How To Listen To Great Free Music Online
|Published:||Jan 10, 2008|
Internet radio is an old dog--at least 15 years old if Wikipedia is to believed--but nevertheless it learns new tricks every year. The latest trick of internet radio sites is to personalize the music that reaches your ears, giving you a stream of tunes that molds itself to your tastes. Best of all these sites are free and, unlike many file-sharing options, completely legal. Below I'll introduce you to three of my favorite personalized streaming music sites.
Pandora was one of the first sites to offer free, personalized music streams, and many other sites have followed in its footsteps. The Pandora premise is simple: You enter the name of a band or a song you like and it creates a "Station" that will play music similar to (and usually including) your selection according to its musical "genes." You can move your mouse over each song Pandora plays to reveal the "thumbs up" and "thumbs down" buttons, which can be click to tell Pandora if you like or dislike the song. Your up-or-down preference will help Pandora pick songs you're more apt to like in the future. Once you've created a Station you can also manually add songs or artists to it to further help the system make its picks.
Pandora is super easy to use, and you can create as many Stations as you like--one for every mood and whim. And once you have several Stations set up you can use its QuickMix button to mix together songs from a few or all of them. The music selection on Pandora is top-notch, and even one the most rare occasion you query for a band or song it doesn't have, it will still assemble a Station with similar music.
You can listen to Pandora without signing up, but once you've registered (which is free) Pandora will be able to remember the Stations and preferences you've created indefinitely, and from any computer. Pandora also has social features allowing you to connect with friends' accounts and share the music you're listening to. And if you can't think of a song or band you're in the mood for, Pandora now has genre stations from Christmas to Post Punk.
Last.fm at its heart is a social networking community for music fans. It offers plugins for Windows Media Player, iTunes, and many other audio players that let you catalogue every song you listen to, building up charts of your personal listening habits (optional, of course). Last.fm also lets you connect with your friends and share recommendations. I won't go into all of Last.fm's features, but they're definitely worth exploring if you're looking for a more robust experience.
If you just want to listen to some great music--which is the focus of this article--Last.fm is a great service, too. Even without signing up you can enter the name of a favorite artist on the Last.fm front page and it will load a personalized playlist for you containing music that other fans of your selection listen to. The Last.fm player has "love" and "hate" buttons that let you mark songs you like and dislike. If you register for a free account and use the service's other features--the music player plugins and the social networking system--it will also create personalized Recommendations and Neighborhood stations with music it deems similar to what you listen to and music that your friends listen to, respectively.
A newer entrant into the internet radio market, Slacker focuses on genres more than recommendations, with predefined stations for dozens of musical genres from "Alt. Hard Rock" to "Outlaw Country." But like the others, Slacker readily bends itself to your preferences. If you're looking for music that sounds like a particular artist just enter their name in the search box. You can also use the "Create Station" button to create a station from multiple artists and then fine-tune its selections by popularity (from Fringe to Hits), year (Classic to Current), and so on, which is a feature the other services lack. You can also "publish" stations to share with your friends, but otherwise Slacker is missing the social networking features of Pandora and Last.fm.
Slacker has some other unique facets. For starters, the company is working on a portable device, reportedly due sometime this month, that will allow you to listen to your Slacker stations on the go. Slacker also has a downloadable player that adds a few features and has the benefit of not requiring you to keep your web browser open while you're listening. Finally, Slacker offers paid subscriptions that eschew the advertisements and save songs for playback at any time.
Another fresh start-up and still in beta, Jango has a cute three-point rating scale: sad face, happy face, and really happy face. It's not as featureful as the aforementined offerings, but it does let you fine-tune the stations you create by adding artists and adjusting the song selection on a scale from "popular favorites" to "wide variety." Jango has some social features, allowing you to listen to other users' stations, but interaction is limited to leaving comments and sending thank-yous. As with the other services, you must register for a free account in order for your stations and preferences to be saved between sessions.
The personalized internet radio arena is getting crowded, with new challengers arriving seemingly every week. The above four are my current favorites, and roughly in that order, but in order to find the service that suits you best, I recommend trying each, as each has its ups and downs depending on what kind of user, or listener, you are.
Blogger since 1999, Jordan Running went pro in 2005 and never looked back. Sometimes programmer, occasional photographer, and serial tinkerer, he decided to to switch to Linux in 2001 but just hasn't quite gotten around to it yet.