Wednesday, September 10, 2008

In Praise of Genius

I've used the iTunes store to buy music exactly once, right after they started selling albums without DRM. (For the curious, I picked up Saturday Looks Good To Me's Sound on Sound.) So when I fired up iTunes 8 and saw this annoying sidebar showing me all of the things related to my music that I could buy, I clicked it off right away.

But the new Genius feature that helps you make playlists of music similar or related to a single song is, pun intended, pretty smarty-pants.

Again, I've done it exactly once, but I've been enjoying it all day. After iTunes scanned my admittedly pretty monstrous library, I picked a song near the top, Smog's "A Hit" from his singles collection Accumulation: None. This album was catalogued as (Smog), with parentheses -- so Mr Callahan pops up right at the top of my library.

"A Hit" is a pretty genius lo-fi anthem in praise of lo-fi music: the title comes from the refrain, "It's not gonna be a hit, so why even bother.... with it." Just lay it down fast, and forget about it, indeed.

Some of the tracks that Genius pulled to match this one were pretty obvious, even a little dumb. For example, it dragged up two other Smog songs, "Cold Blooded Old Times" (the version from the same album as "A Hit") and, I kid you not, "Be Hit" from Wild Love. It also picked a track from the album Bill Callahan recorded under his own name, "Sycamore," which happens to be one of my best-loved songs.

But the vast majority of the rest of the playlist was nothing short of miraculous. Track 2, right after "A Hit," was Beat Happening's "Godsend" -- a song I hadn't heard in three or four years, but which won me over again immediately with its lo-meets-hi-fidelity beauty.

It also grabbed Guided By Voices' immortal "I Am A Scientist," Cat Power's bewitching "Nude as the News," The Silver Jews' "Tennessee," Pavement's early single "Box Elder," their late single "Stereo," and Galaxie 500's haunting "Tugboat"; a few cuts from My Bloody Valentine, including "You Never Should" and "Feed Me With Your Kiss"; and a few surprises, like Tender Buttons' "America's Boy," The Sea and Cake's "One Bedroom," Built To Spill's "Made-Up Dreams," and Brian Eno's "Here Come the Warm Jets," which all complemented the Smog beautifully.

The Eno was especially choice, and almost proved that Genius has a sense of humor: one of the best lines in "A Hit" finds Callahan lamenting, "I'll never be a Bowie, I'll never be an Eno... at best I'll only be a Gary Numan." No Numan in my iTunes catalog, otherwise "Cars" would be a great fit.

Songs, mostly demos, from Sonic Youth, Neutral Milk Hotel, Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, The Mountain Goats, Spoon, and Yo La Tengo round out the set; I don't know if I could have made a better mix myself.

So, Genius, you have a fan in me. Even if I just got lucky today, I'll give it a whirl again.

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