Let's rock and roll!

There seem to have been an unusual number of music-related sites cross my bow in the last few weeks - from Keeping Score's introduction to Classical music, to Harlem.org's single photo history of Jazz. But in this week's selection, the subject matter is almost incidental to a genuinely formidable achievement in "information design" - it just so happens that said achievement is in aid of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum's History of Rock and Roll Visual Timeline. (Pause for breath.)

With a Flash-based application almost as complex as that title, the Timeline (for that's all that I'll be calling it from here on) presents an amazing amount of material in a surprisingly small space. (Small enough to fit into a 640x480 screen.) But before downloading the Timeline (estimated at about 48 seconds on a dial up connection), visitors are first presented with a page introducing the features of this, "interactive, animated compendium of rock and popular music history." (And while the introduction only consists of a few lines and images about each feature, it's a useful guide - the Timeline has so many options that it would be easy to go through the exhibit without ever being aware of them all.)

Unless, of course, you're reading this article.

Opening into its own window, the Timeline first presents the visitor with a directory that stretches back to the 1920's (in order to include early influences on Rock) and lists such categories as British Invasion, Girl Groups, Heavy Metal, Folk Rock, and, since every history contains its darker hours, Disco. Visitors can zoom in to or out of specific decades, or click on a musical genre heading which generates a drop down list of artists or companies related to that selection. (e.g. "Doowop" offers The Coasters, The Four Seasons, and The Platters, among others.)

Choose a particular inductee or an entire genre, and the selection expands to exclusively occupy the Timeline window, with points along each line linking to text boxes with details about specific events. At the top of the window, a Read More tab reveals a fairly detailed background to the style of music being explored, while a Social Context option at the bottom relates music-to-world and other entertainment events - from the Bay of Pigs and Watergate to the release of Star Wars and the premiere of Saturday Night Live. Once you're done exploring a given style or artist, a "Close" button at the top left of the frame returns the Timeline to its default appearance, and you can set off in new directions.

In addition to the various milestones, the first point on every artist's timeline also offers a drop down menu with links to the subject's influences, followers, and the Museum's full page feature on that inductee. On occasion, text boxes will include a magnifying glass icon, which will invite tangential explorations of related links. (An entry about Bob Dylan's motorcycle accident near Woodstock in 1966 includes a Woodstock link, which opens a tab with information about Jimi Hendrix, Santana, Joni Mitchell, and others - each of which can then open into their own timeline.) And, since the original artist is also listed in the related entries collection, you can return to your "pre-detour" location without having to start from scratch. (All these side trips are also recorded in an All Searches drop down, so visitors also have the option of completing the original trip and saving the side trips for later on.)

As tabs move up and down, and the Timeline redraws itself with every shift in focus, one can't help but be impressed by the amount of data that can be intelligibly displayed in such a small patch of screen real estate. And while it must have been a challenge to create, and can look a bit too densely packed for comfort on first encounter, the Timeline's design and efficiency are worth sampling regardless of the depth of your interest in the history of Rock and Roll.

Still, there are limits to any application's capabilities, and if your passion for the music is all consuming (or even mostly consuming) you'll find that the information in the Timeline is largely superficial - a mile wide and an inch deep. But those who want more details can always follow the links into the Hall of Fame, or perform their own research on the web - the Timeline merely provides suggestions about where you might like to go.

The History of Rock and Roll Visual Timeline can be found at http://www.rockhall.com/timeline/.

And while we're clearing the decks of music-related sites for the time being, online file-sharers might like to know about Etree.org, which hosts a free collection of high-quality live recordings by, "artists that allow taping and/or free trading of their performances" - proving there can still be free music after Napster. (It's just legal this time.)

A community of more than 12,000 members, Etree's "TradeFriendly" bands list is largely made up of groups you may have never heard of (no offense to the Yonder Mountain String Band and the Deep Banana Blackout, I just haven't had the pleasure) - but there may well be gems among the unknowns, and there are such recognizable names as The Tragically Hip, Pat Metheny, The Dave Matthews Band, and of course, the preeminent promoters of live taping and trading, The Grateful Dead.

Etree only offers "lossless" audio files (no MP3s here), so the downloads may be an endurance test on dial up connections. Still, these recordings could introduce you to new bands or let you audition an unknown act before paying money to see them live. And if you find one of your favorites (and if the onsite amateur recording engineer had a good vantage point), this will be a chance to add something distinctive - and, "not available in stores" - to your collection.

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