Every so often, I'll make a mix. Not for myself, as any mix that I make is usually comprised of songs that I love so much I've already played them a hundred times. My mixes are always for friends. There's a lot of mix tape nostalgia going around these days, and the fond remembrance of mixes made as tools of seduction, but that never worked for me. In two instances, the relationships ended before I'd finished compiling the mixes — this was in the pre-iTunes old days, when making a mix took time and involved a lot of sketching out potential song sequences with pen and paper.
I know that the ideal mix should say, simply, "Here are some songs that might give you pleasure." But in college I knew more than most of my friends about new bands — I was one of those kids with a collection of expensive import twelve-inch singles by arty and entirely ephemeral English bands — and already I had the grandiose idea that I was, through the tapes I made, something of a tastemaker. I've never completely shaken this notion. In my thirties, many in my circle got married, started having kids, and stopped keeping up with new music. Not me (gay). And so these days my mixes, too often, say, "Aging friend, I'm going to offer you a listening experience that will knock your socks off."
And of course, no one ever says, "My socks got knocked off so hard I can't find them." The recipients may come back and praise a song or two. Maybe they upload the disc and my carefully curated mix gets scattered to the shuffle-winds. But it's more likely that no two people have the same aesthetic, and that in order to fully appreciate one of my mixes from beginning to end you'd have to be... me. I'll admit it: When the shoe is on the other foot, I usually listen to the mixes my friends give me a couple of times through, then pick out a handful of songs that I like and bypass the rest. But how cherished the mix becomes when one of those songs blossoms into a new musical enthusiasm, when I'm driven to track down an artist's complete body of work — as when my friend Darren made me a disc some years back that introduced me to the Decemberists, Iron and Wine, Keren Ann, and Brendan Benson in one fell swoop. Listening to a good mix should be like going to a party and meeting lots of interesting new people, even though in the end you may only end up becoming friends with a few.
Here, as a parting gift, is a mix that I made recently, with some of my favorite songs of the past few years. It's a mostly melancholy mix — it gets a little peppy about two-thirds of the way through, then goes back to being melancholy. Unfortunately, I can't hand it to you on a tape or burn it on a disc, and I can't (legally) offer it for you as a download. But you should be able to turn up many of these songs at the iTunes Store, or with a little canny Googling. (Hint: Try The Hype Machine.)
Linda Thompson: "Beauty"
Robert Forster: "Demon Days"
Feist and Ben Gibbard: "Train Song"
Bon Iver: "The Park"
James Yorkston: "Queen of Spain"
Crowded House: "English Trees"
Liam Finn: "Wise Man"
Johnny Flynn: "Shore to Shore"
Laura Marling: "Failure"
Portland Cello Project (featuring Thao): "Tallymarks"
The Shins: "Harvest"
A.C. Newman: "Take On Me"
Vampire Weekend: "Ottoman"
Jay Jay Pistolet: "Happy Birthday You"
Noah and the Whale: "Jocasta"
Emmy the Great: "First Love"
Loney Dear: "I Was Only Going Out"
Portastatic: "Song for a Clock"
Sam Phillips: "Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us"
The Innocence Mission: "Song for Tom"