The perfect mix

MP3s, cd burners and high-speed Internet make the mix cd the most inexpensive, personal and easy gift for the season

Photo Illustration by Jason Cassidy and Carey Wilson

This is what computers and the Internet are for: making mix CDs!

—Andrew Leonard “Praise Be to the CD Burner”

I know that our brains are supposed be totally consumed by the hectic-ness of “the holidays” right about now, but really, there is only ever one thing on my mind this time of the year: What songs am I going to put on my year-end mix CD?

It used to be mix tape, of course, and in the very near future it will probably end up being insane 100-song iPod mixes that I’ll have to e-mail everyone.

To be perfectly honest, ever since my high school days in the mid-’80s my life has in many ways revolved around mix tapes.

Crush on a girl? Bring out the “Ain’t-I-mysterious-because-I-know-about-all-this-great-obscure-music” mix. Planning a road trip? Don’t worry about packing—I must stay up all night and create the perfect road trip mix.

And, as the holidays approached, so did the huge pile with all of the records, cassettes (and a few CDs) that I and every roommate, friend and neighbor owned, for that glorious masterpiece: the year-end mix that I handed out like a proud papa giving away cigars.

Cassettes are no more, of course, and while I still get a thrill from revisiting the past in the dusty cassette cases in the garage, I believe the mix itself is far from dead. The songs are still here (and there are millions more to choose from) and you can still gather them together in a special and personal order, and give the end result away.

This year was the first time I really exploited the world of online music. It also marks the first year that I’ve foregone most of my normal gift purchasing in favor of making personalized mix CDs, and it’s this latter project that has especially benefited from this fully arrived world of high-speed Internet connections and mp3 files of just about every recorded song ever.

Of course, making a comprehensive year-end mix isn’t the kind of thing you do if you’re going to give a mix as a real gift. Making a mix CD as a real gift is an ego-less affair. It’s one of them thoughtful gifts. And it turns out that it’s fun to do.

There are five steps:

First, get inspired. Who are you making this for, and what kind of mix would really get them to rock out, or laugh, or dance, or best of all, cry?

Photo By Jason Cassidy

Second, do your research. There are a lot of busy beavers out there in digital land making comprehensive lists and compiling various histories of music, plus many more devouring, writing about and sharing every byte of new music being created. NPR has tons of great lists on its site: The Basic Jazz Record Library with the 100 of the best jazz albums of all time; a History of Hip-Hop; Most Important Works of the 20th Century. There’s also the top 500 albums and singles lists at Rolling Stone and the 500 Hundred Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. End-of-the-year best-of lists are great for catching up, especially the Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop national critic survey. Also, don’t discount (part of, basically a warehouse of almost every music release you could want—a good spot for searching and listening to song samples.

Third, gather your songs into one ridiculously long list.

Fourth, edit your long list down to a less-long list.

Fifth, buy and burn. My suggestion is to get all your songs together at this point, which means you might have to actually purchase something you won’t use. The reasoning here is that you need to be able to use the technology here for one of its biggest pluses: rearranging and listening to your song order as many times as your ears desire.

As far as where to buy music, I’ve been using iTunes and iLove it. It’s very easy to organize, there’s no monthly fee, it’s fast, you can listen to song samples and there’s a pretty big selection. It’s only 99 cents for a song, and it downloads in seconds with my basic DSL connection.

So now, say you’ve drawn your cousin’s name this year, and he’s the kind of dude who’ll be smoking in the driveway when you drive up on Christmas in a Gravedigger monster truck shirt with a can of Natural Light in his hand. That’s obviously all the inspiration you need, so skip to step two. Go directly to, search for “arena rock” and quicker than you can say, “are you ready for this?” you’ll be hit with titles like Arena Rock Classics and ESPN’s Jock Jams, Vol. 3. Now go to iTunes, Emusic, MSN or “other,” type in the albums, check out the tracks and make your list (“We Will Rock You,” yes. “Who Let the Dogs Out,” please no). Drop your downloads into a new folder called “Kickin’ Ass Mix” or “F**kin’ and Fightin’ Mix,” organize and burn that mutha.

Steps three, four and five are always the same. The first two are where the work is, and some of the resources I came across during research for my gifts [see sidebar] will hopefully help shorten that part of the process for y’all during these hectic, last two weeks.

For real theme-mix nerdness though, check, where hundreds of user mix CDs (and tapes!) are listed, discussed, graded and traded. Their “Taxonomy of the Mix Tape” lists/explains every possible theme, from the mundane (“romantic mix,” “dance mix”) to the insane (“just-found-out-I-have-a-terminal-disease mix,” “cleaning-the-pool-with-one-of-those-big-nets mix”).

In his book, Sonata For Jukebox, poet and essayist Geoffry O’Brien called the personal mix tape “perhaps the most widely practiced American art form.” I’ve put more work into the art of this year-end mix than any other. Usually, I have no real theme (though I took an earnest stab at creating a 120-minute cassette of the greatest songs ever a few years ago, that really hasn’t withstood the test of time). It’s usually just stuff I’ve been listing to the past year (new and old), with an ear toward creating a dramatic sequence, and trying to edit out the really crazy stuff that I want on there for myself.

This year, for the first time ever, I included nothing from the thousand or so cassettes and albums in my house. I pulled from my personal CD collection, from the mix CDs given to me over the last couple of years, from the 1,200 or so mp3s on my hard drive, from the pay-for-music sites like iTunes and from any sites I could find that talked about or offered music that was released this year.

I found free new music in the mp3 section at (Low covering the Beatles’ “Nowhere Man”), some of which would lead me to artist sites with more free downloads (Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, “Upon This Tidal Wave of Young Blood”). In fact, artist sites, especially those on independent labels are a golden resource: The Show is the Rainbow (“Ning Ning,” which I found last year), The Boy Least Likely To (the 49-second “Warm Panda Cola”) and Grandaddy (the repetitive, breezy, super-poppy “Nature Anthem”) all had (for free) great songs that I’d never heard until visiting their sites.

Of course, adding all these little new surprises and old treasures to my own collection (my fave-of-the-year Arcade Fire, M.I.A., The Streets, Sleater-Kinney’s “What’s Mine is Yours,” a Neil Diamond/Brian Wilson duet and Lyrics Born’s “Do That There” to name a few standouts) and the hot tracks from the mixes I’ve been given (“Modern Art” by Art Brut, Wolf Parade’s “Shine a Light” and 1078 Gallery girl Carla Resnick’s “You’re Flying Low”) meant editing things into just one mix was actually impossible. So I made two: the somewhat somber, but still kind of rockin’ Merry Christmas 2005 mix, and the high-energy …and a Happy New Year (2005/06) mix.

I actually worked on this mix for three weeks, and at one point had over 100 songs on my list that I could never cut (iPod, here I come), but after a half-dozen listens to the 49 that made it to discs, I think they’re both pretty solid.

Send me an e-mail. I’ll burn ’em for you.