Over their 20+ years in the business, British rock trio Muse have managed to defy categorisation. What started as a Radiohead-inspired (some would say imitating) three-piece has evolved into one of the biggest acts on the planet, rivalling the likes of Coldplay and Arctic Monkeys in the race for Brit band supremacy. As a live proposition, they’re second to none, and as a creative force, the Teignmouth trio rarely seem to stand still.
This constant boundary-pushing makes them ideal test track candidates. A chameleonic, ever-shifting outfit that rarely settles on one sound or genre for long, Muse have evolved to encompass musical influences as far-ranging and eclectic as Sergei Rachmaninoff, Prince, Jeff Buckley, Chopin and countless others. Listing every genre and style covered across the band’s nine official studio albums would be impossible, suffice to say that funk, space-rock, opera, dubstep, baroque and heavy metal have all been incorporated at one time or another.
Our list of Muse tracks exemplifies this experimentalism, with a dozen or so songs that showcase the band's breadth and range across their most interesting and rewarding works.
Undisclosed Desires (The Resistance, 2009)
Undisclosed Desires was released as the second single from 2009's The Resistance, and while the album itself is categorised by bold conceptual ambitions and epic, orchestral numbers, here we find a moment of intimate sensuality amid songs about interplanetary colonisation and anti-corporate revolution.
That intimacy is reflected in the track's off-kilter R&B style beat and lots of flittering, skittish hi-hat sounds, complemented by Matt Bellamy ditching the usual vocal wailing (there's plenty of that below, don't worry) in favour of a far more sultry delivery. There's plenty here for a system to try and unpack.
Hysteria (Absolution, 2003)
What is arguably Muse’s finest work of all has appeared on various playlists across our site, featuring as one of the best British rock tracks and as one of the finest songs for testing your system’s bass. If there’s one track that will likely continue the band’s legacy when all others have faded into the obscure recesses of musical history, it will probably be Hysteria.
Screeching guitars and Bellamy’s signature vocals offer a great deal of musical interest in the higher registers, but it’s really that constantly working bassline that provides a test of any system’s ability to pick out each strum and pluck with lucidity and clarity. Lesser systems will turn those chuntering tones into a single, mushy outline, while finer efforts will let you hear each note as entirely distinct from its surrounding siblings.
Starlight (Black Holes And Revelations, 2006)
For a big, soaring anthem with plenty of meat and crunch, look no further than the anthemic rock-stomper Starlight. One of the tentpole tracks from 2006's Black Holes And Revelations, the album’s second offering feels like something that Freddie Mercury might have penned had he been around in the mid-2000s. There's a We Will Rock You style drumbeat anchoring proceedings alongside bouncing piano chords and a fuzzy, crunchy bass line.
The texture and detail in the track will challenge even the most competent setups, while, once again, it’s Bellamy’s vocals that elevate proceedings, this time soaring and swirling as he delivers heartfelt, extended lyrical lines about “our hopes and expectations, black holes and revelations”.
Plug In Baby (Origin Of Symmetry, 2001)
If Showbiz was Muse in their rawest, scratchiest form and Absolution was the band finally evolving into a cohesive, musically-adept unit, 2001's Origin Of Symmetry was very much the transitional phase in which critics and punters stood up and paid attention.
There's still a lot of that scratchy, homemade feeling left across the album and here within Plug In Baby, which is perhaps the record's most enduring track. A tale of two contrasting elements that lurches from headbanging, driving verses to a soaring, throat-ripping chorus, this is Muse finally letting loose and heading towards their stadium rock destiny.
Don't ignore the entire album, incidentally. Bliss is a swirling assault on the senses, while the hard-rock edginess of New Born is perfect for anyone who wants to see if their headphones are capable of giving them proper goosebumps when the guitars kick in.
Unintended (Showbiz, 1999)
In the same way that Radiohead fans avoid talking about Pablo Honey, as if it were an incarcerated family member being brought up at Christmas dinner, Muse acolytes aren’t so keen on looking back at the group’s first-ever studio offering Showbiz. Rather appropriately considering the above simile, many contemporary critics compared the rather raw debut rather unfavourably to Radiohead’s earlier work on 1995’s masterpiece The Bends.
Don’t dismiss Showbiz out of hand, though. There’s some good, unpolished stuff on there, and certainly some efforts that make for good test track fodder. Unintended stands out as worthy of consideration, a moment of rare intimacy amid scratchy guitars and post-adolescent screaming that will benefit from a transparent system capable of bringing out the song’s earnest nature and somewhat DIY production.
Knights of Cydonia (Black Holes And Revelations, 2006)
Alongside Absolution, Black Holes And Revelations feels like a sort of delicious sweet spot in which the band’s scraggly, post-grungey roots were being thrust aside in favour of a move towards Queen-inspired space rock and anthemic, somewhat experimental prog pomposity. Later albums have perhaps slightly tipped the scale too far into the realms of ludicrousness, but the group’s mid-2000s high point does throw up some truly wonderful fare.
Knights of Cydonia exemplifies this marriage of meaty rock licks and a creative outlook that seems always to have one eye on the stars. A six-minute epic that boasts twangy, western-inspired guitars, overblown lyrical content, soaring falsetto and some crafty uses of distortion and electronic effects, it’s a test track that will strain even the most capable of audio products. From timing to treble, clarity to chord formations, Knights of Cydonia will give your system or headphones a test of just about everything all at once.
Panic Station (The 2nd Law, 2012)
The laws of entropy and thermodynamics don’t necessarily spring to mind as ideal fodder for a mainstream rock album, but The 2nd Law saw Muse happily digging into such weighty topics with various degrees of creative success. It’s an album that, while unified under a single conceptual banner, can sometimes feel a little hit-and-miss.
That said, hit-and-miss albums can often spawn hidden gems and unexpected pleasures, and that’s just what you’ll find from the record’s third track. A deliciously camp slice of artistic rock/funk, Panic Station lives or dies depending on how well your system brings out those robust, thrusting bass notes, snappy hi-hats and Matt Bellamy's glass-shattering falsetto.
It’s a fun, zippy track, so make sure you’re feeling that sense of fun as your speakers belt out those chunky, funky basslines, or there could be something wrong in your system.
Apocalypse Please (Absolution, 2003)
We recommended that you check out Apocalypse Please for its thudding, doom-laden chords when we compiled our list of the best piano test tracks, and that suggestion remains. Apocalypse Please is Muse in all of their doom-mongering glory, filled to the brim with sweeping vocal lines and a piano being hammered so hard it's a wonder the keys haven't shattered into pieces by the two-minute mark.
This one's all about drama, obviously, and those thunderous chords should jolt you out of your seat and onto the floor if played through a sufficiently powerful conduit. Apocalypse Please dives headlong into a whirling maelstrom of armageddon and destruction, so you'll need a system that makes it feel as though your head has been placed inside some sort of apocalyptic musical hurricane. A superb test track for all occasions.
Madness (The 2nd Law, 2012)
Sometimes it’s the quietest songs that reward you the most deeply. Madness is one of Muse’s most minimalist offerings, especially the track’s opening which consists of little more than a few repeated consonant sounds and some stripped-down electronic backing. The second track from 2012’s The 2nd Law eventually blossoms into a more operatic flower, but we’re here to explore its qualities as a stripped-down oasis of sonic calm.
For your system, it’s all about space, precision and timing. Bellamy’s voice should feel intimate yet evocative, while those accompanying notes should very much be providing support without muddying the proverbial waters. Basic tunes can often hide meticulous craftsmanship underneath, so this one has to be all about clarity, clarity, clarity.
Supermassive Black Hole (Black Holes And Revelations, 2006)
What even is Supermassive Black Hole, anyway? Muse had certainly never done anything quite like it before, and nearly twenty years later, it’s still tough to shoehorn the track into a particular category. Funk? Sort of. Hard rock? A little. Dance? Possibly. Completely off the wall? Absolutely.
Regardless of what you call it, SBH’s crunchy, fuzzy guitar and snappy, funky drum beat will strain any decent setup’s capabilities regarding timing and rhythmic cohesion. It may be hard to describe, but I’ve always thought of it as an unerringly sexy song, so let’s go with that as the anchor point to our critical listening (Prince was a big influence here, after all). Sexy. Does your system make the track feel sexy, or is the whole thing a first date gone wrong?
Exogenesis: Symphony (The Resistance, 2009)
OK, it’s a little bit of a cheat to take up a single entry with a three-part composition, but you can’t split up this mini rock opera into its constituent parts without losing the overall effect somewhat. An overblown, if somewhat prophetic tale of humanity’s desperate attempts at interplanetary colonisation (take that, Elon!) which draws heavily on classical influences. This is Muse slipping their surly bonds and heading out towards the stars on laughter-silvered wings. Well, maybe not the last bit, but there’s certainly a weight of ambition and thematic intellect sitting beneath this tripartite pop-rock symphony.
This one’s all about emotion, and you’ll want the three main parts to covey their own particular emotions with full transparency and insight: trepidation and transcendence as we launch during Part 1, ambition and hope as Part 2 kicks into gear, and then melancholic regret as terrestrial return becomes impossible during Part 3. Did you get all of that?
Butterflies and Hurricanes (Absolution, 2003)
Butterflies And Hurricanes is another of Absolution's bold, operatic stadium-fillers, and much like Hysteria and Apocalypse Please, it's a fizzing powderkeg of emotion that frequently explodes into indulgent, doom-laden life.
One of the band's most popular songs, Butterflies And Hurricanes starts as a prophetic, dramatic rock anthem, but it’s the virtuosic piano solo around the song’s three-minute mark that sets it apart – and makes it worthy of the best audio equipment you can get. Heavily inspired by Rachmaninoff’s expansive use of descending and ascending runs and supported by dense, clunking chords, you’ll want to hear every single keystroke as Bellamy’s digits race up and down the keyboard with stunning agility. Is your system up to the challenge?
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