Written by Jackson Langford.
Ahh the VMAs. Boomers will tell you that it’s the last semblance that MTV has literally anything to do with music. Anyone else will tell you that it’s just the GRAMMYs, except there’s better performances, better outfits and people who aren’t old, white men get a say in who wins.
We’re right around the corner from the 35th MTV Video Music Awards, and this year’s categories are packed to the bloody brim with fantastic videos bc that’s the only good thing 2018 has given us – great music videos. Particularly, the big kahuna of the night, Video of the Year, is packed with six incredibly memorable, instantly recognisable and absolutely iconic visuals.
Generally, the Video of the Year category has one standout, a few duds and one or two total fucking misses. But the big winner always leaves stans divided. So, in order to piss off stans some more, here is each of the 34 previous winners of the Video of the Year VMA ranked.
34. Green Day – Boulevard of Broken Dreams (2005)
33. Rihanna – Umbrella (feat. Jay-Z) (2007)
It hurts the soul to put Rihanna this low on any list, but in a year when she was up against Justin Timberlake’s ‘What Goes Around… Comes Around’ and Kanye West’s ‘Stronger’, this award seems like it might’ve been given to the wrong person.
32. INXS – Need You Tonight/Mediate (1988)
A case of the song being far more memorable than the music video perhaps?
31. Britney Spears – Piece Of Me (2008)
Britney Spears was up against Chris Brown’s ‘Forever’, Jonas Brothers’ ‘Burnin Up’, Pussycat Dolls’ ‘ When I Grow Up’ and The Ting Tings’ ‘Shut Up & Let Me Go’.
‘Piece Of Me’ basically won by default.
30. Dire Straits – Money For Nothing (1986)
Understandably, this video’s use of animation was pretty groundbreaking at the time of release. But, it honestly still leaves a little to be desired.
Not to mention, how this beat out the video for A-ha’s ‘Take On Me’, widely regarded as one of the most iconic music videos of all time, is beyond me.
29. Katy Perry – Firework (2011)
Rumour has it next year’s Video Music Awards will have a category called ‘Best Video Where Something Shoots Out of Katy Perry’s Chest’.
Side note: how was this, admittedly touching, video nominated for Video of the Year, when the far superior ‘Last Friday Night’ was absolutely snubbed.
28. Taylor Swift – Bad Blood (feat. Kendrick Lamar) (2015)
No other video on this list had as many superstar cameos, and no other video on this list copped this much pre-release hype.
Both of those things bring this video down.
27. Madonna – Ray Of Light (1998)
Here’s something I never thought I’d say: the Peter Griffin version is better.
26. Don Henley – The Boys of Summer (1985)
It’s like Boyhood, except it came out first and isn’t almost three hours long.
25. Justin Timberlake – Mirrors (2013)
At least it wasn’t ‘Blurred Lines’.
24. Eminem – The Real Slim Shady (2000)
Ironically, this video is only made more iconic from Eminem’s performance of the song at the VMAs this same year.
23. Panic! At The Disco – I Write Sins, Not Tragedies (2006)
You might not have seen the video, but everyone knows that still image of a young Brendon Urie staring out from under that top hat serving some Clockwork Orange realness.
22. Aerosmith – Cryin’ (1994)
Hot take: Alicia Silverstone acted better in this than in Clueless.
21. Jamiroquai – Virtual Insanity (1997)
‘Virtual Insanity’ is one of those videos that is immediately recognisable and you don’t even have to know the song or the title. When a video supersedes the song itself, you know you’ve struck VMA gold.
20. The Cars – You Might Think (1984)
The first ever recipient of the Video of the Year award, and it feels like the stuff memes are made of.
19. Eminem – Without Me (2002)
Early 2000’s Eminem had plenty of stupid videos. But perhaps the most stupid is ‘Without Me’, and that’s what makes it so fantastic. It capitalised on superhero culture before it took off, and gave it a huge dosing of typical Eminem crudeness.
18. Van Halen – Right Now (1992)
The best thing about Van Halen’s ‘Right Now’ video is how direct it is. There’s no sugarcoating. There’s no metaphor to make it more accessible to the wider audience. It’s a video that, clear as day, is sending the viewer a message than can be confronting, but once it’s paired with the song, there’s no dry eye in the house.
17. Rihanna – We Found Love (feat. Calvin Harris) (2012)
A devastatingly, dizzying, drug-fuelled look and one of the most high profile relationships in recent years, the always candid Rihanna held nothing back in this brutally honest and painfully pretty trip at one of the darkest periods of her life.
16. Lauryn Hill – Doo Wop (That Thing) (1999)
1999 was truly the year of Lauryn Hill. Having been the first woman ever to win the GRAMMYs’ Album of the Year award earlier that year, she was the fave to take out the music video equivalent. And there was no competition. It’s a split screen homage to the foundation of Hill’s music, that went on to influence countless other artists.
15. Peter Gabriel – Sledgehammer (1987)
I’m not sure if MTV knew the impact this video would have in later years on music videos as a whole when they awarded Peter Gabriel this one, but I’m sure they’re glad they did. Stylistically, it’s not hard to see the influence it has had. Gabriel lay under a glass frame for 16 hours while this video was shot, and it was well worth it.
14. Christina Aguilera, Lil’ Kim, Mya and P!nk – Lady Marmalade (feat. Missy Elliott) (2001)
In one of modern music’s greatest ‘girl power’ moments, this all-female collab is still referenced almost two decades since it’s release. The remake of the Labelle classic was injected with a giant dose of sex appeal, outrageous costumes and larger-than-life personalities when it released as part of the Moulin Rouge soundtrack. In what could be in contention as the most memorable video for all four artists responsible, there’s extreme opulence and luxury throughout the video that doesn’t compromise on how each artist bounces off one another
13. Kendrick Lamar – HUMBLE. (2017)
Powerfully symbolic and unashamedly political, Kendrick Lamar has truly made a name for himself with his striking visuals that accompany each of his singles. But none are more striking than the Dave Meyers-directed video for ‘HUMBLE.’
12. R.E.M. – Losing My Religion (1991)
Speaking of powerfully symbolic, R.E.M made tsunami-level waves when they dropped their video for their seminal hit, ‘Losing My Religion’. It was the first time frontman Michael Stipe had not directed a music video himself, or entrusted it to someone who had already made a name for themselves in the field. For ‘Losing My Religion’, newcomer Tarsem Singh was tapped to direct and the rest is history.
11. TLC – Waterfalls (1995)
It goes down as one of the most expensive music videos ever made, but that is money well spent. A heartbreaking look into the illegal drug trade and HIV/AIDS epidemic that was front and centre in the 90’s, the F. Gary Gray-directed video for ‘Waterfalls’ might go down as the best girl group music video in history.
10. Pearl Jam – Jeremy (1993)
It’s a haunting, disturbing, chilling story, but the plotline of Pearl Jam’s music video for ‘Jeremy’ has only gotten increasingly relevant in the 25 years since it was awarded Video of the Year.
9. Miley Cyrus – Wrecking Ball (2014)
The video that made headlines around the world. After all the news about Miley Cyrus being off the rails, perpetuated by her vividly unforgettable VMA performance the year before, no-one was expecting such a raw moment from her. However, a scantily-clad and teary-eyed Miley took a sledgehammer and a wrecking ball to any expectations of her, or doubts about her talent, in the video and it remains one of the most memorable videos of the 2010s.
8. Outkast – Hey Ya! (2004)
A video taking clear inspiration from one of the most famous televised performances of all times, Outkast completely repurposed the hysteria around The Beatles in the 60’s and gave it a bright-green, hip-hop infused makeover. From André 3000 playing every band member, to the now omnipresent shaking of polaroid pictures, ‘Hey Ya!’ is a song and video that just won’t go away.
7. Beyoncé – Formation (2016)
When the Melina Matsoukas-directed video for ‘Formation’ dropped without warning that fateful day in February 2016, the world simply wasn’t ready for what was coming. The unashamed celebration of black, Southern culture that’s so beautifully clear throughout the video is something audiences of mainstream pop culture hadn’t really seen before, let alone at the hands of the biggest artist in the world. But, when Beyoncé said “You know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation”, let it be known that she was right.
6. Neil Young – This Note’s For You (1989)
In what has gone down as one of the most badass music videos ever made, Neil Young parodies rock music as a commodity and how advertising infiltrates it with flair and fearlessness. With not even remotely cloaked digs at artists like Michael Jackson and Eric Clapton, MTV actually banned this video after threats from Jackson’s lawyers. But, eventually they reconsidered their decision, and it still hasn’t lost his impact – even though Young is now doing collabs with Supreme. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
5. Lady Gaga – Bad Romance (2010)
The 2010 MTV VMA’s was a celebration of Lady Gaga and nothing more. Garnering 13 nominations, Gaga holds the record for the most VMA nominations in one night. On top of that, Gaga is the first and only female artist so far to have two of their videos, as a lead artist, be nominated for Video of the Year in the same year. With a risqué plot, haunting imagery and precise choreography, the ‘Bad Romance’ visual signalled a new era in Lady Gaga’s career and a new era in music videos in general. At such an early point in her career, she made sure she reached icon status at breakneck speed and this video is what kicked her into gear.
4. The Smashing Pumpkins – Tonight, Tonight (1996)
The best part about the video for ‘Tonight, Tonight’ is how untouchable it is. Lots of clips on this list have gone on to influence and be replicated by countless others, but no one dare try it with this Jonathon Dayton and Valerie Faris-directed masterpiece. There’s no other word for it. With a fleshed out story line, phenomenal art direction and an overall feel of melancholic grandeur, this video, inspired by Georges Méliès’ silent film A Trip To The Moon, is simply one you can’t forget.
3. Missy Elliott – Work It (2003)
At the height of her career, a Missy Elliott video was an event in and of itself. Never one afraid to push the boundaries or step outside the box of what is expected of a rapper, Elliott opted for the creepy, the bizarre and, ultimately, the legendary. It bends the mind as she bends the rules, giving us a visual that celebrates everything MTV was about upon its inception – freedom, creativity and rebelliousness. This is Missy Elliott at her finest, complete with a young Alyson Stoner and a touching tribute to her close friends Aaliyah and Lisa ‘Left-Eye’ Lopes. The ‘Work It’ video is a watershed moment, expanding the audience’s perceptions of what a music video could be beyond anything Elliott could’ve possibly imagined.
2. Sinead O’Connor – Nothing Compares 2 U (1990)
It’s a video that must’ve taken every fibre in Sinead O’Connor’s being to make. As the camera cuts incredibly close to her face, your heart breaks with every passing second. The image of O’Connor staring into the camera as tears run down her cheek has become one synonymous with important music videos as well as music in the 90s. The rawness was simply unprecedented, and though many have tried, no one has been truly able to replicate the sombre magic that this video was touched with. You can see the muscles in her face try to hold back the tears, but once they pour it’s truly cathartic. It’s a video that evokes emotion more powerfully than any other on this list, and we still feel the melancholy through our veins almost 30 years later.
1. Beyoncé – Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It) (2009)
With a record-breaking 22 VMAs and seven nominations for Video of the Year to her name, Beyoncé is indisputably the reigning ruler of the Video Music Awards. With music video she delivers, she steps up her game with impeccable precision, infinite energy and refreshingly fierce concepts that make it feel like her star will never fall. But, that has never been more the case then in October 2008, when she dropped the music video for ‘Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)’.
Despite being the cheapest and quickest of all her music videos to produce at that point in her career, no music video she’s had has made this much of an impact. Its legacy is hallowed, its choreography is a staple of pop culture and its message is loud and clear. All you needed to do was put Beyoncé in front of a camera, flanked with a dancer on either side, and watch her do what she does best. On the VMA stage in 2014, Jay-Z openly proclaimed Beyoncé as “the greatest living entertainer”, and as you stare captivated for three-and-a-half minutes at this video, it’s fair to say that he may be right.
While other videos on this list influenced and reshaped what we expected from our music videos, ‘Single Ladies’ was a driving force in making music videos as a whole relevant again. Going viral before we really knew what that meant, and still being referenced in pop culture regularly ten years on, there is not a single more notable video in Beyoncé’s career. Even considering the fact that this video is at the centre of the most infamous VMA moment of all time, not even #Kanyegate could dull its everlasting shine. After all, to put it quite simply, it is one of the best music videos of all time.