Given up on MTV and its deja vu parade of look-alike videos? You’re not alone. The cable channel’s ratings have fallen lately. But in the last few weeks, MTV has instituted two programs, “The New Video Hour” and “120 Minutes,” that seem designed to pull back viewers and to answer complaints from record companies about lack of air-time for lesser-known acts.

The better show is “120 Minutes,” which concentrates on videos by new and/or relatively uncommercial artists. On the debut edition were four videos (they head the list below) showing that the form still has some fresh kick.

Videos are rated on a 0-100 scale.



The Cure’s “Close to Me.” Ah, a beautiful English countryside. But before you can really enjoy it, doors close you into the dark. You’re in an old-fashioned wardrobe that stands on the edge of a seaside cliff. With you in there, where dim sunlight streams through the cracks, are crammed the members of the Cure, who don’t seem all that bothered by the claustrophobic situation. They’re just annoyed--as the singer ducks under a clothes rack and the keyboard player tries to keep a tie out of his face while plunking away on a miniature piano.

What we have here is as close to perfection as we’ve seen in the young art of music video. “Close to Me” is simple and compact, yet also absurd, allegorical, imaginative, strangely humorous, non-literal in its interpretation of the song and yet related to it in a witty way--a video that sets up a tremendous challenge for itself and succeeds brilliantly.

Just as amazing as the concept is singer Robert Smith’s performance. Befuddled or angry one moment, then blissfully adapting, he shows that you don’t have to be prancing around on a stage to be expressive or intriguing. The Cure just keeps getting better all the time, and Tim Pope’s several excellent videos for the group help record how distinctive they’ve become. 100



10,000 Maniacs’ “Scorpio Rising.” One reason we see so many video cliches--the same tired props, sets and effects--is that usually anything is better than just watching some act perform for four minutes. Not enough of today’s performers are dynamic or expressive enough to pull it off. Stand back for an exception: Natalie Merchant, singer for this Jamestown, N.Y., outfit. There are a few subtle conceptual touches but, for the most part, there’s just Natalie and her band. Just? The group plays with the pulsating tune with energetic force, Merchant’s singing is trance-like yet intense, and her whirling-dervish dancing is one of the most striking new sights in rock. Director: Tal Yarden. 90

PiL’s “Rise.” Is John Lydon softening up? His group’s new album is the most musical thing he’s ever done, but he hasn’t lost his old bite. Lydon’s very special presence is captured here better than ever in a video, because he isn’t just thrashing about trying to do an anti-video. Instead, he juxtaposes himself against an elegantly filmed, mysterious setting: a courtyard with itinerant musicians, women beating rugs to the rhythm of the song and hanging up rows of great white sheets (terrific image) as an incessant wind blows up dust and leaves. The video also has a quick-cut, crude, underground-type sequence. Like the album, this unpredictable clip memorably blends the smooth and the spiky. Director: Peter Care (who directed Cabaret Voltaire’s videos). 90

Clannad’s “In a Lifetime.” This Irish folk-rock band has been given a huge boost by U2--that’s Clannad on the sound track during the opening and closing of U2’s “Live at Red Rocks” tape, and that’s Bono dueting with Clannad singer Maire Brennan on this lovely song. The video opens with a haunting time-lapse shot of black clouds scurrying over a rocky shore, trailing shadows on the waves. Bono, Maire and some old and young people appear and disappear like ghosts in this rainy landscape. Somber and beautiful. Director: Meirt Avis. 90

The Rolling Stones’ “Harlem Shuffle.” Ralph Bakshi, known for animated features like “Fritz the Cat,” directs his first music video and does a nice job of rubbing some moss off the Stones. The wildly exaggerated cats in the animated sequences seem a homage to Warner Bros.’ wizard of mayhem, Tex Avery, and Mick Jagger struts his stuff in a colorfully Expressionistic nightclub. Like the Steve Lillywhite-produced R&B; song, this video isn’t great but it’s more enjoyable than anything the group has done in quite a while. 65

Animotion’s “I Engineer.” The L.A. group has slicked up its look a bit since the “Obsession” howler, but it’s still mighty geeky. The focus, however, is on a spooky, half-ruined English manor and some distinctive tilting camera work that moves through the place in the style of “The Shining.” In addition, this Bernie Taupin-Holly Knight song easily outclasses everything else on Animotion’s new album. Director: Nick Morris. 50

Prince’s “Kiss.” The Solid Gold Dancers never did a thing for me, and neither does Prince here as he bumps and grinds and wiggles and rubs his bare chest and gyrates across a red-lit stage with a woman who wears a long black veil and little else. In the cutest and best shots, Prince flirts with guitarist Wendy Melvoin, the only band member seen here. Otherwise, he’s off prancing around, looking more like a twerp than a terpsichorean. “Kiss” is slightly interesting for not obviously plugging the new Prince movie from which the song comes, and for its place in the Further Adventures of His Royal Weirdness. But not for much else. Director: Rebecca Blake. 30

John Taylor’s “I Do What I Do.” Videos are basically commercials, and this one’s doubly so--hyping both artist (this is his first solo effort outside Duran Duran and Power Station) and a movie (“9 1/2 Weeks”). It’s also a crock of unintended chuckles. Moviegoers in a small theater are getting all hot and bothered by what’s happening on screen. From the film excerpts we see, one wonders why they aren’t wisecracking or snoozing instead. In the small, excited crowd (these people should get out more often) are Taylor and a woman he has his eye on. Finally, this woman does the only sensible thing in the video--she leaves the theater. Taylor follows. That’s it. Now, I’ve heard that this guy is the only member of Duran Duran who hasn’t gotten married yet, but he can’t be this hard up, can he? Directors: Taylor, Tony Mitchell, Joe Bilella. 5