When testing audio kit, everyone has their own carefully curated list of test tracks they like to listen to. There’s sometimes a bias in these lists (including our own best test tracks lists) towards older music. After all, it’s often natural to want to stick with what you know – and that’s fine – but then suddenly you realise you’ve not expanded your music listening horizon in years. And well, perhaps that’s a shame.
Not to worry, though, because we have compiled a list of excellently-produced recordings released since the turn of the millennium that make for stellar tracks to test kit with. Indeed, we use them regularly in the What Hi-Fi? test rooms, relying on well-produced tracks to showcase a piece of hi-fi equipment’s talents. Sure, we often use poorly recorded songs to gauge something’s transparency or forgiveness, too, but who wants a list of those?
Spanning contemporary genres and sounds, and compiled by our crack hi-fi team of audio experts, these best-produced records include major hits from superstars like Billie Eilish and Kanye West as well as standouts from indie legends like Sufjan Stevens and classics from Radiohead, among others.
Now, everyone’s personal tastes are different, and this modest-length list certainly has the scope to be extended, so please drop your favourite expertly-produced album in the comments and we’ll get our ears right on them. As always, happy listening!
- Check out the official What Hi-Fi? playlist
- And the best-produced recordings pre-2000
Radiohead - Kid A (2000)
(Early caveat: OK, so according to the Gregorian calendar the 21st century began on 1st January 2001, a few months before Radiohead's seminal album came out, but to overlook it for this list on the basis of this technicality would be, in our minds, a travesty. And so...)
Everything is truly in its right place in Radiohead’s Kid A. Accordingly, there’s not much new to say about this 2000-era masterpiece other than to remind everyone this remains one of the best-produced records out there, not to mention one of the finest collections of songs from the band. The dense, labyrinthian layers of electronic sound coupled with acoustic instruments and Thom Yorke’s inscrutable, surreal lyricism spread across the record’s 10 tracks is lush and dynamic and demands a wide and insightful soundstage to make the most of it.
These tracks mess with directionality, apply unexpected effects and often overload a soundstage with dense instrumentation and lots of texture, so you’ll positively need to have wide, open kit with excellent separation to appreciate the genius at work.
It’s not the most natural, melodic listen, often becoming experimental and avant-garde, but the reasons why this record might not be a hit at parties are exactly why this record is such a good fit for testing out your kit: you’ll get a chance to hear a wide range of sounds you don’t hear too often. It may have come out over 20 years ago, but Kid A still sounds like the cutting edge.
The line between maximalist opus and an unlistenable mess is often a fine one, and for a record like Kid A that manages to deftly straddle that line when played on the right kit, seeing if your kit can handle the ordered chaos of this record is a fantastic way to find out if your kit is actually up to snuff.
LCD Soundsystem – Sound of Silver (2006)
In the past couple of decades, rock music has well and truly been eclipsed as society’s default mode of musical expression outside of pop. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t any wholly modern rock masterpieces, because, for one, we have LCD Soundsystem’s Sound Of Silver. At its heart, this might be a rock record from a rock band, but this isn’t the rock music your dad grew up with. This is a groovy, synth-heavy, danceable record that folds in punk and indie influences alongside a hearty dose of electronica. Above all else, this isn’t a low-fi recording in a garage, like many rock bands of old, it’s an expertly-produced, highly-curated record.
Threading that needle between the clean, constructed, digital sound of electronic music and the often warm, organic sound of a rock song, Sound Of Silver was a thoroughly modern, cutting-edge take on rock music back in 2007 when it first came out. 15 years later, though, this record sounds just as fresh. With both the punchy heft of guitar-driven rock music and the dynamic variety and pulsing beats of modern electronica and dance music, Sound Of Silver is a great record to use to put your kit through its paces.
It’s hard to call Sound Of Silver just a rock record or a dance album or merely electronica, because it’s all of those at the same time in the same tracks. When testing kit, it’s easy to focus on a particular characteristic you want to test and find music perfect for testing just that, but if you want to be more efficient with your listening, music with a lot of different sounds and influences that bridges the gap between genres is just the ticket.
Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)
What happens if you took the hottest, most acclaimed producer in hip-hop, got him together with a legion of the biggest rappers and musicians in the world, and stuck them all together for months at a far away recording studio in Hawaii? Well, you get My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye’s most beloved, acclaimed, and successful record that invariably critics and fans alike tend to refer to as his magnum opus.
MBDTF is an maximalist odyssey into the hedonistic fever dream of a man dealing with loss and grief and growth and spiritual collapse while simultaneously becoming one of the richest, most famous and influential musicians of all time. Sounds and samples of every style and genre can found in My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’s epic 68-minute runtime, but make no mistake, this record isn’t overlong: it’s overflowing with ideas at every turn.
Whether it’s a thick, bassy beat and some barebones rapping, thunderous orchestral sections, soul samples from the 1960s, minutes-long spoken-word comedy skits, or wild, experimental electronic interludes, to name just a few of this record’s sounds, MBDTF has it all. Every sound in every track has thought behind it, adding up to one of the best-produced recordings in the history of hip-hop.
Using My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy to test your kit is like testing your stomach with a pizza with every topping known to man: It’s the ultimate in intensity and variety, the endgame of testing for the sonic elements – dynamics, rhythm and timing – that add up to musicality.
Drake – Nothing Was The Same (2013)
In recent years, Drake albums have tended towards sprawling epics often lighter in terms of complexity, compared to his earlier works like Nothing Was The Same. This is Drake’s most sample-rich record, densely packing tracks with up to six unique samples.
If you look at Drake’s discography, a Drake track usually comes packed with a thick, bassy beat with just enough texture to sound interesting and Drake’s rapping taking centre stage, plus just a few samples for atmosphere. Nothing Was The Same went in a new direction, bringing an almost endless variety of samples with it. Make no mistake, these tracks are punchy and dynamic – what many younger folks would understandably call “bangers” for sure – but there’s also more than enough going on to reward careful listeners on repeat plays.
Nothing Was The Same is Drake’s attempt at a timeless classic, serving up classic wedding songs like Hold On, We’re Going Home alongside mega hits like Started From The Bottom in equal measure. This makes for an immensely varied listen as Drake hops between familiar hip-hop, R&B and even soul and dance music spread across the record’s 13 tracks. As a listener, you’ll enjoy how cutting edge and fresh the record feels and sounds, but as a hobbyist looking to test some kit, you’ll appreciate the musical variety on offer in this record, too.
At the end of the day, Nothing Was The Same is an immaculately-produced record, crisp and clean but simultaneously open and warm, packed with dense beats and thrilling flows. The delicate balance between mellower moments and all-out chaos is arranged superbly, making this groovy, modern record a great way to get a feel for the sound of your kit after just a few listens.
Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell (2015)
Soft, acoustic indie music is not usually the best for testing your kit, but that couldn’t be further from the truth when it comes to the musical genius that is Sufjan Stevens. This multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter (and producer) can do it all, and he did it all on his seminal record Carrie & Lowell, filled to the brim with songs carefully constructed and sounding as smooth and sweet as honey tastes.
Every track comes with meticulous instrumentation, subtle and complex, paired with airy melodies and gorgeous vocal takes from Sufjan. This isn’t just a guy with his guitar; there’s piano well as loads of electronic sounds, synthesizers and effects, too. But these aren’t abrasive and experimental like those in Kid A, these are emotive and evocative.
Carrie & Lowell is an exquisitely well-produced record, so rich with depth and subtle details and dynamic fluctuations highlighting masterful songwriting and instrumentation, that you simply won’t be anywhere close to appreciating everything on offer in a particular track after even ten or twenty listens. While the story behind Carrie & Lowell is darkly tragic, it’s still a fantastically musical record, bursting with warmth and life and musicality that will truly shine with the right kit.
No, Carrie & Lowell doesn’t have the punchy dynamics of many of the tracks you’ll see recommended for testing kit, but with so many layers and fine-tuned fine touches, it’s an excellent record for not just sussing out nuance but appreciating a wide, open soundstage that gives music enough space to breathe even when it’s not particularly bombastic.
Lorde – Melodrama (2017)
Pop music, since the dawn of time, has been criticised for relying on the same chord progressions and sounds, the same formats and structures, that can leave tracks feeling overproduced and, ultimately, uninteresting. So, when massively popular pop icons break the mould and push the boundaries of the genre, it’s often magic, which is the story of Lorde’s Melodrama, a lush, varied record packed with punchy, lively pop beats alongside an endless list of fresh ideas and novel sounds and effects.
Legendary pop producer Jack Antonoff (responsible for other pop masterpieces like Lana Del Rey’s Norman Fucking Rockwell, among many others) brings his trademark stylish, hip, electronic modern pop song sound to Melodrama, while Lorde brings her thoroughly original, especially lyrical take on songwriting, meshing together to create something that topped the charts but also managed to have new ideas worth unpacking over many listens.
Melodrama is unashamedly danceable pop music you wouldn’t be surprised to hear blaring from the speakers at the mall, bringing all the familiar electronic sounds, beats, and samples of modern pop music – but don’t let that trick you. Every beat of a Lorde track is unexpected when you hear it and, after you do, it makes perfect sense. From novel sounds and influences to big beat switch-ups in the middle of a track to unique bridges and novel verses, while in the familiar shape of pop music, there’s meat on these bones.
Considering the bright, catchy melodies and beats of modern pop music coupled with the adventurous spirit of darkly modern electronica and dance music, Melodrama is an effective way to hear just how rhythmic, organised and bass-tight your system is.
Billie Eilish – WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? (2019)
If Lorde started something all the way back in 2013, as just a musically inclined kid, with Pure Heroine, Billie picked up that torch in 2019 with WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? This is a pop record like no other, and it pushes the dark, sensual, minimalist sound of a Lorde record to its absolute max, creating something thoroughly original and not just modern but wholly futuristic, sounding like what those at the Capitol in The Hunger Games might listen to in their free time.
Yes, this is a record made for and by zoomers, filled with The Office clips and the younger generation’s obsession with writing everything in lowercase (or in caps), but that doesn’t mean there isn’t something for everyone to appreciate here. The aggressively minimalist, heavily electronic sound of this record that constantly flips between huge, epic bass-sweep-backed choruses and sparse, near-silent verses is the perfect backdrop to Billie’s peerlessly breathy, emotive vocal performances.
This delicious contrast between the crisp production of the record and Billie’s gritty vocals is ripe for unpacking and internalising over many listens, and when you’re testing kit, you’ll get to appreciate not just the soft subtleties of how your speakers’ midrange delivery handles her texture-ripe and dynamically-lilting vocals but also your kit’s scale, low-end grip and rhythmic organisation. If you’ve got an especially sterile or neutral piece of kit, the unlikely marriage between the disparate elements of this record leans more towards divorce.
You might start to feel your years when you think about a song that sounds like bad guy topping the charts in 2019 when just a decade ago the Black Eye Peas’ Boom Boom Pow sat at the top of the Billboard rankings, but the dark, minimalistic electropop of WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, that has become a worldwide phenomena and inspired a generation is, unsurprisingly, a perfect fit for using to push the boundaries of any piece of kit.
Listen to the What Hi-Fi? playlist for concentration and focus
Here's our definitive list of the 10 best songs to test your speakers
As well as our top picks for tracks to test your headphones
I'd love to know how WHF arrived at this set of recordings. There seems to be a complete lack of logic and reason particularly when you take into account that no medium is mentioned. Are these CDs, vinyl, DSD or the infamous MQA? I don't suppose they're available on Minidisc.
Thank you for the conflicting opinion, something that should be welcomed more in today's fractious world.
May I suggest a recent recording that I like for you to listen to and tell me what you think, and you can do the same for me - give an example of an 'old days' recording. There's a good chance that I might have it in my library and, as I think it puts greater demands on an audio system, I'd prefer a piano concerto. My recommendation for you is Mozart Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor with Lief Ove Andsnes and the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra on Warner Classics and yes, it's from 2022.
Away from classical, try Cry by Ray Charles or Bob Marley's Exodus - even Try a Little Tenderness from The Commitments OST. If the first two don't sound wonderfully clear, natural and presented in an expansive soundstage, something's definitely not right!
In the end, all 'good' recordings shouldn't be vastly different and it will come down to personal preference rather than any sort of 'objective' criteria I believe. What I suspect is true now is that the conductor and soloist can have input to the final sound of the recording (yes, so it might get 'tweaked' a lot - which might explain why I find I can pick out individual instruments more easily) whereas in the old days, you got one recording of the Hall on tape and that was it; either it was great or it wasn't. I will let you know what I think.
Next up: (tomorrow or Saturday) I'll listen to your Ray Charles and Bob M. I am expecting to like them.
BTW, I do have good equipment: Cambridge CXA81, B&W speakers and I was playing if from an EAC file, copied from my CD, through my LG OLED CX55 via Optical cable. My ears are pretty good too.