When BTS’s Map of the Soul: 7 album is released on Friday, it’ll be the culmination of seven years of record-breaking, history-making releases by the ultra-popular Korean pop group. Seven has always been an important number for BTS, also referring to the number of members in the group: RM, Suga, J-Hope, Jin, Jimin, Taehyung, and Jungkook. And while all of this reminiscing might seem wistful or even a little funereal, the tendency toward nostalgia has been prompted in part by the group itself: Based on the recently released tracklist, theories abound that BTS’s upcoming album will be an exercise in self-reflection, containing various callbacks to past releases, as the group retraces their steps and wraps up this chapter of their lives. There’s “We Are Bulletproof: The Eternal,” a continuation of 2013’s “We Are Bulletproof Pt. 2”; there’s “ON,” a possible callback to 2013’s “N.O.”; and there’s “Respect,” which is obviously a sneaky Parasite reference. (Just kidding. Probably.)
Since BTS has clearly chosen this moment to take a long, sentimental look at their past, it’s time we do the same ourselves. And so I pose to you today’s question: Which era is the greatest in BTS history?
It’s a common debate, one not easily answered. Everyone has their favorite: Some people ride for Love Yourself; some think the overwrought, baroque excellence of “Blood Sweat & Tears” will never be outdone; some people thrive on nostalgia and will defend Skool Luv Affair until their dying day; and yet others think BTS outdoes themselves on every single comeback, knowing their new favorite era is always the one around the corner.
It’s also a complicated debate. Even the albums themselves can be hard to discuss on their own—you can’t really rank each individual release, because the K-pop industry’s tendency to repackage and rerelease albums means that after a certain point, they’re nearly indistinguishable as separate offerings. Many fans prefer to break down BTS’s body of work by “era” instead, a blanket term that refers to the entire promotional period of a series of interconnected albums and singles.
With that in mind, let’s order these eras from least best to very best—there is no such thing as “worst” when it comes to BTS—based on everything from song quality to music videos to styling. Oh, I have so many thoughts about the styling. I’ll also work in some mini rankings throughout, because if we’re gonna do this, we’re gonna do it right.
The Eighth-Best BTS Era: O!RUL8,2? (2013)
Lead single: “N.O.”
I won’t be too hard on BTS’s early eras, because growth and improvement are necessary parts of any career. (Also, these early albums still hold up!) But this is a ranking, and by definition something has to be last. Which brings us to the confusingly titled O!RUL8,2? (This may look like someone just smashed their head on a keyboard, but when you say it out loud, it makes sense: “Oh, are you late too?”) Heavy on eyeliner and energy but light on the fully realized sound of BTS eras to come, O!RUL8,2? peaked with lead single “N.O.” and B-side “Attack on Bangtan.” Unfortunately, these early albums are also full of skits, and it’s my prerogative to remove a few points every time I have to sit through any dialogue.
Aesthetically, this era’s concealer-covered lips, giant chains, and bowl cuts are … tough.
But styling aside, the video for “N.O.” actually rips. BTS is trapped in a futuristic, dystopian classroom, ultimately rising up to overtake their evil, militant teachers. If your inner teenager doesn’t relate to that, I don’t know what to tell you. The song is also a great example of how well this era’s tracks have aged: “N.O.” is still a staple in concert and award show performances seven years later. It’s what she deserves!
The Seventh-Best BTS Era: Skool Luv Affair (2014)
Lead Singles: “Boy in Luv,” “Just One Day”
It’s fun to look back at the beginnings of the “high school bad boy” concept that BTS still can’t shake (and thankfully, don’t seem to want to). Lead single “Boy in Luv” gave us another wildly energetic classic with lightning-fast choreo and several more metric tons of eyeliner. Jungkook in particular was a literal child in this era, and look at him now! Some may call it a glow-up; I call it puberty. Meanwhile, Skool Luv Affair’s alternate single “Just One Day” was BTS’s most low-key, easy-listening release to date, and it remains strangely soothing to revisit.
It’s vital to also note that Skool Luv Affair was the album where we all realized Taehyung was best utilized when alternating between growling hooks and camera smizing. When he said “Wae nae mameul heundeuneun geonde???” I felt that. And speaking of Taehyung’s most memorable lines, Skool Luv Affair also gifted us with “Spine Breaker” (complete with a goofy, self-directed music video) and all-time-great workout song in “Jump.”
The Sixth-Best BTS Era: Dark & Wild (2014)
Lead Singles: “Danger,” “War of Hormone”
BTS goes grunge! Dark & Wild marked the end of BTS’s school series, serving as a transition into more mature themes. The album itself contains a bunch of great tracks, particularly ones showcasing the rap line: “Hip Hop Phile” crushes live, as does “Cypher Pt. 3,” without question the best of the four-part Cypher series.
Aggressive rock-pop hybrid “Danger” is typically considered the primary single off this album—and the overdramatic music video is an all-timer, as I’ll get into in a moment—but it’s problematic fave “War of Hormone” that fans have latched onto in the years to follow, for better or worse.
Woman Takes Short 4 minute Break From Being Feminist To Enjoy War of Hormone— a⁷ (@zukoserendipity) August 16, 2019
I won’t waste time analyzing the lyrics—they’re teen boys lusting after a girl in various sexist ways, like pretty much every other boy band in the history of the world has at one time or another! Groundbreaking! I cannot be bothered. It’s a fuckboi anthem, they look great—out with the chains and bandannas, in with the blazers and suspenders!—and the song is catchy as hell. Go forth and bop with my blessing.
The Fifth-Best BTS Era: 2 Cool 4 Skool (2013)
Lead Singles: “No More Dream,” “We Are Bulletproof Pt. 2”
There’s no defending the hair, makeup, or wardrobe choices in BTS’s debut era, so let’s just acknowledge that and move right along. Live and learn!
2 Cool 4 Skool is where it all began for BTS, and the album’s legacy rests on the power of its two lead singles, both of which have aged into all-time K-pop classics. First came “No More Dream,” through which BTS exploded onto the scene, cursing society for telling them they can’t follow their dreams. Those very themes are what make it so fun to watch BTS perform the song seven years later. Suga’s opening line, “I wanna big house, big cars, and big rings,” has evolved from a teenage pipe dream into a satisfyingly literal description of BTS’s current status. Suga even changed the lyrics in a 2018 performance of the song, removing the “I wanna” part. That is power.
“We Are Bulletproof Pt. 2” was the other song BTS used to introduce themselves to the world; fitting, of course, for the Bulletproof Boy Scouts. Perhaps their cringiest music video has turned into one of their most satisfying, fan-favorite performances, as BTS reclaimed their old gaudy Versace-style fits and jumped right back into the aggressive energy of their early years. And let’s be real, that hat-trick dance break absolutely never gets old.
Groups almost always return to the songs that made them famous years after they debut, but it’s worth noting that BTS’s are just … so good. No one is supposed to debut with some of their best material ever, and yet here we are. It doesn’t mean they haven’t improved—of course they have, which is why this album isn’t no. 1 on this list!—but they’ve done so off of this early foundation of energy, chemistry, and sound.
The Fourth-Best BTS Era: Map of the Soul: Persona (2019)
Lead Single: “Boy With Luv”
It feels unfair to rank Map of the Soul: Persona on its own, since Map of the Soul: 7 is on the way and seems poised to be the cherry on top of this most recent era. But the whole point of this list is to hype ourselves up for MOS:7, so for now Persona is riding solo. From a career standpoint, MOS: Persona has been BTS’s most successful era—they’re selling out stadiums, shutting down award shows, and setting and breaking their own records left and right. They also, for what it’s worth, have literally never looked better. But Persona falls at no. 4 on this list merely due to its short length and the sense that it’s just a primer for what’s to come. Obviously MOS:7 will wrap up the era, and this list will immediately be irrelevant. (Sounds weird, but I can’t wait for that to happen.)
But Persona is not without its standouts. The colorful, peppy lead single “Boy With Luv,” featuring Halsey, was the hallmark tune of BTS’s past year, but in my opinion Persona’s best tracks were two other, starkly different songs: the Greek rave–inspired heavy metal banger “Dionysus,” and the soft, emotional groove “Mikrokosmos.” At 2019’s Melon Music Awards, BTS performed both songs back-to-back, delivering one of the best summaries of their range. (It’s also just an incredible series of stages. What an era!)
Let’s take a moment to pour one out for fallen soldiers “Home” and “Mikrokosmos,” both of which were cut from the upcoming MOS: 7 tracklist. Gone but never forgotten!
I’m about to start cheating.
If I tried to rank every individual iteration of the following albums and eras, we would be here all day (two of the following eras technically contain three albums each, and the other contains two) and then everyone would be mad at me for making them read things when they could be not reading things. So for the top three spots, I’m going to combine all the repackages and various albums within each era into three cohesive spots. My ranking, my rules. Let’s get it.
The Third-Best BTS Era: Love Yourself (2018)
Lead Singles: “DNA,” “Fake Love,” “Idol”
It’s a testament to BTS’s impeccable discography that the Love Yourself era is, in my opinion, merely their third-best of all time. It was, without question, a staggering accomplishment. From the three massive main singles—“DNA,” “Fake Love,” and “Idol”—to the solo tracks and B-sides that remain some of my all-time favorites, LYS remains a powerhouse. We’ve got everything from “Magic Shop,” Jungkook’s love letter to the BTS Army, to whip-fast rap line showcase “Tear,” as well as cheery fan favorites “Anpanman,” “Go Go,” “Pied Piper,” and “Airplane Pt. 2.”
In a futile attempt to narrow this down, let’s focus on the main singles. First came “DNA,” the single most accessible, catchy, contagiously fun BTS video to date. It’s the one to show to non-Army friends to try to suck them into our cult—er, fandom. Then came “Fake Love,” the peak of so many years of emo concepts. (I know “Black Swan” is out there judging me for this, but I stand by it.) And after that, “Idol,” the wild, Technicolor ode to BTS’s artistry and Korean culture.
I’m told people “were disappointed” by “Fake Love” and “Idol.” I’m told some people “got tired” of “Fake Love” and “Idol.” To these people, I say: First of all, how dare you? Second of all, how dare you? Have you no taste? No honor? No perception of things like “art” and “music” and “bops”? Do you hate joy? Do … do you not love yourself?
If only there was an album that could help with that.
The Second-Best BTS Era: HYYH/The Youth Trilogy (2015)
Lead Singles: “I Need U,” “Dope,” “Run,” “Fire,” “Save Me”
Hwa Yang Yeon Hwa, or The Most Beautiful Moment in Life, is perhaps BTS’s most fully realized concept, start to finish. Commonly referred to as “The Youth Trilogy,” BTS released three parts of the HYYH saga over the course of 2015 and 2016. First came two EPs, The Most Beautiful Moment in Life Parts 1 and 2, and then the final repackaged version, Young Forever. This era was all about the transition from rebellious youth into early adulthood, and grasping at those final moments of childhood for as long as possible. It was also a transitional stage for BTS’s public perception, as both fans and music critics began to recognize the group coming into themselves as musicians and creators.
And those lead singles! Every main song and music video in this era is great: the cheery “Village People” gimmick of “Dope,” the overdramatic growing pains of “I Need U,” the even more overdramatic “Run,” and of course, the chaotic joy of “Fire.” But the standout is “Save Me,” filmed in one take in a field and starkly at odds with the usual K-pop over-production and visual effects, and it remains one of their best artistic achievements to date.
In my initial drafting of this list, I had HYYH as the best overall era, but I ultimately realized that it’s just my favorite. HYYH contains my favorite BTS song (“Baepsae”), my favorite video (“Save Me”), and some of my favorite looks (orange Jimin! Mint Yoongi!). I ultimately caved to the voice in my head that was telling me to be a little more objective, and slid HYYH to number two, but it’s nonetheless an all-timer. I’ll leave it at this—if you want to get deep in your BTS feels, dive into HYYH. There’s nothing quite like it.
The Best BTS Era: Wings (2016) and You Never Walk Alone (2017)
Lead Singles: “Blood Sweat & Tears,” “Spring Day,” “Not Today”
It couldn’t be anything else. Starting with Jungkook’s solo “Begin” in fall of 2016 and ending with the release of “Not Today” in 2017, the Wings era encapsulates everything fans love about BTS and is their best series of work to date. There’s just so much to love about this era: the solo short film releases leading up to the album (who was doing it like them? Who still is?), the full album release (“Cypher 4”! “Interlude: Wings”!) and of course, her majesty “Blood Sweat & Tears.”
It’s important for me, at this time, to note that BTS has never looked better than during the “Blood Sweat & Tears” era. I simply cannot go on until we accept this fact.
As if the first Wings series wasn’t enough, BTS then released a repackage the following year, titled You Never Walk Alone. With it came two vastly different singles: “Not Today,” an upbeat, deeply hype track that remains a staple in their concert lineup, and “Spring Day,” arguably BTS’s most beautiful, crushing song ever released.
I’m sorry, but they’ve never been better.
Until Friday comes, of course.