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Best rock tracks to test your music system

Whether you're looking for some new music to listen to or something that will put a pair of headphones through its paces, you've come to the right place.

At CNET we test audio gear all the time, and rock music is essential for hearing what a speaker, soundbar or amp can do. Here you'll find some of my favorite songs for testing audio devices. From singer-songwriter confessions to dance floor jams to music for your 3 a.m. listening session, there's something for every music fan. And every music system.

While you flip through the slides, I encourage you to listen to the matching playlist on Tidal or Spotify.

This roundup is an adjunct to The Audiophiliac's top music tracks for testing speakers and headphones, which lists mainly classical, vocal and blues recordings.

Disclaimer: CNET may get a share of the revenue from the sale of albums featured in this gallery.

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1
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Alt-J, Relaxer

Test track: 3WW

If Alt-J's 3WW had a chocolate bar equivalent, it would be Cadbury's Marvelous Creations: it too fuses disparate elements together -- chocolate, pop rocks and jelly beans -- into a surprising whole. The track's deep bass bed is a test for smaller speakers in particular, and details such as the subtle shaker egg can test how well your system unravels musical elements.

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2
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Dead Can Dance, Into the Labyrinth

Test track: Yulunga (Spirit Dance)

Australian "world music" aficionados Dead Can Dance crafted one of the best songs of their careers in Yulunga (Spirit Dance). It's no pop song -- more a 7-minute vocal drone -- but it's so lovely that you'll want to listen to the very end. The best-sounding systems can deliver a massive sense of space and ensure the various drums boom and shake without losing control.

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3
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Kamasi Washington, Heaven and Earth

Test Track: Fists of Fury

You can tell straight away from the "alien saxophonist standing on a lake" cover that this isn't your typical po-faced jazz record. So where does Kamasi Washington's triple album Heaven and Earth go next? With a fantastic bossa nova cover of Bruce Lee's Fist of Fury theme of course! This huge-sounding track is danceable, as the best jazz should be, and includes lots of little details such as the percussion mixed to the extremes of the sound stage. If you're mulling over this or Charlie Parker's "lost" album Both Directions at Once, get this one. The future of jazz is in Washington's good hands.

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4
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Mitski, Puberty 2

Test track: Your Best American Girl

The future of rock and roll is not yet another band that sounds like Led Zeppelin, it is ceaseless experimentation, of blending different sounds and genres into new forms. Today, this is artists like St Vincent, Alt-J and Mitski. Mitski's Your Best American Girl may be the most straightforward "rock" track on her modern masterpiece Puberty 2, but it's also the most affecting. It mixes quiet and loud in a way that hasn't been done this well since the Pixies invented it, and it blends this with haunting vulnerability. Listen for the click track at the start followed by her little "hmph." Note: This is a pretty stringent test for bright systems -- the distorted vocals of the chorus may upset audiophiles, but if your system can play this song without you wanting to turn it off, it can play anything.

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5
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Iron & Wine/Calexico, In The Reins

Test track: He Lays in the Reins

Like most Iron and Wine records He Lays in the Reins is impeccably recorded. You can almost imagine Sam Beam confessing into a sea shell at the Grand Ole Opry while the band plays around him. Listen for details like the right-speaker shaker egg and the surprise appearance of an opera singer at the 1:45 mark. 

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6
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Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Let Love In

Test track: Red Right Hand

If you can only use one song to test a new stereo system or pair of headphones, let it be this Nick Cave track. Listen to how the vocals mix with the similarly deep bass line -- both should be intelligible. A sufficiently detailed system will even highlight the occasional "backmasked" echo effects on some of Cave's lines.

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7
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Spoon, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga

Test track: You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb

This song is not only catchy and good fun, but it's also our go-to treble response test here at CNET. It features prominent left and right tambourines which, on a well-balanced system, sit in the middle of the mix while on a bright system will sound like a percussion solo.

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8
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Ben Harper, The Will to Live

Test track: Widow of a Living Man

One of the simplest songs on this list -- just Ben Harper and his acoustic guitar. With a good pair of speakers, it sounds like Harper is in the room with you, and it's kind of eerie. On a couple of occasions Harper moves his head slightly and you can hear the vocals phase or "lose focus" for a moment.

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9
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Arctic Monkeys, AM

Test track: Do I Wanna Know?

Not an audiophile recording by any stretch -- it's straight rock 'n' roll record -- but what you're listening for are the titular vocals in the chorus. Are they steely and distorted? While some people like the heightened presence boost that speakers such as the Revel Concerta 2 can bring, they can make pop tracks like this well-nigh unlistenable.

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10
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Okkervil River, Away

Test track: Comes Indiana Through the Smoke

This simple song from songwriter Will Sheff starts with non-diegetic sound effects that recall his older album, Black Sheep Boy. The thunder in the distance is where it's at -- does it sound natural? 

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11
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Talking Heads, Speaking in Tongues

Test track: Girlfriend is Better

The live version of this song was a staple of FM radio, but the studio cut is tighter and arguably funkier. That bass drum is the real tester here, deep and yet punchy at the same time. It will sort out flabby-sounding speakers and wireless subs pretty quickly. 

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12
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The Beta Band, Hot Shots II

Test track: Life 

This funky song kicks along amiably for its first two-and-a-half minutes but after that the real test begins -- a descending bass synth scale ending on low D (37Hz). Listen here for the vocals and percussion effects; are they clear, or is the bass overtaking everything else? Is each note in the scale the same volume, or do some sound soft or blow out? If they waver, it means that your system is accentuating some bass notes at the expense of others.

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13
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Led Zeppelin, II

Test track: Ramble On

What is that percussion effect in the left channel? Is it a pair of tapped knees, Buddy Holly-style? Or is it, as is the popular theory, an instrument case? This is not an audiophile recording -- there's too much reverb for that -- but it's an enjoyable song nonetheless, especially when the chorus kicks in.

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14
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Daft Punk, Random Access Memories

Test track: Get Lucky

Audiophile pop recordings are still alive and well even if Random Access Memories feels a little out of time. The hit track Get Lucky is the danciest song on the album and a system with tight bass and an expressive midrange will present it at its best.

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15
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LCD Soundsystem, LCD Soundsystem

Test track: Disco Infiltrator

Bass sweeps and a tight, funky rhythm section will really test your system's dynamics. If this song doesn't make you want to dance, it's not the music, it's your headphones.

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16
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The Mountain Goats, The Sunset Tree

Test track: Pale Green Things

Another sparse recording, Pale Green Things ruminates on mortality and, of all things, horse racing. A spacious-sounding system will help situate John Darnielle in the room he's singing in.

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17
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Pixies, Surfer Rosa

Test track: Gigantic

One of the most intimate vocal recordings in the whole of the Pixies' seven-album catalog. If you listen with headphones or with a set of speakers with a decent soundstage, you'll hear that the vocals are not mixed in the middle like most records but at the right (Kim Deal) and left (Black Francis' yelps). The song's full-range electric guitars (and background tinkling piano) are also a great gauge of irregular frequency bumps.

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18
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The Beatles, Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

Test track: A Day In The Life

Volumes have already been written about this album and its final track. Nevertheless, this is arguably one of the best songs ever written, and the 2017 remix by Giles Martin presents it in the best light possible. Come for John Lennon's snarky lyrics and stay for the squeaky chair at the end. 

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19
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Andrew Bird, Are You Serious

Test track: Puma

Is this Andrew Bird's most poppy song yet? With tight production and typically oblique lyrics Puma is a great test of your system's ability to produce punchy bass while keeping the rest of the frequency range in check.

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20
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Steven Wilson, Hand. Cannot. Erase.

Test track: First Regret / 3 Years Older

Bohemian Rhapsody, Stairway to Heaven, Thick as a Brick. Ever wonder why "they don't make 'em like they used to?" Well, they do, they just don't get on the radio anymore. Super Furry Animals' Receptacle For The Respectable, Mastodon's The Czar and The Decemberists' The Island are just three more modern examples. Steven Wilson's 12-minute song cycle neatly bridges both the new and old prog epics with ultracrisp production and tight musicianship.

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