If you haven’t heard of BTS, then quite frankly: fair play, I hope you had a nice trip to the moon. Also known as the Bangtan Boys, BTS are a seven-member band from South Korea, who formed back in 2010 and have taken the world by absolute storm in the intervening decade.
Their most recent release, The Best, is a compilation album, mostly of their Japanese language songs, including some of their top hits, as well as few new tracks. So, did the album live up to its name? Read on to find out (Spoiler: some hefty differences in opinion here!)
BTS are like the crazed truck driver in the Steven Spielberg film Duel. Whatever you do, wherever you turn, there’s no escaping them.
I’m dating myself with that reference, which may be one of the reasons why I struggled with the group’s third Japanese compilation album.
K-Pop is a worldwide cultural and economic phenomenon. Said to be one of South Korea’s pillar industries, experts believe it’s helped support the country’s pandemic-hit economy. That’s why I’ve avoided it. It feels less like a musical genre, more like a product. Music is commercialised enough.
McDonald’s in America have even started serving the BTS Meal. Ten chicken nuggets, medium fries, a medium Coke and sweet chili and Cajun dipping sauces inspired by recipes from their branches in South Korea, in case you wondered.
We all like a Maccy D’s, but it’s not ultimately very filling, is it?
I know musical taste is subjective and that the BTS ARMY is very influential in the group’s success. K-Pop fans in general were described in a recent Forbes’ article as being as powerful as hacktivist collective Anonymous. Their trolling of America’s former idiot-in-chief Donald Trump was a joy to follow. So, before we get into this review proper:
I’m not a musical snob (my belief that the Lost Boys film soundtrack is the best ever is a hill I’m willing to die on). Nor do I think music peaked in whatever decade you grew up (although the 80s was a strong period).
I’m with Finnish composer Jean Sibelius who said: “Music begins where the possibilities of language end.” I may not understand the lyrics, but I know how a song makes me feel. I also like my preconceptions being proven wrong, but this isn’t one of those times.
This two-CD collection of Japanese versions of BTS’ hits from 2017 onwards clocks in at around an-hour-and-a-half. It was the biggest waste of my time since I thought I was queuing for The Polyphonic Spree at V Festival when I was actually in line for an experimental duo that banged a radiator with spoons.
Without their heavily produced, style over substance videos, BTS’ songs fall flat. Just YouTube their recent live performance of Black Swan (included on this collection) on The Late Late Show with James Corden.
When it’s just you and the music, pretty gender fluid styling, fancy footwork, cheeky winks to your fetishizing fans or staring forlornly at some blowing curtains (boys, haven’t you heard of tiebacks) don’t matter.
BTS are lauded for breaking boundaries, for being heavily involved in the writing and producing of their own music, for the issues they cover in their songs and for staying true to who they are by not releasing every track in English in pursuit of chart positions.
Anybody who champions cross-culturalism, especially now with Asian hate crime on the rise in the UK and America because of the pandemic; and challenges accepted societal “norms”, should be celebrated.
But musically, these 23 tracks felt like social wallpaper. Something that plays in the background at parties or that you hear Fast and the Furious wannabes blaring out of car windows on hot days. Despite hopping genres, it all sounded samey to me.
A few songs were okay, like the new version of Dynamite and new original track Film Out, a collaboration with J-rock band Back Number. But a week from now I won’t remember them or the rest. One for long-serving ARMY members only.
Bookended by my two favourites from BTS’ Japanese discography, BTS, THE BEST makes sure that I start and finish with good vibes only.
Film Out sings about painfully missing a loved one, and even without understanding Japanese, the music and vocal delivery already convey the same intense emotion. The next song, DNA, sounds so different to Film Out – I feel like I’m being simultaneously punched in the face by the thumping bass and pulled forward into that high-pitched synth. Catchy but not my favourite, and I feel the same about Best of Me, though I really liked Best of Me’s lyrics, gentle opening and the calm after the EDM chorus.
Lights (another favourite) is hopeful and wholesome with very quotable lyrics, e.g. “Decide for yourself what it means to be happy”. The ridiculously catchy Blood, Sweat & Tears is darker, about feeling addicted to and tempted by another person, though the Japanese version feels slightly less feverish than the original. I love how the clever new “you’re risky whiskey” line perfectly matches the song’s message. I preferred how FAKE LOVE’s instrumentation sounds lighter than the original – I feel less run over by a truck like I do with the Korean version. Black Swan is introduced by beautifully haunting traditional Korean strings, and these instrumental introductions continue in the Latin-influenced Airplane pt.2, which lightens the tone from the darkness that began in Blood, Sweat & Tears. Go Go continues to lift the mood, with parodic lyrics critiquing materialism – contrasting to the ostensibly carefree sound.
Buckle up because we’re now heading towards infinite energy. If you’re ever feeling insecure I’d recommend IDOL, an absolute bop brimming with self-confidence and self-love. The energy is ramped up further courtesy of Dionysus (stunningly huge instrumentation), and Disc 1 finishes explosively with MIC Drop – one of their most aggressive songs – capitalising on the drive from the preceding tracks.
Disc 2 opens very differently with the bright and dreamy Boy With Luv. Stay Gold feels like a love song and pep talk rolled into one, skipping along with bouncy plucked strings. I love the solo vocals with light piano starting and ending Stay Gold and Let Go! Let Go’s lyrics are lovely and bittersweet, and the beautiful Spring Day dives even deeper emotionally, singing about missing a loved one that they hope to see again in the spring after the ‘winter’ of waiting. The Japanese version is still miserable, but somehow a gentler sadness compared to the desperate devastation of the Korean original.
ON and Not Today bring us back to heavy-hitting beats and gritty lyrics. In between ON and Not Today (the only ‘gritty’ songs in Disc 2) is Don’t Leave Me, where V’s lower range shines, plus glorious strings and a wonderful contrast between the deeper voices and the clear high vocals (something I loved about Your eyes tell and Film Out too). While Make It Right is catchy, I don’t find the motif particularly inspiring and the chorus is a tad repetitive, something I found with Best of Me’s chorus too. Conversely, I loved the (almost sparkling?) motif in Your eyes tell, and the fullness of its instrumentation.
Crystal Snow is a cathartic finish to this compilation – the chorus honestly makes me want to fly and die and cry all at the same time. Dramatic? Perhaps. Warranted? Absolutely. It’s a long song, especially by pop standards, but I can’t get enough of it.
BTS, THE BEST is a perfect example of how ‘music transcends language’. In this genre-spanning, sonically-layered mix of 22 songs, you’ll likely find a few to add to your playlist!
Compilation albums are a minefield at the best of times. Deciding which songs deserve to make the cut seems like a near on impossible task which no one ever seems to get quite right – even the Godfather of all compilation albums ABBA Gold doesn’t include Honey Honey. In BTS’s case, they’ve given themselves an extra challenge. Does the album title suggest they’re choosing quite literally, ‘the best’ of their songs? Maybe, but probably not. Given the album contains only two of their biggest hits (thank you wikipeida) it seems like more of a tongue in cheek exaggeration. But either way, it can’t help feeling like slightly setting themselves up for a fall. We’re all still getting over One Direction’s ‘the best song ever’.
I decided to dive in for my first listen without much research at all, just me, my ears and the music. The album kicks off with Film Out, which is exactly what it says on the tin – as I listen, I’m thinking dramatic slow mo montages, evoking perhaps a main character’s slow emotional death. Or graduation from high school, one of the two. Either way, I’m not blown away.
As the album progresses, I’m glad we seem to be picking up the tempo a bit– Airplane pt 2 was more a bit of me – though I’m not sure I’m a fan of the slow, slightly shouty rap that seems to be a theme throughout this album. The chorus, with its plink plonky (I believe that’s the technical term?) synth and piano was a certified bop, but for me, I was lost when the shouty rap verses began. Perhaps this is a reflection of Korean culture, or just BTS’s style, but despite the shouting, the rapper didn’t seem as angry as I’m used to hearing, giving more the impression of being slightly annoyed, as if someone’s just taken his parking space. Either way, I would have much preferred the song if it’d just been the singing part. As I ploughed on through the 23 (twenty three!) tracks though, it was clear this was going to be a theme of the album – and upon later research, I discovered that the band originally began as a hip hop group, so I guess it makes sense that rap would feature in most of their songs. Once I accepted this was the pattern the album was going to take – catchy boppy hooks interspersed with more dramatic spoken word, I was able to enjoy it a little more. Or at least, stop getting so annoyed each time a verse started.
I won’t lie – this is a long album, especially for anyone whose only previous interaction with BTS is that one thirty second clip of ‘Butter’ from Instagram reels (yes, I am anyone.) Speaking of which, I guess I was a little surprised this album didn’t sound anything like that song. Less smooth like butter, more like… sad and slightly angry, like Siracha sauce left out of the fridge for too long? BTS writing team, you know where to find me.