It was August 1, 1981 when MTV first went on the air and changed the world of music forever, ensuring that image and style would forevermore be as important as songwriting and musical talent.
Since then, the channel has seen phenomenal highs (Michael Jackson’s triumphant run in the ’80s, the “Rock the Vote”/”Choose or Lose” campaign) and entertaining lows (the Next bus, the antics of Jersey Shore).
In honor of the occasion, we’re counting down the 10 best videos to ever win the MTV Video Music Award for video of the year. Don’t agree with our picks? Comment below!
10. Madonna, “Ray of Light” (1998)
For reasons that we’ll probably never know, the performer who arguably has done as much as anyone to revolutionize the music video form only won the top award once in her live. Oh well, Alfred Hitchcock never won a competitive Oscar. Director Jonas Åkerlund’s time lapse clip for “Ray of Light” isn’t David Fincher’s “Vogue,” and it isn’t Mary Lambert’s “Like a Prayer.” Hell, it probably isn’t even “Borderline.” But it’s her only win and one must pay tribute.
09. The Cars, “You Might Think” (1984)
The first winner is unquestionably among the best, or at least one of the best time capsules of a still-evolving format — both the music video itself, as well as computer graphics. So what if it beat “Thriller” and Herbie Hancock’s psychotic “Rockit.” It’s still a mind-bender in its own video-toaster way.
08. Lady Gaga, “Bad Romance” (2010)
It didn’t take long for her shtick to curdle into annoyance, but for a brief window, she looked like a fearless ambassador for the new punk-glam aesthetic, with help from director Francis Lawrence. Somehow, her best clip managed to be the one that actually won the VMA. Very few superstars get to say that.
07. Pearl Jam, “Jeremy” (1993)
A haunting, controversial video that has only become more prophetic and relevant with each passing year, director Mark Pellington’s masterpiece puts the audience right into the head of a tormented teen who has tragic access to a firearm. It’s still a tough watch.
06. The Smashing Pumpkins, “Tonight, Tonight” (1996)
Time has been significantly less kind to the music of Billy Corgan’s brainchild. Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie scream “1990s relic.” But Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’s colorful, Georges Méliès-inspired vintage clip comes on like the grandfather of every Instagram-filtered descendent since. Since Bjork never won (and was, in fact, criminally never even nominated), the frippery of “Tonight, Tonight” earns its slot here.
05. Lauryn Hill, “Doo Wop (That Thing)” (1999)
“The second verse is dedicated to the men…” The two-fold, equal-time dismissals of Lauryn Hill’s super-judgey but irresistibly listenable jam get a great visual counterpart via an era-straddling split screen. Essentially, “Doo Wop” is two videos in one, both stunning.
04. Beyoncé, “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)” (2009)
It’s become a cliché now to say that, for once, Kanye was right. But he was! It’s a shame he couldn’t wait patiently in his seat, to be sure, but let the record show that his assertion that “Single Ladies” is “one of the best videos of all time” is actually founded in pure fact. With nods to Bob Fosse and a clean, simple, minimalist design complemented by some subtly fierce camera moves, “Single Ladies” almost feels like the big blockbuster at the cusp of the new YouTube frontier.
03. Sinéad O’Connor, “Nothing Compares 2 U” (1990)
Speaking of minimalist, check out O’Connor’s elegant elegy for a love gone wrong. Many VMA winners espouse a “more is more” aesthetic. “Nothing Compares 2 U” just offers a close-up, a single tear, and raw emotion. What more do you need?
02. Jamiroquai, “Virtual Insanity” (1997)
Love him or hate him, Jamiroquai’s Jay Kay (and his confounded array of hats) gliding mysteriously through an ever-shifting single room all but exemplify MTV’s emphasis on style, sophistication, and pugnacious, eye-grabbing visuals. It doesn’t hurt that the song’s a catchy piece of faux-Stevie Wonder revivalism, but it’s all about those plucky, lo-fi visual effects.
01. Peter Gabriel, “Sledgehammer” (1987)
Depending on how snobby the source, it’s been called either the Citizen Kane or the Star Wars of music videos. Which pretty much says it all.