iTunes compilations: what holds them together?

Standard
When you rip a CD in iTunes—or when you buy an
album from the iTunes Store, Amazon, or other vendor—there are a number
of tags you can set, such as the album name, artist name, and genre. But
there’s one tag that seems to confound a lot of iTunes users: the
compilation tag. Here’s an overview of what the compilation tag means,
what it can do for you, and how to work with it.

First, what exactly is a compilation? Technically, it’s an album
with multiple artists but not, for example, a best-of album by a single
artist (although the iTunes Store does in fact consider many Greatest
Hits albums to be compilations). Since iTunes and the iPod can sort
music by artist, when you go to view an album by a given artist, you
expect to find full albums. But with compilations—say a movie soundtrack
with songs by ten different performers, or a Time Life collection of
the greatest cowboy songs to sing along with in the shower—you’d only
find one or two songs under an artist’s name. Also, you wouldn’t be able
to play the entire album without creating a playlist for it, or by
searching for the precise album name. For this reason, iTunes has a
compilation tag that you can set to give special status to these
“various artist” collections.

You
can change the compilation status of any album by selecting its tracks
and choosing Yes or No from the Part of a compilation menu.

Setting
this tag on a group of tracks—it’s one you toggle between Yes and
No—has a number of effects. First, it groups the album together rather
than leaving the music spread out among its various artists (as long as
all the tracks have the same album name). For example, if you use the
iTunes Browser (Command-B shows or hides the Browser, and the View ->
Column Browser submenu lets you choose how it’s displayed), tracks in
compilations won’t show under the names of their artists, unless you
have other, non-compilation albums by the artists on the compilation. If
you have the Composer tag filled, however, all tracks from compilations
will show up in the Composer column of the Browser. A
practical option in iTune’s Advanced preferences lets you group
compilations at the top of the browser: check Group Compilations When
Browsing, and you’ll see a Compilations entry at the top of the Artists
column so you can find your compilations easily.Setting an album as a
compilation—or not—is easy to do. Select all its tracks, then press
Command-I, and click the Options tab. Choose Yes or No from the Part Of A
Compilation menu, then click OK.

Viewing compilations on your iPod is a bit different from iTunes’
solution; there’s no option to group compilations under the Artist menu,
but if you go to Settings -> Music Menu, you can check Compilations
and have your iPod display a Compilations sub-menu. On an iPhone or iPod
touch, however, Apple decided that it would be better to list songs
from compilations under their artist names. However, you have a choice;
if you tap Music, then More, there’s also a Compilations menu, so you
don’t need to change any settings to find your compilations.
Unfortunately, you can’t turn off the display of compilation tracks in
the Artists list, and if you have a lot of compilations, your Artists
list can get pretty long.

While compilations can be great, they can also be a headache. Let’s
say you rip a CD and can’t find it in your library. This can happen if
the Gracenote tag information, which iTunes searches for on the Internet
when you insert a CD, has the Compilation tag incorrectly set for that
album. You can change it, of course, but you may scratch your head
trying to find the album to do so. For this reason, you might want to
always have compilations display in the browser (assuming you use the
browser), or create a smart playlist with the condition Compilation is
true, so you can always find your compilations.

Another problem related to the Compilations tag occurs when only some
songs of an album have that tag set. You may find an album in iTunes
that shows as if it were two separate albums. Select all the tracks and
set the Compilation tag to No to group the songs correctly.

One final curiosity related to compilations. Since iTunes doesn’t
record these albums by the names of their artists, it stores the files
in a special way. In your iTunes Media (on iTunes Music) -> Music
folder, you’ll find a folder named Compilations with all of albums
tagged as such.

[Senior contributor Kirk McElhearn writes about more than just Macs on his blog Kirkville.]

 | Macworld

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