Once you meet me, it’s only a matter of time before I try and make you a mix CD.
I still make mix CDs.
These days I only ever make mix CDs for other people. I used to make them for myself. I got my first MP3 player long after everyone else had got one, and I used it long after everyone else had moved on to streaming on smartphones. But before that, I made myself a lot of CDs.
It was my travelling music. I’d travel everywhere with a portable CD player (is that what we called them? Or was it a personal CD player?) and a wallet full of my own mixes.
I had a CD for every conceivable journey and every conceivable mood. I also had a reserve of CDs that I’d turn to when I couldn’t decide what else to listen to.
I followed certain rules when making these CDs – unconsciously at first, but they soon became very important indeed. And I realise that I still follow these rules when I’m making CDs for other people.
I also follow these rules when I’m putting playlists together. To some extent.
Let’s talk about the rules for making a good mix CD, together.
RULE 1 – NEVER OPEN YOUR MIX CD WITH THE SAME TRACK THAT OPENS AN ALBUM
Picture the scene: It’s summer, you’re with friends, and you’ve just put a CD on.
The first track is Since I Left You by The Avalanches.
“Wonderful!” someone says. “I love this album. I haven’t heard it in years. It’s an absolute classic. Oh my God. Oh. Oh my. I just saw God’s face at the window. I cannot thank you enough for having put on this miracle of an album. You’ve made a good day better. Truly, this is one for the ages. I salute you, thou gentleman of considerable taste. You can pick ’em.”
You’re squirming in your seat. Because you haven’t just put that album on. You’ve put a mix CD on, one that happens to share an opening track with The Avalanches’ debut.
You hold your breath as Since I Left You ends, watching your friend’s face. He’s smiling beatifically, as he knows that Since I Left You is about to blend seamlessly into Stay Another Season, the groove uninterrupted, the delirium sustained.
But it doesn’t. Instead, the song ends abruptly, to be replaced with the clashing cymbals that kick off Gorillaz’s Clint Eastwood.
Your friend frowns. Winces even. “Oh,” he says. And nothing more. Then he looks at you. What’s in that look? Concern? Hurt? Betrayal? Contempt? Hatred?
Don’t do this to people.
Also, there’s something hideously obvious about opening your mix CD with a song that opens another album. It’s like you’re trying to pass off someone else’s fireworks display as your own.
And that leads me to my next rule.
RULE 2 – AVOID THE OBVIOUS WHEREVER POSSIBLE
Before I made mix CDs I made mix tapes.
A lot of these were purely practical. Our parents’ cars couldn’t play CDs, so my brother and I would make tapes of our favourite songs to play on journeys.
But there’s only so many times you can put together a collection of your favourite songs. And there’s only so many times you can put together a collection of bangers too – the best-known songs by popular bands and artists.
I soon learned that for a mix to have lasting value, you must dig deeper.
This isn’t about picking obscurities for the sake of picking obscurities. I’m not talking about choosing a demo version over a polished studio version, or an experimental b-side over a radio-friendly crowdpleaser just because.
I’m talking about keeping things interesting, both for yourself and others.
If someone made me a mix CD full of deep cuts and things I’d never heard before, I wouldn’t think they were showing off, and I wouldn’t think they were just trying to impress me. Instead, I’d think: “Wow, here’s someone who really likes music. How wonderful to consider that these songs, so unfamiliar to me, mean the world to them. What an honour that they’ve chosen to share this part of themselves with me. And such choices! True curation here. What a lady/gentleman of considerable taste they are. They’ve really put some thought into this. I must buy them a drink sometime.”
RULE 3 – MAKE FULL USE OF THE MEDIUM AVAILABLE
I don’t carry a wallet of mix CDs anymore. I stream on a smartphone now, and I like to make playlists. Get me.
The playlists I make tend to be very, very long. This is partially because it’s too dangerous to switch from one album to another while driving. Music non-stop, with no repetition. It’s the only way.
I like how playlists can be as long as you want them to be. But I really miss working with limitations.
Mix tapes gave you between 60 minutes and 90 minutes to work with. Did they eventually give us two hour tapes with a full hour on each side? I can’t remember.
Mix CDs give you up to 80 minutes to work with. I heard rumours that you could also burn “MP3 CDs”, allowing for much more music. But that just sounds like dark magic to me.
There’s a certain elegance to using up only an hour or less of an 80 minute CD. But there’s also a smugness in doing this. And dare I say it? A degree of cowardice.
Yeah, I said it.
If I’ve got 80 minutes of blank noise to fill, you better believe that I’m going to do my very best to fill every second of that space.
It feels like a waste to do otherwise.
It’s also a challenge I relish. Anyone can burn 80 minutes worth of music to a CD. But can you burn 80 minutes of music and keep things fresh and interesting throughout? Can you fill two minutes at the end of a flawless mix without resorting to filler?
You can, if you understand flow.
RULE 4 – FLOW IS EVERYTHING
Your mix should flow beautifully from one song to another.
Find pairings that sound so natural they might have been intentional. Four Tet’s A Joy into Animal Collective’s Peacebone is a good example.
Your mix should soar and swoon, with peaks and dips, staggering highs and moments of respite.
You cannot achieve flow by simply filling your mix with songs that sound similar, as this will get boring very quickly.
Don’t be afraid to get jarring from time to time. A favourite trick of mine used to be to open a mix CD with a breathless rush of very short songs before settling into a mid-paced groove. The effect is like tripping on a towel before landing safely in a warm bath, only for someone to hand you a glass of wine.
A jarring approach can also help you avoid painting yourself into corners. Say you find your mix getting calmer and calmer, before you descend into a suite of barely-there ambient music. Where could you possible go from here? Well, you could build things back up again, gradually getting more and more dynamic with each subsequent song.
Or you could go for a jump scare. Stars of the Lid into Mastodon. It could work!
Make use of the pointers musicians give you. Blur’s Caramel is a haunting epic. But the main part of the song’s followed by the sound of a car engine starting, which gives way to an energetic electronic section. This is a gift! A natural transition from a serene yet desolate section of your mix into something more upbeat!
Rules were made to be broken, and sometimes it’s OK to make use of someone else’s firework display.
RULE 5 – COMMIT TO A MOOD
Good mix CDs are collections of songs. If someone makes you a mix of their favourite songs, treasure it for life.
Great mix CDs have a theme. Songs about water, or space, or ghosts, for example. But beware of taking this too far, or you’ll veer into Tinymixtapes territory. “Songs for clutching a piece of jade shaped like the kidney you’ve just donated to advance the praxis”. That sort of thing.
The best mix CDs have moods. They have a feel to them.
Note, MOODS, plural. It doesn’t have to be consistent across the entire mix. Nor does it have to be something you can easily sum up in one word, or even one sentence.
But the mood should be palpable for anyone who listens to your mix.
This comes from travelling with a wallet full of mix CDs I’d made for myself. As I said, I had different mixes for each journey, and each mood. I had one I put on when I was travelling really late at night, and another for really early mornings. I had one full of long sprawling songs, which I turned to when I felt lost, confused, or unsure. I had good mixes for sunny days, but all of my best mixes sounded perfect on frozen days.
Had anyone listened to these mixes, it would have provided a lot more candid an insight into who I was than a simple mix of my favourite songs would have. Even though I made these mixes for an audience of one, I felt like I was using them to say something that couldn’t be put into words.
These mixes were collections of very good songs. Yet they were more than the sum of their parts. They had a feel to them. A suite of moods. And they came from somewhere deep.
Listening to them now would be like reading old diary entries, but a lot less mortifying.
RULE 6 – NEVER INCLUDE MORE THAN ONE SONG BY THE SAME ARTIST ON A MIX
Because that’s just lazy.
RULE 7 – END ON A HIGH
So we’re avoiding the obvious, and we’re trying not to repeat the same tricks that artists have already deployed on their albums.
That means that you should generally avoid ending your mix with the same song that closes an album. But this isn’t a strict rule.
Instead, you should avoid closing your mix with an obvious “closing song”. And it’s quite hard to describe just what I mean by this, as an “obvious closing song” can either be triumphant or low-key, depending on who’s playing it.
So how should you close your mix CD, then?
If you’ve been paying attention to feel, flow and mood when compiling your CD, that closing track should come naturally to you.
Heed its call.
And don’t be afraid to leave people hanging. Your closing track doesn’t have to bring things to a natural close. You’re not writing a screenplay here. You don’t have to worry about loose ends or closure. If the flow demands that you end things with ellipses, or even with a comma, be brave.
What am I on about.