May gives March a challenge as the best month for music videos we’ve seen this year. Our top 10 goes to all the way up to 12 today. It’s a particularly strong month for Korean artists and directors both in and out of K-pop, and for Black artists in the UK. I think any of the top four videos could have potentially won certain other months outright.
There are a few videos with potential epilepsy triggers – these are numbers 12, 11, and 1, and I’ve attached a CW to each. I’m being overly careful with these, since channels still aren’t consistent about being aware of and posting this information themselves.
In addition, the #2 video and its write-up discuss suicide and suicidal ideation. A CW prefaces this as a reminder if you feel more comfortable skipping it.
This month’s music videos were selected by S.C. Himura, Cleopatra Parnell, Vanessa Tottle, and Gabriel Valdez.
CW: potential epilepsy trigger
12. Mirror – Sigrid
directed by Femke Huurdeman
This works so well because of its frame story. The entire video existing as a reassuring internal monologue hits pretty hard. I think most of us have had an experience where we needed to pull into an empty parking lot or the side of the road and assess some shit. The part that hits hardest is that it becomes evening as she does this – you can lose track of time when you really need to think about yourself. The moment where she sees herself wink in the rear-view mirror pins down a feeling and reassurance we’ve all needed from ourselves at some point.
The music video inside that frame story needs to be strong to make this work. It’s creative and feels very DIY-with-a-budget.
If you haven’t heard of Sigrid, she’s a major Norwegian pop star.
CW: potential epilepsy trigger
11. Advice – Taemin
“Advice” hits a lot of K-Pop dance video tropes, but the choreo here is on point as hell. Taemin is also a member of SHINee (whose “Don’t Call Me” placed in our February countdown). Taemin and SHINee share some of the best choreo and dancing in the industry.
About five years ago, I hated K-pop’s overuse of motion-tracking within shots, but since then they’ve turned it into a science. “Advice” uses those sudden camera shifts and tilts that are added in editing to perfectly accentuate the hit on certain beats and moves. It adds to the choreography here.
“Advice” is also notable for K-pop fans because this is Taemin’s last music video before the 27 year-old’s enlistment in the South Korean military. South Korea has mandatory conscription for men between the ages of 18 and 28. They’re required to serve between 18 and 21 months depending on service branch. That means it might be a while before Taemin records again, on his own or with SHINee.
10. Woman – Little Simz ft. Cleo Sol
directed by Little Simz
A lot of her rap has concerned how Black people – and particularly Black women – are defined in Britain. She often takes hold of those definitions to challenge and rewrite them. It’s amazing to see this stretch into the settings and visuals of her MVs as well.
Little Simz has delivered great music videos for years, but this is her first time taking a shot at directing one. It’s hard to do much better your first time out.
9. Daydreamer – John Park
directed by Marey Krap
Normally, lyric videos don’t hold up to music videos. It’s not about being smaller or more limited in concept; it’s that they have a different function. They don’t want to overwhelm the lyrics, so a lot simply act like prettified read-alongs.
Occasionally, one completely breaks the mold and does something different – something that’s neither a straight-up music video nor lyric video. “Daydreamer” is unlike anything I’ve seen before. The techniques are familiar, sure, but Marey Krap’s animation makes them bold in such an exciting and calming way, without ever obscuring or backseating the lyrics.
I’ve watched this several times, and each time it lends me a sense of relaxation and slowing things down. It asks me to match its rhythm in a convincing way that doesn’t wear out.
8. Still Broke – Samm Henshaw ft. Keyon Harrold
directed by Jim Pilling
“Still Broke” is a continuation of Henshaw’s 2018 lyric video for “Broke”. In “Broke”, he’s just gotten fired from his job at Five Guys and has no money – but he’s happy and constantly stimulated.
In “Still Broke”, he lives in a mansion with servants at his beck and call, yet he’s lost any and all connection and joy. It’s rare to match such a patient presentation with this much playfulness, but it works beautifully. It lets the visual gags ease in rather than calling them out obviously as they happen.
7. Time 2 – half-alive
directed by JA Collective
Is “OK Go but with editing” too simple a description? What I love about “Time 2” is how well it uses a vast number of techniques. It’s reliant on match cuts that emulate composition from one shot to the next, but it doesn’t just do this with static shots. It repeats and mirrors camera movements themselves from sequence to sequence. This means that despite its constant movement, and shifts through CG and home video filters, we’re building visual cues for how the camera moves.
Something with this much movement and editing usually has a near-constant focal point – think of a dance video with a ton of edits like Taemin’s above. We usually have a central dancer to focus on, and the MV match cuts from setting to setting on specific dance movements. That helps ground us on the dancer, so we never lose our bearings from edit to edit.
This isn’t that kind of video, though. That swift movement and editing is often happening across visual spaces that lack a focal point. They’re either empty spaces or spaces filled with visual noise. By building our expectation of how the camera wants to move through these spaces, and then both repeating it and reversing it, we immediately have a familiarity with the visual language that grounds us. Without it, those match cuts on so much movement wouldn’t work. When we know what that movement’s going to be, when we already know how we’ll move through a space before we enter it, that gives us our bearings even across empty or noisy new spaces.
What is so impressive about “Time 2” is that it makes the viewer fluent in this visual language for how the camera interacts with those match edits inside of four minutes. That’s incredible. It is a brilliant job of cinematography and editing.
6. Me Without You – Ashe
directed by Jason Lester
There’s such an effective layering of metaphors in this video – punching through the door, dancing in broken glass, the repeated metaphor of Ashe watching herself perform on-screen. It’s a beautiful meld with the song’s lyrics about escaping a toxic or abusive relationship.
That experience of going back over your memories and witnessing from a distance how they took place is a stunning one that’s hard to capture in something like a music video. You can see just how much work you did to justify the abuses of a former partner in a way that was closed to you in that moment – specifically because you were so set on doing that work.
I think Ashe, director Jason Lester, choreographer Monika Felice Smith – they capture that sensation as well as anyone could, and they do it in a way that’s so unique to the medium of music videos, where a sensation and experience like this can be communicated in an emotionally whole way in just three minutes.
5. Pick Up Your Burning Cross – Sons of Kemet ft. Moor Mother, Angel Bat Dawid
directed by Ashleigh Jadee
Sons of Kemet’s anti-colonialist jazz is an astounding pairing to this story. Much of the world constantly tells Black women that they don’t measure up to white standards of beauty. The concept of ‘white is default’ is a poison to anyone who isn’t, and that poison is often something that’s implicitly agreed upon by those with privilege. It reinforces and protects that privilege, while giving those they marginalize that much more emotional work just to get to the same point where others start.
Finding an art you can do that lends affirmation, challenges those concepts, and builds community is crucial for anyone who’s marginalized. The video expresses each of those elements and why they’re so important. They provide a spiritual endurance amid elements of society that exist to wear that spirit down.
For potential tsk-tsk’ers in the audience, first off, pole dancing is legitimated as both performance art and as a fitness routine. It doesn’t strictly communicate exotic dancing any more than a variety of other normalized dances do.
Even where it does, welcome to music videos. There’s a connection between the art and its history of use in sex work, but let’s not pretend as if a huge element of dance in music videos hasn’t been based on the language of dance used in sex work. You can track it as far back as Madonna in the 80s, and that’s just within the inception of music videos as a popular medium. It’s just rarely acknowledged or credited that way when viewers can pretend the two are disconnected simply because one’s on TV or YouTube and the other’s taboo.
4. Motorbike – Leon Bridges
directed by Anderson .Paak
Who knew Anderson .Paak could direct like this? This is one of those music videos where everything feels trapped in amber, turning an evocation into a still moment. The shot where Lexi Carter raises her hand in the wind and the flock of birds emerges is one of those immediately classic cinematic moments that just sticks.
Many story-based music videos don’t nail the landing because they have to act out the moment in detail. What’s brilliant here is that it’s edited around, felt but never really seen, interpreted but never expressed. That indirectness lets us take the first step of closure but never gives us the next, which is exactly what the character’s feeling. That gives us a timelessness in the narrative that’s also reflected in the cinematography and beautifully captured settings.
It’s a beautiful video that would win some months, but like I said – May is giving March a run for its money as the best month for MVs we’ve seen yet.
3. Life is a Bi… – BIBI
directed by Kim Hyunsoo
If there’s one thing to know about South Korean singer BIBI, it’s that she gets weird fast in her videos. Take the 30-second drowning prologue of “Kazino”, or the two shorter music videos she released this month. Most artists don’t make MVs for those one-minute interludes on an album – BIBI released her severed head singing “Umm… Life” and a gutting performance as someone homeless and alone happening upon a birthday cake in “Birthday Cake” (we debated including that on the list and it would’ve joined “Life is a Bi…” in the top five if we had).
That’s the other thing to know about BIBI. She might be the best pure actor in the medium. “Life is a Bi…” is a good music video for most of its run, but it’s not exceptional until that turn in the middle where the music goes quiet and she just acts. That is a searing moment that makes everything around it resonate into a video that sneaks into your core and shakes it.
CW: references to suicide
2. Top Again – Audrey Nuna ft. Saba
directed by Trey Lyons
“Top Again” fuses so much of that 90s and early 00s style of indie R&B video. There’s an effortlessness here, but one that doesn’t make anything seem easy. That effortlessness also reflects the feelings of aimlessness, being overwhelmed, introversion, complacency, and self-harm that Nuna sings about.
In so doing, that effortlessness becomes a kind of cover, an outward appearance that deflects just how rough things are. It becomes a generational anthem for the moment, and one that reflects early Gen Z’s growing feelings of isolation and often pessimistic outlook for the world and their own future, complete with that profound sense of gallows humor that helps them cope with it.
The video becomes a code-switch for anxiety and suicidal ideation. The ease and smoothness with which Nuna performs and the video delivers these ideas belie the complexity and impact of what she’s really telling you.
I know this video can hit hard and trigger some shit. If you cope with thoughts about suicide, please reach out. Others want to hear and help. If you’re not sure where to turn, remember that you can always call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. I don’t want to sound trite, but there really is always a way forward. There’s no magic wand that makes everything better, but there are steps that make things a little bit better piece by piece. Those steps build up and help form community, and that community becomes a part of your resilience. Please reach out to someone, even if you’re at that step of wondering whether you should.
CW: potential epilepsy trigger
1. Silo – Phondupe
directed by Alexander Leeway
You can take “Silo” by Phondupe a few different ways. I think the most apparent is as a metaphor for an abusive relationship. The male dancer, Thuba Ndibali, keeps coming back for those brief moments of respite, for those hits of relief that everything’s OK, before having his reality pulled out from under him by dancer Allie Graham and existing in constant anxiety.
The other way to interpret it looks at it along racial lines. Those same metaphors still apply, but that trust and reality are now pulled out from under entire communities. Of course, it can also convey both, and how racism and privilege inform uneven and abusive power dynamics in relationships.
In a strange way, it reminds me of Moses Sumney’s music video for “Quarrel”, which addressed many of those same questions. There’s a lyric there that speaks to the MV for “Silo”: “With you, half the battle is proving that we’re at war, I would give my life just for the privilege to ignore”.
Other music videos we liked in May:
“Harshest Critic” by Allison Ponthier expands upon the midnight drive-in, B-movie, yesteryear kitsch, and comforting vibe of the Allison Ponthier Music Video Universe.
“good 4 u” by Olivia Rodrigo has a late 90s/early 00s punk-pop vibe paired with a slyly funny grunge-inspired video.
“Build a Bitch” by Bella Poarch is a funny and stylized criticism of the male gaze. The Filipina-American singer built up a huge Tik Tok following last year that she’s converted into a record deal with Warner Records. “Build a Bitch” is her first single, and the music video features other major internet personalities like Valkyrae, Mia Khalifa, and Bretman Rock.
“A-O-K” by Tai Verdes is a cute video about an airline pilot who’s just too chill: he wants to read his paper and take a nap even as the plane is plummeting.
“Sun Goes Down” by Lil Nas X is a look back at the anxiety and isolation Lil Nas X has struggled with, and translates his persona as a being who cares for and looks out for him as a person.
“summer never ended the damage was all mine” by ionnalee is an often-unnerving experimental dance piece with a lot of questions left unanswered.
“First” by Everglow might be the most massively produced music video of the year thus far. It exemplifies how thoroughly K-pop has evolved the concept of the big-budget dance video.
It takes a lot of research every month to narrow down a list like this. If you read this far, you must have enjoyed what that work creates. Consider subscribing to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to continue researching and writing articles that are interesting enough to read the whole way through.