Top 25 Playlist (Part 3: 8–1)

Here’s the final part of my Top 25 most played tracks in my current iTunes library. I suspect my oldest daughter is responsible for #3 being where it is! But the joint number ones are between them my theme song.

Part 1 of this entry is here. Part 2 is here.

8. Girl Crush – Little Big Town (79)

7. Leavin’ in Your Eyes – Little Big Town (80)

6. Rock Me On the Water – Keb’ Mo’ (81)

4= She’s My Kind of Rain – Tim McGraw (82)

4= Engine to Turn – Tift Merritt (82)

3. Baggage Claim – Miranda Lambert (89)

1= The Pretender – Jackson Browne (100)

1= Running on Empty – Bob Schneider (100)

Top 25 Playlist (Part 2: 16 – 9)

Here’s part 2 of my Top 25 Most Played tracks in my current iTunes library.

Part 1 of this entry is here. Part 3 is here.

16. Night Moves – Bob Seger (71)

15. I Won’t Dance – Sinatra (Nelson Riddle) (72)

14. I Won’t Dance – Sinatra/Basie (Neil Hefti) (73)

11= Portland, Maine – Tim McGraw (74)

11= Wayward and Weary – Tift Merritt (74)

11= That’s Where It’s At – Sam Cooke (74)

10. Sober – Little Big Town (76)

9. Come Fly With Me – Sinatra/Basie live at The Sands (77)

The Top 25 Playlist (Part 1, 25–17)

I created a Smart playlist in iTunes, of the top 25 highest-rated tunes, and this is what came up. I should add that this is only the top 25 in this particular iTunes library on this particular Mac, so it’s a mere snapshot of recent-ish activity. I think some on-device plays might have updated the count, but I’m not sure. Definitely the #3 is not put there by my plays alone.

What’s clear is that my favourite records can be condensed down to a very few artists and albums. Give me Tim McGraw, Tift Merritt, Jackson Browne*, Little Big Town, and Frank Sinatra, and I’m good to go.

The all out winner is the song, “I Won’t Dance”, which has over 140 plays over two different versions, both equally good.

*A couple of the songs come from that Jackson Browne tribute album.

25. Fire Away – Chris Stapleton (62 plays)

 

24. Diamond Rings and Old Barstools – Tim McGraw (63)

23. I’ve Got You Under My Skin – Sinatra/Basie live at the Sands (65)

19= Shut Up Train – Little Big Town (66)

19= That’s Life – Frank Sinatra (66)

19= Evil Woman (Stripped Down Mix) – ELO (66)

19= Onto Something Good – Ashley Monroe (66)

17= Tupelo Honey – Jim Horn with Vince Gill (70)

17= Your Bright Baby Blues – Jackson Browne (70)

Part 2 is here.

Part 3 is here.

 

12 Downloads for this summer

cover400x400Ahead of the epic car journeys of the summer, I like to stock up on new music. For recommendations, I turn to the Rolling Stone Country account and their regular lists of artists to check out.

That’s not the only way I find new music, but it’s a fairly reliable barometer in the absence of the UK iTunes store doing anything to update itself. Anyway, here are my recent adds.

  1. Donovan Woods – Hard Settle, Ain’t Troubled. Got this because of his song “Portland, Maine”, covered by Tim McGraw. He’s a great songwriter with a voice that doesn’t match his face. Sounds are Americana-standard, acoustic in the main.
  2. Amanda Shires – Carrying Lightning. Discovering new music on iTunes is hard, partly because of the problem of categories. They have a Country section (not regularly updated) and a Singer/Songwriter section, but there is no Americana (or alt-country) and no Folk or Folk-Rock. There is plenty of music that would fit in either of these categories. Anyway, Amanda Shires Isbell (married to the similarly hard-to-discover Jason Isbell) kind of sways between Country-Americana and Singer-Songwriter. Pretty good.
  3. Keith Urban – Ripcord. Keith Urban has  made a reappearance on UK iTunes after a gap where several albums weren’t even given a UK release. This one is fairly standard: rock-pop/country with some decent guitar. His voice is limited: with the right song, it’s perfectly fine, but when he strains for those emotions he sometimes seems, well, strained. The standout track on this is “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16” which is a hooky little number on which Urban plays lead bass.* I can’t stop playing it
  4. William Bell – This is Where I Live. This was a Twitter recommendation. A radio producer I follow got an early listen of this (it’s not properly out yet) and named it the album of the year. You can get three tracks now, and the rest should drop by the end of the week. It’s a soul record in the classic style, a throwback to 60s song values with 2016 production values. This is the one I’d be slipping into playlists and mixtapes if I still did that sort of thing, ahem.
  5. Brandy Clark – Big Day in a Small Town. The best songwriter of the “class of 2013”, Brandy Clark’s follow up to 12 Stories is bigger in every way. This new outing features some powerful songs, including the jaw-dropping “Daughter”, which basically wishes a daughter upon a cheating, lying male in the name of karma: so he can watch her get her heart broken by men like him. You think you’ve heard it all, and then this. Essential listening.
  6. Imogen Clark – Love and Lovely Lies. Another hard-to-discover artist. This one I came across when she guested on a podcast (My Favourite Album). At just 8 tracks and 35 minutes, this album is a proper throwback to the golden age of albums, when they were almost all about this long. Another artist with a strong voice and punch-packing songs, don’t be fooled by her appearance into thinking this is going to be some kind of folky background muzak.
  7. Larkin Poe – Reskinned. The Lovell sisters seem determined to leave their folk-country roots behind them. So much so, that they’ve remixed and revamped their album Kin, changing some of the tracks and giving the whole thing a harder, rock-stomping edge. If you follow them on Twitter or Facebook you’ll know that they’re both shredding like mad these days and Rebecca has started playing a Strat through a Big Muff distortion pedal. Talk about trying to reposition yourself in the market: unfortunately, these brilliant 20-something musicians will still find themselves staring at an audience of grizzled, balding 50-somethings, because those are the people who go to (non-festival/arena) gigs.
  8. Frankie Ballard – El Rio. Frankie Ballard’s latest is a real step up in quality from his previous release (2014’s Sunshine and Whiskey). The songwriting is better, and his gravelly but versatile voice is the one Keith Urban wishes he had. You can hear the influence of Bob Seger on the whole record (plus there’s a cover of “You’ll Accompn’y Me”). This is a really enjoyable album packed full of decent songs, like “El Camino”, “L.A. Woman” and “It All Started With a Beer”. Great for a road trip.
  9. Smithfield – Smithfield. This is on Rolling Stone’s July list. Another 8-tracker, these guys are like the new Sugarland or something, which, in the absence of Sugarland, will do.
  10. Anthony D’Amato – Cold Snap. Another one from the RS list, I’ve only played this through once but like it a lot. (Almost) like Frankie Ballard, this is country rock via the Jersey Shore. Where Ballard takes his influence from Detroit (Seger), you can hear Springsteen here, but also Ryan Adams, and Tom Petty references, if you like that sort of thing – and who doesn’t?
  11. Sarah Shook and the Disarmers – Sidelong. Another RS recommendation, this feels more like a punt for me. I’m thinking this is cowpunk, in the vein of Lone Justice. With songs titled “Dwight Yoakam” and “Fuck Up,” this can’t be wrong, can it?
  12. Lucie Silvas – Letters to Ghosts. Finally, this is a British-born, New Zealand-raised country artist who has (for whatever reason) waited years between album releases. Again, I’ve barely listened to this, but the title track is excellent, and it finishes with a spooky cover of Roy Orbison’s “You Got It”, which shows good taste, if nothing else.

*For non-religionists, like me, I looked it up. This verse is the one that basically summarises the new testament in a line: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

 

The continuing frustrations of Apple Music

The ‘functional high ground’ argument is in the air again, with various tech journalists and podcasters weighing in with their opinions on various parts of Apple software. There are still occasional glimpses of former glory: Music Memos was quietly released and is the kind of songwriting tool I’d have loved to have, back when I was writing a lot of songs. It does exactly what you’d want it to do: it’ll tune your guitar, has a big record button, it knows what chords you’re playing, and it even adds a decent robot backing track. Only Apple, as we used to say so often, can do this.

But of course, iTunes continues to be horrible, and I’m not alone in thinking that Photos is a poor substitute for Aperture and doesn’t need to keep its editing tools so deeply buried – multiple clicks to achieve a simple edit is not good design.

My greatest frustration continues to be Apple Music, which is awful on so many levels that I haven’t even seen any of the pros complaining about the problems I’m encountering. Theirs are all to do with synching and matching and so on, whereas mine are mainly to do with basic functionality and interface.

But I’ll start of with that synching feeling. A permanent feature on my phone’s screen in Music is the phrase, ‘Showing only music on this iPhone. Show All Music.

That last bit, highlighted in red, is supposed to be a button, but of course we’re not allowed to have ‘buttons’ anymore because they’re skeumorphic. So we just have to guess that ‘Show All Music’ is a button. But take a look at this screenshot.

IMG_8968

Yes, the greyed out tracks are not on my iPhone. Not. On. My. iPhone. So I shouldn’t be seeing them, should I? And yet they are there.

Getting into my car the other night, I plugged my phone into the Media connector in the car, and of course it started playing music, starting with the first song beginning with A (currently ‘After Hours’ by the Velvet Underground). Which is not what I wanted it to do. One of my daily frustrations is that my phone, unlike iPods of old, rarely seems to remember where it had reached in the playback (I play through all my songs alphabetically, which is my favourite form of ‘shuffle’). So it defaults to the first of the ‘A’s and I get angry and frustrated – and begin to kind of hate and resent that hapless first song (of 1000) in the list.

So I’m sitting in the car and ‘After Hours’ starts up, and I pick up the phone to find where I think the playback had reached, somewhere in the ‘D’s, and I tap the screen to play that song. Somewhere in the ‘D’s. I tap. And it starts to play ‘Baggage Claim’ by Miranda Lambert. What?

After a bit of experimentation, I realise that tapping somewhere in the ‘F’s will start playing somewhere in the ‘C’s, and so on. So as well as showing music that is not on the phone, Music is now also reading a tap in the ‘D’s as a tap in the ‘B’s. Brilliant. I suspect that means that the phone is seeing the tap where it really would be if it wasn’t displaying a bunch of songs that are not on the phone. If I could somehow make them invisible, I’d see that I was, in fact, tapping in the ‘B’s.

That was happening under the My Music tab (which is not a button, nor is it a tab, so what are we supposed to call it, Jony Ive? A section?). When I tapped into Playlists, my one and only playlist was there, and I was able to navigate through it and play back normally. But I shouldn’t have to do that, because there’s only one fucking playlist on the phone, and so the My Music section should have just the songs from that.

And I wouldn’t have to be doing all this if the app remembered where it was in the playback list.

Take a look at this second screen shot:

IMG_8969

Yes, that’s in the Playlist section, and you can see we’re playing back ‘Give Him a Great Big Kiss’ by the Shangri-Las. Now, what if I wanted to skip to the next track from this screen? I could tap the next on the list, but if I wanted to skip several, I’d have to scroll first, stop the scrolling, then tap the one I wanted. So to see an actual Skip option, I have to tap the tiny white band near the bottom and go into the Playback screen. What if I wanted to pause playback? There is a chance of doing that, because there is a tiny play/pause not-a-button. But what are the chances of hitting this first time if I am walking, or driving my car, or riding my bicycle? 50/50 at best, I’d say. Note that the image above, because of the resolution of my phone’s screen, exaggerates the size of the tap target. Now, given how huge my phone’s screen is, why does the play/pause button have to be so small? Why is there no skip forward or skip back?

Why is this software such a piece of shit at doing what it’s supposed to do?

I suspect the answer to that is that I’m not supposed to want to do any of this. I’m supposed to subscribe to the streaming service, and put my music listening into the hands of curators or algorithms, and just passively accept whatever Music decides to play. I suppose there might be some people who are happy with that. Me? Not so much.

Which brings me to my final complaint. Apart from not giving enough space to playback controls, the Music app also imposes the Radio not-a-button and the Connect not-a-button at the bottom of the screen, where they are liable to (only ever) be clicked accidentally, much like the Moments button on twitter.com. Why can’t I go into a Preferences pane and turn those items off? Why can’t I select an option for a larger playback button? Why doesn’t telling the app only to show music on the iPhone do what it’s supposed to do?

Because Apple Music is shite. And here’s the thing: I’ve tried a couple of other playback apps, hoping to leave all the Music nastiness behind, but they don’t work. They too forget where they were playing back – because they can never take over the System playback from Music. And they too (presumably following the Human Interface Guidelines) have tiny playback buttons.

Grrr!

And don’t get me started on the Music app on the new Apple TV…

Chris Stapleton and Justin Timberlake at the CMAs

I bought the Chris Stapleton album in the summer, after reading Grady Smith’s column in the Guardian. (Grady Smith is a far better source for news about good new music than the pathetic iTunes Country section.)

It is a great album, well-deserving of its Album of the Year prize, and veteran songwriter Stapleton must feel some irony at being awarded the New Artist prize in addition to the well-deserved Male Vocalist prize. He fairly swept the board this year, which I think is a hopeful sign, given the terrible trend towards what has come to be called Bro Country in the past couple of years.

Here comes the backlash, as Nashville’s love of great songs reasserts itself. Not only did Little Big Town win Song/Single of the year for “Girl Crush” (a clear signal to country radio programmers that they’re getting things wrong), but Chris Stapleton has won three prestigious awards based on zero airplay on country radio. Zero. At this point, nobody is thinking radio programmers are doing a good job.

In a stroke of co-marketing genius, Stapleton performed two songs with Justin Timberlake at this week’s CMA Awards. Whereas other guest appearances by pop/R&B artists have fallen very flat in the past, the multi-syllabic Timberlake/Stapleton pairing was a true musical event. I know almost nothing about Mr Timberlake, aside from the fact that the guy’s a decent actor as well as a musician. I know enough not to muddle him up with that other Justin.

Timberlake’s from Memphis, and Chris Stapleton’s album edges more towards Blues than country, especially given his gruff-but-flexible voice. As you can see from the video above, both artists can sing, both can control their melisma and both were thoroughly enjoying themselves. I’ve watched it several times now, and I still think it’s the most exciting performance I’ve seen in a really long time. I think you can tell that everybody on the stage and everybody in the audience was aware that everything was falling perfectly into place. It’s not often that something that’s kind of hyped in advance can live up to expectations, but I think this performance exceeds all expectations. I don’t think anybody could have believed it would be this good.

As impressed as I was by their performance, you could tell how special it was by seeing the reaction of the old pros in the audience. Look at the expression on Keith Urban’s face as he records some of the performance on his smartphone. Look at the other artists who are not only digging it, but clearly wishing they could be on the stage. There’s even a shot of what looks like a Music Row executive (?) with a diabolical fixed grin on his face. You could almost see the $ signs revolving in his eyes.

The full 8-minutes has received over 3.5 million views on the official ABC channel (notwithstanding ropy over-compressed audio – the two separate videos I’ve posted here have better sound), and Stapleton has hit #1 in the iTunes chart: again, with zero support from country radio.

Traveller isn’t my personal favourite album of the year, but it’s wonderful that the shaggy-beared scruffy songwriter is up there taking the spotlight away from the bros. And as for a putative “country” outing from Mr Timberlake, I think I might give it a listen.

Synching feeling

I know I’ve gone on a bit about Apple Music/iTunes recently, but when something frustrates you on a daily basis, it grates.

In all of the coverage, across all the sites, on all the support pages, I have almost never seen mention of the particular problems we’ve been having. Both daughters have had issues – especially with the business of Music on the phone deciding to download enormous numbers of tracks for no discernible reason. One of my daughters has also had a problem I frequently have, which is the difficulty in persuading the phone to sync the music you want from your main iTunes library.

I do not use iCloud Music Library, and I have switched off Apple Music but I still can’t get my phone to simply contain the music I specify. When you have spent (literally) hours setting up playlists, this can cause the red mist to descend. My current problem is one I’ve had before: I have a number of painstakingly created playlists, but the iPhone and iTunes between them decide I also want to have a list of manually added songs and an additional single random track from my library.

How fucked up is this? Take a look at the graphics below. The first one shows the size of the Music library on the phone and the amount of free space remaining with the Alison Krauss track ‘Forget About It’ checked. Note that I didn’t do the checking. iTunes does this on its own.

Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 07.58.38

You’ll note that with this one track selected, my iPhone shows 29.52GB free space. Now, look what happens when the only change I make is to deselect that single (7.9MB) song from the library:

Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 07.58.53

Yes, miraculously, deselecting this 7.9MB file frees up over 4GB of space on my iPhone. Except it doesn’t because when I click Apply, the phone syncs and then the Alison Krauss track has checked itself again and the list of ‘Manually Added’ songs repopulates itself.

So what you have to do is delete all the music from your phone, plug the phone into a Mac, uncheck ‘Sync Music’ and then sync the iPhone with no music on it at all. Then you can recheck ‘Sync Music’ and try again.

My argument here is quite simply that these are the kind of problems that an awful lot of people have: daily frustrations that drive you crazy, and yet get ignored by the tech press in their rush to provide a ‘hot take’ or an instant review of Apple’s New Music service. These glitches and bugs may eventually get squashed, but not before millions of people have wasted millions of hours dealing with them. The headlines have all been about the iCloud Music service, the use of DRM, the mis-matches with iTunes Match, the curated playlists, the Beats radio. Everybody knows that iTunes is a shitty piece of software, but not many people take the time to spell out the quotidian details.

When it comes to solutions, the scorched earth approach I just took (delete everything, sync with no music, then resync everything from scratch) really puts people off, makes them groan with frustration. And it takes time, and it helps to have a Mac. Maybe my problems are because I do have a Mac, I don’t know, but I can’t imagine dealing with this shit without a central iTunes library with all my music in it. Dealing with this over the Cloud? Jesus…