The mysteries of iTunes

It is not an exaggeration to say that iTunes changed the way I listen to music, literally overnight. And I do mean literally.

I used to worship at the Altar of the Physical Object. I own about 4000 vinyl records and perhaps 1000 CDs, and they have always gotten the premium wall-space in my house. I used to sit for hours listening to them, holding the jacket or jewel-case the disc came in and perusing it as I listened, on headphones if the rest of the household was sleeping. That’s how I listened to music for about 30 years.

Then, one Christmas a few years ago I got an iPod, plugged it into the computer and started downloading CDs. By morning, I had downloaded all of the Beatles, all of Bob Dylan and all of Elvis Costello onto my iPod, about 2000 songs altogether, and had barely even begun to put a dent in the storage capacity of the thing. And I turned around and looked at those racks and racks of CDs and thought “Why the hell do I own all these things? They take up so much room.”

Well, I still own all those CDs but the fact is, I don’t ever listen to them. I bring a CD home from the store, I load it directly into iTunes and it goes into rotation, along with the other 19,000 other songs, all playing in a random order.  I like to think of iTunes as a radio station that only plays things I like to listen to.  And at 19,000 songs, it’s amazing to me the things it comes up with I have no memory of ever hearing before. 

I rarely listen to one album at a time, if I’m in a specific mood for something I listen to everything by an artist or genre on shuffle. If there are a number of recent purchases I put them all into a “new stuff” playlist and listen to them all on shuffle (currently, my “new stuff” playlist includes new albums by Springsteen, Graham Parker and Sinead O’Connor, plus a McCartney live CD from a few years ago I picked up for free in a “buy three used CDs, get the fourth free” deal). I haven’t sat down and listened to a CD from beginning to end in years and I have a feeling I’m not alone in this.

So I’m pretty impressed with iTunes, I gotta say. I do have one question: the album graphics feature — how does that work? Because the whole thing is a mystery to me.

It seems that when I load a CD into iTunes, iTunes goes to its database and sees if there is artwork available for it. If there is, that artwork gets downloaded onto your computer. But if that is so, why do a great number of my albums not have artwork available?

The Beatles I get — their work is not available through iTunes (yet). But then what about Paul McCartney? He just recently, to great ballyhoo, made all his stuff available through iTunes, but none of his album artwork shows up on my iPod. With one curious exception — London Town, which, for some reason, does not show up as London Town at all, but rather as something called Continuous Wave by a Paul-Weller-looking lad called PMB.

Similarly, I have a Led Zeppelin box set, and iTunes gives some albums artwork and ignores others. The comical thing is that the artwork it grants is not only not for the appropriate album, it’s not even for a Led Zeppelin album — rather, it displays in all cases the cover of Dread Zeppelin’s Un-led-ed — which, I’m sure you will agree, is not the same thing. Even stranger, iTunes illustrates Big Black’s hardcore classic Songs About Fucking with what looks like the cover to an earthy soul album called Still Conscious, an album so obscure I can’t even find a reference to it at Amazon (which is saying something). The Breeders’ Safari EP is illustrated with the cover of the album Safari by someone named Bent Hesselmann.  Selections from Beck’s Guero are illustrated by the cover from Beck’s Guerolito, which makes everything very confusing. Songs from Stereolab’s Refried Ectoplasm are illustrated by the cover of Stereolab’s ABC Music. And so on.

Of the 59 Elvis Costello albums in my collection, iTunes provides artwork for The Delivery Man, The Juliet Letters, Mighty Like a Rose, North, Spike and When I Was Cruel, but ignores all the others, even though they’re all for sale through iTunes. Similarly, I have something like 110 John Zorn albums in iTunes, and some of them are pretty darn obscure, but iTunes recognizes some (like Ganyru Island) and is confounded by others (like The Circle Maker), and it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with whether they’re available through iTunes.

In other instances, iTunes will correctly identify a song, but assign it to a different album — it takes the selections I have from a Little Richard greatest hits album and gives them the cover of a different Little Richard’s greatest hits album. Or it will take a hit song from one album and display the cover for a greatest hits album (which I might not even own) because that song also appears on the greatest hits album. Or it will display a different edition from the one I own, like it does for Miles Davis’s ‘Round About Midnight, where it displays the “Legacy” edition instead of the plain-old rotten edition I have.

Brand-new albums, like Lucinda Williams’ West or Springsteen’s Live in Dublin or McCartney’s Memory Almost Full get no illustrations at all, despite being heavily promoted on iTunes, but the White Stripes’ Icky Thump comes sailing through with no problem.

Does anyone out there know how this works and what accounts for these bizarre discrepancies?

A NOTE ON THE ILLUSTRATION: This is a screenshot of my iTunes file, arranged by Play Count.  Those with a large-enough monitor can readily see the impact of having two small children in my life — songs from Yellow Submarine and They Might Be Giants’ Here Come the ABCs make up 21 of my top-25 songs, the result of having the iPod in the car with the kids (and Tom Waits’s “Underground” is there as the result of showing up in the soundtrack to Robots).  Soon these songs will be overtaken by selections from the Star Wars soundtracks.

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Elvis vs. Elvis

These two songs came up on iTunes today, two of my favorite music stars ever, illustrating two approaches to writing songs about women.

Elvis C’s description of his subject is bitter, multi-layered, multi-dimensional and hyper-literate:

“So you began to recognize the well-dressed man that everybody loves
It started when you chopped off all the fingers on your pony skin gloves
Then you cut a hole out where your love-light used to shine
Your tears of pleasure equal measure crocodile and brine
You tried to laugh it all off saying “I knew all the time…
But it’s starting to come to me”

— Elvis Costello, “Starting to Come to Me”

While Elvis P’s view is more practical, topical and down-to-earth.

“And when I pick up a sandwich to munch
A crunch-a-crunchity-a-crunchity-crunch
I never ever get to finish my lunch
Because there’s always bound to be a bunch of girls”

Elvis Presley, “Girls!  Girls!  Girls!”
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My iPod is drunk again

I have over 11,000 songs on my iPod and it is set permanently to shuffle.  If I’m not mistaken, that means that each time a song ends, the chances of any other song coming up is at least 1 in 11,000.  And yet, in the past 30 minutes my iPod has played four David Bowie songs, all from Diamond DogsDiamond Dogs!

This happens every few weeks.  Not Diamond Dogs necessarily, but something.  It will play the same song twice in an hour, or a long string of Elvis Costello, or a whole hour of depressing, nostalgic songs pining for home and times gone by and lost love.  It went on a Leonard Cohen kick one afternoon and I had to shut it down and re-start it before it would play anything else.
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