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.

hit counter html code


47 Responses to “The mysteries of iTunes”
  1. greyaenigma says:

    I bring a CD home from the store, I load it directly into iTunes and it goes into rotation

    I did the same thing (my CDs are now in the basement). Not overnight, though, it took a few days to rip them all. But… 1000 CDs? I can’t even fit my 500ish CD library on my iPod. Even if you don’t have that all on your iPod, that must be a lot of hard drive space.

    I don’t know what causes the weird availability of cover art, but I’m fascinated by what does show up — my short-lived podcast of Philosophy talk somehow had some cover art attached to it, even.

    (I prefer No! to Here Come The ABCs, but that’s just me.)

    • Todd says:

      (I prefer No! to Here Come The ABCs, but that’s just me.)

      No! didn’t come out as a DVD first, otherwise we would have crammed that down our kids’ throats instead.

      • greyaenigma says:

        I didn’t even know about ABCs until I saw them in concert and got the big orange finger and the DVDs. Actually, I think I special-ordered them. I should watch those DVDs sometime.

        • Todd says:

          The DVD is spellbinding — if you’re a three-year-old.

          • craigjclark says:

            I got No! when it first came out. It took me a while before I bit the bullet and got the ABCs, though. I’ve still only listened to that one once.

            • mikeyed says:

              I love some of that album actually. Now my brother calls them “the band that does that ABCs thing (which is stupid)”, he’s 24. I don’t care if it’s for kids…

              • craigjclark says:

                I’ll probably give it another spin now that their latest, The Else, has arrived in stores. I have to say, though, my favorite new song is one that is on the bonus disc, “Why Did You Grow a Beard?” I saw them perform that live a couple years back and it was one of the highlights of the show. That’s not often the case when a band is doing new material live, but the Giants kick so much ass live they could play an entire set of music I’ve never heard before and I’d love every second. (And I wouldn’t be clamoring for them to do “Birdhouse” or “Istanbul.”)

    • Todd says:

      I have 1385 albums in iTunes, all of which fit easily onto my 80GB iPod and can swim luxuriously around my 240GB hard drive.

  2. craigjclark says:

    I’m curious to see what’s in your Fripp-related playlist.

    • Todd says:

      Oh, you know, things related to Fripp. I put all his solo recordings, all my King Crimson (66 albums), the Fripp and Eno albums, and key tracks on others’ songs, like Bowie’s “Heroes” and Eno’s “St. Elmo’s Fire.” Like that.

      • craigjclark says:

        I don’t know how many Crimson albums I have, although I’m sure I could count. It’s not 66, I can tell you that, but that’s because I don’t have all of the live albums.

        Do you have Talking Heads’ “I Zimbra” in there? That’s one of my favorite Fripp guest appearances.

        • Todd says:

          You betcha. And I just downloaded the two albums he did with Andy Summers in the 80s.

          • craigjclark says:

            Those are good, although I must say I much prefer I Advance Masked to Bewitched.

            • Todd says:

              As do all sentient beings.

              • craigjclark says:

                What kind of man listens to the entirety of “What Kind of Man Reads Playboy” more than once?

                • Todd says:

                  The kind of man who has iTunes running every waking hour as he sits staring at his computer.

                  Bewitched, honestly, well both the Fripp/Summers albums, have the feel of records that took no longer to create than they do to listen to.

                  • craigjclark says:

                    I Advance Masked sounds like Fripp and Summers actually worked a little bit to mesh their playing styles. Sure, some of it sounds tossed off, but some of the more involved pieces are effortlessly beautiful. On Bewitched, however, it’s like they turned on some drum machines and started noodling.

  3. greyaenigma says:

    A little bit of insight — it’s probably identifying songs based not just on title, but on length in some cases, maybe even checksum. I know that entire albums sometimes get mis-identified when I stick them in.

    The reason you’re getting the “Legacy” cover is probably because they figured they only needed one version of the art, and you’re getting the one they managed to get.

    I’m sure iTunes are grinding behind the scenes trying to get past whatever logistic and legal issues are necessary to add more covers. Given the vast numbers there are out there, it’s not too surprising they haven’t gotten them all. (Even though missing art for new albums is strange*.)

    * that asterisk was a typo, there is no note

  4. eronanke says:

    I, being the iRebel I am, use MediaMonkey, which integrates seemlessly with my mp3 player, etc.
    I am unfamiliar with the differences, but it’s fabulous for me.

    • Todd says:

      And how does MediaMonkey do with the album-cover art problem?

      • eronanke says:

        What happens is, if you rip a CD, you can use a built-in AMAZON.COM, .CA, .CO.UK, .DE, and .JP search to find the relevant meta-data for the album; it will tag it for you with the appropriate data (album name, track name, artist’s name) if you do not already have this data from the CD (when a CD is inserted into your computer, MediaMonkey will do a CD information search to aid in tagging the tracks appropriately). What this search also does, (both the CD info and the Amazon), is download the COVER art for the CD. (It does not download the other CD art, such as CD design or booklet.) This it stores in gif/jpeg form for you, so that it appears when you are in the appropriate folder in MediaMonkey.

        (If you were to DOWNLOAD illegally, any art that would be included with the songs is immediately applied as well, which may include other images associated with the CD, such as the CD design and booklet.)

        When I sync music with my mp3 player, it will upload the CD cover and associate it with the appropriate mp3s.

        I hope this answers your question.

        • Todd says:

          Does it manage to do all this accurately, and consistently?

          • eronanke says:

            If your album is sold on, .ca,, etc, it will find all the info/pictures Amazon has.
            I have only had difficulty with RARE CDs and ones I’ve bought abroad. (Such as Arabic Pop)

            It has never failed to apply this data accurately on both my computer and my mp3 player.

            Feel free to give it a try; I reccomend it. Other features also make it an excellent choice.

  5. leborcham says:

    I no longer have any room for new pieces of plastic in my house. No CD buying except for my top three obscure darlings.

    iTunes or Bleep music stores are the only way to go now. PLUS they often carry music you just can’t find in the music stores any more. (Last night I went on a Tipsy rampage.)

    • Todd says:

      When I walk into record stores now, I see something like Avril Lavigne’s new record selling for $15.99 or something and I’m like — “What? Why would I want to listen to that, and have that packaging cluttering up my house, all for five dollars more than I can get it from iTunes, including the CD booklet in digital form?”

  6. selectnone says:

    I’ve not experienced the auto-cover-finder as I’ve not signed up for an iStore account, but I do like to have as many album-covers as I can find.

    I usually search for them using this website, or Google Image Search if that fails, then copy & paste into the song-properties.

    itunes is terrible for feeding my obsessive side…

  7. gdh says:

    I tried iTunes once and hated it. Of course, it should be noted that this was several years ago, I’m a PC guy, and my mp3 player isn’t iTunes-compatible.
    I mainly thought it was too bulky and bloated a program (I prefer a tiny little background program like Winamp or MDB), and its statistics-gathering seemed not to suit my style of music listening at all. If I load up everything on shuffle and then skip rapidly through 10 songs before finding something I feel like listening to, I don’t want it to count everything I skipped as having been listened to. Maybe they’ve changed that by now, I don’t know. I use now, which does the sensible thing of not counting a song as listened to until you get at least half-way through it without skipping.

    I’ve been using Winamp and my old 15GB mp3 player so long that I’m starting to forget what some album covers look like.

    The only thing I use CDs for these days is car listening. I’ve never found an FM transmitter attachment that gives acceptable audio quality. Why, oh why, oh why, do car stereos not do the obvious thing and provide a simple line-in jack, which would allow you to plug anything from a walkman to an iPod into your car stereo as an audio input? I’m sure some manufacturer makes it, but none of my friends’ cars’ stereos have such a thing, so CDs it is.

    (Is it just me, or does car stereo equipment always seem to lag significantly behind the times? It seemed like everyone had tape players well into the nineties, and now CD players are still firmly the standard even with the huge boom of digital music.)

    • Todd says:

      Currently, iTunes does not count a song as “played” unless it plays all the way through. I’m not happy with this and I don’t know why they don’t give you the option of setting it different ways.

      There is a car with a simple line-in jack: mine, the 2006 Prius. The line-in jack was the #1 reason I bought it.

    • adam_0oo says:

      Most cars come standard with a line in jack now, but any new car stereo system has one. If you have a tape deck in your car, you can get that fake tape player to plug in too, not as good as the line in, but better than the fm transmitter.

  8. chevett says:

    I’ve avoided getting an iPod or an mp3 player for years now, preferring to stick to CDs. I rather like the limitations of CDs and the fact that I’m pretty much forced to listen to the entire album–and if I’m out with my discman and only one CD, I’m possibly forced to listen to it several times. I tried loading CDs onto my computer a few years back, but found that I suffered from that pesky “Maybe the next song will be better . . .” thing where I kept looking for that better song and spent more time doing that than listening to music. Just what works best for me.

    I’m sure at some point I’ll break down and get an iPod–today I had the idea that when the Beatles make their catalogue available online, they should do what U2 did and offer a special iPod loaded with all of their music–THAT would probably get me to buy one.

  9. edo_fanatic says:

    Oh man, Miles Davis: Kind of Blue is the best blues/jazz I’ve got. It isn’t messed up with singing. Great chill effect.

  10. mikeyed says:

    Is there something wrong with having Tom Waits on your top 25?

  11. itunes, CD’s and albums, oh my!


    I came across your blog a week ago thanks to a link from “The Johnny Bicardi Show”, specifically your blogs about Paul McCartney.

    After reading your blog for a week now, especially this post about itunes is scaring me. It’s as if you’re reading my thoughts!!!! AAAAAGH!!! 🙂

    Seriously, I agree 100% with you about the current state of listening to music especially with itunes and ipod. In the 80’s when I was still buying vinyl (I’ve got about 1500) I’d buy an LP, while listening to it once I’d tape it on cassette and put the album away.

    I too have thousands of CD’s and cassettes, just sitting in cabinets but I almost exclusively listen to my (unfortunately, only 30GB) ipod, especially in shuffle format. I’ve been surprised how often I’ll hear a song and think “damn, I forgot I owned that!”

    I also agree with you on the goofy way itunes hands out LP covers. Seems no rhyme or reason to it.

    As for They Might Be Giants, I’ve been a big fan of theirs since the beginning. Saw them at a small club during their first tour, but I stopped buying their stuff at “John Henry”. Something about the addition of a full band didn’t feel right to me. Who knows, I may check out the stuff I’ve missed since then. (and as for TMBG music geared towards kids, I’ve always liked “Why Does The Sun Shine?” Not only is it a fun tune, but it has one of my favorite B sides, the cover of “Jessica”.

    Just want to add I’m enjoying your blog, and have bookmarked it. Hell any blog the talks about Beatles one day and Praying Mantis’ the next is a must for me!

    • Todd says:

      Re: itunes, CD’s and albums, oh my!

      It’s as if you’re reading my thoughts!!!!

      “As if.” Yes. Indeed.

      I’ve been surprised how often I’ll hear a song and think “damn, I forgot I owned that!”

      It’s worse for me. At least five times a day a song will come on and I’ll think “What the hell is this?”

      As for They Might Be Giants, I’ve been a big fan of theirs since the beginning.

      I saw them at the Village Gate in, oh, 1988 or so. The Ordinaires were opening for them and mopped the place up for forty minutes, then the Johns came out and goofed around for an hour while their machines didn’t work and their sound went kerblooey. Which is another way of saying I guess I haven’t minded their ever-increasing onstage professionalism.

  12. Anonymous says:


    Hi Todd
    I am Bent Hesselmann, who in 2004 composed and recorded a suite for traditional african instruments: “Safari”.
    If you are interested, I can send you a copy for free.
    best regards
    Bent Hesselmann