And now, for music that’s something completely different

… Well, maybe not completely different, but music that you most likely haven’t heard.

It’s been a long time since pop music has been a unifying force for an entire generation (or two, or three). Now there are too many genres, too many listeners with too many tastes, too many subcultures, too many niches (it’s like the Web, no?).

For myself, I listen to a wide variety of stuff but not nearly as much new music, either pop or alternative, or hip-hop or whatever, than I used to when I was a rockcrit. I do my share of iTunes downloads, and back in the halcyon early Napster days, I did my share of file-sharing (or stealing, I know, I know). Most of the music I seek out these days, however, is music within proscribed genres like jazz, world music, blues, “Americana,” singer-songwriters or — gulp — crass baby-boomer oldies. I seek out very few new bands unless someone recommends an act to me.

I manage to keep somewhat current by listening to some music that’s offered online for free (and copyright free). Here are three sources downloadable via RSS feeds.

Two are podcasts, and one is a blog. I like all of these sources because I rarely hear anything that flatout sucks — they’ve been vetted, after all — and because I like a lot of different sounds. Some of the music might not be my favorite style (OK, speed metal doesn’t turn my crank; it didn’t back in the early ’90s either, when I covered the stuff), but I have yet to delete anything I’ve put on my iPod through them.

It’s great to hear something I just plain don’t know amidst the thousands of songs I do know. Shuffling through my iPod is already like tuning in to a very wide-ranging radio station, but having these new, unheard tracks adds to my sense of discovery and delight, and keeps me from getting too cynical about the pop music industry.

Believe me, after 15 years as a music critic, I got pretty damned cynical….

Anyway, I’ve been getting a daily dose of new music from two public, listener-sponsored radio stations whose podcasts are available through iTunes, any RSS reader such as Newsgator (which is what I use), or podcatchers such as Juice (formerly iPodder).

Santa Monica-based, NPR-affiliated heavyweight KCRW (which also offers up its excellent “Morning Becomes Eclectic” program as a podcast) has “Today’s Top Tune,” which spans many styles and is always worth a listen. Like I said, I’ve yet to delete anything from my iPod once I download and drag it into my playlist. Here’s KCRW’s page of podcast RSS feeds. On iTunes, you can just search for “KCRW” to find the feeds. The station is a part of Santa Monica College, and whenever I’m in LA, I tune all the rental car’s FM buttons to KCRW for the next renter.

Seattle’s KEXP, which is part of the University of Washington (or just “U-Dub”), is a cool listener-sponsored music station, that also offers a “Song of the Day” podcast. Here’s their podcast feeds page, or you can search for KEXP on iTunes. They also feature podcasts for “Music That Matters” (independent artists delivered bi-weekly); “Live Performances” (live sessions from KEXP delivered weekly) and “Sonarchy Radio” (experimental Northwest artists).

Last but certainly not least, is the heroic efforts of Howard Owens, an online media guru whose widely-read blog generally covers the ups and down of the newspaper biz and its always-exciting evolution online. Just last week he started posting a “MP3 of the Day,” where he shares links to songs he’s found online from various sources. So far he’s linked to tracks by artists both obscure and as well-known (relatively speaking) as Nick Lowe. Cool.

Here’s how Owens explains this project:

* I sometimes get frustrated at how hard it is to find quality, free MP3 songs. I figure if it’s an interest of mine, and hard for me, too, it’s hard for others who are interested as well.

* I think the CD/Album is dead. The MP3 is the 78 record of the digital age. It’s all about the single song (by the time 45s came along, we had LPs). The fee-based services have two faults: They are LP-oriented (though single song purchases are possible, the navigation isn’t really about one-song downloads, and besides, 99 cents is too expensive), and all but one are weighed down by DRM. (I do have an subscription, but I find it’s limited inventory almost not worth it.)

* We’re all gatekeepers now. You tell me about good songs. I tell you about good songs. Together, we help the best rise to the top and find an audience. We don’t need no stinking DJs or music critics telling us what to listen to.

* I want to do my small part to encourage record labels and artists to release more music as free, non-DRM MP3s, and encourage non-DRM MP3s as much as possible (whether for fee or free).

That’s one reason why Owens doesn’t add any of his thoughts about the music; he wants the MP3 files to speak for themselves. As a former stinking music critic, I gotta agree with Owens. So save your money and expand your mind. Try giving a spin (to use an antiquated word) to sounds you haven’t heard before. You might be pleasantly surprised!

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