Music fans who were reluctant to replace boomboxes, turntables, and shelves of physical media with digital music players and spreadsheet-like displays of their music collection have plenty of new reasons to change their minds and get onboard. Or, if you embraced digital music from the get-go, well, now you have new reasons to justify your enthusiasm.
We're seeing a surge of supercharged music player apps for iOS and Android that attempt to shock some life back into the listening experience with advanced features and fun graphics. The most successful of these maximise these platforms' capabilities and engage listeners, but don't overwhelm them with unnecessary gimmicks. After no small amount of research and testing, we compiled this list of the best supercharged music player apps out there.
Let's start with Apple iOS; stay tuned for Android.
The death knell rang for the album several years ago, but iAlbums apparently didn't hear — good thing, too, because this iPhone app is a lot of fun. iAlbums displays album covers from your music library alphabetically on virtual "shelves", allowing you to peruse your collection while selecting an album to listen to.
Once you press Play, iAlbums aggregates text and multimedia about the artist to hook you up with virtual liner notesto browse as you listen. Much of these real-time-customised liner notes were fairly basic (from Wikipedia, Rovi's AllMusicGuide, YouTube, and artists' Twitter and Facebook pages). That was for music released prior to 1995, though. For newer artists with a more active web presence, results were slightly better and included Google News. Surprisingly, plenty of artists returned user-generated stuff from DeviantArt.
We'd like to see some more diverse web content in this app, but the concept is sound, and iAlbums provides a richer music listening experience than the native iOS music player, which makes it easily worth the (free) download. (Note to music bloggers: You can request to be featured in the app here.)
At first glance, My Artists appears to be a rather non-ambitious music player with artist bios, pictures, and videos from Last.fm and YouTube. But it only takes a few minutes to discover its real potential: the recommendation features. As with the standard iOS music player, you are first presented with a list of the artists in your music library; selecting an artist takes you to their albums you have, plus others by the same artist for you to preview and purchase. While listening, you can read about similar artists and preview/purchase their albums too.
Or you can press the My Artists icon on the Now Playing screen for a radio stream of personalised recommendations based on that artist. Press the same icon from your artist list, and you'll hear a stream of recommendations based on your entire library instead.
Panamp offers two reasons why it should be your go-to music player. First, it's fast. Like, incredibly fast. Even though it offers almost exactly the same functionality as the native music player, Panamp gets your music up and running in a fraction of the time. The key to this lies in the app's cascading views.
Let's say you like to sort your music by artist. When you find the one you want to hear, either by scrolling or jumping to a specific letter using the alphabet on the right hand side, simply tap on the artist's name, and their albums will cascade down below it. Tapping an album then unleashes a cascade of its tracks, and tapping a track starts playback immediately. We also like that the playback controls always remain on the screen, so you don't have to go back to Now Playing in order to skip, pause, and so on. You can also sort by albums or tracks, rather than artists, but regardless of how you structure your library, you can always swipe any track to the left to see all of that artist's music.
The second reason is the dynamic queue — a fancy name for a playlist... but it's a really fast playlist. Swipe any track, album, or artist to the right to add it to this queue, with no need to create a playlist and so on. That's right: With one swipe, you can add an entire album or artist's catalogue to the queue. On the queue screen, you can reorder tracks by holding and swiping them up and down, while a swipe to the right deletes the track. Within seconds, you have a playlist, um, I mean queue, ready to go. Unfortunately, you can't make multiple queues, but we have yet to see an on-device playlist creator this good (and besides, you can sync your iTunes playlists).
Panamp sounds complicated, but it's actually quite intuitive. If you're tap-happy, impatient, or a have a habit of making playlists on the go, this app is for you.
I'm just going to put it out there: Groove 2 is pretty incredible. This iOS app acts as your own personal DJ, studying your listening habits to create mixes for you in one of four ways. "Groovy Mix" takes a random artist from your library and creates a mix of songs that go well with one of their songs. "Surprise Me" busts out a new, different playlist every time. "Favorites" plays a mix of the songs you've rated highly or listened to the most, while "Three of a Kind" plays three songs by the same artist, followed by three songs by another artist, and so on, like the radio "rock blocks" of yore).
Other mixes on the homepage give you a more concrete idea of their contents; in my case, these included "Groovy Mix based on Buddy Holly" and "Three of a Kind with The Stooges, Suicide, and Patti Smith." When you scroll down on the homepage, there's also a "Better Together" feature that creates playlists by pairing two related artists or artists that would sound good together. All of these playlists can be saved for future listening.
Of course, you can also use Groove 2 as a simple music player, but even then, the developers couldn't resist mixing it up a little. When you select an artist, you can either play one of their albums; start a Groovy Mix based on that artist; or play a mix of your favourite songs by that artist. You can sort your library by not only artists and albums, but also genre tags from Last.fm. If you select one of those tags, you can then specify all songs with that tag, or just an artist or album.
Groove 2 does a lot and does it well. It's a fun way to mix up your music collection and rediscover songs in a more controlled way than by simply shuffling. Smart gesture controls and a persistent onscreen mini-player make the app easy to navigate. And just for good measure, Groove 2 offers Facebook and Twitter sharing; Last.fm scrobbling; and in-app compatibility with Apple TV and AirPlay (so you don't have to use this trick).
Ahhh, the plight of the 21st-century music aficionado. Digital music offers speed and portability for our fast-paced lives, but we just can't let go of that great analogue sound. What's an audiophile to do? For the look and feel if not the sound of analogue, they might check out Vinyl Tap, an iPad app that lets you play albums from your music library (provided the tracks are DRM-free) on virtual record players.
Vinyl Tap goes to great lengths to recreate the vinyl experience — crackles, scratches and all — and the app's details are a testament to its fidelity to the vinyl form. It includes two record player simulators, with more apparently on the way. The classic turntable allows you to change tracks by lifting and dropping the needle, select between 33rpm or 45rpm, flip the record over and adjust the colour of the platter strobe. The linear tracking turntable automatically detects whether you're listening to a single or an album, allows you to switch tracks using a jog wheel, and includes a digital LED display. Choose which player you want to use, pick an album, and you're good to go.
This isn't the first vinyl simulator app, and I'm sure it isn't the last. But if you're looking for a solid music player app that takes you back in time, Vinyl Tap is probably the only one you need.
If you're ready to look beyond the default iOS player but don't need bells and whistles, Shazam Player (from the wonderful people behind Shazam) might be the app for you. Its main draw is a feature called LyricPlay, which displays animated lyrics in time with your music courtesy of LyricFind. This turns your device into a sort of karaoke machine, but it's also just plain neat — arguably a better use of that screen than just displaying a static image. You can also view the lyrics on a single sheet.
Another key feature is the ability to make playlists on the go. Shazam Player starts you out with "The Good List" and "The Bad List," into which you can sort your favourite and least favourite tracks (why do you have these on your device, by the way?). Tracks on The Bad List will never play when you shuffle. Of course, you're not confined to these two themes, and can create any number of playlists. The app also sports artist biographies and reviews, YouTube videos and tour dates. You can share via Facebook and Twitter.
Sometimes, all you really need out of a music player is the ability to play music. However, given the iPad's aesthetic possibilities, this approach leaves a lot on the table. Enter Track 8, a simple music player for iPad that utilises Microsoft's beautiful Metro interface, of all things.
This app really doesn't do anything that the native player can't do, but looks much better doing it. Launching the app presents with album cover tiles from your music history, or you can search by artist, album, or playlist. Listening to one of them brings up an image of the artist courtesy of Last.fm, which displays in the background, and that's about it.
Are rich graphics and clean layout worth $1.99? Absolutely, if you like the look. Music is full of life; why shouldn't your music player be too?
Ever wonder what your music collection would look like if it were a universe? Yeah, me neither. Luckily for us, Bloom Studio did, and created Planetary, a downright gorgeous music player and visualiser for the iPad. Artists from your music collection are represented as stars and are grouped together in alphabetical galaxies. Planets, which represent albums, orbit their appropriate star. No two planets look the same because their surfaces are derived from their corresponding album covers. Each track becomes a moon, revolving around the album/planet at a speed based on its length — a nice touch. The more you listen to a track, the larger the moon grows.
Intergalactic travel can be achieved with a mere pinch-to-zoom gesture, or by swiping, while tapping on a planet or moon selects an album or track. Depending on the size of your music collection, navigating through space can become quite tedious (just like the real thing, once you're over the fun of the launch). If that happens to you, simply press the bottom-center button and select a letter to jump to directly (sort of like folding space-time).
Is Planetary necessary? No. But unless you already make a habit of floating in space while listening to your favourite music, you might as well give this cosmic experience a chance (it's free).
Ever wonder what Eddie Vedder was singing in "Yellow Ledbetter"? With TuneWiki, an iOS app that syncs lyrics to audio and video content, you don't have to. Using its own curated, user-generated lyrics database, TuneWiki finds words to your songs; the app's own streaming radio feature; and YouTube videos. If you feel like impressing your international friends, TuneWiki can translate lyrics into any of over 40 languages.
The app also works as music discovery tool. If you know lyrics, but don't know the song, enter them into SongID and TuneWiki will identify it. The SongBox feature allows you to share songs and lyrics with your Facebook and Twitter friends, while Music Maps shows you what songs are popular around the world.
Whether the lyrics to "Yellow Ledbetter" have any real meaning has been much debated, but it's certainly nice to finally know what they are.