The Top 25 K-pop music videos of 2015

What a year 2015 was. 2014 saw some of the biggest challenges K-pop has ever had to face leaving many of us wondering were there was to go from here but the industry soldiered on diving head first into creating the most consistently solid music releases there’s been in a long time. Accompanying all that music was some truly outstanding video work showcasing the vast visual talent working in Korea right now. As I attempted to compile this list it grew and grew starting at 10, quickly expanding to 20 before finally settling at 25. So here we are: a countdown of the 25 best videos of the past year spanning various genres from idol to rock, ballad and even EDM.

25. Seventeen – Adore U

Now this is how you make a boy band debut. Making that many people (particularly slightly awkward teenage boys) dancing at the same time look this good is quite the feat. The camerawork here is very clever. So clever in fact that you don’t notice it. If you watch a live performance, you can tell Seventeen are good performers but the staging often looks a little messy and crowded but the camera movements in the music video – particularly the low wide angles combined with smooth, gliding aerial shots – give the group a dynamism they don’t quite have live (at least yet). The quirky visuals during the verses also perform the essential role for idol survival of introducing the members individually and giving them character.

When director Dee Shin spoke to us about a year and a half ago, I remember her talking about how she wasn’t sure if she had the skills yet to direct a big dance number. Either she was being coy or somewhere along the line, she’s well and truly found them.

24. Smells and Reno – Nothing

It’s unusual to find an EDM video that makes the viewer question the futility of life (at least intentionally). Nothing ever goes well for the protagonist in this video and combined with the relentless pulsing synths and the repeating refrain of “That’s just how you are”, it could give the most self-assured person a bit of an identity crisis. In the best possible way.

23. Brown Eyed Girls – Warm Hole

Female sexuality in K-pop. Every year without fail it starts a thousand conversations about what it means, who controls it, who is pushing the boundaries in the right way, who is selling themselves out et cetera, et cetera. While I have started a number of discussions myself sometimes it gets, well, boring. Cue Brown Eyed Girls (who else?) then to blow away all that pretence with a hilariously upfront song full of innuendos matched with a similarly unsubtle video full of so many visual gags you might need to watch a few times to catch them all. Fire in the hole, indeed.

22. Patients – Bad Fingers

Matching the group’s irreverent, punky persona, this video is fun, silly and matches perfectly with the lyrics and sound of the song. One of the best Korean rock videos of 2015.

21. BIGBANG – WE LIKE 2 PARTY

These boys… they try awfully hard, don’t they? Way, way too hard in fact.

Like almost anyone who’s been into K-pop for a number of years, I’ve fallen in and out of love with Big Bang a number of times. All those big poppy hooks and great stage performances over the years make me always willing to give anything new a fair listen but G-Dragon’s tendency to, well, G-Dragon EVERYTHING makes me skeptical. That’s why this is the only of the many Big Bang videos released this year that I really liked. It’s fun to watch and breaks down the many walls of pretension certain members of this group have been working very hard to build.

20. Kim Bum-soo feat. Geeks and Lee Hee-sun – Home Meal

The subject matter of this song would lend itself so easily to the kind of twee, trite sentimentalism so prevalent in Korean media but the video manages to avoid it entirely. The glistening Hansik looks far too pretty to be real and as we find out later – it is. Instead of the ode to the fantasy meal cooked by the media’s favourite fairytale character, the perfect, selfless Korean mother (that’s not to denigrate real Korean mothers, it’s this stereotype that does that job), it explores the universal ways in which we all find comfort in food and each other.

19. Kiha and the Faces – New Year’s Luck

Lyric videos showcasing pretty fonts and camerawork and early 90s style fake lo-fi videos have both become trends in Korean indie music videos lately and for the most part they’ve been fairly bland. Cue everyone’s favourite indie maverick Jang Kiha to switch it up with an actually lo-fi lyric video which consists of him frantically scribbling the kind of absurd and yet profound lyrics his band is known for. It’s simple but it really works. And because no Kiha and the Faces video is complete without Mr. Jang himself giving one of his signature performances, he appears near the end to offer his alternative Seollal address dressed in full hanbok on the beach.

18. hyukoh – Gondry

“Yesterday/ Today/ And tomorrow also/ We are/ In this way/ Like this”

In the original Primary version of Gondry (which will appear later in this list) this middle eight section has a dreamlike quality reminiscent of the work of the director Michel Gondry from which it takes its name. It gives it a feeling of ethereal hope – something almost too good to ever exist. But here in hyukoh’s stripped back version, Ohhyuk’s melancholic vocals give the lines an air of lonely resignation. This is mirrored beautifully in the video where the deeper blues highlight visual contrast between the couple who appear separate and expressionless emphasising their emotional distance. His more frequent appearances in this version as the person watching, remembering, perhaps even grieving also help bring the dreamer’s optimism which bubbles under the surface of the original back down to the ground.

17. Xin Seha – Tomorrow is Everyday

The aesthetic here is perfect. It really matches the funky 80s electro vibe of the song and that underground gay bar look isn’t something you see very often in Korean… well, anything. Plus any video featuring the fabulous dance team Pinky Cheeks is worth a view. Even Cheetah’s underwhelming post-Unpretty Rapstar release My Number.

16. Stellar – Vibrato

When it comes to symbolism in music videos, I either like it so subtle it goes right over half the audience’s head or so glaringly, shamelessly obvious that even the least critical viewer couldn’t miss it. Vibrato definitely falls into the shameless category.

The entire video is dripping with “yonic” imagery, as more arty types than myself might put it. Vaginas. Lots and lots of metaphorical vaginas. But what really makes it work are voyeuristic elements with the shots of camera lenses and mirrors constantly reminding the viewer of their own watching and the group’s awareness of being watched. It’s an old trick but it works. I’m never quite sure if Stellar’s team are trying to make a statement or just make a scene but it’s entertaining to watch nonetheless.

And speaking of voyeurism…

15. Anda – Touch

This video got some criticism when it came out for its visual similarities to Fiona Apple’s Criminal. But while on a superficial level the videos are quite similar, in execution, they’re entirely different. Anda’s video is lacking the harder edges of Criminal (filmed in an era of “heroin chic” when emaciated bodies and self-destructive behaviours were de rigueur), it makes its own statement about the way we consume bodies here and now (intentionally or otherwise).

The repetitive camera tricks are reminiscent of the millions of gifs that litter social media sites and also pull the viewer out of the action – a constant reminder we’re just on the outside watching. The implied girl-on-girl action feels slightly subversive, unlike many other frankly cheap attempts to garner some controversy, and reframes the entire video. Much of it has to do with Anda’s arresting gaze which refuses to let you take her bodily agency away from her.

14. Red Velvet – Dumb Dumb

SM had a successful but slightly strange 2015. The old guard (i.e. Super Junior and Girls’ Generation) continued to release the same old same old (including the inexplicably popular cringefest Party) while the newer acts released some of the most interesting and sophisticated material the label has ever put out. EXO bridged the gap here with solid, modern but not unexpected releases.

As for Red Velvet, after an awkward start last year where they couldn’t quite catch their footing, an additional member and a rebranding as the rightful successors to SHINee and f(x) made it well and truly their year. Visually, Dumb Dumb is bold a bold statement of the group’s raison d’etre. It’s colourful, frenetic and playfully embraces while subtly mocking the criticism often laid at the feet of idol groups that they are factory-produced dancing clones.

13. PSY – Daddy

Equal parts disturbing and hilarious, PSY’s finally back with what we want from him. I’m not sure if anyone is actually meant to like this video per say when it’s so grotesque but that’s what we expect from PSY and the first time he’s been able to do something that feels original since Gangnam Style. This must be one of the biggest budget videos of the year with all the special effects but it pays off with something decidedly memorable.

Although doesn’t this sexualise children? Where’s the controversy?

12. BTS – I NEED U

It’s been a good year for the creative team LUMPENS who’ve made great videos for a number of K-pop biggest acts. One of their successes was this video for BTS which manages something which others have rarely pulled off – a great narrative-led idol drama music video. It works so well because the director lets the shots and the editing tell the story not resting that burden on the group members, none of whom are particularly experienced actors. They play to their strengths as talented physical performers while the video pulls it all together into a compelling story which never drops its momentum.

11. MFBTY -Bang Diggy Bang Bang

When I was a kid, I remember loving Lisa ‘Left Eye’ Lopes’ The Block Party despite it never really having been a massive hit and me only being about 8 at the time. The video and song had an energy that would make me dance around my living room whenever it came on one of my family’s recently acquired digital satellite TV’s dozen or so music channels.

Maybe it’s the similarly Indian-inspired beats or the dance sequences but I was instantly transported back to that childhood memory the first time I saw this video. There’s still something fresh and new about it, even with the 90s retro clothing, but it’s that childish glee and humour that flow through both the song and the video from the playful lyrics to the colour explosions that make Bang Diggy Bang Bang one of the most joy-inducing videos of the year.

10. SHINee – Married to the Music

Songwise, View was the indisputable SHINee hit of 2015 but it was Married To The Music that best captured the quirky aesthetic that the group excels in. With hints of Rocky Horror Show and The Little Shop of Horrors, the video is campy and hilarious while still leaving room for the precision and grace of one of their signature dance performances. 2015 was the year that proved you don’t have to be a hardcore fan to really enjoy SHINee.

9. Zion.T – Eat

This video could very easily come off a little creepy so the fact it doesn’t is impressive in itself. Maybe it’s Zion.T’s signature sunglasses obscuring his face but there’s an emotional distance between the two characters that stops it from feeling too stalkerish. The juxtaposition between the broken glasses and the broken phone screen is remarkably restrained and works to tell a sweet yet understated story.

8. Lizzy – Not An Easy Girl

Lizzy doing a trot song might not have been totally unexpected at the start of last year but pairing it with a video created from clips of Shin Sang-ok‘s 1961 film Seong Chun-hyang was a novel and inspired choice. The film is based on the pansori Chunhyangga which is one of Korea’s oldest surviving cultural relics. If you stop and think about the combination of a modern western-influenced idol singing  a Japanese colonialist-influenced music genre on a visual backdrop of one of Korea’s most famous film director’s interpretations of one of its oldest stories it raises all sorts of thoughts and questions far beyond the scope of this article. But even putting that aside, it stands well as an entertaining video in its own right with the modern lyrics bringing out the universalities of a centuries-old story.

7. BTS – DOPE

As much as I like a good drama video, idol performances really lend themselves to great dance videos. Unfortunately, these are surprisingly rare in K-pop with dance performances inevitably intersected with individual member close-ups looking cute and happy or moody and sexy or some underdeveloped storyline that never really goes anywhere. But DOPE does what more videos should do and puts BTS’ biggest strength – their dance performance – front and centre.

A casual viewer might be mistaken for thinking it’s all shot in one take but a closer inspection reveals a painstakingly crafted video created using multiple sets and green screens. It’s the masterfulness with which the video is pulled together which puts this head and tails above contender for the throne, EXO’s Call Me Baby, which is features a great performance which, sadly, the at-times random, jerky edits don’t do justice.

6. GOT7 – Just Right

There’s a childlike quality to a lot of GOT7’s choruses – the rhythms of which often hang on repeating vowel sounds much like children’s rhymes. The group, too, excel at quirky and youthful high energy dance performances and then there’s Jackson who has made a name for himself this year for his laid back joker personality. Just Right has a lot of potential for creepiness – a bunch of guys in their late teens and early twenties hanging out in a child’s room? – but the group’s enthusiasm and humour make it work. Most of all it’s a visual delight with, without doubt, the most intricate prop and set design of the year.

5. Crayon Pop – FM

This music video shamelessly rips off all your favourite childhood TV (presuming you, like me, are over the age of 20) all set to one of Shinsadong Tiger’s best novelty jams since before T-ara became the most hated pop group in Korea. Need I say more? Long may the glorious Crayon Queens reign.

4. Needle&Gem – Dawn

Given that both Needle&Gem and the production company that created this video are based in Canada, some might argue it shouldn’t be included in this list but Magic Strawberry Sound are a Korean label so it’s going in. With less than 6 thousand views at time of writing, this is the second least watched videos on the list proving that popularity doesn’t always equate to quality. Set in the depths of winter in the Canadian wilderness, this film explores adventure and imagination, bringing the viewer back to childhood. It’s sweet, touching and well worth your time – even if just for the little twist at the end which I won’t ruin.

And here we go, head and shoulders above the rest, the 3 best music videos of the year..

3. IU – 23

What a year it has been for IU. Accused of all kinds of things, she remains standing tall as one of the most popular artists of the year with a couple of great songs, some mediocre ones and one outstanding music video.

First things first, I like to think I’m a fairly reasonable person but if you genuinely have an issue with the Lolita imagery here, I do worry that you may be an idiot. If you insist otherwise, I suggest paying more attention in your English lessons if you are still in education or perhaps taking some evening classes in media studies, social sciences or something which will hopefully give you some basic critical thinking skills. Oh and never read Lolita (yes, it was originally a book not a clothing style), I can guarantee you won’t cope.

IU entered the music industry at the young age of 15 and quickly rose to the top as everybody’s favourite niece who no one ever felt any inappropriate feelings or desires towards. Since then she’s released some good music but a lot of it had a distinctly young, forbidden love Lolita-quality that everyone conveniently ignored.

Fast forward to 2015 and IU is finally given some creative space to express herself and a new, great music video director to work with. This leads to an exploration of IU’s position in the music industry, the impossible positions she’s often put in and the contradictions of being a young woman wanting to achieve and be given responsibility and yet not feeling ready for it.

For the video, IU is our Alice in a looking-glass world where nothing is quite as it seems and every seemingly “adult” thing has a childish twist. The visuals play off the contradictions in the lyrics playing constant games with the viewer’s perceptions. The biggest strength of this video is the way it utilises IU’s youthful appearance and “little sister” reputation to show she’s grown up rather than trying to abandon it for the “daring” yet dull sexy concept route. This ultimately culminates in, in my opinion, the best, single most evocative sequence in any music video this year (which also happens to be the most controversial).

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Yes, it’s that one.

 

2. Primary & Ohhyuk feat. Lim Kim – Gondry

I’m not sure what I can write about this that hasn’t been written already. Far and away the most beautiful video of the year, Gondry is captivating and thought-provoking in how it captures a thousand of life’s contradictions. Fantastical and mundane; vast and minuscule; hopeful and hopeless; trapped in a cold future while dreaming of a warm past. While it is heavily inspired by the dream sequences in namesake Michel Gondry’s renowned films such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, as I mentioned earlier, the video has its own identity and tells its own story. But more than that, the gaps and holes in the narrative give the viewer space to create their own interpretation refusing to prescribe a single correct emotion. Sometimes that’s the bravest kind of film making.

1. Gain – Paradise Lost

If you’ve been following Beyond Hallyu at all this year, you would know this was coming. As beautiful as Gondry is, it was never going to come out on top of a video that so thoroughly takes down a story at the heart of thousands of years of religious dogma which continue to shape how we see women and sex today. I’ve already written extensively about how the imagery in the video deconstructs and re-tells the story of Eve so I won’t do that again here but I hold firm to my assertion that it is “one of the most challenging and thought-provoking K-pop videos ever made.”

  • Peezy

    This was just a tiny mention in your article, but I gotta call you out on something here, because I’ve been seeing this a lot lately:

    “The old guard (i.e. Super Junior and Girls’ Generation) continued to release the same old same old”

    I can’t speak for Super Junior, but let’s focus on Girls’ Generation for a second.

    Within 2015, Girls’ Generation released four singles: “Catch Me If You Can,” a heavy dance/EDM track; “Party,” a dance pop song (which I’ll agree with you is pretty terrible, even as a fan of Girls’ Generation myself); “Lion Heart,” a retro, ’60s style pop song; and “You Think,” a more contemporary hip pop/R&B number. Look deeper into the Lion Heart album itself, and there’s a Samba/Bossa Nova track (“One Afternoon”), a retro ’70s show tune style throwback (“Show Girls”), and even New Jack Swing (“Check”).

    This is really quite stylistically diverse, as is Girls’ Generation’s catalog in general. If that kind of versatility counts as “same old same old,” then “same old same old” has never been more interesting.

    • Tara (Beyond Hallyu)

      Thanks for pointing that out, but ultimately it’s just a matter of opinion. For me, for example, there’s nothing new or innovative about GG’s music anymore in the way that songs like “Gee” and “Genie” were. The tracks you mentioned are , in my opinion, average for Girls’ Generation. Even the title tracks don’t stand out to me in a sea of similar releases.

  • keziarhh

    ..where the fuck is f(x) 4 Walls? And I actually think Let’s Not Fall In Love is a better video than We Like 2 Party.

  • bufallobiff

    I could name 10 videos off the top of my head better than Worm/Warm Hole and I’m a B.E.G. fan. I feel that they are on the cutting edge of K Pop but you’d never know it with that tune. I wished that they hadn’t comeback simultaneously with f(x) because Brave New World should have been the new Abracadabra. I think 4 Walls stole their thunder. B.E.G trippin’ at the speed of light……….awesome