The 20 best dance music videos of all time
From pioneers like Daft Punk and the Chemical Brothers to modern day YouTube-breakers like Major Lazer and M.I.A., electronic music boasts plenty of visionaries willing to pour a whole lot of love (and budget) into bringing their music to life. Here, we’ve counted down 20 more of the best dance videos ever – did your favourite make the cut?
#20 Major Lazer – ‘Pon De Floor’
Back in ‘09 Major Lazer comprised of just Diplo and Switch, and Pon De Floor was the single that introduced them to the world. In those days, Caribbean sounds took centre stage in the pair’s music – this was way before Diplo would start calling on pop’s A-list for toplines – so it made sense that the video for their breakthrough hit was an ode to Jamaica’s dance style-of-the-moment: daggering.
The following year, as an aggressive fondness for the move left a spate of broken penises in its wake, the Jamaican government would crack down on daggering by banning all videos with “blatantly sexual content” from television. The Pon De Floor clip stands as a bright, brash and strange reminder of that rather wonderful moment in history. (Fun fact: it was directed by Eric Warheim of Tim & Eric fame.) [Katie Cunningham]
#19 The xx – ‘Islands’
The xx’s self-titled debut album introduced us to a band that was unshowy in every way. From the restraint of the songs to the extreme shyness of their early live shows, these Londoners weren’t going to give us bombastic music videos.
It’s unsurprising, then, that the clip for Islands stands out among this list for its striking simplicity. The xx members feature at centre stage, but the focus is squarely on the dancers who move around them in an unbroken loop. The repeating sequence feels perfectly suited to the dreamy melancholy of the vocals, proving you only need a single room and a smart conceit to make a captivating video.
There’s an added bonus here too: watching Jamie xx, who might still be the group’s shyest member despite his impressive solo success, trying to look invisible at the end of the couch. We see you, Jamie. [Jack Tregoning]
#18 Avalanches – ‘Frontier Psychiatrist’
What an unenviable task it must’ve been to try and construct a visual version of what you hear in an Avalanches song. The Melbourne group – who built their iconic debut album on samples, pinched from countless disparate sources – are already collages in themselves. How do you even begin to put that into a music video?
For Frontier Psychatrist American directors Tom Kuntz and Mike Maguire (who’d go on to do those Old Spice ads) approached their task with the same spirit of playfulness that The Avalanches sewed into the song, assembling a variety act stuffed with oddballs and right-fitting misfits that bring each small piece of the puzzle to life. Watch it, remember why you loved it and try not to smile. [Dave Ruby Howe]
#17 Chemical Brothers – ‘Elektrobank’
Spike Jonze – one of the masters of ’90s music video with his wild, cartoonish style – played it straight for once with this improbably moving clip, basically a short film starring Sofia Coppola, fellow director (Lost in Translation) and Jonze’s future ex-wife.
Coppola plays a gymnast who deals with personal turmoil at a big competition. The graceful performance (featuring a pro gymnast double) is a lovely contrast to the Chemicals’ pulverising beats and squelching noise, featuring The Prodigy’s Keith Murray. As with Fatboy Slim’s Weapon of Choice, what makes the clip memorable is its sincerity – no knowing satirical winks; it lets the beauty of the gymnastics be what they are. And the melodrama is played to the hilt; it could be an ’80s afterschool special. [Jim Poe]
#16 Major Lazer & DJ Snake – ‘Lean On’
1,535,399,281: that’s how many YouTube views the video for Lean On had last time we checked. That’s 1.5 billion eyes on Major Lazer’s handiwork, or a figure equal to over 20-percent of the world’s population. Those numbers alone would probably earn Lean On a mention in this list, but the viewcount isn’t all that’s important about Diplo’s most successful moment to date.
As well as being a whole lot of fun, Lean On is significant because it proved that dance fans want to see their artists in music videos – would it have been such a runaway success if Diplo, Jillionaire, Walshy Fire, DJ Snake and MØ weren’t in the video, cutting shapes in their mix of sportswear and Bollywood finery? Or in an even bigger question, would Lean On have become the undisputed song of the year without this video? [Katie Cunningham]
#15 Justice – ‘Stress’
There couldn’t have been a better candidate to translate the frenzied, aggressive intensity of Justice’s Stress to video than incendiary French director Roman Gavras.
Conceived when the French electro duo were at the height of their powers in 2008 as “a clip unairable on television for a track unairable on the radio” Gavras’ no-holds-barred depiction of a day in the life of wayward French youths igniting calls of racial profiling and fetishising violence in the wake of the 2005 Paris riots. Wayward is a barely fitting description though, the subjects of Stress stalk the outlying suburbs/banlieues of Paris enacting casual ultra-violence and civil destruction wherever they go, all backed by the menacing whir of Justice’s production.
Speaking to Flux on the controversy that the music video created upon its release, Gavras seemed to revel in his status as a provocateur – two years before the ginger genocide of M.I.A’s Born Free clip. “For a few months, I was one of the most hated men in France, but it was fun. It was amazing free promo…you can only get that much press if you have sex with children.” [Dave Ruby Howe]
#14 Massive Attack – ‘Teardrop’
London filmmaker Walter Stern made his name working with The Prodigy in the 90s, when he helmed their inflammatory videos for Firestarter and Breathe. Those credentials made Stern a somewhat surprising choice, then, to take on one of Massive Attack’s most delicate songs.
The Bristol collective recruited Stern to bring his arresting visual style to their 1998 single Teardrop, which Robert ‘3D’ Del Naja described as a “moment of light relief” on their brooding third album Mezzanine. It was Stern’s idea to match the song’s dreamy atmosphere with shots inside a womb, as a human fetus lip-synchs along to Elizabeth Fraser’s vocals.
The concept sounds unnerving on paper, but the extreme closeups create a strangely meditative mood that’s perfect for Teardrop. It also helps that the unborn baby is so clearly an animatronic model made of silicon and not, you know, the real thing. The video won a string of awards, entered a life of permanent Rage rotation and gave Stern a much-needed reprieve from filming crazy Keith Flint. [Jack Tregoning]
#13 The Prodigy – ‘Firestarter’
While most of dance music’s biggest stars look painfully awkward on camera, The Prodigy were built for music videos. The theatrical personas of Maxim and Keith Flint have made for electric onscreen performances, with perhaps the most overblown of all happening inside the scummy ‘gator-infested apartment of Breathe.
While other videos inspired more heat for The Prodigy, there’s something starkly effective about the Firestarter clip. Director Walter Stern shot the black-and-white action inside a deserted London Underground tunnel, with Keith as the central star. The frontman’s unhinged shtick was at its most convincing in the mid-90s, and he really dialed it up here, holding the focus with his frenzied charisma. Firestarter is so much the Keith Flint Show, in fact, that the involvement of Liam Howlett, Leeroy Thornhill and Maxim is limited to running in the shadows and giving quizzical looks.
The video did manage to stir up controversy in the UK for giving kids nightmares, with some TV channels taking it off daytime rotation. No doubt The Prodigy also discouraged a few people from adventuring through abandoned railway tunnels at night. No one wants to meet a dancing Keith Flint in the dark. [Jack Tregoning]
#12 Duck Sauce – ‘Big Bad Wolf’
“It’s no Windowlicker,” the director behind Big Bad Wolf defended when Rolling Stone went in on 2011’s most head-turning video. “That was disturbing.”
Duck Sauce’s most memorable clip might not be Aphex Twin-level weird, but it sure does push the envelope. In order to make their video tour de force, collaborators A-Trak and Armand Van Helden spent two days on their hands and knees in green screen jumpsuits, heads in the crotches of other men. A lot of impressive post-production later and they came away with a classic boy-meets-girl story, only with some – err – unusual sexual mechanics.
For the best assessment of why Big Bad Wolf deserves to go down with the greats, leave it Kanye West: “You took a risk as an artist to piss out of your mouth,” he reportedly told A-Trak over email. [Katie Cunningham]
#11 M.I.A. – ‘Bad Girls’
When M.I.A. linked up with director Romain Gavras to make a video for her 2010 song Born Free, the collaborators came up with an incendiary short film. Over nine intense minutes, we watch a violent raid of an apartment block, with the officers targeting only residents with red hair. It was a provocative political statement, using redheads as a stand-in for oppressed and vilified groups, and both M.I.A. and Gavras welcomed the ensuing controversy.
When the singer and filmmaker worked together again in 2012 on Bad Girls, they chose a more celebratory tone. Mesmerised by YouTube videos of “Saudis drifting on two wheels” in the desert, they travelled to Morocco to try it out. The result is bright, bold and bad-ass. On its release, Bad Girls ignited debate about its subversion of Arab stereotypes, while also delivering the visceral thrill of M.I.A. cruising out the window of a car that’s almost airborne. Not many pop videos combine style and substance like this one. [Jack Tregoning]