Making My 2011 Mix, Under the Wire

I’m missing a holiday tradition tonight – joining my friends Jim and Molly for their annual New Year’s Eve dinner. The dinner itself isn’t the best part of it – they always boil up a lot of lobster, I try to act amiable about it as a vegitarian can be but am pretty sure I grimace when crustacean parts are flying around the dining room. The best part are the people there and the music they bring.

You can come to this gathering if you don’t eat lobster, but you can’t come if you don’t make a mix of your favorite music from the year just ending. Originally people brought cassette tapes – actual mix tapes. This is how long a tradition it’s been. It wasn’t until several years into this I was told that 30 minute sides are all that were expected (I was jamming 90 minute tapes, 45 minutes a side, with music to spare).

Unlike Top 10 lists published in the newspaper, which you have to defend and live with, there is far less pressure in these mixes. Songs you liked in the year,  yes, but also songs from past years that seemed to resonate with you this year. Representative tracks from bands whose shows you saw that year.

There were no rules on the kind of music, though I understood this was a crowd that appreciated what’s been identified as adult alternative, Americana, folk, some bits of newer rock, especially Wilco, and some touchstones of rock (Dylan and the Stones were staples, though not as much Beatles as you’d think).

I went through a period where I’d put some strange things in just to shake people up, but you don’t want a roomful of people scrunching up their faces at once (save it for the lobster demolition).

Adding some contemporary R&B, weirdo indie rock spiced things up. Besides, you wanted to introduce others to things you liked.

There were inevitably some overlap among this simpatico crowd, some of whom we’d only see annually on this night. Sometimes people would learn they’ve chosen different songs from the same favorite albums; occasionally two people would use the very same cut.

My very favorite year may have been the one where people not only responded to the Janet Jackson cut at the end of my tape (yes it was that long ago), but ended up all dancing to it as well.

I’d put less time to these exercises in recent years I admit. The advent of burning CDs from the computer meant that tracks already downloaded had a better chance of making the year’s collection than ones you had to find and rip first. But in the end, shuffling them around, making key changes, they ended up as pretty good representations of the year.

Early on, I realized Jim was keeping all of these tapes and CDs himself (smart maneuver!). So it was necessary to make a dupe if you ever wanted to hear it all again.

I’ve made a ton of mix tapes in my long life – on tape and CD, as well as playing long sets (45 minutes, perfect for taping!) on a radio show for 12 years running. So I learned a little bit about pacing, bridges, obscure vs. familiar, musical threads and crescendos. But as shuffle play shows us, unwitting juxtapositions are often even better. And I’d probably make a different one tomorrow.

But I did want to finish one before the end of 2011 to be at the dinner table in spirit. Just without the lobster.

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