Over a decade ago, searching for legal ways to get music on the Internet was tiresome and downright tedious. Fast-forward to today and we're left with more music services than we have fingers, all touting free or affordable ways to listen to just about all the songs you could possibly listen to several lifetimes over. Record labels may still be bickering in court, but now is a pretty darn good time to be able to enjoy the freedom of listening to practically anything you want...all without a court order. Here are five great services or apps to get straight in the groove. (Also check out "Which music service should you use?")
Rdio is available both as a Web app and an executable application in Windows. Rdio has a healthy library of new and old tunes, so if you want to listen to some Top 40 tracks, then you can't go wrong with this one. In addition to scrobble support from your Last.fm account, Rdio also allows the standard Twitter/Facebook linking thing if you're into spreading your musical gospel. While you play a song, you have the option to buy the song directly for offline listening and sharing. You can also view your listening history as well as recent activity, which is useful for cases when you forget to save a song you liked. Unfortunately, the "downloadable" application is nothing more than a blurry, rasterized rendition of the original Web app. You're better off running this in your browser.
Pandora is by now a veteran in the music-streaming game and still retains a solid userbase. Unlike Mog or Rdio, Pandora is all about radio and its "music genome" recommendation engine. While it lacks the ability to search for individual tracks in the free version, it still remains as one of the quickest ways to load up a radio station with satisfactory recs. In addition to automatically displaying lyrics and offering quick access to buying and sharing tracks, Pandora still remains as a go-to favorite for Internet radio enthusiasts. Though other services may offer similar features for generating radio stations, Pandora's recommendation legacy and listening experience still reigns as one of the best services that truly match its users' tastes. I recommend Pandora to hands-off, simple radio enthusiasts.
Last.fm is a music-streaming Web app that also boasts impressive attempts at figuring out your taste in music. By "scrobbling" your music, Last.fm analyzes everything from the number of times track is played, your existing library, to even what your friends are listening. By taking your listening history and comparing the data with millions of other scrobbles, Last.fm generates a prolific experience that hopefully results in playing more music that you'll like. Each song generates a profile like page, complete with individual comments, short bios, and a photo slideshow...like a prettier Pandora. Though its radio app works as intended, it sometimes feels more like an analytical experience and might be considered information overload for those who just want to quickly load a track and move on. (Disclosure: Last.fm is a part of CBS Interactive, which also publishes CNET and Download.com.)
Mog is another noteworthy music Web app with plenty of artists and tracks to choose from. It's hard to really compare which service has more music from just a user standpoint with say, a service like Rdio. Mog has a dark, clean interface that doesn't feel cluttered. The app makes sharing on your social networks a bit easier by allowing you to post status updates from within the app itself (as opposed to opening a new window). I also found the progression of music discovery to seem much more fluid in Mog vs. Rdio. When listening to a track, Mog will display a direct link to a generated radio station with similar artists, just like Pandora does. The only downside is that Mog only offers a limited number of free listens before it asks you to join its premium service. It may not be true, unlimited free music, but those exploring paid options may find it a worthy contender.
Arguably one of the biggest hits in music streaming since its US debut, Spotify has spread like such wildfire that its director Sean Parker is convinced that even Apple felt threatened by its recent success. Spotify boasts huge libraries of music with an iTunes-like interface, but its biggest strength comes from its emphasis on social playlists. You can share tracks and see what your friends are listening to, along with the usual features such as artist radios, rating songs, and posting status updates. Spotify makes discovering new music possible from more angles than other apps, ranging from friends' playlists to location-specific top hits. Though the free version only encodes songs in 160kbps, premium features unlock mobile access, offline listening, and higher-quality bit rates.