Wednesday 19 December 2018

The 10 most influential music videos of all time (and top three Irish videos)

The 1980s may have been the music video's heyday, but US rapper Childish Gambino's potent 'This is America' has proved that the art form is as relevant as ever. John Meagher selects his 10 most influential videos

Groundbreaking: A-ha's 'Take on Me' video looks as clever today as it did 33 years ago
Groundbreaking: A-ha's 'Take on Me' video looks as clever today as it did 33 years ago
Town to Town by Microdisney
'Nothing Compares 2 U' by Sinéad O'Connor
The Sweetest Thing by U2

MTV may not be part of the zeitgeist the way it was 30, or even 20 years ago, but don't for a moment think the music video has faded from view. If anything, today's short promo films are attracting more viewers than ever thanks to their proliferation online.

Truly great videos still make an impact as great artistic works in their own right: just consider the huge coverage in recent weeks that's been given to US rapper Childish Gambino and his extraordinarily potent video for 'This is America'. In time, it will come to be seen as one of the most significant music videos ever made, a game-changer like the other nine below. And one of them a-ha's 'Take on Me' will be in many people's thoughts this weekend: the Norwegian trio play Cork's Live at the Marquee on Tuesday.

Bob Dylan, 'Subterranean Homesick Blues' (1967)

The one that started it all, even if the concept of the music video hadn't yet been born. It was the idea of the filmmaker DA Pennebaker, who was doing a fly-on-the-wall documentary with Dylan during the period where he was embracing electronic guitars and infuriating hardened folkies. It appeared in Pennebaker's film, Don't Look Back, released two years after the song came into the world on the Bringing it All Back Home album. It's been hugely influential since.


Queen, 'Bohemian Rhapsody' (1975)

Is it possible to listen to one of the most flamboyant chart-topping songs ever and not think of the garish video made to promote it? To contemporary eyes, it's risibly dated and the 'effects' are tired. But it would have been unlike anything else from the mid-1970s and the sheer over-the-top nature of it perfectly complimented a song that was all about excessive arrangements, singing and lyrics.


David Bowie, 'Ashes to Ashes' (1980)

The Buggles' 'Video Killed the Radio Star' was the most played video in the early days of MTV, but it was David Mallet's avant-garde take on one of Bowie's most defining songs that demonstrated that there were no limits to great music videos. When inflation is taken into account, it's still one of the most expensive videos ever made - and its otherworldly aspect was a fine match for the strange and compelling song.


Michael Jackson, 'Thriller' (1983)


The title track of the biggest selling album of all time got a suitably monumental video. John Landis was the big name director drafted in from Hollywood and his 20-minute mini movie remains the most ambitious music video of the lot. Jackson was already a superstar, but the album - and this brilliantly inventive visual interpretation - pushed him out into a galaxy of his own.


A-ha, 'Take On Me' (1985)

It's good to see Morten Harket and pals still going strong and their pure pop will delight many in Cork on Tuesday. For many of us, this song - and this video, still my favourite of them all - was our first introduction to a-ha. And what a piece of work it is - painstakingly realised line drawings that morph into the members of the band. Thirty three years later and it still looks immense - and brilliantly clever.


Peter Gabriel, 'Sledgehammer' (1986)

Another defining video of the 1980s - the decade where the medium truly came into its own. It was directed by Stephen R Johnson who had shot Talking Heads' 'Road to Nowhere' video - which also utilised the lip-sync stop-motion style. Gabriel later said the video was hugely important for the success of the song: "I think it had a sense of both humour and fun, neither of which were particularly associated with me."


Madonna, 'Like A Prayer' (1989)

Madge owned the 80s and she signed off the decade with a typically defiant, in-your-face statement. Christians were outraged by a video which featured sex and Jesus and there was no shortage of anger in Ireland either. But that was a different time and a different country and it's very difficult to imagine a similar controversy brewing today.


The Prodigy, 'Smack My Bitch Up' (1997)

Warning: This version is edited for MTV but still features drugs and sexually explicit content


There have been no shortage of violent music videos, with the likes of NWA responsible for a disproportionately large amount, but this hypnotic film depicted violence of a different kind, the sort that's common to towns and cities in the UK - and Ireland - every weekend night. There was a clever twist at the end too in what remains a defining document in a golden age of UK videos. 


OK Go, 'Here it Goes Again' (2006)

By far the least auspicious act on this list - could you identify any of them in a line-up? - but a video that demonstrated that if the idea was clever and well executed enough, it could go viral online. And this treadmill-starring one did, becoming a huge hit on the then embryonic YouTube. Since then, several fledgling bands have enjoyed viral video hits, including Irish rockers the Academic, who displayed a daring and inventive streak on 'Bear Claws'.


Childish Gambino, 'This is America' (2018)

It's already been viewed almost quarter of a billion times on YouTube - and with good reason. The rapper's marvellously choreographed video speaks of the Divided States of America, one where gun violence continues to dominate the national discourse and where racial tensions seem as pronounced as ever.

Three great Irish videos

‘Town to Town’ by Microdisney (1987)


A highlight from their brilliant Dublin show last weekend, the video was super-smart too, and featuring a moving lorry, alighting and departing bandmates (watch it and you’ll understand) and an especially grim urban Blighty.


‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ by Sinéad O’Connor (1990)


Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best. A close up of the singer’s face, an emotive delivery and tears that tug on the heartstrings. Her rendition of the Prince song was superb anyway, but this — heavily rotated on MTV — sealed the deal.


‘The Sweetest Thing’ by U2 (1998)


Money has rarely been an object for Bono et al but their best videos are the ones that dispense with bells and whistles and opt for a much simpler approach. This one, shot around Merrion Square, with an oddball cast of real-life figures — and an airplane trick — is a charmer.

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