June 29, 2006

Elements of Style: Mixed CD Edition

Last week, I received a tough question via email. Developing an answer to that question is more difficult for me than the chicken/egg thing, clarifying the mysteries of the universe, or choosing between the original and replacement Darrin Stephens (the age-old tale of two Dicks). Just what is this particularly distressing question, you ask? "Just out of sheer curiosity, what do you think are the essential elements of a great mixed CD?" Thanks Jimmy. You made my brain hurt.

Like Rob Fleming, Nick Hornby's anti-hero, and his crew at Championship Vinyl, I've given this question lots of thought. My resume, if I had one for my manic music fandom, would be long and consist of literally thousands of mixes and 25 years of practice. Here's what I've learned about making a great mixed CD.

Avoid Genre Confusion. When I sit down for a meal, I don't mind when my corn touches my mashed potatoes. I'm not terribly uptight about stuff like that. Yet, I'm not wild about mixing too many different genres all willy nilly (or even devil-may-care, for that matter). Sure, the ability to avoid some of this confusion is dependent on a large pool of music from which to choose but it's still best avoided when possible. The mood of a mix is just as important as the song selections themselves. Choose wisely and you shall be rewarded. Throw in a musical misstep and the mood you're going for could be derailed. No pressure or anything.

Steer Clear of Artist Overload. My personal rule when putting a mixed CD together is to use an artist only once. There are, of course, some notable exceptions:

  • The Solo Factor. The signature sound of most artists these days revolves around vocals. Vocalists, being able to think for themselves, know this and are prone to willful acts of primadonnaism. Thus, they go solo. This, in turn, provides a loophole to the artist saturation rule. Say I threw a Police song into the mix and now I'd like to use something by Sting. Perfectly acceptable. John Lennon and Beatles songs? Paul might feel left out, but I say go for it. Radiohead and the upcoming Thom Yorke solo release? Okie dokie. Nick Lachey and 98 Degrees? Oh, come on. Grow a set. Listen to some real music.
  • Rotating Lineups. Many artists seem to harness an ever-rotating lineup of vocalists and musicians and their output from album to album can be radically different. A mid-70's Black Sabbath song with screaching Ozzy Osbourne vocals is quite different than an early 90's Sabbath tune with Tony Martin's doom-and-gloom howl. Genesis, Deep Purple, Van Halen, Journey and Bad Company have had three lead singers, while AC/DC, The Stills, Yes, and Marillion have had two vocalists. The aformentioned Black Sabbath's had five...or so...I've lost count. Artists like Zero 7, Santana and Massive Attack actually thrive on a rotating lineup of vocalists (as opposed to the passive-aggressive creative environment the rest must have).
  • The Reprise. I've made a couple mixes in which I really wanted to carry a theme all the way through, have the songs come full circle. The mix that sticks out in my head the most was one I put together a few years ago. It was all kinds of mellow and I set the mood by isolating the piano intro from Coldplay's Amsterdam. Those 30 seconds or so served as the intro to the mix which ended with the song in its entirety. I dig the way it came out, and tried the same thing, just as successfully, with a Ben Harper tune a few months later. Another exception to the rule.

Say No To Album Saturation. A great album is a fantastic thing. It's a collection of sounds and notes and moods all wrapped together very deliberately. A mixed CD should be similar since it's the ultimate in musical expression short of playing the music yourself. Make the most of it. Take lots of songs from lots of sources, not just two or three. My personal rule? No more than one track from a single source.

The Old Wind-Up. Know where the ballad on most mainstream releases is located? The third track. I don't know why but it's always been that way. I've always thought that the positioning was a little early, you know, like finding out Soylent Green is people, watching Rocky lose the fight or witnessing the Three Amigos save the Mexican village after fifteen minutes of film. Set a good pace. Establish a nice cruising altitude before you go barnstorming. And when you bring it down to mellow, make sure you kick it back up to 30,000 feet when you're done. Most importantly, end with your best.

Surprise Yourself. Hide a song. Throw in something you've only heard once but really liked. Include a rare track, a b-side or an alternate version of one of your favorites. Face it - mixed CDs are predictable. Because you made it. You noodled it through, planned it and burned it. You might as well include a few hidden gems to find later on when you get around to listening to it. Recently, I made a CD for myself and included Marah's So What If We're Outta Tune (With The Rest of the World) which I'd just downloaded and only heard once. It was a great little surprise the first time I listened to the mix.

Date Your Mix. No, you don't need to take it to a fancy restaurant and show it a good time. Just make sure you break out a Sharpie and slap the date on the CD. Why? For me, music is a mental filing system. I remember places I've been, situations I've lived through, and people I've met along the way through the music I was listening to at the time. It's a time capsule. So, date it. In 10 years you can break it out, press play and maybe some of the details you'd thought you'd forgotten will come back to you. That, my friends, is the beauty of music.

I realize I didn't answer Jimmy's question. It wouldn't have made much of a post because the answer is simple. The most important elements of a mixed CD are the songs that are most important to you. The guidelines? Consider it advice, not rules. Rules and music don't go well together. Have fun and make something you dig. That's what's important.

Posted by Chris at June 29, 2006 7:07 AM

You obviously took notes in that movie - what was it? High Fidelity? John Cusack?

Posted by: Emily at June 29, 2006 7:12 AM

Huh. Whaddya know. I always though you just slapped on the songs you liked the best. The only mix tapes I ever received as gifts were from guys, and they were all the songs they thought would get them the farthest, if you catch my drift...

You need another contest. I need another chance (or 5)to win one of these oh-so-carefully-thought-out mix cd's for myself.

Posted by: Alissa at June 29, 2006 8:02 AM

I like to open CDs with a silly/gorgeous/confusing 5-30ish second track; the second to last track is an audio nod to the first track, and then the CD ends with a short track of crickets chirping. I dunno why, but it entertains me to no end.

Posted by: Betti at June 29, 2006 9:12 AM

Agree completely with you on the "Surprise Yourself" point. On the mixed cd I made last, I just threw in a random new song I'd downloaded and wanted to hear it but didnt have much time, so wanted to hear it while driving to work. And boy was I surprised when I heard a very interesting track and realized that still my CD playing. Today I like that song quite a bit, its called "King without a Crown" by Matisyahu!

Posted by: Dee at June 29, 2006 9:17 AM

Totally messed up the sentence formations in that comment, but you get my drift!

Posted by: Dee at June 29, 2006 9:18 AM

I just got back to your blog after a long absence and I have to say, Yay!! I was around for the announcement of impending Mia and for a lot of the pregnancy but then somehow I fell off the Cactus wagon before she was born (Congratulations!! belatedly). Thankfully I am now back (yay bloglines!) and your posts are causing me happiness and also a little kicking of myself for being away so long!! Sorry for the fan-girlyness I just had to say hello again! :)

Love love LOVE this post. Good guidelines and I winced when remembering some of the faux pas of my mix taping past. Can we always call it a mix tape? I know I always will. Even to the eye rolling of my daughter.

Posted by: tulip at June 29, 2006 9:25 AM

ps: Betti I want a mix!! That sounds fun. :)

Posted by: tulip at June 29, 2006 9:26 AM

You and I are on the same page with these ideas. I'm betting you probably also think about the way songs are arranged in an album from an artist.

"Good opening song for the album... not too hard, not too light... catchy." or "Wow, someone didn't use a producerrrr and decided to put me to sleep on the first track. Skip."

Posted by: Brad at June 29, 2006 9:28 AM

I agree with Alissa - you need to have another contest with a mix CD as the prize, and I need to win it this time! I enjoy mix CDs but I never make any for myself because I don't have a CD player in my car. Sad, I know, but I pretty much listen to NPR during my commute anyway. Maybe when I get my next car...

Posted by: Beth in StL at June 29, 2006 9:39 AM

I drive Hubby crazy because I just lay down tracks I like. A few CD's I have actually put thought into, like, "A CD to sing at the top of my lungs when Hubby is in another state" or "A CD of songs that make me cry". Mostly though, I just throw them together.

Posted by: Maribeth at June 29, 2006 10:04 AM

Huh, wow, some people put a lot more thought into their music than I do! But that's a good thing.

I agree about the mix-tape time capsules, though. The last one I made was in college (back when they were actually *tapes*) and if I listen to it, it takes me right back to where and when (and why) I made it.

Posted by: Kate the Shrew at June 29, 2006 10:21 AM

The piano intro to Amsterdam kicks serious ass. Props to you for isolating that part. The rest of the song is great, too, but I know what you mean about setting a tone. It certainly does. As do a lot of other Coldplay songs, specifically on their first two albums.

Posted by: Jen at June 29, 2006 11:55 AM

If only you had written this yesterday :) I just made a mixed CD for my daughter last night and your advice would have come in handy. Actually I think I did a pretty good job. But I went by what I like, not her...because she always ends up liking what I like anyway. She's 16, what does she know? :) Just kidding, she knows plenty. I think you gave some "sound" advice..ahahahaha...sorry, I'm a bit corny today :)

Posted by: Kate at June 29, 2006 12:08 PM

man, a mixed cd from you would be a work of art! bravo, music geek!

Posted by: jodi at June 29, 2006 12:26 PM

whenever i find one of these "how to make a good mixtape" things on the internet, i always get inspired to make a mix. usually, they sound the same... :-P oh well. i never thought about putting dates on them, though. it's a good idea. i have to do that next time

Posted by: denise at June 29, 2006 5:26 PM

The mix tape that I got from you is awesome - so I think your rules are spot on!! Especially the "end with your best" part...

Posted by: Sue at June 29, 2006 6:14 PM

I really like this post. Although I don't really make mix CDs (a CD burner is a prereq and well, when the ex bought my laptop, well he apparently didn't think I needed one), I still liked it (and I love the Nick Hornby reference - I just finished the book.)

Posted by: Heather at July 1, 2006 12:44 PM

Nick Hornby would be proud...there is no greater art than the art of the mix-tape. So critical to get the right flow, the right mix, and never ever repeat an artist or album if you can avoid it (unless it's an artist mix-tape, of course).

I would also add "know your audience" if it's a mix-tape gift. The last thing any girlfriend/wife needs is a tape that says "this is how I feel about you" but sounds like a buzz-saw to them...

Posted by: CroutonBoy at July 3, 2006 2:28 PM