There are many reasons to make a music mixtape. Winning the love of someone, helping a friend going through a rough patch, music for exercising or as soundtrack for a long road trip. Mixtapes require cassettes or CDs, something today’s youth view in the same way as pay phones, typewriters and Tang. Streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music offer millions of songs just a click away. They’re doing what mix tapes used to do—introducing us to new music. But algorithms will never know us the way our friends do.
Mixtapes aren’t just a compilation of music but a baring of the soul. Done properly, a mixtape is like writing poetry. It reveals your longings and vulnerabilities, the soft spots inside your heart. A mixtape is an MRI of your unconscious. It’s a portrait of who you are and how you view the world. Creating a mixtape takes hours. You pore over each song compiling the perfect balance of melody, rhythm and lyrical content. A well-crafted mix tape steers clear of the obvious. If including a Jeff Buckley song, skip “Hallelujah” for something more obscure like “Satisfied Mind.” If opting for Dylan, forgo his early catalogue and choose a later gem like “Not Dark Yet.”
I’ve made mixtapes all my life. As a teenager, I transferred vinyl to cassette. I sat on my floor, surrounded by album covers painstakingly studying each song until I found the perfect cut. Every mi tape had a title reflecting a specific theme. I played the mix over and over as I progressed, making sure each song flowed into the next building toward an emotional crescendo. I learned there are rules for making a mixtape. You need to identify your intention. Most of my early efforts were an attempt to win a woman’s heart. Authenticity matters. Instead of settling for a love song like “When a Man Loves a Woman” go for something more beguiling like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs “Maps” or “This Must Be the Place” by Talking Head.
Avoid plagiarizing the love expressions of others. The film Ghost used the Righteous Brothers song “Unchained Melody” to express the love between Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore. This makes the song off limits as mixtape fodder. The same goes for movie love songs like “Shallow” (A Star is Born) and “Falling Slowly” (Once). A mixtape should start and end strong. Like a relay race, you want to burst out with a compelling tune like “Teardrop” by Massive Attack. Spirited highs should blend with moments of contemplation. Select songs the listener has never heard to avoid associative baggage. The final song should leave the listener breathless like “How It Ends” by Devotchka. Alternative songs are great but use with caution. I’m a huge fan of Neutral Milk Hotel but a song like “Two-Headed Boy” might scare someone away. If you include a songwriting depressive like Elliott Smith, go for an optimistic tune like “Happiness.” The Magnetic Fields’ “Book of Love” is beautiful but Stephin Merritt’s voice is bleak. Opt for a cover version like that sung by Robin Pecknold (of Fleet Foxes).
All good mixtapes meld different genres, eras and languages. Include something by Edith Piaf or Francoise Hardy. Choose at least one instrumental piece (early Brian Eno is great). Songs should reflect your personal taste. If you’re not into hip-hop, don’t include it. Avoid punk rock, death rock, opera and yodeling. Classical cuts are great but often don’t mesh with rock. Keep away from songs that use the theremin; they sound too much like a horror film.
Making a mixtape as a means of seduction is enthralling. Songs should express your sentimental side and show that you’re a true romantic. Demonstrate your empathy with a song like “Lean On Me” by Bill Withers. If your worldview is cynical, be sure to show a hint of optimism with a song like “Wonderful” by My Morning Jacket. Making a mixtape to save a troubled relationship is more challenging since the person can smell your bullshit. Be earnest but not maudlin. “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” reeks of desperation. Go softer with something like “Let’s Stay Together” by Al Green. Express how much you miss a person by including songs that evoke shared memories. Emphasize your commitment to the relationship with a song like “2 Atoms in a Molecule” by Noah and the Whale. If you did something wrong, choose a song that says you’re sorry.
If you need a secret weapon song to win someone back try something by Snow Patrol. Or use “Throw Your Arms Around Me” by Hunters & Collectors or “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” by Death Cab For Cutie. Coldplay’s “Fix You” is an oft-chosen remedy for wounded relationships. Be wary here since the song can also be viewed as an anthem to dysfunction. The worst mixtape is one you make after getting dumped. In some ways it’s liberating since you have nothing to lose. This is the time to air grievances in the guise of music. Your ex doesn’t have to listen so use discretion. In most cases a person will succumb to curiosity and play the tape if only to affirm how much power they have over your feelings.
A good “I’ve been dumped” mix tape incorporates guilt and anger. To make your ex guilty try something like “Terrible Love” by the National. For anger, “Sabotage” by the Beastie Boys is a good choice or something by the Violent Femmes. If you’re really pissed, go for CeeLo Green’s “F- -k you” though this scorched-earth tactic will obliterate any chance at reconciliation. Dark humor is preferable, as expressed by Pearl Bailey in “I Need You Like I Need a Hole in the Head.”
After a breakup, it’s wise to make a mixtape for yourself. Include songs that allow you to express your inner pain. After a brutal breakup in my 20s, I made a mixtape called “Splitsville” that included “Don’t Give Up” by Peter Gabriel and “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” by the Bee Gees (corny but effective). Another song was “Why” by Annie Lennox because she sang the words, “How many times do I have to tell you I’m sorry for the things I’ve done.” This allowed me to scream, “Once, just tell me once.” When I started dating again, I was reminded that mixtapes function as a compatibility tool. They help you determine if you’re with the right person. If you’re into Velvet Underground and your partner is listening to Dave Matthews, the relationship is doomed. One woman made me a Best of Jimmy Buffett mixtape. We never dated again.
When I met the woman who’d become my wife, we made mixtapes for each other. I’ll never forget the first one she gave me. It included artists I loved like the Pixies, This Mortal Coil and Nick Cave. It also included musicians I wasn’t familiar with like PJ Harvey and Low. She threw in an Ella Fitzgerald/Louis Armstrong classic and a song from the film The Moderns, one of my favorite soundtracks. By the time the 90-minute mix was over, I knew she was the woman for me.
The most important mixtape you’ll ever make is for someone who’s dying. I recently had this honor. My mom was in hospice and only had a few weeks to live. I visited her as much as possible. Knowing she spent her mornings and nights alone, I made her a mixtape. I began with “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” by Israel Kamakawiwoʻole followed by Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.” My mom was a big Barbra Streisand fan so I included “Memories.” I added Judy Garland’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and “Lullabye” by Billy Joel.
Every night when I said goodbye to my mom in her hospital bed, I cued the CD player to play the mix on repeat all night long. I hope I didn’t drive her crazy. I like to think the songs helped her. The final song was “In the Arms of an Angel” by Sarah McLachlan. It was a reminder to my mom to make herself “empty and weightless” as she prepared to “fly away from here.” This was the last mixtape I ever made. I pray it brought my mom some peace.