It’s already been 25 years since 1991, so the 1990s are to kids now what the 1970s used to be to us. They’re cool again: hip, chill, radical, awesome. The 1990s are back, and we’re here to help the train moving and keep the younger generation up to date on the best and not the worst of the 1990s.
The 1990s were a great decade for music, whether you liked pop, rap, r&b or rock. It was the last heyday of MTV and Muchmusic, back when they actually played music videos on the regular. Once upon a time, the only reality television shows on these stations were music oriented: crazy, we know. One of the highlights of the week would be to sit down and watch the weekly music video countdown, the best of the best, screened directly onto your TV. The dedicated among you may have even recorded your favourite videos onto VHS tapes or cassettes to listen to or watch whenever you wanted.
What is also sometimes forgotten about 1990s music videos was that some of your favourite filmmakers started off as some of the best directors of your favourite music videos. People like Spike Jonze (Her, Being John Malkovich), Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), David Fincher (Gone Girl) and Jonathan Glazer (Under the Skin), made their mark directing some of the very best videos of the 1990s.
So strap yourself in for a nostalgia-fuelled trip into the past with the best music videos of the 1990s.
15. Sabotage – by The Beastie Boys
Sabotage, off of the Beastie Boys’ fourth studio album, is one of the rockingest songs of all time. It’s no surprise that the video lives up to the hype. Directed by one of our all-time favourites, Spike Jonze, the video is a riff on old detective and cop shows, portraying corrupt authority figures behaving badly. With a real old school feel, the music video feels like a trip in the best sense possible, capturing the irreverent rebellion of the Beastie Boys sound. You can’t help wanting to mess things up listening to the song, and the video captures that destructive impulse. The video itself was heavily awarded at the time, earning 5 nominations at the 1994 Music Video Awards (back when the show was actually worth something). While most Beastie Boys videos are pretty great, this one will always hold a special place in our hearts. Watch it on YouTube.
14. Buddy Holly – by Weezer
Two for two so far for music video master Spike Jonze. Another throwback style video, Jonze had a special skill for capturing old school look feels of different eras and mediums. We love the kind of homage to Buddy Holly which captures the subversion of Weezer’s interpretation, playing on the fact that looking like Buddy Holly circa the early 1990s was anything but cool. This was the era when Weezer was still cool (hard to believe, we know) and this song was still cool. You’d have a similar kind of iconography in a lot of the videos of the 1990s as a kind of rejection of their parents’ nostalgia. You’ll also see it in Nirvana’s In Bloom. Watch it on YouTube.
13. Karma Police – by Radiohead
In this video directed by Jonathan Glazer, a dejected (and always kinda creepy) Thom Yorke is in the back seat of a driverless retro car slowly chasing down a man (actor Lajos Kovács). Evoking a deeply uncomfortable surrealism, the video clearly feels like retribution for whatever the running man has done. With no driver, no context, and a pale Yorke half asleep, occasionally belting out lyrics, it almost feels like an evocation of purgatory. “This is what you’ll get,” can be interpreted as divine intervention or petty revenge depending on what you believe in, and whose point of view you deem credible. The music video won Glazer an award for Director of the Year. Glazer had initially pitched the idea to Marilyn Manson, who had rejected it. Watch it on YouTube.
12. Wicked Game – by Chris Isaak
Wicked Game has only gained more traction since its 1990 release. While a huge hit at the time, in the past few years it’s been often named one of the best music videos of all time. Shot in black and white and featuring model Helena Christensen enraptured with Chris Isaak, the video is incredibly sexy. Both performers appear topless throughout most of the video, though with careful editing and camera videos the film remains firmly in the PG-13 category. The flowing clouds and abstract imagery inspire a kind of dream world and emphasise the bittersweet love affair of the song. We’re not sure if this is actually the sexiest music video of all time, but we can’t think of anything that tops it. There is actually another version of the music video that is rarely seen directed by film director David Lynch, as the song appeared in his film Wild at Heart. Watch it on Youtube.
11. Learn to Fly – by The Foo Fighters
Released at the tail-end of the 1990s, The Foo Fighters’ Learn to Fly music video, which features Tenacious D, was a parody of the parody film Airplane!. One of the funniest videos of the decade, it helped announce to the world that Dave Grohl was more than just the drummer for Nirvana. Playing a variety of characters, Grohl and his bandmates play themselves as well as stereotypes of the worst people you’ll ever find on a plane. With details like Grohl playing a teenage girl with a crush on himself, and having the flight go haywire when the coffee accidentally gets spiked with cocaine – this whole video is still one of the funniest we’ve ever seen. The video was directed by Jesse Peretz and actually won a Grammy award for Best Short Form Music Video! Watch it on YouTube.
10. Around the World – by Daft Punk
Daft Punk is among the bands on this list that are still at the height of their game, but their career was really just starting out in the mid-1990s. The music video really emblemized Michel Gondry’s style which blends practical effects, single shots and whimsy. Featuring five groups of characters dancing around a giant vinyl tape, the video captures the fusion of Daft Punk’s style which brings together electronica and classical forms of music. An absolutely amazing feat of choreography, the video plays out a high-concept dance sequence with each group of dancers representing a different instrument. Gondry incorporates references to classical musical films, including the works of Busby Berkeley, who would use giant stages and feature hundreds of dancers overhead, creating abstract and hypnotic patterns. Watch it on YouTube.
9. Praise You – by Fatboy Slim
Co-directed by Spike Jonze and Roman Coppola, Praise You is indescribably hypnotic. Shot on low-fi VHS tape, a normcore dance crew set up in a mall performs a bizarre dance sequence to Fatboy Slim‘s song. Rather than laughing at the strangeness of the whole scenario, the video manages to feel like a madcap celebration of the freedom of not being afraid of looking stupid. The little details like the fish dance and the airplane might feel silly but damned if it doesn’t look like a hoot. The video reportedly was made guerrilla style for only $800 which went to the cost of the boom box, food and to pay the cast and crew. The music video was heavily awarded at the MTV music video awards and with reason! Watch it on YouTube.
8. Pretty Fly for a White Guy – by The Offspring
The Offspring used to be the coolest sh*t in the 1990s, but they’re mostly forgotten today – that is, except Pretty Fly for a White Guy. This video directed by McG is the ultimate takedown of white guys pretending to be black. Subversive and funny, the video is maybe one of the most 1990s videos ever made. Playing on the fact that awkward white guys don’t really know anything about what it’s like to be black in America, the video is an ironic celebration of the absolute worst of poseur culture. Catchy as anything, the video is genuinely funny, and captures the weirdness of 90s style and culture perfectly. Also, if you’ve never heard of Ricki Lake – fix that. Watch it on YouTube.
7. Baby One More Time – by Britney Spears
If you’ve never seen the video for Baby One More Time you’ve probably been living under a rock. Not only did this video launch Britney Spears‘ career, it helped launch the cult of solo white girl pop music. It was the same year that Christina Aguilera released Genie in a Bottle, and high schools all over the country were divided into Britney or Xtina camps. Going back to Baby One More time, the sexy innocence of the uniformed girls school uniform with a hot dance sequence felt revolutionary. It didn’t matter if you were lusting after Britney, or wanting to be her, the video felt so fresh and new. Directed by Nigel Dick, the video reached out to teens in a way that most pop music hadn’t done since the 1980s and Madonna came on the scene. The video is still sexy, the song still catchy and Britney Spears is still one of the biggest pop stars in the world. Watch it on YouTube.
6. Nothing Compares 2 U – by Sinead O’Connor
Sinead O’Connor gets a bad rap. All too often accused of being inflammatory just for the sake of it when she tore up the Pope’s image on SNL, she was one of the most revolutionary artists of her time. What people weren’t really aware was that O’Connor was protesting the Church’s lack of treatment of sexual abuse cases, something that only really hit the mainstream later in the decade. The impact of Nothin’ Compare to You has returned to the mainstream as well in the past few years, first with Miley Cyrus‘ homage in her Wrecking Ball video, but also with Prince‘s death as he wrote the original song (many people never even realized it was a cover). Most of the video is Sinead O’Connor singing facing the camera, and in an iconic moment a tear falls from her face. At the time of the shooting of the video, O’Connor’s mother had recently died. She starts to tear up and her lips tremble in the last verse, which begins with the line, “All the flowers that u planted, mama/In the back yard/All died when u went away.” Ya, we cried too. Watch it on YouTube.
5. All is Full of Love – by Bjork
Bjork always has some of the creepiest and most inventive music videos. One of her all time best is the cyborg drama, All is Full of Love directed by Chris Cunningham. Bjork plays a really credible robot, who is being toyed with by a number of non-anthropomorphized robot arms and drills. This is during Bjork‘s era of music production very much centered on sex, and both her and Cunningham sought to imagine a way to depict the sensuality of her video while making sure it could still be broadcasted. That’s how they came up with the solution of using robots, and a clean, white blank canvas. Focusing on the eroticism of textures, and the most human aspects of the robots (their faces), the pair was able to get away with quite a bit. Even if you’ve seen the video before, it’s worth watching again to catch all the very overt sexual innuendos found in the video’s imagery. The video won a number of awards and stands alone as a short film. Watch it on YouTube.
4. Closer – by Nine Inch Nails
From the best Nine Inch Nails album, The Downward Spiral, Closer directed by Mark Romanek could only be broadcast on television with a parental advisory. Just the lyrics are incredibly sexually loaded, a song that is unambiguously about sex, the video seems shot through a filter of embryonic fluid – a yellowish tint over images of raw meat, children’s skeletons, naked women, and s&m iconography. The video was incredibly controversial at the time, the imagery and intention of the song pointing to all parents’ fears about the corruptible nature of rock music. As disturbing as the video is, it’s also genuinely sexy, so we understand why people found it so off-putting. In 2006, the video was voted the best music video of all time at a VH1 Classics channel poll. NSFW. Watch on YouTube.
3. My Name Is – by Eminem
Taken from Eminem‘s second studio album, this song is the one that really launched his career. The song itself serves as a calling card for a new radical voice on the rap scene, and the song itself is a motif of Eminem’s career. Playing on a number of pop cultural references from The Brady Bunch to the Ed Sullivan Show, the song seems acutely aware of Eminem’s whiteness, as it subverts iconic images of the alienating whiteness of most white culture. Its lack of inclusiveness and authoritative bent taking centre stage. Darkly funny, the video stands up incredibly well, and while Eminem has undeniably evolved as an artist over the years, he hasn’t wavered very far from his original message. Watch it on YouTube.
2. Smells Like Teen Spirit – by Nirvana
One way to properly emphasize how revolutionary Nirvana and Smells Like Teen Spirit was when it was released is to take a peek at the music topping the charts that year and the one before. Directed by first-time director Samuel Bayer, the video depicts the grungiest pep rally in the history of pep rallies. Cast in yellows and smoke, some lethargic cheerleaders cheer, Kurt Cobain‘s hair swept in front of his eyes overplays his laconic verses and underplays his explosive rage. Maybe the video that really introduced the world to the outcasted teens of the 1990s, it has become emblematic of the decade for some. Consistently voted one of the best videos of all time, the video felt like the beginning of something totally new. Still today, the video and song have the power to awaken those feelings of unbelonging and the celebration of it. The whole thing feels like a big “f you” to the establishment. Watch it on YouTube.
1. Freak on a Leash – by Korn
Korn as a band has long stagnated in the same riffs and themes, but back in the 1990s they were at the height of their game. Their video for Freak on a Leash, which dominated MTV and Muchmusic in the later part of the decade is something special. Blending animation with images of the band performing in a room lit by thousands of bullet holes. With strong images serving a strong and political theme about the echoing effects of violence, the video follows a bullet accidentally shot from a police’s gun going through food courts, office buildings and apartments. The music video was directed by none other than Todd McFarlane, a Canadian artist who is most famous for his illustration work for the comic book Spawn. Sure Nu Metal is not really very cool anymore (if it ever was), but this video is undeniably the best video of the 1990s and one of the very best of all time. Watch it on YouTube.
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