2012 was not the best year for music videos, which is fair because 2011 was perfectly solid, and 2010 gave us some true standard-bearers. Meanwhile, 2012 was an excellent year for movies, while 2011’s cinematic output was relatively lackluster. You win some, you lose some. 2012’s music videos were not as filled with interesting narratives and unique, groundbreaking concepts as much as other recent years. That lack may explain why striking imagery carried the day for the best of 2012; “beautiful” is probably my most frequently used word to describe my top 10, and I don’t remember ever being as complimentary of the cinematography as I am this year.

1. Lana Del Rey – “Ride” [Dir. Anthony Mandler]

Who makes videos like this one anymore? Who ever made videos like this? Sure, there have been plenty of long-form music videos (and plenty of classic ones at that), but nothing quite like the baroque extravaganzas from Ms. Del Rey. This video’s whole story of Lana as this lost girl may just be completely made up. Or maybe it’s not. Either way, it’s aggressively fascinating. The lingering, lascivious camera, the wild mix of patriotism and Native American props and imagery, the wide-open cinematography, the tire swing connected to the sky – surely, this was what music videos were invented for.

2. M.I.A. – “Bad Girls” [Dir. Romain Gavras]

Leave it to M.I.A. – the best political music video provocateur around – to make a video of car drifting a statement of support for Saudi women drivers. The widescreen cinematography is beautiful, while M.I.A. and the other drifters are badass. Those two elements are enough on their own to make a memorable video. The feminist message would also be enough by itself. Somehow, together, they are synergistic.

3. Lana Del Rey – “National Anthem” [Dir. Anthony Mandler]

Lana Del Rey casting herself as Jackie O. surely must mean something. A$AP Rocky as JFK is intriguing, to say the least. The grainy, home-video style footage also captures the attention. I am not sure what it all means together, and I am not sure Lana knew either when she made it. Meaning often comes after creation. Now that this attention grabber of a video has been made, let’s see if we can find some meaning out of it. Lana is making an American myth of herself – surely something must stick.

4. Katy Perry – “Wide Awake” [Dir. Tony T. Datis]

Katy Perry used to strike me as, not exactly artificial – synthetic, perhaps. Now that she has made it to the point of her career where “Wide Awake” stands, I realize she may be the most authentic pop star out there. Hers is a finely put-together package, sure, but there is honesty in the assembly. She’s lived enough that she’s not going to blindly accept the fairy tale life she has aspired to, and she’s got the imagery to prove it, particularly the Freddy Krueger-esque paparazzo.

5. Psy – “Gangnam Style”

I’m not overly familiar with K-Pop, so I will just take Psy’s word when he says that “Gangnam Style” is a satire of the K-Pop aesthetic. I am familiar, however, with videos in which guys are blown away by ladies’ hindquarters, and “Gangnam” takes that trope to beautiful extremes. And the horsey dance – that happened.

6. David Byrne & St. Vincent – “Who” [Dir. Martin de Thurah]

In this black and white stunner from David Byrne and St. Vincent, the two of them look forward – never towards the camera – with cold eyes, but there is passion in their bodies. They are practically compelled to complete their dancing mission. Even St. Vincent’s lying on the ground is incredible posing. A triumph of physicality.

7. Ke$ha – “Die Young” [Dir. Darren Craig]

Guess what, world? The joke’s on you: there is a lot going on in the “Die Young” video, but none of it means anything! And that’s the way it’s always been with K-girl. Indeed, it is true that there is a mess of Illuminati symbols present in this video, as there have been in many recent pop videos. But it’s always been a bunch of noise. Ke$ha lays to rest the idea that it was ever anything else. (Or tricks us into thinking so…) So let’s all just have an orgiastic time.

8. Imagine Dragons – “Radioactive” [Dir. Syndrome]

The “Radioactive” video features a puppet fight in the style of a cockfight. I don’t know if that’s supposed to be a commentary on animal rights or something like that. Or how it has anything to do with the song, for that matter. But with Lou Diamond Phillips, Alexandra Daddario and her incredibly deep eyes, and those puppets, how can I say no?

9. Woodkid – “Run Boy Run” [Dir. Yoann Lemoine]

I am not sure if the “Run Boy Run” video means much beyond what it is on its surface: a boy on a quest. But does it need to be anything more than that? A young boy’s imagination run wild is perfect fodder for a music video: chased by monsters while on the way to a castle – that’s something to watch. Plus, the whole thing just looks beautiful.

10. Calvin Harris – “Feel So Close” [Dir. Vincent Haycock]

The video for “Feel So Close” captures the feeling of bliss that the song also captures so well. With its montage of spirited dancing, kissing, playful banter, and smiling among young and old, male and female, with an M&M-worthy color palette set against a sunny summer day leading into the sunset, this living in the moment is about as close to heaven life can get.

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