique lyrical themes that Gnarls' is delving into here in a pop song. The Rorshach test effect of the video grandly enhances the split personality of the track, emphasizing the mental struggles that Cee-Lo is exhuming - a mixture of self-doubt, nostalgia and paranoia. Now we understand where that gorgeously pained falsetto is coming from.

12. Guillemots "Made Up Love Song #43" - One of the more over-looked bands of 2006, this gorgeous single is further complicated by the dreamy video. What upon first listen seemed to be a realization of denied love now seems less certainly positive. The final lone piano on the beach now sounds as if it's coming down from a high, the type of high one might only experience in the mind, in memory - which is often the most powerful kind.

11. Christina Aguilera “Hurt” - Among the more visually sweeping videos of the year, Aguilera and director Floria Sigismondi also accomplish what is rare in music video – they show and tell us a gripping story. Using multiple old-school film genres and styles to heighten the impact of the memories we see on the screen, Sigismondi underlines the narrative with references to Aguilera’s own celebrity status. It’s this pairing of high-drama with the soul-shattering voice of the pop star that is most affecting throughout. Yet it’s the final sequence, moving quickly from a mid-level shot to an extreme close-up on the singer’s beautifully shattered expression that secures the emotional weight of this work.

10. My Chemical Romance “Welcome to the Black Parade” – Spilling the ink of Dr. Caligari and Persona all over sheets of Queen-like epic posing, what emerges is one pitch-black rebellious mess of haunting imagery, high-strung emotional impact and pop video at it’s best. The social critique is evident but the artistic touches are perhaps more subtle, from shot to shot there is so much going on in this video, and one can’t help but applaud the sheer depth with which it attacks its’ subject matter.

9. OK Go “Here It Goes Again”
– This video will never be as cool as it was the first time you stumbled upon it through YouTube, but it remains one of the more creative and simple applications of the music video form in years. What other video this year inspired thousands of highly-uncoordinated indie-rock fans to actually try and dance to music, even if it was on crazy dangerous treadmills? For that alone it deserves some recognition, the subsequent Internet revolution that it seemed to spark is just gravy.

8. Arctic Monkeys “Leave Before the Lights Come On”
– When the lights do come on the seemingly suicidal jumper that Paddy Constantine heroically rescues is in fact a desperately lonely woman looking for love in all the wrong places and ways. But his violent reactions to her annoying pursuit are almost equally disturbing, and so director John Hardwick paints a humorous yet thought-provoking portrait of the distance, fear and miscommunication that exists between people today.

7. The Streets “Prangin’ Out” – Mike Skinner is engulfed in nightmares of addiction and vice represented through the vibrant horror of a red-rum hotel a la The Shining in this trance-inducing video. The camera only stops briefly as it cascades and floats around corners and through doorways, creating an ominous sense of presence and mystery that leaves one guessing right up until the final disturbing scene.

6. Justin Timberlake “My Love”
– For the most infectious beat of the year the directors create one of the more addictive videos of 2006 and among the best mainstream dance videos in years. Not since Michael Jackson’s heyday have I spent so many hours in front of the screen trying to meticulously copy an artist’s particular dance (I’m only slightly ashamed to admit that), but thus is the power of this black and white minimalist video. Yet more than JT and his back-up dancers it’s the flying love-notes, the wonderfully spinning final shot and the constant juxtaposition of lust and love throughout - between serenade and seduction, dance and sex, flying rubber bands and cellos – that captures the hypnotic dualism of this street-ready ballad so perfectly.

5. M. Ward "Chinese Translation" - The old-world folksy brilliance of M. Ward is brought delightfully to life with this painstakingly animated video. In the story of the young man who goes looking for answers but instead finds more people with questions, the video reveals the way in which we are all part of larger cycles of life. And in the end it's clear that the actual answers to our heart's questions are right where Ward's most famous predecessor said they'd be - blowin' in the wind.

4. Emily Haines “Dr. Blind” – It’s one of the more frightening scenes imaginable; being stuck all alone in a supermarket under the shadows of sale aisles and greed-inducing consumerism. It’s the type of thing that could lead one to a medicated drug-addiction - and that’s precisely what’s being battled in this dark, brooding and elegiac work. The human dominoes are sublime.

3. Juvenile “Get Ya Hustle On” – Juvenile wants us to forcefully see what the mishandling of Katrina really means for the people still living in the city. Beginning with high-pitched strings and an angelic porcelain statue, in the next minute it becomes immediately clear that there are no saints marching in the streets of New Orleans. Instead there is a desperate scavenger-like mentality that permeates the air left in the wake of America’s hyper-capitalist dreams.

2. I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness “The Owl”
– This brilliant video subtly develops a complex world of jailed emotions and growing terror from the inside out. The animation is startling, beautifully detailed and yet so simple in its use of colors and sharp lines. The focus on the crow’s dilated pupils is a masterstroke, emphasizing the emotion from the opening shots while echoing the horror-flick soundtrack of the song. Yet it’s clear that what we fear is not just the owl, but also the unknown – the external light towards which the crow is flying. And thus we have an existential crisis on our hands that makes for the most suspenseful video of the year.

1. Mew “Special” - Though this video was originally released in 2005, Mew’s glorious new album was not available in the U.S. until 2006, so we’re keeping it right at the top of our list. This stunning treatise on the state of the modern romance is both transcendent and kitschy, reflecting the stirring power of Mew’s music itself. Beautifully shot and overzealously performed in black and white hues that recall Antonioni and B-grade horror in the same breathe – this is one of the most unforgettable collisions of love, fear, music and video, that you are likely to see this or any year.

Buy it at Insound!

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Depth of Focus Videographies: Radiohead / Bjork / Michael Jackson / Bowie