My recap of 2021 continues today with the visual medium. I’ve already shared my interview with the best new synthpop band of 2021, Cold Connection, and a look back at the cover songs of 2021. Later this week (if all goes according to plan), I’ll be kicking off my countdown of the 100 best synthpop songs of the year.
I’ve loved music videos since I was a child obsessed with MTV. This year, perhaps because I spent far too much time watching Youtube, I really dove into the artform—I even added a section to my website devoted to music videos.
I love all kinds of music videos from big-budget, high-concept mini-films to small, intimate stage performances. But the music videos that stand out for me are the ones that add a new dimension to the artist behind them and have something to say, whether it’s capturing a vibe or challenging an idea about the world around us.
Here are my 10 favorite synthpop videos of the year.
10. Nuovo Testamento – “The Searcher”
Nuovo Testamento’s big summertime earworm “The Searcher” sounds like it was plucked from a DJ’s vinyl crate in the ’80s. So it’s only natural that its visual accompaniment looks like it popped right out of early MTV. There are so many ’80s hallmarks here: candelabras, dramatic lighting, a silhouetted figure dancing in front of a window, big poofy hair. I almost wouldn’t believe this footage was shot in 2021 if singer Chelsey Crowley wasn’t mouthing the lyrics.
9. Unify Separate – “Dying on the Vine”
The best music videos add an unexpected resonance to the songs they accompany, and Unify Separate does just that on their slickly produced visual for “Dying on the Vine.” The video features a young person, constantly engrossed in their phone, attempting to escape the clutches of social media. Unfortunately, screens appear seemingly everywhere, showcasing footage of the band performing in space-age costumes. I didn’t associate the song with this concept until I watched the video, and that’s precisely why I love it.
8. ACTORS – “Only Lonely”
In the lengthy buildup to their second album, Vancouver post-punk quartet Actors released a slew of music videos, all with cinematic ambitions (I particularly like their zombie moment). Each one has an independent spirit and unique premise, and watching them combined is like going to an awesome film festival. Fast-paced thumper “Only Lonely” is my favorite of the bunch for its storyline about an unhinged couple who’s equal parts Bonnie and Clyde and Sid and Nancy. The startling visuals though are straight outta Natural Born Killers.
7. Danny Blu – “Violence”
I gotta be honest, the disco ball facemasks largely sold me on Danny Blu’s “Violence” video. They are fucking awesome. Fortunately, the rest of the video is packed full of compelling visuals, like Danny himself, drenched in tattoos, attached via IV to a flickering television set. He’s quickly proven adept at dark, sensual visuals perfectly suited to his brand of dark, sensual pop.
6. Ashbury Heights feat. Massive Ego – “One Trick Pony”
By the end of Ashbury Heights’ “One Trick Pony” video, band members Anders Hagström and Yaz Uhlin are all smiles. It’s easy to see why. “One Trick Pony” is a joyous, jubilant tribute to the vibrant, colorful selves we keep hidden behind our daytime personas. It’s a concept too many of us find relatable, and Ashbury Heights make us want to unleash the artist within.
5. ESA – “I Detach”
This is the electro-industrial disturbia you were looking for. ESA’s Jamie Blacker plays some sort of creepy artist/caretaker who is experimenting with mannequins that come to life. The production, shot and edited by Blacker himself, is top-notch and gives off the vibe of horror movies like Silence of the Lambs.
4. Black Nail Cabaret – “Maelstrom”
Black Nail Cabaret’s “Maelstrom” video looks like it was shot on another planet. Composer Krisztian Arvai walks across a red, desolate Martian landscape, while singer Emese Arvai-Illes meditates in a serene setting surrounded by bright green plants. When they eventually meet, it’s a collision of two contrasts that makes for one helluva moment. It’s one of the most poetic and gorgeous videos I’ve seen this year.
3. Fonohead – “Fighting Monsters”
I am in awe of the amazing things creative folks can do with barely any resources. For his “Fighting Monsters” video, electronic musician Fonohead playfully sings behind a pair of wine glasses while his hands and domed head, all drenched in blue, stutter in spastic rhythm. It’s a simple yet wildly creative concept that adds spectacular visual flair to his warm, melancholic synthpop.
2. Pixel Grip feat. MONĀE – “Demon Chaser”
Chicago’s Pixel Grip celebrate queer and underground nightlife on their 2021 album, Arena, and nowhere is that more apparent than in their video for “Demon Chaser.” The video finds the trio partying in a wild, chaotic nightclub with a dizzying vibe—at one point, they drop a cartoon-sized bottle of poppers. Chicago trans icon MONĀE performs a fierce, rhythmic poem that combines Shakespeare with sexual empowerment. It’s utter madness—like the best night out of your life.
1. Czarina – “Wonderland”
Multi-talented artist Czarina has no limit to her ambition. As if her songs weren’t already bombastic enough, she combines them with epic “music films,” not mere videos, that add extravagant visual elements to her art. “Wonderland,” a tribute to her adopted home of Galicia in northwest Spain, features a fully realized fairytale storyline, stunning location shots, and a collection of incredibly sophisticated costumes that are quickly becoming one of her trademarks. Everything about this production is top-notch—it looks like they spent millions of dollars making it.