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.

Leonard Nimoy – Mr. Spock’s Music From Outer Space

Part of the Musical Star Trek Actors Series

  1. Shatner Rapping: No Tears for Caesar
  2. Leonard Nimoy – Mr. Spock’s Music From Outer Space

From the archives: I wrote the original version of this article for a newspaper column about 5 years ago. So it reads more like a newspaper column and not so much like a the informal blogginess that’s usually found around here. It’s from the Records that time forgot series that I hope to revive in 2007. This version corrects a couple awkward sentences and updates the formatting, but remains largely unchanged.

nimoy strums guitar


Actors want to be rock stars and rock stars are increasingly actors. It’s all theatrics. But it is by no means a recent phenomenon. Stars from Marlene Dietrich to Frank Sinatra to Snoop Dogg have crossed the line between audio and video for decades. That’s okay; they all had the talent to do it successfully yes, even snoop dogg.

Then there is another class of star who, no matter how talented in one field, fail in the other. You’ve got your Jennifer Love Hewitts, your Keanu Reeves I know, I use “talented” loosely and your Leonard Nimoys.

Nimoy was part of an explosion of such entertainers that occurred in the 60s. They were known as “Golden Throats,” popular screen actors who were way out of their element in front of a microphone. That description is not entirely fair to Nimoy though. He has a distinct and decent enough voice, which he uses to greater effect on his later albums. But this, his first, pretty much defines the word “doozy.”

Judged solely on its musical value, Leonard Nimoy Presents Mr. Spock’s Music From Outer Space would show few bright spots. Most people might even argue that it is a record best left forgotten. But 30 years and the age of ironic reinterpretation have added an entirely new dimension to Nimoy’s recording career, firmly entrenching this album in the novelty camp. This is a record for hardcore Star Trek fans and fans of junk culture kitsch alike.

Time has made this album into pure comedy gold.

Opening with a swingin’, go-go, Austin Powers-esque version of the original Star Trek theme, MSMFOS goes where no Star Trek actor had gone before, the recording booth. Released in 1967 to cash in on Star Trek’s, and Spock’s, growing popularity, MSMFOS edges out William Shatner’s own recording debut, The Transformed Man, by a year and is the first of Leonard Nimoy’s dozen-plus records.

MSMFOS is at once hilarious and completely non-cohesive. Like the variety shows of the era, the album veers erratically round the moons of Nibia and round the Antares maelstrom in a torrent of lounge, spoken word, and crooning before finally giving up.

Parts of the album even seem to have been put together without any input from the actor at all. Music to Watch Space Girls By is a nifty lounge-pop instrumental as is the included version of Lalo Schiffrin’s Mission: Impossible theme. In a strange turn, Nimoy would join the cast of that show three years later. Still, these pieces are obviously filler.

Of the vocal tracks on the record, most are presented from Spock’s point of view, casting his alien observations on humanity in spoken word and swing vocal form. Imagine that, Vulcan poetry.

But pop culture re-visioning can’t make up for everything on the disc. Twinkle Twinkle Little Earth is a horrendous essay on the use of the word “star” full of Gordon-level puns while Visit to a Sad Planet attempts to preach against nuclear violence in a narration with an eminently predictable twist that’s all too expected in a post-Planet of the Apes (1968) world.

For the most part, if you’re into novelty, the record is a treat if not overly rewarding. Like Halloween candy, it’s enjoyable is small doses, but don’t overdo it.

“Mr. Spock’s Music From Outer Space” remains out of print in both vinyl and CD formats. But if you can manage to find it, set your phasers to fun and prepare to be stunned by the vocal stylings of Leonard Nimoy.


Addendum: No, this is not the record that features The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins, but if you’re desperate enough to experience that hilarity, watch this disturbing video. You’ll have nightmares for sure.

tunequest week in review

for the week ending may 20, 2006.

stats: a superlative week here at tunequest. 394 songs played over 25 hours and 40 minutes. a further 5 songs were removed from the library for a net progress of 399, a new record. frankly, i'm surprised by the results. an afternoon braves game and a couple of extented meetings cut into my normal office listening time and i didn't really expect saturday's listening to be able to compensate. not that i'm complaining about it. i'm thrilled.

highlights for the week include sharing the chicago symphony's performance of mahler's no 6 with the neighborhood, revisiting some  grunge and post-grunge rock from nirvana's bleach and soundgarden's down on the upside, appreciating the smooth grooves of the well-pollished idm of to rococo rot's hotel morgen, getting funky with morton steven's very compelling tv score to hawaii five-o (best tv theme song ever!), and finally finally finally finally getting through all those babylon 5 scores* (it took 7 weeks, but i did it), as well as enjoying a host of other really great music.

also mixed in this week were a couple of james bond scores (john barry's diamonds are forever and david arnold's die another day. both excellent) and william shatner's has been. now don't laugh at this, but that shatner album is some powerful stuff. he's got a very engaging spoken-word delivery as well as some respectable collaborators. the result is 11 songs that pack more heartfelt sentiment than all the songs on top 40 radio in the past 10 years combined. i mean that.

it was also apparently "records that time forgot week" here at tunequest. i only covered 7 albums in that short-lived series, and 3 of them managed to pop up this week: can's ege bamyasi, louis and bebe barron's score to forbidden planet and martin denny's space-exotica extravaganza exotic moog. as soon as i track down that file, i'll post it.

see this week's complete list of albums in the extended entry.

*technically, i have one album left, a compilation called 'the best of babylon 5.' it's currently not eligible for play because the tunequest-ipod is into the I's and it's not smart enough to ignore the "the" at the beginning of album names. artists yes, albums no.

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Shatner Rapping: No Tears for Caesar

Part of the Musical Star Trek Actors Series

  1. Shatner Rapping: No Tears for Caesar
  2. Leonard Nimoy – Mr. Spock’s Music From Outer Space

Below is the music video for No Tears For Caesar, available on the bonus materials DVD for Free Enterprise.

William Shatner raps some Shakespeare, Marc Anthony’s speech from Julius Caesar specifically. And true to form, the good Cap’n Kirk doesn’t disappoint; he’s always entertaining when he’s got a microphone. That’s the theory behind those old priceline.com ads anyway.

The song and video No Tears For Caesar from the 1998 movie Free Enterprise (a film tailor-made for the post-modern Star Trek fan) are, as Spock would say, fascinating little productions. Shatner rapping… well not rapping so much as doing his trademark spoken word routine, a kind of precursor to 2004’s Has Been.

In any event, I whole-heartedly recommend the film. It’s worth it for Shatner alone, but has lots of other trek-related gems, like Jerry Goldsmith references! and yes, i’m genuinely excited by those.

Oh. this isn’t Shatner’s only Shakespeare recording; his 1968 record The Transformed Man contains some much-exaggerated spoken word from Hamlet, Henry V and Romeo & Juliet.