With multiple chart-topping albums and a recent appearance on Saturday Night Live, K-Pop royalty BTS have, at this point, solidified their position as global-dominating superstars in a league of their own. But, chalk it up to their ostensible boy-band format, theories about the reasoning behind their U.S. push, or the fact that so much of their success has been mischaracterized as manufactured phenomena, and much of what truly accounts for their appeal tends to get lost in the conversation. This is a mistake, as the seven young men who make up BTS — RM, Suga, Jin, J-Hope, Jimin, V and Jungkook — are first and foremost musicians. And their rise is fundamentally based on their musicality and artistry, captured throughout their six-year catalogue — both together and solo — and in their standout performances.
In an attempt to cut through all the surface noise, we’ve selected the 25 essential BTS songs that best exemplify their musical universe, presented chronologically by release date, to gain a clearer understanding of what actually makes them so good and equally so unstoppable.
“Tomorrow,” Skool Luv Affair (2014)
This is one of the most-underrated numbers by BTS that strikes the fine balance between romanticism and tragic narrative arc, as the message of the lyrics focuses on finding hope amid despair. Listen for the clear contrast among vocals and the fierce guitar riffs in its latter part.
“BTS Cypher, Pt. 3: Killer” (feat. Supreme Boi), Dark & Wild (2014)
With the Cypher series that has appeared throughout their albums, BTS established their identity as a hip-hop-based group from the beginning. Part three represents the peak of the Cypher series, in terms of clarity of thought, sharpness of message, effectiveness of attack, and fluency of technique. With barely constrained aggression, BTS strikes back at the rappers who sneered at them for being a boy band, resulting in a satisfying and cathartic lash.
“I Need U,” The Most Beautiful Moment in Life, Pt. 1 (2015)
This stands as one of the defining tracks of BTS’s career. The romantic chords in the intro meet the refrain laden with desperation, creating a fierce and tragic atmosphere. Despite the song’s intense trap beat and tense development (especially in the rap and chord progression in the verse part), it leaves the listener with tender softness.
“Butterfly (Prologue Mix),” The Most Beautiful Moment in Life, Pt. 2 (2015)
“Butterfly (Prologue Mix)” is the representative number of BTS’s Most Beautiful Moment in Life trilogy, with deeply rich musical texture. Between the two remixes, the “Prologue Mix” amplifies the music’s flowing romanticism. Set against a sensuous melody, the several different voicings of the refrain “Butterfly” produce a sophisticated variation on theme.
“House of Cards,” The Most Beautiful Moment in Life, Pt. 2 (2015)
Along with “Butterfly,” this is the most distinctive song in the Most Beautiful Moment in Life, Pt. 2. The jazzy chord progression was previously unheard of in BTS’s repertoire, revealing a new level of sophistication. The atmosphere is theatrical, with double bass intro and string orchestra accompaniment, as if the piece were intended to serve as music for an end-credit roll.
“Burning Up: Fire,” The Most Beautiful Moment in Life: Young Forever (2016)
The shocking energy of this song could only be properly experienced through live performance, such as the one BTS gave in KCON 2016. “Burning Up” is not necessarily the most sophisticated number among BTS’s music, much less contemporary K-Pop. The inexplicable, intuitive attraction of this song is all about the synergy of each member’s individuality, often imitated but never duplicated.
“Save Me,” The Most Beautiful Moment in Life: Young Forever (2016)
Throughout BTS’s music, regardless of genre or style for each particular piece, there is an underlying vulnerability and tragic sensibility. This aesthetic shines even through this song’s tropical sound, as BTS asks the listener, Give me your hands. Despite the speedy rhythm, the ticktock effect and the overall theme of salvation make the music emotionally compelling. This clever place of musical elements makes “Save Me” one of BTS’s signature numbers.
“Epilogue: Young Forever,” The Most Beautiful Moment in Life: Young Forever (2016)
The grand finale of the Most Beautiful Moment in Life trilogy attempts to collect all the messages BTS wished to convey in the series and give them a conclusion. The “youth” discussed here is not exclusively about age, but refers to anyone who has a dream. This was the first piece in which RM participated as a producer, hinting at his potential as a musician. The chorus is reminiscent of a gospel choir, rejoicing the hope of youth.
“The Last,” Agust D (2016)
Even to those familiar with BTS’s music, Suga’s solo mixtape came as a shock to the system. Stepping out of the group’s success, and perhaps the shadow of the group’s leader RM, Suga took on the new persona of Agust D to reveal his raw and honest self. “The Last” is the most impressive piece in this mixtape, as Suga fiercely describes the cynicism eating away at him but sublimates the negative emotion into pride over his achievements.
“Blood Sweat Tears,” Wings (2016)
A piece that represents a turning point in BTS’s career, as the group began stepping away from hip-hop and moving toward being a pop group. Despite being influenced by dancehall, reggaeton, and moombahton, the number eschews the partylike atmosphere of its influences, electing instead for a baroque mysticism.
“Lost,” Wings (2016)
The producers at BigHit prefer minimalist and elegant composition, and this number represents the greatest success of this approach. The melodic progression is smooth and logical, clearly displaying the variety of timbre and techniques in the group’s vocals.
“Spring Day,” You Never Walk Alone (2017)
This song opened a new chapter in BTS’s aesthetics, substituting the group’s previous calling card in hip-hop with the romanticism in pop and rock. Each component of the song contains a clear melody, evoking overwhelming nostalgia and longing. Its music video hints at the Sewol ferry disaster in which nearly 300 high-school students perished, further adding a sense of tragedy and loss.
“Intro: Serendipity,” Love Yourself: Her (2017)
Arguably the most sensitive and vulnerable intro in all of BTS’s discography, it sets the tone of lightness to an album that represents a strong contrast with the darkness in their previous work. Jimin’s vocals, which had reached maturation at this point, are silky and elegant.
“Mic Drop,” Love Yourself: Her (2017)
Steering back from their detour as a pop group, BTS returned to their hip-hop origins in the latter half of Love Yourself: Her, starting with “Mic Drop.” The beat is distinctive, making every part of this song instantly recognizable. It became their most successful single in the U.S to date.
“Outro: Her,” Love Yourself: Her (2017)
This is the greatest demonstration of BTS’s deep knowledge of old-school hip-hop throughout their discography. The atmosphere is classic hip-hop throughout, with jazzy chords from the 1990s and rap verses reminiscent of Chuck D and Tupac.
“P.O.P. (Piece of Peace) Pt. 1,” Hope World (2018)
Hope World is perhaps the most surprising release in BTS’s discography, as it focuses on J-Hope, BTS’s main dancer whose musical talent was not deeply explored until this mixtape. “P.O.P.” is the most sophisticated track on the mixtape, delivering the message that behind his stage name Hope lies peace, or freedom from despair or anxiety. Even with its summery Latin vibe, the piece conveys a subtle sense of solitude, reflecting J-Hope’s contemplative side.
“Intro: Singularity,” Love Yourself: Tear (2018)
Love Yourself: Tear is a heavy and complex affair, establishing BTS even more firmly as global superstars. The opening piece of the album sets the tone with a hypnotic R&B ballad. The vocals by V, whose low tone is a rarity among idol groups, contributes to the song’s dark and jazzy atmosphere.
“Fake Love,” Love Yourself: Tear (2018)
Undoubtedly one of the greatest achievements in K-Pop in 2018, not only in terms of its chart placement (they made K-Pop history by climbing to No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100) but also in terms of complexity of music and presentation of its message. “Fake Love” contains the central message of the Love Yourself series: that any love wherein one does not love oneself is not real. The music was carefully selected to amplify this message. The tension between electric guitar and a hip-hop beat creates a sense of dark resolve, unique among contemporary K-Pop and even among BTS’s other music.
“134340,” Love Yourself: Tear (2018)
BTS’s longtime producer Pdogg is unrivaled in the K-Pop-idol scene in his ability to fuse the old and new into the format of idol pop music. “134340” is a fine display of this talent in its peculiar arrangement involving acid jazz, a genre not commonly encountered in K-Pop. The contrast between RM’s intellectual rap and Suga’s cynical rap enhances the atmosphere.
“Magic Shop,” Love Yourself: Tear (2018)
This is arguably the greatest song on this album, as it sublimates the relationship between the artists and the fans to a new dimension. Warmth emanates from every part of the song, and especially from Suga’s rap part.
“Outro: Tear,” Love Yourself: Tear (2018)
The finale of Love Yourself: Tear is one of BTS’s greatest hip-hop numbers. The grandiose intro is followed by a feast of luxurious rhyme and flow in which RM, Suga, and J-Hope take significant risks by straying far from their usual lanes.
“Euphoria,” Love Yourself: Answer (2018)
Opening the final album of the Love Yourself series, “Euphoria” harkens back to the beginning of the series, which was characterized by a sense of wonder. The guitar riffs in the beginning of the piece represent the beating heart of emotion, and each additional instrument elevates that emotion, finally leading to the cathartic synthesizer. Jungkook’s sensitive vocals put the finishing touch to complete the romantic narrative.
“Epiphany,” Love Yourself: Answer (2018)
This rock ballad may seem uncharacteristic of BTS, but it may be the keystone piece of Love Yourself: Answer in terms of the role it serves in the progression of music in the entire album. It is the ultimate display of emotion on the part of Jin, conveying the message about the reckoning at the end of despair.
“IDOL,” Love Yourself: Answer (2018)
In many senses, this is a history-making piece. The song’s use of Korean traditional instruments and singing technique, as well as the traditional visuals in the music video, point to BTS’s roots. The participation of Nicki Minaj serves as a stamp of approval, leaving no doubt that BTS has arrived as the world’s greatest boy band.
“Forever Rain,” Mono. (2018)
This stands as one of the greatest pieces produced by RM throughout BTS’s discography, and it comes off his second solo mixtape. The notes extend into lethargy and listlessness, then the guitar riffs quickly change the pace. The lyrics explore the paradoxical meaning of solitude for an artist, which is not always an empty space but a trusty companion. The rain is a true friend because it enables one to face oneself. The trailing guitar sound makes the listener want the song to never end.
Youngdae Kim is the author of BTS the Review: a Comprehensive Look at the Music of BTS. T.K. Park is a blogger for Ask a Korean!