Although there are a slew of music-streaming services across the Web, they're not created equal. But if you find the right service to match your music style, you'll quickly realize that finding the best song for a particular occasion isn't as hard as it once was.
Including Grooveshark in the list of the top five music-streaming services may surprise some since it doesn't get the kind of attention Last.fm or Pandora does. But with the help of an outstanding search interface that lets users find a slew of songs by artist, album, or song, as well as a slick, Flash-based interface, it's one of the best streaming music services around.
Overall, the site's recommendation engine is outstanding and the relevance of the tracks it offered was superb. The ability to embed songs elsewhere across the Web with Grooveshark widgets is a nice touch, but the main issue facing Grooveshark is that its library is a bit too small. Sure, the company claims it offers a library of "millions" of songs, but many are duplicates and after listening for about 20 minutes or so, I heard the same songs again when I left the recommendation engine running. To limit that issue, I decided to create my own playlist of songs without using the recommendation engine. It allowed me to skip back to songs I had already heard and although it took more work than I would have liked, the experience was far more appealing that using the company's recommendation engine.
Last.fm is great for the social-networking fanatic in all of us and its library of songs is superb. In fact, the service is equally capable of finding Louis Prima's "Angelina Zooma Zooma" as Coldplay's "Viva La Vida." Last.fm might just be another place to create a radio station to listen to songs that sound similar to your favorites, but it's the social element that adds appeal to the service. The ability to find out what friends are listening to is a welcome feature and the ease with which you can find songs makes Last.fm one of the easiest services to use.
There's not much to dislike about Last.fm. The service is simple to use, it offers extras like videos and lyrics to sweeten the pot, and generally does well when offering up new songs. But it's that recommendation engine that doesn't perform quite as well as Pandora's that takes away somewhat from the Last.fm experience. During my testing, the service did well on newer, more popular songs, but on more obscure tracks, it had difficulty delivering related songs. But if you're not into less-known artists or indie labels, I doubt you'll even notice.
Editor's note: Last.fm is owned by CBS, which also publishes CNET and CNET News. The author of this post is a freelance contributor to CNET, and his views on these products are his own.
A relatively new entrant to the market, MySpace Music has quickly become one of the most appealing music streaming services on the Web. Its library of music is huge--it features songs from all the major labels and independents--and learning more about the artist and song was made easy thanks to MySpace's wealth of information for each track. Unlike Pandora, I was able to pick any songs I wished from the company's library and add it to a playlist that I could play an unlimited number of times. That may be a simple addition, but being able to repeat songs and choosing to play any one of the millions of tracks the service offers is an extremely appealing feature.
The main issue plaguing MySpace Music, though, is its poor interface that makes it too difficult to find music, create playlists, and get down to the business of listening to music. I realize the service is full of features, which is probably why it's so difficult for the company to cram all of it onto a page in a neat way, but something needs to be done to fix it before it can truly compete on the same level with well-designed services like Pandora and Last.fm.
Pandora is easily one of the best music services on the Web. With a huge library of songs, an outstanding interface, and the best recommendation engine in the business, the service is a fine alternative to Last.fm. And with the help of a simple "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" system to tell the service if you like a song, Pandora's ability to find related songs that you actually enjoy is second to none.
But as appealing as its music service is, it's the general lack of social features that takes away from an otherwise outstanding service. Monitoring what your friends are listening to is practically impossible and connecting to others to share music is missing. Granted, the service, which is based off the Genome Project, specializes in providing music first and foremost, but as one of Last.fm's main competitors, it seems silly to me that a more appealing social element isn't included.
Rhapsody may be one of the oldest services in the music streaming business, but it still packs quite a punch. Aside from playing songs, Rhapsody displays lyrics for most songs and I was even able to perform a few tunes myself thanks to karaoke tracks included in its library. And regardless of whether I was looking for the Velvet Underground or Britney Spears, I found any song I wanted without much trouble, thanks to a slick interface and a library of songs that's one of the largest on the market.
But for all its virtues, the biggest issue facing Rhapsody is its business model. To gain full access to its entire library of songs an unlimited number of times, as well as other features the service has to offer like personalized playlists, it requires users to dole out at least $12.99 per month. The company's free offering allows users to play 25 songs for free each month, but that limit dries up quickly. And considering most of the Rhapsody's competitors offer the same music for free, I'm hard-pressed to find a reason to use it when Pandora and Last.fm are providing their own, free alternative.