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9 Music Discovery Apps Ranked (by people who don’t need music discovery)

We put each app to the two-minute test to see if we can discover anything new, then share our discoveries.

Chartattack squiggle

- Mar 12, 2014
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M
usic fans of a certain age are familiar with that uncanny feeling of standing in the middle of a record store, money in wallet, and having no idea what they want to listen to. Nowadays, you carry that whole record store in your pocket with you at all times, but with so much possibility still the only thing you can think of is "Who Let The Dogs Out?" This generation has a solution: music discovery apps. Specifically designed to get you out of that musical rut, find your new favourite band, even give you something new to hum for a minute. And that's great. If you're stuck, why not get your friend (or a friendly algorithm approximating the taste a friend) to help you out?

But here's the thing: we're music writers, not tech writers. We've heard every single released as a lyric video on YouTube this morning, every album hitting stores next week, and can tell you the three obscure krautrock records they're ripping off. Our inboxes are bursting with music one-sheets we'll never read. We burned our tongues because we wanted to sip the coffee before it was cool. But hey, that also makes us the best people to test the leading music discovery apps. What can we discover from these apps that we haven't already heard, posted, and called "atmospheric"? Will these offer us anything new? And will we keep them when we're done?

So we put them to the test the best way we knew how as citizens of the smart phone age: we gave them each two minutes of our time to see if we could discover anything new. Here’s how they fared.


SoundHound

soundhound

What the App Store says it does: “SoundHound recognizes music playing around you. Tap the SoundHound button to instantly identify songs and see lyrics, share, buy or explore more from artists you know and love or have just discovered.”

What it actually does: For millennia, man has cast his eyes upward and asked: “What song is this?,” and Soundhound has The Answer. Let the app listen to what you’re hearing and it’ll give you the track title and artist instantly, along with a 30-second streaming preview and links to paid downloads, YouTube videos, similar artists, album reviews, artist bios, and live-scrolling lyrics.

The Two-Minute Test: No sign up, but ads are sprinkled about. Nothing’s free, guys. I had it listen to a couple different tracks - ID functionality was great. Apparently you can hum or sing to it too - worked with my Spice Girls test, but “I Like To Move It Move It” was a no-go. The Charts section is a pretty generic offering. But to be fair, all the tracks here are rounded out with supplementary links, info and lyrics.

soundhound screenshot 2

The Map section plots out what other people (and you) are SoundHound-ing geographically. I found it surprisingly fun, in spite of (and because of) the garbage people near me are listening to. Lastly, there’s a music player which is like the stock iPhone one, but expanded by all the rest of the functionality.

Would we use this?

It actually seems useful, assuming it works and you’re not too self-conscious to whip out your phone to ID a song. For me, I’ll be surprised if it gets opened twice more before 2015.

Who would use this?

The same guy who, a decade ago, would have banged his head against the jukebox until he figured out that bewildering tune that played 8 songs ago.

Did you delete it?

No. I’m the guy who would have banged his head against the jukebox. Only now I know that song was probably garbage.

What did we discover?

*Bonus: ShazamI probably should’ve tried Shazam first since it's the more popular equivalent. It’s not as feature-rich as Soundhound, but makes up for it with a way more attractive design and interface. Shazam’s music-on-a-map section is more boring, but signing in with Facebook opens up a very attractive feed of your friends’ listening activity (my friends don’t use it, so…). I think they’re different but equal, and since they’re both free, it’s worth giving each of them a whirl.


Listn

listn app

What the App Store says it does:  “Listn is the best way to connect with your friends and their music. We put all your music from different sources like iTunes, Rdio, Spotify, Youtube and Soundcloud in one place and make it easy for you to share this music with your friends.. for free.”

What it actually does:

Tries to get you to listen to a playlist called “Brutal Dubstep.”

listn screenshot

The Two-Minute Test

I didn’t have to give Listn any of my money, and there are no ads anywhere within the app. It’s well-designed and has a smooth user interface. Unlike many similar apps it lets you play the full song, and when you exit the app the music still plays! Technology is amazing! I struggled to find users who were posting lesser-known artists. When trying to discover new music, it was recommending me songs my mother uses for Zumba.

Would we use this?

No. The app doesn’t have a solid way of stumbling across users who aren’t posting music you can't just find on the radio.

Who would use this?

For the person who just discovered Imagine Dragons... and not through their Kendrick collab.

Did you delete it?

No. But thanks for reminding me.

What did we discover?


Discovr

discovrWhat the App Store says it does:  “Discover artists similar to your favorite bands with our interactive music maps. Read bios, check out songs, & videos. Play 30 second samples of the most popular songs. Watch music videos from YouTube. Share your music maps.”

What it actually does:

They’re not lying.

discovr screenshot

The Two-Minute Test

It costs $1.99. No sign-up required. Right away it asks you to “search for a band or artist name,” and from there it recommends you similar artists. Clean interface, easy to maneuver, and immediately I was able to get recommendations that interested me. More importantly, it was recommending me bands I’d never heard, and that I actually liked. The app is simple, easy to browse, and isn’t stuffed with unnecessary features.

Would we use this?

Yes. It has a great algorithm to help find related artists that I don't already know.

Who would use this?

Someone who wants to find similar artists to that band they just discovered.

Did you delete it?

No.

What did we discover?

RatTail 'sicko'


WhoSampled

whosampled

What the App Store says it does: "Access the world’s largest database of sample-based music, cover songs and remixes, and discover who your favorite artists have sampled, or whether your favorite songs have been covered or remixed!"

What it actually does: Transports you to the bottom of a crate-digger's crate.

whosampled screenshot

Two-minute test: The vast catalogue of samples in “Charts” could be catalogued a bit clearer and less squashed, but browsing is still fun. The “My Library” function scans your iTunes for samples, but requires an account. Artist and producer profiles are very informative.

Would we use this? Are you kidding? This will revolutionize pedantic, unnecessary name-dropping across generations. “Did you know that James Brown’s 'Drums' was sampled by Eric B. and Rakim? I SAID, GRANDPA, JAMES BROW..." and so on.

Who would use this? Aspiring producers, fans of sampling, anyone who really hates sampling and wants to hate-surf and feel smugly self-superior, etc.

Did you delete it?: Noooo.

What did we discover?

A Tribe Called Quest’s “Rap Promoter”...

...samples "Leaving on a Jet Plane” by Peter, Paul & Mary.


Bandcamp

bandcamp

What the App Store says it does: "The Bandcamp Listening App for Fans gives you unlimited streaming access to your Bandcamp music collection, plus easy access to your music feed and the Bandcamp Weekly radio show."

What it actually does: Just that. There’s truth to be had in dry descriptions.

bandcamp screenshot

The Two-Minute Test: After logging into my Bandcamp profile, I was presented with the saved albums in my “Collection,” and my music feed of all the artists and labels I follow. Which is many.

Would we use this? If I weren’t already following artists and labels I like, it wouldn’t have discovered anything. It’s more like a GPS system than a treasure detector. But I use Google Maps to get to my fridge.

Who would use this? Anyone with an existing Bandcamp account and a Wi-Fi connection.

Did you delete it? Nuh uh.

What did we discover?


Shuffler.FM

shuffler

What the App Store says it does: "Shuffler is human powered music discovery. With the help of online tastemakers like magazine editors, music journalists, bloggers, curators and DJ’s, we help you filter the music information overload and bring you the latest and greatest by the web’s leading voices in music culture."

What it actually does: You don’t have to interact with humans to hear the music. Which is nice, because that’s what these things are for, right?!

shuffler screenshot

The Two-Minute Test: “Popular” section aggregates blog-hot songs as a chart. If you check music websites once or twice a day, it’s easy to catch up on songs you missed.“Radio” compiles older and new songs by genre; with “Radio” you can customize a profile of musicians and sites you enjoy. You can listen while browsing, which is key.

Would we use this?: Yes. Since the death of Google Reader it’s helpful having something to keep track of your blogs. Other than, you know, Twitter.

Who would use this?: Anyone who wants to see what’s hot (AND what’s not!) on the net without using their laptop.

Did you delete it: Nope!

What did we discover?

Lil B - F*ck KD (KEVIN DURANT DISS) *MUSIC VIDEO* EPIC! MUST WATCH


Video Time Machine

video time machine

What the App Store says it does: “Watch over 20,000 hand-picked videos from 1860 to 2013... Pick a year and watch specific categories including TV, Movies, Music, Sports, Advertisements, News, Games, Sports, and more!”

What it actually does: Files everything in a really unappealing and unintuitive way. You’ll hurt your thumb from swiping.

video time machine screenshot

The Two-Minute Test: Three bucks to download. Spent 45 seconds watching “Gangnam Style” with MC Hammer (one of two music recommendations for 2013), then browsed. Each year has less-than-contemporary musicians playing live or updated versions of songs they released ages ago, i.e., Roger Waters in 2011. The further back in time you go, the better the recommendations. For something that “goes back in time,” there’s a total dearth of context on every clip. No artist information, lyrics, or links. If you enjoy a video, there’s no feature to find more or similar musicians.

Would we use this? This app is like those sampling trays at the supermarket, except empty or for the sample you’d never bother trying because doing so wouldn’t even qualify you as adventurous. Because a lot of the samples are just Stone Temple Pilots...flavoured Doritos.

Who would use this?: Me at 2AM, browsing through the action figure commercials in the “Advertisements” section.

Did you delete it? Was “Gangnam Style” the most viewed music video of 2013?

What did we discover?

PSY AND MC HAMMER "GANGNAM STYLE", LIVE


Twitter #music

twitter music

What the App Store says it does: A fresh approach to finding new music by using Tweets and follows to power discovery. The most popular new music and emerging talent on Twitter right now."

What it actually does: Turns your Twitter feed into a streaming playlist.

twitter music screenshot

Two Minute Test: Free to download. 30 second iTune clips, unless you hook it to Rdio or Spotify, which gives you full streams. Entered our @ChartAttack info and the app auto-populated itself with all the artists we follow (and suggested artists to follow), turning our feed into a sleek grid of handles and avatars that, if you click them, play a song by the artist. Which is very cool for the artists we're following because we like their music, but let's face it, no one is following @Courtney to hear the newest Hole song. Twitter curates a selection of "Superstars," "Emerging" and "Hunted" talent in a variety of genres, but the better discovery tool is #nowplaying, which turns your friends' song tweets into playable streams, and people you've already chosen to follow into your recommendation agents. Which, again, is cool, but only if you followed those people for their music taste.

Would we use this? Yes, but it's hard to see the logic in making this a standalone app rather than a tab built into Twitter itself.

Who would use this? That friend who follows 20,000 people and you wonder how they're keeping up with any of it.

Did you delete it? #no

What did we discover?


Songza

songza

What the App Store says it does: "Working? Relaxing? At the gym? Songza plays you the right music at the right time."

What it actually does: Curates you a playlist based on your mood/activity (translation: time of day).

songza screenshot

Two Minute Test: We purposely didn't include subscription streaming services like Rdio and Spotify in this list, since they have discovery tools built into them but are more databases of music meant to stand in for your music collection. But Songza is competing directly with those services for a very good reason: some people don't want to think about what to listen to, they just want to listen. And it's pretty good at predicting your behaviour based on time of day. It's late morning on a weekday? It'll offer some playlists for working (no lyrics). Get a little deeper and you can get more clever selections, like Steve Albini productions, or "Puffin' Purple," "a blend of hazy rap anthems from old heads and smoked-out upstarts" (translation: a lot of bands that sound like Outkast).

Would we use this? Yes. New music playlists curated based on blogs are close to our hearts (or, wait... competition?).

Who would use thisThat friend who doesn't have time to create their own '80s pre-drink playlist.

Did you delete it? Do I need Wednesday morning typing music? (Yes)

What did we discover?

Smoke DZA - Continental Kush Breakfast feat. Den10 (Dir. by Visually Inklined)

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