MAKING A GREAT mixtape is an art form. According to Nick Hornby, it is like writing a letter. The tools have changed – from perfecting the use of the play/pause/rec buttons on a tape deck, to ripping CDs, to Spotify Premium – but the goal is still the same: a great mixtape should tell a story. A great mixtape should have a logical progression. Stories need structure, after all. One should not be allowed to take a mixtape and listen to it on shuffle. Hitting the shuffle button on a well-crafted mixtape is like using a friend or lover’s letter to line the hamster pen. You might as well piss directly on them.
This is not to say that every mixtape does not contain a favorite. The one you look forward to. The one you resist skipping ahead (or fast-forwarding, for those of us over 35) to hear. There are certain common elements to my favorite songs on my favorite mixtapes. Among them: excesses of reverb, backing strings, backing horns, children and/or shouted choruses, octave jumps, references to one or more of the following: mythical beasts, small-town kids, flames.
A few years ago I tried to make a mixtape that was all crescendo. What I mean by crescendo is the part of the mixtape that you have been building to and building to until you hit that light-bursting-from-the-fingertips moment and you just have to crank the volume and sing and ohmygodilovethissong and whew! A climax, if you will. As it turns out, nothing but climax only works in porn. The mix never really made it past the initial stages, and I never sent it out to anyone. I did get a couple of really great bike rides out of auditioning the draft list. And I also now have a lifetime supply of mixtape hammers. Here are three of them:
When George W. Bush “won” his re-election in 2004, I was stunned. Living in the combined liberal bubbles of New York City and Santa Cruz, CA, had blinded me to the possibility that the America I thought I lived in was not the same as the America I actually lived in. Trying to work out what had just happened, and what lay ahead, one of my friends told me, “I feel like I just broke up with my country.” I used a variation of that line as the title for a mixtape that was intended to make me feel better. This cut from Bragg’s 1988 album Worker’s Playtime batted cleanup on that compilation. Mixing pop and politics can be a dangerous cocktail, but Billy Bragg does it better than just about anyone this side of Dylan. “If you’ve got a blacklist, I want to be on it.” Amen, brother.
Cuz this list needs a little metal. Sure, maybe to some people using a Sabbath song from the Ronny Dio era is like using a Van Halen song from the Sammy Hagar era, but it is better than the Ian Gillan era (or the Gary Cherone era in the Van Halen scenario). Besides, Dio had twice the vocal chops that Ozzy ever did, and “Heaven and Hell” fucking rocks. Dig that galloping bass line. Dig those shredding guitars. Dig the thundering drums. Dig that acoustic coda. Back in college, during finals week, the dorms imposed quiet hours for 23 out of the 24 hours in a day. For the other hour we would blast this song at maximum volume.
“The Bleeding Heart Show” is sort of a mixtape encapsulated in one song. It starts with a gentle guitar strum and a little piano line. This is the equivalent of an instrumental track for the opener (always a good mixtape strategy). AC Newman’s vocals come in after a few bars, heavy on the reverb (see above). Harmonies enter on the line “Watch and run…” (is that Neko?). All the while the drums have been building and holding back, building and holding back. This song is definitely headed somewhere epic. Then a recorder (!?), more drumrolls, more harmonies. Surely this must be the moment, you think, when the “ooh’s” begin, but man, that’s just the halfway point (sidenote: my ringtone is a 30-second loop of this part). “Hey-la, hey-la” sing the New Pornographers, at 2:45. Yes! There, right there – that’s the spot. Don’t stop! But it gets better still. Neko (that’s Neko, right?) returns with “We have arrived/ too late to play/the bleeding heart show” over all the “hey-la’s”. Now we have entered the realm of religious experience. Cymbals crash. Men and women across the nation swoon. I’ll have what she’s having.
Listen to The Official Weeklings Power Trio Playlist on Spotify.