2020’s Best Music Videos: 47 Reasons to Be Cheerful

From MTV to Instagram, we count down each video that impacted this dumpster fire year

Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion (Art: Ron Hart)

Keeping what’s left of our sanity during COVID ain’t easy.  Luckily, online entertainment is there to help us cope. 

Online shows have been hatched by everyone from New York Philharmonic to Cypress Hill to Neil Young to Hans Roedelius to James Blake and beyond.  And let’s not forget the shorter form format music videos that still gives us viral moments that we can gather around as well as lesser-known gems to gawk at.

Even before the election, 2020 was plenty political with a carry-over of #MeToo, plus women empowerment, a revival of Black Lives Matter, and reflections over our economic bottoming out and the ravages of the pandemic.  All of this was seen in some of the best videos of the year.  There was anger, nostalgia, sadness, defiance, pride, optimism, pessimism, celebration, innovation and some doggone fun silly shit, which we all need. 

When we look back at this rotten freakin’ year, hopefully these videos will be a reminder of some of the ways that we made it through to the other side.

 

1. Andre Antunes “Trump’s faith advisor goes HEAVY METAL! [Sound of Victory] [Paula White Remix]”  A POTUS ‘advisor’ & shameless scoundrel’s supposed connection to the Holy Spirit only shows how morally bankrupt the fallen, orange would-be king is, even more so when a guitar shredder perfectly syncs the saint’s rant to a head-banging onslaught.  Lovely sacrilegious scoundrel that he is, Antunes also had fun with another phony religious figure who claim to banish COVID-19 to hell here.

 

2. Alex Chilton “96 Tears” Via fellow Memphis weirdo Tav Falco, LX in B&W in the late 70’s, playing guitar alone, covering this garage classic.  He’s constantly in motion, madly bobbing his head up and down, decked out in huge goggles that look like a sleeping mask and he’s obviously infatuated with the tune.  But why this does exist in a pre-MTV world?  Did Tav just wanna document LX at work?  Did LX wanna show off for his fellow psycho?  Whatever the reason, it’s history and we should be glad that it does exist.

 

3. Best Coast “Everything Has Changed”  For those of us who grew up with ’em in the Me Decade, this fake game show is sweet nostalgia.  And if you missed out on this era, isn’t it time we revived game shows?

 

4. Black Belt Eagle Scout “I Said I Wouldn’t Write this Song” Hard not to love this cute, sweet stop motion animation video that turns out to be about climate change, environment and how it impacts indigenous Alaskans.

 

5. Beyonce “Halo” Honoring hoops mega-star Kobe Bryant at his memorial, this was more moving (sweet, reverent) than everything that the Grammys collectively came up with weeks later ( and which also helped them conveniently dodge the issue of their fired leader). 

 

6. Cardi B & Megan Thee Stallion “WAP” Raking up about 25 million views within a day, this meeting of royalty is glorious celebration of women’s’ bodies that both artists have made it their life mission to pursue.  It’s also totally NSFW and they don’t gave a fuck. Makes it all the more celebratory, and hilarious. I stayed up late to watch the premiere and had trouble getting to sleep after that. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one, too.

 

VIDEO: Cardi B feat. Megan Thee Stallion “WAP”

7. The Robert Cray Band “This Man” A nicely unsubtle message to vote out Trump, plus some timely historical footage of Civil Rights marchers to tie into BLM, and ending with a John Lewis speech that he gave the same day that Dr. King had a dream.

 

8. Denzel Curry X Kenny Beats “UNLOCKED”  After the goofy intro, we get brilliant long form animation madness with each track getting its own style, including 8-bit, anime and claymation, plus a car race, telekinesis and a martial arts fight.  Even with all the arty styles, the best one is the funniest one- the Scooby Doo take-off.

 

9. Drive-By Truckers “Thoughts and Prayers” Neatly exposing the bullshit of anti-gun control arguments by throwing the infamous phase back in the face of the 2nd Amendment fanatics.  A lyric video where the words appropriately appear on protest signs.  Most moving one: the kids on the playground with their hands in the air.

 

10. Electromagnetic Matsuri Ensemble NEO TOKYO 2020 One minute of multi-media madness that demands to be re-watched.  They play TV screens, an electric fan, alarm bell and more for a bouncy little electro tune.  As such, they have something to teach Einstürzende Neubauten and Add (N) to X.

 

11. “First International Online Boogie Session” This may be the most joyous thing you’ll probably see this year.  15 piano players social distancing and connecting from Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Netherlands, Spain, France, the US, Hungary and Germany. They all trade piano licks and notice that while one of ’em plays, all the others are… cleaning their home, juggling, fixing their car, biking, doing magic tricks, exercising, dancing, cooking, playing with their pets and mugging for the camera as they wait their turn to play or relax after they’ve done their part.  Then at the end, they all join in for some beautiful cacophony.   The first time I watched it, I watched it again immediately.  

 

12. Four Tet “🔴🌏⭕🔵🌕📀🌍⚫💿🌎🐦🐧🐤🌎💿⚫🌍📀🌕🔵⭕🌏🔴”  Supposedly, the tune (which may or may not be a nine minute tune) was made exclusively for this streamed loop, including a sample from Ariana Grande’s “Problems” and it’s “never going to be released!” according to FT. It commenced on Oct 28th and might have come off and then back–still going as of December. It’s hypnotic as hell and you might find yourself listening to it all day if you’re not careful.  Video wall paper for sure, but you gotta love the shifting CGI spaces in pink background.  Plus, he goes one better than Anthony Braxton in song titling.

 

VIDEO: Four Tet “🔴🌏⭕🔵🌕📀🌍⚫💿🌎🐦🐧🐤🌎💿⚫🌍📀🌕🔵⭕🌏🔴” 

 

13. Dave Grohl “In Defense of Our Teachers” Visually, there’s nothing to really see- just the title of the video and no music either.  But in a calm, mature voice, Grohl tells the story of his retired mom the school teacher and how she touched so many lives, including his.  From there, he demands respect for other teachers in the time of COVID, especially when Trump and his ridiculously unqualified ed-head were demanding that schools should open with no plans for safety re the pandemic.  “Every teacher has a plan- don’t they deserve one too,” he righteously explains.  And of course  he wouldn’t “trust the U.S. secretary of percussion to tell me how to play ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ if they had never sat behind a drum set, so why should any teacher trust Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to tell them how to teach, without her ever having sat at the head of a class? (Maybe she should switch to the drums).” Amen.

 

14. The Great Learning Orchestra “In C” In our year of Prince (1999), a group of Swedes decided to gather up two dozen of their countrymen to get down with this minimalist music classic via Terry Riley. The music’s a little amateurish-sounding- kinda DIY, plus original Learning Orchestra honcho Cornelius Cardew would be proud.  The video for the hour-long piece is a great approximation of the music- loops of B&W ballerinas, subtly  and unsubtly manipulated, creating its own visual vortex. 

 

15. Jimi Hendrix Experience “Voodoo Child (Slight Return) (Live In Maui, 1970)” 50 years old footage, redone for a new feature and you’d be hard-pressed not to be impressed by the master. Even without all the amazing studio fiddling, he’s still a master ax prestidigitator, using minimal pedals no less to produce his magic. That’s not even mentioned how he effortlessly crashed through the walls of metal, rock, blues and jazz to create his own dazzling fusion of styles.  The dude is also a consummate showman, even with a tiny stage and mostly staid white audience, filmed at a wind-swept bottom of a volcano for an otherwise aimless hippie-dippie film.  Also from the film, you can see a great collection of his ‘guitar faces’ for the “Foxy Lady” video from the same show.  Heartbreaking to think that in less than two months afterwards, he’d be gone.

 

16. Hot 8 Brass Band “Love Will Tear Us Apart (Jazz Foundation of America Emergency Fund Concert)” A NOLA brass band doing Joy Division, with the horns screaming through the famous ghostly synth riff?  Remember that New Orleans funerals are also a time of raucous celebration, as they mix celebration with gloom.  Here, they’re so lively that you forget that they’re social distancing in their respective homes. And yes, you do see a Mardi Gras Indian joining in on the fun. And as a bonus, it’s all for a good cause, which you can contribute to here too.  Commentator Jay Paul nails it: “Ian Curtis is in heaven, listening to this magic, that all came from his melancholy Manchester soul, and smiling.” Runner up cover version: a sweet,sad honky take on the song by Dramarama’s John Easdale.

 

17. Idles “Mr. Motivator” A dance/exercise video done by the scrappy PC punks, plus dozens of friends, fans Fave dancers, which sounds corny but it’s actually fun and as the title says, motivating.  You wish you could join a dance/exercise class like that yourself.  Hell, if you blast the video and romp around your room, you could. Fave dancers: leopard man at about 1:50 and the pagan ritual at 2:15.

 

18. Audrey Ijon “Killing In the Name cover by audrey”  Backed by her dad on acoustic, this incredibly precocious little Indonesian girl sings the RATM anthem haltingly at first and then gets the spirit and starts belting it out and clapping.  Sure, it’s juvenile, literally, but I guarantee you it got a lot of people like me through at least one day or two of their hermit-like existence.  If there’s a Asian-Pacific TV version of Idol, they would have ended the whole audition season and just awarded Audrey.  And if you need more of this adorable head-banger (and you do), see the rest of her pop’s YouTube page.

 

19. Thanya Iyer “KIND”  A 19-minute video/mini-album with Bjork-like shape-shifting pop/techno/dance/classical music, and visuals that also shift, from sci-fi horror to childhood reveries to road trip to nature odyssey to love story to ghost story to CGI hallucinogenics to art film fodder to casting party. Tierra Whack got there first but this is still wonderful to see.

 

20. Alex Kozobolis “Barcelona”  WARNING: before you start cursing me or your computer out, this 3-D modeling for a lovely fall scene from all angles looks and works best on a touch screen (phone, tablet).  There you can dig not just the nice ambient music best but also zoom around the tree, ground, area as you please.  For their follow-up, maybe they could do the same for somewhere else in the wonderful Spanish city- the insane architecture of La Sagrada Familia.  That would be pretty freakin’ trippy.

 

21. Bettye LaVette “Strange Fruit (Live at Home)” At first, we see the 74-year-old  revered chanteuse’s head fade in as she dives into the Lady Day classic and throughout the video, that’s all we see.  She appears pained, almost ready to cry, yet solemn and determined, telling the story of lynching and black murder that still sounds all to real in 2020.  This was filmed in early June so you can bet that BLM was in the mix here.

 

22. Spike Lee “New York, New York” Via Instagram, in what the famed director describes as a love letter to Gotham and backed by Ol’ Blue Eyes belting out the same titled song, we first see an abandoned city in the COVID times and then tragic medical plights but then we behold the health care workers who are saving lives, rightfully hailing them as heroes of the pandemic.  They not only deserve the first vaccinations but also thousands of medals of honor.

 

23. Low Cut Connie “Look What They Did”  A B&W tour of a crumbling Atlantic City in a post-Trump era, and as it turns out, after this video came out in mid-February, it became a sign of what was to come to the rest of the country. A good, subtle, and much needed political statement. Whether we have our usual amnesia over this plight remains to be seen.

 

VIDEO: Low Cut Connie “Look What They Did”

 

24. Terrace Martin “Pig Feet (feat. Denzel Curry, Kamasi Washington, G Perico & Daylyt)” A great incendiary single about police violence.  This starts with gunshots and this warning: “THE VIDEO TO THIS SONG IS HAPPENING RIGHT OUTSIDE YOUR WINDOW.” Then after three minutes of the song, it ends ending with a silent strolling for three more minutes listing the victims of police violence, similarly seen in the entire video for Dua Saleh’s “body cast.”

 

25. Megan Thee Stallion “Dear Class of 2020” If you need an inspirational graduation speech, then Beyonce and President Obama will give you what you need.  If you wanna party, as any good college student wants to, then Megan has you covered, doing a four-song medley for her own edition of Cribs, complete with her dancers and a trip to her kitchen (dig the champagne and pink cupcakes).  And hey, those grads deserve a break- they’re not exactly about to come into a happy time in the ‘real world.’  At least Megan tries to send them off with a ‘hot girl summer.’

 

26. Nana “Heaven & Hennessy”  The story of fighting the lure of the thug life goes back to Boys N The Hood and Menace 2 Society (and way back further actually) but this Crenshaw rapper takes us through the drama in real fashion, not just with the heart-stopping gunshots but also his own struggle summed up by the final scene where he sits in the shadow of his gun and looks at the Bible to his side, trapped between the two, wanting the later but knowing that he gets by with his piece.

 

27. Oneohtrix Point Never “Long Road Home” Not too often that you see a NSFW claymation stop-motion that alternates between graphic sex and touching moments.  Gaspar Noe, take note.

 

28. Prince “Baltimore” Five years ago, the Artist released his last album, containing a song honoring Freddie Gray, a black man who died in police custody after suffering spinal injuries during his arrest.  Now with the death of George Floyd, the message of the song is no less timely than it was then: “if there ain’t no justice then there ain’t no peace.”  It would sound great at the BLM rallies now and I hate to say it but if we wanna be honest, there will unfortunately be more opportunities to say it again and again.

 

29. “Pup + Masked Intruder + Mrs. Smith cover “Something To Talk About” in the Style of G’N’R” The title doesn’t leave much to the imagination and the idea seems kind of corny and silly, but watching these home-bound weirdos rock out in Kiss make-up, sitting on the potty, holding a kitty, etc. is such a hoot. As they say at the end, if you want to support their bizarre impulses, you can pony up some cash to them at HonorableSwords.com, complete with three different type of ‘butthole’ contributions.  And yes, Gibby Haynes should consider this too.

 

30. Bonnie Raitt “Message and performance from HOME” Speaking of Bonnie, here’s a video hug to all of us trying to make it through COVID and sharing some love to her old friend Mr. Prine, performing Karla Bonoff’s “Home,” and sounding all the more poignant in 2020. She’s obviously fighting back tears here and if you aren’t also, I truly feel bad for you.

 

31. The Revisionists “Bizet Has His Day (Inside)” Done by the wonderful old-time jazz revivalists at THE SALON for their weekly Quarantine Speakeasy, this NYC big band does a Zoom session with a bunch of dancers where we see all of them as the main camera view scans around, with the band soaring through a merry and infectious song.  They’re all inside their homes, as the title says, and they’re all having a blast together while they social distance.  And so we join them, and we have a blast too.

 

32. Rina Sawayama “LUCID (Extended Reality Video)”  Sounds pretty fancy and in some ways it is, at least behind the scenes to create all the cool CGI images, including Rina flying, dancing with her old-school/futuristic doppelganger, falling through air and such, all in service of a wonderfully elaborate lesbian fantasia. It’s an adventure for sure and also something that you’d think was part of a larger Disney film maybe. And just to show you all the work that went into it, there’s a behind-the-scenes video that shows you how it came together including how Rina mimes stepping through poop and avoids a wardrobe malfunction.

 

33. SebastiAn “Movement” A smooth electro tune from the French DJ has a video to match with a beautiful black woman in her apartment getting sensual, with herself.  And then she’s freaking out, and then really losing it. A comment on women and objectification? Sure.  A comment on race and anxiety?  Sure.  A combination of both?  Yep.  You could also layer on top of that a commentary about our COVID-crazed isolation. 

 

34. Shakira & Jennifer Lopez “Shakira & J. Lo’s FULL Pepsi Super Bowl LIV Halftime Show” Writer Kelly J. Cooper on Twitter: “Holy shit! Latinx singers & dancers, kids in cages, Spanish lyrics, the Puerto Rican flag, a “Born in the USA” refrain sung by a young Latina girl… the whole Superbowl halftime show was one gigantic FUCK YOU to Trump & the Republicans! Daaamn. I’m impressed.” If the full 14-minutes is too much for you, there’s also this 2 minute highlight reel that sums things up nicely.

 

VIDEO: Shakira x J.Lo Superbowl LIV Halftime Show 2020

35. Shabaka and the Ancestors “Go My Heart, Go to Heaven” The calming balm of Shabaka’s jazz is countered by the cultural, historical African phantasmagoria of this seven minute video which begins and ends with this message: “There isn’t any rest/There isn’t an peace.” Jordan Peele should consider making this the basis of his next movie.

 

36. Jorja Smith “Rose Rouge” This soaring jazzy/soulful tune starts with a W.E.B. Du Bois quote and a series of BLM marches (the first one led by a little girl), and mixed with black power marches from the 60s and later a Nina Simone quote, an MLK quote (and footage of the man) and pithy maxims also from Malcolm X and James Baldwin. Oh and FYI, the BLM marches are mostly (exclusively?) UK-based lest you think it was just a US phenomenon. The most moving scene is a glimpse of a wedding in the middle of a protest, showing what they’re fighting for and what’s at stake.  A wonderful call for solidarity and a neat history lesson too, it ends with this message: “Dedicated to those who fell and those who carry on.”

 

37. Star Feminine “Femme Africaine”  At first blush, you see this band of African little girls and think ‘aw, so cute!” And they are, but they also make a great groove and make a statement for women empowerment- they go into a classroom and literally uplift the students there.  And you might think you’re a fashionista or a snappy dresser until you see their gorgeous, colorful outfits and realize we gotta step up our game if we wanna keep up with them.

 

38. Swamp Dogg “Billy” Honoring a deceased partner and also caring for their son alone, if you’re not in tears by the end of this animated video, you’ve got a hole in your soul.

 

39. Toyah & Robert Fripp Vs King Crimson “Heroes for #VEDay2020” Using the Bowie classic (where Fripp recreates his searing guitar lead) and a Crimson  backing track, Uncle Bobby backs his wife in a stirring cover where they both get to honor their own heroes, their dads who served in WWII (Fripp’s dad helped engineer ‘the Great Escape’) and Colonel Tom Moore, the gallant 100-year-old Brit WWII vet who raised millions of pounds for COVID relief.  Very touching indeed.

 

40. UceLi Quartet “Concierto para el bioceno” Barcelona’s nearly 3000-seat Gran Teatre del Liceu opera house reopens with a string quartet performance and a full crowd… of plants.  A string quartet plays but most of the video is of the sedate, lush ‘audience,’ sitting quietly there and soaking up the music.  The aerial shot right in the middle of the video is in stunning too.  The plants even rustle a bit around at the end, as if applauding.  It’s delightful, weird and a bit sad.  It’s also one of the rare, and maybe only, occasions where the entire audience is going to be donated (to a local hospital, as it turns out).

 

41. “VF Live: Angel Bat Dawid” A live mixtape from the jazz/soul singer as she picks through her record collection and gets ecstatic over her gospel, spiritual jazz, blues and mambo selections. Sure, it’s an education session but it’s anything but dry- the way that she sways and swoons over the tunes is the best kind of music appreciation class you would ever want to attend.

 

42. Bryce Vine “Problems (Feat. Grady)” He’s a little too hopeful- putting out a COVID song in May where he hopes all’s well by June (sadly, it’s reaching a 2nd/3rd wave now in December).  Still, he gets the endless hours of inside time right with a fish-view spin around his home and tearing off months from the calendar, reflecting how stir crazy we’ve all been getting.

 

43. Rufus Wainwright “Hard Times” Done as part of his 60 day quarantine project where he premiered a tune each day, he ends it in a family way, with help from his ‘Canadian contingent. including sister Martha and aunt Anna, all chiming in via video for an appropriate Stephen Foster song.  The family looks worn but resilient, and inspirational yet somber.  There’s strength in numbers for sure and damn if we all don’t need our families right now.  

 

44. Van Vuuren Bros: “Bye Bye Donny” A not-so-fond farewell to the embarrassment man-child posing as President, courtesy of a post-apocalyptic Aussie web series, which could have easily manifested itself if Captain Stupid had managed to steal a 2nd term in office.  Here, we can luxuriate in a clip of his follies (including when a bald eagle bit him and when he looked directly at an eclipse) and pray that we don’t have to endure him again in 2024.

 

VIDEO: Van Vuuren Bros. “Bye Bye Donny”

45. The Weeknd “After Hours” His whole latest series of videos are of a piece, documenting an ongoing dark night of his soul that’s gone from troubled car ride previously to a troubled subway venture (and possible mauling), that’s actually creepy and not just moody.  If he’s really this tormented, maybe he needs help.  If he’s not, then he’s a great actor.  And maybe it’s both.

 

46. Tierra Whack “Dora”  If you take out the few F-bombs and ditch the phallic tank, Whack  could be a great kiddie show host.  She’s got Muppets, a spelling lesson and cute costumes.  Paging Jim Henson Productions.

 

47. Neil Young with Crazy Horse “Shut It Down 2020”  Imagines of abandoned cities in light of the pandemic made the song which originally came out last year sound all the more prescient. 

 

Just in case you want to blast through almost all of the videos above, we have a YouTube playlist for you.  FYI though, with the Four Tet video at the end, you could be watching/listening for months…

 

VIDEO: 47 Videos of 2020 playlist 

 

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Jason Gross

Jason Gross is the editor/founder of Perfect Sound Forever , one of the first and longest-running online music magazines. He also does freelance writing for Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, Time Out, AP, New York, MTV, Oxford American, Billboard, MOJO, The Wire, Blurt among others.  Reissues and collections that he's produced included Delta 5, Essential Logic, Kleenex/Liliput, DNA, Oh OK and OHM –The Early Gurus of Electronic Music. He lives in New York with his girlfiend and their 30 plush cats.

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