The quest for the perfect playlist generator, part two

In the last installment, I attempted to make various playlist generators read my mind by feeding it Yes but meaning mid-80s, post-prog synth-heavy rock & new wave with limited success.  For my second experiment, I picked “I’m Afraid of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe” by Murder by Death (which ended up being just a Murder by Death playlist in 3 out of 4 of the contestants).

Experiment 2: Murder by Death

Description:  Murder by Death is an eclectic post-rock band from Indiana.  Their sprawling songs have equal parts Godspeed You Black Emperor and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, but their long (and occasionally ridiculous) song and album titles (e.g. “Holy Lord, Shawshank Redemption Is Such a Good Movie”, Like The Exorcist, But More Breakdancing) nod toward math- and post-rock.

Expectations: Lyric-driven post-punk and post-rock a la the aforementioned Nick Cave and/or Godspeed.

[clear]

iTunes Genius

Murder by Death – I’m Afraid of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe
Murder by Death – The Organ Grinder
Pretty Girls Make Graves – All Medicated Geniuses
The Faint – Victim Convenience (Dance To mix)
…And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead – Wasted State of Mind
DeVotchKa – Venus in Furs
…And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead – Classic Arts Showcase
Murder by Death – Ash
Bright Eyes – a new arrangement
Godspeed You Black Emperor! – Rockets Fall on Rocket Falls
Pretty Girls Make Graves – Sad Girls Por Vida
Thursday – A hole in the world
Murder by Death – Raw Deal
The Faint – Let The Poison Spill From Your Throat
Explosions in the Sky – With Tired Eyes, Tired Minds, Tired Souls, We Slept

Reactions: More or less what I had been thinking, though the fact that out of 15 songs there were only a small handful of different artists showed the limitations of the Gracenote engine powering Genius.

Happy Surprises: “Venus in Furs” by DeVotchKa is still an awesome cover.

Not-so-happy Surprises: Extreme lack of variety.

Pandora

Murder by Death – Brother
Tiger Army – Ghostfire
Cursive – Art is Hard (+)
The National – All Dolled-up In Straps
Murder by Death – Steal Away
Butch Walker – Ladies and Gentlemen…”The Let’s-Go-Out-Tonites!”
The Hellbenders – Today We Kill…Tomorrow We Die
The National – Tall Saint
Iron & Wine – Freedom Hangs Like Heaven
Murder by Death – As Long As There is Whiskey In the World
Modest Mouse – Dramamine
The Animals – House of the Rising Sun (-)
Old 97s – Alone So Far (-)
The Pixies – Where is my Mind? (+)

Reactions: Pandora couldn’t seem to figure out where on the spectrum Murder by Death fell.  Was it country?  Was it indie?  While this had the best variety of the bunch, it missed the mark several (notable) times.

Happy Surprises: I had never actually listened to Cursive before.  I was pleasantly surprised.

Not-so-happy Surprises:  The double-feature “House of the Rising Sun” (!) & Old 97s was a bit of a stretch.  I think Pandora reached far into my preferences from other playlists to pull out the anomalous (for this mix) Pixies track.

Last.fm

Cursive – Driftwood: A Fairy Tale
Volta Do Mar – On a Hand Held Sky
O’Death – Ghost Head
Murder by Death – A Second Opinion
Murder by Death – Holy Lord, Shawshank Redemption is Such a Good Movie
Ha Ha Tonka – Jesusita
The Murder City Devils – I Want a Lot Now (So Come On)
Fake Problems – Born & Raised
Chuck Ragan – Let It Rain
Tim Barry – Trash Inspirations
The Lawrence Arms – Porno and Snuff Films
Slim Cessna’s Auto Club – Red Pirate of the Prarie
Against Me! – The Ocean
The Snake The Cross The Crown – Behold the River
William Elliott Whitmore – Johnny Law

Reactions: Last.fm veered more into the alt-country realm, which is not someplace I like to live, nor anywhere I particularly wanted to visit.  Then again, it also veered hard into punk in the second half of the experiment (Murder City Devils, Against Me!) which basically told me that Last.fm has no clue how to classify Murder by Death either.

Happy Surprises: Volta Do Mar, Murder City Devils (who I would have been convinced only made this mix because they had “murder” in the band name had it not been for more punk immediately following them), more Cursive.

Not-so-happy Surprises: William Elliot Whitmore threw me for a loop.  I felt like I was watching the closing credits of True Blood for a minute.

rdio

Murder by Death – Raw Deal
Trisomie 21 – Personal Feelings
My Chemical Romance – Desolation Row
Plain White T’s – You and Me
Bright Eyes – I Watched You Taking Off
Piano Magic – Amongst Russian Lathes & Metal Curls
Murder by Death – Foxglove
Murder by Death – Ash
Jimmy Eat World – Bleed American
Nina Nastasia – The Very Next Day
The Paper Chase – The Sinking Ship The Grand Applause
Murder by Death – Steam Rising
Mayday – Virginia
Murder by Death – The Black Spot
Piano Magic – Son De Mar; Part IV

Reactions: Similar enough to the Last.fm mix that you’d think they were pulling from the same sources were it not for the notable additions of Piano Magic (featured twice in 15 songs) and Bright Eyes (who previously had only appeared on my Genius playlist).  My Chemical Romance proved, again, no one knows what to classify Murder By Death.

Happy Surprises: Piano Magic

Not-so-happy Surprises: Again, the lack of variety.

Winner: Tie — iTunes Genius/Pandora

Conclusion: Pandora was the only thing that didn’t just sound like generic indie or pull in some punk that really didn’t go with what Murder by Death does.  Then again, Pandora pulled some stuff from way out of left field that made it such that it couldn’t be called a clear winner in this case.  On the other hand, iTunes Genius, while accurately selecting music that fit what I was going for, could have done a lot better by mixing in artists with similar dreary singer-songwriter vibes going on.

 

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.

Genius

I’ve flipped back to iTunes as my default audio player.  I was avoiding it for a long, long time for a lot of reasons but when WinAmp randomly stopped playing OGG files (which I have a lot of), and I couldn’t fix it, I installed the Xiph QuickTime Components plugin and downloaded the latest version of iTunes.  And I have to say, having a functional playlist generator is nice.  Here’s why I was against iTunes in the first place and why I came back:

1. iTunes is a resource hog

It’s no secret that iTunes is a huge application.  When the download size is over 70MB compared against the comparatively miniscule WinAmp (currently sitting at 10.7MB, which is twice as large as earlier versions), you know you’re in for more than just something to play music on.  Additionally, the minimum system requirements for iTunes is about double the minimums of WinAmp almost across the board, including 1GB of RAM if you want to play HD video (I don’t, but that’s besides the point).  As a designer, my RAM is a precious commodity, and the last thing I want is my music player getting in the way of the resources required by my graphics application.  That said, I upgraded from 2 – 4GB of RAM recently, and upgraded my operating system from 32-bit to 64-bit Windows 7 at the same time.  The native 64-bit iTunes has yet to cause any problems with resources while I’m designing (although it gets a bit slow internally when it’s downloading art or updating Genius – but that’s mostly to be expected).

2. iTunes does weird things to your music collection

I’ve had my own directory hierarchy for years.  Music Folder/Genre/Artist/Album.  However, there’s several inherent problems with this, not the least of which being when you have over 30,000 music files, organization is a bitch.  And then there’s the genres themselves, which I kept deliberately general (Alternative, Jazz,  Indie, Punk, Rock, Soundtrack, Rap, Electronic, etc…) – does Nine Inch Nails go in Goth or Industrial?  Does Guitar Wolf go in Punk or Japan?  Is Lady Sovereign Rap or Electronic?  I may not like iTunes messing with my folders, but then, if I can’t find the artist I’m looking for because I can’t remember if I put them in Indie or Alternative, having the artists filed alphabetically starts looking pretty appealing.  And what is my own, personalized directory structure really getting me, anyway, other than headaches?

What’s more, I’ve recently started using the Grouping tag to handle sub-genres – so the Genre field in my tags are the more general genre, and Grouping is for the forks and sub-categories like Dream Pop or Indie Electronic or IDM or Alternative Folk or Death Rock or Shoegazer, and this seems to be working pretty well.  The other thing that’s cool about using the Grouping field is when you have a variety of interpretations of a sub-genre…Alt Country is a great example of this — is it Alternative? Country? Indie?  I use it for Rockabilly, where I stash my newfangled indie Rockabilly Revival and Psychobilly artists alongside the originals like Wanda Jackson, The Collins Kids, and Elvis.

3. iTunes doesn’t automatically update your library

Probably my biggest complaint ever with iTunes has always been if you’re going to take over my entire music collection, why the fuck do I need to manually add new music?  This has been fixed (in fact, it was fixed in iTunes 9).  Now there’s an Automatically add to iTunes folder in your music library folder, which is all the more reason to just let iTunes handle your directory structure for you.  Adding new music to that folder, it gets gobbled up by iTunes and automatically added to your collection.  Which is exactly how it should be.  No more dropping down in File –> Add folder to Library bullshit.

4. Apple is a huge corporation that just wants your money

Yes, but, isn’t everyone these days?  WinAmp may be an independent contractor, but it’s still sporting the Aol logos everywhere, and it’s not exactly the scrappy underdog it was, you know, 15 years ago.  And anyway: so what?  I hate to break it to you anti-Apple-everything geeks, but Apple actually makes some good products.  They may be overpriced ripoffs of other stuff that already exists, but they’re really good overpriced ripoffs of other stuff that already exists.

And here’s why sticking with iTunes is actually probably a good thing:

1. Genius fucking works

Seriously, WinAmp’s Gracenote-powered playlist generator was awesome…for the five minutes that it worked.  Then it sucked.  Sure there’s alternatives, but isn’t it nice to have something built-in that just works?

2. Automatic fucking updates

What’s the worst thing about software updates?  I’ll tell you: it’s having to go to the fucking website and download/install a new version of the software you already have installed.  Really?  It’s 2010 and we still need to install our own updated software?  Most Linux distributions do this for you, you just need to say “uh…okay…” when an update is available.  Java does this, too, along with a bunch of other, more intelligent pieces of software, like FileZilla and uTorrent.  Apple, too, has been doing this for years for their Windows users (and automatically bundled in the Apple Updates for Mac users), and I think it’s awesome.  Why more software developers don’t build this in to their applications is baffling.  Get over it.

3. Smart playlists

Smart playlists are effing brilliant.  It’s like someone crawled into my head and extracted precisely what I’ve been wanting to do for years.  I want to listen to this type of music but not this stuff over here, and if you could add this artist, that would make it even better…Sometimes I don’t want a Genius playlist, but I don’t want to go through and manually build a list to listen to…with smart playlists you can tailor them to just about any freaking thing you can imagine, and here’s where things like Grouping and all sorts of other tags come in handy – Indie Rock from the 90s? Check.  Alternative rated 4 stars or above? Check.  All the stuff I haven’t listened to recently?  Sure.  Or, my favorite, everything with “snow”, “holiday”, “santa”, “winter”, or “christmas” (excluding audiobooks titled SnowCrash, thank you very much)?  Instant holiday playlist.

Like it or not, iTunes is solid.  Big, but solid.  Stupid icon, maybe.  Why fight it?  What’s the point in using some super awesome, uber-customizable little app (Foobar comes to mind) that almost does everything you want?  Now, that Ping thing…that’s another matter entirely…

MusicIP Mix handles huge mp3 libraries better than WinAmp [Abandonware]

let me get this out there: i love winamp.  i’ve been using it since its’ inception.  i used to listen to tag’s trance shoutcast station back in the day (tag is/was one of the winamp devs and was responsible for a lot of the visualizations that come bundled with winamp).  i’ve tried many, many other music apps, but i always come back to winamp because nothing else has anything on the extensibility possible through winamp plugins.  pretty much if you want it done, it can be done in winamp.  nothing else comes close.

recently i discovered winamp’s built-in playlist generator.  basically, the brains behind itunes’ genius playlist generator (which i also ♥) is gracenote, and winamp’s playlist generator also invokes gracenote to produce awesome, relevant playlists.  the handful of people who actually read and follow this blog will know that i’m a bit of a snob when it comes to playlists/mixes.  for instance, it drives me nuts when we’re in a store or on the few occasions i’m listening to the radio and they put, say, Nirvana next to something like Tori Amos or Bjork.  having been a dj at parties, there’s a certain flow that needs to happen in good mixes, where one track leads to the next and there aren’t abject disruptions that throw the whole thing off.  you can hear it in a good Oakenfold cd like Tranceport or Perfecto Presents Another World.  They don’t need to be the same genre, it just needs to flow.  as a dj, i learned this first-hand, and i learned how to adapt the playlist to the mood of the crowd.  when the floor started to empty, it was time to throw on a couple tracks that were sure to get people dancing.  in an 80s set, my ace was always “take on me” by a-ha.  in a goth set, it would be something like “closer” by nin, or “cities in dust” by siouxsie.

so i’m pretty discriminating in my random playlists.  when i want random, i don’t actually want random.   sometimes i do, but usually i want random within a defined set of variables for the particular mood i’m in.  for a while, i was pulling moods from the all music guide and tagging all of my mp3s with those moods so i could then do a search by mood and create a playlist that way, but the problem with that is a) it’s a lot of work tagging 30,000 files, b) not all of those artists have moods listed in allmusic, and c) you often get a disproportionate weight for artists you have more stuff by.  this is why pandora is great, because pandora’s engine works exactly like this.  you say “i want to listen to thom yorke” and pandora generates a playlist based on the musical qualities of thom yorke.  but when you have 30,000 mp3s, it seems like a waste to use pandora all the time (at least until they develop a plugin for winamp).

itunes genius solved this by crossreferencing the artists in your library with the gracenote database and generating randomized playlists based on the connections between the artists.  most of the time the results are pretty good, although it was always somewhat disconcerting to get donna summer in an amanda palmer mix (their relationship is, what, they’re both female?).  but itunes suffers from using a library file that doesn’t automatically update — when you get new music, you need to add it to the library manually (or buy it at the itunes store, i suppose), and this is obnoxious just to be able to use a playlist generator that actually works.  winamp can automatically update your library, and it uses the same gracenote database to power their playlist generator.  however, winamp playlist generator chokes on large music libraries.  it’s been much-discussed, and lamented, that the feature is broken when you have more than a couple thousand files (6,000 has been reported as the magic number) in your library and the workaround is time-consuming.  even when it is working, both genius and winamp often fail to recognize artists that should be included in a mix; for example, a garage blues/punk mix with the white stripesthe gossip, & the black keys fails to recognize the lesser-known heartless bastards which should nonetheless be included in the mix.  if you’re exclusively using a playlist generator like this to listen to your music, this essentially limits your entire collection to just the stuff gracenote knows about, which is obnoxious.

there is another way.  once upon a time there was a plugin that was built into winamp called MusicIP.  development on the plugin has ceased, the company that made it was purchased after creating a standalone app with the technology, and the new parent has moved on to better things.  in short, it has become what we occasionally call in the biz “abandonware.”  moreover, after searching the net for said plugin, i only found the standalone app.  my suspicion is that winamp moved to gracenote instead of supporting this independent developer and when that happened, they lost their main source of funding and had to sell the company.  it’s unfortunate because, after getting my hands on a copy of the plugin, it really is awesome and works well for being an alternative for people trying to use the nullsoft playlist generator and getting the dreaded “playlist generator failed to initialize” error message.

here’s how it works: you install the plugin via a normal .exe file.  now in winamp you have a MusicIP Mix menu in your media library, and the plugin configuration options appear under Media Library and Plugins → Media Library in your Preferences.  The first thing you need to do is register your library.  I started this and then came back to it the next day.  When I came back it told me that 33,077 tracks were mixable and only 21 were left to validate.  i have quite a lot of music done by myself and friends and their bands (much more than 21 tracks though!), so presumably the 21 unverified tracks are from those files, some lingering wav (or other unrecognized format) files, or audiobooks i have hanging around.  this theory that all of the music was mixable was tested and proven when one of my own compositions came up in an idm/dark electronic mix based on autechre.  the track of mine MusicIP selected fit with the rest of the mix.  this could be put down just to good tagging, but whenever winamp’s playlist generator pulled my stuff, it always stuck out like a sore thumb, like it thought i was some different artist in its database.

after your library is done validating, all you need to do (after tweaking the settings in preferences) is find a track you want to use as the base seed for the random playlist, right click → Send To → MusicIP Mix.  after a couple seconds’ processing it will flip over to the MusicIP Mix tab in your library and show you your playlist.  you can play it from here or add it to your playlist queue.  it’s more or less the same as the winamp playlist generator except that the winamp generator dumps the playlist directly into your playlist window, whereas MusicIP holds it in its’ own tab for you to do with as you please.  this is actually a good thing if you’re like me and start playing a mix and then adding new stuff to it over time — with winamp’s generator, you’d have to either add that new stuff manually, or generate a new list, or save your current list, make a new list and copy the tracks from the first list into the new one.

my second test was building a list based on thom yorke.  it pulled a lot of avant garde alternative singer/songwriter stuff like david bowienick cave and fiona apple.  at first i thought this was a bit off, after all, the eraser is much more of an idm album along the same lines of autechre, which was what i was going for.  but after i thought about it (and after it pulled a track from the bends) i realized that it was pulling tracks that were relevant not only to thom yorke but also to radiohead, so it was smart enough to know that thom yorke was a member of radiohead and was indexing artists similar to radiohead as well.  while desired results weren’t exactly what i expected, it didn’t actually throw off the mix, and showed that the engine is actually pretty intelligent if it’s able to make a leap from thom yorke to radiohead.

since development on the MusicIP standalone app has stopped, the original company was bought by someone else, and there’s no real funding (that i can see) going into it, and because it does connect to some online database to generate relationships, i imagine that eventually this plugin will stop working when it can’t connect to the central server.  in the meantime, i’m providing the download here for anyone who’s interested in using this awesome — if unsupported and lost — winamp plugin.

download MusicIP Mixer
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unbox pandora

openpandorai’ve been using Pandora for a long time, and i’ve always been a big fan.  when Tim Westergren came to Salt Lake City on his speaking tour, i went to see him at the SLC Main Library and i have the raglan-style Pandora tshirt to prove it.  the unique recommendation engine — powered by humans who actually analyze characteristics of each track individually for the Music Genome Project, rather than by computers and a centralized database of similar or related artists, or users who purchased other albums at the same time — makes Pandora’s recommendations unlike any other music streaming service on the ‘net.  the Muse Radio channel i made transformed from being a lot of Muse and early Radiohead-sounding stuff, into a more generalized brit-rock when it threw in some Sgt. Pepper-era Beatles into the mix based on my likes/dislikes and the station doesn’t miss a beat.  With other systems — even WinAmp‘s Advanced Playlist Generator and iTunes’ Genius (both powered by Gracenote) are limited in their artist database, and always throw in at least one left-field unrelated track that throws the whole mix off.

being a DJ, i’m all about the flow of a mix.  throwing in something unexpected or different is fine, but you have to prep your audience for it a little bit, otherwise the set is disrupted.  i’m equally (albeit unfairly) discriminating in randomly-generated playlists, and no system has fully been able to satisfy me.  that is, except for Pandora.  it’s also the single most accurate system for recommending new music that i’m likely to really like.  it’s rare (or an underdeveloped station) that Pandora gives me a track that i outright hate, although it has happened.  however, it nothing like getting Gloria Gaynor in an Amanda Palmer playlist like what iTunes Genius did to me.  wtf?

but the biggest reason i don’t just listen to Pandora 24/7 is because it’s a web-app.  it’s powered by a flash application that sucks up resources in already resource-sucking browsers.  and as a designer, i can’t have my computer compromised by limited resources while i’m building a website.  that’s solved with OpenPandora. (note: OpenPandora is just for windows. mac users…uh…come back later when i’m not talking about software.)

pandorafmfor a long time, i’ve used PandoraFM; it’s a mashup of Pandora and last.fm that streams Pandora (although it can also stream last.fm playlists) and scrobbles the tracks to last.fm.  and last.fm is cool because of their analysis of the stuff you’re listening to compared with your friends and provides charts and graphs of your most listened-to artists and recently listened-to tracks.  plus, thanks to a last.fm/twitter mashup, whenever i “love” a track on last.fm, it automatically tweets that with a link to the track (if it exists) on last.fm (or the artist if the track doesn’t exist).  it doesn’t solve the problem with CPU and memory resources, but there are other benefits by adding in the last.fm stuff.  but it’s a solution i can’t use all the time.

there are a few different standalone Pandora clients out there, but my favorite part of OpenPandora is that it has built-in last.fm integration.  i can’t “love” tracks like i can with PandoraFM, but it scrobbles everything i play (which you’ll see on my frontpage and lifestream if i’m listening to something).  and it’s a standalone app — from what i can tell, little more than a Flash player with a few extra options for additional settings — so it doesn’t consume all the resources of a new browser window, or suck more memory into a separate browser tab in an already bloated browser.

sometimes, i just want to listen to the music that i have on my external hard drive, and for that, i’m still shopping for a good playlist generator (WinAmp’s Advanced Playlist Generator is the current favorite, but the database often gets corrupted for me, forcing me to rebuild the database from scratch, which, with my collection, can take a full day and lots of memory; the other option is Genius, but that requires, um, iTunes, and their Library management leaves much to be desired, it’s an even bigger resource hog than all of the other solutions in this post combined, and they don’t offer full support for all filetypes).  i’d love to see a Pandora plugin for WinAmp (something i suggested to them on twitter a while back), but until that happens, OpenPandora is an awesome way to experience Pandora outside of a browser (sidenote: they also have an iPhone app, a mobile app for non-iPhones, and a standalone receiver, so you’re not just limited to experiencing the Music Genome Project in a browser).

go check it out and leave a comment if you think it’s as cool as i do (or if you hate it and need to vent, i’m here for that, too).