The quest for the perfect playlist generator, part one

There is a secret to creating the perfect playlist.  It’s a complex process touched upon in Nick Hornby’s “High Fidelity” (and John Cusack’s performance in the film version).  A lot of variables are involved.  It needs to flow.  It needs to have cadence.  There are a lot of factors.

Sometimes, though, it’s too exhausting to build a playlist by hand, and in these cases, a good playlist generation system is in order.  It’s 2012, surely we have produced some way of creating a playlist or a mix that doesn’t suck.  Surely.

I have been questing for the best mix creator for years.  The complexity comes in when you factor in the fact that mixes should not just play stuff that you already know — they should, if they are good mixes, seamlessly integrate things you’ve never heard before (but would love!) in a way that fits with everything else.  This is something that just pulling from your existing iTunes library can’t do effectively (unless you have so much music that you’ve literally forgotten some of the stuff in your collection). I finally decided to put 4 services I use regularly to the test, head to head, and see which performed better: iTunes Genius (which is powered by Gracenote), Pandora, Last.fm, and rdio.  The experiment was fairly scientific: create a station based on the same song (or artist in the case of Last.fm and rdio), and see how well they created a mix that was more or less what I wanted to listen to.

Experiment 1: Yes – Leave It

Description: Yes’ album 90125 was a bit of an anomaly in their discography.  It still had prog rock elements of classic Yes, but also incorporated some of the 80s New Wave elements that were popular when it came out from bands like The Fixx, A Flock of Seagulls, and Genesis after Peter Gabriel left Phil Collins to take over as frontman.  As such, it’s a bit of both, and that’s what I was going for when I created this playlist.
Expectations: 80s synth-heavy rock a la Rush, The Fixx, Peter Gabriel, as well as more stuff from Yes’ collection (drawing mainly from 90125).[clear]

iTunes Genius

Playlist:

Yes – Leave It
Rush – New World Man
Van Halen – Feel Your Love Tonight
The Who – You Better You Bet
Foreigner – Double Vision
The Hooters – And We Danced
Pink Floyd – Learning to Fly
Led Zeppelin – In the Light
Def Leppard – Photograph
Journey – Who’s Crying Now
The Who – Bargain
Yes – It Can Happen
Queen – Keep Yourself Alive
Pink Floyd – Welcome to the Machine

Reactions: Surprisingly more hard- and classic rock than I had expected.  Since this is all stuff in my collection there was nothing I hated but I was a little surprised to see The Who (granted, later Who) and Van Halen in there.

Happy Surprises: I also didn’t expect Pink Floyd, but that was my own fault — they obviously fit the genre and were closest to what I was going for than almost anything else here.

Not-so-happy Surprises: The Hooters?? Queen??

Pandora

Playlist:

Peter Gabriel – Solsbury Hill
Barry Blue – Hot Shot (-)
The Police – Don’t Stand So Close to Me (+)
Nils Lofgren – Dream Big (-)
The Police – Roxanne (+)
Tub Ring – The Day the World Will End
Sparks – The Willys
Yes – Love Will Find a Way
The Eagles – Hotel California (-)
The Police – Every Breath You Take (+)
Jethro Tull – Saboteur
Manfred Mann – For You (-)
The Church – Under the Milky Way
Heart – Magic Man

Reactions: I used the thumbs to sort of guide this list, but not overly.  When something fit, I gave it a thumbs up (indicated by the (+)), when I couldn’t stand a song, it got a thumbs down (indicated by the (-)).  I was a little disappointed when Pandora just started feeding me The Police whenever I gave something a thumbs down.  Don’t get me wrong, Pandora, I love The Police, but that seemed a lot like pandering.

Happy Surprises: “Under the Milky Way”, though that really didn’t fit with the mix overall…

Not-so-happy Surprises: “Hotel California”?? Seriously??

Last.fm

Playlist:

Yes – And You and I
Jon Anderson – Ocean Song
Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe – The Meeting
Emerson, Lake & Palmer – Jerusalem
Steve Howe – Dream River
Camel – Earthrise
Gentle Giant – Knots
Genesis – Jesus He Knows Me
Yes – Close to the Edge
Yes – Yours is no Disgrace
Van Der Graaf Generator – My Room (Waiting for Wonderland)
Jethro Tull – Sweet Dream
Caravan – Nine Feet Underground
Rick Wakeman – Catherine Parr

Reactions: The selections in this mix that weren’t obvious Yes side- or solo projects felt like Generic Prog 101.  And that really wasn’t what I was looking for.  At all.

Happy Surprises: None, really.  This playlist sucked.

Not-so-happy Surprises: Almost everything that wasn’t Yes.  So, pretty much everything.

Rdio

Playlist:

Yes – Heart of the Sunrise
The Moody Blues – The Day Begins
The Moody Blues – I Am
Jethro Tull – Just Trying to Be
Yes – Fly From Here (Overture)
Pink Floyd – Is there anybody out there?
Jethro Tull – Cheap Day Return
Emerson, Lake & Palmer – Promenade
Jethro Tull – Jack A Lynn
The Moody Blues – To Share Our Love
The Moody Blues – Sunset
Caravan – I Know Why You’re Laughing
Emerson, Lake & Palmer – Affairs of the Heart
Yes – Siberia

Reactions: Pretty similar to the generic Prog Rock list that Last.fm generated without all the Yes-projects.

Happy Surprises: “Is there anybody out there?” though it wasn’t really a surprise.

Not-so-happy Surprises: No less than four tracks by The Moody Blues and three by Jethro Tull (which makes half of the playlist overall).  Also: “The Day Begins”…

Winner: iTunes Genius

Conclusion: This test really just illustrated that what I wanted was not exactly what I asked for, which underlies the whole problem with playlist generators in general.  Though none of the playlists were inaccurate, per se, I wasn’t really looking for a Prog Rock playlist of the genre that involves bands with multiple last names in the band name (for that matter, I really didn’t even want to listen to Yes beyond that one album).  There was no clear winner for what I wanted, but at least with iTunes Genius, there wasn’t anything that I hated, either.  I was a little surprised by the underperformance of Pandora since they put all their emphasis on their Music Genome Project which is supposed to come as close to reading my mind as any of these generators can realistically get.

Next up, we’ll see how well the players handle post-rock.

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