17 of ’17: The Best Music Videos of the Year
by Steven Spoerl
Arriving fashionably late, the Heartbreaking Bravery year-end lists kick off in earnest with a celebration of the visual medium. There were incredibly strong visual efforts put forward by the people that could afford to have lavish budgets for just about any facet of their creative output (with Kendrick Lamar having an especially fruitful year) but this space wasn’t designed to celebrate those artists. Instead, the 17 selections featured below represent some of the finest works that flew by at a quieter pace, whether they came from storied veterans or exciting upstarts.
The format established last year will continue on this year, with one (or several) item designated the top spot and the remaining selections featured with no discernible ranking. Both the songs and albums list will follow this format as well. So, dive in, pick your poison, and try to guide yourself to a fate no worse than spending an hour or more playing the world’s most audacious interactive music video. Here are the 17 best music videos of 2017.
Hazel English – Fix
Throughout Hazel English‘s first few releases, the songwriter’s proved adept at crafting memorably beautiful clips and “Fix” stands proudly as English’s current best. A romantic, softly-lit tone poem “Fix” consists of little more than two people at an undefined stage in their relationship traversing some beautiful scenery together. Superbly directed and masterfully edited, “Fix” carries a subtle emotional resonance that propels it from being simply good to something masterful.
Jay Som – The Bus Song
The artist responsible for last year’s Song of the Year returned to set 2017 on fire, breaking out in momentous fashion. The highlight of Jay Som‘s ascent came by way of this House of Nod-produced (and Michelle Zauner-directed) clip for “The Bus Song”. A joyous celebration of music, friendship, and the intertwining link between the two, “The Bus Song” is teeming with affection, wearing its heartfelt sincerity not on its sleeve but as a badge of honor, displayed proudly on its chest.
Zebra Katz – Blk & Wht
One of the most haunting clips to come out of this decade, Zebra Katz‘s “Blk & Wht” is a harrowing recreation of the experiences its actors endured as refugees attempting to clear border security. As grim and stark as the song itself, “Blk & Wht” takes on a nightmarish sheen of realism that’s fully elevated thanks to the people involved in the project. It’s hypnotic, it’s terrifying, it’s unbelievably well-executed and transcends the form of music video and tips towards effective activism (something that’s incredibly hard to do without coming across as ham-fisted or cloying) by proving immensely hard to shake.
Japanese Breakfast – The Body Is A Blade
Directing Jay Som’s “The Bus Song” wasn’t the only impressive feat Michelle Zauner completed this year. Zauner also collaborated with House of Nod again for this meditative clip tinged with tragedy for her own project, Japanese Breakfast. Beautifully combining archival footage from her past with the present state of being, “The Body Is A Blade” paints a complex and deeply human portrait. Empathetic, poetic, and laced with an abundance of warmth (in tonality, coloration, and emotion), “The Body Is A Blade” immediately stood out as one of the year’s best upon release and looks even stronger today.
PUP – Old Wounds
It’s not often that this site prints obscenities but “Old Wounds” warrants the following: Jeremy Schaulin-Rioux is a fucking maniac. The director’s been instrumental in guiding PUP to claiming Music Video of the Year honors for 3 of the past 5 years and — with this entry included — has been included in the “Best Of” lists for the other two. Even with that track record, it would have been difficult to predict Schaulin-Rioux would go off the deep end to create a choose your own adventure video game masquerading as a music video in the form of 73 separate clips (many of them containing accessibly esoteric jokes from prominent music journalists) to form a cohesive whole for the shortest — and fiercest — song on the band’s triumphant sophomore effort The Dream Is Over. Click play and lose yourself to a rabbit hole that you’ll never want to leave. You’ve been warned.
Fog Lake – Rattlesnake
Fog Lake‘s “Rattlesnake” was one of 2016’s most captivating songs and 2017 gifted it the kind of visual it so richly deserved. Lacking any sort of traditional narrative allowed for something far more thoughtful and moving, as the Forest Erwin-shot clip paid tribute to both environment and inhabitant in mesmerizing fashion. Tender, intuitive, and impalpable, “Rattlesnake” follows a filmic imprint that’s served auteurs like Terrence Malick and Shane Carruth well over their best works. That “Rattlesnake” would fit comfortably alongside their finest stretches is a minor miracle.
Open Mike Eagle (ft. Sammus) – Hymnal
A bizarre satirization of televangelism, Open Mike Eagle‘s Sammus-featuring “Hymnal” stands out immediately. Comfortably drawing the viewers in from an easily-identifiable vantage point, “Hymnal” then proceeds to reveal itself as a meticulously-constructed and perfectly executed piece of oddball humor that falls more in line with Tim & Eric than just about any other clip that’s come out over the past few years. Boasting an incredible amount of specificity, “Hymnal” plays out like a fever dream that’s impossible to escape. Thankfully, for all of us, it’s wildly enjoyable and rewards investment tenfold.
Julia Louise – Brat
One of a handful of videos on this list that mark a perfect distillation and representation of the artist responsible, Julia Louise‘s “Brat” also acts as an engaging introduction-at-large. Both a minimalist portrait of Louise and a vehicle to convey the frustrations and realizations of “Brat”, the clip finds life via honesty. A series of small, everyday moments stitched together through some compelling photography and anchored by a winsome central performance, “Brat” is a clever, tongue-in-cheek testament to Louise’s already formidable talents.
Craig Finn – God In Chicago
Likely the biggest name on this list thanks to a position as the bandleader of The Hold Steady, Craig Finn has still found a way to slip through the cracks. Finn’s solo material, while exceptional, has gone largely unheralded. The spoken word, narrative-driven “God In Chicago” ranked as a career high before the video and the Kris Merc-directed clip elevated it even further on Finn’s considerably long list of achievements. A gorgeous illustration of a significant relationship doomed to slowly erode over time, every inch of “God In Chicago” should be felt in full by the millions of people who have lived that experience. It’s a miniature masterpiece.
Pissed Jeans – The Bar Is Low
2017 proved to be intensely difficult for a cavalcade of reasons so any time anyone married a similar intensity to nonsensical joy provided a welcome escape. Enter: Pissed Jean‘s “The Bar Is Low”. Easily the furthest the band has embraced their buried comedic leanings, the clip earns its place here by virtue of the commitment everyone lends their performance as underachieving-but-desperately-trying gym rats. The deadpan stares, the intimidating glances, the absolute absurdity, and the off-the-charts aggression combine for the year’s most memorably fun clip.
Anamon – Fast Car
While Pissed Jeans took the comedic escapism route, Anamon offered something a little more grounded: a hangout clip that was unwavering in its sincerity. Delivered with conviction, “Fast Car’ consists of nothing more than the band taking their dog on a day out to some open spots to relax and enjoy a beautiful day. The photography direction throughout “Fast Car” provides a sweeping sense of freedom that accompanies those exact trips. There are no stakes and any lingering fears wither in the presence of good company and picturesque scenery. Sometimes that’s all anyone needs and “Fast Car” captures that essential truth to perfection.
The Last Dinosaur – Atoms
Comprised of nothing but discarded Super 8 footage gleaned from storage units and yard sales, “Atoms” quietly establishes a sense of history through its visuals as the song fixates on the full implications of mortality. When a project’s intent is to convey the entirety of life, it’s not often that it can actually manage to achieve something that resembles a complete understanding but The Last Dinosaur have carved out their spot in today’s music by subverting and/or challenging expectations. “Atoms” is a moving reminder of their penchant for coaxing out things that are as empathetic as they are beautiful.
Protormartyr – A Private Understanding
Following a blueprint established and reinforced by some of cinema’s most antagonistic filmmakers, Protomartyr‘s clip for “A Private Understanding” manages to tap into the same type of sinister energy as its forebears. An inexplicably nerve-wracking sequence set at what appears to be either a meticulously designed retirement home or a grossly exquisite restaurant attempting to pass itself off as a “home experience”, “A Private Understanding” creates and mercilessly attacks that cognitive dissonance while employing film techniques popularized in Greek and Korean cinema. As hypnotic as it is baffling, “A Private Understanding” demands consideration long after its closing seconds.
Deep State – Heavy Lunch
Deep State‘s kinetic clip for its equally kinetic “Heavy Lunch” follows an exceptionally minimalist formula: one person dances their way across the screen to a song. It’s a trope that’s reached a point of over-saturation in recent years and seems to have lost some of its merit. However, when one so exceptionally joyful and energetic comes into focus, its myriad pleasures are impossible to deny and the Ethan Payne-directed “Heavy Lunch” finds an abundance of meaning in its gleeful sprint.
Palehound – If You Met Her
Crafting a clip for songs that register as immediate standouts for reasons of a clearly personal nature will always prove a challenge. When those challenges aren’t just met but diminished to the point of evaporation under the final product, that music video will likely stand the test of time as one of the greats. Palehound‘s “If You Met Her” — created by a group of teenagers attending Real to Reel Filmschool — finds itself in a position where it can already form a solid case for that type of longevity. While Kempner’s project allowed itself to be guided by the ghost of Heatmiser for the song itself, the video grapples with other spirits. The religious imagery, the sense of being stuck between haunting and being haunted, and the quiet, tragic desperation at the heart of both the song and the video render “If You Met Her” one of this decade’s finest efforts, on both counts.
Charly Bliss – Westermarck
Over the course of this site’s existence, Charly Bliss emerged as a coverage staple. 2017 was the first year that afforded the band a true reckoning and they responded in kind, dropping one of the year’s best records, touring relentlessly (both as a headliner and opening up for enormous names), and releasing a string of fun music videos. No clip the band’s released can hold a candle to what they managed to create for “Westermarck“, which strips away any perceivable artifice in favor of something that served as an effective antidote to 2017’s grim climate. Pure, unbridled joy drives “Westermarck” to stratospheric heights, contagious in its own effervescence and committed to its convictions. A perfect distillation of the band’s identity and something to point to as a symbol of hope for the future. “Westermarck” deserves to be held up as an example of how to effectively translate the giddiest of emotions for years to come.
MUSIC VIDEO OF THE YEAR:
IDLES – Mother
No video landed as hard, reflected the times as well, or demanded attention as well as the snarling behemoth that was IDLES‘ clip for “Mother”, a seething call to action against sexual predators and the conditions that allow a surprising percentage of them to be excused so easily. Not just one of the most hypnotic clips of this year but of this century, “Mother” contains little more than IDLES’ vocalist Joe Talbot smashing a table full of ceramics in front of a portrait of his deceased mother — whose ashes were slipped into the vinyl pressings of the band’s latest, -BRUTALISM — as he rails against an economically unjust system that essentially forces poverty onto the lower classes, heightening their exhaustion under the guise of production for the benefit of the upper class.
It’s a commanding performance and Talbot’s anger is palpable and barely containable as each individual piece gets smashed to bits as the camera lens nearly disintegrates under the weight of his piercing stare. Wearing an opened pink blazer and pink pants, the opening image of “Mother” is arresting enough but what carries it to the realms of being genuinely unforgettable is the clip’s closing moments where the song ends and the video continues in silence, Talbot making sure every last piece is hurtled towards a ground already covered in shards of plates, cups, and figurines.
When everything has suffered the brunt of Talbot’s wrath, he pauses, walks back to the poster of his mother hanging pointedly in the background, puts his hand to her lips and walks off camera. There is still smoke. There is still fire. And there, in that conclusion, as the anger lingers, is where “Mother” stakes its place as one of the great music videos of our time.