BY ERIK CHRISTENSEN
August 12, 2015
“Now, the making of a good 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.” —Rob Gordon, High Fidelity
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As mentioned in my very first blog for Whidbey Life Magazine (April 2013, to be found here), I love a good mixtape. Although done on CDs now instead of cassettes, there is still magic in the mixing together of a great collection of songs.
I’m proud to have passed this on to my daughter, who makes compilation CDs with titles written in colored sharpie: “Hannah’s Mix,” “Fun Songs,” “Good Stuff.” Sometimes I worry about her wild, eclectic tastes; she listens to everything from hardcore rap to modern country and, because she grew up in my house, the Beatles.
Is it healthy for a kid to listen to “Eight Days A Week,” “F*** The Police,” and “Jesus, Take the Wheel” back to back to back? And—in the-apple-doesn’t-fall-far-from-the-tree, full-disclosure department, I listen to everything from Americana to blues, to old jazz, to bad pop music. When I hit the “shuffle all” button on my iPod, it goes from Chuck Prophet to the Staple Singers to Frank Sinatra to Ren + Stimpy to a Billy Collins poem.
The real joy of the compilation tape is not knowing what song is going to come next, but knowing it’s going to be great. One song fades out, and I lean forward—literally and figuratively—waiting for the first notes of the next track.
I think this is important to me because I grew up listening to the radio. I anticipate on the mixtape because I used to do that in my room late at night with a small plastic Panasonic AM/FM. You never knew what was coming next. And, if you wanted to hear “Christine Sixteen,” brother, you had to wait. It was exciting, and a fleeting moment. The compilation tape takes me back to that feeling.
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“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 got to take it up a notch. There are a lot of rules.” —Rob Gordon, High Fidelity
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Sometimes pre-packaged mixes can do the trick. I would strongly recommend the 10 (dear Lord, 10!) CD package “70s Hit Explosion.” Also, the “Oxford American” literary magazine puts together a solid annual collection of southern music built around a theme.
And recently, I came across two absolute gems on the wonderful (and aptly named) collection, “Like, Omigod! The ‘80s Pop Culture Box (Totally). I had never given this compilation much thought, but after letting it play, I was floored by the crazy mix of music, and all the memories of that time in my life. Two songs I haven’t thought about in decades stood out:
First, “They Don’t Know About Us” by Tracy Ullman https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f9un119lq4c
We all know about how great “The Tracy Ullman Show” was; we all know that she debuted “The Simpsons” back in 1987. (That’s right, kids. No Tracy Ullman, no Simpsons. Oh, the humanity!)
But her cover of Kirsty MacCall’s “They Don’t Know About Us” is perhaps the greatest thing EVER. Pure bubblegum goodness: three minutes and one second of the best Phil Spector imitation you will ever hear. Bonus—Paul McCartney cameo in the video. This, my friends, is what music should sound like.
Next, “Cool It Now” by New Edition
More childhood fluff. The video is so cheesy, you could drizzle it on nachos. Still, it’s an instant time-capsule back to 1984. It conjurs up the sounds of summer and it even has a cornball spoken-word section near the end, like a bad 50s song. Click on the link above; you’ll be singing it for days.
Where else to find an interesting collection of music? On a hopeful note, the imminent death of good music on the radio has been greatly exaggerated. Back in the’80s, I listened to local hero Danny Holiday’s excellent “Rock and Roll Time Machine” without fail every Saturday morning. Sadly, Danny passed away in 2012, but if there’s an oldies jukebox in heaven, he’s got it covered.
These days, you can find great, eclectic stuff on NPR’s “American Routes.” (http://americanroutes.wwno.org) Someone described this show as “a mixtape made by your coolest friend,” and that just about sums it up perfectly. It’s an American music, history and culture education, two hours a week. Also, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention “Little Steven’s Underground Garage,” found at http://undergroundgarage.com. Hosted by perhaps the coolest human being on the planet—former star of “The Sopranos,” “Lillyhammer,” and the E Street Band, Steve Van Zandt puts together an amazing collection of new and old rock and roll every week. Both shows have archived collections, and they are my go-to listening when I’m at my computer.
There is nothing like a personal, handpicked collection put together by someone who really cares. Whether it’s on cassette, CD, online, or whatever format is coming next, I’m always waiting and listening. Long live the mixtape.
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“Anyway… I’ve started to make a tape… in my head… for Laura. Full of stuff she likes. Full of stuff that makes her happy. For the first time I can sort of see how that is done.” —Rob Gordon, High Fidelity
Erik Christensen teaches at Oak Harbor High School, writes songs and poetry, and loves a song with a spoken-word section in the middle.
Erik Christensen Band plays from 7-9 p.m. at The Taproom in Bayview Cash Store pm Tuesday, Aug 25 and The Evergreen State Fair in Monroe from 5:30-6:30 on Thursday, Aug 27 .
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Long Live the Mix Tape! Thanks Erik, I’m going to go dig out some oldies but goodies.