The Essential VR Music Videos of 2016

2016 has been a landmark year for VR and 360° video. VR finally grew into its spatial self, with more and more artists coming out of the proverbial woodwork to produce groundbreaking roomscale experiences. In addition to the ever-increasing landscape of 360° camera options available for the consumer and professional alike, major social media outlets such as Facebook, YouTube, and WordPress have introduced 360° video hosting. Littlstar even developed solutions for 360° video playback on 2D TVs.

For the past three decades, the music video genre has been home to some of our freshest, most forward-looking visual media—and it’s arguable that the introduction of immersion is the single greatest change it has ever witnessed. In 2015, major artists like Bjork, Muse, and U2 took the dive into this new frontier. 2016 was a year for refinement and experimentation; with a few new lessons under their belts, immersive artists and musicians worked to produce projects that pushed the “music video” genre into something altogether new—ranging from 360° videos to interactive experiences—embracing each corner of the unique possibilities of immersive media.

Here are a few (of the many) we thought you should experience.

Reeps One – Does Not Exist

“Does Not Exist” is not just an exciting music video, it’s one of the most exciting pieces of VR content from the entire year. Why? This song was conceived from the ground up to showcase the magic of “VR audio” through immersive cinema. Conceived by Aurelia Soundworks, who created the video with The Mill in Los Angeles, this video proves that spatial audio is integral in generating presence in a VR experience—and moreso that spatial audio is amazing even without accompanying visuals. Do yourself a favor and put on your best headphones before dropping into this one.

OneRepublic – Kids

It’s a shame more big name artists aren’t using their fame to drum up A-list budgets for immersive music videos like “Kids.” Early adopters and risk-takers tend to be independent artists who lack the resources to produce content with this degree of production design, casting, and choreography (note that this video is one take). The results speak for themselves. This is one of the downright prettiest 360° videos ever made (those colors!), and the level of theatricality has me thinking about possibilities that extend beyond music videos (like, say…West Side Story VR?).

Moses Sumney – Music from Every Angle for the 2016 Honda Civic (Original song: “Everlasting Sigh”)

Moses Sumney broke out last year for, among a bevy of other talents, his propensity for inventive looping. Honda and m ss ng p eces couldn’t have picked a better candidate for a project of this scope. As various Sumney clones dance and sing about the room, many engage with the silver Civic (the one atop the pile of speakers), by using the car for its percussive qualities. The result is a layered masterpiece that zips by even for its brevity.

The Bohemian Rhapsody Experience

Framed as a “VR experiment,” Google’s app isn’t just a retreading of an iconic song, it’s an interactive journey through the subconscious of seminal frontman Freddie Mercury. And Google couldn’t have picked a more fitting source text; “Bohemian Rhapsody” is purportedly the first promotional music video ever created. The experience, available via Google Play, swirls ’70s era cartoon animation with repurposed stage footage and plenty of other cosmic imagery. And, embodying the unprecedented potential of VR, the piece is interactive; visual and audio elements are movement-responsive. In particular, the spatial audio lets you “step in” to the song and hear it like you never have before. So get your Wayne or Garth on and do the fandango.

Redfoo – Booty Man

Say what you will about Redfoo—he’s not one for false advertising, and he sure knows his brand. “Booty Man” employs the same sleazy goofball vibes we witnessed in his work with LMFAO…and this video has a whole spankin’ lot of booty. But don’t let all that junk distract you from the fantastic editing, expert choreography, and technical direction…who am I kidding? You’re already lost in all that booty.

D∆WN – Not Above That

Forming a bit of a dream-team, pioneering VR adopter D∆WN (who led the first ever live 360° performance on YouTube) linked up with Los Angeles-based VR Playhouse to attempt a seemingly impossible feat: create an immersive video that could possibly match the visceral fervor of a song about unrestrained longing. Well, they did the impossible. To grasp D∆WN’s sheer depth of feeling, we’re taken into the far expanses of our minds, the universe, and everything in-between while tripped out colorscapes swirl over open space, leaving us as breathless when it ends as her voice when it begins.

Naive New Beaters – Heal Tomorrow (ft. Izia)

There’s just something so charming about this video…until its underlying menace starts to reveal itself. The theatrical setting, color palette, and wry comedy showcase clear inflections of Wes Anderson, but don’t let that distract you from the pointed commentary about losing yourself to your dreams—financial, personal, or otherwise. The most important thing to note, though, is the expert use of the 360° environment. On a first watch, it’s wise to heed the “Follow This Guy” introductory notice, but each of the three major sections of the video yields important story information that enrich repeat viewings.

Jazz Cartier – Red Alert / 100 Roses

Can anything stop this kid? Toronto’s latest and greatest up-and-comer sets his sights on VR and ends up with one of the coolest 360° videos of the year. By making a video that conjoins two of his songs, he’s also able to portray a complex portrait of identity by bridging two distinct moods and approaches that form a cohesive narrative. There are plenty of great scenes to mention, but seeing Jacuzzi tear it up while hanging all the way out of a moving vehicle as the video approaches its climactic shift (guess he does his own stunts too) has to be the highlight here.

Ball Park Music – Whipping Boy

The story goes about like this: Jaymis Loveday introduced Aussie quintet Ball Park Music to Vive, Ball Park Music desired VR music video, Loveday helped BPM produce the first music video ever composed in Tilt Brush. In that way, “Whipping Boy” is the “Big Bang” of sorts for all the inevitable music videos we’re going to see produced in a VR art creation tool in 2017 and beyond. Fortunately for us, this piece doesn’t lean on gimmick. The animation isn’t just amazingly detailed (it is), it’s aligned with the spirit of the song, and the scope of what is achieved here is striking. So, if this happens to be the first interaction somebody has with Vive and/or Tilt Brush, well, that’s a mighty fine introduction.

Run the Jewels – Crown

If there’s one thing Run The Jewels know, it’s that there’s a time for fun and a time to talk about the real shit. “Crown” situates itself in the latter camp as a bildungsroman that addresses notions of wealth, fame, and existential purpose. In order to portray the complex scenarios referenced in Mike and El’s verses, the Wevr produced, Peter Martin-directed 360° video plays out impressions of these narrative vignettes in black-and-white—a choice that simultaneously strips away distraction while subtly commenting on the nuanced nature of these issues.

Tyler Hurd  – Old Friend (Song by Future Islands)

If you were paying attention to the VR world this spring, you knew this was coming. “Old Friend” wasn’t just heralded as the future of the music video, it was one of the most buzzed-about VR projects of any kind in 2016, and for good reason. Tyler Hurd’s re-imagination of Future Islands’s song is simultaneously a wild blast of unadulterated joy and a boundary-pushing piece that will inspire generations of artists creating immersive music projects. Building on the signature eccentric style we first witnessed in Hurd’s “BUTTS,” “Old Friend” is built, by design, so that there is a dollop of joy and dance in any possible direction you might look. Furthermore, created for Vive, this music video not only lets you explore the contours of the zany colorama in full roomscale, it turns your arms into wiggly noodles of dance-o-mania. One certainly doesn’t have to dance to enjoy this one, but it’s basically impossible to imagine a scenario where you could resist.

Icky Blossoms – Phantasmagoria

There’s something to be said for clarity of vision; this video feels exactly like the song. Part sci-fi trip, part low-poly abstraction, 2DArray has crafted a bonafide phantasmagoria of a video. We start off in a “normal” room, but that’s just to give us a moment to gather ourselves for the beautiful chaos to come. We’re quickly channeled into the bright, mind-bending overload of peering into a dark night of the soul—and left to float inside that spiraling, euphoric mess.

Bengfang – Never Ends

Speaking of phantasmagoric, Bengfang’s “Never Ends” showcases the Chicago producer’s future-forward vibes, and the result looks like something Kubrick might have made had he been on a cyberpunk binge while dropping designer hallucinogens. Atmosphere is king here, as the tight, minimal aesthetic lets viewers focus on individual moments and images that amass into a haunting aesthetic vision.

Cakes Da Killa – Been Dat Did That

Cakes Da Killa is one of the most metamodern figures in contemporary music, and a firebrand to boot. He’s an openly gay rapper who channels equal parts lust, rage, and classicism in a way that only he can—and the results speak for themselves. Mark Lovato and Gella Zefira’s video manages to do the complex artist justice, taking cues from old-school German cinema to craft a menacing blast of retrofuturism that lingers long after you watch it.

EDEN – drugs

Few music videos produced in any format this year executed as clear a vision as Director Stuart Cripps’s take on Eden’s ode to remorse. It’s a complementary vision that manages to internalize the song’s emotional core while expanding its scope in meaningful ways. By grounding the song in impressionistic vignettes, Cripps evokes the sensation of being inside the singer’s head as we play through memories and thoughts…though, “grounding” is inevitably the wrong word here. Produced by SAMO VR, this video offers a detailed abstract atmosphere from which illuminated points form and re-form into a host of shapes, ranging from recognizable human anatomy to that of the cityscape seen in the cover image. The result is something that graduates beyond caricatured interpretations of drugs, instead focusing on the toxic behaviors they serve as metaphor for (and can sometimes prompt in us)—especially directed at the ones we love.

MacInnes Scott – Grace

Sometimes you just have to tip the hat for beauty’s sake. “Grace” is stunning. MacInnes Scott’s minimal presentation of the eponymous cyborg belies the incredible amount of work required to create such an insanely photorealistic character—which even stands the test of close inspection in roomscale Vive. You see each little bit of the pathos her body wears (in line with the song), glowing red or blue in equal measure depending on emotional timbre.

Pearl – Google Spotlight Stories

Where “Pearl” differs from many mentions here is that it’s intended foremost as a narrative experience—but the song is the backbone of the story, and given how it drives the movement (couldn’t resist), it qualifies as a music experience as much as a narrative one. Few pieces of content in any medium could capture such a pure human story in such little space; we witness the trajectory of a father and daughter’s relationship over the course of her childhood into early adulthood, as depicted through the “lens” of a car. I don’t want to spoil the story, but I’ll say this much: be ready for a healthy tug on ye olde heartstrings.

Apex – Arjan van Meerten

Arjan van Meerten’s “Surge” music video, made available for free via the Rift DK2 in early 2015, has grown to become a legendary piece of VR content—it’s no exaggeration to say that “Surge” will live on as a source text in the lineage of VR music videos. Understandably, that casts a pretty long shadow on a sophomore outing. And while the video is not yet available to the public (a source on Reddit claims it will be out before the month’s end), what we’ve witnessed from the teaser and sample via the Proto Awards site seems to point toward the inevitability that Meerten will wow us again (maybe more?) with “Apex.” Like “Surge,” “Apex” renders in real-time (via Unreal Engine 4). It shares the same stark duotone, hard geometry, and beautiful grandiosity of “Surge,” and is also built around a song Meerten himself recorded. But working with Anthony Batt (Wevr), “Apex” moves away from the abstract toward the narrative, drawing inspiration from the demon parades of Japanese folklore. The story here involves a city destroyed by “a processional of towering creatures,” so expect a gorgeous, glorious depiction of destruction.

Of course, a list recapping music in VR in 2016 couldn’t be complete without big shoutouts to SoundStage (Logan Olson) and Soundscape (SNAKE Productions) and TheWaveVR (Adam Arrigo/Aaron Lemke/Finn Staber), each of which offered us the chance to engage with music (and multimedia audio) in ways never before imagined. While not properly “music videos,” these projects herald the unique possibilities of VR—a converging of forms and blending of notions of “artist” and “audience.” These are tools that won’t just change VR, they’ll change music.

What VR music projects rocked your world in 2016? What are you excited about for 2017? Let us know!

About the Scout

Jesse Damiani

Jesse Damiani is Editor-at-Large of VRScout and Deputy Director of Emerging Technology at Southern New Hampshire University. He's also Series Editor for Best American Experimental Writing (Wesleyan University Press) and the author of @endless$pectator: The Screens Suite #loliloquy (BlazeVOX, 2017). Other writing can be found on Adweek, Billboard, Forbes, Quartz, and The Verge.

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