May 23, 2006

iTunes Chronology & the iTunes Word Game

Breakfast / All of My Brother's Girlfriends

Breakfast in NYC / Oppenheimer

The world of wires has, of course, changed the way music is made, distributed, and consumed. But it's also changing the way musicians live, writes Chris Dahlen, the best Christopher Pitchfork writer since Chris Ott. There's an awful lot of fancy stuff you can do with a computer and a bunch of music files, he continues. You can keep track of your listening habits, make your own mash-ups and remixes, get recommendations from people or machines you don't even know, and automatically generate mixes to fit your mood. Moreover, if you have a nice computer and a degree in computer science, you can even analyze online music reviews. Pitchformula, the brainchild of Loren Jan Wilson, creates wordlists by scouring the database of reviews available at and ranking key words like "guitars," "dissonance," "frenetic," and "warmth." The first goal of this project was to demonstrate the limitations of critical language in describing pop music. (Check it out yourself by viewing Pitchfork through Wilson's filtering program. Predictably "positive" words appear in green and "negative" ones in red.) The second goal was to use the words with highly positive connotations to select criteria for writing songs that would score well with reviewers. Despite this careful work, unsurprisingly, the songs that Wilson ended up producing for this project are far from 5-star material. Much better are those he'd already written, freely, for his band Starlister, which hails from Hyde Park, Chicago, and has recorded a number of decent cuts, including The Deepest Color of Your Hazel Eyes.

The gap between Wilson's "real" songs for Starlister and his "homework" songs speaks to the obvious conclusion that both he and Dahlen reach: There's an unidentifiable "mystery element" that makes certain songs and albums great. Call it luck, fate, passion, sweat, creativity, heart, or feeling. Whatever you dub it, its defining feature is that it's not open to analysis. Anyone approaching music without considering this fact is missing the point. Computers can probe all they want, and musicians can try their best using electronic wizardry to satisfy snarky critics, but there's ultimately more to music than that. Nevertheless, computers can assist us to better appreciate and better analyze songs. In fact, they often help us the most when they keep it old school. Computers are best at improving our daily lives when they're used in relatively simple ways: for e-mail, for playing music and movies, or for finding the address of a restaurant. Think Number Munchers and Crystal Quest.

Maybe all this background is obvious. Complex statistical analysis doesn't help your average indie fetishist, and music isn't just ones and zeros. The point is, there are fantastically simple things that can be done with songs and computers. Simpler than, and simpler than AppleScripts. Below are two blue-collar iTunes tricks that can help spur new interests and new connections. Both, hopefully, can make things a little more interesting without sacrificing the elements of chance and creativity. Either way, they're easy and we can pretend they're important.

1. History of the World in Song: iTunes Chronology

Recently, I met a guy who is truly obsessed with iTunes. He's one of those folks who must have artwork for every album and spends hours carefully delineating genres. Anal but not abnormal. The thing that surprised me about this guy was that he organized his entire music library by album. That is, all his albums were in alphabetical order, leaving The Immaculate Collection right alongside The Low End Theory and Let's Get It On alongside Let It Be and (more appropriately) Let It Be... Naked. I found this amusing. I found this foolish. But to him it was genuinely more important to have all the songs from compilations and soundtracks next to one another than it was to have all of the albums by a particular band grouped together.

I disagree with my friend's organizational approach, but I applaud his dedication. And I thank him for forcing me to reconsider how I was using iTunes myself. After our encounter, I immediately realized that I wanted my albums in chronological order by band. The solution was simple: place the recording or release date before the album title (e.g. 1997 Handsome Western States). Now each musician in my music library has his/her/their catalogue neatly organized like a timeline. 1997 Handsome Western States comes before 1999 When Your Heartstrings Break, as it would have in your average iTunes library, but they also both come before 2001 The Coast Is Never Clear. A little difficult to explain, but easy to grasp visually: Take a look.

Of course all this is as stupid as it is obvious, but once you organize your music in this way everything is put in perspective. Hundreds of connections and concatenations reveal themselves. You have the intense satisfaction of being reminded—every time you listen to it—that Blood On the Tracks was released a full ten years after Bringing It All Back Home. Then maybe you remember that the "blood" is symbolic of the end of Dylan's marriage to Sara Lowndes. You also realize what sense it makes, historically, that 1969—that year of endings that followed the assassinations of MLK and Robert Kennedy and saw the death of the counterculture movement—was the year of the last true Beatles release; the year in which the Kinks put out an album with the phrase "decline and fall" in the title; and the year of Nashville Skyline, a continuation of Dylan's return to acoustic Americana and away from politicizing his music. It suddenly makes perfect sense that the Velvets released Loaded at the beginning of the "Me Decade," and that Brian Eno retreated into the studio and focused on electronica halfway through that same decade. Seeing the years alongside the album titles reminds you that every piece of music—no matter how great it is, no matter how much it transcends time—falls into a history of events, of people and of places. The '70s become the '80s as Joy Division becomes New Order. Sonic Youth, born in 1981 and debuting in '83, grows up alongside you, through the fall of the Berlin Wall and through the fall of the World Trade Towers. Today, SY lives on—a twenty-something finding new ways of doing old things—while R.E.M. and U2 turn decrepit and senile. Sure everything's in its right place, and time and seasons and bands turn. But everything turns at its own pace. The interesting part is connecting the dots and comparing those paces.

2. Searching for the Perfect Mix: The iTunes Word Game

The other iTunes trick is not so heavy. It involves trying to find words or phrases that will create mixes. The idea is simple: You type a word into the search box in the upper-right corner of iTunes with the goal of making a mix of reasonable length—between 30 and 80 minutes, say. Words like "chicken" and "arrange" work reasonably well for me (40 and 33 minutes, respectively). So do the phrases "all days" and "new time" (44 and 30 minutes). Words like "love," "change," and "dreams" don't fair so well, producing mixes that would require an entire spindle of CD-Rs to burn. Words like "fish" and "stereo" fail for another reason: too many songs by the same artist (I get all of Fishscale and all of Swordfishtrombones, all of Apples in Stereo and all of Stereolab). And words like "apostrophe" and "challenging" are just too clever (I get nothing for either). Basically, you have to find words that are interesting enough to be used but not over-used. Part of the fun is being better than your friends at finding the right words. And part of the fun is seeing just how weird your music collection is (I get hits for "children die," "wise cousin," "onion necklace," "jollity dog," and "inside hippo"). But, of course, the real goal is to find the perfect word or phrase, the one that selects a 79-minute mix with no repeats.

I have yet to nail a 79-point bull’s-eye, but a recent favorite discovered through the iTunes Word Game is the "Breakfast Mix," which includes 11 songs, features 10 bands, clocks in at 30'34", and starts with an instrumental track. The two tracks posted above are from young breakfast-loving bands that are using the internet to reach an international audience: All of My Brother's Girlfriends is from Sweden, and the more polished Oppenheimer is from Ireland. Thanks to Chris for introducing me to the latter.

1. Breakfast With Blockhead / Aesop Rock
2. Breakfast / All Of My Brother's Girlfriends
3. 40 Oz. For Breakfast / Blackalicious
4. I Am The Milkmaid And I Bring Your Breakfast In / The Blow
5. Orange Juice Blues (Blues For Breakfast) / Bob Dylan & The Band
6. Raining Rage / Breakfast
7. Breakfast Eat Rice / Breakfast
8. Finish Your Collapse And Stay For Breakfast / Broken Social Scene
9. Breakfast At Tiffany's / Deep Blue Something
10. Breakfast Cake / The Lovely Feathers
11. Breakfast In NYC / Oppenheimer

1 comment:

would that i were a moog said...

chris appreciates the shout-out. and can only envy your mad itunes organizational skillz.

i think i would like to see angel corpus christi in concert. she has a dorky blog full of pictures of flowers and babies and stuff.