The first mixtape I encountered was a black cassette tape with yellowing labels and a barely decipherable song list scratched in pen. The music included a mixture of rock tunes from the 70s and 80s, favorites of my father’s from his record collection; Jethro Tull, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Allman Brothers, and a bit of Styx for a flavor of the theatrical. The tape was one among many stored in what my sister and I referred to as ”the Jam Truck”, a rusty black pick-up owned by my father, who would drive us around the dirt and gravel backroads of Michigan on our weekends with him in the mid-1980s, the stereo blasting, green and orange lights flashing from the equalizer haphazardly bolted under the dashboard. The stereo system was likely worth more than the truck itself, but those tapes were priceless.
The magic of the mix has since then been as much a staple in my musical experience as attending live performances and amassing my genre and format spanning recorded music collection. I would hardly know half of the music I love if not for the variety of mixes gifted by friends, exchanged by mail, or included in music magazines.
In the days before social media, the gathering places of the Web included early blogging platforms such as Livejournal and Xenga. With strangers and friends alike in those spaces, I would trade mix CDs, each one cleverly arranged, labeled in detail and dated for posterity. Often these mixes included letters and explanations of the song choices. Occasionally we traded in themes, but the best mixes were those simply designed around the moment; the music that spoke to us and pulled us through the feelings of ennui of our late teens and early twenties. I keep these carefully to this day in binders in my studio, possessions more prized than any first-edition or autographed official release. Even as the world of music has shifted to digital and streaming, at the end of each year I still reach for a pile of blank CDs, putting together the playlist of the year, a now traditional gift to my fellow music nerds.
There’s an art to the mix. One cannot simply compile their current favorite songs and call the project complete. Each track must flow to the next, the finish of a song handing off the sound or the theme to the next. The beginning and ending of the collection must feel as impactful as the opening image of a film or the finish of a well-written novel. When completed properly, these mixes can transport a person back to a moment in time, into a room with an old friend, or to a reminder of lessons learned.
With the influx of endless media in our ears, our eyes, and on our phones, music is often a fleeting experience, left to the background or forgotten as quickly as it was heard. As we step into a new year and a new decade, with the world continuing to speed up, we should all pause and remember the magic of music. Dig out an old mix tape, don your headphones, and read the song list as you sit with the sound. Make a mix for someone you know or leave one somewhere for a stranger. Remember each piece of music and what it meant to you the first time you heard it. Each song is a moment. Make them all count.