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The Mix CD
7.14.2002 by Sean

For those of us who lack the musical artistry to compose sonatas or strum ballads, Mix CDs allow us to come close to songcraft, to make poetry from three-minute bubbles of imagery and feeling. Sometimes these poems are a series of rhyming couplets; sometimes it's swerving, schyzophrenic blank verse. Occasionally, Mix CDs are a self-contained haiku.

Not all such discs are created equal. There are different varieties, some of which tend to a higher calibre than others.

Half-Assed Grab-Bags

For many years, I did not even know that this kind of Mix CD existed. Surely, I thought, no one would be so lazy or foolish as to simply dump a bunch of MP3s onto a CD with nary a thought for content, order, or packaging! Then I met JP. HAGB's are the bottom of the barrel when it comes to mixes: Brainless Clod picks fifteen songs he kinda digs. Brainless Clod opens his CD-burning software. Brainless Clod sets songs to plastic in alphabetical (yes, alphabetical!) order. Brainless Clod scrawls a track-list onto the disc-sleeve with a sharpie. Sean throttles Brainless Clod. Like poorly-made Best Ofs, an HAGB may even have the effect of ruining any enjoyment of the songs it contains. A proper track order is crucial for appreciating the content of an album - follow an out-and-out rocker like "Baba O'Riley", "Just" or "Fireworks" with a mostly-rocker such as "Stereo" or "El Scorcho", and the latter will come out like a limp-wristed, half-drowned sea otter. What's more, one of the most dire consequences of the HAGB procedure - where tracks by the same artist get paired together - is that the listener may never learn the nuances and thematic subtleties that come from bumping Yo La Tengo's "Our Way to Fall" against Radiohead's "Everything in its Right Place" (try it!). HAGBs are insults to humanity.

Best Ofs

Best Ofs are the bread-and-butter of the Mix CD world. They call for the creator's favourite tracks, their songs-of-the-moment, their shut-up-and-dance, over-hyphenated, yahoo!-yahoo!-hooray!, ear-kickin' tunes. In order to distinguish themselves from HAGBs, Best Ofs must follow the Rules of the Mix CD. While utterly, absolutely awesome when first made, Best Ofs have the unfortunate side-effect of growing stale, and if played overmuch, the songs contained therein will go from invigorating to boring and over-worn. Still, for travelling (by foot, bus, train, car or plane), Best Ofs are nearly without parallel - they're eighty minutes of funtime huzzah, the best. ever. radio station (and without commercials!). They can be samplers for your friends, indie-cred business-cards for your GYBE!-listening peers, and yes, making a Best Of can make your atrocious day feel just that much better. (Personal example: cellos and cherries.)

Yes, We've Got Theme!

This is where things get sort of crazy. YWGTs are all over the map. They are thematic discs, with songs that dance and skitter around a particular feel, sound or back-story. In a sense, they are concept albums - a massive category which, in a sense, could contain all the other forms of Mix CD. For the purpose of this discussion, however, YWGTs are anthologies of music whose tracks are connected, each related in some form to the greater vision for the album. Examples include: the road mix ("Once Around the Block", "I Love My Car", "Streetcar"), the songs-about-pets disc ("Brick", "Penelope", "Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except For Me and My Monkey"), the covers disc, the song-titles that include colours disc. YWGTs range from the cliched to the mesmerizing, the hackneyed to the sublime. The lure of the theme often entices the maker to include tracks they might otherwise avoid - fitting They Might Be Giants' "Everyone's Your Friend in New York City" onto my Holiday-in-NYC mix even though the song isn't great, and is almost painful on the sixth listen. This is a pratfall that should be noted and prepared for - make sure you really like the songs on your YWGT: this type of mix calls for more consideration than a Best Of, not less. If you don't have enough A-quality songs to round off the album, don't force it, simply set your track-list aside and wait until there are some more tunes in your arsenal. Push the envelope and you'll only regret it - due to the nature of mix CDs, bad tracks will be loosely scattered throughout the album, and even the best songs can be marred by the company they keep. YWGT work best when you have a number of great cuts that all happen to fit a concept; they work least when you have a great concept and a number of so-so tracks that happen to be compatible. Don't fall into the abyss of being cute: your work will suffer in the long run. (Personal example: twang.)

Through An Emotional Peep-Hole

Though TAEPHs are a subset of YWGTs, I distinguish between them because the former may just be the finest sort of Mix CD there is. I know, I know: how could a disc of "melancholy songs" be preferable to an album of "live cuts from the early 90s, where grunge bands ironically cover disco hits"? Well, it is. Over the long-run, I've found that those mixes composed from a particular emotional place, with a particular outlook, vibe, feel or heartbeat, are the ones which last. Their proof is in the pudding: it's the mixes with feeling that I put on, late at night, when I want to listen close to something really good. Sometimes these anthologies are abstract - diverse, squawking-then-silent collections of songs - but always there's a cohesive sensation in the words and sounds that are sung. These are the sorts of albums that can communicate love. They are poetry at its best: reducing a feeling, a state-of-mind, a je ne sais quoi to its very essence... binding its nuances and fragrances with music and lyrics, guitar, drums or violin. (Personal examples: sad songs and melancholy-o.)

Mix CDs are not the same as Mix Tapes. The latter, which thrived in dorm-rooms, car stereos and the hands of lovestruck boys with dreams of requited love, are lovable, homely things. Mix Tapes exist wholly in this world - slowly degrading with every play, with idiosyncratic hisses, confused volume levels, manual fade-outs and two sides which both end too early. Mix Tapes are made by the seat of the pants, they encourage the maker to truly pay attention, they contain gleeful winks and ten-second commercial breaks. Sure, Mix CDs can do this too, but those that do are simply failed analogues (pun intended) - Mix Tapes are their own medium, different and bizarre. They are homemade chocolate-chip cookies - lovingly prepared, bruised and imperfect.

A well-made Mix CD, on the other hand, is the cookie prepared by master bakers. Not some erudite, macadamia-nut novelty, but just a delicious, eyes-roll-back-in-your-head cookie - made with care, precision, and a wondrous, secret spice. Mix Tapes are affectionate, smudged sketches from friends; Mix CDs are works of Art.

Here are the Rules:

1. Make sure you are getting bang for your buck. Your disc only has 74 or 80 minutes. If you are using a seven-and-a-half-minute song, it must be good enough that it's worth sacrificing three two-and-a-half-minute tunes. Will you get more pleasure from Songs:Ohia's "Didn't It Rain" or from those three White Stripes tracks? (Answer: "Didn't It Rain".)

2. On a single Mix CD, you may never use more than two songs by the same artist. This includes duets.

3. Never use novelty songs. No matter how amusing they are now, on the twentieth listen, they will be like having your nerves splayed.

4. Your first track should be smooth and fairly energetic. It must embrace you into the mix, and bring you up to speed.

5. Your second track must be even higher energy than the first. It must give you enough intertia to coast through the next several tunes, without reconsidering your album choice.

6. Your last song must either close things with a bang, or let you down slow and easy. No in-betweens.

7. Use variety. Follow long songs with shorter ones, fast songs with slower ones. Don't go overboard on this rule - it is sometimes quite lovely to go through an extended period of same-paced music. Four or five songs in a row, however, without a respite, can be exhausting.

8. Transitions are the single most important aspect of a good Mix CD. Once you've chosen 74 or 80 minutes of music, determine the track order by listening to the end of a song and then listening to its flow into the next. Successful transitions are nearly impossible to predict - sometimes it's instrumental (a mournful trumpet closes B, a zesty trumpet opens A), other times contrast (an intense ballad followed by a glitchy, white-noise heavy electronic piece), or even based on songs with musical similarities (the same key, the same notes). Transitions make or break a compilation.

9. Pauses between tracks. Once you've picked the track order, make sure your burning software gives you the ability to select the pause between each individual track. Listen to every song on your planned disc, letting one song transition into the next, and decide how long a silence you desire. Often, for contrast, you will use 0s. Other times, the listener will need a moment to breathe. Pauses are usually 0-2s.

10. A disc is not complete until you have designed the art for its jewel-case. Find a title that sums everything up. Find art for the cover (for those of us who can't draw, exploding dog, devoted bee and little rocket are wonderful sources). Write a story for the back. Choices of font and colour are of vital importance.

11. Listen to your mix. If it does not quite 'click' (and you will know if it clicks -- it will feel perfect), you have failed. Destroy it, or give it away (with proviso) to someone who doesn't mind.

12. Brew your mixes. Don't burn them until you're ready. Make sure you've distilled your tracks down to the finest possible contenders; give everything time - a new favourite may grow stale fast, a new gem may be just around the corner.

13. Stand by your songs. Tracks are your currency in the Mix CD game: your little discoveries are more valuable than gold. Ignore artists, ignore indie cred - if there is a song you love, if there is a song that moves you, use it. I have a Mix CD with Madonna ("Remember Me"); I have a Mix CD with POTUSA ("We're Not Gonna Make It").

Mix CDs are a serious matter. Like a band that takes months to properly record its work, the maker of a compilation should not run blindly, hurriedly into the night. Take care, take time, and your efforts will be rewarded. Like the finest album-length works of music, a well-crafted mix CD can take one's breath away.

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