Almost anyone who's tried to use the "shuffle" functionality to create automatic playlists can attest that randomizing song lists or libraries is no easy task. I always seem to get one or two songs that appear far too often and some artists who never show up at all.
Enter The Filter (download it at CNET Download.com), a Windows plug-in for iTunes backed by musician Peter Gabriel. The Filter uses artificial intelligence and the All Music Guide database to manufacture custom iTunes playlists based on a variety of user inputs, such as a few songs of your choice, a specific artist, or a music genre.
Upon start-up, The Filter scans your entire iTunes library, which takes considerable time if you have 10,000-plus tracks. It compares the metadata for those files against the All Music Guide database, and also uses your own playing history to compose new playlists based around various parameters. A lot of its success will depend on your library, of course, and how well your tracks are tagged.
You'll need a username and password to access The Filter service, but the program lets you test it out with a temporary login. The interface seems a bit kludgy: Even though I can minimize the player, I can't stop it from appearing on top of all my other windows. Moving the full-size player for The Filter over the iTunes interface often causes it to momentarily disappear. And, although The Filter playlists show up logically in the iTunes interface, there's no contextual menu items or other, more integrated features.
Aside from niggling interface bugs, I'm impressed by The Filter's playlists. Selection appears to be based on genre, but the process is much more sophisticated than that. With only a few semirandom song choices from me, the plug-in quickly created a rather fluid collection with tracks from Beck, DJ Shadow, Underworld, VHS or Beta, and The Books.
I have my own beef with iTunes for Windows, mostly because of its aggressive file organization and lack of an on-the-fly playlist. I prefer MediaMonkey for my music organization, but plug-ins like The Filter could certainly lure me back to Apple's jukebox.
The Filter is available only for iTunes 4 and above on Windows XP. Support for Mac iTunes, Winamp, and Windows Media Player is expected to arrive in the coming months.