11 September 2008

iTunes Genius

Apple released the newest version of iTunes this week, which includes a new feature called Genius. Genius allows a you to automatically generate a playlist simply by selecting one song in the your iTunes library. As Apple explains in on their website,
Play a song, click the Genius button, and iTunes creates a playlist of other songs from your library that go great together. Genius playlists help you discover songs in your library you never knew you had — and rediscover forgotten favorites.
Genius hooks up your iTunes library to Apple's database of other iTunes users, and identifies songs that other users have bought or listened two in conjunction with the song you have selected. If any matching songs are in your library, then they are added to a playlist, which you can either save or discard. Resembling both Amazon.com's recomendations system and the popular web-radio site Pandora, Genius promises to mix up your listening habits and maybe turn you on to a forgotten or overlooked track in your library.

Interested in a shortcut that could give me some nice playlists, I tried it out. I used three jazz tracks to start playlists: Afro Blue by John Coltrane, Chameleon by Herbie Hancock, and Bachelor's III by Pat Metheny and Brad Mehldau. The Coltrane playlist best fit the things I would put on a list of my own, some Miles Davis, Kenny Garrett, and Freddie Hubbard, for instance. The Hancock list was all over the map, featuring the Quincy Jones Big Band, Billie Holiday, and Dexter Gordon, among some other fusion and 60s postbop. The Metheny/Mehldau playlist had some good choices that fit the mood of the track, like Bill Frisell, Kenny Garrett, and Michael Brecker selections, but some puzzling choices as well, including a Mahavishnu track. Every playlist had a few tracks I would remove if I saved the playlist, but all pulled in tracks that I would have put in my own playlists.

Genius is not without its programming issues. If you select a song that is not available for sale at the iTunes store (like anything from the Beatles' catalogue), then Genius will not create a playlist, giving a vague error message. The first song I tried on Genius, Horace Silver's "Song For My Father," came up with this problem. Hopefully, with Apple's library expanding rapidly, this problem will correct itself over time.

The major problem with Genius, though, is fairly evident to me. What happens if Genius puts something on a playlist that you don't want to include? When I created a playlist based on fusion-era Herbie Hancock, Genius included a Benny Goodman track. When you create a "station" on Pandora, you are given the ability to approve or dismiss any song suggested by Pandora. For instance, if I start a station with a Bad Plus track, I can select the thumbs-down icon if Pandora pulls up another track that I don't want to include a track by Rush. That way, I can steer the playlist towards fusion-oriented jazz and away from prog rock. It would be nice if such a feature could be worked into Genius. It gives the program a lot of versatility (see, for instance, how Howard Mandel created a "Jazz Beyond Jazz" playlist).

So Apple has some work to do to make Genius good enough to keep up with Pandora, but it will do for now...

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