Any run-of-the-mill music fan knows that there's an absolute plethora of online sites for reviews, streaming, purchasing, and so forth. There's so much that it's nearly impossible for many to streamline the good from the not so good. And as anyone in Silicon Valley knows, the past decade has seen many a start-up come and go. And many are still trying to make a mark right now. In time, more will fall, some will rise, others will plod along and a few will find sustainability over time.
I am not basing my favorites on their business models, but rather on what they offer music fans. Instead of breaking my selections into categories (e.g. purchasing, streaming, reviews, blogs), I decided to just go with the five that I visit most and those that have built tools and staffs that understand the way lovers of music feel about an artform that changes and impacts our lives.
#5 All Music Guide
Allmusic is chock full of information about nearly every artist and record ever to land in a record store, or online. You can search artist biographies along with every record released with all the necessary information. In addition, Allmusic has staff writers who review all those records. And unlike sites that clearly lean in a particular direction, AMG covers it all and is almost always spot on in their reviews. So if you hear that certain song and can't remember the artist, hit up all music. If you're getting into Ry Cooder, but don't know which record to buy, once again, AMG. And if you just want to spend time browsing endless information about music, well, this is your spot.
The best place to download music. Users can choose from two monthly packages, both of which are absurdly cheap. I opt for 90 downloads for $19.99. That works out to about $.22 per song. That is just slightly over 20% of what a download on iTunes will run you. And on eMusic the tracks are in MP3 format. In other words, there are no tedious locks on the songs. You can burn, rip, trade, trash, caress, whatever. Sure, you don't have access to major-label content, but how much good music is being delivered by the majors these days? Answer: very little. On eMusic, you have content by the best labels/distributors around, including Secretly Canadian, Merge, Redeye, Matador, Touch & Go, Domino, Bar None, Beggars, Smithsonian Folkways and Stax. And when it seems as if you've exhausted everything you'd want to buy, think again; you've just gotten started.
The current king of the music bloggers. Largeheartedboy offers only a snippet of his own content, relying predominately on links to the day's best in music. Instead of jamming the predictable big-label garbage down your throat, he takes his time and steers you to the interviews, downloads, and reviews with substance. Add to that song downloads and full-show downloads, his book reviews, comprehensive lists, links abound, and you have just about everything you need. And it's all done on one page in a simple and cohesive format.
Granted, it's not a "music" site, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a better place to find footage of nearly every artist ever to make music. You want to see some Replacements footage from back in the day? How about Kenny Roby performing in a coffee shop in North Carolina? Or the Stones around the time that they recorded Exile on Main St.? Well, it's all there. And the discovery is absolutely endless. Country, rock, indie, hip-hop, soul, punk, funk, crunk....it's all there. And it's just growing and growing.
I joined last.fm in June of 2005 and I still check the site every day, usually numerous times a day. Last.fm is unique in that not only can you stream just about anything and link to YouTube videos of the artists you're streaming, but all of your listening is tracked. Any song that you listen to on your computer or iPod is added to your charts, which grow with each listen. You can check out your all-time lists or break it down by month or week. You can do this by track and artist. In addition, you can check the same of your friends, colleagues and strangers, in real time. So if you're in your living room and want to see what your brother or boss are listening to, as long as they're signed up and listening, well, it's right in front of you. And then you can scour their charts or listen to their last.fm radio, which is culled from their libraries. The site also contains forums, site-wide charts, playlists and groups. If you're looking for discovery, community and all the music you can absorb, this is the best site out there.
For a few years this was far-and-away my favorite music site. I'd rise each morning and look forward to the five records they'd review each weekday. I discovered hundreds of artists and albums via their reviews. I came to trust their writers. I would also dive into their features, news and lists. This was a treasure trove for "real" music fans. Then they started to realize this and began to lose their way. The days of discovering great bands such as The Wrens and Grizzly Bear appear to be on the downswing as Pitchfork has grown a bit full of themselves. They now choose obscurity over quality and this is precisely what they set out not to be. No, I no longer check each day, but I do check a few times a week. I love the "Guest List" section and still scour the reviews. And from time-to-time they do nail a review and lead me to something new. And oftentimes I learn some news that's appealing. But a once great site is clearly falling into obscurity, exactly where they now appear to be most comfortable.
Worth noting: Insound, Daytrotter, Metacritic, Magnet Magazine, PopMatters, Blurt, Fabchannel, Black Cab Sessions