15 of ’15: The Best Music Videos of 2015

by Steven Spoerl

Courtney Barnett I

Before we begin on this list, it’s worth noting- once again- that this publication isn’t one that’s overly concerned with the artists that already have received major levels of exposure (it’s also worth noting that “best” is a formality and a pale reflection of lists born out of subjectivity that are constructed around a fairly rigid set of rules). That said, I’d be remiss to not mention that what I personally believe to be the three most important clips of the year (Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright“, Vince Staples’ “Señorita“, and Run the Jewels’ “Close Your Eyes (and Count to Fuck)“) all used multifaceted black-and-white presentation to haunting, startlingly effective- and extremely pointed- levels. While those acts may have had access to expanded resources, the artists that made this list were able to find ways to flourish on technical and artistic levels. These clips are only scratching the surface of an extraordinary year for music videos but still managed to find ways to stand out from the crowd.

15. Fraser A. Gorman – Shiny Gun

Was there any narrative-driven clip as lighthearted as Fraser A. Gorman‘s “Shiny Gun” in 2015 (or 2014 for that matter)? Operating with a freewheeling sense of camaraderie and a genuine sense of fun, it’s a nearly iconic clip for an artist that deserves to be recognized on his own merits rather than just as an associate of label boss Courtney Barnett (who has a delightful cameo in the video). From the dryly comic premise to the impromptu guitar solo session that acts as its resolution, “Shiny Gun” is pure entertainment.

14. S – Remember Love

Last year, S appeared on this list for the heartbreaking “Losers” clip, which was teeming with genuine emotion and presented in bare-bones, DIY fashion. “Remember Love” sees S continuing to succeed on both of those accounts in instantly memorable ways. Ostensibly a parable about the metaphorical ghosts and skeletons that accompany the dissolution of relationships, “Remember Love” pulls off providing them with a physical form. By all accounts, the provided costume should feel too on-the-nose yet the video somehow finds a way to humanize its characterization to a point where the clip’s climax- and surprisingly profound final moment- feels genuinely devastating.

13. Diet Cig – Scene Sick

Over Easy, Diet Cig‘s immediately likable debut EP, established the duo as a fount of brash youthfulness and sheer joy, even in songs that dealt with some weightier issues. Even in a strong year for the band that saw the release of a few more clips and a tremendous 7″, nothing captured their aesthetic more than their video for “Scene Sick”. A simplistic concept maximized to an absurd level of success, it finds guitarist/vocalist Alex Luciano gleefully dancing next to a stone-faced Noah Bowman (the band’s drummer) before a brief rest that sees them both exploding into a frenzy of completely carefree moves over the most apt of refrains. No stakes are ever present and the duo dive into their roles with ecstatic abandon.

12. Dilly Dally – Desire

In December, no band was mentioned more times on this site than Dilly Dally, whose Sore has been in near-constant rotation here since its release. While the clips for “The Touch” and (especially) “Purple Rage” made strong impressions, it was “Desire” that managed to cut deepest. A visual realization of the record’s most central themes, “Desire” also managed to capture the band’s defining dichotomy: exploring the inherent beauty of what’s generally perceived as ugliness. The willingness to explore what makes us human so boldly resonated loudly when it was confined to the record but seeing a depiction of our mundane flaws married to a celebration of our sensuality and sense of wonder turned “Desire” into a staggering experience.

11. Eskimeaux – Broken Necks

Eskimeaux‘s O.K. was a watershed moment for Gabrielle Smith’s project, striking a perfect balance between somber reflection and a prevailing sense of closeted optimism. “Broken Necks” focuses most heavily on the optimistic side of that equation, bringing the song’s more twee elements to vibrant life as Smith and a cohort of friends walk and/or dance their way through a host of familiar locations scattered around New York. Smith turns in a charismatic central performance, flashing impressive depth as the video progresses through a variety of distinctive modes (deadpan, ethereal, meditative, etc.). Visually, it’s mesmerizing and finds ways to incorporate a few quick tricks into something that winds up feeling like one of Eskimeaux’s most defining moments.

10. Denai Moore – Blame

Every so often, a music video comes along that boasts enough firepower in its technical elements to prove unforgettable. In Denai Moore‘s clip for “Blame“, everything is firing on all cylinders. From Moore’s turn as a detached passenger to an inspired performance from an antagonized outsider to the gorgeous icy landscape and breathtaking cinematography, it’s a surprisingly moving piece of work. Tapping into a noir-ish narrative that focuses heavily on loss, unfettered emotion, and our capacity for empathy, it’s a striking vision. From its layered worldview to the video’s elevation of the song that acts as its driving force, “Blame” is an uncontested triumph.

9. Alex G – Brite Boy

Another clip that focuses heavily on loss, Alex G‘s “Brite Boy“, found a way to excel in its attention to implicit detail. Using only black outlines on a white background, “Brite Boy” infuses its classic-leaning animation with a palpable sense of longing. As its two protagonists adventure their way through bouts of surrealism and moments of clarity, a divide begins to emerge and deepen in heartbreaking fashion. It’s an emotionally crippling tour de force cut from a fairly unique cloth that’s already starting to feel more than a little timeless.

8. Bandit – The Drive Home

Easily one of the most stunning turn-in’s from a cinematographer working in this format in 2015, Bandit‘s “The Drive Home” benefits from the evocative framing that heightens the song’s cinematic inclinations considerably. Easily Of Life‘s most blinding highlight, the Derek Scearce-helmed clip elevates the emotional heft of “The Drive Home” via cold color palettes and sweeping, majestic presentation. Open roads, snow-capped mountains, and jaw-dropping visuals combine and culminate in a memorable final moment that completely removes the clip’s lone human element, ultimately revealing itself as an ego-less appreciation of our surroundings. It’s a powerful decision that cements the status of “The Drive Home” as one of the finest music videos of 2015.

7. PUP – Dark Days

In 2013, PUP‘s vicious- and viciously entertaining- clip for “Reservoir” earned a spot at the top of the music videos list I co-authored for PopMatters for that year. In 2014, the band followed suit with their unforgettable origin story video for “Guilt Trip“. Both were directed by the creative team of Chandler Levack and Jeremy Schaulin-Rioux, who once again crack this year’s list with the animated clip for “Dark Days“, extending a remarkable run of success with aplomb. Here, the gears are switched from relative bleakness and shocking moments of violence to a modest animated presentation of the decidedly unglamorous lives of touring musicians in a mid-level band. A sense of realism informs close to every step of “Dark Days”, from its unfettered highs to its most crushing lows. By providing what also effectively functions as a distillation of the band’s manic energy, Levack and Schaulin-Rioux have crafted yet another gem.

6. Courtney Barnett – Kim’s Caravan

One of 2015’s more unexpected commentaries came via Courtney Barnett‘s commendably bleak clip for “Kim’s Caravan“, which honed in on Australia’s most ravaged landscapes while simultaneously providing an unflinchingly intimate portrait of the inhabitants of those areas. Not too far removed from the works of John Hillcoat, “Kim’s Caravan” finds strength in its most somber tones. As the clip progresses, a foreboding sense of doom gets amplified to successively higher levels before culminating in some of the most startling and unforgettable shots of any music video to have been released in the past five years. As shattered glass rains down upon Barnett’s body and a trailer gets abandoned as it burns, the disappointment and anger fueling the clip crystallize. As Barnett walks offscreen in its final moments, it comes across as an impassioned plea and provides a fitting end piece to one of the more effective message videos in recent memory.

5. Girl Band – Why They Hide Their Bodies Under My Garage?

Did any other band find a foothold in definitive visual representation as Girl Band in the past 12 months? It’s doubtful. One of the more difficult decisions going into this list’s ultimate ranking was whether to include “Why They Hide Their Bodies Under My Garage?” or “Paul”, as each operated on a singular playing field that’s paid massive dividends for the band. Ultimately, the former was selected for being both the introduction to the band’s distinctive approach and the meticulous, surgeon-like precision required for it to work. Playing like one of David Lynch’s wet nightmares, “Why They Hide Their Bodies Under My Garage” focuses on the removal of a corpse’s internal organs before taking a sudden left turn into one of the more nightmarish dance parties imaginable, shattering an enormous amount of tension and providing the rest of us with a glimpse of the arsenal of deranged imagery Girl Band had in store for their breakout year.

 

4. Hammock – In the Middle of this Nowhere + My Mind Was A Fog… My Heart Became A Bomb

While it’s likely this pairing functions more as a short film than a music video, it succeeds on its own merits to a strong enough degree that the cumulative result felt like an appropriate candidate for this list. Astounding on a technical level, both “My Mind Was A Fog… My Heart Became A Bomb” and “In the Middle of this Nowhere” also succeed in eliciting an emotional response from their high-concept proceedings. Centering on a narrative where a virus has all but wiped out the world’s population, a survivor returns to his now-desolate home that he’d built with his family to try and rebuild his life by any means necessary. Another intimate portrayal of a character whose fate is all but doomed, the setting of these clips allow them to grasp at weightier themes than usual, where things like abandonment are amplified considerably by the circumstance. As the protagonist’s resolve rapidly deteriorates with each subsequent attempt at rekindling his past, Hammock‘s lilting ambient score propels each of the clips towards being modern classics.


3. Bent Denim – Good Night’s Sleep 

It’s difficult to think of a clip that commanded more force with its synergy than Bent Denim‘s aching “Good Night’s Sleep“. A pained examination of the psyche after the loss of a child, its a wrenching, empathetic character study that captures the feeling of being directionless to heartrending effect. In presenting the narrative through the lens of home movies, it imbues the narrative with a discomforting notion that it’s a tragedy that many of us will have to face and find a way to reconcile. The video’s soft tones enhance the intuitively maternal characterization of the clip’s lone performer and adds untold depths of heartbreak to the shot that lingers on a sign that simply says “Momma tried”. Whether “Good Night’s Sleep” deals with death, miscarriage, custody, or abortion is up to the perception of the viewer but any way it’s spun, the video retains its gut-wrenching emotional impact and its level of care for its protagonist. It’s an astonishingly moving portrait rendered with the care it deserves and it’s also one of the finest DIY efforts of this decade.

2. Julien Baker – Sprained Ankle

An extraordinary amount of work and hyper-meticulous planning has to go into pulling off a successful tracking shot, which is why a few of the finest examples (Children of MenHard BoiledThe Shining, etc.) are considered some of the most iconic moments in cinema. In 2015, there were three of these that genuinely stood out: the entirety of the German heist thriller Victoria, the electric second boxing match in Creed, and Sabyn Mayfield’s clip for the extraordinary title track from Julien Baker‘s masterwork Sprained Ankle. It’s a record that’s predominant theme is our mortality, a fact laid bare by the opening lines of “Sprained Ankle”, and Baker conveys the weight of that obsession flawlessly throughout the course of the video. Appearing onscreen as a battered athlete surrounded by a decrepit gymnasium, the imagery drives home the somewhat tragic fact that everything is constantly aging from the moment it’s born into this world. Eventually, the camera pushes past Baker to explore the tattered walls and fading ceiling insulation before circling back to the ground and providing one last look at a now-abandoned gym, haunted by what’s no longer present.

1. The Fjords – All In

2015 was a deplorable year in terms of senselessly violent acts that were carried out on scales both grand and miniature. From school shootings to accidental bombings, there was barely a reprieve from the damage. It seems fitting, then, that the clip at the very top of this list would offer some sort of commentary on today’s excessive levels of heinously shocking violence. Here, though, the clip in question gains intrigue because of how balanced it manages to be in that commentary, touching on both the displacement that can drive those actions and the childlike mindset that goes into their execution. Nostalgia also plays a factor in “All In“, which is a monumental first effort at a narrative-driven music video for The Fjords (“Almost Real” was granted a compelling lyric video), connecting the thread of media influence to its sudden, unexpected bloodshed. Heightening the disconcerting events that inform “All In”, is the fact that the protagonist is a young child, whose played with a steely commitment that’s nearly as jarring as the clip’s climactic confrontation in front of a hot dog stand. All at once, “All In” manages to succeed as a pointed commentary, a revenge fantasy, and one of the most startling pieces of magic realism in recent memory. Timely and timeless, it’s a towering achievement by any measure and its message lingers long after its first shot rings out.