iTunes’ totally effed up sorting

Part of the iTunes Sorting Debacle Series

  1. iTunes 7.4.2: No Change in Sorting behavior
  2. iTunes 7.3 Sorting Problems: Fallout Central
  3. iTunes’ totally effed up sorting

…and managed to sully my iPod too. And the more I think about it, the more pissed off I get. What Apple has done defies all standard convention, is completely arbitrary and makes ab-so-lute-ly zero sense whatsoever.

Allow me to go on.

I had put off updating my iTunes to 7.3.2 until a couple days ago. With all the time and energy I invest into pruning and perfecting my library (it’s like bonsai really), I usually give the early adopters in the Mac community enough time to warn me of any critical errors or whether the new update is going to irreparably damage or otherwise soil my files. It’s just common sense.

So, having read no reports of exploding iPods or iTunes-induced electrocutions, I figured it was time for the latest and greatest. At the very least, I could get the app to stop bugging me about the update every time I launched it.

The update process went smoothly enough, like a Dove chocolate bar, and I was quickly back to makin’ playlists and retrieving album art. It took me about a day, however, to realize something was… awry.

The default view of the Music tab had changed. As a matter of course, I keep it set to Album by Year, which in effect sorts by artist then sub-sorts the albums by the year they were released. Before the latest update, that meant that the band !!! was listed first, followed by +/- then into the numbers. It was logical: standard convention dictates that that’s the way alphanumerical sorting is done in English.

Far be it for Apple to let any convention go unchallenged…

neatly organized ipod composers
Neatly organized iPod composers.

scrambled ipod composers
A scrambled mess.

Starting with version 7.3, numbers and other non-alphabetic characters are sorted to the bottom of the list. My default view now shows Aalborg Symphony Orchestra at the top. 2pac now begins after the Zs and iTunes suddenly doesn’t even know how to handle artists whose names begin with punctuation. It starts !!! after songs that don’t have anything entered into their Artist or Album tags!

On one hand though, I do have to give iTunes some credit. When sorting numbers, the program is smart enough to know that, numerically, 101 Strings comes after 50 Cent.

I’m not averse to change in general, and though somewhat inconvenient, these new sorting behaviors aren’t a fundamental flaw. I can deal with it. Update 8/28: I take that back. This IS a fundamental flaw and it needs to be fixed. There’s no excusing it. However, the real travesty here is how iTunes now treats the Composer tag. In this case, it looks like Apple specifically set out to destroy my Composer tag scheme, the one where cover songs have the original artist surrounded by [brackets]. The purpose of that is to separate cover tunes from actual composers when browsing Composers on the iPod.

Well, guess what? iTunes now ignores the non-alphabetic leading characters and sorts based on the first letter or number it finds in the name. And guess what else? The program now treats fields that are all punctuation as if they are blank, as if they don’t have any characters at all. It passes that behavior to the iPod. Now when browsing by Composers, the list I’m presented with is a jumbled mess. I’ve got [Fleetwood Mac] sittin’ next to Edvard Greig and [Ted Nugent] holding hands with Tchaikovsky, which is the exact situation I was trying to avoid in the first place!

And that’s not even mentioning my workaround for remix albums, where I list the song’s originator in (parentheses).

So, thanks Apple for fixing something that wasn’t broken.

8 Ways to Improve the iPod (and could be done with a firmware update)

The iPod is supposed to be “iTunes to go” but as the little music player has advanced over the years, it still lags behind in some relatively basic features, features that have been a part of the desktop program for some time. iTunes’ capabilities seem to be constantly improved and refined; its portable counterpart’s behavior has remained relative unchanged, even as it has gained photo and video support.

Forget touchscreens and Bluetooth, FLAC and DivX; here, I present a list of the iPod’s more troublesome foibles, all of which could be overcome with a firmware update, making it an even better music player.

Toggle display of the Composer tag

This is something I’ve wanted since Apple added the Composer field to iTunes five years ago: A display of the composer when listening to classical music. The 5G iPods have more than enough screen real estate to accommodate an extra line of text. It makes no sense that after all this time and after adding a way to browse and select by composer, Apple still doesn’t allow a way to view it while playing. Classical music aficionados have to either do without or devise elaborate tagging systems to see who the composer of a piece is.

Of course, not everyone has need for composer display. There certainly are people who don’t appreciate Prokofiev. Also, the field is often populated with junk from Gracenote/CBBD. A simple toggle in the iPod settings would fix that. Those of us who want to see the composer can turn it on and those who don’t can leave it off.

no composer visible
At a glance, there’s no telling who the composer is. One hack, though, would be to embed the composer name in the album artwork.

Support for the Album Artist field

iTunes 7 introduced a new data field to the song info dialogue box: Album Artist. Apple says it’s for assigning a primary artist to an album with multiple artists. It signifies a way to separate the artists producing the work from the artists performing it.

It’s a great idea for classical works that have a featured soloist in addition to the orchestra or when one artist is a featured guest on someone else’s song, eg, William Shatner featuring Henry Rollins. In this case, William Shatner is the primary artist and would be to sole “Album Artist” while “William Shatner featuring Henry Rollins” are the performing artists.

The tag works well in iTunes, keeping song listing nicely and tidily organized. The iPod, however, still separates “William Shatner” from “William Shatner featuring Henry Rollins,” leading to a cluttered interface that is difficult to use. Most of my music listening is done via iPod, so Album Artist remains under-utilized.

Album Artist would be a very useful tag. It would even solve my dilemma for tagging remix/dj albums. But without iPod support, the tag is DOA.

two shatners
Despite having the same Album Artist, these listings are still displayed by regular Artist.

Full Support for Sort fields. (accomplished)

UPDATE 3/19/08: Firmware version 1.3 for the Fifth Generation iPod adds support adds support for Sort Album and Sort Composer.

Other options recently introduced into iTunes but not into the iPod are customizable Sort Fields, which let you control how iTunes alphabetizes your artist and album listings.

By default, the iPod is smart enough to ignore “A,” “An” and “The” at the beginning of artist names. The Chemical Brothers are sorted with the C’s, for example. Starting with iTunes 7.1, you can customize the Sort name for Artists, Albums, Songs, Album Artists, Composers and TV Shows.

If you want Fiona Apple to appear with the A’s rather than the F’s, just set the Sort Artist to “Apple, Fiona” and you’ll soon see Fiona next to Aphex Twin.

It’s pretty cool, but…… on the iPod, it only works with Artists. You can customize all the albums and composers in your library and Gustav Mahler will still be chillin’ with the G’s and The Colour and The Shape will still be sorted with the T’s.

the thes
The “thes” like to hang out together in album view.

Browsable playlists

Music libraries get larger every day it seems. And the iPod’s hard drive does its best to keep up. At 80 GB, the device can hold a month or so of continuous music. For myself and others with large libraries, it’s effortless to create Smart Playlists that contain hundreds or thousands of songs based on specific criteria. Navigating those playlists can be nearly impossible as they show naught but a long list of song titles.

In my library, creating a Smart Playlist of Ambient music from between 1990 to 2000 returns 305 songs from 44 albums by 11 artists. Viewing the playlist on my iPod is a jumble of songs. I would love the option to sort and browse the artists and albums in a playlist.

Perhaps, when you select a playlist, the iPod displays an entry at the top of the song list: “Browse this playlist.”

Full-screen album art

When in full screen mode, I want the iPod to display album art as large as it can, no margins, no scaling. Just like when browsing photos, I want the image to take up the entire screen. This, the iPod can already sort of do…… if you plug it into an iPod HiFi, Apple’s own speaker system. I would like it to be standard. For more, read this recent rant.

Bonus Wishlist

I’m not annoyed by these missing features, but if they were real, I’d find them useful:

iPod Party Shuffle

A more limited version of iTunes’ Party Shuffle. When you’re shuffling, this would let you see a handful of upcoming songs. You could skip ones you don’t want to hear.


My listening preferences are different depending on whether I’m at work, in the car, at the gym, or moseying around the house. At the gym, I like to shuffle by song while at work I like to shuffle by album. When listening to ear buds, I like to use the bass booster EQ, but the bass response in my car is a little heavy, so I like to turn on the bass reducer.

It would be convenient to save different settings configurations for easy switching.

Grouping behavior that makes sense

“Grouping” is the red-headed stepchild of ID3 fields. No one *really* knows what it’s for or how to use it. Ostensibly, it’s for creating “groups” or subsets of related songs within an album. But it wasn’t until iTunes 7 that you could do anything with it (you can shuffle by Grouping).

It seems to me that an effective behavior for songs with the same Grouping to be “always keep these songs together.” For example, Mouse on Mars’ Varcharz has one song, One Day Not Today, that is broken into 12 tracks. Give all 12 tracks the same Grouping, “One Day Not Today” and the iPod would know to start at the first track and play through all of them sequentially, even when shuffling.


Hopefully, one day, these wishes will come true. I still love my iPod, but I’m looking for reasons to love it more.

Staff and Bar

I can assure you that you know every single piece of music featured at, but you’d probably strain a muscle trying to figure out when and where you’ve heard them. Hopefully it won’t come to that, because Mike Nelson no, not of mst3k fame has compiled 100 of the most popular pieces in the “serious music,” aka classical music repertoire, pieces made famous by their use (or perhaps over-use) in film, television, cartoons and commercials.

Divided by composer (52 of them), each entry gives a brief bio and pronunciation guide for all the non-anglo names and lists where each piece has been used in modern culture.

The site also includes mp3 snippets of each composition, featuring the most well-known measures of music. I promise you’ll probably be able to hum along to every one. The real trick will be if you know what comes next. I found that on a handful of them, I was at a loss to continue the song after the sample had stopped, even though I completely recognized tune.

Still, you’ll be surprised by where a lot of familiar songs come from. Myself, I nearly had a fit when I heard the sample of Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Because about five years ago I decided to use one of my Mac’s speech voices to record my cell phone voicemail message. After playing with all the various options, I settled on one of the “singing” voices, a voice that sounded a lot like the speech from Stephen Hawking’s talking computer, but to a melody.

That was with OS 9 and I’ve since lost the sound file. Mac OS X maintains that melody but has changed the tone with the speech voice “Cellos,” which I used to recreate part of the message i don’t remember all the lyrics.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Trust me, it was funny. But since then, I’ve always been curious about what piece of music it was based on, because I recognized it, but couldn’t place it. As you can hear, it’s clearly In the Hall of the Mountain King. Now that I’m armed with that information, I think I’ll have to track down a good recording of it.

“Cellos” isn’t the only Mac voice to take its inspiration from a classical tune however. “Good News” is modeled on Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance, a piece known to graduates world-wide, while “Bad News” is Chopin’s “Funeral March” aka Piano Sonata No. 2 In B Flat Minor.

Speaking of Chopin’s “Funeral March,” KickAssClassical makes the observation that John Williams’ Imperial March “sounds like an amped-up version” of it.” He might be onto something there, especially it you take that march, speed up the tempo, and overlay it with The Ride Of The Valkyries.. Then you might have a case.

Anyway, go check out

h/t Centripetal Notion

ArkivMusic, The Source for Classical Recordings

Clean up your Composer tags already!

Update: The revised sorting feature/problem in iTunes 7.3 and later renders portions of this advice useless. Some of it still applies for Smart Playlist building, but the segregated sorting no longer works. If you’re using a version prior to 7.3, go nuts. If you’re using 7.3 or later, be warned.

In striving for zen-like simplicity while maintaining and extending the usability of iTunes, please follow me as I introduce you to the technique I use to keep my Composer tags orderly and navigable particularly when using an iPod. The idea is to streamline the presentation of the tags while adding meaning to them.

In my library there are three types of songs that require use of the composer tag:

  1. Classical and other so-called “serious music”
    Principally includes all works by traditionally-recognized composers and performed by orchestras, quartets, etc. Also includes film and television recordings that are not the originals, such as when the Royal Philharmonic plays Star Trek or Trotter Trio’s jazz CD Sketches on Star Wars.
  2. Cover songs
    Whether live or in studio, remakes or performances of songs that were originally recorded and released by another artist or group.
  3. Remix Albums
    Collections of remixes of other artists’ songs released under the marquee of the remixer. For example: Fila Brazillia’s Brazilification.

If a song in my library doesn’t belong to one of those categories, the composer tag is left empty, completely blank. There’s no need to use the tag in the pop/rock idiom; all the relevant info is contained in the song-artist-album structure.

The same goes for movie scores and other “Original Motion Picture Soundtracks.” It’s redundant to put “John Williams” in both the artist and composer when it’s his recording of the original release of the album that you’re tagging.

Some people are tempted to put the songwriter in the Composer space and CDDB/Gracenote often includes it when retrieving a CD.

Well, don’t. And if you already have, delete it.

How likely are you to go to the Composer field and select “Cobain, Kurt” when you want to hear Heart-shaped Box? Not very, I’m sure. You are much more likely to select “Nirvana” from the Artist field. If you must obsessively keep that info, put it in the Comments field. That way you can still find it in your Encyclopedia iTunica if you need it, but it won’t get in the way of using your iPod.

So how do we keep these styles from intermingling, so that you don’t end up with Guns n’ Roses next to Gustav Mahler?

It’s rather easy; just add leading character to the beginning of your composer text based on the type of file it is, particularly if a song does not fall into the Classical category.

In my scheme, classical music takes priority, as it is the format that best benefits from using the field. In these cases, the composer is, well, the composer. Syntax is up to you: Mahler; Gustav Mahler; Mahler, Gustav; however you see fit to do it.

Likewise for film and tv music that’s not from the original release. I treat those recordings the same as classical. The Artist tag goes to the ensemble performing the work while the original composer gets credit in the Composer tag.

ipod plays composer tags with brackets for cover tunes

Cover Tunes

With cover tunes, the original performer’s name is surrounded by brackets [ ]. So when The Cardigans play a Black Sabbath song Iron Man, the Composer tag looks like this [Black Sabbath]. Now all the cover songs are sorted alphabetically together on the iPod. Plus, I can create a Smart Playlist with condition Composer starts with [ and have all of them gathered in a single spot. If new cover tunes get added in the future, they’re automatically included in the Smart Playlist.

Cover tunes smart playlist. Click to see larger version.

Finally, there’s remix albums. There’s a long discussion to be had about how to treat those with iTunes.

Hopefully, these suggestions are helpful and will assist in taking full advantage of iTunes’/iPod’s power.