Today is MTV's 30th anniversary (30! OMG), so we thought we'd let loose with a list of some of the cooler/mind bending/watchable videos to grace the venerable network juggernaut's air waves. Despite all of MTV's shortcomings as a commercial cable network channel, which has blighted our screens with TRL and Jersey Shore, there was a time when the channel was a springboard for some of the most creative personalities in entertainment.
We don't make any claims as to the finality of this list, no doubt you have some of your own favorites from the past three decades. That's what the comment section is for, we want to hear them--unless it's about why Nirvana didn't make the list.
1. Michael Jackson's "Thriller"
Bet you didn't see this one coming. The 14-minute visual opus had it all: hot teen lust, precision-choreographed dancing zombies, a genuine disclaimer denying occult involvement, Vincent Price. Featuring a sprawling narrative (for a video), this was Michael Jackson's ode to iconic horror films of the 1950s. The clip's prosthetics, including Jackson's "Werecat" mask were created by special effects wizard Rick Baker who won his first academy award for his work on 1982's American Werewolf in London. The video was helmed by mainstream filmmaker John Landis, known for pushing crews to their limit. With "Thriller," he spun cinematic gold and catapulted Jackson into pop immortality. A year before "Thriller" first aired, Landis saw three cast members lose their heads in a helicopter stunt gone awry while fiming another project. Two of them were children. No doubt Jackson was appalled.
The fact that Seth MacFarlane meticulously spoofed this video by a Norweigien pop trio in a Family Guy episode speaks volumes about the impact it had on a generation of young television watchers. The original video featured pencil-sketch animation of singer Morten Harket attempting to elude wrench-wielding car enthusiasts through a sparsely drawn alternate universe with a pretty blond girl in tow. The only thing more memorable than the hook of this one-hit wonder's song were the charcoal-colored images of Harket slamming against the wall in frustration after losing the girl, falling to the ground, returning to full color, and looking up to see she was there in front of him.
This video demonstrates two traditions currently dying (or dead) in Hollywood: unbridled creativity and meticulously-crafted, hand made movie magic. The stop motion footage in this clip means each jumping-bean image is shot frame by frame. Though it took tedious days to make, the effort resulted in a couple minutes of zoney, stoney viewing joy.
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4. Guns N Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle"
This vid first aired in 1987 and it couldn't have come a more urgent time for the metal genre. Most of us grew tired of seeing douchebags like Brett Michaels and Vince Neil surrounded by beautiful women. The airwaves had became saturated with images of self-important glam acts, who were obsessed with what brand of hairspray and lip gloss they bought for themselves, and somehow, music got lost in the mix.
When "Welcome to the Jungle" premiered, it, too, featured Axl with hair teased to the sky, but the images of human electrocution and clips of riots and molotov cocktails combined with the song's nihilistic lyrics appealed to restless irritable youth tired of having Europe's "The Final Count Down" crammed into their ear holes.
5. NWA's "Straight Outa Compton"
The angriest video in this list. Neither Axl or Metallica come close. The clip featuring gritty driveby footage of Compton streets and sinister mustachioed police officers. The song was produced by Dr. Dre and rocked a gnarly mix of ominous baritone wind instruments and the most righteously enraged lyrics about inner city life. It set a bar for hardcore rap that hasn't been touched since.
6. Metallica's "One"
War, dismemberment, a stump of a man trapped in his own body unable to move, and that's just the beginning. Forget for a second that the video is stitched together from clips of the classic 1971 film Johnny Got His Gun, we couldn't take our eyes off how cool it all looked set to the rapid, machine gun drum bursts during the song's crescendo.
7. Paula Abdul's "Rush, Rush"
This video's biggest selling point is its faithful incorporation of the classic 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause. The video features beautiful panoramas of the iconic Griffith Observatory and scenes rich with gorgeous, low-key lighting. Long before she became a clenched mouth shill for the Coca Cola Company via American Idol, Paula Abdul was a star, even if we found it odd to see her trying her damndest to play a teenager. And though the choice to feature Keanu Reeves as the love interest in the video was questionable, he had less than 20 words of dialogue, and it was still better than casting Will Smith.
8. Bjork's "Human Behavior"
Freaktastic Icelandic pop star Bjork was matched with filmmaker Michel Gondry for this video, a director whose artistic vision was as off kilter as hers. Many know Gondry as the maestro behind Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a gnarly mind fuck of a love story. His video for Bjork features super-locomotive bears eerily wandering through colorfully back lit, but foreboding forests. There are also creepy images of Bjork disguised as moth larvae and puppet moles skittering on roads narrowly being missed by the tires of passing cars. Perfect visual accompaniment for Bjork's haunting wail. Be sure to check out Gondry's video for the Foo Fighter's "Everlong."
9. Radiohead's "No Surprises"
Vintage technology at his finest. No fancy camera work here, just a straight ahead, uncut shot of Tom Yorke wearing a space helmet singing into the forth wall. The lack of cinematic gimmickry puts the burden of making this clip work squarely on York's shoulders. The wonky-eyed musical genius is forced to hold his breath for nearly a minute when his space helmet suddenly fills with water. He then continues singing unfazed when the water drains. No big deal you say? Watch the video and hold your breath along with it. If you don't whack your head on the coffee table after passing out, leave an angry comment.
10. Yeah Yeah Yeahs' "Maps"
Perhaps the greatest video of MTV's perimortem phase. Much like "No Surprises," this video features minimal camera work and no digital trickery. Performing on a cavernous sound stage to an audience of disaffected entertainment industry types, the New York band performs their first mainstream hit. Then, during the song's break, the camera zeros in on singer Karen O as a single tear drops from her eye and trickles down her face--a perfectly-timed prelude for the last chorus.