The best thing about the music service Soundcloud is that is that as a listener, it feels like it does everything you want without any catches. You get commercial free audio, available on any device, free downloads if the sound’s creator allows it, and you don’t have to pay for any of it. You can get a similar experience by getting the paid version of Spotify or Google Play Music, but with Soundcloud it’s all free.

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What makes Soundcloud tick? It’s kind of like a cross between YouTube and Twitter, but for audio. Listeners can follow audio creators to get all of their releases visible in a stream on the web or in the Soundcloud mobile apps. There are all kinds of audio content from artists who upload their whole catalog, podcast creators, and an especially thriving remix community.

Soundcloud offers a really beautiful mobile experience, that unlike Spotify or Google’s music offering, you don’t have to pay to take full advantage of. A well designed and functional app works really well in today’s mobile, data integrated world. Soundcloud plays tracks from the cloud rather than local storage, but it’s very seamless and integrates play controls on your lock screen and Airplay capability for iOS.

Since Soundcloud releases are often coming directly from the artist, it’s a really easy way to stay on the bleeding edge, getting previews or even full tracks before they’re released through traditional channels.

Soundcloud lets you comment at specific times while playing an audio file, so it’s like viewing realtime reactions to what’s playing. You can see what others said when they heard the exact thing you’re hearing. Social sharing outside the app is similarly effortless. While other music players can have a rather clunky experience because of long page load times, when you link to a Soundcloud track, it is very easy to access.

Another killer feature is the ease with which users can embed a Soundcloud track inside a blog post. For this reason it’s become a go-to player for many music blogs looking for a better way to share music that doesn’t rely on a more subscription-centered service like Spotify. Soundcloud just wants to play the music.

What Soundcloud lacks is some sort of play queue. While you can make playlists from the app, it’s nowhere near being a full featured player. It feels more limited to playing tracks in reverse chronological order of their posting. If they added the ability to queue tracks up without going through the process of creating and naming a new playlist, it would be really useful.

Of course if they did that, more people might start using Soundcloud, and they’d have to think seriously about adding ads and otherwise supplementing their revenue. But for now, Soundcloud puts artists and listeners closely in touch, and it’s so great because everything about it seems designed for convenience instead being full of the restrictions other services have.

This post is part of a series exploring companies I love and the things that make them great.

Now that the holidays are over, most of us are ready to be done with holiday music for a while. The problem is that sometimes our digital music collections have a mind of their own and start playing holiday music even in the middle of July. CNET’s Donald Bell suggests several ways to make sure you don’t have this problem, including storing all of your holiday music on a special flash drive. But if you don’t want to go to all the trouble and expense of his methods, there is a simpler way for those of you who use iTunes on a Mac. It’s easy to setup, doesn’t require any additional materials or software, and works year after year without any user intervention.

1. Make a Smart Playlist
Create a new smart playlist from the iTunes File menu and set it to contain all of your holiday music. You can make this as simple or complicated as you want by using different rules. If you haven’t carefully organized all of your music by genre, just set several rules including genre searches for “Christmas” and “Holiday” and even the word “Christmas” within the song or album title fields. Then set the playlist to include tracks that match any of your rules. As an added bonus you now have all your Christmas music in a single playlist for all of your holiday parties.

2. Make An Automator Workflow
Open up Automator on your Mac and create a new workflow. Add the action “Get Specified iTunes Items”, and select your new holiday music smart playlist. Your second action should be “Set Options of iTunes Songs”. After adding this, select the option “skip when shuffling”. Then save your workflow.

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(If you’ve never used Automator, this site is full of examples and explanations.)

3. Make an iCal Plug-in

Use the File menu in Automator and select “save as . . . plug-in for iCal”. iCal will then open and automatically create an event that runs your new workflow. All you have to do is make sure the event is set for the appropriate date after the end of the holidays and make sure it’s scheduled to repeat yearly.

4. Add Your Music For Next Winter
Modify your workflow so that it sets your playlist to be included in shuffle. Then save this plug-in and schedule an event that will add your music back to your library before the holidays begin.

Pretty simple huh? If you get your hands a little dirty up-front you’ll never have to worry about a surprise Christmas song out of season again. Unless of course you like Christmas music enough that you enjoy listening to it year round. In that case, this project is definitely not for you.

Note that this tip works for Mac users. If any Windows users have ideas on how to accomplish this in Windows, mention them in the comments.