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The 20 most unforgettable music videos of 2016

Editorial Staff

By Melody Lau and Olivia Pasquarelli

Music videos have very few boundaries nowadays. Without the limitations of TV — although music videos still occasionally find a way on air — artists are taking their concepts to new heights. From virtual reality to full-fledged films, 2016 raised the bar for visuals. Grab some snacks, sit back and enjoy some of this year’s most unforgettable music videos.

Editor's note: strong language and content warning in some of the videos below.

Chance the Rapper, 'Angels'

Chance the Rapper has quickly become one of the most influential forces to come out of Chicago while still vehemently representing where he came from. It’s evident in the joyous video for Coloring Book cut “Angels,” and was later even affirmed in real life when he marched hundreds of Chicagoans to early voting sites for this year’s presidential election. These are the streets that Chance grew up on and it’s front and centre in “Angels” as he soars above buildings like the city’s own Superman, dancing on its streets like his jubilant teenage self. It’s a spirited dose of inspiration to Chi-Town’s next generation as he raps, “Clean up the streets so my daughter can have somewhere to play.” For many, Chance’s rise to fame in 2016 serves as a symbol of hope that helps preserve the city’s soul and this video is an immense love letter people can hold onto in good and bad times. — ML

Grimes, 'Kill V. Maim'

“Kill V. Maim” is the nexus of Grimes’ visual aesthetic. A sensory overload of ideas, Claire Boucher isn’t afraid to explore multiple worlds in one video, each of which she inhabits with a different character of hers. With influences ranging from Naruto to vampires to cyberpunk, this video is a cacophony of bright colours, blood and grit. Boucher masterfully wields it all into a weapon of pure musical destruction. — ML

Beyoncé, 'Lemonade'

On her 2013 self-titled release, Beyoncé released a music video for every track on the album. On this year’s Lemonade, the pop star takes it one step further, translating the overall themes and statements on the record into one overarching film that surprise premiered on HBO. It was a televised event that drew millions, something akin to the days when fans tuned in to watch the broadcast of Michael Jackson’s "Thriller." But while the live-tweeting phenomena surrounding Lemonade made for some great memes and conspiracy theories around what Jay Z did and who “Becky” was, Beyoncé’s genius is embedded in the more political undertones (and overtones) of the film. From her references to the historical injustice of black women to recent protests against police violence, Beyoncé merges the past and present of black culture (with the help of current black poets, artists, collaborators and celebrities) to create one of the year’s strongest, most visually and audibly striking statements of the year. Just as with her last album, Queen Bey has set the bar extremely high for those in her footsteps. It’s just the motivation we all needed to get our act together for 2017. — ML

Vince Staples, 'Prima Donna'

Vince Staples’ latest EP, Prima Donna, is distilled into a 10-minute short film of the same name and it’s a dark, disturbing and jarringly effective glance into the psyche of a troubled musician. Lifting major themes from the EP’s seven tracks, the film follows Staples as he leaves a generic hip hop video shoot (cue the flashy graphics and booty-shaking women) and falls down a nightmarish rabbit hole on his way back to the hotel. Buzzing with paranoia and anxiety, Staples struggles to stay grounded in reality and is eventually pushed to the point of suicide as he raps about having “Kurt Cobain dreams.” Using imagery of artists like Amy Winehouse and Tupac and visually evoking The Shining and The Twilight Zone, “Prima Donna” is a distorted nugget of horror steeped in a very ugly, but honest, reality. — ML

Rihanna feat. Drake, 'Work'

Yes, there are two videos for this lovely track by Rihanna featuring Drake, but the Real Jerk version is the clear superior and the story behind it is just as charming as the video. Edward Pottinger, owner of the Toronto Caribbean eatery where the video takes place, was reluctant to participate at first. He was in his native Jamaica when producers called him on a Monday asking to film the video on Friday of the same week. Friday is one of the busiest days for the Real Jerk and Pottinger wanted to make sure his customers came first. Eventually he agreed, realizing that two of the biggest names in music would be associated with his business. His wife Lilly even makes a cameo, flipping jerk chicken in the restaurant’s kitchen, although she did not cater the shoot much to Drake’s disappointment. — OP

James Blake ft. Bon Iver, 'I Need A Forest Fire'

Shapes and shadows have never been as captivating as they are in James Blake’s collaboration with Bon Iver, "I Need A Forest Fire." The video opens with a dark sphere bathed in a rectangular beam of light as Bon Iver’s cooing carries the scene from one art installation to the next. Images of supersized faces made of what seems like shattered white plaster are a recurring theme, while butterflies and birds dance in the slowly swirling light. This video channels the perfect minimalism of the song. — OP

The Avalanches, 'Frankie Sinatra'

Just one hour after releasing their first song in 16 years, the Avalanches gave us the video for "Frankie Sinatra." Directed by Fleur&Manu, the video follows the strange side effects caused from drinking a neon yellow fluid. The nightmarish hallucinations and reckless behaviour make for an exciting visual display and seem to play on the idea of a hangover. It’s like when you drink too much and regret your decisions, but then you remember how good it felt in the moment. — OP


What do Super Mario Bros., Mortal Combat and Pokemon all have in common besides being video games? They are all video games featured in the music video for "DVP" by beloved Toronto punk rockers PUP. These guys knows how to pull at the heartstrings of their audience, showcasing a fast moving montage of classic video games. But best of all, lines from the song are written in the spaces where video game text typically appears, making this one unconventional lyric video. — OP

David Bowie, 'Lazarus'

“Look up here, I’m in heaven,” sings a pale and thin David Bowie from his bed. The music video for "Lazarus" is simply providing a narrative for Bowie’s imminent fate. Bound to his bed in an abandoned hospital, Bowie raises his arms signalling that he has given himself up to a greater force. The video ends with him stepping into the darkness of an old wooden closet. Much like the man Jesus brought back from the dead, Bowie’s "Lazarus" reminds us of human frailty even as he lives on through his art. — OP

Jazz Cartier, 'Red Alert/100 Roses'

This was the year of virtual reality and Jazz Cartier made sure to follow the trend by releasing a 360° virtual reality music video for “Red Alert/100 Roses.” You can follow Jazz Cartier as he moves through a series of shots simply by clicking the arrows at the top of the video or by pointing your phone in the direction you want to go if you’re using the YouTube app. Whether music videos will continue to employ this feature is yet to be determined. Cartier is certainly expanding the realm of possibilities and bringing us closer to his creative vision. — OP

Kanye West, 'Fade'

While the official music video for “Famous” drew more controversy and attention, “Fade” is arguably the better of the rapper’s two The Life of Pablo clips. An homage to Flashdance, West gives the spotlight over to star Teyana Taylor as she leaps around the gym to the beat of the song. Sure, the ending takes a weird turn (it involves a baby, tons of sheep and NBA player Iman Shumpert) but it’s a dynamically choreographed piece nonetheless. West was given a block of time at this year’s MTV Video Music Awards to say and do whatever he wanted and he used it wisely, to premiere this video to the millions tuning in. This is how to leave a great impression on people, bro. — ML

Francis and the Lights ft. Bon Iver and Kanye West, 'Friends'

What’s most impressive is the synchronised choreography Francis Farewell Starlite and Bon Iver perform in this single take video. The dance includes a pirouette and foot work you’d typically see in a line dance. So, you’re probably wondering how many takes it took to get this entire thing down. Director Jake Schreier of films like Robot & Frank and Paper Towns said they officially nailed it on 11th take, but the entire process wasn’t very long. Although Kanye West is not heard on the track, he is seen in the opening shot of the video donning a black bomber with intricate patchwork. There is no cohesive style between Kanye, Bon Iver and Starlite. Instead, each artist wore their own clothes in order to feel like themselves, says the director. This video is simply about a few friends sharing a special moment in time. — OP

Kaytranada, 'Lite Spots'

Rarely do Frankensteinian experiments with robots end well, but Montreal artist Kaytranada is here to debunk those dystopian tropes. There are no tensions between man and machine in the infectious video for “Lite Spots.” Instead, Kaytranada and his robot creation dance from place to place, spreading joy and sparking dance parties wherever they go. It’s a feel-good time for those who want all the futuristic aesthetics of a Westworld or Arrival but don’t want any violence, fear or uncertainty. — ML

Mitski, 'Your Best American Girl'

There’s a moment in Mitski’s video for “Your Best American Girl,” just before the rush of guitars sweeps in on the chorus, where she slowly stops waving at the man across from her and hope turns to heartbreak in her eyes. It’s a realization that they’re not right for each other because, as she sings, “Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me.” Instead, the man passionately makes out with a blonde Coachella babe as Mitski is left alone, kissing her own hand. Even though their differing backgrounds is what keeps Mitski and this man apart, she’s able to move on, pick up her guitar and respond to the aforementioned line with a smile: “I do, I think I do.” — ML

ANOHNI, 'Drone Bomb Me'

As tears stream endlessly down her face, model Naomi Campbell mouths the words: “Drone bomb me/Blow me from the mountains/And into the sea.” Campbell is the emotional narrator in ANOHNI’s video for the HOPELESSNESS track, “Drone Bomb Me,” pleading to join her family after they get killed in a drone attack. It’s visually striking, focusing on Campbell’s expressive and empathetic performance, reminding us of the many traumatized faces that exist as a result of warfare. — ML

Kanye West, 'Famous' (Aziz Ansari version)

Want to take a trip to Italy but don’t have the time or funds? Not to worry because Master of None costars Aziz Ansari and Eric Wareheim will take you on an Italian adventure in their music video for Kanye West’s “Famous.” Ansari and Wareheim star as Lil Bud and Big Bud respectively in this ode to Italian culture and cuisine. From riding marble statues to slurping back spaghetti, they dance in the cobblestone streets and even lovingly caress a bright red Fiat. But the flashing photos of food will really catch your attention. Pizza, pasta and cured meats are the stars and yes, Kanye West approves, though he did have to clarify that this is not the official video for the song. — OP

Solange, 'Cranes in the Sky'/'Don’t Touch My Hair'

There’s a tranquil energy that surges through Solange’s latest album, A Seat at the Table, and it’s perfectly translated in its visuals as well. “Cranes in the Sky” and “Don’t Touch My Hair,” released as companion videos, is an elegant portrait of black strength and regalness. Every shot of these videos is exquisitely composed, focusing on the importance and beauty of colour (both skin and clothing). — ML

Radiohead, 'Burn the Witch'

There was a lot of speculation on the meaning behind Radiohead’s stop-motion video for “Burn the Witch.” The cute animated characters leave you ill at ease, as they go about their daily lives in a little town resembling post-war Britain. But what’s most striking is that the animations are done in the same style as the British children’s TV series The Trumptonshire Trilogy, which began airing in 1966. Radiohead’s animator Virpi Kettu explained that the band wanted the video to contrast the dark message within the lyrics and touch on the current political climate. Kettu said they hoped to raise awareness about Europe’s refugee crisis, as well as the negativity towards Muslims immigrants. — OP

Tegan and Sara, 'Stop Desire'

This stunning visual display follows Tegan and Sara as they find sexual overtones in almost every mundane daily activity. From licking postage stamps to fiddling fruit, the Quin sisters have sex on the mind. The vibrant colours remind you of a classic Wes Anderson film, while Tegan and Sara sing with deadpan faces internalizing their burning desire. Reggie Watts makes an appearance as a suave post office clerk, stamping letters and collecting packages. The best part is when they pan to a mortified orange tabby, Instagram superstar Shrampton the Cat, as a woman in the laundromat folds a pair of underwear featuring his portrait. — OP

Shura, 'What’s It Gonna Be'

Sibling rivalry isn’t a problem for Shura and her brother. They co-star in Shura’s video for “What’s It Gonna Be,” each playing high school versions of themselves. In typical teen behaviour, the two devise a plan to woo their crushes, eventually leading them to the ultimate goal of making contact. The video ends with Shura and the lead cheerleader making out, while her brother locks lips with the football star. Reminiscent of John Hughes movies, “What’s It Gonna Be” breaks down stereotypes and reimagines a timeless tale. — OP

Follow Melody on Twitter at @melodylamb, and Olivia on Twitter at @oliviapasq.