Virtual Insanity: 39 Music Videos That Defined The 90s

From art house shorts to visionary stylings and tongue-in-cheek parodies, here are just a few decade-defining 90s music videos.

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90s music videos

The 60s saw the birth of the music video, while MTV took it to a new level in the 80s, but the medium truly thrived – both creatively and commercially – with 90s music videos. Thanks to the mass proliferation that MTV afforded, it not only brought audiences and artists closer together but provided a fertile testing ground for exploring new ways of storytelling.

This golden era of music videos also brought forth a second wave of music-video directors led by David Fincher, Hype Williams, Jonathan Glazer, Mark Romance, Chris Cunningham, Peter Care, Michel Gondry, and, most notably, Spike Jonze – talents that were given artistic license to create grand-scale short films.

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From flashy spectacle to low-fi realism, surreal fantasy to retro fetishism, here are just some of the best, decade-defining 90s music videos.

39: Pulp: Common People (1995)

Director: Florian Habicht
Along with Oasis and Blur, the Sheffield quintet Pulp led by the charismatic Jarvis Cocker spearheaded the vibrant and influential Britpop movement in the mid-90s. “Common People,” the group’s biggest UK hit, offered a satirical critique of class tourism and produced a colorful video with dazzling visuals and surreal action sequences that complemented Cocker’s sardonic lyrics. Actor Sadie Frost makes a telling cameo appearance, memorably pushing a downsized Cocker imprisoned in a shopping trolley.

38: Beck: Where It’s At (1996)

Director: Steve Hanft
Renowned for being a musical shapeshifter, it’s fitting that alt-rock god Beck plays several different characters in the quirky video to his trippy hip-hop-influenced groove, “Where’s It At,” taken from his Grammy-winning fifth album Odelay; he begins as a litter-picking convict before becoming a car salesman and then morphing into the horror movie ghoul, the “Candyman.” The video launched MTV’s sister channel, MTV2, in August 1996 and a month later picked up the Best Male Video award in MTV’s Video Music Awards.

37: Oasis: Wonderwall (1995)

Director: Nigel Dick
For many, Noel Gallagher’s anthemic, much-covered “Wonderwall” – which took its title from an experimental George Harrison album called Wonderwall Music – marked his band Oasis’ creative apogee. Filmed in London, the song’s video is rendered in black and white apart from a brief glimpse of Gallagher’s guitar, which appears in a fluorescent green color. Though their sullen demeanors suggest that the band would rather be doing something else than making a video, “Wonderwall” won British Video Of The Year at the 1996 Brit Awards.

36: Weezer: Buddy Holly (1994)

Director: Spike Jonze
The second single from the self-titled debut LP from this California power-pop quartet, “Buddy Holly” had an ingenious and memorable video that transported the band (complete with slicked-down hair and beige cardigans) back to the 1950s and on to the set of the popular 70s US sitcom, Happy Days. Director Spike Jonze recreated the show’s diner for the band’s performance and persuaded original Happy Days cast member, Al Molinaro, to make a cameo. Jonze also seamlessly blended footage of the band playing with clips from the TV show, resulting in a memorable video that was simultaneously nostalgic and cutting-edge. It’s undoubtedly one of the best and most unique music videos in the 90s.

35: Fatboy Slim: Praise You (1998)

Director: Spike Jonze
The video to Fatboy Slim’s definitive 90s dance track proves that you don’t need thousands of dollars to make a successful pop promo. It purportedly cost only $800, which is not surprising, perhaps, given its DIY filmmaking approach. The video was shot guerilla-style outside LA’s Fox Bruin Theatre in front of an unsuspecting public, who witnessed director Jonze – masquerading as an eccentric choreographer called Richard Koufey – leading an ersatz flash mob troupe, The Torrance Community Dance Group. At the 1999 MTV Music Video Awards, “Praise You” picked up three awards, including Best Choreography.

34: Britney Spears: Baby One More Time (1998)

Director: Nigel Dick
This was the debut single that transformed 16-year-old Mississippi-born Spears into the “Princess of Pop.” Its success was aided by a controversial video depicting Spears as a bored uniform-clad schoolgirl, whose bare midriff and provocative gyrations prompted complaints from a swathe of concerned parents across the USA. Although the video garnered three MTV Video Music Award nominations in 1999, it failed to win any of them but in 2001 was ranked at No. 99 in VHS’ 100 Greatest Videos list.

33: Madonna: Vogue (1990)

Director: David Fincher
The Queen of Pop ventured into the realm of house music with “Vogue,” a mesmeric dance track that she recorded for the Dick Tracy-inspired soundtrack album, I’m Breathless. The song’s video, helmed by David Fincher, who would go on to become a noted feature film director, is a homage to Hollywood’s golden age; its stylish monochrome photography and luxurious Art Deco era-inspired sets exude a retro elegance. Now considered iconic and one of the best videos of the 90s, the multi-award winning “Vogue” video reached over 100 million views in 2019.

32: Radiohead: Karma Police (1997)

Director: Jonathan Glazer
Inspired by David Lynch’s surrealist noir movie Lost Highway, director Glazer brought an insidious edge to his video for Radiohead’s “Karma Police,” which depicts the band’s Thom Yorke in a car chasing down a fleeing middle-aged man at night on a deserted road. When Yorke eventually reaches his quarry, the tables are dramatically turned in a surprise and shocking denouement. Just as Radiohead’s music defied pop conventions, their videos, too – which championed innovative filmmaking over commercial visual confectionery – went against the grain.

31: Soundgarden: Black Hole Sun (1994)

Director: Howard Greenhalgh
Seattle grunge rockers Soundgarden reached a career peak with their fourth album Superunknown, which yielded their Grammy-winning single, “Black Hole Sun,” a song whose title came about when singer/guitarist Chris Cornell misheard a TV news bulletin. It inspired an apocalyptic video, which juxtaposed shots of Soundgarden performing the song next to surreal images of people going about their business in suburbia while sporting creepy overstated grins; ultimately, their grins are replaced by terrified expressions as they are all sucked up into the black hole sun.

30: Lauryn Hill: Doo Wop (That Thing) (1998)

Directors: Monty Whitebloom and Andy Delaney
One of the prime cuts from Hill’s landmark debut platter The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, is the double Grammy-winning anthem “Doo Wop (That Thing),” which showcased the ex-Fugees’ singer’s unique meld of street-savvy hip-hop and soulful sophistication. The clever use of a split-screen technique in the song’s video allowed Hill to play two roles 21 years apart; on the left side of the screen she represents a woman from 1967 complete with a beehive hairdo and on the right, she portrays a character from 1998. “Doo Wop” scooped four gongs at the MTV Video Music Awards in 1999 and two years later was ranked No. 74 in VH1’s 100 Greatest Videos list.

29: Alanis Morissette: Ironic (1995)

Director: Stéphane Sednaoui
This Ontario singer/songwriter ventured into gritty alt-rock territory with her third album, Jagged Little Pill, which took her music to an avid international audience. The LP’s third single, “Ironic,” a bittersweet litany of life’s mockingly twisted situations, spawned a striking video where the singer drives through a winter landscape with different versions of herself cropping up as passengers. It got nominated for six awards by MTV and won three of them, including Best Female Video. VH1 ranked it at No. 18 in their 100 Greatest Videos list.

28: Aerosmith: Cryin’ (1993)

Director: Marty Callner
Rising Hollywood stars Alicia Silverstone and Stephen Dorff played a romantically involved young couple in the video to “Cryin’,” hard rock band Aerosmith’s iconic power ballad. Though we occasionally glimpse Aerosmith performing, the film’s main focus is the couple; they break up after Dorff cheats on Silverstone, who then embarks on a journey of self-discovery. In an expression of her individuality, she is shown having her belly button pierced, which purportedly facilitated the mainstream acceptance of body piercing. The combination of the video’s young stars and its surprise ending made “Cryin’” popular viewing; it proved to be the most requested video on MTV in 1993.

27: TLC: Waterfalls (1995)

Director: F. Gary Gray
“Waterfalls” is the outstanding cut on CrazySexyCool, the third album by TLC, an Atlanta R&B group consisting of Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, and Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas. A cautionary tale about taking unnecessary and potentially fatal risks, “Waterfall’s” lyrics are vividly brought to life in a thought-provoking video where TLC stand in the middle of the ocean like omniscient goddesses and describe two tragedies that unfold; a young man is killed in a drug deal gone bad and another dies of AIDS through unprotected sex. One of the best music videos of the 90s, “Waterfalls” grabbed four gongs at the MTV Video Music Awards in 1995.

26: Pearl Jam: Jeremy (1991)

Director: Mark Pellington
Seattle’s Pearl Jam were alt-rock pioneers in the 1990s and “Jeremy,” the third single from the band’s debut album Ten, is a dark, turbulent ballad based on a real life story about a schoolboy who shot himself in front of his classmates. Director Pellington created an immersive visual collage for the song, where storytelling drama – featuring young actor Trevor Wilson as the troubled Jeremy – the band’s music and fleeting on-screen fragments of text, some with biblical references, collided in rapidly cut sequences. Despite its controversial climactic scene, “Jeremy” was a quadruple award winner at the 1993 MTV Music Video Awards.

25: Red Hot Chili Peppers: Give It Away (1991)

Director: Stéphane Sednaoui
This Los Angeles funk-rock quartet broadened their fanbase exponentially with the stylish and unusual-looking video to “Give It Away,” which was a huge hit on MTV and succeeded in taking their music into the mainstream. French director Sednaoui daubed the band members’ bodies with silver acrylic paint – which gave them an eye-catching luminosity – and shot the video, which cost an estimated $140,000, using black and white film in a desert. He also experimented with a variety of camera angles and film techniques to create a sophisticated-looking promo that the band’s label thought too “artsy.” Nevertheless, “Give It Away” won Breakthrough Video and Best Art Direction at the 1992 MTV Music Video Awards.

24: Guns ‘N Roses: November Rain (1992)

Director: Andy Morahan
Though renowned as a flamboyant hard-rocking metal band, Guns ‘N Roses showed their sensitive side on “November Rain,” a mournful ballad plucked as a single from their third long player, Use Your Illusion I. The song’s accompanying video remains one of the most expensive ever made; it cost a million-and-a-half dollars, which was mainly due to its expensive locations and the cost of transporting a complete wooden church to Mexico for the scene where guitarist Slash takes a solo. The storyline involves Axel Rose marrying his sweetheart (played by his real life girlfriend at the time) only for her to die. An epic tale of life, love and death.

23: Spice Girls: Wannabe (1996)

Director: Johan Camitz
“Girl Power” was the mantra of Britain’s Spice Girls, a prefabricated quintet whose debut single “Wannabe” was a catchy empowerment anthem that blended pop with rap and quickly rocketed up the UK charts. Its success in part was due to its wildly energetic video, shot by a Swedish director renowned for big brand TV commercials, who captured the girls’ playful antics in a London hotel. The video took off after being aired on the UK cable music channel The Box; a year later, in 1997, it won Best Dance Video at the MTV Music Video Awards.

22: Korn: Freak on a Leash (1999)

Director: Todd McFarlane
The video for “Freak On A Leash” – taken from Korn’s debut LP, Follow The Leader – was as provocative and uncompromising as the California nu-metal quintet’s music. It begins with an animated sequence, depicting children breaking into a restricted area at night to play hopscotch on a cliff edge. A security guard catches them but his gun goes off by mistake. We then follow the destructive trajectory of his bullet, which takes the viewer through into live-action scenes that include the band playing. The video grabbed three awards – including a Grammy – and to date has racked up 200 million views on YouTube.

21: Blur: Coffee & TV (1999)

Directors: Hammer & Tongs
Part of the holy trinity of Britpop alongside Oasis and Pulp, London’s Blur were fronted by Damon Albarn but Graham Coxon sang lead on their single “Coffee & TV,” playing a central role in its charming video. We first see him portrayed as a lost person on the side of a milk carton in his parents’ home. The carton (dubbed “Milky”) then springs to life and goes on a journey to find Coxon with both humorous and poignant consequences. In 2002, the video, which had previously won NME and MTV awards, came fourth in a 100 Greatest Videos poll by VH1.

20: R.E.M.: Crush With Eyeliner (1994)

Director: Spike Jonze
Just as R.E.M. evolved with the alternative music scene, they were also hugely influential when it came to music videos. From “Losing My Religion” to “Everybody Hurts” and “Man On The Moon,” the Athens group are synonymous with MTV – and yet, for much of their career, they were largely absent from the videos, with Michael Stipe famously disliking having to lip sync. When the band shifted their sound dramatically for the glam-inflected “Crush With Eyeliner,” from Monster, the video imagined R.E.M. as a hip Japanese band that represented the band’s identity swap.

19: Sinéad O’Connor: Nothing Compares 2 U (1990)

Director: John Maybury
The promo for Sinéad O’Connor’s cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” stands in stark contrast to the majority of 90s music videos. Stripped of any surrealist imagery and flashy visuals, it depicts the shorn O’Connor in a tight close-up and unflinching manner while she sings of her heartbreak. Almost as recognisable as the song itself, the clip led to the Gaelic singer becoming the first female artist to win Video Of The Year at the MTV Video Music Awards.

18: Blind Melon: No Rain (1993)

Director: Samuel Bayer
When it came time to make a music video for the band’s career-defining single, “No Rain,” Blind Melon used the artwork for their debut album (a photo of drummer Glenn Graham’s sister in a bee outfit) as inspiration and created one of the most indelible and relatable characters in music video history: an awkward youth searching for companionship, otherwise known as “Bee Girl”.

17: George Michael: Freedom! ’90 (1990)

Director: David Fincher
Starring a coterie of supermodels including Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, Tatjana Patitz, and Cindy Crawford, with plenty of soft lighting, piercings, and sensual closeups, you’d be forgiven for mistaking this promo clip for a CK One advert. Helmed by the most in-demand music video director at the time, David Fincher managed to create one of the most iconic 90s music videos, fusing music and style in smoldering fashion.

16: Fiona Apple: Criminal (1996)

Director: Mark Romanek
In the days when 99 per cent of everyone’s photos were littered with red-eye, Fiona “This World Is Bullshit” Apple was brooding in 70s rec rooms like a seedy Polaroid come to life. In other words, “Criminal’ exemplified 90s music videos. The provocative visuals aligned with the lyrics about exploiting your own sexuality, but Apple faced severe backlash for it. “Criminal” remains the most successful single of Apple’s career – and yet it also paved the way for every American Apparel ad that followed.

15: Radiohead: Paranoid Android (1997)

Director: Magnus Carlsson
By the time the 90s rolled around, MTV was not only a destination for music videos, but had expanded into animated series that used contemporary music. So when Radiohead debuted their animated epic for “Paranoid Android,” it felt right at home on the network. Created by Magnus Carlsson, the Swedish creator of the animated series Robin, the surrealist and somewhat graphic short both horrified parents and fascinated that sweet 12-34 key demographic.

14: The Verve: Bitter Sweet Symphony (1997)

Director: Walter Stern
Like Sinéad’s video, just hearing the symphonic intro of this Britpop landmark conjures up images of a lanky Richard Ashcroft loping down the streets of Hoxton in East London. Seemingly inspired by Massive Attack’s single-continuous shot video for “Unfinished Sympathy,” the video sees Ashcroft making his way through a bustling metropolis completely unaffected and colliding with pedestrians along the way. Is it a metaphor for self-actualization or self-entitlement? You be the judge.

13. Smashing Pumpkins: 1979 (1995)

Directors: Jonathan Dayton and Valeria Farris
Has a music video ever epitomized suburban ennui more than Smashing Pumpkins’ slice-of-life promo for the smash single “1979”? From the fisheye lens to the teenage-party scenes, it stands apart from the otherworldly visuals for the rest of their double-album, Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness, and remains an invitation to adolescent nostalgia.

12: 2pac (Feat Dr Dre): California Love (1995)

Director: Hype Williams
Tupac’s galvanizing West Coast anthem was such a smash, it needed two music videos to accompany it. While the majority of hip-hop’s 90s music videos at the time were characterized by the blinged-out productions favored by Bad Boy Records, this Hype Williams-directed joint had an equally large budget but a much more exotic locale, resulting in a Mad Max meets Burning Man dystopian epic set in a post-apocalyptic Oakland. At the end, Tupac wakes up from his “dream” for the Part 2 remix video, which swaps out desert jeeps for hydraulic cars and house parties in Compton.

11: The Prodigy: Smack My Bi__h Up (1997)

Director: Jonas Åkerlund
Dubbed as “Snap My Picture” to the pearl-clutching censors on the radio, electro- punks The Prodigy scandalized MTV with their provocative music video for their big-beat single. Shot strictly from the first-person POV, it depicts a protagonist’s wild night full of sex, drugs, vandalism, and fighting – only to reveal at the end that it’s a woman who’s wreaking havoc. The graphic video drew instant backlash which only added to its popularity.

10: Busta Rhymes: Gimme Some More (1998)

Director: Hype Williams
We could easily devote an entire list to the unbridled vision of music video director Hype Williams, who took hip-hop imagery to the outer limits. Like Michel Gondry with Björk, Williams found his match and muse in Busta Rhymes, bringing to life this twisted version of Loony Tunes and single-handedly perfected the fisheye-lens trend that everyone adopted.

9: The Chemical Brothers: Elektrobank (1997)

Director: Spike Jonze
Before she was an indie auteur director, Sofia Coppola was an acrobatic gymnast starring in this Spike Jonze-directed video. The intricate twists and turns of her gymnastic floor routine align perfectly with the heavy breakbeats of the instrumental track from The Chemical Brothers’ sophomore album, Dig Your Own Hole. With muted colours and cinematic flair, the whole thing plays more like an art house short than a music video.

8: Beastie Boys: Sabotage (1994)

Director: Spike Jonze
There are two kinds of people in this world, those who think the Spike Jonze-directed “Sabotage” music video is Beastie Boys’ finest, and others who prefer the robot-B-Boy antics of “Intergalactic,” but we’re inclined towards the former, which essentially created the blueprint for parody music videos that homage 70s cop shows.

7. Michael and Janet Jackson: Scream (1995)

Director: Mark Romanek
What’s better than a Michael Jackson music video? Two Jacksons in space! Who could forget the larger-than-life blockbuster video for Michael and Janet Jackson’s “Scream,” from Michael’s 1995 HIStory album? Allegedly the most expensive music video ever made, the space-age film sees the two siblings spitting refrains over industrial beats courtesy of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. The futuristic black-and-white video came with a hefty price tag (a cool $7 million to build seven sound stages and the like), but it also created one of the most era-defining 90s music videos and reunited the siblings in the studio for the first time since “PYT,” from Michael’s 1982 smash, Thriller.

6: Missy Elliott: The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly) (1997)

Director: Hype Williams
No other director fit the poetic absurdity of Missy Elliott more than Hype Williams, who astutely combined the shiny-suit aesthetic of the era with Afrofuturism and the flyest garbage bag the world has ever seen. The cameo-heavy video, featuring the likes of Timbaland, Da Brat, and Puff Daddy, made Elliot’s cover of Ann Peebles’ 1973 single the one to lunch her solo career.

5: Daft Punk: Around The World (1997)

Director: Michel Gondry
Michel Gondry cut his teeth creating fantastical 90s music videos before moving onto feature films. He also birthed another key music video trend (the single-take video). Out of the 50-plus videos to his name, one of his classic cuts is the synchronized dance masterpiece he created for Daft Punk’s world-conquering single, “Around The World.” With each dancer synching up with each beat, synth, and sound, it’s a masterclass in co-ordination.

4: Nirvana: Smells Like Teen Spirit (1991)

Director: Samuel Bayer
Just as “Smells Like Teen Spirit” catapulted Nirvana to mainstream success, its gritty video served as the benchmark for grunge culture and the teen rebellion to the MTV-watching masses, who ate it up with their morning breakfast. A familiar scene to most American high-school students, the video depicts a pep rally gone wrong, with anarchist cheerleaders and Kurt Cobain’s raw performance inciting a riot.

3: Nine Inch Nails: Closer (1994)

Director: Mark Romanek
Shot on a vintage hand-crank camera with stylistic yet perverse shots of a disembodied heart, a twirling pig’s head and Trent Reznor in full S&M gear, the music video for Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” resembles found footage from a Victorian snuff film rather than something you’d find on MTV. Despite its very NSFW visuals and lyrics, the track and video went on the become a massive hit. For the record, the monkey was not harmed during the making of the video.

2: Björk: All Is Full Of Love (1999)

Director: Chris Cunningham
For some artists, music videos are not merely a tool for publicity, but an extension of their artistic expression, and no musician embodies that more than Björk. Since her first foray into the medium with “Human Behaviour,” she’s pushed the boundaries of music videos, making them an integral part of the song, as evidenced by her sci-fi vision of love for “All Is Full Of Love.” Directed by Chris Cunningham (who’s responsible for the disturbing video for Aphex Twin’s “Come to Daddy”), his “karma sutra meets industrial robotics” concept came to life thanks to his background in prosthetic and modelling work for films such as Alien 3.

1: Jamiroquai: Virtual Insanity (1996)

Director: Jonathan Glazer
No list covering 90s music videos would be worth its salt without the mind-bending promo by UK pop-soul act Jamiroquai. A literal take on their album title, Travelling Without Moving, the vertigo-inducing video made the band a global sensation and had everyone scratching their heads at both the technical wizardry and Jay Kay’s fuzzy top hat.

Looking for more? Discover The 90s: The Decade That Doesn’t Fit?

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