When the Supreme Court ruled last month against Internet sites that enable peer-to-peer file-sharing, it did music downloaders a favor. As anyone who's ever visited P2P sites like Grokster and Morpheus can attest, sound quality is maddeningly dodgy, and the catalogue is hopelessly disorganized. The imminent shutdown of these sites should provide the kick in the pants you need to find a better alternative.
Russia is where it's at. Benefiting from lax copyright laws, Russian MP3 sites offer a wide array of music to download for a nominal fee. The music isn't free, but it's close. And because the sites are run as businesses rather than loose collectives, they're much more user-friendly.
With so many Russian sites to choose from, we decided to share a few of our favorites. Of course, the biggest concern in using foreign MP3 sites is giving your credit-card number: You don't want some dude named Boris buying new rims for his Lada 110 on your dime. But on all of the sites below, you can use PayPal for secure Internet payments or call a toll-free number and have the charges added to your telephone bill. So get your wish list together and join us online.
Site: Allofmp3.com (5 to 10 cents per song)
Selection: A solid blend of the latest hot releases (R. Kelly, Missy Elliott), with a back catalogue deeper than Lake Erie. One of the rare sites to have the complete works of artists such as Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Michael Jackson and hundreds of others. There are also plenty of rare finds, like Rage Against the Machine's Bombtrack EP. It's among the most comprehensive collections of music on the web.
Why you should try it: By allowing you to listen to everything for free before you buy, this is an ideal site to help you build up a library of music. It's easy to navigate, and you can download complete albums instead of assembling discs song by song.
Site: club.mp3search.ru (10 cents per song)
Selection: Heavy on the rarities and out-of-print discs, from Mountain to Sugar Ray. Doesn't have as many contemporary hits as some other sites, but where else are you going to find that elusive Milli Vanilli remix LP? Also has a vast selection of audio books and ring tones.
Why you should try it: It's nicely interactive and informative. There's a message board where you can request specific songs and albums, and site operators will do their best to get them for you. Moreover, when you select an album by a given artist, the site gives you a full discography of the performer, a rating of the discs, and a ranking of the most popular songs -- like iTunes, but without the 99-cent fee. Log on and learn more about Ace of Base than you ever wanted to know.
Site: mp3spy.ru (10 cents per song)
Selection: A huge collection of electronica that spans everything from the latest Deep Dish LP to a vast array of European singles and compilation discs. You can get some albums before their official release, like the hotly anticipated new disc from Swedish metal group Arch Enemy.
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Why you should try it: The site may be lacking in older material, and it's weak on hip-hop (virtually no Public Enemy, De La Soul, N.W.A., etc.), but it's good for dance music and material only available overseas. Aspiring DJs can build entire sets here.
Site: 3mp3.ru ($9.95 for 200 songs, or $29.95 a month)
Selection: All of the current hits, plus a huge selection of bootlegs and live albums ranging from Metallica to Miles Davis. For completists, this site has tons of rare and unofficial releases, without the high prices associated with non-sanctioned discs -- meaning you no longer have to pay top dollar for a demo version of "Enter Sandman."
Why you should try it: It's one of the best values on the web. If you upload two albums that the site doesn't have, you get a week's worth of free downloads. By offering unlimited downloads for a low monthly fee, the site allows you to compile a massive catalogue in weeks. A great place to start building your collection.