Music videos, like everything else in 2020, were impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Social distancing forced artists to get creative and find new ways to add visual elements to their songs without the help of a camera crew.
Somehow they made it work. They dug up archival footage. Wandered off into the woods alone with a camera phone. There’s even one music video that’s little more than five minutes of mostly still footage shot behind a building, which might just be the most 2020 video of them all.
My favorite music videos though have always been the high-concept, slickly produced pieces that add a whole new dimension to the songs they accompany, and there were plenty of those this year too. Though I must admit most of those were probably shot before the pandemic began when teams of filmmakers could still get together. Hopefully, next year makes that possible again.
Here are my 10 favorite synthpop videos from this incredibly challenging year.
10. Clan of Xymox – “Lovers”
When you’ve been around as long as Clan of Xymox has, you don’t even need to appear in your music video. For “Lovers,” the second single from their 2020 album Spider on the Wall, they produced a mini-movie that captures the spirit of the song and tells the tragic tale of two lovers caught up in a horrific situation. The fact that they’re a same-sex couple is beautifully beside-the-point, yet also reveals the violence and hatred that queer couples still face.
9. Kite – “Teenage Bliss”
Everyone in this video from Kite is high as a fucking kite. Their pupils are huge, they’re all chomping on gum. It cracks me up. The video is simply archival footage of teenagers dancing in a nightclub, but it’s the perfect visualization for Kite’s nostalgic take on the carefree teen years. They’d follow this song with a track called “Hand Out the Drugs,” which seems apropos.
8. Hatari – “Engin Miskunn”
Everything about Hatari is extreme, including this music video. The Icelandic provocateurs storm an empty shopping mall where they discover some sort of cult worshipping a wild metamorphosis. Dancer Andrean Sigurgeirsson performs a sensual dance in the cereal aisle. There’s a comet hurtling toward earth. I don’t know what the fuck is happening, but it’s pure Hatari.
7. Panic Priest – “Lonely City”
Panic Priest’s “Lonely City” wins best quarantine video for inviting fans to submit footage of themselves dancing in their homes. What could have been a sad, somber reflection of loneliness and isolation ends up being a joyful celebration of people’s perseverance and the power of music to engage us. Plus, we get to see inside people’s homes. It’s captivating and utterly endearing.
6. System Syn – “Once Upon a Second Act”
System Syn’s Clint Carney doubles as a filmmaker, so it’s no surprise that his music videos have an expensive, professionally shot veneer. “Once Upon a Second Act,” the title track from his latest album, is filled with creepy, dystopian imagery mined from apocalyptic movies like 12 Monkeys and filtered through his own brilliant imagination.
5. Null Device- “Run”
Null Device’s very own Jill Sheridan directs this homage to classic horror films, and she bathes every frame in mystery and shadow. “Run” is from Line of Sight, one of my favorite synthpop albums of 2019. The bandmembers appear costumed in the video, and they are clearly having a lot of fun.
4. Rein – “Closer to Reality”
Before releasing her debut album, Reincarnated, Swedish electro artist Rein announced that it would be influenced by The Matrix. You can clearly see it in the “Closer to Reality” video, the second part of a cyberpunk narrative that finds Rein unplugging from the mainframe and going on the run. It’s cinematic and thrilling. I’m surprised the series hasn’t continued, but it’s possible Rein put all her money into the two first two videos because they look so slick and expensive.
3. Octolab – “Aim for His Head”
Octolab’s “Aim for His Head” video could give Stephen King a run for his horror movie money. The video features a mysterious old man who stalks random people through time and steals their souls by opening some sort of magical box that is filled with a flame. I get big Doctor Sleep vibes from this, and I love it.
2. Boy Harsher – “Electric”
Boy Harsher’s blend of vintage, unsettling electronica feels very Lynchian. The video for “Electric,” a song from last year’s Country Girl Uncut, melds its sound to a David Lynch-like storyline that features a woman dancing spastically in a room and undergoing a creepy, startling transformation. The final scene elevates it to another horrific level with an intense, unexpected twist.
1. Empathy Test – “Monsters”
When Empathy Test released their debut music video, I sent it to my psychologist friend. His response: “OMG. I can’t stop watching it.” I’m pretty certain that grad students could write their dissertations about what’s going on in this mind-bending masterpiece. The video features a quarrelsome couple pulling into a carport and confronting a robed figure that trashes about wildly in front of them, vomits on their windshield, and ultimately takes possession of their bodies. There’s a lot to unpack. It’s one of the best music videos I’ve ever seen.