20 July 2009

iTunes Essentials

As I indicated in my June playlist post, I've recently begun exploring the iTunes Essentials playlists. These are constructed around three basic themes: 1) Artist-specific, 2) Year or era-specific or 3) Mood-specific. Each list varies in length, but the two most common sizes I've seen are 45 or 75 songs, broken into sections: The Basics, Next Steps and Deep Cuts. Theoretically, the relevance of a song to the playlist theme is suggested by the section in which it appears. For instance, if they had an MC Hammer list (and I'm a bit bothered that they don't), one would expect "U Can't Touch This" to be among The Basics, a cut from the Funky Headhunter album in the Next Steps and "This Is What We Do" from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles soundtrack among the Deep Cuts. Get how this works? Good.

Now, what I've been doing is printing their lists and then constructing as much of them as I can with what I already have in my library. I've completed several so far: George Strait, Alan Jackson, Brooks & Dunn, Kenny Chesney, Gary Allan, Dixie Chicks and Waylon Jennings. I'm one song shy of completing Toby Keith ("A Woman's Touch") and two shy of Tim McGraw (a pair of cuts from his ignored eponymous debut album). I have yet to complete any of the year or mood-specific themed collections, though I've gotten as many as 62 of 75 on one list ("Contemporary Country").

Why would I, who has a long track record of diligently compiling my own playlists, defer to something manufactured like this? There are two reasons. Firstly, they are a measuring stick for my library. I took some small measure of pride in knowing my Waylon library is developed enough that I could completely create their 75-song playlist (even more so since I was able to take many of the songs from their original albums rather than the subsequent compilations from which iTunes selected them).

The other reason I have been fascinated to explore these lists is that they are guiding me as I re-visit the 1990s and begin exploring music that I had previously ignored. I can't say why, necessarily, but I have of late been drawn to compiling a collection of songs that I recall hearing on the mainstream, Top 40 radio stations that played in kitchen when I worked at Cracker Barrel in the late 1990s. Some songs I recalled; others I'd forgotten entirely until reminded by their appearance on the year-specific lists. I don't intend to track down all 225 songs on their 1998, 1999 and 2000 lists, but they have been helpful to me as I work to expand my own library.

I do have some remarks concerning the lists I have seen so far, and I wish there was a convenient way of bringing these to the attention of someone at Apple. Firstly, there are a handful of instances of song duplication within a list. For instance, "Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven" appears within both The Basics and the Deep Cuts sections of the Kenny Chesney list. This isn't a common problem, but I think in the 30 or so lists I've printed I've run across three or four such duplications. That's about 10 per cent and that's way too high.

I was surprised by the Alan Jackson list because it does not include "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)." Set aside the fact it was a six-week #1 hit; there is a unique, historical context to that song that transcended Jackson's already solid career to that point. The historian in me balks at its omission, and yet I confess: I was oblivious to its exclusion not only as I pored over the list, reconstructing it within my library, but I didn't even notice its absence as I played all 75 songs! That they could take 75 songs and arrange them so that I didn't even notice the absence of what may well be the biggest hit of his career is a testament that they did get something right, I should think.

Other omissions are not as easy to accept, much less forgive. For instance, their Dwight Yoakam list is simply invalid. I would love to know who approved any playlist entitled "iTunes Essentials: Dwight Yoakam" that includes neither "Honky Tonk Man" nor "Guitars, Cadillacs." That the remainder of the list is quite impressive is irrelevant; those two recordings are the very definition of "essential Dwight Yoakam." Still, Dwight fared better than George Jones, whose list is stunted at a mere 54 songs, none of which are "Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes," "Choices" or "Beer Run." All three songs are available from the iTunes store, so their absence is particularly conspicuous. Granted, I favor streamlined playlists; but I find it egregious that George Jones, in his fifth decade as a recording artist, has but nine more songs on his "iTunes Essentials" playlist than Norah Jones, who has yet to release her fifth album as a recording artist.

My final gripe is the inconsistency of the Deep Cuts sections. iTunes describes this as the songs that are worth hearing, despite not having been released as singles--or even on the artist's own albums. One would expect to find, for instance, "Designated Drinker" among the Deep Cuts section of the George Strait list. It was a duet with Alan Jackson from his 2002 album, Drive. It appears on Jackson's list, but not on Strait's. The aforementioned Norah Jones list includes many of these miscellaneous recordings, and that's one of the reasons I think it's one of the better lists I've seen. Conversely, though, one can easily imagine an entire, 75-song list of just the "Essential Miscellaneous George Jones" recordings from over the years. Most artists' entire discographies aren't as large as the volume of guest appearance work that The Possum has turned in over the decades, and yet these are entirely missing from his list.

One failure I can forgive, though, is the absence of Garth Brooks from these playlists. Brooks, to date, has resisted efforts to bring his catalog to the world of digital distribution and as the biggest act since Elvis his songs are sorely missed on playlists such as "'90s Country." That said, it is impressive that the 75 songs on that list that iTunes selected manage to hold up despite missing the undisputed king of that era. We can only hope that The Beatles catalog reaches the digital world, because certainly that would bait Garth-zilla into following suit.