At the start of a new year, I always want to listen to a lot of new music. I’m a total sucker for the slew of “best album of the year” lists that drop every December. As I read them, I find myself making lists of artists and songs I’m excited to check out.
If you’re anything like me, you might be interested in trying out a streaming music service. The radio is great and all, but the lack of control is a big minus. There are now tons of great options for those of us who want a steady stream of new music that can be customized to our exact tastes.
Here are the five top options for streaming free music online today, along with the prices for each service’s premium offering. If you go premium, you unlock more features — the most important of which is that you don’t have to listen to advertisements.
Best for: those who want the biggest selection, the smoothest interface, and also enjoy collaborating on playlists.
They’re the current market leader among streaming music services, and for good reason. They have the biggest selection of songs and the best user interface. As was the case when the iPhone burst onto the mobile phone scene, people are drawn to the service because it’s just downright intuitive.
They’re also quite good at recommending new music, as their “Discover Weekly” series gets great reviews. This is a feature where Spotify’s machine learning algorithm sends you a few songs you might not have heard before, but will probably enjoy.
Finally, Spotify is the best service for collaboration. They make it easier than any other service to create a playlist that can be modified by multiple users. It’s sort of like the Google Docs for playlists, and it’s super fun to use when prepping for a party or a road trip where multiple people are going to want input.
If I could do it again, I would even consider creating a collaborative Spotify playlist for use at my wedding. At the end of the night, I was letting guests use my laptop to pick their favorite songs from my Amazon music selection. This process would have gone a lot smoother if I’d let people add songs to a Spotify playlist beforehand.
Spotify’s premium service costs $9.99 a month.
Best for: those who are embedded in the Google/Android ecosystem or heavy YouTube users.
While it isn’t as well known as some of the other services, Google Play is quietly becoming a force. Their free service gives you access to 40 million songs, and you can also upload 50,000 songs from your personal collection at no cost.
From my experience, they also have the best algorithms when it comes to creating new playlists from scratch. They have a borderline magical feature where you can click any song and create a playlist from it: Within seconds, it creates a huge playlist of similar songs, with a nice mix of artists you know and stuff you’ve probably never heard of before.
Google search fans will also probably appreciate their “I’m feeling lucky” feature, whereby you click a button and get sent to a random song. All bets are off in terms of quality, but it’s fun to use from time to time.
If you choose to go premium ($9.99), you get access to a service called YouTube Red, which means ad-free YouTube. You also get to watch some exclusive content, but unless you’re a 13-year-old social media addict, you probably won’t find it very interesting. The lack of YouTube ads is great, though. This is an underappreciated aspect of a Google Play subscription.
Best for: Amazon Prime members who also crave high-quality playlist recommendations.
This is my current go-to streaming service. I value its simplicity, its wide selection, and its recommended stations that are continuously updated as my tastes and listening habits change. The home screen of both the desktop site and the mobile app does a great job of displaying playlists based on what it thinks I might be interested in at that time.
Sometimes its recommendations are so good it can feel a bit creepy. I’ll open the app and it will suggest I unwind with some acoustic indie, and that’s exactly what I wanted to do. I admire the technology behind it, and I take their advice on what to listen to more than I’d like to admit.
As with most things Amazon related, the service just works. This is just my opinion, but I find them to be the most reliable option in terms of load time and download speed. Those little things matter when you’re excited to get your music playing!
The service is free for current Amazon Prime members; their premium streaming service, Music Unlimited, costs $7.99 a month if you’re a Prime member, $9.99 if not.
Best for: those who miss the “radio” aspect of internet radio, as you’re not allowed to select individual songs, just stations.
Pandora was the first online streaming service to gain real, mainstream traction, and they were able to build a huge user base. They rode that high to becoming a publicly traded company. Unfortunately, they’ve hit rocky times with all the competition you see above, and their subscriber rates are falling.
Still, Pandora is great at fulfilling its core mission, which allows you to feel like you’re listening to a radio station designed just for you. They pride themselves on being able to analyze songs based on hundreds of criteria, and then using those specifications to tailor stations to each user.
You pick a song, artist, genre, or any combination thereof, and Pandora generates a never-ending playlist based on those initial selections. It works wonderfully for those who want to take a hands-off approach.
And Pandora is pretty great for discovering new music, as you never know what’s coming on next. Because you have the ability to fine-tune the station as time goes on, giving certain songs a thumbs up or down, the system gets better and better at serving up music you’re going to enjoy.
Pandora charges $4.99 a month to remove ads, and $9.99 a month for on-demand streaming of individual songs.
Best for: those who want to discover up-and-coming artists.
All of these streaming services are fantastic for discovering artists who aren’t already signed to a major label. But for those of us with a hunger to hear cool new music our friends have never heard before, SoundCloud is the destination. They have over 200 million active users, many of whom are musicians submitting their latest content.
SoundCloud won’t be for everyone, as their recommendation system is a bit hit-and-miss. You can easily go from listening to an amazing new band to hearing a low-quality song by a 15-year-old singer/songwriter that sounds like it was recorded in a bathtub.
But if you’re looking to find a new favorite band that makes you look cool in front of your friends, I can’t imagine a better service. SoundCloud’s premium service costs $9.99 a month.
Don’t Forget the Good Ol’ Public Library
While it’s a bit of a cheat, since they’re not an online streaming service per se, I couldn’t leave the library off this list. I just love the library!
My hometown New York City public library system allows people to check out digital albums and download a wide selection of songs to any device, free of charge. You can also check out CDs (if you’re really old school), but the beauty of the digital system is that you can get access to full albums without having to make a trip to your library, or being placed on a waiting list.
If you use your local library, it’s worth asking about their digital music services.
Introductory Offers and Other Ways to Save
There’s almost always a way to try the premium version of these services for free, and if you don’t want to pay, the patient consumer can usually find a discount.
A free trial month is standard across all streaming services, and throughout the year each service tends to offer great promos from time to time. I was able to snag six months of Amazon’s service for just 99 cents, and Spotify is known for promotions that will give you three months of premium for 99 cents. That’s a pretty typical deal across the board, and if you’re vigilant about staying on top of things, you’ll almost certainly come across something similar.
You can also create your own deals if you split the cost of the service with your friends or family. Most services offer a family plan, allowing six people to use the service at once, for $14.99 per month. If you split that with a half dozen friends or family members, you’d have millions of songs at your fingertips for just a couple bucks per month.
There are tons of great options when it comes to music streaming, so I’d recommend you pick any service from this list and try it out. Honestly, while they each have slightly different features, they’re all pretty similar at heart.
You’re going to get your choice of songs or music style, you’re going to have playlist making capabilities, and you’ll have to listen to short ads from time to time. But compared with FM radio, with its repetitive nature and minutes-long advertising breaks, you really can’t go wrong with any streaming service.