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How To Make The Perfect Work Playlist

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I love all new music technology: my iPod, Spotify, Pandora, it’s all awesome. However, I do have to admit, it saddens me to some degree that the mix CD has fallen out of favor. I realize this makes me a nostalgic fogey, but I don’t like the modern concept of the playlist. Music websites, popular people, and your friends will make playlists with 50 or more songs on them, which is fine. I get that when you’re at work, you listen to music for more than an hour. There’s something to be said about having to make decisions and cut out songs you love, because they don’t necessarily fit–and you can’t send a musical message to someone if all you do is dump all the songs you currently like into a bucket and hand it to him or her.

By the way, it’s not lost on me that the generation before me made the same argument about cassette tapes. There are people who pretend the mixtape is the highest level of the mixed music art form. Their main argument is that since you can’t skip from song to song, mix tapes hold the integrity of the “whole” much better than a CD. To this, I say it’s nonsense. We were all experts on fast-forwarding tapes to get to the songs we wanted. If we wanted to skip a song, we fucking did. Secondly, if the person you’re sending a mix to is just going to skip to the songs he or she likes, then you need to reevaluate why you’re sending them a musical piece of you in the first place. And lastly, the cassette tape is hands down, no debate, the worst music storage device in history. The sound quality is awful and the physical tape itself deteriorates over time. Cassette tapes were created by money-hungry music corporations who didn’t give a fuck about sound–they just wanted the cheapest, easiest-to-produce-in-China-for-nothing method of sale. So congratulations, Mr. or Mrs. Seattle Trendster Who Still Listens To Tapes, you support an outdated representation of oligarchic capitalism. I hope you enjoy it.

Okay, that got a little sidetracked. The point I’m trying to make is that what mixtapes and mix CDs share in common–that seems to be fading away–is finite space. Being able to skip around isn’t the point; it’s about having a set number of minutes to work with and having to make decisions about how to fill them out. That’s what the art of the mix ultimately is. It’s the act of making decisions. Whether it’s for you, your best friend, the girl you like, or just to share with the world, the decisions you make in the limited space of a mix will make or break your message.

I have a few rules when it comes to making playlists. First, I agree with John Cusack in “High Fidelity” (and by extension, Nick Hornby) when he says at the end:

“The making of a great compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do and takes ages longer than it might seem. You gotta kick off with a killer, to grab attention. Then you gotta take it up a notch, but you don’t wanna blow your wad, so then you got to cool it off a notch. There are a lot of rules.”

Indeed, Rob. Indeed. Here are a few of my rules.

  1. Never put two songs by one artist on a mix. You’re trying to execute a theme, and it’s cheating if you use two songs that naturally follow each other thematically already.
  2. Don’t get too heavy-handed with your theme. I know you love this girl, but making her a mix entirely made up of acoustic whispers and Chicago power ballads is weak and unimaginative.
  3. Have a wide variety in terms of genre and time. You don’t want all of your songs to be new or of the same type, because that mix will age very poorly.
  4. Take it easy with the hip hop. Rap is like garlic. It adds a lot of flavor, but if there’s too much of it, the whole dish is overwhelming.
  5. If it’s for someone else, for God’s sake, pick stuff you know they’ll like (or at least appreciate). This isn’t “show off your music taste day,” so chill out with the noisy rock and K-pop.
  6. Don’t include any top 40 songs from the last five years. If it’s a current or recent hit, your friends are guaranteed to get sick of that song. If it’s from a while back, then it’s probably cooled off enough to use.
  7. Give your playlist a name. Use a song lyric or make up something clever–just don’t call it “Sarah’s Road Mix.” When in doubt, you can never go wrong with “Boner Jams ‘98.”
  8. Treat it like a batting lineup. The leadoff should be fast and able to pump you up. The second up needs to be able to put the leadoff guy in play. Third up should be a solid, all around hitter, a guy who you’re willing to sacrifice for some power in favor of his percentage. Then you have cleanup. In both cases, you want your best, most powerful batter (song) in the fourth position. From there, it’s up to the manager’s discretion: you can do a string of solid RBI guys, or you can go back and forth in a more fluid motion. If you’re a female and none of that made sense to you, consult your boyfriend. If he doesn’t understand either, get a new boyfriend.

Look, these are just my rules. I have a bunch more, but they’re really weird, esoteric, and only make sense to me. They’re pretty effective, though, and they work for me. I’m not saying you have to use my rules. A true mix CD has to be a representation of the creator mixed with his or her relationship with the person it’s intended for. This means you have to make the decisions yourself. So what I’m really saying isn’t that you should follow my rules, but that rules are everything.

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Randall J. Knox

Randall J. Knox (known colloquially to his friends as "Knox") left his native Texas a few years ago, and moved to Los Angeles in his '03 Buick Regal named LeRoi to write movies with his jackass college buddies. His favorite things in life include bourbon that's above his pay grade, mix CDs, and Kevin Costner films. He isn't sure what "dad jeans" are exactly, but he knows he wants a pair.

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