Fixing iTunes Albums

It’s been said that the iTunes destroyed the concept of the Album. Why buy the whole album, when it’s possible to just cherry-pick the hits, or just the one track that was used in the episode of “House” you just streamed?

But subscription music services, Amazon’s insanely good MP3 album sales, and the iTunes Store’s own “complete my album” feature might be bringing albums back. After a long era of cherrypicking, I often buy whole albums because I road-tested them in Spotify, or because it’s so affordable (or I’m such a fan of the artist) that I’ll roll the dice on the whole thing.

Units of music in iTunes include Playlists, Songs, and Albums. It’s great at handling the first two but the third could use a little work.

What Apple has right now is pretty good. If I specifically want to listen to “Abbey Road” — this album is like a can of Pringles; I am only capable of consuming it in its entirety — I can search for “Abbey”, click the album from the popup of search results, and be looking at the album tracklist a moment later. If I decide that I want to listen to the Tony Bennett/Bill Evans album after that, I can have iTunes play it next, as an album, in its entirety.

It all works great but you need to keep track of your albums in your own head. If you click on iTunes’ Album View and want to browse for complete albums to listen to, you’re in trouble. “Sweeney Todd” (two discs, 32 tracks) and Johnny Cash’s “American Recordings Vol. 1″ (just three songs of the CD’s 13) look the same.

It’s an even bigger problem if (like me) you buy lots of soundtracks, classical music, and spoken-word albums. “Sweeney Todd” tells a whole story and those tracks want to be heard in their proper order. iTunes, alas, is prejudiced against album play. It’s very easy to play “A Little Priest” but not so easy to get the whole story, from Sweeney’s arrival in London and him being dead but still well enough to sing the finale, with every part in between in its proper order.

I wish iTunes could tell the difference between complete albums and the ones that are only represented by a few cherrypicked tracks.

It’s not a simple problem. I don’t like the idea of iTunes matching the hundreds of album titles in my library against the canonical online tracklists and then to the tracks in my library (seems like too much heavy lifting).

My idea is to have a new category of content dedicated to “verified albums,” at the same top-level hierarchy as Playlists, Tracks, Albums, Videos, et cetera.

Albums would be displayed in this category if it meets one of three criteria:

  1. User has purchased the whole album from the iTunes Store.
  2. User has used the “complete my album” feature at some later date.
  3. User has manually validated this album. I know that my copy of “Sweeney Todd” is complete. So I select the collection of tracks and click “Verified Album” from a popup. iTunes checks the contents against a canonical source and “blesses” the album.

So if I want to browse for a whole album to listen to (or copy to my iPhone), I can head to this specific zone, where the content is guaranteed to be complete. No chance that I’ll miss a track, or the two duplicate tracks that I bought separately will be mixed in with the tracks I ripped from a CD later on.

The Verified Albums collection would just be an organizational tool. Its tracks would still appear in “Songs” “Artists” and whatnot. But inside the “Verified Albums” view, albums are treated like whole units by default. I double click on the album art, and the album plays. Or, yes, I click to open it up and then can select any single track.

Just a thought. At minimum, writing this blog post has caused me (when verifying the existing mechanism for locating and playing albums) to crank up “Sweeney Todd” again. It has taken me until “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir” to write this blog post and I suspect I’ll be listening all the way to the end of the bonus material.

Like I said: Pringles. Trust me. “Sweeney Todd” is without a doubt the best music about cannibalism you’ll ever hear.

Side note: that’s an Amazon link and it’s another example of how profoundly odd Amazon’s “AutoRip” promotion is. If you buy “Sweeney” as an MP3 album, it’ll cost you $16.99. But! If you buy the CD, you’ll get all of the MP3s immediately as a free bonus…and you’ll pay a buck and a half less.

Plus, a few days later, you get a package in the mail. The CD will probably sit on a shelf in your house until you suddenly remember it’s your sister’s birthday and you haven’t bought her a gift or anything.