Best Online Bets of 2004

Mark Sabbatini By

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This is the year I became a believer.

I've been downloading music for years, mostly a few novelty or sample tracks here and there. But 2004 is the first year where my purchases of online music clearly exceeded traditional CDs.

And the amount of free and legal music may have surpassed both.

As someone who works and stores his music collection on the same computer, downloading was a near continuous process during the past year. Those tempted to do the same, be warned - even collecting freebies isn't always cheap: My bill for external storage/backup hard drives alone has reached four- figure territory.

I, of course, have no plans to stop any time soon. Discovery of "new" sources that usually have been around a while occur almost daily and all indications are that will do nothing but increase regardless of what Big Industry wants. In fact, the ability of anyone to offer their stuff online regardless of talent or budget is what's renewed my hope that quality new music will always have a place in our McDisneySoft society.

As for trying to compile one of those inevitable "best of" lists, I almost didn't because there's an embarrassing risk of exposing my ignorance by claiming the list below really represents the best of what's out there. There's far too much material to make such a claim and everything changes so fast anything I write this morning might be obsolete by lunch.

But since some things were certainly better than others, here's a few virtual trophies:

Best Paid Music Service
Best Source of Free Music
Best Source of Illegal/Grey Market Downloads
Best Freebies from a Record Label
Best Freebies From an Artist
Best Free Classic Jazz "Album"
Best Modern Jazz "Album"
Best Music Blog
Best News for 2005

Best Paid Music Service
emusic.com and audiolunchbox.com

I've been raving about eMusic all year for good reason, since their $20 a month for 90 song downloads deal is considerably cheaper than most and their focus is on independent and older albums. In addition, the songs are not copy protected. But Audiolunchbox took me by storm late in the year with its offering of newer and often exceptionally talented musicians on labels not featured at major stores like iTunes. Audiolunchbox also doesn't require buyers to become subscribers or use custom software - and it does allow users to select various non-protected music formats, therefore ensuring compatibility with whatever music player they're using.

Best Source of Free Music
Internet Archive - www.archive.org

This isn't even close. The Internet Archive offers a lifetime of concerts from bands who allow taping - including plenty of name acts like Charlie Hunter, Bela Fleck and Ray's Music Exchange - and from a huge assortment of "Net Labels" that feature public domain albums and music collections. It's possible another favorite, etree.org, is a larger source of live shows, but its user-registration-required process is more difficult to use than the archive. Besides, the archive offers tons of other media content (want to watch old classroom films about what to do in case of nuclear attack?) when man can no longer live by audio alone.

Best Source of Illegal/Grey Market Downloads

Yes, I confess to checking a number of them out - it's all part of what I now call work. No I won't be recommending any. Legal issues aside, let me pose a question: Do you really want to give your credit card number to a site hosted in Russia, especially after your browser warns the data "may not be secure?" Nothing against some of those sites, some of which are very professionally run and even explain why their pennies-per-album downloads are legal (which may not hold water in the U.S.), but that's too many risks for my conscience.

Best Freebies from a Record Label
Telarc - telarc.com and A440

Each of these labels offers dozens of songs from a quality roster of artists. Fans of traditional and mainstream jazz will find the Telarc collection more to their liking; contemporary and smooth jazz fans should check out A440 first. But there's enough overlap that both should not be missed.

Best Freebies from an Artist
Greg Osby - gregosby.com

One of the top players in jazz is also one of the most generous, posting a large number of live shows featuring top talent and sound quality. Consequently, I'm willing to buy his albums unauditioned for life and can only hope others are rewarding him properly. Honorable mentions must go to guitarist Charlie Hunter for posting CD covers in addition to multiple albums of material and to trumpet player Jeremy Pelt for an online collection almost as impressive as Osby's. Finally, some of the best artists whose concerts are available at locations like the Internet Archive: Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, Ray's Music Exchange and Soulive.

Best Free Classic Jazz "Album"
"It Came From The Public Domain" - mixtaper.com

This collection of 11 songs recorded mostly during the 1920s and '30s features well-known legends and more obscure gems, complete with notes about their historic significance. It got more speaker time than any of a number of classic compilation albums I purchased during the past year.

Best Modern Jazz "Album"
Yaniv Nachum Quartet - ynquartet.cjb.net

This European-based quartet has one collection of studio performances and another of live takes at their site. Their music, which "varies from traditional jazz, swing to Middle Eastern with folk music influences involve with odd meters and modern improvisations," rivals the best among scores of commercial modernistic offerings I've acquired this year. Part of this is no doubt due to the international diversity of the players, who bring all kinds of fresh sounds and ideas while still maintaining exceptional compatibility.

Best Music Blog
Largehearted Boy - blog.largeheartedboy.com

I confess to much hesitation here, given the sheer number of these - not to mention little of the content is jazz-related. But in the end this is the blog I read every day for updates on downloads and the music scene in general - if it wasn't here, a link to where something did exist usually was. And I discovered postings nobody else mentioned, such as a number of Miles Davis shows including a collaboration with Prince that long was only available as a bootleg.

Best News for 2005
Continuing Drops in Technology Prices

This looks to be the year I start measuring hard drives in terabytes, as even my 30GB iPod is feeling downright puny. Still, I take comfort knowing one doesn't have to be rich to join the revolution: my player of choice for daily workouts and such remains a $39 handheld CD/MP3 player that plays 12 hours of music at a time on discs that cost mere pennies.



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