This Sunday, Aug. 25, we’ll be watching the MTV Video Music Awards as the 30th “Video of the Year” is announced (where hopefully Macklemore and Ryan Adams take home the big prize). The history of the “Video of the Year” category is pretty spotless, with so many classics taking the top honor every single year. That brings us to today’s quest: a ranking of the best 10 “Video of the Year” winners ever. Try not to lose your religion as we get the numbers exactly right.
10. The Smashing Pumpkins, “Tonight, Tonight” (1996)
If there’s one thing I love in a music video, it’s an homage to ancient cinema. (See: the Fritz Lang fantasia of “Express Yourself.”) This awe-inspiring clip by directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (of Little Miss Sunshine) plunks Billy Corgan in the world of the 1902 silent movie A Trip to the Moon, and thanks to some wicked puppetry and cutouts, he looks like a living, colorized version of a turn-of-the-century movie star. Arresting and coolas hell.
9. TLC, “Waterfalls” (1995)
God do I miss R&B trios that came with a message. This legendarily expensive clip gave us T-Boz, Left Eye, and Chilli in liquid splendor preaching about urban issues and chasing the right tributaries (the ones that you’re used to). That metallic, watery sheen is kickass enough, but I think the melodramatic vignettes are handled with just as much care and taste.
8. Beyonce, “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On it)” (2009)
A breakout spectacle that inspired countless parodies (most notably by Joe Jonas), “Single Ladies” is simply the perfect dance video experience. It’s a silvery medley of thundering sass, like we’re watching 10,000 volts of electrical fire being pumped into the Supremes’ hips. Beyonce’s movements are intoxicating, and her gyrating backups match her step for step.
7. Lauryn Hill, “Doo Wop (That Thing)” (1999)
By the late ’90s we’d waited a long time for a breakthrough R&B video; we’d enjoyed scores of great rap videos (Missy Elliott’s “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” and Puff Daddy’s “Mo Money, Mo Problems,” for starters) and a couple of danceable slow jam hits (Brandy and Monica’s “The Boy is Mine” comes to mind), but Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop (That Thing)” was a glorious video boasting classic soul, new wisdom, and the superfly side-by-side visual of Lauryn Hill’s ’60s-styled and modern-day performances. Her crackling, cocoa-y voice and block party charisma make this an ageless gem.
6. REM, “Losing My Religion” (1991)
It was always so awesome when Michael Stipe embraced his melodramatic flair in music videos. He notoriously hated lip-syncing, but he gave it a shot with this perfect, sublimely disturbing video chockablock with religious detail and spooky lighting tricks. Too bad he stole most of his weird dance moves from the #5 artist on this list…