2021: The Year In Music Videos

From TikTok to YouTube to SNL, the evolution was indeed televised

Field of Vision’s We Were There To Be There screenshot (Image: YouTube)

“Dad, what’s a ‘video’?”

“Well honey, it’s kind of like a longer version of TikTok but not always with the cool, coordinated dancing.”

“Ew, sounds kind of stupid and boring…”

“Yeah, it CAN be but there were still some good ones this year.”

“Hm, I doubt it…”

“OK, lemme show you…”


1. Charlotte Adigéry “Bear With Me (and I’ll stand bare before you)

Bearing an international lineage of French/Belgium/Caribbean, the sultry singer creates a bizarre, surreal  landscape in her own small room, with a parade of animals in the hallway which also occasionally leap from the window into the TV, plus furniture and lighting that have minds of their own, and explosions, acrobats, athletes, roads and tanks that casually make their way in and out of the video. And it’s all done in black and white too, just to enhance the effect.


2. Black Music Action Coalition/#breathewithme Revolution “17 Ways Black People Are Killed in America

A weary Alicia Keys begins by saying how she didn’t want to do this video. It’s not because it’s unnecessary but because of the opposite reason. 4 years ago, she and other music stars did “23 Ways You Could Be Killed If You Are Black in America,” detailing minor, average everyday things that African-Americans had done which resulted in their murder.  Now we hear of other more recent incidents that have resulting in more black deaths, including leaving a party, sleeping in your home, sitting in your wheelchair, riding your bike, failing to dim your lights, walking down the street, being at home relaxing, being at your window, jogging, standing by your car and sleeping in your bed, explained by Mary J. Blige, Khalid and others. One answer: a federal commission to address & correct racial injustices. Agree with that? See more on their site. P.S. if you need more proof of the problem, read the comment section there to see a parade of racist a-holes.


3. Phoebe Bridgers

I Know The End (Live) – SNL “Dear Congressman, I am a fogey writing to find out what can be done about young women destroying instruments on national TV. I was so offended that I bought a set of pearls just so I could clutch them and then fainted after I got the vapors. If I want to see someone destroy a guitar, I will pay top dollar to see an old Englishman do it and credit his art school teacher and not the fact that it was actually the low ceiling at a crappy club. Also, could we please stop having ANY new artists as I’m fine with listening again and again to the same 20 albums for the last few decades? Yours Truly, Grumpy Old Man.”


4. Gerald V. Casale “Chi Chi & DEVO

Once upon a time, a would-be hippie at Kent State watched four fellow students get murdered at an anti-war protest. Later, he would start a revolutionary new wave/media-crazed band that grunge bands would worship. Devo’s first single sleeve and first album sleeve featured a Puerto Rican golfing legend that most of their fans never heard of. Chi Chi Rodriquez made a mark in his sport not just by being great at his game but also for his flamboyance, which Devo-co-founder Casale found appealing. Warner Bros put a stop to having his image on the first Devo album, only to get his permission just as the band changed it to a composite of four presidents. Rodriquez would be sent 25 copes for family/friends but had no idea how the band could ever make money off the music. Luckily, over 40 years ago, after an elaborately planned meeting, the story gets a happy ending.


5. Combo Chimbita Memoria

An earth goddess performs a strange ritualistic dance in and of the earth and then ascends stone steps for another ritual we witness. At first, you might assume it’s the band’s captivating singer Carolina Oliveros but it’s actually performance artist Helen Cebeallos who’s entrancing us. No wonder she did a performance at Dartmouth sponsored by the Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Based on the video, you wish you could have been there to see that too.


6. Field of Vision “We Were There To Be There

“Eat shit and die,” an audience member tells the Cramps right after they finish one of the most infamous concerts ever- their summer ’78 gig at the Napa State Mental Hospital. As exploitive as the show sounds, this documentary about the 20 minute show (which has circulated for years) not only shares some interesting punk history but also some socio-political dirt on California and the rest of the country. None of the Cramps contribute to the tale told here but one of the hospital employees shares his thoughts, complimenting the band and its crew for engaging with the patients, unlike all of the state governors (esp. Reagan then) who have shunned these ‘undesirables’ otherwise. As he explains, not much has changed either, sad to say: “When you’re too sick to be employed, that’s it. You find a blue tarp… and you crawl under it. That’s the only choice we give you.”


7. Fontaines D.C. “A Hero’s Death” 

This clip was done for The Tonight Show but what makes it extraordinary is the context of it. Happening in January 2021, before most of us sane people got their COVID vaccine, the show didn’t have a live audience for that reason, so the band shared this video of them playing in the bar. But were they playing live or not? After watching the video and listening to the album track a few times, I wanna say that they did play live there- a few clues include the set up of the speakers and mics, the singer’s ear piece (which might be a set-up to fool us, granted), plus slight differences in the music intro and end vocals. This matters ’cause the band thought up a very imaginative way to promo the song and make it look real (if not in fact BEING real), in a video where the singer wanders around a bar, at one point, singing the lyrics on the screen, ala karaoke. Brilliant way to make hay during lockdown. And P.S., their management confirmed that yes, they WERE playing live.


8. Kim Gordon “Hungry Baby

It’s nighttime at a strip mall and a young girl is scrapping gum off the side of a store when a creep pulls up in a car, makes a rude comment and throws a shake on the ground in front of her before driving off. Her manager comes out, sees it and sarcastically tells her to clean it up. The girl puts on her headphones, listening to a sexy noise-blues stomp and dances wildly around the parking lot, obliterating what we’ve seen before and the rest of the world. By the end, she’s sprawled out on the parking lot, but she’s free, liberated from all of the bullshit around her. The girl happens to be Coco Gordon, Kim’s daughter, and the asshole manager happens to be Kim herself. 


9. Curtis Harding “Can’t Hide It

A fictional 70s black music program, looking like a scaled-down Soul Train, is the right place for Harding’s wonderful retro sound. Actors Omar Dorsey and Anthony Mackie guest star and while the outro piece is kind of goofy, Mackie has some poignant words for way back then that still ring true today: “We are truly living in some turbulent times- the racial divide, protest in the street, police corruption. America is truly going through an identity crisis. But MUSIC brings the power back to the people.”


10. Nick Harrison “ABC’s

A bit of cheat here because 1) it’s a TikTok clip and not a full ‘video’ and 2) there’s 100’s of other good TikTok clips from ’21 that I could include here instead. But… this is a wonderful exception that I’ll slip in regardless. This Louisiana teacher and sports caster uses Korn’s “Coming Undone” to get the alphabet across in mosh style. Know who’s a fan of this? Korn’s singer, who gave him a shout back. Don’t you think that if our preschool classes were all like this, we would be a much better-educated country?


11. MJ Keenan “An Easter Story

Now sadly taken down from most sites, you can still shell out $1.99 to see the Tool singer tell the touching story of his ducks and their day-to-day struggle. Almost makes you think that ol’ Maynard has a future in kiddie stories.


12. Sophia Kennedy “I Can See You

For three minutes, we watch the Baltimore/Hamburg singer crawling on her mansion steps, straining just to get into her fancy car. If you look at the date stamp on the video, you see it’s from March 2021, just when were starting to be eligible for the COVID vaccine. Then you realize that her struggle is the perfect metaphor for how we were all trying so hard to just get out and do something with our lives again. Hopefully, we’ll keep doing that.


13. Kenzie Lutece “The Philosophy of Mashup Music

Not a ‘music video’ per se but instead a four-part, half-hour instructional history from a self-described ‘jaded lawyer’ that includes animation, Plato, Bach, Beyoncé, the Strokes, Herb Albert, the Cure, Public Enemy, Metallica, Johnny Cash and more. You won’t even care if you get course credit at the end.


14. Nellie McKay “Lazybones

Usually thought of as a sweet, somewhat unpredictable old-style songstress, McKay throws us yet another curve ball here. The song laments her sluggishness but the video starts out saluting Georgia O’Keefe as she wanders the desert in search of inspiration before showing us the fecklessness of the early US nuclear program and how it devastated the cultures of the Pacific region.  How does this relate to the song itself? Recall the O’Keefe quote that the video starts with: “They were always there against the blue- that blue will always be there as it is now after all man’s destruction is finished.”


15. Gjon Mili Jammin’ the Blues Restored and Upscaled

Dreamt up by producer Norman Ganz and revived and recently dusted off by Andy Lewis, this masterful 10 minute film from 1944 artfully catches a lightning-in-a-bottle session with a supergroup of jazz masters, including Lester Young, Harry Edison, Illinois Jacquet, Barney Kessel, Jo Jones and Red Callender. Beautifully photography and artfully staged, you only wish this was longer but we should be thankful that we have this tidbit to savor.


16. Moon-Drenched “Psychic Liberation

A psych jam for an Oh Sees side project turns into a soundtrack for an older African American and a young white woman grooming themselves in a minimalist background and then grooming each other and then going bald. Then they become Sun Ra-like cosmic figures, only the celestial seems to be a little too much for them at times. 


17. The Morgan Library & Museum “Collection in Focus: Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag

Assistant Curator Robinson McClellan walks us through some history of one of America’s greatest composers, including how he became famous and was actually decently paid for the time (late 1800’s), which was remarkable for an African-American artist. Also, plenty of classical connections to Joplin and his work. All this stems from a rare signature they have at the bottom of a contract. And while you’re at the Morgan, you can check out the other amazing stuff there, including handwritten scores from Beethoven, Mozart, Wagner & Mendelssohn, who all did pretty decent work themselves.


18. OutKast “Two Dope Boyz (In A Cadillac)

Lovely animated video from an ATLiens tune and some nice nostalgia for millennium era hip hop heads. As commenter mrmikeydikey reminds us “This world needs a new OutKast album. It’s been almost twenty years.” He’s right but sad to say, Andre will disagree.


19. Iggy Pop “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”

First heard on his 2019 album Free, the Dylan Thomas poem done with a third-stream jazz backing is rendered in graphic detail here as ol’ Iggy stares into our eyes. His own eyes are a little watery, his voice quavers as we see him with his long, half-golden mane and goatee, the living embodiment of the classic poem’s defiance. NOTE: Sad to say, the video’s been taken down but you can see the Ig-ster do Lou Reed’s “We Are the People” from a year ago in the same style here.


20. Billy Porter “Children

A glorious disco revival with visuals to match. Each scene is so over the top that you’re awed by it. Going down the street in a purple frock with a posse? Sure. Diamond studded eyes and lips. Check. Frilly red boa? Done. The only problem is, how does he top this now? He’s an Oscar away from being EGOT, so that might do the trick.


21. Real J. Wallace & Daniel Koestner “Cabin Fever IV

After three other versions on his recent EP, we hear this acapella version from this San Diego rapper, visualized in B&W, with him wandering lonely down railroad tracks and abandoned factories. Even if you might wince about him fucking Mother Earth and comparing himself to Anne Frank, you get to hear the rest of his thoughts on being ashamed of being a Yank, wanting to be buried in Egypt, self-affirmations despite oppression and how he and his brethren/sistren are ‘kings and Queens in Adidas,’ all in stark vivid relief here without the musical backing.


22. Saturday Night LiveDriver’s License

Host Regé-Jean Page (of Bridgerton fame) and the cast play a bunch of tough Gothamites shooting pool, as Page’s character puts the Olivia Rodrigo ballad on the jukebox. They’re confused at first but gradually they bring out the background of the song and the lost love theme and soon, they’re belting it out, swooning over it, getting emotional and demanding to hear the bridge again. At one point, one of them stands on the pool table and we dramatically look down at him from an overhead camera. Even if you still don’t get into the song (hand raised here), you can’t deny its power and its appeal after seeing this. 


23. Shutitdownsay Feat. Trap Beckham “Twerksirkiii

Dude’s got a series butt fetish. But it’s so over the top and ridiculous that you have to believe that they’re in on the joke. Along with mounts of jiggly glutes, we got stacks of cash thrown around, getting busy in a hospital bed and in prison. in a classroom, in a bodega. At this point, that even Sir Mix-A-Lot is saying ‘damn!’


24. Sorry “Cigarette Packet

Yes, it’s totally socially irresponsible, but the miscreant part of you has to admit that in an age where movies carry warnings about smoking along with sex and violence, it’s pretty funny to see a video touting the pleasures of lighting up. Viewer discretion advised.


25. Tony Joe White “Bubba Jones

In this unreleased tune from his posthumous album, we get a swamp version of The Old Man and the Sea in this appropriately hypnotic, downhome video


26. VPM “Robert E. Lee Monument Removal

Near the end of the 2 hour video of this historic event, after making extensive preparations with a huge harness and loosening the statue with a hammer and a chisel, the giant crane finally makes the giant, horrible statue flinch, prepping for the final disappearance from public view there. At that moment, one of the workers eggs on a supportive crowd there who respond by singing the 1969 Steam hit “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye.”


27. Sadeck Waff “Une chorégraphie Originale par Sadeck Waff

Done as a promo for the upcoming Paris Olympics in 2024 (which means that we’ll have SOMETHING to look forward to that year), featuring 128 paraplegic performers doing a hand ballet. Think that sounds goofy or exploitive? Just watch. You’ll be moved.


28. Adrian Younge TAN

Technically, it’s a short film but it’s also the visual counterpart to Younge’s album, The American Negro. This impressionist B&W Lynchian nightmare is confused, incomplete and tortured meditation on race. It’s full of polemics, good intentions, bad intentions, rage and misunderstanding. It struggles for answers but gets drown in questions and contradictions. In other words, it’s completely appropriate to its subject matter.


29. yeule “My Name is Nat Ćmiel

Technically unleashed on the last day of 2020, the sweet/spacey Brit singer ups the ante here, making a dreamlike masterpiece. Without the video, this doesn’t even seem like a song but instead almost a personal diary entry and even with the visuals, we mostly see her slink around her apartment, chasing a digital butterfly. But what an odd world she creates- at first, it’s infuriatingly jagged and slight, but soon, you’re lost in her mesmerizing power and feel like you’re waiting for her to do something drastic, almost as if you’re watching the intro to a horror movie. After listing all the things she likes or she is, the video ends with her explaining “But most of all, I’m…” which leaves us hanging, and wondering.


“So, what did you think, honey?”

“Dad, you’re pretty weird and you try to talk like a professor. You made me watch SNL twice and you don’t even get how great ‘Driver’s License’ is!”

“I know…Mommy’s the fun one, not me… but if you wanna give it another chance, you can see everything here…”


VIDEO: The RnRG Year in Music Videos by Jason Gross



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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 has written for Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, Time Out, AP, New York, MTV, Oxford American, Billboard, MOJO, The Wire, and Blurt. 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 girlfriend and 30 plush cats.

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