Spotify Wrapped has been something of a cultural phenomenon as of late, with users waiting eagerly each year to find out their top tracks, artists and much more. Just this year, Spotify revealed new listening profiles that equated you with a style of listener based on your streaming habits, as well as where in the world streams the same artists as you.
While technically speaking we're laser-focused on audio quality, we can't help but get in on the action. The same can be said for Apple Music and Tidal, who have both adopted a similar roundup where they reveal users' top songs and artists each year, albeit in a slightly less flashy and culturally relevant way.
Well, we've decided to do our own version, so (drum roll, please) we present What Hi-Fi? Wrapped; shameless, we know. We've collected our favourite test tracks that have featured frequently when reviewing products throughout 2023. Much like Spotify Wrapped, this list isn't exclusively comprised of 2023 releases; instead, we're presenting the songs that we've gravitated towards most to help us assess all the products that come through our listening rooms.
We have an eclectic mix of dreamy synth-wave, heavy metal and soulful indie pop, so there's surely something for everyone here. We've been using these tracks to test our hi-fi systems, wireless speakers, soundbars, headphones and more, so we suggest you use them to test your kit at home, too.
Tech Noir 2 by Gunship
Alastair Stevenson, Editor-in-Chief
Tech Noir 2 is the second part of synth-wave powerhouse Gunship’s post-apocalyptic power ballad and the fourth track on its 2023 album, Unicorn. Like the original Tech Noir, it’s a collaboration between Gunship, iconic filmmaker John Carpenter and ex-Busted member Charlie Simpson.
Opening with a follow-up monologue from Carpenter detailing the end of the world, the track blossoms into a full-on medley composed using Gunship’s arsenal of retro-synths.
The song features a complex layered composition full of multiple overlapping parts covering the entire frequency range that’s signposted by a machine-precise, toe-tappingly energetic drum track. This makes it a wonderful test track for any system, but especially great for fans of synth-wave.
Listen to Tech Noir 2 by Gunship on:
The Curse by Agnes Obel
Kashfia Kabir, Hi-Fi and Audio Editor
I’m ten years late to this, but Agnes Obel’s 2013 Aventine album has been my go-to when testing any hi-fi or audio product this year. Fuel to Fire is another favourite, but The Curse has been invaluable as a test track for its exceptional composition and production.
The gorgeous recording is a stellar test of any hi-fi kit and should reveal the initial precise pluckings of the violin strings, the deep, luscious weight of the bow pulled across the cello, the tangible space between the instruments and, above all, Obel’s stunningly ethereal voice.
In many ways, it’s a classic hi-fi test rack (female vocals, classical instruments, spacious soundstage) that allows products to show off their talents in detail, clarity, tonal balance and projection. But what’s more difficult to get across is the very real, very tactile feel of the strings, the mesmerising mood of the haunting, poetic melody, and all the nuances and emotions in her vocals.
The rhythmic interplay between the instruments should be agile and musically cohesive, while the rising (and falling) dynamics should be expressive and fluid, delivering a stirring, elegant experience that should set your senses alight. With the very best hi-fi kit, it sounds magical.
Listen to The Curse by Agnes Obel on:
Scapegoat by Anohni and The Johnsons
Becky Roberts, Managing Editor
If you aren't risking being caught weeping in a test room by your colleagues once in a while due to your poignant choice of test tracks, are you even a devoted reviewer? I put my self-consciousness on the line on several occasions feeding various test subjects the standout song (and tonal and thematic centrepiece) of Anohni and The Johnsons' (formerly Antony and…) first album in 13 years.
The ballad, about society’s oppressive nature and how dehumanising it feels to be a victim of scapegoating, is as sonically powerful as it is lyrically, with Anohni’s spotlight vocal and dripping guitar line soon cascading into the kind of instrumental grandeur that requires tip-top organisation and dynamic expression from a system.
Cymbals should crash and simmer above her heart-wrenchingly quaking vibrato, while the sustained piano should remain coherent beneath the distorted strings. Delivered well, this powerful display of anguish should positively stop you in your tracks.
Listen to Scapegoat by Anohni and The Johnsons:
The Summoning by Sleep Token
Tom Parsons, TV and AV Editor
While I’m certainly not among Sleep Token’s seemingly ever-expanding legion of super-hardcore fans, the mysterious, masked band’s The Summoning is one of the best new metal tracks of the last few years – and a great tester for your hi-fi.
This is a six-and-a-half-minute epic that incorporates crunching guitars, crashing drums, breakdowns so heavy Slipknot would be proud of them and… funk. It’s a mash-up that shouldn’t work but does, and it’s all stitched together by the best vocal performance in lead singer Vessel’s already exceptional oeuvre.
Needless to say, the many theoretically disparate elements of the track require a very broad mix of talents from your system. Large-scale dynamics are key if the loud bits are going to be suitably loud and the quiet bits suitably quiet, but low-level dynamics and detail are just as important if you want to savour every drop of the irresistible vocals. It’s also a massive track that rewards an open and spacious-sounding stereo, and rhythmic accuracy is paramount to the percussive impact.
Listen to The Summoning by Sleep Token on:
Life Is but a Dream... by Avenged Sevenfold
Harry McKerrell, Staff Writer
Fellow What Hi-Fi? colleagues (and readers) might be groaning internally, but while many punters were listening to Doja Cat and Ice Spice (is that right?), Avenged Sevenfold were dropping one of the most groundbreaking rock/metal albums of recent times. Look back in 2030 and Life Is But A Dream... will probably be considered a classic of the genre.
If you’re not into avant-garde metal musing on the nature of existence, simulation theory and the intractable problem of “the self”, might I suggest skipping to the eponymous final track? Life Is But A Dream... veers wildly away from the band’s heaviest inclinations, instead treating us to a glistening, melancholic piano solo of quite unexpected beauty and evocativeness. Find yourself a system that communicates the dynamic peaks and troughs of the performance, and while there might not be any lyrics, the melancholic, existential message should be coming through clear as day.
Listen to Life Is But a Dream... by Avenged Sevenfold on:
Back On 74 by Jungle
Lewis Empson, Staff Writer
I've been following Jungle for nearly 10 years now, with their infectious, funky indie style offering pure serotonin with every track they release. Jungle came back swinging in 2023 with Volcano, an album oozing with pure '70s-inspired laid-back soul, with just a hint of electronic flavour. Star of the show is Back On 74, a track that I have found to be scientifically impossible to dislike; just take my word for it.
The buttery smooth harmonised vocals throughout are warm and comforting, while the tapping snare drum throughout provides a snappy juxtaposition. It's all supported by an underlying baseline that reinforces the funk influence. It's pop, meets jazz, meets soul and I can't get enough of it.
Paired with a warm and inviting set of speakers and an energetic amp that captures the intention of this track, Back On 74 shines, providing pure feel-good vibes.
It also gets bonus points for having one of the best music videos I have ever seen. It's simple, well-choreographed and oozing with style and charm.
Listen to Back On 74 by Jungle on:
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