Another year, another thousand K-Pop videos for Western viewers to sift through and oggle at. I’d like to apologize in advance if your fav isn’t on this (totally subjective and probably arbitrary) list, but check out this playlist with other songs and videos I liked this year including some excellent album tracks (I restricted this list to singles with videos). So join me as I ponder the hegemonic imperative of aesthetic reinvention, how K-Pop idols manage to look so damn good in granny panties, and much much more! – Joshua Palmer
This interpolated P-Funk gem just bleeds summer joy and is only one of many delights to be found on Primary’s excellent, full-length 2. However, the video is really what shines here; it nails that restless anxiety of calling in sick to work only to sit in front of the TV and spend the day flipping between Jeopardy! and HSN. Primary is one of the few Korean K-Pop producers with a public profile, which grew particularly after his chart topping collaboration with Suran, “Mannequin.” He’s got more than a little in common with someone like Mark Ronson–one foot in an underground hip-hop scene, the other in the pop sphere. He’s got a taste for odd voices like those of Suran, Lim Kim, and Lena Park featured here; hopefully his resentment of the homogeneity the industry breeds will give us more oddball numbers like “Don’t Be Shy,” “Just Like You,” and “Island.”
While on vacation, I bombarded my family with K-Pop videos whenever there was a lull in activity. Though my sister was pretty into it, most of the videos elicited little more than a raised eyebrow from my parents. For example, after we watched “Crazy,” my dad said: “Drop those girls in the middle of Compton and see how they fare.” When my dad, the boomiest of Baby Boomers, is irked by cultural appropriation, you know something exploitative is probably taking place. But while it’s obvious that 4minute are reveling in this scatterbrained hip-hop aesthetic without courting the dangers that are typically attendant, there’s no denying that these ladies are coming at it with all they’ve got. Well, Hyuna comes at it the hardest and she has enough swagger to compensate for everyone around her. At first glance, the song seems to be just another EDM rager, but as it approaches the drop the kick drum fails to subdivide evenly, instead it sputters wildly until we hear glass shatter–a perfectionist’s approach to chaos.
Verbal Jint and Sanchez ft. Bumkey- “Doin’ It”
I wasn’t particularly impressed with much K-Hip-Hop released by men this year–too much flexing, not enough pastel. However, this song piqued my interest because it’s about a woman who uses a whiny asshole for his body (“She doesn’t even like hip-hop…She only likes me when we doin’ it.”) But I kept coming back to it because of that intoxicating groove. Come for the misandry, stay for the siq beatz.
Brown Eyed Girls- “Brave New World”
Honestly I’m such a Gain stan at this point (she’s the one with the pixie cut) I will watch and love anything she touches–like this absolute train-wreck of a video she features on (like plz it is not 2009 anymore) or BEG’s objectively garbage video for “Warm Hole” (the conceit of which appears to be “vaginas are lulzy”). Unlike those videos “Brave New World” is actually amazing. A lot of K-Pop’s musical language these days has at least something to do with Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall, but this track is so on the nose it’ll have you trawling the credits for Quincy Jones’ name. What keeps it from being mere homage are the ways it trips itself up–the bursts of distorted shouts, the totally unjustifiable key-changes, er, the rapping. Also Miryo is singlehandedly redefining what it means to slay. That lip ring, that crucifix earring, her jacket, her hair. Like, fuck. Also how have K-Pop idols managed to make granny panties fashionable? And how do I become one of those twinks dancing around Gain in granny panties? Anyone with answers, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
While constant aesthetic reinvention is the name of the game in K-Pop, SHINee has been such a teeny-bopper mainstay for so long (seven years! a veritable eternity in the industry) that the shift in style for their fourth full-length, Odd, had some worried–including SHINee. Member Minho told the entertainment mag The Celebrity that “I’m half-worried, half-excited. As much as the new album is a new effort, I want to hear people say that it’s good and suits SHINee’s [image].” Of course “View,” the lead and only single from Odd, is different inasmuch as it is perfect. This crystalline house-pop number sports songwriting credits from production duo LDN Noise who also scored hits in 2015 with Red Velvet’s “Dumb Dumb” and f(x)’s “Four Walls.” The video doesn’t come close to approaching the song’s magic and is likely the reason their label double-backed, releasing a new song/video unrelated to Odd. The “View” video has the boys getting kidnapped by foreign girls, drinking in a basement, smashing bottles, and getting into a fist fight (gasp!). Honestly, the bad boy look fits poorly on SHINee and their charmingly awkward choreography looks just plain stupid when they’re trying to be edgy. Odd was clumsily repackaged around the new Halloween-themed “Married to the Music”— a decent if mediocre track and video. Still, “View” will likely stand as the group’s crowning achievement.
CL- “Hello Bitches”
I’m gonna pretend that that god awful Diplo/Riff-Raff/OG Maco collab CL did earlier this year never happened. As hilarious as that fluke was, if Scooter Braun, CL’s manager, really wants her to break in the US “Hello Bitches” should’ve been her first salvo at the American market. The rough-and-tumble cinematography is a welcome respite from the art-fucked perfectionism that is currently in vogue and the video is likely to inspire enough #squadgoals gifs to keep tumblr sated until at least the next CL video. “Hello Bitches” is probably the least subtle song on this list but it’s hard to hear any criticisms when all I can hear is “NA NA NA NA NA, NAAA NAAA NA NA NAHHHH!”
Mamamoo ft. eSNA- “AHH OOP!”
After beginning their career with a strict ‘60s Motown aesthetic, Mamamoo managed to avoid pigeonholing themselves with the superb Pink Fury. “AHH OOP!” extends that ‘60s aesthetic with bright, bold pastels and simulated fashion spreads, but adds a smoky R&B guitar lick and the zero-fucks-given vocal feature of eSNa to make one of the most seductively appealing singles of the year.
Red Velvet- “Ice Cream Cake”
This is my go to video for whenever I want to show someone K-Pop for the first time as it embodies pretty much everything I love about the genre. A video composed of rich, tactile imagery that doesn’t seem interested in signifying much at all paired with an absolutely batshit song. That gleeful, saccharine hook, the glitched out bro-step, that out-of-left-field key change into the chorus–”Ice Cream Cake” is a case study in how gratifying unpredictability can be. Also if anyone knows where I can get one of those furry, light-up jackets, please email me at email@example.com.
Minah- “I Am a Woman too”
It’s hard to express why I love this song so much. It’s far from the best track this year and Minah’s voice is a little too thin to be called spectacular, but I think what makes the video is how impossibly sad Minah looks as she dances around that bombed-out, burned-out apartment. Whenever I get to the part where she bursts into those “I LOVE YOU, LOVE YOU, LOVE YOU”s I inevitably start choking up. Also granny panties–HOW DO THEY LOOK SO GOOD IN GRANNY PANTIES.
Kisum ft. Jooyoung- “You and Me”
Kisum has swagger but she never flexes. Kisum is adorable but never submissive. Kisum is effortlessly seductive, Kisum exudes utter power, Kisum is perfect, Kisum is life. She’s made clear that the only reason she wanted to work with Jooyoung is because he’s hot and has a nice voice. And yes he is hot and he does have a great voice, but I love that she acts like she could take him or leave him throughout the video. Also that warbly vocal sample (“Do you wanna take his heart?”) still gives me shivers after the hundredth listen.
Gain- “Paradise Lost”
I’ve already written about this song here so I won’t go long. I’ll just say that if you haven’t had the pleasure of watching a Gain video, start here, then go here, then maybe here, then go here (that last one is about domestic abuse so fair warning). If you are still not a Gain stan after all that tbh you are hopeless and a heathen and I fear for your eternal soul.
Neon Bunny- “Romance in Seoul”
In his book, K-Pop: Popular Music, Cultural Amnesia, and Economic Innovation in South Korea, John Lie asks the question, “What does K-Pop say about South Korea?” His answer is obviously kind of complicated, but it more or less amounts to a ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Hallyu culture is as much an entertainment genre as it is a pawn in a soft-power political game where the goal is to refashion Korea’s image as a nation of both industrial and cultural innovation. This refashioned image is projected outward to the world, especially to Southeast Asia, but is reflected inward as well. And that refashioning requires what Lie calls “cultural amnesia” in which the country’s youngest generation has a hard time imagining a Korea before Winter Sonata, before Samsung, before Hyundai, before the war, before Japanese occupation–before K-Pop. Since its birth in 1992, K-Pop has mostly held tight to this narrative by importing and transforming styles and sounds without so much as a glance toward the past, but there are always anomalies. Last year’s “Sogyeokdong” by Seo Taiji, the undisputed progenitor of what we know of as K-Pop, and IU is an excellent example. Following in Seo Taiji’s footsteps, bedroom-pop auteur Neon Bunny (AKA Kim Yu-jin) steps into this tradition as well with “Romance in Seoul.” From the slow-as-molasses, totally undanceable beat to the crushed-velvet arrangement, this song has virtually nothing to do with the sound of contemporary K-Pop. The warped gayageum reinterprets the sounds of Korea’s past while handclaps disintegrate into the ether. Much like Ella Fitzgerald’s “Manhattan”–the song Yu-jin cites as inspiration–the singer of “Romance in Seoul” seeks contentment within her hometown rather than abroad: “Pass the gray buildings, and beyond the shimmering Han river / wait for me until the sunset dyes red,” she coos, “Even if this isn’t Tokyo so close-by / Even if this isn’t fancy London / Even if this isn’t New York with it’s tall buildings / I love the Seoul sky that we met under.”
SM made quite an effort this year to position themselves as art house innovators, but to varying degrees of success. There were those clumsy white mattes plastered on EXO and SHINee’s videos, the grainy filters, the elaborate promotional campaigns, but only f(x)’s “Four Walls” managed to successfully navigate its avant signifiers–a feat accomplished with an aggressive “less is more” ethos. There’s something discomfitingly bland about this video from the filter to the off-white walls they live in yet manage to escape through a fantastical trip to the Jejudo woods. But there’s a real sense of danger when that domesticity is threatened–a broken tea cup, a bloody sock–and East Asian tetraphobia extends beyond the walls that circumscribe the group to the fact that many felt the inauspicious loss of member Sulli last year (reducing them to a four-piece) would doom f(x) to early retirement. And yet our ladies remain triumphant. This LDN Noise produced track may not be as robust or extroverted as “View,” but it comes out on top for its subtlety and that gorgeous bridge that comes out of nowhere. Amber has never been a great rapper–her flow is stilted and her delivery typically falls strictly on the beat if not in forced triplets–but she brings a real weightiness and edge to her verses and it sounds fantastic. Also she deserves some kind of award for achieving peak androgyny in this video. Also I ship her and that horse so hard. Also her pants.
Lim Kim- “Awoo”
While “Ice Cream Cake” is stunning in its ability to string together bizarre imagery to no particular end, “Awoo” is thrilling in the way it uses odd imagery to achieve aesthetic cohesion. Most fascinating though is how Lim Kim moves through so many different roles in this video. She toys with and is toyed with; she is a provocateur but also the object of provocation. She seems both empowered and frustrated by her own vanity and love of the chase. This collab between Primary and Suran was actually inspired by an accident. Primary sent an email to Lim Kim’s label head with the wrong song attached (a track from his solo album called “Goldfinger”). But the exec liked it so much he demanded they write something similar for Lim Kim. Lucky for her, “Awoo” is clearly the superior song; it’s almost comical how much better it is than its progenitor. There’s something mystical about the combination of that Casio hook and Lim Kim’s deliberately paced, speak-sing delivery. Also that part where she knocks the vase off the armoire is just #me for days.
Red Velvet- “Automatic”
The video for “Automatic” was released the day before the video for “Ice Cream Cake” and the ensuing furor over that video’s dazzling concession to prevailing tastes effectively drowned out the year’s most gorgeous oddity. “Automatic” is the crown jewel among about four songs that represent what fans have dubbed the group’s “velvet side” (the other songs being “Something Kinda Crazy,” “Take It Slow,” and “Be Natural”). Where the group’s “red side” (“Happiness,” “Ice Cream Cake,” “Dumb Dumb”) epitomizes their most youthful, ebullient tendencies, their “velvet side” shows us a mature and sexy Red Velvet. The “velvet” sound exists at the midpoint between Off the Wall’s tight rhythmic logic and Sade’s luxurious, Quiet Storm sophisti-pop. But “Automatic” stands apart in its ineffable melancholy, which translates to the video as well. I’ve always believed that Joy perpetually looks as though she’s just killed a guy, but there’s something conspiratorial about the languid cynicism that haunts each member in the video. They look like they’ve just lost some high-stakes, surrealist game of Clue. I’m not even going to attempt to unpack the peculiar dream-logic by which the video operates save to say that it is captivating and beautiful and has kept me coming back more than any other video this year. Red Velvet’s “red side” has proved significantly more popular than the “velvet”; the “Ice Cream Cake” video has racked up about five times as many views as “Automatic” (30.5 million compared to 6.5 million as of this writing) and their impressive full-length debut was titled The Red. For once, I’m worried that the hegemony of constant aesthetic reinvention in K-Pop might actually be a destructive force–or at least neglectful one. Or maybe to ask for more velvety goodness would be too much. Maybe the scarcity of this particular sound and style within the K-pop landscape is what makes it so special. But I’m still hoping their next album is title The Velvet.