The 1990s was a golden age for music videos. After the experimental ’80s and before YouTube glut of the new century, music videos in the ’90s provided an outlet for groundbreaking directors to cultivate an image for an artist or song that could become as memorable as the song itself. Music videos were so great in the ’90s, MTV actually showed them, launching the careers of directors like Spike Jonze, Brett Ratner and David Fincher. In honor of these great music videos, here are the 30 greatest music videos of the 1990s.
The list starts off with a terrible music video by Yo La Tengo, leading their record company to demand they go to rock school to learn how to become true rock stars. The school ends up being taught by Mr. Show’s David Cross and Bob Odenkirk in KISS and glam-rock regalia. After weeks of class, the band learns what it is to rock, but remains strong in their convictions and stay the same.
Director Mark Romanek’s video for “Criminal” was a breakout success for Apple that seemed to focus on the song’s opening lyric, “I’ve been a bad, bad girl”. The video shows the results of a party filled with debauchery, with Apple one of the remaining witnesses. Romanek’s video walks a fine line between seedy, sexy and voyeuristic, making Apple more of a harbinger of darkness than a sex icon.
Sometimes simplicity is best, as can be seen in O’Connor’s take on Prince’s song “Nothing Compares 2 U”. A majority of the video stays zoomed on O’Connor’s face, as her face is wracked with emotion. The video’s high point of action is when she cries two tears. Simple and elegant, O’Connor’s video focuses on emotion instead of flash and is better for it.
Weezer has had a great career of incredible music videos but their first was this simple Spike Jonze effort. The group performs a sped-up version of their song in one take, while dogs run wild on the set. There isn’t much to it, but the band’s performance speed and the tricky camera movement makes this still one of their most fun videos.
Most Beck videos from the 90s had directors trying to match Beck’s oddness, often trying to visualize everything spoken in his peculiar raps. The video for “Devil’s Haircut” takes a different approach. Taking influence from the songs opening guitar riff, the video plays pretty standard, until it culminates on Beck being followed, perfectly matching the ’70s countryfied mod feeling of the song and video’s direction.
Thom Yorke has stated that “Karma Police” is about the little man having to deal with bosses and the frustrations of this balance of power. This is symbolized beautifully in Jonathan Glazer’s video, which features a man running from a car without a driver and Yorke in the backseat mumbling the lyrics to the song. Framed by bugs in the windshield, the man finally gives up from running, hands up in retreat, before he drops a match into a gas leak that leads back to the car, catching it on fire, with Yorke now absent from the equation.
While Semisonic’s breakthrough video for “Closing Time” may seem like a lineup of clichés from ’90s pop-rock bands (live performance, split-screen, band with only one huge radio hit), there’s a simple brilliance in it. By shooting two single-take perspectives and some tricky misdirection, “Closing Time” is a excellent look at missed opportunities and being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
We’re not expecting a lot of love for the band Korn, but their video “Freak on a Leash” is an original idea and a fun precursor to countless YouTube videos of people blowing stuff up. As a stray bullet goes through many obstacles and barely missing several bystanders, we get to watch water bottles, aerosol cans get shot through in pure slow-motion glory.
“Around the World” is a repetitive song in which the phrase “around the world” is said over and over. Doesn’t seem like much to build a video around. But Michel Gondry is always ripe with ideas. He gives each instrument a persona and has its movements intersect with the music by running up, down and around a set of stairs. The video is a great example of Gondry’s ability to look outside the box for inspiration.
Another mind-bending Gondry project, Björk finds a book in the woods that starts writing itself with what the singer is currently doing. She sells the book, and it becomes a success, followed by a musical version of the book and the popularity of the story continues to grow. What makes the video so great is that after a while, all of the elements start happening at once on stage, creating smaller stages and smaller audiences. The video plays like a smaller precursor to Charlie Kaufman’s film Synecdoche, New York and works just as effectively.
Many artists have tried to do the “video going in backwards” trick, from Peter, Bjorn and John to Jack Johnson. But Spike Jonze’s video for The Pharcyde’s “Drop” easily did it best, with the group learning the song backwards, then manipulating the band in a way that is incredibly surreal experience, much like The Pharcyde’s music itself.
Jonze once again had a tough call to make with the video for “Sky’s the Limit”. With the video being released posthumously, Jonze decided to go fun and create a younger doppelganger of B.I.G., as well as young versions of Puff Daddy, 112, Busta Rhymes and Lil Kim. The video acts as a call to enjoy the life and music that B.I.G. left, rather than lament the fact that he was gone.
Almost everything people remember about Jamiroquai almost certainly came from this great video. In the video, the group’s lead singer Jay Kay dances in a room, wearing his infamous hat, while the floor is seemingly moving. The video is reminiscent of Fred Astaire dancing on the walls and is another great video done in only one take. Even though Jamiroquai is now also remembered as the band that Napoleon Dynamite danced to, this video is the band’s greatest achievement.
An electronica band wants a great director to make an innovative video? Leave it to Gondry again. Gondry’s handheld video takes the viewer inside the dreams of the video’s main protagonist, which features several look-alikes, and the multiplication of everything from beds to alarm clocks. Knowing where Gondry’s films would go with films like The Science of Sleep and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, this video seems like an important landmark in Gondry’s career.
Lauryn Hill’s album “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill clearly had influence rooted in 1960’s R&B and soul and she gives direct reference to this in her video for “Doo Wop (That Thing)”. In probably the best use of split-screen in videos, a 1960s Hill and 90s Hill perform together, showcasing the subtle and great difference in time periods that have influenced the great singer.
Radiohead’s video for “Just” might be their greatest video in their incredible career. The videos’ image of a man lying on a busy street because of the weight of a secret he knows is a haunting image that centers the story for the video. Once the man tells the secret, even Radiohead has to quit performing and look down at the street below as now the entire crowd that wanted to know the secret lays motionless below. They did it to themselves, and that’s why it really hurts.
A seemingly crazy man walks down a tunnel as cars barely miss him in the video for “Rabbit In Your Headlights”. As the man continues to walk, he starts to get hit by cars, yet still continues to move on. When the man has had enough, he throws of his jacket, allowing the oncoming car to hit him, destroying the car instead of the man. The symbolism of vulnerability, as well as the use of diegetic sound makes the video a surprisingly moving piece.
Blur’s Graham Coxon is missing in their video for “Coffee & TV” as a milk carton bearing Coxon’s image goes out to find him. The carton has to fight to find Coxon, always getting squished and even falling in love (and losing his love). When he finds Coxon playing with Blur, Coxon drinks the milk, leaving it to die. The carton gets a happy ending though, as his ghost flies off to milk carton heaven, reuniting with the carton of strawberry milk he loved on his journey.
Director Chris Cunningham made his share of extremely dark, brooding videos, but with “All Is Full of Love,” he created a robot romance that would make WALL-E jealous. The mechanical and methodical love that a robot Björk has is greater than most humans will ever experience as sparks fly literally and figuratively.
As a video, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” isn’t as important visually as for the early ’90s wake-up call to a new way of thinking and a new style of music, interpreted in the video as Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl play at a darkened pep rally. Cobain’s wails and close up near the end of the video seem almost like a rally for kids everywhere to listen up and pay attention. Surprisingly, it worked.
“Tonight, Tonight” takes its inspiration from the most unlikely of places—George Melies’ A Trip to the Moon from 1902—but it works wonderfully. With the directing team that would go on to make Little Miss Sunshine and star Tom Kenny, creator and voice of SpongeBob Squarepants, the video shows a couple who fight against insurmountable odds, like beasts of the water and air, but they know they can take on whatever with each other.
“Bittersweet Symphony” is at its core, a song about staying with what you know and even when you try to change, you ultimately stay the same. Richard Ashcroft’s character in this classic video sticks to this principle by moving forward, regardless of what comes at him. Ashcroft gets yelled at by fellow pedestrians and drivers as he stops for nothing, except for a brief second to admire a limousine, contemplating another path that may have been. The video for “Bittersweet Symphony” shows that sometimes it’s better just to move forward than to attempt to change your path.
If you were to imagine Trent Reznor just by listening to “Closer,” your depiction of him may seem like a flurry of messed up images, much like the video portrays. “Closer” is disturbing image after image, from a rotating pig’s head to a monkey on a crucifix, to probably the creepiest, a missing scene that leaves it to the audience to imagine what couldn’t be found. “Closer” gives life to Reznor’s twisted, dark fantasy.
It’s rare that Gondry has a story as strong as his visuals, but the plot here is worthy of one of Foo Fighters’ greatest songs. Dave Grohl and newly added member Taylor Hawkins play a couple who are both in trouble in their dreams: Grohl at an ’80s-era party, Hawkins in an Evil Dead-style cabin. The dreams meld into one as Grohl protects Hawkins from comically odd villains with his growing hand and through the randomness of dreams.
Björk’s song “It’s Oh So Quiet” about constantly being hurt by love is ironically set to fun, happy, big-band-style music. Jonze chooses to focus on the lighter aspects of the song, giving Björk one big musical number where anything and everything dances with her while she sings her warnings on love. Björk’s visions always seem larger than life, and Jonze makes them a reality.
When Prodigy released “Smack My Bitch Up,” people were dismayed, believing the title was a sexist promotion of violence. With the video, Prodigy turned expectation on its head. The protagonist heads out for a night filled with destructive behavior that includes drugs, strippers and yes, even a bit of violence. By the end of the video, viewers are disgusted by the character they’ve seen through the eyes of, until they realize who the person really is. Shocking and interesting, Prodigy made a video that poked fun at those who thought they knew where they were going.
The combination of director Chris Cunningham and Aphex Twin sounds like a terrifying match made in hell. Well, it is. An old woman is harassed by little girls with masks resembling Aphex Twin’s Richard David James and is almost blown away by a beast that crawls out a TV to scream at her. But what is so brilliant about “Come to Daddy” is the way Cunningham utilizes his video to replicate every sound the electronic artist can put into his music.
Before their was Johnny Knoxville and Jackass, there was Richard Koufey and The Torrance Community Dance Group. Director Jonze captures Koufey and his fictional dance troupe do a performance set to Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You”. The video was shot guerrilla style outside a movie theatre, features a hidden cameo from Fatboy Slim himself, Norman Cook, and would actually bring about Jonze co-producing Jackass. It’s one of the funniest videos of all time.
“I look just like Buddy Holly”, Weezer lead singer Rivers Cuomo sings in their similarly titled song. So what better place to set their video than on the set of “Happy Days”? Weezer performs at the show’s classic restaurant Arnolds, where the Cunninghams, Ralph Malph gather. Even Fonzi takes a few moments to show off his dance moves. A nice moment at the end has Weezer discussing with Al that the fish still isn’t selling good. Some things never change.
Spike Jonze’ masterpiece matches the intensity and excitement of Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” with an homage to ’70s cop dramas. As MCA, Ad-Rock and Mike D take on the police personas of Cochese, Bobby “The Rookie” and “The Chief,” the three MCS created a fake opening title sequence to the TV show “Sabotage.” With plenty of car chases, interrogations and action, the Beastie Boys and Jonze created an iconic video as acclaimed as the song that inspired it.