Nine Inch Nails – Ghosts: First Fruits of the Label-less Era

nine inch Nails ghosts i-iv

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Halo 26, Ghosts I-IV has just been announced at the nine inch nails website. It’s a collection of 36 instrumental tracks created with no clear agenda, with the entire process being driven by impulse and improvisation.

Of it, Trent says:

We began improvising and let the music decide the direction. Eyes were closed, hands played instruments and it began. Within a matter of days it became clear we were on to something, and a lot of material began appearing. What we thought could be a five song EP became much more. I invited some friends over to join in and we all enjoyed the process of collaborating on this.

Nine Inch Nails takes the Radiohead gambit a step further with this release, offering multiple formats and ordering options. All songs are available immediately for download from Amazon MP3 and nin.com:

  1. Ghosts volume I (9 tracks) is a completely free download.
  2. All 36 tracks can be downloaded for $5. Provided formats: 320kbps mp3, FLAC lossless and Apple Lossless. Also comes with a 40-page pdf. Paypal is an option for payment, if you want to avoid using credit/debit cards.
  3. For $10, you can get 2 physical cds shipped on April 8 as well as immediate access to the downloads.
  4. $75 gets you the 2 audio cds, a data dvd with multi-track files for remixing, 2 Blu-Ray disc with high-definition 96/24 stereo tracks and visual slide show all bound in a hard-bound slipcase. Also comes with 48-page photographic accompaniment book. You also get access to all the downloadable materials. Ships May 1.
  5. And for the true nin spendthrift, there’s the $300 Limited Edition (limited to 2500 numbered copies). You get everything in the $75 package, plus four vinyl LPs, Glicee prints, and Trent Reznor’s signature. Ships May1, but of course, you get the downloads now.

Ghosts I-IV limited edition
Ghosts I-IV Limited Edition

I’m actively reducing the amount of physical clutter in my house. So as a devotee of digital formats, I’ll probably opt for the $5 version. Apple Lossless is a pretty nice format. Though I expect the NIN online store to be crushed by the demand for the next day or so. If mp3s are your thing, Amazon might be the way to go. You still get all 36 tracks for $5.

UPDATE: store.nin.com is pretty much DOA right now. I’ve actually managed to make a transaction, but the download failed after 100kB. So I’ll have to talk to customer service, since the store is providing “one-time download links.”

UPDATE II: Trent writes at nin.com from Hong Kong:

The response to this album has been overwhelming, causing our website to slow to a crawl. We THOUGHT we were ready, but… We’ve been adding more servers to accommodate the unexpected demand and we expect to be running smoothly in the next few hours. In the meantime, if you’ve had any problems with downloads from the Ghosts site, don’t worry – you’ll be able to use your download link again when the site is more stable.

Good to know the early adopters won’t be left in the proverbial cold.

UPDATE III: 24 hours later and the site is humming along nicely. Either the added servers are handling the crush well or demand has slowed or both. I had no trouble using my original download link to retreive the Apple Lossless + bonus files (more than 600 MB), which transfered without any hang ups.

Review

The 36 songs range in length from 1:53 to 5:52 and total a running time of 1 hour 50 minutes. For comparison’s sake, both discs from The Fragile run 1 hour 46 minutes.

My initial impression after a couple listens is that Ghosts I-IV is a series of tone poems that don’t necessarily have any connection to each other. Nine Inch Nails records tend to have a certain “flow” to them that’s largely missing here. Instead, we have, as the album name would suggest, is borderless apparitions of sound and space. Many tracks stop suddenly, like a figment seen in the corner of one’s view that disappears when looked at directly, while others fade away or into the next track.

Stylistically the sound is unmistakeably Nine Inch Nails and the overall feel has more in common with the dark ambient tendrils of Trent’s soundtrack for the Quake computer game and The Fragile (think The Frail) than the apocalyptic paranoia of Year Zero. There is, however, some new ground here. I Ghosts 6 is borderline playful in its demeanor, a quality not usually associated with Nine Inch Nails’ music.

Ghosts has all the qualities of great instrumental music. It works well as background, as white noise with which to block out the world or drift away, but upon close inspection reveals remarkable textures and attention to detail.

But in typical fashion, Ghosts is more than just a listening experience. Each of the 36 songs has its own unique album art, snapshots to accompany the music.

Ghosts is Nine Inch Nails’ first release since the band was freed from its recording contract with Universal last October and its good to see that it is wasting very little time taking advantage of the new-found freedom and utilizing new media and techologies to promote, sell and circulate the music. There’s absolutely no way a record company would have released a double-disc set of what is a essentially musical diversions. And certainly not for a $5 download.

But Trent’s free agent status allows him to do whatever he wants. He can give this thing away, which he actually did: All 36 tracks are released under a Creative Commons license: Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike, meaning that anyone can give away the albums or use the songs as part of any non-commercial project so long as they credit NIN.

Trent says that there will likely be further editions in the Ghosts series. I, for one, will be looking forward to the music and future releases using the model.

Tunequest 2007 Albums of the Year

Another year come, another year gone.

After spending 2006 evaluating the status of my iTunes library and trimming some fat, I took the opportunity in 2007 to explore a lot of new material. And I must say that overall it was a pretty good year for both my library and for music in general. I had added 1,891 songs to my library by the end of October, which marks the fifth largest library expansion since I started collecting music. At that point, I decided it was time to start evaluating my acquisitions.

2007 was a year of rock in tunequestland. Each year seems to bring me another fascinating tangent of audio to explore in detail. In 2004, it was classical music and in 2005 it was audiobooks, podcasts and other learning materials, an itch that already seems to be acting up for 2008. But for 2007, rock was the operative mode, so much so that I’ve picked up a significant air-guitar habit. Nearly 50% of my library additions fell within the genre, with all other forms of music splitting the remain 50%.

Around here, the year was also a big one for newly-released music. 22% of my new acquisitions were released in 2007, while 50% were released between 2005 and 2007. Perish the though that there is no good music these days. That sentiment might apply to some corporate-backed music, but in total there is more good music released everyday than a single person can keep up with. I’ve already got a huge backlog of albums I didn’t get around to listening to by October.

But forget the stuff I didn’t listen to, what about the music I did? Read on for the albums, artists and songs that made for tunequest 2007. First, some numbers:

2007 By the Numbers

Applies to all new music added to my library during 2007. As a subset of my library in general, these figures do not include ratings, play counts and other stats from 2006 and earlier.

Total Songs: 1,891
Total Play Time: 5 days, 18 hours, 43 minutes, 1 second
Total Play Counts: 4,815
Avg Play Count per song: 2.55
Median Play Count per song: 2
Total Listening Time: 14 days, 3 hours, 35 minutes, 40 seconds
Avg Song Length: 4:26
Median Song Length: 4:01

Top Albums

I pulled out my trusty definitive* rating formula and ran this year’s selections through it. Here’s what it spit out:

The absolute best release I found this year:

Bonobo’s Live Sessions EP

Bonobo Live Sessions

Released in 2005, the EP fleshes out Bonobo’s attractive studio work with robust live arrangements. The energetic atmosphere of hypnotic future jazz presented on the disc earns it a phenomenal 4.58 / 5 stars. Music rarely gets better than when the live cut of Nothing Owed bursts to life from its humble introduction.

But since EPs are ineligible for Album of the Year ratings–their low track counts skew the results–here is the official list of the music that rocked my world this year.

1 Pink Floyd: Dark Side of the Moon

pink floyd dark side of the moon

dark side of the moon at itunes music compact disc

Sacrilege I know! But before this year I had never listened to Pink Floyd, save for a small part of The Wall that I saw a friend’s house while in high school. At some point over the summer though, I figured there must be something to 1973’s Dark Side of the Moon, since it’s become the de facto standard for judging the success of a new recording medium and that the record was in the U.S. Top 100 records for nearly 30 continuous years.

Turns out that two generations worth of music lovers aren’t wrong. This thing is fantastic. Expertly-crafted, catchy, thought-provoking and teeming with existential quandaries, the record quickly became one of my favorites of the year. Highlights: the haunting mortality implicit in Time and the swagger of Money. Then there’s all the air-guitaring again.

4.51 / 5 stars

2 Nine Inch Nails: Year Zero

nine inch nails year zero

year zero at itunes year zero compact disc

Trent Reznor was in the news a lot in 07, from publicly insulting his record company to encouraging his fans to steal his music to setting up a website for people to exchange homemade remixes of his songs. Ignore all that. His real achievement this year was Year Zero, the nightmarish dystopian concept album that broke out into the real world.

Beyond marketing games though, Year Zero features some of Trent’s tightest and most clever songwriting. From the straight-ahead bombast of The Beginning of the End to the almost-hymnal Zero-sum, this record doesn’t disappoint.

4.24 / 5 stars

Download Zero-sum

3 Bonobo: Days to Come

bonobo days to come

days to come compact disc

More accolades around here for Bonobo’s particular brand of laid back energy with 2006’s Days to Come. Bonobo’s music gets more complex with each release and this one is 51 minutes of pure brilliance. Watch out for the pairing of Nightlite and Transmission94. Swingy jazz, melancholic brass and clever rhythms held together by superb production.

3.97 / 5 stars

4 Maserati: Inventions for the New Season

maserati inventions for the new season

maserati compact disc

Athens, Ga-based postrock outfit Maserati piles on thick layers of instrumental delight on 2007’s Inventions for the New Season. Crisp, melodious and spirited, this record is the band’s best yet. It almost like the soundtrack to the best roller-coaster ride of your life.

3.93 / 5 stars

5 Les Baxter: African Blue: Exotic Rhythms of Les Baxter

les baxter african blue

compact disc

I’ve had a soft spot for master of exotica and light classical composer Les Baxter since I stumbled upon his rendition of Calcutta nearly ten years ago. Being a master of course, Baxter delivers his own unique lounge-inspired spin on traditional African music on African Blue. The version I got from eMusic (bundled with Colors of Brazil) was re-issued in 1993, but I haven’t been able to track down the original release date. It probably dates to the late 1960s.

No matter, it sounds good regardless of when it came from. African Blue might be inspired by the sounds of the Dark Continent, but it could hardly get more chic. The woodwinds and percussion on Zebra are to die for.

3.9 / 5 stars

Listen to Zebra:

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6 Susumu Yokota: Symbol

susumu yokota - symbol

Get it on iTunes Get it at Amazon symbol

Japanese sound-bender Susumu Yokota infatuated me in a big way near the beginning of the year. His ability to not just make beautiful music, but make and harness beautiful sounds–building blocks of music–captivated me almost instantly. On 2005’s Symbol, Yokota takes his inspiration from a wide spectrum of classical music heritage, directly sampling a mashing together multiple works and styles. It’s breath-taking. The Steve Reich meets Claude Debussy and a plethora of other composers on Blue Sky And Yellow Sunflower strikes my fancy like you can’t imagine.

Even the song titles are poignant and beautiful on this record.

3.87 / 5 Stars

7 The Polish Ambassador: The Phantasmal Farm

The Phantasmal Farm

When it was put on the internet as a free download in July 2007, The Phantasmal Farm was the second full-length album released in the span of six months by the inter-dimensional envoy of electrogroovocity, The Polish Ambassador. Some people might assume that such a rapid-fire release rate would have affected the quality of the music. But not in this case. The Ambassador’s powers are mighty and The Phantasmal Farm’s beats, grooves and mind-blowing electrotunes actually edge out the score of The Ambassador’s debut record, Diplomatic Immunity (which I thought was pretty damn awesome), by 0.12 points.

By downloading this record, not only will you experience some of the most seductive and mesmerizing electrofunk you might ever hear, you’ll be helping to preserve the Phantasmal Farm itself, which can only persist if people remember it. When you’re there, check out When The Robo B-Boys Just Kill It and Astro-American Anthem, then just try to keep from dancing.

3.86 / 5 Stars

When The Robo B-Boys Just Kill It

8 Rilo Kiley: Under the Blacklight

rilo kiley under the blacklight

under the blacklight at itunes under the blacklight under the blacklight at amazon

The fifth album and major label debut from Los Angeles rock troubadours Rilo Kiley has been totally rocking my house since its August 2007 release. While not all the songs rank among the band’s greatest, Under the Blacklight is probably their most well-rounded record. I made note in my review that it’s the band’s most rock-focused release to date. That suits me just fine, considering my current regard for rock music.

Initially my favorite track was the disc’s opener, Silver Lining. Having had more time to listen to Under the Blacklight, I’ve since discovered that I’m partial to Dreamworld, which is unusual because it’s one of Blake’s songs, and I’ve been less disposed toward his writings.

3.84 / 5 Stars

9 Air [french band]: Pocket Symphony

air pocket symphony

air pocket symphony at itunes pocket symphony air pocket symphony at amazon

The first Air album in three years arrived to eagerly waiting ears in March 2007. Though not much groundbreaking this time around, Pocket Symphony is a strong album nonetheless. If anything, the record is more sullen in character than anything the duo has produced in the past. Still, it is exquisitely lush in composition and well worth attention. Left Bank and Mer du Japon are particularly lovely.

3.84 / 5 Stars

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10 The Smashing Pumpkins: Zeitgeist

smashing pumpkins zeitgeist

zeitgeist compact disc

The Pumpkins came back in 2007, after breaking up in 2000, and there was much trepidation around these parts as to whether this new era of smashingness would be substantial or meaningless hype. Turns out that the trepidation was ill-founded, because Zeitgeist freakin rocks. Taut songs presented straightforwardly equals rock heaven. Tarantula was a hit from the first radio-capped bootleg I snagged off the Internet and Doomsday Clock freakin blows my doors off. that’s right, I said ‘freakin’ twice. that’s how good this is.

3.81 / 5 Stars

I found all these albums to be well worth my attention this past year. Give them a listen and you find that they are well worth yours as well.

Nine Inch Nails[remixed]

young trent reznor presents a remix

For nearly as long as there’s been an Internet, fans have been contributing to the nine inch nails experience. There’s something about the music that seems to inspire a devotional following (probably has to do with expressions of angst, contempt and alienation wrapped appealing pop sensibilities). Youthful rebelliousness and antiestablishmentism runs deep through both camps.

Indeed, the rise of nin and the net seems to have coincided perfectly with each other. There were discussions on Usenet about Pretty Hate Machine being one of the best albums of the year in 1989 and the earliest mention of a nine inch nails web site that I could find is dated Nov 1, 1994, shortly after the net was opened to the public.

1994, of course, was the year the The Downward Spiral took the world by storm, reaching #2 on the Billboard Charts and exposing nin to the mainstream. Long story short: Reznor took five years to release another album and while lost in the wilderness, the steadfast fanbase incubated around the Internet. Fansites came and went, trading bootlegs and rumors and tracking the handful of singles and soundtrack songs released in the interim.

By the time 1999’s The Fragile release cycle began, Internet culture had matured quiet a bit. MP3’s and broadband were just starting to be mentioned in mainstream, but the leading-edge nails fans had already adopted them. I downloaded my first fan remixes sometime in the 99-00 winter and some of them were really good (like The Day The World Went Away (peppy by ignorantLOSER). download it). On the official front, Trent made several remixes and exclusive tracks available at the nine inch nails website. There was even a remix contest held for the song The Big Come Down (the winner can be found here).

Fast forward another five years. The Internet and computer technology had advanced quite a bit further. The album With Teeth was released in the spring of 2005 and a month later, Trent posted the source files to the first single The Hand That Feeds to his website in Apple’s Garageband format, officially sanctioning home-brewed remixes of the song. Websites sprang up immediately to catalog and share the fan-created materials.

Which brings me to today. One of the predominant trends on the Internet is, to be sure, social networking and inter-site integration (some call it “web 2.0”). What happens when you mix web 2.0 with the nine inch nails online ethos?

This: remix.nin.com

Taking the home remix concept a step further, Trent Reznor has put together a site where anyone can sign up, listen to, vote on, make comments about and download nine inch nails remixes, both official (as in previously-released on CD) and fan made. It’s freakin huge. The more industrious fans can download master tracks and make their own remixes for community evaluation and sharing.

The site combines the nine inch nails community and do-it-yourself artistry with a heavy dose of modern social media technology. The entire site is built in Flash and follows the graphic spirit typical of a nine inch nails presentation. Music can be selected from a playlist showing the latest top rated songs or you can search or browse for a particular piece. When browsing, you can create your own custom playlists. I started to put together a complete instrumental version of Year Zero before I realized that Trent had already done it for me. Other available playlists include Top Rated Fan Mixes, Most Commented, Newest, and Most Listened to, among others.

remix.nin.com attributes

Once a song is selected, it begins playing in the browser and the song’s curriculum vitae is displayed along with it. If you enjoy what you hear, there’s a “download mp3” button next to the rating number. Users can also assign attributes to songs based on various continua such mellow vs aggressive or dense vs sparse.

Playlists as well as individual remixes can be shared. Playlists via RSS feed so you can publish your favorite tracks or keep tails on a favorite remixer. Individual songs can be shared via URL. Here is a decent remix of The Beginning of the End. The only thing that’s missing is embedable player, a la YouTube, for putting the mixes on your own site.

There is one thing I can’t help but grumble about (but good-naturedly): all those rare and unreleased songs for the downloadin’. Being the nails fan that I am, I’ve spent more a decade keeping up with all the loose-ended ephemera of the catalog. Imports, promos, versions, bootlegs and anything else rare and obscure. After all the work and effort, to my (light-hearted) chagrin, I come to find that a lot of it is now free for the taking. It took me six and a half years to find a copy of the Aphrodite remix of The Perfect Drug, but you can have it just by clicking on this link.

But hey, the fact that it’s available at all is pretty freakin cool.

Music Store Showdown: iTunes vs Amazon vs eMusic

So Amazon recently threw its hat into the thunderdome of online digital music sales. The store’s big brand name and huge retail operation instantly make it one of the top tier marts for digital music. As Amazon MP3 is seen primarily as a challenger to the iTunes Store’s throne, I originally wanted to do a compare and contrast with that gorilla, but later thought that unfair to eMusic, who consistently claims to be the second largest online store on the net. The iTunes Store has more than enough going for it that an equilibrium will eventually be met with whatever competition comes its way. eMusic, however, might be quite vulnerable to Amazon’s might and muscle.

music Store Showdown

But just how does that muscle shape up?

I took a look at Amazon MP3, trying to gauge its place on the market and judge its strengths and weaknesses compared to its more established rivals. Each service was evaluated using the following criteria:

  • Format & Quality
  • Selection
  • Search & Ease of Use
  • Pricing
  • Artwork and Tagging
  • Free Stuff

Format & Quality

Amazon MP3

As the store’s name suggests, Amazon MP3 provides music in the MP3 format. MP3 is incompatible with any type of rights management and the most notable claim of AMZMP3 is the freedom of the file format it is willing to sell. MP3s, of course, work on virtually all portable devices. Amazon MP3’s also pitches its files as being high quality. The site claims to supply a very healthy bitate of 256kbps for its downloads, but the files I’ve purchased have averaged 214 (VBR) kbps. Though they sound fine to my ears, it is less than the site advertises.

Getting info on the file tells me that it was encoded using LAME 3.97.

eMusic

Like Amazon, eMusic provides free and open MP3 files and has been doing so since 2003. The MP3s are encoded around 192kbps (VBR) using LAME 3.92. The music sounds great.

The iTunes Store

The iTunes Store has been the spearhead in the adoption of the AAC format, selling AAC encoded files since the store’s 2003 inception. AAC is billed as a successor to MP3 and is particularly noted for sounding better at lower bitrates. At the time of this writing, the iTunes Store is providing two flavors of AAC. The standard encoding is 128kbps, which to its credit sounds pretty good. The store benefits from having the songs encoded from the original master recordings, rather than being ripped from a CD. Throughout much of the store’s history, however, Apple has been forced by its contracts with record labels to include the much-criticized and oft-despised rights management, FairPlay, on all song downloads. Most of the songs it sell come packaged this way.

Recently though, the store has made moves to free its music from those restrictions. The iTunes Plus service sells songs with no DRM attached and doubles the bitrate to 256kbps. There’s a lot of debate about the merits of AAC vs MP3 at higher bitrates, so the benefit of the increase may not be that significant, but surely, it can’t hurt. Currently, about 1/3 of the store’s inventory is offered via iTunes Plus.

Winner: 3-way tie (with edge to Amazon and eMusic). The files supplied by each store, while not lossless, sound quite adequate for the majority of listening applications and music systems. iTunes loses a couple points for the continued existence of FairPlay, but the way things are trending, it probably won’t be around for much longer.

Update 28 March 2009: Apple has announced that by April 2009, 100% of its music content will be DRM-free. It that comes to pass, then there really will be little to debate about format choice. All three stores will be using files that are compatible with a large number and wide range of players and hardware.

Selection

Each store likes to boast about its large catalogue. iTunes is by far the largest with about six million songs to choose from. eMusic and Amazon both claim to offer more than two million songs each (Playlistmag says eMusic has 2.7 million UPDATE 11/7: Macworld reports that eMusic now stores 3 million songs in its catalogue, while Amazon’s complete list shows 2,479,112 at the time of this writing). Impressive numbers all around, but catalogue size doesn’t mean squat if it doesn’t have the songs you’re looking for. So, I went through the music libraries of three people and randomly choose 20 songs from each. I then looked for those songs on all three services, giving one point for songs on the album I was searching for or half a point for the song in another context (soundtrack, compilation, greatest hits, etc).

Here are the results:

The iTunes Store is easily the champion in this contest, besting its two rivals combined. Of the 60 songs searched, iTunes scored 46 points, Amazon finished with 20 and eMusic ranked in with 14.5. Within those results, there were only 2 instances where either AMZMP3 or eMusic had a song that iTunes did not and 5 instances where eMusic provided a song that Amazon did not. In total, there were 10 songs that none of the stores carried in their inventory.

But besides the run-of-the-mill catalogue, each store has its selectional perks.

iTunes offers tons of exclusive content, such as its iTunes Originals series, celebrity playlists or the AOL Sessions series.

eMusic has an extensive selection of “eMusic Only” releases, many of them full live concerts. The site also hosts the world’s largest collection of DRM-free music, which eMusic notes come from 20,000+ independent labels. However, the iTunes Store and Amazon are both gaining in that respect. What you won’t find, however, is any of the majors, which is a bit ironic considering that Universal used to own the place.

In contrast to eMusic and iTunes, Amazon MP3 is lacking in the exclusives department. There’s no “Amazon Presents…” or the like, just search-and-download. In a notable coup, however, AMZMP3 is the first and only store to offer digital downloads of Radiohead’s albums (plus one single for the completeists out there). Though the band’s label, EMI, also participates in Apple’s iTunes Plus program, Radiohead only wants to sell complete albums, which violate Apple’s policy to offer track-only purchases. Thus, OK Computer at Amazon, but not at iTunes. Update 3 June 2008: Radiohead’s complete catalog is now also available DRM-free from iTunes.

Winner: Each store offers a reason to shop there, but at the end of the day, it’s the iTunes Store that will most likely be selling what you’re looking to buy.

Search & Ease of Use

iTunes

In typical Apple fashion, the iTunes Store screams ease of use.

The storefront is built into the iTunes desktop app, making for one stop shopping. Apple has gone to great lengths to integrate the offline library management functions of the program with the online sales environment. The ubiquitous “iTunes Store” arrows and the “Minibrowser” might be a little intrusive, but those can be turned off.

Once in the store, finding songs/albums/artists is trivial; just type it into the search bar, though most of the time you have to sort through movies/tv shows/podcasts/etc in the results. The store does a pretty good job of segregating the various types of media. iTunes falters when it comes to the exploratory level. In the four years since its launch, I’ve never found it all that comfortable or appealing to browse the place for an extended period of time.

Like almost all online shoppes, the iTunes Store allows users to leave feedback, ratings and comments about albums. It also provides rudimentary recommendations in the form of “People who bought X also bought Y.” Users can also contribute to the store via iMixes, compilations put together by individuals and submitted to the store. However, the presentation is pretty sparse and there’s minimal “social aspects” to them, i.e. you can see what another person has rated or look at their iMixes, but you can’t “befriend” them or interact or see recommendations based on tastes you might have in common.

Once purchased, songs download straight into your library. It’s seamless. But be sure to make a backup of everything you buy. Apple only allows you to download the song one time, though if a catastrophic event wipes out your collection, the store does permit an unpublicized one-time re-download of your purchase history.

Some songs, usually determined by length, are not available as a single download, but must be purchased as part of an album. That can be a drag when you just want the one song.

eMusic

eMusic’s storefront is HTML-based. The store can be accessed and songs downloaded from any web browser. Recently though, the company released eMusic Remote as a way to integrate the online store with the desktop. The app runs on Mac/Win/Lin and is based on the Mozilla browser. Think: iTunes-Store-inside-Firefox. eMusic Remote provides an easy way to navigate the store and manage downloads, which can automatically be added to your iTunes library, should you so desire.

The site’s search feature could use some vast improvements. Often, the results it returns are far too many, especially for simple queries, and they don’t seem to be prioritized and are not sub-sortable. Sometimes, I find it easier to do a Google site search instead: site:emusic.com.

Previewing music comes in the form of downloadable m4u playlist files, which can be opened by iTunes or Quicktime Player. The process can be tedious for single tracks, but is really quite nice for checking out complete albums. Though, I’d rather they switched to Flash-based, in-browser previewing. UPDATE 04/17/08: Hooray! eMusic recently switched to an in-browser sample preview system. It greatly improves the ability to get a taste for a song/band/album before deciding to buy.

In contrast to iTunes, eMusic’s social aspects are more robust. While similar in theory to what iTunes does, the execution is better. Each album’s page shows any reviews that members have written; that’s not special. But, where iTunes says “People who bought X also bought Y,” eMusic is more specific, giving recommendations based on what a handful of particular fans also enjoy. These make great springboards for further exploration.

Also, an album’s page shows which users’ ‘playlists’ it appears on. Akin to iMixes, a user playlist can be whatever the author wants it to be. A playlist can be as simple as someone’s public bookmarks, or as indepth and voluminous as “80+ Reasons Why Japan Rules,” much like Amazon’s Listmania.

One of the best music discovery tools I’ve run across on any platform is eMusic’s Neighbors screen. It shows fellow music fans with similar tastes. Hover over a shared artist and get recommendations based on that artist. On my current screen, based on my interest in Mogwai, I have five neighbors telling me to check out Cat Power, Of Montreal, and eight other artists. Using this tool, I’ve found a number of new and interesting bands based on my intersections with my musical neighbors.

eMusic, unlike iTunes, offers no restrictions on the number of times you can download a purchase. Hard drive melt? Just log into your history a grab it again. Also, unlike iTunes, eMusic has no restriction on songs based on length. There are no “album only” purchases. Every song, even a 30 minute opus, is available as a single purchase.

emusic neighbors
eMusic Neighbors screen

Amazon MP3

AMZMP3, like eMusic, is browser-based with both direct download for singles and a desktop app for grabbing albums. The company knows how to run a web store, and its expertise shows. If results are available, a search will return a list of artists, albums and song that match. Songs can be previewed immediately via a nifty on-page Flash-based system, or more details on the album can found on the album’s page, which integrates the feedback, reviews and ratings from the physical CD’s entry in the vast AMZ database.

Likewise, if MP3s are available, the option to buy them appear on the actual physical CD’s page. A useful gimmick that doesn’t seem to be in place though is, “Buy a CD, download MP3 immediately” type bundles. I suspect that would result in a fair amount of up-selling.

Getting the actual music files is straightforward enough. For single songs, click the “Buy MP3” button, confirm payment and a single MP3 will be all yours for the downloadin’. Whole albums require the Amazon MP3 Downloader program. When purchasing an album, a reference file is downloaded to the desktop. That reference file tells the Downloader which album to retrieve. Then the music begins to flow. When finished, the app will auto add to iTunes if requested. The process requires a couple extra steps, but it works.

Like iTunes, some music at AMZMP3 is album only, though it’s hard to know what or why. Those Radiohead albums for example, no individual songs can be purchased. The length of the song isn’t necessarily a factor. There are some 17 and 18 minute-long Mogwai tracks available separately, while at least one 11 minute Sonic Youth song is album only. Adding to the confusion is the store’s somewhat perplexing price structure.

Overall though, the site is still considered to be “public beta,” so we can guess that it will improve with time.

Winner: Each services is pretty much on par with the others on the ease-of-use front. None have a particularly show-stopping difficulty. iTunes gets points for the all-in-one solution, while Amazon is a known quantity that now extends to MP3 sales. eMusic’s search can be challenging, but its re-download policy and music discovery tools make it very appealing to the adventurous.

Pricing

The iTunes Store charges a flat $0.99 per song for individual tracks. Albums cost the sum of all songs, or $9.99, whichever is lower. It’s the same way throughout the store; there are no variations.

Unlike iTunes, Amazon charges a variable price for downloads. At launch, Amazon’s typical price per song is $0.89, though some are $0.99. Most complete albums run $4.95 to $9.99, though I’ve not figured out how those prices are computed. Sonic Youth’s A Thousand Leaves is 11 songs at $0.99 each or $7.97 for the whole album, a difference of $2.92. Pink Floyd’s The Wall is currently $8.99 for all 26 songs ($0.35 vs $0.99 a piece), whereas Dark Side of the Moon has some songs for $0.89, others for $0.99, or $7.99 for the album, a difference of only $0.62. It doesn’t make much sense, but in some cases, you might find a better deal than the iTunes Store.

eMusic’s business model is different than the pay-per-track services of Amazon and iTunes. Similar to the Netflix model, subscribers pay for a membership plan to access a certain number of downloads per 30-day cycle, rather than paying for songs individually. In my case, I pay $14.95 for 50 downloads every thirty days. If I download all 50 songs, I end up spending just $0.30 per song. There are more extensive bulk plans that will bring the price down to $0.25 per song. Also, the length of the song doesn’t matter; a 30 minute epic track costs just one download credit, as does a 30 second interlude.

Maximizing the value of one’s subscription requires diligence however. It’s never happened to me personally, but if one forgets or is too busy to retrieve their current downloads, well then, they get squat for their $15. In my case, the worst I’ve ever done is have 6 credits left at the end of the cycle. I’m usually plagued by the *other* subscription conundrum: Wanting a 10-song album, with only four credits until the next refresh. Most of the time, I solve this dilemma by grabbing the first four songs, bookmarking the album in my “save for later” area, then return first thing after the refresh (I have an iCal reminder tell me when it’s time). Alternately, I find eMusic to be an inexpensive way of exploring classical music.

Winner: On price alone, eMusic wins, provided you take full advantage of your subscription. With the $14.95 plan, you’ll be on par with iTunes as long as you download at least 15 songs per cycle. At this time, Amazon is also undercutting iTunes on price. This could change after the honeymoon period, as more popular songs might be priced higher than $0.99, but for now, iTunes is the loser on the money factor.

Artwork and Tagging

Songs from all three stores come with comprehensive ID3 tags, providing song name, artists, album, genre, etc. AMZMP3 provides high-quality album art embedded in the file, while iTunes supplies it in a separate sidecar file. eMusic will download a jpeg along with the MP3s, but it must be manually added to the files. eMusic’s jpeg however is a pitifully small 150 x 150 pixels. so I either use iTunes to retrieve the album cover or search for better art using sloth radio. UPDATE: 4 Dec 2008: However, a recent redesign of the site does provide high-quality album art in the browser. It must still be manually added to the music files, but at least it’s right there when you download an album.

Winner: Slight edge to Amazon for embedding the art, slight knock to eMusic for making me work to find better art.

Free Stuff

The iTunes Store provides free content across its entire product line, from TV episodes to movie clips to sample audiobook chapters and of course, music, not a day goes by without some kind of freebie posted and available for consumption. Most notable is the Single of the Week, which changes every Tuesday. There are entire websites devoted to tracking the latest zero cost offerings at the store.

Likewise, eMusic also offers free downloads. You don’t even need to be a customer to snag them. eMusic offers two types of freebies. One, the Daily Download is updated every day. Other, long term free tracks are kept in their own part of the site. At the time of this writing, there are roughly 70 tracks up for the taking. Since eMusic caters to those outside the mainstream, most of the free tracks are from the relatively obscure, so if you’re looking to explore a bit, here’s a chance to do so without spending a cent.

I’ve not found much zero cost music at AMZMP3. There’s certainly no breakout section saying “Free Downloads Here.” However, the list of every available MP3, sorted by price, reveals a total of 36 songs available free of charge. The store is young, so who knows what kind of free stuff is planned for it.

Winner: Each store has something to give away, but eMusic gains an edge by not even requiring an account to download it. iTunes has a lot of variety, plus the entire podcast directory and iTunes U, so mucho bonus points there. Amazon lags at a distant third.

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In terms of service, the stores are fairly evenly matched. Some foibles here and there, but, hey, nobody’s perfect. Amazon is a worthy contender and an appealling place to look when you just have to have a song right now. eMusic pretty much rules for those who enjoy exploring off the beaten path. But if you want to be absolutely sure to find the songs you’re looking for, iTunes can’t be beat. You just might have to pay a premium for the convenience and hope it’s not poisoned with DRM.

Personally, I find each to be a fine service and I see no reason to exclude any of them from my music-buying arsenal. In fact, I look forward to using Amazon a little more. And maybe, just maybe, the pressure will drive those other two companies to improve their digital music services.

Note: In the interest of disclosure, you should be aware that tunequest acts as an affiliate for two of the stores mentioned in this article. They send me a pittance whenever I send them a customer. However, that relationship in no way changes my opinion of each company. The fact is that I would not have chosen to become affiliated were I not already impressed with the services in the first place. They each have their strengths and weaknesses.

Ethan Winer, one-man Cello section: 37 parts to a song played by one man

Ethan Winer plays all 37 separate parts on A Cello Rondo, including the percussion, on his cello. He also composed the song. The music is about 6 minutes long and the end of the video shows his digital music editing and some of his film setup. Not only is the production quite smooth, showcasing the power of modern technology to allow a single person to (relatively) easily create complex and intricate music, the song is a really good pop tune.

And I thought it was impressive when Dave Grohl recorded the first Foo Fighters record all by himself.

A Cello Rondo at Ethan Winer’s homepage. Multiple links to sites hosting the video as well as a free mp3 download of the song. There’s also as much background information on the project as you could want and some downloadable sheet music if you want to give it your own try.

The Polish Ambassador is Back from The Phantasmal Farm

The Phantasmal Farm

A short seven months after the release of his debut record, Diplomatic Immunity, the unfathomable intergalactic negotiator and groove machine has returned with a most urgent message. You see, The Phantasmal Farm is in danger and in need of saving. The pull of the 8th Dimension has that place of transcendental epiphanies in its grasp and only you, yes you!, can save it.

The Polish Ambassador implores you to download his new release in its entirety for free, and in doing so, rescue The Phantasmal Farm from a doom most certain. By the mere act of clicking “download” and opening your ears, you’ll get the satisfaction of the knowledge that you’ve helped save an entire metaphysical journey from extinction, plus you get the opportunity to kick your heels up with the most delicious grooves in any dimension.

As an album, The Phantasmal Farm doesn’t disappoint. While quite similar in style to Diplomatic Immunity, Farm shows a clear evolution in its more complex harmonies, its layered-upon-layered rhythms and its denser arrangements. Its pulsing electrobeats will bury themselves deep in your subconscious mind, the simplicity of its electronic timbres belying a cosmic sophistication. Don’t try and fight them, for those beats are your friends.

Individual tracks can be sampled at Last.fm, but really, you should just grab the whole thing from The Polish Ambassador’s website. The seductive llamas and neon wheat will surely send you dark matter rays of everlasting gratitude.

Here’s a early favorite of mine, When The Robo B-Boys Just Kill It:

Play: The Polish AmbassadorWhen The Robo B-Boys Just Kill It

John Vanderslice – Exodus Damage: Spellbinding storytelling

John Vanderslice- Exodus Damage

From the album Pixel Revolt (2005). Download MP3.

Man, I am obsessed with this song. Seriously, it’s been on repeat in my head for the past seven days. I can’t decide what I find more compelling, the musical arrangement, melody and composition of the song or its fascinating subject matter.

I heard it for the first time a week ago, while partaking in my weekly Podcast Friday™ podcast listening spree and from there, its hold on my mind gotten deeper and more tenacious. The podcast in question was actually an old episode of The Sound of Young America and the topic at hand was Analog vs Digital, featuring, in part, musician/producer John Vanderslice, who operates one of the last remaining all-analog recording studios in the world.

Through the interview, Vanderslice talked about his studio, his recording techniques and the philosophy of maintaining the art of analog production in a world that is increasingly digital. He also covered some of the music he’s recorded himself, and admitted an attraction to “extreme” subject matter.

Exodus Damage is a prominent example of that attraction. Vanderslice discussed the song from the perspective of the American right-wing militant anti-government movement, and he noted the depreciation of that movement since the events of September 11, 2001. That is the overall theme of the song, told from perspective of an unsure acolyte, a follower of the movement and focuses on his relationship with the “true believer”. On his website, Vanderslice likens the relationship of his characters to that of Timothy McVeigh and one of his accomplices Michael Fortier (who helped survey the Murrah Federal Building prior to the bombing. Echos of this can be seen in the video, where the main character seems to be surveying buildings himself.)

Let’s take a closer look at this song:

I’ll see you next fall
at another gun show
I’ll call the day before, like usual

Our story opens in the late 1990s, at one of the favorite hangouts of militiamen and other colorful characters, a gun show. Our protagonist makes his customary arrangements to meet with his mentor at the next one.

but I wanted so much more
I got exodus damage bleed,
could not commit, some things I’ll never be

so now we’re talking about this
I’m starting to lose my confidence
no one ever says a word about
so much that happens in the world

Our protagonist admits that his devotion to the cause is waning.

dance dance revolution
all we’re gonna get
unless it falls apart
so I say: go go go
let it fall down
I’m ready for the end

Despite his uncertainty to the cause, our protagonist has his mantra memorized. You can’t have a revolution until you are ready to destroy what already exists. Unless you’re willing to blow something up, you might as well just play video games.

so the second plane hit at 9:02
I saw it live on a hotel tv, talking on my cell with you
you said this would happen, and just like that, it did
wrong about the feeling, wrong about the sound
but right to say we would stand down

A clear reference to the September 11, 2001 attacks. When the United Flight 175 hit, everyone knew that the first was no accident. Among the anti-government movement, there are those who suggest that this type of event was planned and executed by elites in the New World Order. There are even some who claim that talk show host and conspiracy filmmaker Alex Jones predicted the attack in July/August 2001, going so far as to name Bin Laden as a puppet of the elites.

Such speculation is rampant among conspiracy theorists.

When the attacks actually occur, our protagonists faith is shaken and is relieved when the mentor calls off any plans they may have been making.

Incidentally, the Wikipedia timeline says the second plane hit at 9:03AM. However, the bomb that exploded in Oklahoma City did indeed detonate at 9:02AM.

an hour went by without a fighter in the sky
you said there’s a reason why
so tell me now, I must confess
I’m not sick enough to guess

One claim made by conspiracy theorists is that, despite the threat of additional errant planes, military jets were far too slow in scrambling that morning and have suggested diabolical explanations for that. Again, the distrust of government kicks in for our protagonist, but his mind isn’t capable of taking the leap that his mentor’s is.

dance dance revolution
all we’re gonna get
unless it falls apart
so I say: go go go
let it fall down
I’m ready for the end

so you hope that one person
could solve everything
and for me, that’s you
sometimes that dream
is a sad delusion
but sometimes it’s true

Our protagonist realizes that the goal he’s worked toward is an illusion, but can’t shake his fascination with his mentor.

so now we’re talking about this
I’m starting to lose my confidence
no one ever says a word about
so much that happens in the world

dance dance revolution
all we’re gonna get
unless it falls apart
so I say: go go go
let it fall down
I’m ready for the end

All in all, I find Exodus Damage irresistibly engaging, as it shows both a glimpse into a foreign world and the intense personal struggle portrayed by its main character. Combined with its sheer listen-ability, the song will be on my playlists into the far far future.

Download Exodus Damage.

Want More? Get Pixel Revolt on iTunes.

Mouse on Mars: Turn the Dark Up [twift]

This song is perhaps the greatest mystery in the entirety of my music collection. It’s a fairly sophisticated remix of the song Twift Shoeblade from Mouse on Mars’ third album Autoditacker (1997).

The tempo is a little faster, the arrangement has a little more punch and it has been resequenced slightly. Not to snub the original at all, but I must say I pretty much prefer the remixed version.

The strange thing is, in the seven years I’ve had it in my collection, I’ve never been able to track down any information about it. If I could remember where I got it, that might help, but honestly, I have no idea where I it came from. The song is old enough that it could be from the original Napster, but either way, that wouldn’t help.

Surprisingly, because tagging wasn’t a common practice at the time, the file came with some decent ID3 information:

Name: Turn the Dark Up
Artist: Mouse on Mars
Album: mixed by the big chopper
Year: 2000

Still, even armed with this information, I’ve been able to track down nary a clue about its origin. Google is completely useless, turning up seven results for the phrase “turn the dark up,” most of which are about theater.

Searches for “The Big Chopper” and “Mixed by the Big Chopper” don’t reveal much either, mostly with regards to motorcycles. I’ve found one music-related reference at musician and noted producer Don Flemings’ Instant Mayhem, but Surfin Halloween doesn’t sound anything close to what I’m looking for.

The iTunes Store has a rapper by the name of Big Chopper, but I don’t think that’s it either.

So, whoever you are, Mr. Remixer, I salute you. I guess this is one riddle that will have to remain unsolved.

And to all you readers, here’s a treat: Turn the Dark Up, mixed by The Big Chopper. Enjoy.

Download:
Turn the Dark Up

OK Computer: 10 Years Young

A number of people pointed out to me recently that Radiohead’s seminal masterpiece, OK Computer, turned ten years old a couple weeks ago. That’s right, it’s been a full decade since the band began to cement its reputation as “world’s greatest rock band.”

Where does the time go? It seems like just yesterday, my friend Dan was imploring me to give Radiohead a shot. At this point in the band’s career, I had been less than impressed with their offerings. Don’t worry though, I came around.

Anyway, if I recall my history correctly, the record label received it coolly and feared that its immense sound and intellectual themes would scare away buyers. Fortunately for the band, people are smarter than record labels give them credit for. The rest, they say, “is history.”

To celebrate OK Computer’s decennial, Hypeful has compiled every song on the album, each covered by a different artist, as downloadable mp3s. I’m not sure which is the most intriguing, Shawn Lee’s quasi-soul adult contemporary rendition of No Surprises or the String Quartet version of Electioneering or The Illuminati’s glitched and distorted interpretation of Subterranean Homesick Alien. For my money, I think it’s Silent Gray’s inexplicable rock recording of Fitter Happier.

Of course, none of them improve on the original, but after ten years, the new perspectives are refreshing. But if imitation and inspiration are the sincerest forms of flattery, then the existence of these covers goes to show the extent of OK Computer’s legacy.

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Update July 10: Not to be outdone, stereogum has compiled its own unique list of track-by-track OK Computer covers. This further demonstrated the impact of the record. It’s astonishing that it would be that easy to pull together, from existing sources, TWO complete cover records featuring 24 different artists, with no overlap.

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Radiohead, Paranoid Android live on Later with Jools Holland, May 31, 1997 (two weeks before the record’s release). The band rocks oh so much:

Radiohead – Paranoid Android (on Jools Holland, 1997)