Smart Playlist Ideas: Master List and Newest Tunes

With more than 16,000 songs to manage, there is no more essential a tool in my library than iTunes’ Smart Playlists. From building simple playlists for listening to creating complex queries for examination, Smart Playlists turn what would be a tedious burden into a trivial task. At the moment, I have more than 50 of them slicing, organizing and corralling my expansive collection of tunes into an easily navigable, self-sustaining ecosystem of music.

It seems a shame to keep all those playlists to myself when they could be benefiting other iTunes users, helping them find new ways to organize and listen to their libraries. On this first of a new tunequest segment, I’ll share some of the criteria for playlists that I’ve developed to help manage my library.

This first installment is a two-for. We’ll start with the foundation of my listening habits: the master tunequest list.

The master tunequest list was one of the earliest Smart Playlists I created. Its job is to act as a filter on the main iTunes library and determine which files are eligible for inclusion in other Smart Playlists. The premise is that only properly tagged music without any playback glitches should be included in subsequent lists.

Podcasts, audiobooks, iTunes U courses, videos and other files that are not strictly musical should be excluded from the standard rotation. But how to do it?

master tunequest smart playlist selectors

This is the actual criteria for my master list. There are multiple ways to create one, you just have to tell iTunes what to exclude. Here’s a brief description of the selections I’ve made:

Date Added is not 1/3/02.

I had a major hard drive crash on 1/2/02 which wiped out an early version of my Library. When I restored it from back up the next day, I discovered that the id3 tags for 5 years worth of mp3s had only been made on the library, not the back ups. I took the crash as an opportunity to re-evaluate my songs and make sure that all my files were “up to code” with proper tags and acceptable bitrates.

When Smart Playlists were introduced later that year, I didn’t want songs that I hadn’t checked going into my rotation. With the Date Added for all 7500 songs (my library size at the time) set to 1/3/02, I was easily able to exclude those songs that were pending evaluation. After evaluation, I re-imported my songs with the appropriate Date Added and they were automatically re-included in the master list. Today, about 200 rather obscure songs remain that I haven’t had the wherewithal to track down, so excluded they sit.

Date Added is a powerful tool for segmenting your library based on time period. You can set it to before, after or between dates to isolate just those songs, like a “Songs of Summer 2005” playlist (Date Added is in the range 6/1/05 and 9/1/05).

My Rating is not 1 Star

Rating a song 1 star is my arbitrary way of taking a song out of circulation. If I notice a song has glitches or that its tags have errors, I’ll mark it as 1 star until such time as I can fix it.

Podcast is false

Keeps podcasts out.

Playlist is not SpokenAudio

I have several playlists of just spoken audio that isn’t an iTunes Audiobook: iTunes U courses, comedy albums and other spoken word pieces. These playlists are kept in a sidebar folder called “SpokenAudio,” which iTunes treats as a single unified playlist for the purposes of Smart selecting.

You can create some complex hierarchies and conditional listening schemes using nested folders and playlists.

Kind does not contain video

Keeps all video content off the list. Movies, TV shows and video podcasts are not welcome here.

Playlist is not Audiobooks

Keeps files from iTunes’ Audiobooks sidebar from mixing with music. iTunes offers similar selectors for Movies and TV Shows as another way to exclude video content.

Genre is not Podcast

Another method to exclude podcasts from everyday listening.

Playlist is not xmas

I have a playlist dedicated to Christmas and other holiday tunes. This selector keeps it out of the way for ~330 days of the year. I remove it on or around Thanksgiving and replace at after New Year’s.


Now that we’ve cordoned off our healthy files, we can slice and sub-slice it to fit as many different listening schemes as we have whims. This is a relatively recent playlist I’ve been using to handle new music.

Newest Tunes

Some music falls through the cracks around here. Some albums get overshadowed and as time marches on, they don’t get the attention they deserve, receiving only cursory glances before being supplanted by newer music. This playlist is meant to allow all new acquisitions to have an full opportunity for listening.

It takes 4 parts:

Playlist is master list

The master list ensures that only “safe” music is eligible for inclusion.

Play Count is less than 4

I generally feel that 3 plays per song is enough to consider a new album adequately vetted. You can adjust it to suit your tastes.

Limit to 150 songs selected by Most Recently Added

This limiter means that the 150 most recently added songs that have been played 0-3 times (and are on the master list) will be included in the playlist. When one song on the list reaches 4 plays, it disappears from the list and is replaced by an older song that meets the criteria. When new songs are added to the library, they automatically appear on this playlist, pushing off older songs.

Since I implemented this playlist, I’ve been able to keep a handle on the inflow of new music into my library. Enjoy.

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.

Tagging Remix and DJ Albums for iTunes and iPod

Remix albums and DJ albums have always proved a challenge to tag in a useful and logical manner because of how they differ from the traditional song-artist-album tagging model. Like compilations, remix albums typically include songs by a variety of artists and musicians. But they are released under the banner of a single artist and it is that artist that I associate that album with. For example, the album Brazilification has tracks by 18 different artists, all remixed by Fila Brazilia. Most, if not all the songs had been published before on each of the remixed artist’s own records or singles, but Brazilification collects them all and releases them under Fila Brazilia.

Oh what to do, what to do? The standard tagging fields don’t offer a clean way to deal with remix albums, so I’ve had to cobble together my own solutions. The methods I use have to be simple and straightforward to use on an iPod, whose navigation options is more limited than iTunes, but it also has to include all the pertinent information, song name including remix title, remixer, original artist and the album (plus genre and year).

Below are the two approaches I’ve developed. Neither one has really worked to my 100% satisfaction, though.

Method One: Remixer as Artist

This scheme is the more predominate one in my library. I’ve been using it for a long time, but have never been that happy with it. In a sense, the remixer is treated as though they have created a cover version of the original.

Artist Tag

Iin my mind, I associate the remixer/dj as the primary artist. It does have their name on the album cover after all. Thus, using the example above, Fila Brazillia is listed in the Artist field.

Album tag

The album tag, of course, is the album name.

Song Title

There’s no easy way to account for, identify and display the originating artist when the remixer is using the Artist field, so they are added to the beginning of the song name using this syntax:

Radiohead: Climbing Up the Walls

This way, I can easily navigate to the album on my iPod, glance at the track listings and see both the original artist and the song title.

Composer Tag

To make locating remixes in general easier, using my Composer tag guidelines, I identify the original artist again in the Composer tag, but surrounded by parentheses to separate them from actual composers.


This approach doesn’t work semantically. It puts inappropriate data in inappropriate fields in order to make the system function. To continue with the example above, song is technically titled Climbing Up The Walls (Fila Brazillia Mix) and the actual artist is Radiohead. If I had a copy of Radiohead’s Karma Police single, where the remix originally appeared, Radiohead would, quite properly, receive the artist tag.

Also, The scheme doesn’t play nice when my iTunes library interfaces with third-party applications. The song above is submitted to as Fila Brazillia – Radiohead: Climbing Up the Wall, which acheives a disservice for both artists. On the site, it pollutes Fila Brazillia’s database of songs and at the same time, doesn’t provide proper credit to Radiohead.

Because the Artist tag has been misappropriated, this contorted design can interfere with statistics. And anyone who’s spent time around here knows that when it comes to my iTunes library I’m a statistics nut.

Brazilification using this first method. click to enlarge.

Additionally, I find it redundant to enter the original artist in two different places. I’ve been relatively unhappy with the scheme, so I recently began to explore other options.

Method Two: Remixer as “Composer”

One idea I’ve been toying with is swapping the Artist and Composer tags in the above scheme. Thus:

Artist Tag

The original artist name. (Ex. Radiohead). Gives appropriate credit source artists and allows them to be included in Smart Playlists that factor artists.

Compilation tag

Under this configuration, there would be multiple artists on the album, so the Compliation check box must be checked.

Album Tag

Takes the form of Remixer/DJ: Album Name (ex: Fila Brazillia: Brazilification). For easy identification when browsing. However, it does present another semantic problem in that it offers more information the album’s actual name. So the remixer could be left out. I’ll have to see how it works in practice.

Song Name

Song name (remix) (ex: Climbing Up the Walls (Fila Brazillia Mix). It’s only appropriate to give each song its appropriate name.


The remixer, again surrounded by paranthasese to keep it separated and sorted from actual composers.

Instinctively, I like this design. I’ve not really had a chance to implement it on a large scale, but it holds potential to address the concerns I have with my current scheme.

Yes, it still has some redundancy, with the remixer listed both in the song name, album title and composer tag. However, with direct compilation support on newer model iPods, the use of the remixer in the album or composer tag could be omitted.

Using the Album Artist tag to identify the remixer/dj would actually solve all the problems with this plan. But the iPod’s current lack of support for the field leaves me having to use these workarounds. Let’s hope that Apple adds that increased functionality soon.

In any case, this new tagging format promises to make it rather easy to locate and identify all the songs, artists and remixers in both iTunes and the iPod. It also will work with submissions and sorts everything nicely for my all-important statistics.

Brazilification using this second method. click to enlarge