Last Friday night, IFC aired episode 2 of Portlandia's third season, entitled "Take Back MTV." The A-Plot begins when Spike ("Bicicle rights!" "Shell art is OVER!") watches MTV for the first time in two decades, only to discover that the channel no longer shows videos; the M no longer even stands for "Music". Spike and his wife Iris (Carrie Brownstein) decide to stage a coup in order to reclaim MTV's former glory. Hilarity and cathartic satire ensue.
But if MTV were to repent, and begin showing actual music videos again, there would certainly be no shortage of high-quality material for them to air. Compiling this list was an enjoyable task, but a lengthy one, filled with difficult decisions. The end result is a collection of some of the best music videos on the planet, released in the year 2012.
Favorite Use of Dance
Back in times before humans projected things onto screens, if you wanted some sort of visual accompanyment to your music, you were pretty much stuck with dance. As an art form, dance is as primal as music, though it arguably requires a lot more work—you can't become a good dancer in your shower or car.
Cloud Nothings - Fall In
This Cleveland band also turned in a delightful animated video this year, and it was difficult to choose which one to highlight. I chose it because I haven't seen many videos as elaborate as this one, which contrasts the band's 21st century looks and sound with dancers plucked right out of Hollywood's golden age of synchronized swimming. They surround the band, in the diffused glow of black & white film grain, giving glory to the song's refraining call to "fall in".
Favorite Use of a Celebrity
This year, I noticed the trend of famous people showing up in more music videos than years previous. My guess as to why this is happening is that it gives actors a different type of work (silent film, or lip-syncing someone else's vocals into the camera), which fits easily into their schedule, and that it also provides a highly visible person a way to use their visibility to draw attention to their favorite lesser-known musician.
When this is done well, the actor is used in ways that are surprising, or at least play to their strengths (rather than simply provide a "hey, look, it's that girl from that show!").
Aimee Mann - Charmer (with Laura Linney and John Hodgman)
Aimee Mann is well-connected within Hollywood, having provided the now-classic soundtrack to P.T. Anderson's Magnolia, and is also married to Sean Penn's brother Michael Penn (whom many wish would release albums as regularly as his wife does). She created the "Charmer" video with director Tom Scharpling, who also this year, for her song "Labrador" made a hilarious shot-for-shot remake of her 1985 hit "Voices Carry", which featured a cameo by Jon Hamm.
In this one, Laura Linney plays a robot which Mann sends out on tour in her place.
(See also: Willem DaFoe in Antony & the Johnsons' Cut the World [viewer discretion advised], Idris Elba in Mumford & Sons' Lover of the Light, Elijah Wood in Flying Lotus' Tiny Tortures, and Aubrey Plaza in Father John Misty's Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings.)
In an age of ubiquitous consumer-grade photography and vertically-shot iPhone videos (stop doing that!), a beautiful music video can be a sight for sore eyes. All of the ones I'm posting here look great, but a few especially so.
Explosions in the Sky - Postcards from 1952
The directors of this video pay homage to consumer-grade photography by basing their luxurious slow-motion montages on real found family photos from the 1950s. As they explain in this making of video, they imagined, as we all often do when we see old photographs, what happened in the moments leading up to the snapping of the shutter, and, more broadly, what these people's lives were like.
Favorite Use of Traditional Cel Animation
If you haven't seen any new children's television lately, you would be shocked at how many shows are now mass-produced, lifeless computer-generated animation that make Shrek look like the Mona Lisa. Fortunately, the traditional animation of our childhood (and the past one hundred years) is still practiced by some.
Neon Indian - Fallout
What I love about this video is how precisely right the animatior Lilfuchs gets what it was like to be thirteen years old in 1988 (I was, so I know). Any of us, had we been given the task of making a video for this song, and the tools to do it, would have come up with this same thing, though not nearly as exquisitely. (Consider not watching it at work, though.)
Favorite Use of Freehand Animation
Some animators will draw or paint each individual frame in its entirety, rather than reusing static background elements from one frame to the next. Others will composite elements created this way into backgrounds that are static. In either case, the result is a more imperfect, more human look.
Gotye - Giving Me a Chance
Favorite Use of Old Money
Manions have always been cool places to film things, but I noticed several videos set in them this year. My notion of why is that, as the global economy continues its slow climb out of the Great Recession, filmmakers' fascination with those who have lived above the daily grind for decades has grown deeper. And maybe foreclosures have left more of these mansions empty, and therefore more available as filming locations.
The War on Drugs - Brothers
An now-elderly Spaghetti Western actor has apparently trapped his in-home nurse and forced her to play a deadly game with him, but as he has fallen asleep in the middle of it, she tries to make her escape.
Favorite Use of Makeup
A little bit of color, and possibly some prosthetics, can really change how we perceive a person.
Young Rival - Two Reasons
Using a lot of color can also change how we percieve a person, as facepaint artist James Kuhn demonstrates.
Favorite Use of Childhood
Childhood is an amazing time of life, when the very structure of who we are is built. Often, as adults, we forget how tumultuous this time feels, because the outward demands required of children are so basic compared to what we face. But a music video, starring a child, can remind us how complex and raw, despite their innocence, the inner life of a child is. Since the medium requires no dialog of the young actor, we are less likely to slip into thinking of them as simple when they would otherwise possibly struggle with their delivery. Our memories can fill in the blanks.
M83 - Wait
This is the final video of the trilogy that French directing duo Fleur & Manu created for M83 (Midnight City and Reunion were the first two). The story follows a group of kids with supernatural abilities, their escape from the government adults who would keep them trapped while they analyze their powers and use them for their own gain, and in this final installment, regenerating the Earth after its end. Even though the duo talk about about their ideas and themes in this making-of video, it's clear they're holding some specifics back, because it's more about the feelings than the facts.
Favorite Use of Puppets
For several months when I was a kid, there was a Muppets exhibit at OMSI. I went as often as I could. I mean, I was obsessed. They had the original Kermit from when Jim Henson was on the Ed Sullian Show! And authentic, working Muppets, set up on a stage, with TV monitors like actual Muppeteers use! It was amazing.
Zeus - Are You Gonna Waste My Time?
Toronto, Canada band Zeus' sound harkens back to the gritty, vocal harmony-laden rock of the '70s, and somehow, these puppets which look as though they're made of birthday cakes and ice cream, capture the feeling perfectly. Lovingly shot on real film, it could seamlessly be inserted into a classic episode of Sesame Street.
Favorite Use of Science Fiction
Science fiction allows writers to hold a mirror up to our society, and to ask: "What are we really like? What good (or, more likely, evil) is our currently limited technology holding us back from?" It also allows writers to ask questions like: "Wouldn't it be, like, crazy, if aliens all came down and just started eating us or something?"
Miracles of Modern Science - I Found Space
This one is of the more thoughtful variety of sci-fi, asking: "What if a woman could, using technology, forcibly avert her partner's male gaze/wandering eye, turning his eyes instead to things above?" It's all very absurd, Kubrick and Cronenberg material, but it's a great ride.
Favorite Use of the Woods
More than half the world's population now lives in urban environments, which means that there are an unprecedented number of children alive today who will never know what it is like to play, unsupervised, in the woods. Thankfully, our fair city has lots of urban forested areas, but people in other locales are not so lucky. (Though, sadly in 2012, we did lose Loch Lomond singer Ritchie Young's magical concert venue called "The Woods").
Bob Mould - The Descent
Ok, so I'm heavily biased toward this video, since I was an extra in it. But that notwithstanding, it's a timely portrait of a middle-aged man who has lost his job. He leaves his prison of glass, steel and concrete, and returns to the environment which our evolutionary history has best prepared us for.
Plus, seeing a punk legend build a hut out of sticks and branches is pretty awesome.
Favorite Use of What Even Was That, Though?
Finally, some music videos are delightfully difficult to classify, or even explain.
The Black Keys - Gold on the Ceiling
Filmmaker Harmony Korine, best known for his 1995 screenplay Kids, created this wonderfully inexplicable video for the catchiest song off the band's latest album, El Camino. The band also released an official video for the track, and it's fine and all, nothing to write home about. But Korine has given us an unnofficial VHS nightmare, featuring a giant and miniature version of both Dan Auerback and Patrick Carney, in perpetual back-and-forth motion, similar to those animated GIFs meant to illustrate a 3D perspective of a subject.