The Best K-Pop Music Videos of 2021 (Part Two)
The best music videos released this year by K-pop artists! This is part of a series of 2021 wrap-up articles coming out over the next two weeks!
Note: Some of these music video reviews are excerpts from reviews published earlier in the year. For many more music video recommendations, listen to the corresponding episode of 17 Carat K-Pop!
#25: A.C.E, “Higher”: A.C.E immerse themselves in their music video characters more than ever before, kicking their musical storytelling up yet another notch. This comeback’s photoshoots and videos are full of underwater shots, princely attire, and celestial scenes, combined in ways that somehow bring a cohesive story to life. The SIREN:DAWN album intro, “Miserere Mei Deus,” alludes to a psalm about forgiveness, and the comeback introduction video includes the following quote: “It is during our darkest moments that we must focus to see the light.” These serve as a prelude to the “Higher” music video, which is also open to interpretation. By associating stunning, celestial, sparkly visuals with a concept as abstract as mercy, A.C.E intrigue for more reasons than one. They establish a tone and leave the specific conclusions to be drawn by the audience. In other words, they do not tell people how to interpret the messages hidden in the “Higher” music video, but they do provide some pointers for where to start. They set the scene and leave the decoding to fans. Because every fan can walk away from this release with a different take on it, this comeback manages to be personal while literally out of this world.
#24: KEY, “BAD LOVE”: KEY adds his own unique spin to the retro-futuristic aesthetics of SHINee’s “Don’t Call Me” comeback. He incorporates David Bowie-inspired visuals and a magical mirror into his intergalactic, over-the-top adventures. KEY leans into the theme of retro-futurism not just visually, but also in terms of its psychological underpinnings. Questioning what is real and what is still just surreal is part of the story, as the video ends with him watching television. Was he just watching himself on TV? How much of his performance on a nighttime talk show was a staged setting within a staged setting? These questions are particularly relevant when considering the talk show setting, which is also featured in SM Entertainment labelmate (and therefore SM Entertainment Cinematic Universe co-creator) BAEKHYUN’s “Get You Alone” music video. “BAD LOVE” is both quirkier and more complex than what meets the eye.
#23: TXT ft. Seori, “0X1=LOVESONG (I Know I Love You)”: The angst TXT sing about experiencing is given a visual component, but so are their feelings of relief and camaraderie. There are visual representations of loneliness and despair- a broken arm with “Loser” written on it (before, It-style, “Lover” is written on top of that), a wistful glance out a car window- but there are also visual representations of joy. The boys jump into a swimming pool, freestyle dance together, and go on a road trip. The most powerful, memorable moment in the video: when they seek a fresh start by putting their old clothes into one big pile and setting it on fire. When the lighter doesn’t work, Beomgyu throws it in frustration, and it promptly causes their car to burst into flames. This sight makes them laugh instead of cry, a moment packed with meaning. TXT realize they have been trying to escape their feelings and the consequences of acting on them, but the attempts to escape are bound to fail. They learn it is better to face their challenges head-on, using one another as sources of strength, than keep running from them. Fate intervenes to prevent them from destroying remnants of their past and to create a wild memory out of their day together instead. They learn they can find joy amidst chaos if they stick together. Of course, this is just one interpretation of what happens. The ambiguity is what keeps TXT’s storytelling via music videos so real.
#22: KANGDANIEL, “Antidote”: The impressiveness of this music video comes from the details. KANGDANIEL sings about feeling “surrounded… with sharp blades'' while surrounded by full-length mirrors that form a circle around him in a black-and-white setting. There are other scenes where KANGDANIEL looks claustrophobic as walls appear to be closing in on him. Later on, the only remaining mirror in the scene is a giant one that KANGDANIEL dances on top of, now outside on a sunny day. As KANGDANIEL sings about yearning to see a light at the end of the tunnel, the literal light enters the video, and he goes from visually demonstrating feelings of panic and isolation to a sense of relief below the endless sky. Furthermore, he goes from treating his reflection as cursed to paying it no mind. Other scenes, including ones where he is sprinting and ones where he is surrounded by scattered pieces of a crash dummy, can resonate with viewers going through their own mental distress and insecurities who can find comfort in seeing visual manifestations of those feelings.
#21: AKMU ft. Lee Sun Hee, “Hey kid, Close your eyes”: As a pop song, “Hey kid, Close your eyes” is unassuming, a reassurance to youths to not worry too much about what their futures look like. The music video tells a very different story, in a way that feels all the more stark thanks to it being in black and white and full of dramatic close-up shots. The video stars a group of children, armed to the teeth, who “play war” in their dreary, dystopian neighborhood. Neither AKMU member actually appears in the music video until the very end, when Lee Suhyun greets a little girl by handing her some work clothes. The little girl who visits Suhyun in her upside-down house (an interesting call back to the “NAKKA” music video) is seeking advice and consolation before returning to “the battlefield” of real life. But instead of having any helpful guidance, Suhyun just tells the girl to suit up and start off adulthood early. As kids witness destructive scene after destructive scene, rather than give them false hope that this shall pass, AKMU say “Once your ears stop ringing / There’s gonna be screaming.” By the time they sing “Why didn’t we realize we needed love rather than money,” the kids seem too mentally prepared for combat to entertain the notion of peace. This song and video are a stirring source of social commentary about how children’s concerns with the world in which they are growing up appear to not be prioritized.
#20: PIXY, “Bewitched”: Clad in all leather, PIXY perform a detailed, mesmerizing dance routine in scenes with flames and color-changing skies. If not left amazed by their remarkable choreography, the video has plenty of other intriguing details to hold the audience's interest. “Bewitched” is very much its own video, but it does borrow some themes from “Addicted,” and the ways the stories told in these songs intersect add even more intrigue to this release.
#19: JEON SOYEON, “BEAM BEAM”: In an impressive feat, SOYEON makes working at a fast-food restaurant look wildly entertaining! She sports a cute, trendy uniform, sings alongside burger mascots, and dances while she mops the floor. Yet she has fun with a sense of irony in it, singing “welcome to adult world” in a sarcastic way and revealing her boredom on the job in other music video scenes. Growing up is no party, but SOYEON decides to make it one, trying to bring fun wherever she goes.
#18: MONSTA X, “GAMBLER”: “GAMBLER” is jam-packed with action. After a kidnapping and other high-stakes criminal escapades, the music video characters resume the plot they set in motion in “Love Killa.” “GAMBLER” adds more thrills and chills to MONSTA X’s music video storyline and amps up the suspense for the next chapter. Plus, the video is full of Easter eggs long-time Monbebe will appreciate!
#17: Pink Fantasy, “Poison”: Pink Fantasy deliver both goth princess aesthetics and a dark, intense sound in their own unique ways. Impressive choreography makes the “Poison” music video a must-watch, not to mention the wardrobe. With looks including Cruella de Vil hair, glitter tears, and dark lipstick paired with a lavender dress, the members of Pink Fantasy are punk prom queens with a transfixing presence. As their more recent release, “Tales of the Unusual,” reaffirms, this group knows exactly how to utilize hair, makeup, outfits, and their facial expressions to amplify the theme of a dance routine.
#16: JEON SOMI, “XOXO”: “XOXO” grabs the momentum from the “DUMB DUMB” music video and holds onto it, serving as both that music video’s sequel and a prequel for a yet-to-be-released chapter. “DUMB DUMB” shows SOMI feeling lucky in love, recreating some classic high school movie romance scenes, such as literally running into her crush so he can pick up the books that fall out of her arms. In “XOXO,” those lovesick days are over, as SOMI learns this love of hers cheated on her. She gets revenge in some very extreme ways, making this video both representative of the emotional roller coaster love can put someone through and a way to live vicariously through the antics of a scorned lover!
#15: PURPLE KISS, “Ponzona”: The “Ponzona” music video captivates with vampiric personas, allusions to dark magic, and a visual feast. While this video may draw comparisons to other K-pop girl groups who have a goth-adjacent aesthetic, this group manages to pull off the concept in their own unique way. They lay the groundwork for larger music video world-building with a host of symbolic details, from intricately designed crowns and masks to a room circled by a devilish figure. The group’s choreography also deserves attention, especially during the bridge’s intricate dance break. PURPLE KISS use “Ponzona” to both show off their multitude of strong suits and hint at so much more to come from them.
#14: TWICE, “SCIENTIST”: TWICE take viewers to an immensely cute, pastel world as they remind listeners to stop overthinking love, treating it like some sort of equation they need to spend hours solving. The members play around in a science lab and at times cause chaos in it, but they do so in such an adorable way that they ought to be instantly forgiven! Just as their adventures seem like they cannot possibly get any cuter, the girls join hands and play “Ring Around the Rosie” on a platform in the clouds. “SCIENTIST” is a classic TWICE video that is as eye-popping as it is adorable.
#13: ENHYPEN, “Drunk-Dazed”: “Drunk-Dazed” is another example of ENHYPEN’s highly specific aesthetic. It combines Gatsby-esque, Shakespearian, vampire-inspired, and regal influences to form a unique visual narrative. The video is partly a horror movie and partly a drama, as the members attend a “bloody” party that eventually becomes literally bloody. The dizzying mix of sights and sounds ENHYPEN sing about experiencing on “Drunk-Dazed” is visually demonstrated in this video, as the members undergo kaleidoscopic hallucinations.
#12: KIMSEJEONG ft. ILLBOI, “Warning”: A playful piano soundtracks KIMSEJEONG’s adventures in a pastel home in the clouds, where she reminds herself to focus on living in the moment and to not let false alarms in her head take chances to form happy memories away from her. Ignoring false alarms in one's anxious mind is much easier said than done, but she goes to extreme lengths to do so, even staging an intervention with herself via clones! The song shares an eternally relevant piece of advice about not overthinking things and puts that advice into action in the kind of unrealistic and whimsical ways for which music videos allow.
#11: LeeHi ft. B.I, “Savior”: LeeHi experiences flashbacks to times when her nose started bleeding and she was left crying and alone. But in the present day, her “savior” comes to the rescue. The story takes viewers on an emotional ride, as collaborator B.I goes from trying and failing to save the day to saving it by making his own circumstance bad like LeeHi’s. The two weather the storm together and end their adventure on a sweet and satisfying note. The ultimate realization: B.I was likely never the knight in shining armor LeeHi remembers him as being. However LeeHi realizes she likes this flawed, authentic B.I more than any perfect “savior” image of him she once held.
#10: BAEKHYUN, “Get You Alone”: (Yes, a Japanese release from a K-pop artist counts on this list, especially considering how adorable this one is!) In “Get You Alone,” BAEKHYUN plays two roles at once: a confident talk show host and a timid, nervous viewer who calls into the show seeking dating advice. “Nerdy” BAEKHYUN tries to imitate Talk Show BAEKHYUN’s flirting tips, to hilarious results. By the end, it is as if “Nerdy” BAEKHYUN and Talk Show BAEKHYUN are one and the same, as the former dresses as suave as the latter. The video is delightfully ironic, because as BAEKHYUN tries to change himself to impress crushes, he also becomes more and more like himself!
#9: SEVENTEEN, “Ready to love”: As addressed in previous “Seventeen Talk” episodes, SEVENTEEN have left nods to their previous music videos in all of their 2021 releases. However, audiences can enjoy watching “Ready to love” regardless of how much they pick up on Easter eggs. Some symbols do not take much deciphering to understand, such as the fact the members sing about becoming more mature while near a school bus and playground equipment. “Ready to love” is also just exceptionally pretty! Pastel shades abound, from the pink and green telephone booths to flower bouquets to balloon displays. This video is as exciting as it is aesthetically pleasing.
#8: D.O, “Rose”: While I try to keep my music reviews relatively objective, I must admit this music video is an essential on this list for very personal reasons. In an unexpected way, I see myself in the “Rose” music video. D.O rides his bike through a neighborhood, headphones on, while he thinks about a crush and sees 2D images pop into the 4D world. As an autistic person who is easily and frequently overwhelmed by the external world, my music and headphones are what I turn to as I retreat into my inner world. Spending so much time in my inner world has led to it becoming a vivid and detailed place, one that practically comes to life when I tune into my music. Colors and brightness are added into my life when I listen to music, and although the message in D.O’s video is about a crush being the source of life feeling fuller, rather than music, room to see my story in another one is what music videos are all about. D.O’s story and my own are about the same thing at the end of the day: feelings of hope and joy that make life much more interesting and beautiful.
#7: Dreamcatcher, “BEcause”: Dreamcatcher explore dark magic in an alternate reality. Their cinematic Wonderland includes an old castle, an abandoned amusement park, and a seemingly cursed hotel lobby. The most noteworthy occurrences in “BEcause” are the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it ones, the moments that subtly remind viewers everything is not what it seems. For example, one member walks by a cracked mirror that shows a different member’s reflection in it instead of her own. Visually captivating and narratively intriguing, Dreamcatcher’s haunted tales remain must-watches.
#6: BTS, “Permission to Dance”: BTS often comment on the purpose of their work as musicians: they view it not as a mere possibility, but an obligation, to use their music to help others. Whether that is through offering messages of solace or just giving fans a reason to smile, BTS ensure each song of theirs is a step towards their goal of making life better for their listeners. “Permission to Dance” is a perfect continuation of this mission. During this period of both relief and renewed fears surrounding the state of the pandemic, BTS want fans to know they do not need to wait for a certain “right moment” to start feeling happy again. BTS permit fans to have a moment of joy right here, right now, regardless of what is going on in the world. There is something truly groundbreaking about reminding people to stop and find pockets of joy amidst the chaos, and BTS are continuously producing more of those pockets of joy in fans’ days through their songs and videos. “Permission to Dance,” like BTS singles before it, is not so much a happy pill as it is a permission slip people have not realized they psychologically need. The positive ripple effect of BTS’s music is on full display, as people from all walks of life can now recreate the music video scenes of people in similarly diverse circumstances taking a moment to dance away their worries.
#5: SEVENTEEN, “Rock with you”: “Rock with you” is full of nods to previous SEVENTEEN music videos. The opening image on the screen of the video’s teaser says “Boyhood,” which summarizes the theme of their debut album. Previous settings also make a reappearance: there are rooftop scenes like in “Oh My!,” a parking garage similar to the setting in “Happy Ending,” and music-making equipment surrounding Woozi like in “BOOMBOOM.” The signs saying “Attacca” bring the street signs from “Left & Right” to mind, and the pillars on which images of bright blue skies are projected bring to mind the pillars the members stand on in “Hit.” Whether intentional or unintentional, the memories invoked in “Rock with you” make this video even more of a treat than long-time fans expected.
All potential Easter eggs aside, the video is an attention-consuming one that exudes contagious joy. Watching “Rock with you” leaves viewers tapping their feet, pressing “Replay,” and tuning out the world. The song carries the hallmarks of SEVENTEEN title tracks: layered instrumentals that seamlessly blend into one memorable, elaborate sound, lyrics open to interpretation, and an unmatched energy level. This energy is clearest during dance sequences, when the members once again excel at their synchronization.
#4: BTS, “00:00 (Zero O’Clock)”: This might be considered an unofficial BTS music video, since it is an advertisement of sorts for BTS’s “TinyTAN” characters. However, this Pixar short film of a video deserves a nod regardless of how “technically” it counts as an official music video release! “00:00 (Zero O’Clock)” reminds listeners that if things don’t go well one day, there is always a chance to start anew when the clock “resets.” The TinyTAN team take the nervous main character on a magical journey, helping her ride a flying whale to a piano performance, which she nails. After the girl’s confidence is boosted and her mood is immensely improved, TinyTAN feel like their work is done. The clock turns to “00:00,” and the members retreat back into their miniature world behind the purple doors. This video is a very sweet way to stress how BTS view their role in fans’ lives as the chance to provide them comfort and strength, and the video’s premise can easily be seen as that of a full-length movie someday.
#3: TXT, “Frost”: TXT’s exceptional and visually arresting world-building continues, as the members trek through one cinematic location after another. The members go on a mission to retrieve a book (presumably with magic spells in it, to break the curse that has caused their world to freeze over) from a sinister character and re-enter “the real world” before the portal to the parallel one closes, trapping them behind it. Suspenseful plot aside, “Frost” is a must-watch for those with an appreciation for cinematography. Close-ups reveal things are not what they seem, such as a cloud of butterflies forming what at first appears to be a flower. The artful camerawork combines with TXT’s distinguishable narrative to make a can’t-miss video.
#2: HOSHI, “Spider”: As discussed on a previous podcast episode, HOSHI uses getting tangled in a spider’s web as a metaphor for a messy relationship, an analogy as original as the song itself. In addition to the unique message, “Spider” is a captivating single and music video thanks to HOSHI’s whispery voice and intricate choreography. He delivers a flexible, captivating performance that involves bars, strings, and paint. He uses various mediums to express his unconventional choice of symbolism. Additionally, a later scene impresses with a synchronized bar routine alongside other dancers. Overall, words do not do justice to the remarkable performance delivered in this video.
#1: NCT 127, “Favorite (Vampire)”: “Favorite (Vampire)” is a feast for the eyes, with the chance to take a cinematic screenshot occurring every second. In one scene, white butterflies swarm around the top of a gray cliff, against the backdrop of a dreary sky. These butterflies are replaced with red flower petals that rain down, just one of many pops of color added to dark scenes. Other scenes feature different skies, one dark and starry and another a beautiful blue-green. During an outdoor dance scene, the “brand new day” feeling of a sunrise comes alive with the blooming of red flowers lining the members’ stage. Interesting plot aside, the music video’s aesthetics are reason enough to watch!
Split-second clips interspersed between longer scenes show close-ups of brooding eyes and fangs. These moments, plus scenes with shards of glass covering the ground and other unnerving details, constantly remind viewers of the darkness underneath the polished, princely looks and otherwise picturesque settings. The dashes of horror are not gory enough to frighten anyone, allowing this video to stay mesmerizing to all audiences. This music video is as darkly alluring as it is visually stunning.
To hear about honorable mentions, more thoughts on these releases, and what my selection process was like, listen to the corresponding episode of 17 Carat K-Pop, and subscribe to this newsletter for some more pieces on the way!
Read Part One below!