"Since you listened to Pharrell Williams recently, you might like this new release by Avicii," read Spotify’s suggestion box. That’s like saying, "Since you ate at a Mario Batali restaurant, you might like these Totino’s Pizza Rolls." But I appreciated the attempt at some sort of guidance. As much as I love all-you-can-stream music services, they’ve become a bit overwhelming.
Maybe you’ve been there, too: sitting slack-jawed in front of Spotify or Rdio or Rhapsody, wanting to hear something, you’re just not sure what. New would be good. Good would be good. I used to hunt through music blogs for fresh tunes, wake up to an e-mailed song that a friend couldn’t stop playing on repeat, fall in love with an opening band whose set I’d almost skipped. That was back when I had more time—or wasted less of it staring at my Twitter feed—and being the first to find a new band held more social sway. Now I have millions upon millions of songs at my fingertips but don’t know where to begin searching for a diamond, so I cave and cue up the usual, listening to Arcade Fire or Sam Cooke or LCD Soundsystem for the 7,000th time. Which is why, eager to escape my audio rut, I started testing a few streaming-music entrants designed to help us sift through the noise to find the jams we want.
First stop: Beats Music—yep, as in the headphones. The service launched in January, determined to separate itself from the pack not with a better price (it’s $9.99 a month or $99 a year) or a larger selection of tracks (it has 20 million, roughly equal to that of the other big guns) but a human touch. Launch the app and it asks you to choose a few artists you love and a few you hate. (The Strokes, yes; Avicii, no.) From there, Beats Music populates its constantly updating personalized front page with playlists edited by a team of live music geeks, headed by an ex-Pitchfork editor-in-chief. I might open the iPhone app to see playlists named Stevie Wonder: The 1960s; Intro to Black Lips; and The White Stripes: Deep Cuts.
Aether Cone, $399. (David Rinella)
Beats Music doesn’t nail everything. Its Mad Libs-ish playlist generator, dubbed The Sentence, is inane. But because I can take the reins and dig into the Beats catalog, or tap a smartly edited playlist and kick back, it’s become my go-to streaming-music service.
I also tried two apps, Discovr ($1.99) andSoundwave (free), that merely suggest new music—you hear snippets, not full tracks. Discovr is simple: Plug in an artist and it’ll show an expanding spiderweb of similar artists. It’s a fun time killer, and useful. On a recent beach vacation, I’d exhausted my Desmond Dekker reserves, and using Discovr, I, well, discovered Alton Ellis, a rocksteady staple I’d never heard before.
Social-centric Soundwave is like Instagram for music: It broadcasts everything you listen to, and lets you follow friends and strangers. None of my friends use it, apparently, so I checked Soundwave’s most-played artists. Number one: A-freaking-vicii.
The most intriguing solution to my streaming dry spell may be the just launched Aether Conewireless speaker ($399). It connects to music services (only Rdio for now, with more to come) and tries to become your own personal DJ. Tap the button on the front and the Cone immediately starts playing music or a podcast or Internet radio it thinks you’ll like. The speaker’s face is one big dial; twist and it’ll change the “station.”
From there, the Cone gathers intel on what you listen to, when you listen to it, even where in the house you’re doing the listening. It’s as if Casey Kasem and the NSA joined forces. Within a week or so, my Cone learned that I enjoy hearing BBC News on weekday mornings in my living room. Impressive, since I had no clue myself until I stumbled across the broadcasts on the Cone. Even with supercomputers parsing our every click and play, it’s nice to know that there’s still some serendipity in what catches our ears. Just as nice? The Cone never once played Avicii.
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