Smart Playlists make holiday music sound sweet

One of my favorite things about the holidays is the seasonal music. No matter if it’s a classic Christmas carol or a completely new modern pop creation such as Sufjan Stevens’ “That was the Worst Christmas Ever,” nothing sets the mood like a holiday tune. Yet even for me, it can get to be a bit much. By the time the thousandth bad rendition of “Silver Bells” pipes over the speakers at the mall, I’m ready to sleigh an elf. That’s why whether I’m headed to my in-laws house, an office party, or just the bus stop; I always set up my iPod with a few Smart Playlists to act as my personal holiday jukebox.

Sure the iPod makes a great Christmas or Chanukah gift, but it also makes the perfect companion. Thanks to its ability (at least in some models) to store photos and videos, your iPod makes it easy to share this year’s treasured memories with family and friends. And then there’s that whole thousands of songs in your pocket thing.

Your iPod makes it easy to create long playlists of your favorite holiday music. Set up a few holiday playlists, and you’ll never have to run back and forth between the mistletoe and the stereo swapping out CDs again. But what makes a holiday song?

Although Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please come Home)” Run DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis,” and Nat King Cole’s classic rendition of “Away In a Manger” might all be holiday music, they have very little else in common. Guests at your cocktail party, who have grown accustomed to a long set of carols, will spill their egg nog all over the floor when The Kinks’ “Father Christmas” comes barreling out of your speakers like the Grinch coming down off his mountain.

Yet by taking advantage of iTunes’ Smart Playlist feature, you can automatically sort your music by mood to keep the holly jolly. Although this will entail a little more work on the front-end, over time -- especially when it’s time to come back again next year and the year after that -- it should save quite a bit of sorting and organizing.

Begin by inserting better descriptive keywords in the genre field of your ID3 tags. Instead of merely relying on the preset genre listings downloaded from online CD databases -- which often lump everything vaguely seasonal together in the “holiday” genre, no matter if it’s jazz, choral or rock music -- add more descriptive keywords to your ID3 tags that will help you break out your music by both mood and the type of music it is. Very rarely does a track fit strictly into one set definition—often a track might be both jazz and instrumental, for example—and by using keywords in the genre field it becomes much easier to create playlists that set a certain mood.

The Vince Guaraldi Trio’s “What Child is This” could be tagged as “Holiday Christmas Classic Instrumental Jazz,” Adam Sandler’s “The Chanukah Song” gets tagged “Holiday Chanukah Comedy Modern” while The Pizzicato Five’s “Silent Night” might be “Holiday Christmas Carols Pop Modern Japan.” Once you’ve modified your genre tags with descriptive keywords, it’s time to create smart playlists that will automatically sort your music for all your holiday events.

For example, to create a great set of holiday music for a cocktail party, create a new smart playlist in iTunes, and select “genre” from the pulldown menu on the left. In the middle pull-down menu choose “contains” and type “Holiday” in the text box. Next, click on the plus symbol to the right of this first rule. In the new rule that appears underneath the first, again select “genre” and “contains,” but this time type “jazz” into the text box. Make sure that you have chosen to match all of the following rules (to exclude both rockers and non-holiday jazz tracks) and click on OK. This will create a new playlist with all your tracks that are tagged with both “holiday” and “jazz.”

Your Christmas morning playlist could include “Christmas” and “carols.” A playlist to listen to as you prepare your meal on Christmas Eve might be “holiday” and “instrumental.” When the extended family all comes over you might be in the mood for “holiday” and “classics,” which could include everything from “Frosty the Snowman” to “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer.”

But what if you want to add music from a lot of different sources? No problem. You can combine Smart Playlists to create extra-long sets of all types of music. Set up a new smart playlist, and select “playlist” from the first pull-down menu, “is” from the second, and the name of the list from the third menu. Then create a second rule to add another playlist, and so on. In this case make sure to match any rather than all of the rules, or your new playlist will be restrictive instead of inclusive.

For a raucous office party you could set up a new Smart Playlist that pulled from your holiday pop, holiday classic, and holiday comedy lists. Similarly, for a low-key celebration, you could draw from your holiday jazz, carols, and instrumental lists. In any case, you’ll never have to fear an unexpected Kinks calamity again.

Mathew Honan is a San Francisco-based writer and photographer. His work has also appeared in Macworld, Wired, Time, and Salon.

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