10 Memorable “Minimalist” Music Videos

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Now that Kanye West is making 35-minute videos for his songs, and every dense, new Lady Gaga clip must be endlessly dissected for cultural references, there is something undeniably refreshing about a simple, straightforward music video. In a recent ArtsBeat post, Dwight Garner confesses, “I was always a minimalist – give me a concert clip, or even a bit of straight-on lip syncing to a good song” and asks readers for their favorite no-frills videos. Commenters over at The New York Times came up with quite a few suggestions, but we couldn’t help but compile a list of our own (which overlaps slightly with theirs). Add your picks in the comments.

Sinead O’Connor — “Nothing Compares 2 U”

Aside from a few (frankly distracting) cuts to scenes of O’Connor moping around in a picturesque, statue-laden churchyard, this classic video is simply a static shot of the singer’s face. A painful, Prince-penned missive to her mother, the song is packed with emotion, and all of shows on O’Connor’s expressive face. When she tears up, four minutes into the video, we absolutely disintegrate.

D’Angelo — “Untitled (How Does It Feel)”

“Untitled” is basically “Nothing Compares 2 U,” but instead of mourning a dead relative, D’Angelo is trying to make you sleep with him. And there is really no better way to deliver that message than to strip down to nothing for a video that features only your naked body against a plain, black background. Those well-defined abs really make a strong argument.

Radiohead — “Lotus Flower”

Radiohead have a certain talent for minimalist music videos: a close-up shot of Thom Yorke literally struggling to keep his head above water in “No Surprises,” traveling through a fluorescent-lit grocery-store hell in “Fake Plastic Trees,” and playing in super-slow motion (along with the rest of the band) in “Nude.” But “Lotus Flower,” a black-and-white clip of Yorke dancing all crazy-like in a bowler hat, is our choice for this list, for two reasons: 1. The video is more interesting than the song. 2. It started this meme.

Lisa Loeb — “Stay (I Missed You)”

Perhaps Nirvana is the first act we associate with ’90s teen angst — but, thanks to this song and its placement over the closing credits to Reality Bites, Lisa Loeb has a solid place on that list, too. And this video, which seemed to play once an hour on MTV ca. 1995, was the perfect complement to a break-up song that’s also about general aimlessness: the sweet, smart-looking Loeb wandering around an empty apartment (that we are only just now realizing is gorgeous and huge) with only a cat for a companion totally sells it. About a week after the clip debuted, every girl in our middle-school class had those glasses.

Jarvis Cocker — “Further Complications”

If Jarvis Cocker hadn’t become one of our favorite musicians, he could certainly have succeeded as the heir to Mr. Bean. His estimable physical comedy skills shine in the video for “Further Complications,” where he’s alone in a totally white room that keeps forcing him into uncomfortable positions. Aside from a few clever uses of computer effects, this clip is all Jarvis.

The Verve — “Bitter Sweet Symphony”

“Bitter Sweet Symphony” was the first glimpse most Americans got of Britpop invaders The Verve, so it’s only fitting that the band made sure to give us a good idea of where they came from. The video finds frontman Richard Ashcroft striding purposefully through London, singing the song and focusing so determinedly on his mission that he pushes past pedestrians, knocks someone down, and hops onto the front of a car whose driver dares to interrupt his perambulation. Ashcroft may piss off a few locals, but his journey is a simple, straightforward, and (we imagine) low-budget one; no exploding vehicles, alien invasions, or urban musical numbers in sight.

Cee Lo Green — “Fuck You” (Text Version)

There’s nothing wrong with the official music video for Cee Lo’s anthemic “Fuck You.” But, being typography nerds, we prefer this version, which preceded it by a few weeks. Moral of the story: When you’re making such a strong statement, it’s often best to just let the lyrics speak for themselves.

The Replacements — “Bastards of Young”

There’s no getting around including this classic 1985, which is basically hardcore porn for audiophiles — a black-and-white shot of a speaker turned up so loud it’s pulsating, which slowly pulls back to reveal a turntable, a stack of records, and part of some dude sitting on his couch, smoking a cigarette and listening to music. We wouldn’t mind being that guy, at least until he flips out and smashes his poor sound system…

Janelle Monáe — “Cold War”

Monáe is a master show woman, and her album The ArchAndroid was an elaborate, sci-fi epic. But in the video for this cut from that epic, it’s a tête à tête she wants. And although she moves in subtly mechanical fashion in its first few moments, by the end she’s crying real tears (perhaps in homage to Sinead?). Monáe has referred to the clip as an “emotion picture.”

Prince — “1999”

Garner includes “concert clips” in his definition of minimalist music videos, so why did we only include one in this roundup? Why, because just about everyone’s live performance footage pales in comparison to Prince’s, of course.