Yes, the exciting Week of Top Tens continues here on the Riff, this list suggested by an esteemed Mother Jones editor, who was like, “what the hell should I listen to online?!” Well, first, take a deep breath, and then direct your browser to one of these ten stations, networks, or random dudes in a basement. I’ll admit it up front: this list is heavy on actual radio stations that you can listen to online, since low-budget online radio usually can’t compete with the sound quality, production, and industry access that “real” stations have. I like things to sound good, what can I say.
10. SomaFM (San Francisco, CA)
The first of two online stations on my list without an FM dial equivalent, I couldn’t ignore my neighborhood broadcaster. One of the first online-only stations, they’ve expanded to multiple channels, and while some of them seem to overlap a bit (there are three or four dedicated to “chill-out sounds”) they’re all sane and focused enough to be listenable without sounding like you’re listening to a computer program select random tracks (I’m looking at you, commercial online stations). The interface is a little 1998 but its homegrown charm more than makes up for its low budget.
9. Triple J (Australia)
The Aussie non-commercial station has more of a rabble-rousing alt-culture history than its English cousin, Radio 1, and while dance and hip-hop have their rightful place on the playlist, it’s the local and international rock and indie that make this network stand out. Just on their audio archive page right now are specials featuring Nick Cave, Jeff Buckley, the Pixies and Yo La Tengo as well as a tribute to the Go Betweens.
8. Smoothbeats.com (Philadelphia, PA)
Here’s the second online-only station on the list. It’s even more homegrown than SomaFM, with only one channel, but it’s a good one: quality hip-hop, from both the mainstream and the underground. Here’s the last five artists that played as I was typing this: RJD2, Kanye, Pharoahe Monch, Deltron, The Firm. Awesome all the way. Smoothbeats fills a huge gap: most commercial hip-hop stations play some good stuff, but they’re also banging “Soulja Boy” 120 times a week.
7. WFMU (Jersey City, NJ)
I’ve got little time for “free-form radio,” since the new-stoner-host-every-hour format tends to produce a lot of bird calls, spoken word and feedback drones (often all at the same time). But somehow, WFMU manages to be both completely demented and totally listenable, despite (or maybe because of) the wild stylistic swings from show to show. The place to go when you’re looking to expand your mind, with or without a doobie.
6. Rinse FM (South London, UK)
Okay, here’s a station that’s not an NPR affiliate or an arm of any government: south London pirate Rinse FM emerged from the pack of unlicensed broadcasters in the 90s, proving itself as one of the central pillars in the jungle and drum ‘n’ bass scene. Nowadays, it’s all about grime and dubstep, but be sure that as the underground evolves, they’ll be right there on top of it.
5. Radio 1 (UK)
Sorry, Radio 1, you’d be higher on this list, but 64 kbps?! The UK’s public pop station is a towering juggernaut of new music and awesome production, from Nihal’s Asian beats and bhangra show to Collin Murray’s alt-rock night show, and their listener interface allows you to check out any of the individual shows for up to a week after their original broadcast. But the stream just doesn’t sound good enough to enjoy for long periods of time; it’s only the quality of the content that puts Radio 1 this high on my list.
4. The Current (Minneapolis, Minnesota)
This venture of Minnesota Public Radio sounds great, doesn’t break away from the music for random chat shows, and balances its new music with classic alternative tracks that always surprise you. It’s covering a lot of the same ground as KCRW, to be sure, not that there’s anything wrong with that, but as an online listener, you can pick and choose. Either way, The Current is definitely the most reliably listenable of any station on this list.
3. FG DJ Radio (Paris, France)
Originally founded as a community radio station for Paris gays, it’s now a privately-run dance music station, but don’t let its homo history fool you: you won’t be hearing “I Will Survive” here. Thanks perhaps to its location in the heart of bleeding-edge techno culture, the station continually surprises me with its boundary-pushing tracks. Plus you can choose between six (!) online channels, including a “vintage” station and a 6-hour delayed stream of the live broadcast, a totally brilliant idea. Possibly a little intense for your lazy Sunday afternoons but a great way to take a quick vacation to a Paris nightclub.
2. KEXP (Seattle, WA)
It’s a close second for Seattle’s “Experience Music Project” station, which takes the professionalism (and nicely-sized budget) of a public station and combines it with the freewheeling energy of a college station. It’s only been in its current incarnation since 2001, but under the leadership of Kevin Cole the station has found focus and renewed spirit. It’s the place to turn when KCRW starts making you feel old.
1. KCRW (Santa Monica, CA)
I know, it’s a bit of a cliché: their smooth-talking DJs make “Delicious Dish” look like a morning zoo, and the music can be a little safe—if I hear the terrible Bitter:sweet track one more time… But KCRW’s commitment to emerging artists remains unparalleled, and they’re the closest thing we have in the US to a one-stop shop for truly “alternative” music. Plus, with simulcast, music and news channels (all in 128 kbps) you can always get what you want. Highlights: Jason Bentley’s groovy “Metropolis,” weeknights, Anne Lit’s progressive “A Track” weekend afternoons, and perhaps most uniquely, Garth Trinidad’s funky “Chocolate City” on Saturday nights, whose charmingly throwback-y title belies its status as one of the best sources around for new, progressive hip-hop and soul.