Last Updated on December 4, 2021 by BTS 101
A lot of people wonder why BTS is so popular. Given that they’re a band that doesn’t record in English, and one among many kPop bands to come out of the same system, what magic do they have that has led to international success?
There’s no simple answer to that question – they did a lot of things right, the personalities of the members mesh unbelievably well, and they had a lot of luck. But in the end it comes down to just one true factor: their music is awesome.
A Few Historical Notes
One thing BTS really had going for them was that they were with BigHit Entertainment (now under the Hybe Labels banner) as their producing company.
The Korean kPop industry is really driven by three huge companies: SM, YG, and JYP. These three companies have well-established recruiting and training programs, and have produced some of the biggest groups and solo artists in kPop in the last two decades.
BigHit was a tiny company started by “HItman” Bang Sihyuk with a forward-thinking approach to kPop. He’d been a singer and songwriter in the industry himself and wanted his artists to feel valued, and to be encouraged to write their own music. He also believed that genuine, sincerely made kPop could have an international audience, especially in the United States.
When PD Bang met RM and several other young rappers on the underground scene in 2010, he saw talent in them and gathered them together to try to create a hip-hop based idol group. Some of this group even made some early recordings under the name BTS. But eventually, all but RM moved on to other projects. Bang offered to develop RM as a solo artist, but RM wanted to stick with the group format, so they began to search in earnest for new members to add to their hip hop act.
Through auditions, they added SUGA and j-hope to the band, and Bang encouraged the three of them to work together to write their own music. Bang also eventually added the four vocalists to the band to increase their performance level and add more flexibility to their sound.
By 2013, the members had been training together for over a year (and had been living together too – early BTS famously lived in a tiny one-bedroom apartment together for the first several years pre- and post-debut, and although they’ve moved twice since then and most members own their own apartment, they continue to live together today). The rap line had written several songs with deeply personal meaning to them as teenagers chasing their idol dreams. Although it was hard for BigHit to break into the scene – as a smaller company with almost no money, the early BTS days were famously hardscrabble – PD Bang managed to get them a debut and they immediately made a big impact with their first song, No More Dream.
KPop vocab lesson!
In South Korea, there are several big music shows on TV who provide places for kPop bands to showcase their latest work by performing live. Getting a slot on one of these shows is key to launching your new kPop band, and when a band first appears, it is called their “debut.” BTS debuted on the show M Countdown with No More Dream on June 13, 2013.
After their debut, every single time a band returns with a follow up song – no matter how much time has passed – it is called a “comeback,” so you will see this word used a lot to refer to any new song that BTS has coming out. It doesn’t have the same connotation as in English, where it means a down-on-their-luck artist that we haven’t heard from in a while is attempting a career reboot; in Korea, “comeback” simply means they have another new single or album coming out.
Another phrase you’ll hear often is “title track.” In North America, this phrase usually refers to the song on an album with the same name as the album as a whole, whether or not that song is a single. However, the Korean music world uses this phrase to mean the lead single or first single from the new album or EP – it won’t necessarily have the same name as the album, it’s just the key first song that the band will use to promote the new sound and new release.
Korean pop music gets released on a much more frequent schedule than in North America. Releases are not limited to just albums, and new music often comes out several times a year in the form of mini albums, compilation albums, extended plays, singles, and yes, full length albums.
So it’s hard to track BTS songs by releases; instead, the fandom tends to group their music into “eras.” Each musical era is loosely based around a theme, and these themes have reflected the growth of BTS over the years both as people and as musicians.
Early era BTS music is heavily based in hip hop, rap and R&B. However, it didn’t take long for them to branch out into other genres and now they have a wide range of songs – over 250 – in genres such as pop, disco, latin, hardcore rap, soul…pretty much you name it. The weird thing is that their fandom tends to love ALL their songs, despite the wide range of styles – but with good reason!
Looking for a full discography, with a listing of all songs in chronological order? Find it here.
2013-2014: School Life
Releases in this era: three EPs — 2 Cool 4 Skool, O!RUL82?, and Skool Luv Affair.
Notable singles include: No More Dream, We Are Bulletproof pt. 2, N.O, Boy In Luv, Just One Day
Theme: No More Dream caused a splash when it debuted as its message of young Koreans struggling to hold on to and fight for their dreams resonated with fans. (It also did not hurt that Jimin flashed his abs during their debut performance, at the time a bit of a daring move that got a lot of attention.) Their other songs in this era were all written by the rap line and echo their feelings of wanting to be big and famous, but not being quite sure how to get there, and knowing it is going to be a fight and a struggle.
2014: Dark & Wild
Releases in this era: Dark & Wild, their first “full length” album, recorded partly in the United States with direction and help from American rappers
Notable singles include: Danger, War of Hormone
Theme: Oh, Dark & Wild. It’s the most forgotten of BTS’ eras and the least popular. Dark & Wild was a bit of a failure as an album; BTS struggled here to find the right balance between their own sound and a more American sound, and their lyrics here are very young-man-hormonal and feature a lot of stuff that is borderline misogynistic. Still, War of Hormone, despite its problematic lyrics, is a total bop, and there are other gems here too if you are willing to set aside the words and give it a listen; in particular the song 2nd Grade is a must-hear.
2015-2016: The Most Beautiful Moment in Life
Releases in this era: EPs The Most Beautiful Moment in Life pt.1, The Most Beautiful Moment in Life pt.2, and the compilation album The Most Beautiful Moment in Life: Young Forever.
These releases are sometimes referred to as “HYYH” era, after their Korean name (Hwayangyeonhwa); they are also sometimes translated from the Korean as being called “In the Mood for Love.”
Notable singles include: I Need U, Dope, Boyz With Fun, Run, Burning Up (Fire), Save Me, Young Forever
Theme: This is where BTS really took a big step forward and became the Band to Watch, and also started getting a lot of international attention. This trio of releases talks about what it means to be young, and what the value is in youth, as well as their fears at transitioning away from being carefree teens and moving into the adult world. I Need U was a monster chart-topper in Korea and resulted in their first show win (there are several top Korean music shows, and each show picks a winner at the end of the episode from that day’s performances, and these wins are considered quite prestigious). Dope was their video that blew up on YouTube and got them millions of international views for the first time.
This era introduced the idea of a fictional alternate universe for the members, known as the BTS Universe or BU, and this story thread runs through most of their videos from this era. More on that in Unit 4.
2016-2017: Wings/You Never Walk Alone
Releases in this era: Wings, their second full-length album; You Never Walk Alone, a repackaging of Wings with three additional songs.
Notable singles include: Blood Sweat and Tears, Wings, Spring Day, Not Today, You Never Walk Alone, as well as a solo song for each of the 7 members
Theme: Wings is about falling into temptation. A lot of its themes – and some direct quotes in their videos – come from the book Damien by Herman Hesse, a book about good versus evil, and figuring out who you really are. It’s also a very personal album, as the solo songs of each member often talk about their personal struggles and emotions within the group.
Blood Sweat and Tears was a big change in their sound, look, and performance level and the video remains one of their most impactful and iconic. Spring Day was a huge hit for them – possibly still their biggest hit ever in Korea – and is still massively popular when they perform it live.
2017-2018: Love Yourself
Releases in this era: EP Love Yourself: Her; full-length album Love Yourself: Tear; compilation album with new songs added, Love Yourself: Answer
Notable singles include: DNA, MIC Drop, Go Go, Fake Love, Airplane Pt. 2, Idol; also, every member gets another solo song and all 7 of these are well-known and beloved by the fandom (Euphoria, Trivia: Just Dance, Serendipity, Trivia: Love, Singularity, Trivia: Seesaw, Epiphany).
Theme: The cycle of love, from falling for someone, losing yourself in the relationship, breaking up, finding yourself again, and learning that you can only really love someone else if you love yourself first. This theme is really empowering and beautiful and inspiring, and the biggest reason why the world fell in love with BTS and their positive and loving message. “Love Yourself” became a campaign at the UN, with BTS as ambassadors, to talk about world youth mental health, and RM gave an uplifting speech at the UN in 2019 on this topic that is well worth watching on YouTube.
This is the era when BTS really started to get major international attention and you can see clips of them performing songs like DNA, Fake Love, MIC Drop and Idol on numerous American and British late night shows, like James Cordon, Jimmy Fallon, SNL, and even Ellen. Pretty much every single song in this era is gorgeous and popular with fans, and Her and Tear are great places to start when you’re ready to dig into a full album. They are also the best place to start with solo songs; in particular, Jungkook’s Euphoria, Jin’s Epiphany, and SUGA’s Seesaw are some of their top hits in concert.
2019-2020: Map of the Soul
Releases in this era: EP Map of the Soul: Persona, full album Map of the Soul: 7
Notable singles include: Boy With Luv, Make It Right, Dionysus, Black Swan, ON, as well as solo songs for all members and some interesting never-before-seen subunit combinations
Theme: BTS gets very introspective here, talking about the difference between their public and private selves, what it means to be a super mega international star versus just the everyday person you’ve always known yourself to be, and where they go from here as a group. Many of the songs from this era have truly beautiful and poetic lyrics and it is worth looking up translations for full understanding. In particular, Black Swan is an absolute masterpiece. The solo songs for each member are also more deeply personal than ever and worth a listen.
MOTS: 7 was released literally one week before the world went into shutdown due to the COVID-19 crisis. So it didn’t get the support and promotion they intended, and its songs still have never been performed in front of a live audience.
Releases in this era: Dynamite single with many remixes; BE album (although it is only 7 songs)
Notable singles include: Dynamite, Life Goes On
Theme: Self-care! BTS released this album in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis when everyone, including them, were stuck at home. They wanted an album of fun and caring and kindness to encourage their fans to stay strong and hang in there. Spoiler alert: it totally worked.
Dynamite was their first song entirely in English and to say it was an international hit is a gross understatement. It basically broke every sales and streaming record in existence and now it’s pretty safe to say that the entire world knows of BTS, even the most pop-culture-unsavvy. It won them their first Grammy nomination (best group performance) and although they lost, was a major step forward in world domination.
Ironically, Dynamite is one of the few songs they have ever released that no one in the group had a hand in writing, which makes its massive success kind of bittersweet for long-time fans of the group. But if it serves as a stepping stone into their more meaningful work, then so be it.
The EP/single Dynamite was followed up a few months later by the full album BE, which includes Dynamite as well. The single Life Goes On – almost exclusively in Korean – also went on to top the charts, showing BTS’ new worldwide popularity.
Releases in this era: Singles Butter and Permission to Dance
Theme: Summer dance party! Following in the footsteps of the Dynamite/BE era, Butter and Permission to Dance were both fun dance tracks that were all in English and clearly aimed to recreate their international chart domination. Butter broke all kinds of records and spent 10 weeks on top of the Billboard Music Charts.
Japanese Releases, Freebies, and Solo Songs
The Japanese music industry is huge, and for historical reasons, a lot of Koreans speak at least some Japanese. So it’s common for kPop acts to re-record their biggest hits in Japanese, and to eventually put out some Japanese-language-only tracks as well.
BTS has several Japanese albums featuring Japanese versions of their big singles as well as some songs you’ll only find on these albums. Their Japanese songs are often beautiful ballads and feature the vocal line heavily. Most of BTS speaks at least some Japanese; RM, j-hope, and Jimin are fairly fluent.
Their Japanese albums and singles include:
- Wake Up (2014) – Japanese-only singles include Wake Up, The Stars
- Youth (2016) – Japanese-only singles include Good Day, Wishing on a Star, For You
- Face Yourself (2018) – Japanese-only singles include Don’t Leave Me, Crystal Snow, Let Go
- Map of the Soul – The Journey (2020) – Japanese-only singles include Stay Gold, Lights, Your Eyes Tell (also the lead song on the soundtrack for the Japanese movie, Your Eyes Tell, a remake of the Korean film Always)
- Film Out (2021) – this is one single in Japanese, made for the Japanese movie Signal: The Movie Cold Case Investigation Unit, a movie based on the Japanese TV series, which was itself a remake of the Korean TV series called Signal)
- The Best (2021) – a Best Of compilation that gathers all their biggest hits in Japanese as well as some of their English language hits, with a video DVD included with their MVs and some making-of videos.
BTS also often records solo music (aside from their solos on official BTS albums). RM, SUGA, and j-hope all have released solo albums (called “mixtapes”). These include:
- rm (RM) – 2015
- AgustD (SUGA as AgustD) – 2016
- Hope World (j-hope) – 2018
- mono (RM) – 2018
- Chicken Noodle Soup (j-hope single, with Becky G) – 2019 –> an adaptation of the original 2006 song by Webstar, Young B & AG aka The Voice Of Harlem
- D-2 (SUGA as AgustD) – 2020
In 2019, BTS released a video game called BTS World, where you can pretend to be their manager and guide them through their career from the early days to the present. They recorded four songs for the “soundtrack” of that video game and you can find these on Spotify. There’s also several other instrumental tracks used in the video parts of the game. The four singles are:
- Heartbeat – all members
- Dream Glow – Jin, Jimin, and Jungkook with Charli XCX
- A Brand New Day – j-hope and V with Zara Larsson
- All Night – RM and SUGA with Juice Wrld
Various members have also released original solo singles and some subunit collabs. They also have recorded plenty of modified cover versions. Most of these get released for free on their Soundcloud channel but can’t really be found anywhere else.
Some of their more famous cover versions are listed below. Most of these are on their SoundCloud channel or only available as YouTube live performances.
- If You – JK and V – Big Bang cover (Big Bang is a legendary kPop rap group)
- You’re My – Vocal Line
- All I Do is Win – a pre-debut cover of DJ Khalid’s song, with new lyrics, by SUGA (from 2011)
- Fools (Troye Sivan) – RM and JK
- 1 Verse (The Game and Skrillex) – j-hope
- Never Not – cover of a Lauv song by JK, released as a video on Twitter (SO pretty)
- Ending Scene – cover of an IU song by JK, there are two versions
- School of Tears – Korean cover of Kendrick Lamar’s song Swimming Pools
- Too Much – RM’s reworking of Drake’s song Too Much, with his own original lyrics
- Nothing Like Us, 10000 Hours, and Purpose (Justin Bieber) all by JK
- Someone Like You (Adele) by V
- It Doesn’t Matter by SUGA
- Savage Love by JK, Suga, j-hope with Jason Derulo
- We Don’t Talk Anymore (Charlie Puth) by JK and Jimin
- Fix You (Coldplay) – performed live at their MTV Unplugged appearance
- I’ll be Missing You (Puff Daddy with Faith Evans and 112) – performed live on BBC
Some of their more famous original solo songs are listed below. Find most of these on their SoundCloud channel.
- Unpack Your Bags – this is a song RM wrote for his appearance on the TV show 4 Things (2014)
- It’s Definitely You (V and Jin, 2016) – recorded for the soundtrack for Hwarang, a kDrama that V appeared on (SUCH a good song, a must listen!) – available on Spotify
- 4 o’Clock (V and RM, 2017)
- Promise (Jimin, 2018)
- Tonight (Jin, 2019)
- Scenery (V, 2019)
- Winter Bear (V, 2019)
- Sweet Night (V, 2020) – from the soundtrack of Itaewon Class, a kDrama – available on Spotify
- Still With You (Jungkook, 2020)
- Abyss (Jin, 2020)
- Christmas Love (Jimin, 2020)
- Snow Flower (V ft. Peakboy, 2020)
- In The Soop theme song, 2020
- Blue Side (extended version – j-hope, 2021)
- Bicycle (RM, 2021)
- Yours (Jin, 2021) – from the soundtrack of the kDrama Jirisan – available on Spotify
BTS also sometimes collaborates with other artists and/or appears as guests on their tracks, especially RM, SUGA, and Jungkook. SUGA also has producing credits on several Korean hits. There’s too many of these to list here! Try this comprehensive list if you’re looking to dig into these. Here are a few of our faves – most of these can be found on Spotify as they are official releases and/or remixes.
- P.D.D. – Warren G x RM
- Fantastic – RM feat. Mandy Ventrice – this is from the soundtrack to The Fantastic Four (2015) movie
- Rush – RM feat. Krizz Kaliko
- Wine – Suran x Changmo – SUGA does not appear on this track, but produced it and won an award for it
- We Don’t Talk Together – Heize x Giriboy – SUGA does not appear on this track, but produced it. In Bon Voyage season 3 there is some talk about SUGA’s new song coming out and him being excited and nervous, he’s referring to this song.
- Song Request – Lee SoRa feat. SUGA
- Eight – IU feat. SUGA (he also produced and wrote this song)
- So Far Away – AgustD feat. Suran
- Eternal Sunshine – Epik High, produced by SUGA (he does not appear on the track)
- Change – RM x Wale
- Waste it on Me – Steve Aoki feat. BTS (JK and RM)
- Seoul Town Road – Lil Nas X x RM (a remix/rework of Old Town Road)
- Champion – Fall Out Boy – remix by RM
- SUGA’s Interlude – Halsey feat. SUGA (Manic album)
- Who – Lauv feat. BTS (Jimin and JK)
- The Earth Traveler – a compilation song by many kPop acts from the 2019 KBS Song Festival
- Blueberry Eyes – MAX feat. SUGA – Burn It is a track on D-2 by AgustD feat. MAX
- Dear My Friend – AgustD (SUGA) feat. Kim Jong Wan of Nell
- Don’t – eAeon feat. RM
- My Universe – Coldplay x BTS (Music of the Spheres album) – if you like My Universe, don’t miss this “making of” Bangtan Bomb, and there’s also a lovely acoustic version, a cool official video, a making-of the video, and a clip of them singing it together acoustically in New York. Suga also did his own remix.
- You – from the Digital Single “Answer…Shine” by Japanese singer ØMI – produced by SUGA, he doesn’t appear on the track (except to whisper “suga” at the start)
Lastly, BTS sometimes writes special tracks that they only perform live or release as part of their Festas – their annual celebration in June of ARMY and the marking of their years together. These songs are worth tracking down and having a listen – you can sometimes find them (illegally) on Spotify if you search for them as podcasts, or most of them are on Soundcloud.
Some BTS side tracks of note include:
- Ddaeng – a legendary banger by the rap line created for their 5th Festa and never properly released; its genius-level lyrics and amazing flow make it a fan favourite – find it on Soundcloud, YouTube, and on Spotify as a podcast
- Born Singer – technically a cover of the song “Born Sinner” by j.Cole, BTS re-wrote the lyrics in Korean to talk about their dreams and struggles as aspiring singers in their early days. It’s beautiful, watch it performed live on YouTube if you can (from the BTS Begins concert)
- Beautiful – Korean cover of a Mariah Carey song by j-hope, Jungkook, Jimin, and V, recorded as a pre-debut promo track (find it on YouTube in video and dance-practice version)
- Adult Child – Korean cover of Common’s song Celebrate, recorded as a pre-debut cover track by Jin, RM, and Suga (find it on YouTube in video and dance-practice version)
- I Know – An RM/Jungkook collab from the third Japanese Fanmeeting, not quite finished but lovely
- Graduation Song – an adaptation of Young Wild & Free by Snoop Dogg and Wiz Khalifa, by j-hope, Jimin, and Jungkook, in honour of JK’s graduation from junior high – absolutely adorable
- 95 Graduation – an adaptation of Lupe Fiasco’s song “Old School Love”, released by Jimin and V when they jointly graduated from high school in 2014
- A Typical Trainee’s Christmas – complaining song based on Wham’s Last Christmas and aimed at PD Bang – recorded before their debut
- A Typical Idol’s Christmas – similar theme, recorded after their debut
- Perfect Christmas – a BigHit crossover project featuring RM and Jungkook
- Decalcomania – this is a JK song that he was working on for a solo mixtape that still has never been released – but a well-known snippet of it was released to Twitter several years ago
- Otsukare – A legendary, hilarious song in Japanese based around the phrase “otsukare sama dashita” which means “you’ve worked hard” – something j-hope used to say/sing to the staff after Japanese performances. SUGA and j-hope turned it into a full trot (lounge) song and they’ve performed it live at a few Japanese concerts and it’s so very, very funny.- find it on YouTube in two versions, one by j-hope and SUGA, the other by the full OT7
- Path – a hidden track on their first EP, 2 Cool for Skool, only available on the original physical album
- Sea – a hidden track on Love Yourself: Her
- Arirang – Arirang is a traditional Korean song (sometimes referred to as their unofficial anthem) and BTS performed it with other kPop acts as the opening medley at kCon 2016 in Paris. It’s beautiful!
- So Far Away – originally an AgustD song, Suga re-recorded this song with Jin and JK for one of the Festas
- Tony Montana – also an AgustD song originally, Suga performed it live with Jimin in concert and they will sometimes refer to each other as “Tony Montana”
- Supertuna – Jin released this track for his birthday on December 4, 2021 and it is LEGENDARY. Wait – make that LE – JIN – DARY, ha ha!
Where to Start
Here’s a suggested playlist for North American/English speaking audiences just getting into BTS. Eventually you will find that literally all their songs – even the deepest of album cuts or solo releases – are treasures. But this set of their most popular, most accessible songs will guide you into their music.
For any and all BTS songs, it’s well worth it to find translations of their lyrics online. ARMY is dedicated to making sure translations are always available and translated lyrics often come with annotations explaining their deeper meaning and references to other songs. Genius Translations is a great site to find lyrics for their songs in original Korean, plus Romanized (Korean words in English characters) and full English translations of every one of their songs.
Start with these — Big International Hits with a lot of English for singing along:
- Permission to Dance
- MIC Drop (Steve Aoki Remix version)
- Boy With Luv (featuring Halsey)
- Make It Right (featuring Lauv version)
- Idol (Nicki Minaj rap version)
- ON (featuring Sia version)
Ready for more? Try these Iconic BTS monster hits, but mostly in Korean:
- Blood Sweat and Tears
- I Need U
- Spring Day
- Fake Love
- Boy In Luv
- Just One Day
- Burning Up (Fire)
- Save Me
- Black Swan
- Life Goes On
- No More Dream
- Not Today
- Airplane Pt. 2
Fandom favourites – album tracks that are beloved at their concerts:
- Bapsae (Silver Spoon)
- Pied Piper
- Best of Me
- So What
- We are Bulletproof Pt. 2
- I’m Fine
- The Truth Untold
- 00:00 (Zero o’clock)
- We Are Bulletproof: The Eternal
Solo tracks to try:
- Euphoria (Jungkook)
- Moon (Jin)
- Awake (Jin)
- Stigma (V)
- Serendipity (Jimin)
- Filter (Jimin)
- Inner Child (V)
- Persona (RM)
- Seesaw (SUGA)
- Ego (j-hope)
- Just Dance (j-hope)
If you make it this far – it’s time to start picking an album/EP and listening to it from start to finish – then repeat for every release! You won’t be disappointed.