Best Music Videos of 2016: 10 of the most ambitious and awe-inspiring

YouTube

The music video seems to be at an odd crossroads in 2016. 

On one hand, visuals are more important and more prominent in music than ever, with short films and visual albums from artists like Beyoncé, Frank Ocean, Grimes and Kendrick Lamar stunning critics and audiences as few visuals have before. Each expanded the worlds of their accompanying music, allowing more entrances and exits from their artists' creative universe.

At the same time, the music video's main platform for distribution, YouTube, has been continually mired in controversy over the way it compensates its artists. Additionally, the platform released a list of their most watched videos of 2016 and anyone who's kept up with the music-visual world will likely note that few of the year's most lauded visuals were acknowledged. 

It seems that while music videos become vital for certain artists to stake out their creative territory, it's becoming increasingly disposable for others. Whatever the fate of the music and our new visual album tradition, the best still deserve to be honored. Here is Mic's list of the top videos of 2016.

10. Francis and the Lights feat. Bon Iver and Kanye West, "Friends"

Source: Francisandthelights/YouTube

Tight choreography isn't just for boy bands and girl groups, it's for the high art indie scrubs of the world too. Chance the Rapper's tour mate and Bon Iver collaborator, Francis and the Lights includes some joyous, understated choreography in his video for "Friends." It's absurdly high production value for such a simple sequence, but it matches the song's breezy, light-hearted vibe.

9. The Weeknd "Starboy"

Source: TheWeekndVEVO/YouTube

The Weeknd's "Starboy" promised its audience so much. R&B's no. 1 villain started the video, and the new career chapter it heralded, by murdering his old dreadlocked self. He then proceeded to smash all his trophies and awards he won during his recent pop transformation. It suggested a new beginning, a slight return to the can't-look-away madness of his early mixtapes. But in the end it listened like an even more convoluted and confused version of his last pop concession.

8. Kaytranada "Lite Spots"

Source: KAYTRANADA/YouTube

Essentially Wall-E set in modern day Los Angeles, this is likely what Pixar's masterpiece would have played like if instead of compacting trash its lovable robot lead had been programmed to dance. The little robot and his Kaytranadad (see what he did there) travel through the streets of L.A. picking up new moves for the bot to learn, making for a feel-good romp start to finish.

7. Kendrick Lamar "God Is Gangsta"

Source: KendrickLamarVEVO/YouTube

A statement as rich and challenging as Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly simply wouldn't feel complete had the artist not channeled similar effort into its visuals. Lamar's "God Is Gangsta" dropped on YouTube in January 2016, a year after its album. It brings to life all the album's darkest moments, opening with a rendition of "U," showing Lamar writhing like a man possessed and woefully unprepared to face his demons. He later meets Lucy, the album's demonic temptress, in a tangle of bodies in a dimly lit club.

6. Jamie xx, "Gosh"

Source: JamieXXVEVO/YouTube

The scale of the vision contained in Jamie xx's "Gosh" video is simply astounding. It features no CGI or special effects, just a haunting backdrop, China's Tianducheng — a replica of Paris which includes its own Eiffel Tower where the video's climax takes place. The rest of the video's magic is achieved with simple camera zoom outs and exacting choreography swirling around an albino boy lost in a strange land.

5. Grimes, "The Ac!d Reign Chronicles"

Source: Grimes/YouTube

Grimes flipped the visual album on its head with her The Ac!d Reign Chronicles short film. Clocking in at nearly 40 minutes, the piece has the size and scope of a visual album, but it's all a DIY enterprise. The indie pop star filmed the project while on her Acid Reign tour with Hana. She described them as "guerrilla-style vids a la 'realiti'" in a note following its release and they seemingly prove music videos don't need to put big budgets or time investments to offer a compelling window into an artist's creative existence.

4. Kanye West, "Fade"

Source: KanyeWestVEVO/YouTube

After delivering a mostly insensible speech at the 2016 MTV Video Music Awards, Kanye West debuted his "Fade" video. Featuring breathtaking, passionate and apparently free-styled choreography from Teyana Taylor, the video floored audiences and confused the hell out of them. Why the cat face ending? Why the sheep? Flashdance? At the end of the day these questions are irrelevant, it's a dope video and a dope introduction to a dance talent we likely haven't seen the last of.

3. Solange, "Cranes in the Sky"

Source: SolangeKnowlesVEVO/YouTube

The most egregious snub from this year's Grammy nominations might be Solange's A Seat at the Table for best R&B album. It's as if Grammy voters can't stomach the idea of two Knowles sisters dominating every black music category. The album is an understated, intimate gem, and its videos for "Cranes in the Sky" and "Don't Touch My Hair," filled with striking, pastel-hued celebrations of black beauty, only magnify its beauty.

2. Frank Ocean, "Nikes"

Source: DoBeDo/Vimeo

After waiting four long years for Frank Ocean to drop his next masterpiece, the R&B recluse unveiled Blonde by seemingly turning a mirror to his fans. "Nikes" preceded Blonde by a matter of hours, and it laid the groundwork for Ocean's vision of a definition-less, genre-less, genderless present and future that his music elaborated. The video seems to serve as a time capsule collecting all the people and places Ocean encountered in his four year creative process to piece together his album. Of course, cars, alternative fashions and lifestyles take center stage.

1. Beyoncé, "Lemonade"

Source: BeyoncéVEVO/YouTube

How many modern music videos can you name that are being taught as literature in college courses today? Probably only one, because there's only one sprawling, enigmatic and full enough to fill a syllabus: Beyoncé's Lemonade

Few knew what to be prepared for when the artist dropped her opus in an HBO special that fateful Saturday in April, most are still trying to wrap their minds around the poetic interpretations of the past, present and future of black America, ancient rituals and deities alongside a penetrating glimpse into the artists' personal life. It offers irresistible intrigue for high and low-brow palates, tabloid fare alongside sociopolitical critique. Because Bey knows you need both sugar and lemons to make a good lemonade.