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.


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.


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.

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: 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 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.


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 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,, and rdio.  The experiment was fairly scientific: create a station based on the same song (or artist in the case of 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


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??



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??


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.



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 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.