The Mixtape, Part Two: There Are A Lot Of Rules

The following are a few ingredients for an ultimate mixtape. The first thing you need to establish is a theme or a message. Generally it’s best to pick whether you are going to have a theme or a message and not try to do both. I prefer to go with a theme, but if the compilation is going to be given to someone, you have to accept that they will look for a message regardless of your intentions.
Ingredients for any good compilation I make will have the following features.

  • Your compilation must have a name. The names I recommend are generally a line from one of the songs that sums up your theme or your message.
  • Sound clips from a movie that are either funny or thought provoking. The shorter the clip, the more recognizable it has to be. Big hits for me have been random lines from Wes Anderson films, Napoleon Dynamite works, even the occasional Buffy the Vampire Slayer clip.
  • An obscure U2 song. All good compilations have a U2 song, but the best have something off of October or a B-Side or a rare track.
  • At least two songs must be fairly recent new releases that will expose your listener(s) to music they haven’t heard before.
  • An 80’s song.
  • All compilations must have at least one Motown and/or early 60’s bubble gum song.
  • A classic rock song.
  • The first song is one of the most important songs. It is appropriate at times to have a movie clip start the compilation, but generally unless it really sets the tone, the first song needs to be a hook. As Rob Gordon (John Cusack) explains in High Fidelity:

    “The making of a great compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do; it takes ages longer than it might seem. You’ve got to kick it off with a killer to grab attention. Then you’ve got to take it up a notch…you’ve got to cool it off a notch. There are a lot of rules.”

  • So your first song is a rocker, it can at the same time fit one of the other requirements, for example, Jackie Wilson’s “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” fulfills both Rob Gordon’s requirement and also the retro song. I tend to think that the perfect song one for a compilation is also track one on an album. Think “Zoo Station”, “Where the Streets…”, “Bittersweet Symphony”, “Round Here”, or “Black Dog.”
  • At least one song on the compilation must be something you know your listener is going to cringe at upon their first listen, but it will end up being their favorite song eventually. I have a genre tag in iTunes called Cheese that has songs like Pat Benetar’s “We Belong,” or Styx “Lady” or anything by Bonnie Tyler. Their guilty pleasures and if they subtly fit your theme or message, they are gold.
  • A jazz or vocal standard song is also a requirement; think Dean Martin or Sinatra, even Judy Collins will do, but again it must fit the theme or the message.
  • A rare cover song of a well-known song is also a requirement.
  • Your last song must bring closure to your message, similarly to the opening track, tracks that close an album work well to close a compilation.

Coming up next, I follow my rules and compose a compilation.

Again from Rob Gordon:

“The making of a compilation tape is a very subtle art; many do’s and don’ts. First of all you’re using someone else’s poetry to express how you feel. This is a delicate thing.”

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