One of the few advantages iTunes (and Winamp and Windows Media Player) has over Spotify, Rdio and other streaming services is support for smart playlists. Thanks to the wealth of metadata stored by Apple's digital content behemoth, you can juggle your tracks around in all kinds of ways.
To set up a smart playlist, open iTunes and go to File > New > Smart Playlist. Here are five examples of simple set-ups that can some variety to your listening experience. Make sure to tick the Live updating box in each case so the playlist changes with your listening history.
This playlist requires some preparation on your part—namely that your favorite songs are stamped with a four or five-star rating. Set up a smart playlist where the Rating is greater than three stars but the Last Played date is more than six months ago (you may have to vary this depending on the size of your library). You'll then be served up all those stand-out tracks that haven't appeared on shuffle for a while.
This one requires two playlists: a long one (say twenty tracks) filled with songs from recent years, and a short one (say five tracks) filled with songs from before a certain year. For both playlists, set the Last Played value to songs that haven't been heard in the past week to keep it turning over with new music. Create a new smart playlist where Playlist equals the new playlist or the old playlist, set it to shuffle, and your mix is ready. You could do the same with artists, genres and so on.
This is one that many of you might already have set up. If you create a smart playlist with a single condition that the Media Kind is Music, you can limit it to 50 or so tracks, sorted by those that are least often played (rather than by random, which is the default). Sync this playlist with your iPhone, iPod or iPad and you can give some much-needed attention to those tracks languishing at the corners of your library. If you want the list to re-populate as you listen to it, filter out songs listened to in the past week.
Besides star ratings, how can you work out which songs you love the most? One way is sorting them by the number of times they've been skipped. Set up a smart playlist to queue up songs that have rarely been skipped or haven't been skipped recently to find the tunes you can't get enough of. As long as you switch on the live updating option, you can click the next button in iTunes to instantly banish a track from this VIP list and move on to something more interesting. You'll have to adjust the values accordingly, depending on how skip-happy you are in general.
Sure, you know about the star rating in iTunes, but did you know you can apply an album rating too? This gives you the ability to distinguish great tracks from bad albums, bad tracks from good albums, and so on. There are a number of ways you can use these filters together: to listen to all the songs that aren't four or five-star rated but which appear on well-liked albums, for example. You can then rediscover some of the album tracks and b-sides from your favorite artists.
There are a huge number of possibilities when it comes to smart playlists, and we've only really scratched the surface here — if you've got a combination you like using, we'd love to hear about it below.