I find myself the owner of a new computer. My old one, which wasn't even mine to begin with, finally crashed for good. Or to be more specific, I grew tired of fixing it after the most recent crash, an event that was becoming more and more common. I shouldn't complain, though; that computer lasted a good eight years, four albums or so, on top of being given to me at no cost.
Anyway, since a reinstall of all my preferred programs is fresh on my mind, I think I'll go ahead and list the ones that are essential to me, both for the sake of my own weakening memory and just in case this info might be of some use to someone else out there on a lonely pursuit of music-making and whatnot. These are all Windows-based--but many have Mac builds--and free. And of course you can donate to the authors if you find them useful enough:
Easy to use unpack/pack program. Uncompresses most extensions. Handles .zip and .rar, for instance.
A brain-dead simple FTP protocol. Useful for those who host their own domains.
No nonsense audio encoder/decoder. .mp3, .flac, .wav, .ogg, .etc. Also rips CDs with little hassle. I'm no audiophile, but the "Archive Quality" (320kbps) setting for .mp3 is almost as transparent as the CD.
Very intuitive metadata editor for most audio file-types. Excellent menu layout and keyboard shortcuts make for an almost enjoyable experience of tearing through a library of poorly tagged mp3s. Allows for easy renaming of the actual file names, too.
A ridiculously no-nonsense mp3 player. Seriously. Bare bones to the extreme. Doesn't even read metadata. Looks like a Windows 3.1 era program. However, it runs incredibly fast and is almost weightless on the CPU load. Boots up in around one second.
Simple tool for determining everything rhythm-related to an audio loop/sample. Convert time to bpm and all that. Even gives you frequency modulations for oscillating effects. Very useful.
DigitalFishPhones Plug-ins [www.digitalfishphones.com/main.php?item=2&subItem=1]
A collection of nice (free!) audio plug ins. My favorites are the Fish Fillets collection and the Endorphin dual-band stereo compressor. The Fish Fillets collection is three effects: compressor, de-esser, and noise gate, known as Blockfish and Spitfish and Floorfish respectively. The Blockfish compressor is surprisingly deep, and literally (in a digital sense) lets you get "under the hood" and play with the subtler nuances of the compression effect. Endorphin is great for putting the finishing touches on a mix while also doubling as a limiter for those who like their mixes flat as a mid-western prairie.
Ambience VST [magnus.smartelectronix.com/#Ambience]
Free reverb plug-in. Lots o' knobs. This isn't for the faint of heart. This is for people who are picky about the bass dampening in their reverb tails and who wouldn't be caught dead slapping on a preset on anything.
Camel Crusher VST [www.camelaudio.com/camelcrusher.php]
Simple distortion plug-in. Nothing special, but for some reason I'm fond of it when mixing. Great for adding some grit to a drum sample, or driving a bass line a little harder... you know, stuff like that. Obviously not ideal for achieving a distorted guitar effect. Does anyone actually do that? Play clean into the computer and distort it in the box? Really? Self-respecting guitar players do this?
Free and open source image editor. For people who aren't graphic designers, it may take awhile to grasp the ins and outs of operation, but it is a very powerful tool once you get it. I use this for all kinds of tasks, from making flyers to manipulating stupid photos on the internet.
I'm sure I've forgotten some, or I just haven't needed them yet. As I think of more programs I'll either update this list or make a new post. Or not. Who knows?