Sorting in iTunes and iPod Classic

I spent some time this weekend figuring out how to get stuff to sort in iTunes and on my iPod in a way that pleases me: namely, the apparently long-desired but long-elusive accurate sort by artist and then with albums (or individual songs or whatever) in their actual release order in Cover Flow and grid view of Albums in iTunes, and in the Cover Flow and Albums list on the iPod. In the end, it’s actually rather simple.

Before anything else, sit yourself down and think about how you want your stuff sorted. You’ll need to be clear on how you want things sorted not just generally, but specifically. That is, there may be some exceptions to your general sorting rules. This whole process is, after all, about making the order in which these items are displayed most useful to you. You can apply the information below to achieve your own goals.

We begin with the beginning: the data. Your media files are likely, like mine, from different sources: some purchased, some downloaded free from the internets, and some loaded from CD. In most cases, track information is automatically located (which never ceases to amaze me) and to all your media files. But it’s necessary to say that this information is basic, and is occasionally even incorrect. In every sense, it is invariably incomplete for the sorting scheme I will describe below. Thus your generic sort based on the incomplete and/or incorrect information attached to your files is going to be somewhat unpredictably accurate, which is frustrating. You’ll want to make sure the information in your files (dates, song names, etc) is all correct anyway at some point, so you might as well do it (if you haven’t already) before you fix your sorting. Those are all accessible in iTunes through, on a Mac, ctrl-click (or like me, lower-left-corner-touchpad-click) or on Windows right-click an album in iTunes, and pick Get Info. The easiest and quickest way to do this for an album is by ctrl/right-clicking on an album in Grid View, picking Get Info, and going from there as described below.

The Sorting options are your friend. In Get Info on iTunes in Windows, Sorting is a tab; on a Mac, it’s one of the option buttons. Whichever, click it. You’ll see these listed:
Sort Artist
Sort Album Artist
Sort Album
Sort Composer
Sort Show
These are where you’ll set your sorting up. These fields are where you can specify for iTunes (and the iPod) how you want your media to sort, overriding the defaults extrapolated from the information of the individual files. “Sort Album Artist” and “Sort Album” are the important fields here. “Sort Artist” actually is the Artist field for all the songs on the album, so you need to be careful with that. You could wipe out and screw up some compilations (more on which below) if you’re not careful with that field. But for an album by a single artist, “Sort Artist” and “Sort Album Artist” will very often both be the same. “Sort Composer” is important for those who want to sort that way, and “Sort Show” is used for multiple episodes of video media, and not applicable here.

So, the trick to setting up sorting is simple: it’s alphabetic. In “Sort Album Artist” you will put the artist’s name in the way in which you want it to sort within your collection. For instance, you would put “Beatles” rather than “The Beatles” because you don’t want all your stuff to show up alphabetized by “The…” but rather back in the Bs, according to “Beatles.” So, also “Gabriel Peter” instead of “Peter Gabriel” and “Keyrouz Marie” instead of “Marie Keyrouz” or “Soeur Marie Keyrouz”. All that is up to you, but keep it in mind that the “Sort Album Artist” is purely alphabetical.

After you have established your “Sort Album Artist” names, to put things in an order determined by you, simply use the same name exactly that you put in “Sort Album Artist” followed by a two-digit number: “Sylvian 01”, “Sylvian 02”, “Sylvian 03” and so on. That’s it. That’s the whole trick. If you put the actual album names in that “Sort Album” spot, all it will do is sort them alphabetically by name. Note that in putting these things in the various Sort entries, these don’t at all effect the display of the Artist or Album names in any of the displays. They’re solely for sorting. And solely by patiently tinkering can you fine-tune the sorting to make the display of your media perfect for you. Hopefully the above hints will help in some little way toward that.

In Cover Flow in iTunes, ctrl-click/right-click in the Cover Flow display itself and pick “Change Sort” and then “Album by Artist”. In Grid View, select the View menu, then Sort Albums, and select: “By Artist” and “Ascending” and “By Title”. Then all your media will sort in the order you just set up. Sync up your iPod and check the results there in the Cover Flow and Album list. Fix any oddities. “Rinse and repeat” as they used to say.

It must be noted that there is a difference in the way that iTunes and the iPod sort compilations. Compilations are albums that include songs which are from more than one artist. In the iPod Cover Flow, all compilations appear at the very end, but in the Album list they appear in their alphabetical position. In iTunes, in both Cover Flow and in Grid view by Album, they appear alphabetically. So, the oddball here is Cover Flow on the iPod. That’s something to keep in mind.

I should say that the above instructions are accurate as of this date, for iPod 2.0.1 and iTunes 9.2. Who knows what an upgrade might bring?

I hope all have enjoyed this short interlude of geekoutishness. We now return to our regularly scheduled programming….