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.

Chemical Brothers – Star Guitar video: Cleverly Hypnotic

In addition to their world-sized beats, The Chemical Brothers are generally known for their world class videos. I stumbled across this video to Star Guitar from the duo’s 2002 release Come With Us while perusing the ol’ Google Video/YouTube library this afternoon and was quickly fascinated.

It was directed by noted film dude Michel Gondry, who’s done some impressive work, including intriguing videos for Bjork, Beck, Radiohead and many other musicians, as well as numerous innovative television commercials. But he’s also responsible for pioneering “bullet time” cinematography, so negative points there.

Of course, the concept of synchronizing visuals with the rhythm of music isn’t exactly new, but the execution here is clever. Though by the end of minute three, you’ve pretty much gotten the point and are ready to move on.

Star Guitar is an awesome song and the video is pretty cool, so enjoy it:

star guitar at itunes store

come with us at amazon

The Chemical Brothers and Dragon Warrior

A bit of a retroactive Separated at Birth for you today. It’s something I noticed back in April, before I had the ability to easily embed audio files. Indeed, it pre-dates this wordpress site.

This musical similarity concerns the melody of The Chemical Brothers’ My Elastic Eye from their 2002 album Come With Us and the Castle Theme from the NES classic Dragon Warrior/Dragon Quest (1986) by composer Koichi Sugiyama.

First, the game music (straight from the ROM):

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.

Now, the Brothers:

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Sure, the tempo is faster and the arrangement is different, but what say you: happenstance, inspiration or appropriation?

Hooray to 8000: Roni Size makes a Tunequest milestone

In celebration of numbers that end in sequential zeros, I present the 8000th song played on the tunequest: Breakbeat Era’s sex change from the 1999 album Ultra-Obscene. This achievement comes as part of my Roni Size weekend.

I spent a good portion of yesterday listening to his sprawling 2 and half hour double disc New Forms. That was the record, along with The Chemical Brothers’ Dig Your Own Hole, that turned me onto electronic music when it used to be the “next big thing” (ie 1997).

Breakbeat Era, an experimental side-project of Size’s, is actually a bit of a disappointment compared to New Forms. It’s an attempt to infuse his trademark drum-n-bass with a pop sensibility be incorporating vocals and structure on top of the tracks.

On the whole, the results rank as decent, but the song New Forms from the album of the same name uses a similar philosophy to much greater effect.

Spiritualized, Stereolab, This Heat, more

Here are some quickies; enjoy:
Spiritualized, some drifty, hazy, drugged-out psychedelia. Lots of fuzz.

The Aluminum Tunes album is nothing special, but anything by stereolab is worth listening to.

I didn’t know anything about this heat other than I enjoyed their album Deceit until I checked out the wikipedia, which pretty much reflects the album. Based on their sound, I would have pegged them as German, except for the lyrics to Independence, in which they sing the American Declaration of Independence. Given that, I was surprised to discover the group is British. hat tip to jon for this.

A strong showing from The Chemical Brothers on come with us, especially My Elastic Eye which seems to be inspired by the castle theme to Dragon Warrior.

Roni Size: a cause & cure for hyperventilation

Back in the day, Roni Size’s / Reprazant’s Brown Paper Bag and the accompanying video on MTV’s AMP remember AMP? were just the mind-blowing thing a musically-experimental shiftless college student needed to expand his horizons. I credit both Brown Paper Bag and The Chemical Brothers’ Dig Your Own Hole with diverting my attention away from rock and focusing it toward the burgeoning electronic scene.

Considering the state of rock throughout 1997 and 1998 and where it has gone since, those acts may have saved me from much musical mediocrity, for which i am eternally grateful.

To this day, the sweet wobbly guitar riff that drives Brown Paper Bag, as well as the pulsing beats and the interjection of some subtly smooth rap continue to make this song compelling, even as my interest in straight-ahead drum and bass is on the decline.

From the album New Forms. Hear the song for yourself and enjoy the awesome video:

Roni Size/Reprazent – Brown Paper Bag

March 28-29 – 120 songs played. 81 removed

i’ve done a fair amount of weeding over the past couple days and probably reduced the tunequest by a day as a result. some early pizzicato five (i like P5, but by her majesty’s request is unlistenable) and some aphrodite (my love affair with drum and bass has largely run its course) didn’t make the cut and were, well, cut. i also made the single largest removal to date: the emerson string quartet’s collection of shostakovich’s string quartets. nothing against the emersons or shostakovich, mind you, but string quartets, as a form of music, have always been a struggle for me to appreciate. i don’t doubt their musical worth, but i can’t get into string quartets. i’ve tried, but i guess i just prefer the power of the orchestra.

as it stands, i would not want to offend the spirit of shotsakovich, so i did especially listen to and enjoy his "waltz #2 from jazz suite" this evening. beautiful beautiful music that is.

forth tunequest:

  • peggy lee & george shearing [beauty and the beat!]
  • beth orton [central reservation]
  • london symphony performing elgar’s enigma variations
  • bjork [bachelorette]single
  • elbow [cast of thousands]
  • silver apples [contact]
  • the evil genius orchestra [cocktails in the cantina]
  • yoko kanno [cowboy bebop 2: no disc]
  • fila brazillia [brazillification]
  • delarosa and asora [agony part 1]

today’s tunequest is quite varied, from the glitch harmonics of scott herron’s delarosa project to peggy lee’s soothing siren song. the evil genius orchestra puts a humorous and swinging spin on everyone’s favorite star wars themes on cocktails in the cantina. personally, i think the the e.g.o.’s version of "princess leia’s theme" rivals the original. in fact, when putting together a list of mellow movie themes to be played as "mingle music" at my wedding reception i choose this version over john williams’. •

fila brazillia’s brazilification is an endurance test of downtempo remixing. it is a mix album, however it is more of a ‘best of’ collection of previously-released mixes, rather than a dj album, so i don’t think my earlier criticism applies. the record is a two disc set that starts off very strong, with excellent remixes of songs by radiohead, moloko, phosphorous, and u.n.k.l.e. but after the first half of the first album, the set begins to fatigue and the beats begin to muddle together.

that’s less a problem with the duo and more a factor of the downtempo genre. while individual tracks can be quite outstanding, over time the inherent form of downtempo puts it at disadvantage for long term active listening. it really is better suited to background music, turned on and tuned out while you work on other projects, only occasionally taking interest in choice musical passages. in that regard, the length of brazilification is its one drawback. still, fila brazillia are excellent at what they do and i can’t recommend this one enough. •

speaking of front-loading, let’s talk beth orton. i was familiar with beth before i got central reservation in 1999 through her collaberations with the chemical brothers. her voice always added an element of humanity to the brothers’ explosive beats. her own music brings her flavor to the forefront, unburied beneath layers of synthesized sound. simple arraingments and addictive melodies highlight her sophmore release. it’s too bad it’s all crammed in the first few songs. the record begins to sound monotonous throughout its second half, tempting me to just get rid of those songs. if it weren’t the strength of the rest of the album (‘sweetest decline’ in particular) i probably would, but i never know when one of those songs will suddenly click with me. •

and silver apples’ contact is quite interesting. i was prepared to dismiss it as yet another indulgence from my experimental youth, but it continues to pique my interest. •