My high school best friend, Ben, made me at least one mix CD every year. Some were holiday or birthday presents, some celebrated summer, and some were meant to convey the feelings of a certain moment in our lives. I still have half a dozen or so of these mixes on my computer, and recently, I decided to do something I hadn't in a long time: I listened to them straight through, in order and actively, as they were meant to be heard.
I started with one Ben called Build Voice, which he made for me the week before I moved from Tucson, Arizona to New York City. Here's the track list:
Build Voice / Bromst / Dan Deacon
You / Lucky Shiner / Gold Panda
For Reverend Green / Strawberry Jam / Animal Collective
Burn Rubber / Take It Easy (Love Nothing) / Bright Eyes
Roda Viva / Chico Buarque / Chico Buarque
Wrestler / Don't Say We Didn't Warn You / Does It Offend You, Yeah?
Black Sheep / Wild Smile / Suckers
If You Only Knew / Power In Numbers / Jurassic 5
Big Parade / The Lumineers / The Lumineers
You're Going Back / The Wild Hunt / The Tallest Man On Earth
Same Dream China / Lucky Shiner / Gold Panda
You Can Have It All / Prisoners Of Love: A Smattering Of Scintillating Senescent Songs / Yo La Tengo
Flowers In Your Hair / The Lumineers / The Lumineers
Go to Sleep / Emotionalism / The Avett Brothers
Track 02 / Where my love lies waitin' (not so) silently for me / Krystyn Lambert
Shake It Out / Ceremonials / Florence + the Machine
The Sandman, the Brakeman and Me / Monsters Of Folk / Monsters Of Folk
Snookered / Bromst / Dan Deacon
O Patrão Nosso de Cada Dia / Warner 30 Anos: Secos and Molhados / Secos and Molhados
Dead Puppies / Purchased Python, etc. / Ogden Edsl
The mix is true to its name, starting softly, almost inaudibly, in the first Dan Deacon song and then building, well, voice. It rises and falls, with gentle, folky love songs and stronger, more assertive tracks like "Shake it Out" by Florence + the Machine.
Truthfully, I don't know much about music beyond how it makes me feel. But I can say that going back to this mix, I felt an overwhelming combination of love for my friend and nostalgia for what feels like a lost art.
My music is almost constantly on shuffle, and no one besides Ben has made me a mixed CD in years. Sure, there are Spotify playlists out there that offer a pretty good approximation of the mix tape/CD, but even those can be hundreds of songs long. There's no need to compress, to curate, to choose just the right order of just the right songs to say something that conveys a precise feeling or moment.
As I went back through Ben's mixes, I knew I had to hear from the person who made them. I asked him whether he thought making them was, in fact, a lost art.
"As I’ve given mixes to people over time, the way in which people listen to it has changed," Ben told me. "It is kind of a dying art. Maybe that's people’s attention. No one sits down and dedicates an hour of their life to actively listen."
He told me that some moments of his life have lent themselves to the mix-making frame of mind. Especially times of emotional turmoil.
"When (a serious girlfriend) broke up with me, music — oh my god, I could listen to any song and see connections within it," he told me. "I went through a phase where I made you guys three mixes in a year, and I look back at it and see that some of those mixes were a little intense."
They were, but one mix from that time, called Sometimes Simplicity is a Good Thing, is my favorite. It's achingly sad, and occasionally angry, but hope and a belief in love peeks through.
NYC-Gone, Gone / Conor Oberst / Conor Oberst
Sleepy Tigers / XOXO, Panda and the New Kid Revival / Her Space Holiday
Furr / Furr / Blitzen Trapper
White Winter Hymnal / Dusty Mix / Fleet Foxes
To The Dogs Or Whoever / The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter / Josh Ritter
All My Friends / Sound of Silver / LCD Soundsystem
You and I / Be OK / Ingrid Michaelson
Fiery Crash / Finally / Andrew Bird
Grounds For Divorce / The Seldom Seen Kid / Elbow
The Pageant of the Bizarre / Finally / Zero 7
You Will. You? Will. You? Will. You? / LIFTED or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground / Bright Eyes
Whole Wide World / Wreckless Eric / Wreckless Eric
Kitchen / Release / Chris Hickey
Ghosts / Alas I Cannot Swim / Laura Marling
Trees / Ghost Notes / Everest
Hermit / Album — EP / Dios (Malos)
Gasoline / Finally / The Airbourne Toxic Event
Woke Up New / Get Lonely / The Mountain Goats
You Are What You Love / Rabbit Fur Coat / Jenny Lewis With The Watson Twins
For Emma / Finally / Bon Iver
Come Home Loaded Roadie / Honey from the Tombs / Amy Millan
Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie / The Milk-Eyed Mender / Joanna Newsom
Shout / Move Every Muscle, Make Every Sound / De Novo Dahl
Ben's mixes, and others I have received over the years (though none are done better than his) are, as he put it, "designed specifically to encapsulate the moment … like a time vessel." They capture "a projection of where we are moving and where we are coming from."
Another thing I love about mixes: the music doesn't have to be "good." We weren't trying to impress each other with our good taste when we offered them to one another; we were simply trying to say, "Here's how I'm feeling, and here's how I can relate it to you."
Mixes seem to be going the way of hand-written letters and long phone calls; all the forms of communication we put to rest, and that some of us mourn, as we move into a new kind of connection.
I like services like Spotify, sure. I like the accessibility of every song I could possibly want to listen to, all at once. But I miss the offering of the mix, the effort and love put into them; the physicality and compactness of them; and the way they could carry me, in an hour or so, into a new realm, enveloped in the love and attention of my careful mix-maker.