Whether you're auditioning a new piece of equipment or just want to check your music system is sounding its best, we have some choice cuts for you.
This playlist highlights tracks with challenging dynamics, rhythm and timing, which together form a crucial – arguably the most important, actually – part of any piece of music. Whether you're listening on speakers or headphones, a desktop system or full-on hi-fi, if your set-up struggles with one of these elements you may well be underwhelmed by the overall performance.
There's a real spread of styles, and naturally all the tracks here will offer a little bit of everything when it comes to pushing your speakers – even if one particular element is a highlight. You can get a feel for each track with our YouTube links, but to really hear what's going on we'd recommend digging out a better-quality version.
Pixies - Tame
Dynamic range is the difference between the loudest and quietest elements of a track – and Tame is a textbook test track. Starting with a simple drum beat, bass line and whispering vocal, before erupting into an attack of guitars and a ferocious vocal, this hugely influential track has been cited by artists such as Nirvana, PJ Harvey and Smashing Pumpkins. It's as well known for its loud/quiet template, which the Pixies truly mastered, as it is for the dramatic Gil Norton production.
Like this? Try Smashing Pumpkins Mayonaise (opens in new tab)
Funkadelic - Sexy Ways
Led by the Supreme Maggot Minister of Funkadelia, aka George Clinton, Funkadelic were the sister act to the perhaps better known Parliament. Pioneers of far-out funk music, this is a superb example of the form and a great test of rhythm and timing. We're confident it's nigh-on impossible to listen to this track and keep still, thanks to layer upon layer of percussion, bubbling bass and guitar stabs. Only a touch more organised than a live jam, it will certainly reveal how capable your system is when it comes to controlling complex rhythms.
Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross - A Thousand Details
Taken from the soundtrack for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, this is a brooding and powerful piece that builds to a thunderous crescendo - typical of much of Reznor's work. A delicate piano opening grows into a noise of electric guitars, driven along by a thudding bass line. A sudden pause tests your system's ability to start and stop, before the song reaches a climax of drums and over-driven effects. Towel yourself down at the end and weigh up how well you could decipher the details in that wall of noise.
Like this? Try Leftfield Phat Planet (opens in new tab)
Aphrodite's Child - The Four Horsemen
Did you know Vangelis was in a psychedelic prog rock band with Demis Roussos in the late 60s? 666 was the band's most notable album, and this track builds from a spaced-out, atmospheric intro - reminiscent of some of his later soundtracks - into a wall of shuffling drums, jangly guitar, reverb-laden effects and, finally, a soaring electric guitar riff. There's plenty for your system to think about here, not least in terms of dynamics and timing.
Like this? Try Tame Impala Let It Happen (opens in new tab)
Ian Dury & The Blockheads - What a Waste
At first listen this Ian Dury classic seems simple and understated, thanks to the chugging drum beat, monotone vocal delivery and simple guitar stabs. But the meandering bass line livens things up before the track's chorus bursts into life and sets the song racing towards a crescendo. Your system will need a firm grip to keep the various strands in check.
Like this? Try Tom Robinson Band Power in the Darkness (opens in new tab)
System of a Down - B.Y.O.B.
This one's quite noisy. But it will also test your system's dynamics - it definitely does the loud bit - as well as how well it handles staccato rhythms. You should be able to hear the variation in drum hits and rolls, as well as the individual layers of guitar, while changes in tempo will test your system's timing.
Discrete Circuit - Machine Code
A consistent 4/4 beat is always a good test of timing, especially when some off-kilter stabs or percussion add a little more intricacy to the rhythm. This techno tool should drive along at pace, the bleeping effects and reverb-laden hi-hats adding some colour to the consistency of the kick drum. If your feet aren't tapping, something is amiss.
Like this? Try Jeff Mills The Bells (opens in new tab)
The Dead Weather - 60 Feet Tall
This jangly number from Jack White's The Dead Weather is a great test of dynamics. Not quite as neighbour-unfriendly as System of a Down, it does, however, build to a messy crescendo of splashy drums and a stadium-sized electric guitar riff. And some 'in the red' vocals for good measure.
Like this? Try The Black Keys Gold on the Ceiling (opens in new tab)
Eminem - The Way I Am
A looping piano riff and trademark head-nodding beats set the tone for one of Eminem's angrier raps, his off-beat delivery making for a more challenging rhythm than it might first appear. If your system doesn't time well, this track just won't flow. There's enough action at either end of the frequency spectrum to ensure your system gets a thorough work-out.
Like this? Try Dr Dre Still D.R.E. (opens in new tab)
Lubomyr Melnyk – Pockets of Light
Often it's when using dynamics to drive rhythms that can make products struggle, and tracks where a tuned- or non-percussion instrument is dictating the ebb and flow tend to highlight this. The atmospheric, complex piano of Ukrainian composer Lubomyr Melynk is a fine example. Listen for the sound of the keys hitting, and for how well your system reveals the weight behind each note.
Like this? Try Arovena Lilies (opens in new tab)
Radiohead - 15 Step
Almost every Radiohead album has some form of innovation, and the twitchy beats of In Rainbows lend themselves perfectly to testing your system's timing. The excellent production means it's simply a great all-round test track, but those jittery, texture-laden drums will certainly find out how well your speakers or headphones can carry a tune.
Like this? Try Flying Lotus Never Catch Me (opens in new tab)
Shimon & Andy C - Body Rock
Body Rock broke the mould of drum 'n' bass in the early 2000s, using a swing beat effect to stand apart from the standard breakbeat template of the genre. A deep, sliding bass line adds an extra hook, and will test your system's handling of lower frequencies. But the rhythm of the drums make it really interesting.
Like this? Try John B All Night (opens in new tab)
The National - Sea of Love
As much of a workout for Bryan Devendorf, drummer in The National, as it is for your system – the rhythms and fast rolling drums will figure out whether your system times as well as it should.
Like this? Try The Walkmen The Rat (opens in new tab)
Heather Woods Broderick - Wyoming
An echo delay with a long decay can be useful for testing timing, and this dreamy track is laden with lush, reverberating layers of vocals and guitar. You may wish to get lost in Wyoming, but if your system can't keep a grip on the track's various elements, it will just sound a bit lost.
Like this? Try Warpaint Undertow (opens in new tab)
Soulwax - Is It Always Binary
There's nothing like a proper percussion workout to test a system's all-round ability. Soulwax provides just that, complete with some crazy synths and vocal FX for good measure. And the video shows you how it's done.
Like this? Try Mr Scruff Jazz Potato (opens in new tab)
John Martyn - Small Hours
Testing dynamics doesn't have to involve great walls of sound. The simple guitar swells that run throughout the track offer quickfire tests of how well your system can go from quiet to loud. Despite the delicacy of the song, you need punch and a hint of sharpness to each strum for the full effect.
James Horner - Ripley's Rescue
Whether you're watching the film or listening to the soundtrack, there are plenty of testing moments in the Aliens soundtrack. This scene has drum rolls, soaring strings, and plenty of dynamic reach to push your speakers.
Like this? Try Hans Zimmer Inception OST (opens in new tab)
Planetary Assault Systems - Desert Races
English techno producer Luke Slater has been at the top of his game for over 30 years, delivering captivating, complex rhythms from steady grooves of layered instruments. Synth peaks and troughs will test your system's dynamics, while solid timing is necessary to keep the momentum.
Like this? Try Anna Hidden Beauties (opens in new tab)
The Mars Volta - Take the Veil Cerpin Taxt
Excellent production doesn't have to mean shimmer and sheen. This Mars Volta track certainly sounds rough around the edges – a test in itself – but there's plenty of bottom-end grunt hidden beneath the edgy higher frequencies. We're really including it here for the unorthodox rhythms, though – your system should be prepared for the full-on assault around the four-minute mark.
Like this? Try At the Drive In One Armed Scissor (opens in new tab)
Kate Bush - Watching You Without Me
The reciprocating synths, metronomic drums and bent pizzicato double bass notes of Watching You Without Me interlink to create a delicately textured rhythmic gauze ideal for testing your system's timing and rhythmic knack. But it’s the dynamics of this track that are truly illuminating, with acres of reverberant space and tonal shade. While recounting lyrics about struggling to communicate, Kate Bush switches between soft crooning, softer whispers and murmured ‘secret messages’ with words sung backwards. From the studio musicians muttering in opening bars to the wide-pan delayed morse code spelling out ‘S.O.S’ there’s plenty of detail for your system to decipher at the very extremities of audibility.
Like this? Try FKA twigs Cellophane (opens in new tab)
SBTRKT - Trials Of The Past
With producer SBTRKT known for his remixes and instrumentals, it's no surprise that his debut album is so tightly honed. Defined by jittery, stuttery beats and wobbly synths, Trials of the Past is arranged with such meticulous poise that each sound cleanly slices the track’s airy ambience with surgical precision. Without care, it can become mired in agitated incoherence, but if your system is up to the task, then each beat should flit past your ears with understated ease.
Like this? Try Solange Losing You (opens in new tab)
Massive Attack - Paradise Circus
The ominous tip-toeing dub bassline and soaring strings of Paradise Circus will be instantly recognisable to viewers of the TV show Luther, while the title should be equally familiar to fans of Birmingham city centre. As hushed, winding layers of claps, kit and vibes build in density, this track can become disjointed and slippery; however, with the right set up, it should continue to envelop you with luscious, airy transients.
Like this? Try Björk Army of Me (opens in new tab)
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