NEW YORK • In the beginning, music videos were strictly promotional tools. Then they became the thing itself - a song lacked meaning without an accompanying visual extravaganza. That is still partly true, especially for the few monoculture superstars and consensus cognoscenti favourites that remain. But video as a medium is now more equal opportunity than ever: Thanks to smartphones, everyone is a director or videographer, and videos can be consumed anywhere and anytime, in six-second loops or two-hour concerts. There are still innovative, artist-created music videos, but in the modern age, all the musician can really control is the song - what is done with it once it is in the world is anyone's guess.
Here are New York Times critics' picks of the best music videos of 2015.
BORDERS BY M.I.A.
As a song, Borders is starkly functional: two chords, a modal Middle Eastern-sounding hook and verses made from terse, pointed lists - "police shots", "identities", "privilege" - punctuated by a deadpan refrain: "What's up with that?" The video, directed by M.I.A., says more. She sings surrounded by more than 100 young men who climb razor-wire-topped fences, crowd every possible space in boats and sit on coastal boulders wearing the kind of gold thermal wraps seen in photos of refugees: a mass of humanity with an uncertain destination.
HERE BY ALESSIA CARA
Wallflowers are observant, as 19-year-old Alessia Cara proves with Here, the antidote to every party-hearty music video made. Singing about how she's "an antisocial pessimist", over lugubrious descending chords that are part Lana Del Rey and part Notorious B.I.G., she wanders through a house party lit in miasmic shades of purple, with the other partygoers frozen in place while she details just how shallow they are. Uncool becomes ultracool.
B**** BETTER HAVE MY MONEY BY RIHANNA AND BAD BLOOD BY TAYLOR SWIFT
These two blockbuster music video extravaganzas of 2015 are mostly celebrations of tough women with big budgets. Taylor Swift's Bad Blood is a lighthearted sci-fi actionadventure parody: full of flying glass, stunts and, mostly, cameos by pop stars, actors and models she can now call in. It is not only about woman power, but also about celebrity, cliquishness, hair and make-up.
Rihanna's B**** Better Have My Money is angrier, bloodier and just as conspicuous in its consumption - it features a yacht barely smaller than an aircraft carrier. Maintaining an expression of pouty malevolence, she kidnaps and tortures the pampered blonde wife of an accountant who cheated her. At the end, Rihanna is lounging, naked and spattered with blood, on a steamer trunk full of what is important: cash. The titillation could not be colder.
WTF (WHERE THEY FROM) BY MISSY ELLIOTT
Now this is a video in the classical mode, the kind that enhances a song and compresses its energy, the kind you do not forget: Pharrell Williams as a bucket-drummer marionette, mosaic-mirror hoodies, advanced-class face paint, continuous costume changes, subway-station dancing and street-futurism.
WICKED SKENGMAN (PART 4) BY STORMZY
For the past few years, English grime rapper Stormzy has been making freestyle videos in carparks in suburban London. The most popular has been this year's Shut Up, watched 15 million times, but the giddiest is Part Four of his Wicked Skengman series, posted online in September, in which he plays a gregarious host to an excited, circling crowd and spills forth torrential rhymes over the track of Jme's Serious.
REALITI BY GRIMES
It is an artist-on-tour video, a standard category. But here, Grimes, aka Claire Boucher, travels through Asia, filming from moving vehicles and being filmed. It is very professional/amateur - she is sometimes posing and sometimes not, but always herself, with amazing energy.
AND I KNOW NOW BY GOLD
Here is a brilliant and simple idea: a music video made entirely of camera-phone footage of Black Friday madness in big-box stores, sometimes split into three screens, a Bosch-scape of more violent incivility than you would see at a Slayer show in the mid-1980s. Better still, it is over a serenely intense song by Gold, the nearmetal Rotterdam band - a song restraining its own energies.
FEELING MYSELF BY NICKI MINAJ FEATURING BEYONCE
NM: Hey B, you going to Coachella?
B: More like #nochella amirite?
NM: Seriously. Let's hang. I got a spot with a kiddie pool.
B: Great. I've got this fur jacket I've been meaning to get wet.
NM: I'll bring water guns!
B: Are you hungry? I feel like all the food out here is so healthy - it's like eating air and paste.
NM: Yeah, the hell with that. I'm bringing burgers and fries.
B: I guess we have to, like, go to the festival for a minute.
NM: Fine, but don't tell anyone.
B: Oh don't worry, no one'll know - the video is a Tidal exclusive. It's a secret!
WHY YOU ALWAYS LYING BY NICHOLAS FRASER
The charm of this Vine was its blend of the comic, the dubiously sexual and the absurd. Comedian Nicholas Fraser stands in the narrow side passage between a house and a fence. His shirt is, for unknown reasons, unbuttoned, its tails fluttering as he dances. "Why you always lying," he sings in a whiny voice to the tune of Next's Too Close, one of the most starkly erotic R&B songs of the 1990s. There is a 14-second Instagram version (from which the Vine was drawn) and a 41/2-minute full narrative video, but the Vine is the thing. Ostensibly, Fraser's song is about people who exaggerate what they have to seem cool, but distilled down to the six-second plaint, it is a universal call of exhaustion and taunt.
HOTLINE BLING BY DRAKE
Let us talk about the colours - cool pink, soothing yellow, spiky green, gentle lavender, warm peach, regal chartreuse, electric turquoise and ice white. The Hotline Bling video is about mood and tone, not narrative. It is a balm, a longing eye and a soft smile, a confident embrace. The only excess in the video is the scale - the hugeness of the colours versus the relative smallness of the star. In the middle of it all, there is Drake, dancing with astonishing poise, the heir to hip-hop's throne. Meme him all you want - it only makes him stronger.
ASSORTED DAB VIDEOS
The only thing that keeps viral dance crazes from becoming true nationwide phenomena - a new Macarena - is complexity. The moves might be easy for slithery teenagers, but tough for their parents or grandparents to master (though it can be enjoyable watching Hillary Clinton trying the Nae Nae). But the dab is easy: bend your arm, drop your head into the crook. It is cheap, effective emphasis and, over the last few months, the stuff of rappers, football players, morning news anchors, the elderly and seemingly pretty much anyone with access to a smartphone. All that is needed is an Obama dab - Barack or Michelle, either one - to bring the movement to completion.
NEW YORK TIMES