Destruction, daydreams and dystopia: the music videos that summarised 2016

From Grimes’ cyber-goth takeover to Radiohead’s ominous animation, crying supermodels to dictator politicians, music videos this year have mirrored a disruptive world

Most art is open to interpretation. But given the seismic status of 2016 in terms of political upheaval and bloodshed – it’s no surprise many music videos have arrived with more than an essence of the apocalypse about them.

Earlier this year I wrote about the ways in which music videos had taken on strange and often surreal narratives, a flourish which reflects both the temperament of the creatively liberated times and also the competitive requirement of making an album launch an “event”. On reflection, art was simply reflecting life, a sense of foreboding and dread running throughout.

Many chose to mirror the political quagmire – exposing the powers that control the globe as evil dictators. DJ Shadow’s video for Nobody Speak, featuring the vitriolic, eviscerating presence of Run the Jewels, was directed by Sam Pilling and produced by Pulse Films. Its narrative follows a global summit, its representatives involved in an unflinching verbal battle before a physical fight breaks out and the men are seen grappling one another like cannibalistic monkeys. It ends with one man atop a table, holding the American flag, prepared to skewer his enemy through the chest, stopped only by the cleaning lady who interrupts his act of mania with a look of pitying contempt.

There was no scramble for power in Jamie XX’s Gosh video, however. Casting an eye into a grim, Romain Gavras-created future world controlled by a vacant, emotionless autocrat, its cinematic shots show an army of devoted followers who bow and salute as if they were a robotic army. The tension is whipped up by frenetic samples of jungle and drum and bass, a futuristic soundscape which matches the stark, spooky footage captured in Hangzhou in China’s Zhejiang province.

Arriving ahead of the Brexit referendum, Radiohead’s comeback came in the form of Burn the Witch, a song with stress-inducing momentum. The video for the song references both Camberwick Green and The Wicker Man, and while the group are secretive about its meaning, it looks as if it was influenced by British, or maybe even global tensions, and perhaps is even a comment on online public shaming and/or rightwing rhetoric (Trump’s “lock her up” chant springs to mind). Pitchfork described it as “a pointed critique of nativism-embracing leaders across the UK and Europe”, and it was certainly a timely launch during a period in which feelings of insularity, identity and fear were prevalent across the world.

Homages to horror films appeared in videos, too: Quba Tuakli mirrored the bleak and brutalist sound of Rocks FOE’s Law with a startling black and white video. On a housing estate, a police officer is chased and force fed black (or possibly blood red) liquid, a thick poison which emits from the eyes of a female sacrifice and generally makes a gloopy, satanic mess of the pavement.

Grimes’s self-directed video for Kill V Maim was also an end-of-days imagining. Set in an abandoned city, it shows the last surviving humans as a gang of cyber-goth warriors. She and her Sin City via manga cartoon-inspired friends wreck havoc in underground train stations and clubs.

Austra’s Utopia and Voodoo in My Blood by Massive Attack featuring Young Fathers were two videos that presented technology as an ominous enemy. The first employed a speaker-styled black box which isolates its users and leaves them eating maggots – all vaguely possible, all very Black Mirror. The second, meanwhile, saw Rosamund Pike trapped in an underpass and entranced by a floating ball. So entranced that she ends up face against the floor, in agony. Time for a digital cleanse, perhaps.

And what better way to mourn the demolition of the planet and environment through war and human destruction, than enlisting one of nature’s most exquisite creations: Naomi Campbell. During Anonhi’s Drone Bomb Me, the supermodel weeps into the camera (an intense and intimate format employed by Anonhi throughout her Hopelessness campaign).

Thankfully some found the humour in the sadness. Scottish alt-pop hermit Pictish Trail offered a warped myriad of apocalyptic symbolism in his brilliant video for After Life. In it he plays a monk, a poncho-wearing evangelist, a superhero, the grim reaper, a red puffy man and himself. An explosion of imagery, a chaotic collage of crappy graphics and scream faces represent the horrific overwhelm of the modern world. It’s the stuff MTV’s 120 minutes was made for.

Let’s end on a (slightly) more soothing note, with another video from Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool. Daydreaming, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, follows Thom Yorke as he walks into various rooms looking lost and confused, before curling up in the foetal position somewhere dark and hoping everything will be OK. Something I think we can all relate to at the end of 2016.


Harriet Gibsone

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The 50 best albums of 2020: the full list
Our countdown is complete, topped by a mercurial work of sprawling invention by a woman who has dug deep to survive. Taken as a whole, these choices contain drama, solace, poetry and fire, a fitting selection for a turbulent year

Ben Beaumont-Thomas and Laura Snapes

18, Dec, 2020 @8:07 AM

Article image
The 100 best albums of the 21st century
We polled 45 music writers to rank the definitive LPs of the 21st century so far. Read our countdown of passionate pop, electrifying rock and anthemic rap – and see if you agree

Ben Beaumont-Thomas (1-50); Laura Snapes and April Curtin (51-100)

13, Sep, 2019 @8:00 AM

Article image
The best albums of 2015
The Guardian music critics’ favourite albums this year, counting down to reveal 2015’s best release

Tim Jonze and Chris Fenn

02, Dec, 2015 @12:00 PM

Article image
Recapping the festive releases: Radiohead, LCD Soundsystem, Grimes and more
Never mind Slade on repeat … Miley Cyrus, the Weeknd and others have released songs this Christmas, filled with bongs, Bonds and broken hearts

Harriet Gibsone

28, Dec, 2015 @2:10 PM

Article image
Birth, brutality and Beats by Dre: watch new videos from Jamie xx, Florence and the Machine and QT
This week saw a host of inventive new videos released, from FKA twigs’s perturbing pregnancy to Run the Jewels’ commentary on police violence

Harriet Gibsone

27, Mar, 2015 @2:56 PM

Article image
‘I was blown away!’: readers on their best music discoveries – and listening habits
Concluding our Discovery Channels series, Guardian readers share the music that’s new to them – and how they came across it

Guardian readers

05, Oct, 2022 @2:42 PM

Article image
'I made excuses': music industry frets over becoming carbon neutral
Coldplay and Massive Attack have pledged more environmentally sound tours this week – but given the financial and artistic importance of touring, the industry faces tough challenges

Lowri Ellcock

29, Nov, 2019 @12:41 PM

Article image
Pop, punk and protest songs: the hottest music on the horizon in 2019
With the uproarious Idles hitting the road, Kamasi Washington play a mind-expanding UK show, and new albums from the Specials, Weezer and AJ Tracey, here are the sounds the new year will be shaking to

Alexis Petridis

01, Jan, 2019 @3:00 PM

Article image
The 2016 Mercury prize shortlist: hear the albums – and see what our critics thought of them
Read what we said about this year’s 12 Hyundai Mercury prize-shortlisted albums – from Anonhi to the 1975 – and listen to them in full. And let us know what the judges have missed …

Guardian music

04, Aug, 2016 @1:47 PM

Article image
New music: The xx - Angels

Listen to the new offering from the xx – and tell us what you think

Michael Cragg

16, Jul, 2012 @4:03 PM