Fourth Annual iOS Music Player Showcase
Few iOS music players available today pour more care and attention into the album browsing and playback experience than Albums. Despite only two short years passing since its charming but shaky initial release, Adam Linder—Albums’ developer—released a blistering and alarming rate of new features, UI enhancements, and bug fixes that makes Albums today one of if not arguably the definitive album-focused player on the market. There’s two primary ways Albums strives to earn this title: its gold-standard album browsing feature set and its album-focused playback experience.
While the sheer quantity of ways you can browse your library in Albums is impressive enough, the majority are deeply powerful in a way no other player has yet been able to emulate. You’ve got your usual suspects like “Albums”, “Artists”, “Genres”, and “Recently Added”, but that’s where the traditional browsing experience ends. With Albums, you can browse your library by:
- Release decade or release year
- Record label
- Album duration
- Album credit (engineer, producer, studio, and more)
- Personal “Insights” (like “Been a While”, which collects albums you haven’t listened to in over a year or “Over the Years”, which collects records into time buckets based on your age like “High School”, “My Mid 20s”, etc.)
These are only a sampling of the many inspirational ways you can browse your library in Albums, and best of all these collections are available “out of the box” with little to no manual configuration1.
For those that are so inclined to fiddle, Albums provides means to manually craft your own collections with:
- “Quick Collections”, which is a kind of spiritual album-centric successor to iTunes’ “Smart Playlists”. With it, you can dynamically populate and sort collections based on practically any criteria you can think of like play count, duration, and more.
- “Tags”, which allows you to manually add any number of tags to the albums in your library. With it, you can create such wonderful collections as “Let’s Get Sad, Yo” and “Play It Again, Sam” by tagging appropriate albums with those labels.
Its stupendous album-focused browsing experience alone is impressive, but Albums’ distinctive full-player elevates the app even further. The first thing you’ll notice is the full-player’s unique “unified” progress bar; instead of displaying the progress and duration of the currently playing track, it displays the progress and duration of the entire album, with notches scattered throughout indicating the album’s tracks. Visually speaking, it’s the closest a traditional progress bar has gotten towards exposing this information that in most physical music formats was immediately visually accessible. For example, with cassettes you always had a clear sense of context throughout the record based on the amount of tape left in the spool, and for vinyl records how close the stylus was to the runout groove. Traditional digital progress indicators overwhelming tend to disregard this data entirely in lieu of a single track progress bar, so to finally see a progress bar design visually expose this information is a rare treat. Unfortunately, this continues to be at the expense of functionality; upon dragging the virtual play head, the bar clumsily morphs to instead display just the track’s progress (like a traditional full-player’s progress bar), leaving no way to drag the virtual play head anywhere across the record like the bar implies. However, since I rarely find myself needing to do this, the contextual benefits the “unified” progress bar provides continues to be worth the trade-off.
The other treat Albums’ full-player provides is the inspired “Credits” tab; on this tab, the app fetches and elegantly groups album metadata from Discogs and MusicBrainz to provide a virtual equivalent to the linear notes typically found on physical records. Depending on the record, you can expect to find everything from high-level information such as record label to low-level details such as the violinist on track 3. If that wasn’t enough, Albums deep links credits into discrete collections in its browser, so for example if that violinist on track 3 happened to play on other records in your library, you could tap that credit to instantly browse all records in your collection that violinist played on. I frequently find myself deep-diving into the “Credits” tab while listening to records and discovering delightful surprises, like that both Eagles’ One of These Nights and CSNY’s Déjà Vu both shared the same lead art designer, Gary Burden.
To be clear, Albums has its pain points; the app contains numerous minor cosmetic and functional bugs that continue to diminish the overall app’s impression (certain actions will break other buttons from working temporarily2, UI controls will update in some cases to report a state that isn’t accurate3, etc.). Minor bugs aside, the design still leaves a lot to be desired in certain areas of the app as well, such as in the full-player; while the full-player is functionally marvelous (thanks in no small part to its amazing “Credits” tab), the spatial organization continues to make little sense. Despite numerous hours with the app, upon launching the full-player I still find myself initially pausing for a moment or two, unsure how to reveal the “Credits” or “Track List” tabs.
With that said, Albums’ surprisingly comprehensive and charming suite of features continues to delight and inspire in spite of its flaws. Features like “Credits” inspire me to pay more attention to producers and mixers, which I can then use to search for and identify new music I’m likely to enjoy. The “Insights” collections help give me a way to relive my music history, providing me a fun (and oftentimes embarrassing) walk down memory lane through the music I loved back when I was in high school4. With features like this and more, it’s clear with each passing update (of which there were many the past couple years) that Adam continues to pour his heart into the app, and that effort continues to yield fruit. If you love records as an art form, you owe it to yourself to give it a try.
Albums features a number of design tweaks to take full advantage of the iPad’s larger screen. Instead of lazily scaling the app to fill the iPad’s screen and calling it a day, features like the “Quick Actions” tray—which would otherwise be hidden until shown to conserve space on the iPhone—is displayed prominently and proudly right beside the progress bar. On the full-player, you can read lyrics without covering any part of the album art or forcing the album art to scale down, which on small screens like the iPhone is simply not feasible. There’s plenty of pleasing interface tweaks that take full advantage of the larger screen to be found in Albums, and with this year’s new iCloud Sync feature Albums’ iPad experience is now among the best available.
Albums’ widgets have seen significant changes from last year. Albums now supports four unique widget collections of various sizes for you to choose from, and continues to contend with Marvis Pro and Soor for the title of richest music player widget support.
The first of these collections is the “Now Playing (Art)” collection, which features just the currently playing album art in small and large widget sizes with a tasteful blurred border. While the large size is subjectively ridiculous like Mixtapes’ large “Now Playing” widget, it’s less onerous in Albums since it provides an alternative large “Now Playing” widget, allowing listeners to choose whichever one best fits their needs. The tap action is customizable, allowing you to do any one of the following upon tap (which most of the other collections also support):
- Open App
- Open App to Now Playing
- Skip to Next Album
- Skip to Next Song
The second collection is an alternative to the first called “Now Playing (Info)”, which for all four widget sizes features varying degrees of every kind of relevant “now playing” data you can imagine (album name, artist, song, track number, remaining duration, album art, etc.). While most are similar in use, the extra-large widget on iPad uniquely includes playback controls to play/pause, skip to the next track, and skip to the next album (though unfortunately these controls are not available as an option for the smaller sizes). To top it all off, the remaining duration counts down in close approximation along with your playback, a remarkable achievement given Apple’s strict widget API limitations.
The third widget collection Albums’ provides is its “Quick Action” collection, available in medium and large sizes. Each size exposes your custom “Quick Actions” and Albums’ build-in ones to be easily launched from the widget itself. Quick Actions tapped in the widget work exactly like they do when tapped in the app; a random record will begin playing immediately according to whatever filtering criteria you set for that “Quick Action”. In my opinion, these widgets are where “Quick Actions” shine brightest. I rarely find myself wanting to play a random record with “Quick Actions” when I’m already browsing around in the app, but I frequently find myself in the mood to do so when these “Quick Actions” are readily available with just a tap right from my home screen.
Albums’ fourth and final widget collection is its “Collection” collection, available in every size except small. This collection lets you randomly display albums for nearly any collection Albums’ provides in the app. If you can view it in Albums, chances are you can display its contents with these widgets. Albums displayed in each of the four widget sizes are discretely selectable; your currently selected tap action will be applied to whatever particular album you select in the widget (a feature which similar widgets from other players like Longplay shockingly lack). While this particular widget class isn’t one I tend to place in my own home screen, this level of flexibility is commendable and sure to delight those that love displaying their library’s albums in widgets.
New This Year
Albums received over a blistering twelve releases this year5, arguably most notable among them:
- Apple Music integration
- iCloud Sync
- CarPlay support
- Widget Updates (see “Widgets” above)
- Listening Reports
I was thrilled to see rich Apple Music support roll out in Albums this year, and it works exactly like you’d expect; searching now displays a tab bar where you can search “My Library” and “Apple Music” (much like how you can in Music.app), and anything you search for in the “Apple Music” tab can be streamed or added to your library (which naturally requires enabling Music.app’s “Sync Library” option, if that’s your fancy). Records streamed this way are otherwise treated no differently than streaming a local record; you get the same full-player with the great “Credits” and “Statistics” tabs you’ve come to expect from the local experience Albums provides. Integration extends even further to (optionally) display albums not in your library on artist pages, helping further eliminate reasons to ever switch back to Music.app while listening.
The next big change was the introduction of iCloud Sync support, a much appreciated quality-of-life improvement for anyone duel-wielding an iPad and iPhone and want their “Quick Collections”, downloaded credits, and other data consistent across all devices. Due to Discogs’ strict API limitations, the automatic credits download option could take a considerable amount of time, so it’s great to finally see Albums sharing that fetched data across all your devices and not needlessly repeating that expensive task for each. The Albums experience on my secondary device (my iPad) no longer feels like a compromised or cheapened version of the “real” app on my iPhone due to missing credits and other dynamic or custom data, everything that matters on my iPhone is now automatically there on the iPad, and visa versa. In my mind, this now marks the end of Albums’ long migration to an uncompromising universal app, coming a long way its inception back in 2019 as an iPhone-only experience.
CarPlay support was additionally rolled out this year. While a tremendous new feature (especially considering barely any other players available today support it), there’s unfortunately little I have to say about it. As a carless city pedestrian, I’ll let Adam do the talking:
The CarPlay app is split up into four tabs: Albums, Collections, Quick Actions, and Library. The first two are customizable. Think of the Albums tab as the 2021 version of the six-CD changer in your friend’s car from 2004. You can go to Settings -> CarPlay on your phone and choose the six albums you want available in the car.
While I don’t own a car, I do occasionally rent one for vacations, and Adam’s stated goals with the “Albums” tab is exactly what I do today; before beginning the trip, I queue up every album I want to listen to on the ride, so I eagerly await the ability to make on-the-fly changes at red lights or quick gas stops without needing to fiddle with my phone.
Aside from widget updates (covered above in the dedicated “Widgets” section), the final major change of note this year was the introduction of listener reports. No doubt heavily inspired by the yearly “Spotify Wrapped”, Albums now provides its own “wrapped”-like reports and can be adjusted for any arbitrary time period (not just the past year). The feature works remarkably well, displaying numerical data such as number of albums played and hours listened, a gorgeous album grid of your top albums by play count, numerous bar charts showing top artists, top genres, and more. It’s a feast for the eyes and is a delightful way to gain insight into your listening habits from the past year you may not even have been aware of. In my case, I discovered I apparently only listened to albums in my library 51 days out of the year and had Tyler, the Creator on heavy rotation (“CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST, B!#%&”). If you spend even a bit of your listening time on an iPhone or iPad, it’s well worth the walk down memory lane.
- Apple Music integration
Albums features my preferred kind of Apple Music integration: the majority of the app experience is unchanged, but now you can seamlessly search for, stream, and tag Apple Music albums just like you could your local library. It’s as close to transparent integration as I’ve seen, and for my tastes that’s worthy of praise.
- iPad support
Albums’ iPad version is exceptionally performant and the interface is well optimized to take full advantage of the larger screen. It sets the standard for what players should strive for on the iPad.
- Discovery features
The sheer number of discovery capabilities offered by Albums is astounding. You can browse by years & decades, duration, studios, record labels, old favorites, recently added, and more than I have space to type. The fact it all comes "as is" with virtually no configuration is industry leading.
- Beautiful or visually engaging full-player
While not particularly beautiful, Albums without a doubt features one of the most engaging full-players available today thanks to its statistics and credits tabs.
- Album-focused features
There’s too much to summarize here here, but suffice to say Albums lives up to its namesake and then some.
- Light & dark themes
- Lyrics support
Lyrics are supported in-app and are perfectly functional. However, it’s worth noting it’s not a particularly inspired implementation and could certainly use a refresh (it’s currently just shoved into a popup card).
Table of Contents
- Honorable Mentions
- 2021’s Players
- New This Year
For the personal “Insights” collections to work, you’ll need to enter your birth year, and for credit-based collections like “Engineer”, “Producer”, etc. to work you’ll need to enable the “Auto-Download Credits” option in settings and allow the process to fully complete. ↩︎
To reproduce in the version available at time of writing, tap the new group button in the top menu of the “Albums” tab, then dismiss it. Afterwards, you’ll be unable to access the settings menu. ↩︎
To reproduce in the version available at time of writing, launch the full-player, then play around with the tab bar a bit by tapping the items in the bar and using the swipe left or right gesture. It doesn’t take much for the supposedly active tab bar item to get “out of sync” with what’s actually displayed (and the tab view contents themselves disappear entirely in extreme cases) ↩︎
I had an unhealthy obsession with Coldplay, and still have a fondness for the band’s earlier material to this day. ↩︎
You can see Albums’ impressive change log within the app itself at Settings > Change Log, a much appreciated feature for anyone finding themselves needing to dig through the year’s releases. ↩︎