Google is quietly running an excellent streaming service in Play Music. Earlier this week, a big update made it even better.
Play Music, which offers a huge library of music with curated and customisable stations, has always stood out with its embrace of contextual recommendations, i.e., suggesting different music for different settings. Google got a head start in this area when it bought Songza, an early pioneer in the area, and brought on co-founder Elias Roman as project manager.
“Our belief is that context is king,” Roman told us earlier this year. “We’ve had a long time to get good at what it takes to be good at that.”
In the past, Play Music featured something called music concierge, which let users click through a flow chart of things that might be relevant to them. This interface worked, but it also felt limiting. Personally, I had started using it less in recent months, preferring to choose music from the personalised but non-contextual Recommended tab or other sections of the app.
Play Music’s latest update blows up the concierge in favour of a new array of recommendations that pull from not only relevant activities (e.g., “focusing”) but also recent listening and recommended classics, new releases, and customised stations. In short, it’s pulling from a much wider range of sources. It’s also getting more use out of Play’s carefully curated stations, many of which where buried in some dark corner of concierge.
And the whole thing adjusts based on context, giving you different recommendations on your phone, on your computer, at the gym, and in the office.
One example that impressed me: The old Play Music was never smart enough to figure out what albums are stuck in my head — i.e., the ones I’ve been searching for repeatedly (e.g., “In The Heights” and “Falsettoland”). New Play Music immediately figured that out and always puts one of those right at the top.
The new Play Music is not only smart but also wonderfully simple, putting it all on one neat page. If you scan the recommendations without seeing anything that excites you, you can always click “I’m Feeling Lucky Radio” for a unpredictable custom radio station based on something it knows you like. Not feeling that, and you can sort by new and top releases, create custom radio stations, and more.
Play Music’s $9.99 membership gives you a huge streaming library and the advanced interface described above. It also comes with a snazzy bonus: YouTube Red status, letting you watch YouTube videos without ads and some exclusive content.
You may be surprised to hear that Play Music is this good: Google’s streaming app doesn’t get as much attention as Spotify, Apple Music, and others. It is
holding onto a moderate market share, however, and, again, it’s a strong product. It was already this reporter’s top pick after weeks of research and testing last year.
Since most of the top streaming services have similarly huge libraries, the biggest difference comes down to how easy they make it for you to find good music.
Spotify has excellent playlists, including the personalised Discover Weekly, and it’s great at surfacing hot new music — and for some that will make it the best. It remains a step behind Play Music on contextual recommendations, however, and if you ask me, it’s lagging in interface too, especially after Play’s update.
Apple Music? It has a clunky interface, even after a big update, with often contrived playlists.
Tidal? Miles to go on personalised recommendations and its hi-fi option will be lost on most. Another option if you want hi-fi, which may in fact be better on recommendations, is Deezer.
Pandora? Wonderfully simple but short on features and not necessarily better than the competition at anything.
Amazon Prime Music? A relatively small library, though it does come free with Prime.
Some of those options have music exclusives — Apple and Tidal, prime among them — which may sway some people. I’ve found, however, that’s it’s easy enough to wait a week or two to listen to Kanye.
All of these options can be a lot to take in, but don’t worry. One way or another, it’s never been easier to find to great music.