Thursday, May 1, 2008

How to express yourself through mix CDs.

It's that time again: I'm working on creating my next mix CD, which I will then give to anyone who is interested and probably quite a few people who aren't at all interested. I put an embarrassing amount of effort into this process.

Is a mix CD art? Well, not in itself. It's a compilation of other people's art. A mix CD is like a commonplace book. If your life were a film, a mix CD would be the soundtrack. Hopefully, a mix CD is an acknowledgment of the power of music in your life, and it's a snapshot of a certain moment in time.

Some thoughts:

  1. First, assess your emotional state. Everyone wants to make mix CDs in the throes of a new crush. Be careful! Trust me, you will not regret exercising some mix CD reserve at this vulnerable time. Consider keeping it light. Steer clear of the Carpenters, early PJ Harvey, the Cure, Ani DiFranco, and for heaven's sake, if you just met the guy, do not include "Be My Husband," by Nina Simone. This is for your own good.

  2. Open a new playlist (I use iTunes), and throw great tunes into the playlist as you think of them. I have many playlists going, organized along thematic lines. Back in the day, before Mp3 technology, I used to keep lists of great songs in my diary. It took a really long time to make a good mix back then. Although when you consider that I used to write first drafts of all of my papers in longhand, it doesn't seem so bad.

  3. What order should the songs be in? I usually start by picking the first and last songs in the mix. Some songs are just naturally good beginning songs, and some are naturally good ending songs. The first song is the most important on the whole mix. It should be upbeat, draw the listener in and hold their attention. Never start a mix CD with anything too quiet, weird, avant-garde, or laid back, or your listeners will never make it to song number 2.

  4. The last song on a mix CD may linger in your listener's psyche for hours after the CD is done, so choose wisely. Generally, a winding-things-down tune is the best.

  5. There are really no rules about what to include, although I often make up a few to keep things interesting. I generally do not use more than one song from the same artist in a CD. Often I even try to avoid using artists I used in the last mix I made. But you could use only one artist in a CD to good effect, making a personal "best of." Most of my favorite movie soundtracks are mostly one artist with a few rogue songs thrown in.

  6. Thematic mixes are super-cool. Songs about nature, songs about committed and long-term love, songs about robots, songs about cars, songs about money. I did a mix CD of songs about death once, and it was, by my standards at least, pretty upbeat. If you haven't guessed this by now, I'm not really a fan of happy peppy music.

  7. Within the CD, I try to group songs by mood, and then carefully arrange them for flow. Do not group all of the really sad songs together in the middle - your listeners will be too depressed to finish the CD. Unless you want your mix CD to be an indistinguishable solid wall of sound throughout, moods and tempos should ebb and flow.

  8. I spend weeks listening and experimenting with order. I generally make several "drafts" before releasing the final version. Okay, yes, I'm insane.

  9. Some thoughts on mood. You may be feeling really low, and you may be tempted to create a really sad mix CD. You know the one - the "Life is Meaningless and Love is Pain" mix. By all means, make the mix! It's probably just the catharsis you need! But please don't force it on your friends. Although obviously much better than unrelenting cheeriness, unrelenting depression is actually pretty boring. On the other hand, sadness at the suffering in the world tempered by delight in nature, good friends, and nostalgia for those trips to the lake you took as a child - now you're talking! A mix CD isn't just an opportunity to share some new artists with your friends - like good memoir, it should please the listener, and it should judiciously reveal something about your current emotional state.

  10. You're going to have to cull some songs that, however amazing, just don't "fit." This is why "drafts" are good. You'll be listening to the draft mix in your car (which is generally the best place for objective review), and a particular song will constantly jar your ear, or beg to be skipped. Remove it, even though you love it.

  11. Album art and a cool title are optional, but definitely enhance the experience.

  12. Disseminate widely.

  13. Don't forget to give me a copy.

  14. Because mix CDs are so personal, it's easy to get sensitive about them. Try to take it in stride when you find out that half of your friends never bothered to listen to the CD at all, and the other half skip over all of the songs in the middle. Remember, everyone has different tastes. Repeat after me: "Taste is subjective." Let's face it - making mixes is a fundamentally narcissistic passtime. No one else will love it like you love it. And that's okay.

If I had a CD changer - if I still had CDs - these would be the CDs on constant rotation:


  1. I also take my mix CDs way too seriously and promise to be one of the faithful 50% who listen to the whole thing straight through on repeat. Probably not surprising to anyone, your "process" is way more thorough and ambitious than mine. I generally make mixes with just one person in mind and use my trademark method for getting through all life's important tasks - waiting until the last minute and then staying up way too late. (I'm unfamiliar with this concept of "drafts.") I'll have to resurrect an old playlist from my defunct itunes as an example of my mix art.

  2. I am totally that obsessive when I make mix cds. But I tend to make mix cds for just one person at a time so I am also listening to the lyrics to make sure I am not inadvertently slipping in, say, a go-kill-yourself message when I am trying to make a life-will-go-on mix for a friend who's recently been dumped.

    Oh, and I want a copy.

  3. I'd been dwelling on a "long distance sucks big gnarly animal body parts" for almost 4 months now, and i didn't bother making it till the night before the last LD visit to masen. No drafts. But mental drafts for 3 months! Those of you who don't know me (Elizabeth,) I have decidedly harsh post-punk tastes while my lovely husband is a deadhead and bluegrass fiend (including some decent banjo playing). most of the time, the music i love gives him a headache. so sometimes I have to repeat a few artists on a mix. My most recent one reflects my recent re-obsession with early REM and Elvis Costello, our recent acquisition of the I'm Not There soundtrack, and my persistent and misguided attempt to get him to love sleater kinney--only one of their songs! one where corin doesn't warble too much.

    I'd also like to attest that Inder's early mixes were stunning, esp bc the tape cases were stuffed with hang-written liner notes articulating why each song is special. that's really the way to do it. Itunes can't replicate that magic.

  4. Apparently the process is just as awesome as the product!


I love comments! I do my very best to respond to comments, by email or here, although I am often running late. I also try to follow and comment on my regular readers' blogs. So please let me know you were here!