The best music videos of the year 2021

This year has brought an eclectic mashup of music video styles, with a leaning towards the digital and the psychedelic, perhaps in a reflection of the times. Here’s our pick of the ten best of the year

While 2021 has undoubtedly been an easier year than 2020 for those looking to shoot music videos with actual people and production teams, it’s interesting that some of the best shorts (to us, at least) have been those that don’t rely on things being literally all-singing, all-dancing live action extravaganzas.

Perhaps a reflection of how our lives are increasingly lived via screens, perhaps just because they look quite cool, many of the most compelling videos this year are those playing with glitches, data-moshing-style techniques and generally retina-bashing psychedelia. Maybe such visual assaults are all our lockdown-addled minds can cope with now, with their brain fogs and rapidly shortening attention spans; maybe they act as microcosms of another dystopian shitshow of a year but make it all look a lot prettier.

Either way, there’s been some very exciting work across 2D and 3D animation, references to the machinations of gaming, weird in-camera effects, as well as combinations of all sorts of processes and disciplines. Here’s a selection of ten of our favourites from across 2021.

Black Dice, White Sugar; Director: Aaron Anderson

Godparents of glitch-out noise, freak-psych synth sounds and post-post-ironic high jinks, there really is no one quite like Black Dice. Ever bonkers and ever brilliant, the band was formed by three RISD students in 1997 and has never shaken that hardcore punk art school vibe that made them. Now as much an art project as a musical one, the band’s members have gone off to do their own projects over the past decades but this year’s album Mod Prog Sic is an absolutely triumphant return to the greatness of 2012’s Mr Impossible.

Mod Prog Sic sounds and looks superb, with the video for White Sugar directed by Brooklyn-based Aaron Anderson emerging in June this year. The five-minute promo mixes woozy live action laden with data-moshing-like effects and no shortage of quickfire monochrome patterns, in a similar vein to those often seen in Ryoji Ikeda’s work.

Anderson had previously worked with Black Dice’s Eric Copeland on two videos – Heads and Fresco – alongside Eric Timothy Carlson in 2018, which were also used as live visuals.

Olivia Rodrigo, good 4 u; Director: Petra Collins

The video for Olivia Rodrigo’s good 4 u is packed with everything that many of us thought were left languishing in the largely culturally devoid early-mid noughties: squeaky clean pop punk guitars, cheerleading-centric teen movies, those strange outerwear corsets of the ‘nice top and jeans’ days. But here they all are, and remarkably, they work – perhaps down to the smart directorial deftness of Petra Collins.

In typical Collins style, the video merges saccharine stereotypes and makes them both tongue-in-cheek and bleak; bringing in references to both The Princess Diaries and Jennifer’s Body. Olivia Rodrigo has certainly cemented her name as one to watch when it comes to the visual aspects of her work: the cover for her album Sour has seen Courtney Love claim that it’s a Hole ripoff, and in another format, it seems to have managed to predict 2022 as the year of Pantone’s ‘Very Peri.’

La Femme, Divine Créature, still

La Femme, Divine Créature; Director: Polygon1993

In a strange  stunt, La Femme decided to release their November single Divine Créature simultaneously on YouTube and Pornhub (the former offering the censored version, natch).

Late 2020-early 2021 weren’t great PR-wise for Pornhub (arguably, that probably doesn’t matter to the site that much), but nonetheless La Femme’s video stars Leolulu, “France’s best-known but almost completely anonymous amateur porn couple,” we’re told.

In the capable hands of director Polygon1993, the video takes on a sci-fi-like look with bodies moving like sexy heatmaps from frame to frame. According to La Femme’s Marlon Magnée and Sacha Got, the song Divine Créature was inspired by a visit to Berlin fetish club KitKat, and so the band “wanted to create a visual which captured that intense sexual obsession”.

The Divine Créature video will also form part of La Femme’s upcoming feature-length movie Paradigmes: Le Film, which will blend music videos from all of the album’s tracks with new fictional scenes.  

 

Parquet Courts, Black Widow Spider; Director: Shayne Ehman

New York-based post punk outfit Parquet Courts is another art school band to grace this year’s video list, with frontman Andrew Savage – who creates all the band’s artwork – having met guitarist/keyboard player Austin Brown while both students at the University of North Texas. Savage, who says he experiences synaesthesia in which he hears colour and sees sound, continues to maintain a painting practice from his studio in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, alongside making music.

The band’s visual nous was clear in the 2021 video for Black Widow Spider from new album Sympathy for Life, a psychedelic Claymation extravaganza inspired by 1950s-born American stop motion series Gumby. The video was directed by Shayne Ehman of video production house Cricket Cave, which is based in Thunder Bay, Canada. “We were inspired by the claymation master Art Clokey,” says Ehman. “I wanted the video to feel like it was shot in the 1950s and so I used very old lenses. One was a brass projection lens from the 1860s and another was radioactive.”

Mitchell Leonard, Ma1nframe; Director: Qieer Wang

A rather more under-the-radar gem here from artist/composer Mitchell Leonard and illustrator/animator Qieer Wang.

Wang’s work never fails to impress, but this is the first time we’ve seen her distinctively retro-futuristic style applied to a music video, and it works beautifully. The 80s style synth sounds match the vibrant, Nickelodeon-esque hues of her illustrations and hand-lettered type beautifully; while the contained flashes of Web 2.0 gradients keep everything very 2021 indeed.

Mitchell has said he immediately fell in love with Wang’s work when he saw it at a film event, and their shared interests in using creativity to discuss and explore the complexities of mental health issues has made theirs a thoughtful collaboration. The Ma1nframe story is loosely based on an essay Mitchell found that was written by his late brother Kerry, who suffered from severe mental illness that kept him institutionalised throughout his adult life: “This is not just the story of Ma1nframe,” he says. “It is also the story of my brother. A brilliant and altruistic being that was confined, feared, and ultimately shut down for being misunderstood.”

 AJA, Grime; Director: IMPATV

This is not one for the faint hearted (nor the epileptic). As per usual with AJA, this track Grime, from her new album Slug, pulls absolutely no punches: it’s brutal, visceral and unrelentingly noisy, but all dressed up in charming fonts, shiny textures and various shades of pink and purple.

The video was created during a residency with IMPATV at Islington Mill, Salford, with costume design by the ever effervescent Lu La Loop. It feels like both an evolution of and in keeping with AJA’s work to date: wildly confrontational, thoroughly cathartic, and somehow very feminine while looking to transcend and trample over everything that femininity should be.

black midi, Slow; Director: Gustaf Holtenäs

Darlings of the Brixton Windmill and beyond, black midi have experienced a meteoric rise to stardom over the past year or so, and with videos this brilliant it’s not hard to see why.

Animated and directed by Stockholm-based Gustaf Holtenäs, the video opens with an anthropomorphised Wall-like hammer, and goes on to take in all sorts of reference points veering from Transformers to vapourwave to Fox News (here dubbed ‘Faux News’, arf arf) to binary code and all sorts of gamer gore. The whole thing rounds off with live action scenes that veer into the territory of Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia.

Bad Bad Not Good, Signal From The Noise; Director: Duncan Loudon

More a short film than a music video, this psychedelic-esque offering from Canadian band Bad Bad Not Good delights in the absurd under the helm of director Duncan Loudon of production house Somesuch.

The video stars Steve Stamp of People Just Do Nothing fame, who sends up small acts of rebellion against the authorities to ridiculous proportions. Both deadpan and delightfully daring, his quotidian manifestations of sticking two fingers up to the man reference classic silent comedy and internet-age japes in one fell swoop; but are elevated through the sensitive cinematography and the decision to shoot on 16mm film. 

Elton John & Dua Lipa, Cold Heart (PNAU remix); Director: Raman Djafari

When he spoke to us earlier this month, Blinkink director Raman Djafari revealed that when he was asked to pitch for the Elton John and Dua Lipa video, he didn’t think he’d get the job, so only spent a couple of hours on a pitch which included certain elements he wasn’t actually that prepared for. One such element was choreography, meaning that when he actually landed the job, he ended up donning a motion capture suit and doing the dancing himself.

The video is a joyfully unashamed ode to the glittering disco dance days of the 1970s, mixing 2D animation drawn frame by frame with slightly unnerving but generally quite cute 3D puppet-like characters in chunky platforms. “The work was just very fun to create,” Djafari told us. “I wanted to make something that felt like joy and feeling good about yourself and embracing who you are, and inhabiting your body in a comfortable way.”

Max Richter, Prelude 2; Director: Yulia Mahr

Artist and filmmaker Yulia Mahr is behind the video for Prelude 2, the third single from composer Max Richter’s ambitious recording project Voices 2, which was inspired by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ “aspiration to build a better and fairer world”.

BAFTA-winning artist Mahr is the creative director with Richter at Studio Richter Mahr, which acts as an incubator for various art and music projects. Her Prelude 2 video is described as an “artistic response to our turbulent times”, and aims to highlight the plight of refugees and call for human compassion by contrasting inherently beautiful imagery with the harsh brutalities of war. The film is also said to more broadly act as a metaphor for drowning, once again highlighting the plight of many migrants but also underscoring the “sensation of drowning that people feel when overwhelmed,” according to Studio Richter Mahr.

“When I was a little child I almost drowned, saved at the very last moment by my mother. I still remember the sensation so vividly – it was hazy and dreamy and the seconds went by in slow motion,” says Mahr. “I wasn’t panicking but it was totally overwhelming – a feeling of the inevitable unfolding. I’ve tried to bring something of the memory of those moments to this video. And my own sense of the power of that, in juxtaposition to the amniotic fluid that gives us life.”

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