Sick of Spotify? Give Grooveshark a go

I think its fair to say that the Spotify honeymoon is well and truly over. When the online jukebox burst onto the scene in late 2008 it was greeted with fevered excitement, but the proliferation of annoying adverts and the recent clampdown on free users signals the end of the party and the start of a long and tough road towards making this large business profitable.

So what now if you’re not willing to shell out at least £5 a month for ad-free music? Well, since you asked – I’ve recently been introduced to an exciting music service called Grooveshark and on the surface it seems to be a serious rival for Spotify.

grooveshark, spotify rival, music player

Lets start with the pros. There are no audio ads, just banners, which is something I find remarkable. As a result the listening experience is completely seamless. Secondly, it’s browser-based, so there’s no need to download any software or get an invite.

Of course there are a few drawbacks to consider. The selection of songs isn’t as comprehensive as Spotify, with only three 30 Seconds to Mars tracks on there for example, as they are uploaded by users. This approach has led to questions over the service’s legality, although they deny any copyright infringements and claim to have agreements in place with music labels.

Secondly, sometimes there is a small lag at the beginning of each song as they have to be buffered one by one. Finally, I have spotted one track that sounds like it’s been recorded off a radio station, only because there is a few seconds of a DJ talking at the end. Otherwise, the quality is superb, though.

On balance, it’s a hugely appealing service, especially considering that some major artists, such as Metallica, are on Grooveshark and not Spotify. You can also listen to genre-specific channels, which is great if you want to stumble across new acts.

Best of all, Grooveshark aren’t pushing the financial side of things particularly hard, with seemingly no limits on the free streaming service. Becoming a paying member ($6 per month) gets you the ability to remove banner ads and upload your own music, and they are also offering a 30-day bundle in conjunction with Lovefilm and Dominos Pizza for £12.50.

Grooveshark will surely look to sink its teeth into users once they’re hooked (pun intended), but for now it represents a great alternative to Spotify for discovering new music for free without any irritating interruptions.

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Top 20 Albums of the Year, 2009

It’s that time of year again. In keeping with a three-year-old tradition, I present for your delectation and discussion my top 20 albums of the year. The main difference this year being that, thanks to the wonders of Spotify, you can now debate and dispute my choices at the click of a button. Anyway, this year’s list is topped by:

1.) Manchester Orchestra – Mean Everything To Nothing

Worthy of their place at the top this year if only for the fact that their keyboard player resembles the bastard lovechild of 70s soul legend Lionel Richie and Pedro from Napoleon Dynamite. Their second record sees the Georgia quintet mature into a potent force of emotional rock, blending the best bits of Brand New and Weezer into an irresistable package.

2.) Biffy Clyro – Only Revolutions

Having taken the UK by storm with their fourth album Puzzle, you would be forgiven for expecting the Biff to go mainstream and placate the American market. Not so, with the incest jibes of Born on A Horse, the jagged riffery of That Golden Rule and the pirate laden sea shanty The Captain. A real triumph.

3.) Frank Turner – Poetry of the Deed

Frank’s third record is a significant achievement, proving that he is a one-man band in name alone. Pianist Matt Nasir adds a noticeable roundedness to this record, whilst the folksy melodies of tracks such as The Fastest Way Back Home and Sunday Nights are real growers.

4.) Doves – Kingdom of Rust

Maybe it was because I wasn’t clued up enough to fully appreciate their previous LP, 2005’s Some Cities, but this album blew me away. Doves’ unique sound is finely honed on Kingdom of Rust and it is a complete travesty that they did not follow in the footsteps of Elbow and finally achieve the mainstream recognition they deserve after this barnstorming album.

5.) Placebo – Battle For The Sun

It’s amazing what a new drummer can do for a band. Steve Forrest’s arrival breathed new life into Placebo this year, who are back to their best – sounding as vibrant and edgy as ever, albeit with a subtle emotional twist.

6.) Arctic Monkeys – Humbug

The northern lads have taken a bold step on their third record; one which may yet see them earn real recognition as a sophisticated rock group, not just a bunch of oiks who use Yorkshire slang in their lyrics.

7.) Muse – The Resistance

I suppose the only thing predictable about Muse is that they will always continue to get more absurd and flamboyant as their career goes on. The impact of their style may have faded somewhat, but that doesn’t stop this from being the most ambitious album of the year, if not the most subtle.

8.) Brakes – Touchdown

This Brighton four-piece started out life as the side projected for the disaffected members of Electric Soft Parade and British Sea Power. On their third record, they have well and truly eclipsed both of their former bands to create a folksy record of indie-pop gems.

9.) Cougar – Patriot

Inventive, inspiring, instrumental joy from deepest, darkest Wisconsin. It only takes a few listens to see why Cougar are the logical inheritors of Explosions In The Sky‘s post rock crown.

10.) Fake Problems – It’s Great To Be Alive

Unashamedly erratic folk-punk from the Florida quartet who supported Frank Turner on his American tour. The least understated record of the year, riven with religious angst and gutteral singalongs.

11.) Idlewild – Post Electric Blues

12.) Conor Oberst – Outer South

13.) Baddies – Do The Job

14.) Art Brut – Art Brut vs Satan

15.) Thursday – Common Existence

16.) The Mars Volta – Octahedron

17.) Brand New – Daisy

18.) Thrice – Beggars

19.) New Found Glory – Not Without A Fight

20.) Green Day – 21st Century Breakdown

As always, I’d love to hear any recommendations of decent albums that I’ve missed off the list. This is by no means definitive and I’m always keen to hear about great new albums.

How Placebo trumped Spotify

Let me start by apologising for the paucity of posts this month. (I could more-accurately say complete lack, but paucity is just too great a word to pass up!) Two things have been keeping me otherwise occupied, one is working full-time as an intern for the lovely people over at the Independent on their university guide, the other is doing freelance music reviewing for inthenews.co.uk

PlaceboWhen reviewing gigs I do my best to brush up on the band in question before seeing them, so in the spirit of things I decided to splash out on the new Placebo album before seeing them at the iTunes festival in Camden last night. It’s a rare event that I actually buy a CD these days, what with Spotify fulfilling most of my PC-based needs for new music, but I felt compelled to pay full lick for a CD copy of Battle For The Sun. Partly because the artwork (above) is brilliant, but partly because Placebo provided Spotify with only a tantalising ‘sampler’ of the album. Instead of the full 13 tracks, there are six on offer for Spotify listeners, and I believe this was a very smart move from the band. It gives you enough music to get a real taste for the album, such as you couldn’t get on MySpace, but it doesn’t give the entire game away and leaves you wanting more.

At the core of it all is a fantastic album, which is what all of this relies on of course. Straight from the jagged opening chords of Kitty Litter, which invoke the band’s 90s hit Pure Morning, Battle For The Sun is a consistent stunner of a record with the ambition turned up to 11. Out go the posey snyths that have cropped up on earlier Placebo records and in come the epic, sweeping string arrangements of the title track and the sassy brass of recent single For What It’s Worth (which includes a sample from the Tetris theme at 1:48, I believe). The main departure from previous records is that Brian Molko is much more open and emotional with his lyrics, and the result is enticing and surprisingly romantic. Placebo fans keen for more can read my live review of the band playing the iTunes festival at the Camden Roundhouse.

Placebo have set an interesting precedent with this Spotify sampler, and I am yet to come across another major band to do so. A quick Spotify search yields only one result for ‘Spotify sampler’. Given the ambition of Spotify, I wonder if they will crack down on bands and record labels only giving away half of their albums – if Spotify samplers become more widespread they could undermine the whole essence of the online juke box, but equally it could throw a lifeline to the ailing CD industry. So what do you think? Have Placebo played a blinder or are they Luddites who are failing to fully to embrace the free music revolution?

Albums of 2009: Surprises and let-downs

Six months in and 2009 is looking like a great year for new albums, with so many coming out right now that my wallet can’t quite keep up; new records from Frank Turner, Placebo and Taking Back Sunday* are all on the horizon.

As a result of this veritable musical glut, I pondered the idea of doing a top 10 of the year so far, after my tutor Jason praised my top 20 list for last year. Instead, I thought I’d branch out and list my five biggest surprises and five biggest let-downs of the year so far, as powered by Myspace and my favourite new application, Spotify. So here they are, in no particular order:

brakes5 Surprise packages:

Brakes – Touchdown
A fantastically well-written album from a band who have grown beyond bizarre 1-minute tracks about porcupines and pineapples to produce some genuine indie-pop gems.

New Found Glory – Not Without A Fight
Florida’s finest return to what they do best; chugging riffs, massive choruses and enough energy to light up the national grid.

Green Day – 21st Century Breakdown
The jury is still out on this 18-track rock opera, but you have to admit (drab lead single aside) it certainly is surprising!

Fake Problems – It’s Great To Be Alive
An explosive third record from this Florida Quartet which makes you feel exactly what it promises. The thunderous vocals and uplifting melodies are simply irresistable.METN

Manchester Orchestra – Mean Everything To Nothing
I’m including this as a surprise, mainly because I’m astonished they they managed to top their fantastic debut, I’m Like A Virgin Losing A Child. METN is an astonishingly diverse record with crushing riffs and moving acoustic moments. I am giddy with excitement about seeing them at Reading Festival!

5 Serious let-downs:

Maxïmo Park – Quicken The HeartQTH
Not a patch on their first record, with the synth-led approach failing to deliver any big hitting tunes, but may prove to be a grower. See my live review on inthenews.co.uk here.

Hundred Reasons – Quick The Word, Sharp The Action
This turgid effort from HR is inexplicably getting a re-issue, albeit with B-sides as bonus tracks. Admit it boys, this was not your finest moment; move on and write some new material!

Thursday – Common Existence
After talk of an ambitious triple-record, for Thursday to come out with this samey record is quite a let-down. Chunky riffs abound, along with the odd flourish of inspiration, but it’s not quite up to their usual high standards.

Flight of the Conchords Series 2

Something of an inevitability, given how long they had to write material for the first series. I’ve Got Hurt Feelings and You Don’t Have To Be A Prostitute are particular highlights, but there is nothing to rival Business Time or The Most Beautiful Girl (In The Room).

conoroberstConor Oberst and The Mystic Valley Band – Outer South
A muddled second solo record from the former Bright Eyes man, who seems to have lost his sense of quality control. The MVB are afforded seven of the 16 tracks to exercise their vocal talents and none of them are particularly memorable.

As always, any thoughts/recommendations on any of the above are most welcome.

*I know New Again is out today, but I haven’t got it just yet. Steady on!

Spot(ify) The Difference

Take a quick look at this picture:

spotify2

Has iTunes had a gothic makeover?

itunes-invert2

No, iTunes has just met it’s worst nightmare. This month Spotify has arrived in the UK and will change the way we listen to music online forever.

For those not familiar with this free and legal service, I will briefly explain. Spotify is a free-to-download program which allows you to stream music live. A lot of music in fact. Its database currently comprises four million tracks and it is growing by 10,000 a day. Not everything is on there, but I’ve been trawling around for a while and it is yet to disappoint.

The whole thing is not only legal, but is endorsed by several major record labels who see this as less of a threat to their interests than pirated music, because Spotify pay them a small premium to host their entire back catalogue. It’s sort of like America siding with the Russians in WWII because, despite their differences, they were more worried about Germany. In this tenuous analogy, America is the music industry, pirated music is Germany and Spotify is Russia. Revolutionary, power to the people etc. etc.

Yesterday, I downloaded Spotify and listened to the new Morrissey album, Years of Refusal. Hot off the press, came out that day. I listened to the whole thing without any loading time and although it’s quite good I probably won’t buy it.

That sort of decision making could be crucial for the music industry. Now listeners worldwide have the right to listen to (almost) any album in its entirety and then decide if they want to buy it or not. If people still decide they want to own a physical CD to show their loyalty and support to the band, then they will surely head to HMV or Amazon and order a physical copy, complete with artwork, lyrics and other such bonuses.

I cannot see how iTunes fits into this new landscape, though. Ditto, MySpace Music. If you just want to listen to music on your computer, then fire up Spotify and listen to full albums as many times as you want.

At this point, I should pay lip service to the few small drawbacks. Every half hour you are forced to listen to a 15-second advert, thus securing Spotify’s revenue which they use to placate the record labels. Alternatively you can pay a tenner a month to cut this out, but that hardly seems worth it.

Secondly, you don’t actually own the tracks and so can’t upload them to an MP3 player. It hardly takes a genius to record streaming tracks, but of course no-one would be that immoral…

Since downloading Spotify, I have been catching up with bands who I have been too busy or too stingy to follow over the past few years and it is simply brilliant. Some I will buy, most I wont, but one thing’s for sure: I’m never spending money on downloading MP3s again.