A Cassette Valediction: Part One of Two

Like Thurston Moore and Rob Sheffield before him, AD contributor j. neas reflects on, and laments, the art of the (actual) mixtape. Now, raise your hand if you’ve created a muxtape (yes, I’m guilty). Part one of two. – AD

thurston moore mix tape“I spent hours putting that cassette together. To me, making a tape is like writing a letter – there’s a lot of erasing and rethinking and starting again..You’ve got to kick it off with a corker, to hold the attention..and then you’ve got to up it a notch, or cool it a notch..and you can’t have two tracks by the same artist side by side, unless you’ve done the whole thing in pairs, and …oh, there are loads of rules.” – Nick Hornby (High Fidelity)

In thinking about cassette albums that I’ve adored over the years, tapes that I listened to time and time again, I couldn’t help but think of mixtapes. Labors of love – works of art. Slavish devotion to the belief that great, whole truths can be discovered with the right combination of music. I often get giddy thinking of my weekly radio show in terms of creating an entirely new mixtape every week.

And when I say tape, I mean tape. I’ve been given and have created some great mix CDs in my day. But they’re never as satisfying. It’s almost like they’re less work, less sweat, less thoughtful. Cutting and pasting is infinitely less personal than outlining playlists, pressing the record and pause buttons, the actual process of having to listen to the entire tape while you’re creating it.

I grew up, and so did most of you, in an age where cassettes were a standard format for music. We also grew up in an age where the only way you could copy an album for someone was via cassette. You had to put the other tape on, or cue up the record, or press play on the CD, hit record on the other tape, sit back, and enjoy. But mixtapes – collections of various songs, a playlist created solely by us – they were even more refined. It was as if we were designing our own 90 minute (or 120 if you sprang for the longer tapes) radio show. Living and dying by the sacred segue. Finding or creating connections between songs and artists that no one else would ever have put together. We were creators of art, whether we knew it or not, incorporating the words and work of others in order to manufacture our own, divinely inspired masterpiece.


And how many tapes did you make for someone you were smitten with? How long did you agonize over which songs to include? The right song combination would surely win his/her heart, no? Don’t make it too obvious – you can’t give it all away. But if he/she is smart enough, they’ll hear “your voice in between the lines” and see exactly the proper amount of woo and restraint that is an earmark of an excellent potential dating partner. You savvy devil, you.

On the radio each week, I live for a good segue. When I pull one off, admittedly, I do a little dance around the room. That enjoyment comes from being a mixtape fanatic. There’s something so right about creating an album of material that didn’t exist previously. The Twilight Singers “Esta Noche,” with its European-dial tone rhythm, leading into Blondie’s “Hanging on the Telephone,” the telephone’s ringing cuing the song’s propulsive start? That’s the ticket. Now, follow them up with The Replacements’ “Answering Machine” and you’ve got yourself a killer trio and the beginning of a great ‘telephone’ themed tape. Not to mention they ought to flow quite nicely into one another.

There are people out there trying to preserve the spirit and soul of the mixtape in the completely digital age. Muxtape is a website that lets people create digital mixtape collections for anyone to peruse and listen to – and purchase the individual songs if they like. Not a bad adaptation of the process – mixtapes were all about getting you to love certain songs, after all. (Hello, Chameleons’ “Swamp Thing!” Howdy, the Wallflowers’ “Murder 101!”) But I can’t help but feel the ‘album’ feel of the mix tape is missing, even if it’s easy to listen to the songs that way.

One of the more user-unfriendly things about cassettes was also one of the things that make mixtapes so especially breathtaking – the fact that it was awfully difficult and time consuming to get to one, specific song. Therefore, you listened to the whole thing. You got to know that mixtape the way you would a real album – anticipating its highs and lows just like any other album. The digital age in music has begun the slow and painful process of destroying the ‘album’ as a creative concept in more ways than one.

As I mentioned earlier, my mixtape-making jones has largely been sedated by having a radio show each week, but it’s still there. But I’m probably going to make a Muxtape site of my own pretty soon and will probably make my fair share of mix CDs in the coming years. The urge to create with the voices of others is an unavoidable one for fans of pop culture. The art is malleable and if we can craft a form that fits us, that speaks for us where we sometimes don’t have the words ourselves, then we will find a way to do so. – j.neas

In the comments, leave some of your favorite mixtape songs of all time. Your favorite opening tracks? Your favorite combinations of songs? Favorite closing song? Lay it all out.

MP3: Twilight Singers :: Esta Noche
MP3: Blondie :: Hanging On The Telephone
MP3: The Replacements :: Answering Machine

+ Download DRM FREE music via eMusic’s 25 free MP3 no risk trial offer

18 thoughts on “A Cassette Valediction: Part One of Two

  1. My favorite song used to end a mixtape was The Nixons’ “Silence After the Song.

    I started one with Jurassic 5’s “Quality” intro, which really gets things crankin’.

    And on one that I loved very much from 1999, I named the faster side “Speeding Ticket” and the more mellow side “Tire Groove.” With that single tape, you could tackle any day.

    A mix CD cannot offer that duality/complexity. With a tape you get TWO starting songs, not just one — two chances to build a roller coaster of emotion. With a CD, it’s gotta be one continuous stream.

  2. I’ll talk about this in part two of this article next week, but cassettes continued that dual structure that had started with 33 vinyl records. You make a good point, Stella. It’s always fun to listen to older albums on CD and try to guess where the break between sides came. People used to structure albums with that very thing in mind.

    I don’t know why this comes to mind, but I always loved the vinyl version of Aztec Camera’s Stray album. It’s a classic example of building. It opens with the soft and demure title track, then into the big pop of “The Crying Scene.” Side Two opens with “a corker” in “Good Morning Britain.” It’s brilliantly structured with sides in mind. Can’t do it with CDs, sound quality be damned.

  3. I’ve been broken up with by being asked to sit down an listen to “Side of the Road” by Lucinda Williams. And “Passionate Kisses” helped secure my engagement. I’m sure if I ever get divorced it’ll be to Lucinda’s “Changed The Locks”. So imho opinion you can’t have a great mixtape without at least one song from Lucinda William’s self-titled record.

  4. I was attempting to woo a chick my sophomore year of high school. She had been stringing me along for months–since the beginning of the year. By the time Valentine’s Day rolled around, I thought I had a real shot. I made her a tape. Songs that meant something to her that I hated. Songs that said something of our pseudo-relationship. Lame, obvious ones like “With or Without You.” But I closed it out with something from left field, that she didn’t know about: The Cars’ “Drive.” At 16, I thought it was a genius bit of poetry, a call to action that she couldn’t avoid. She’d have to answer. And she did. Someone else drove her home that night.

  5. I like to use The Avalanches’ “Extra Kings” as the closer for the majority of my tapes. The Weakerthans’ “My Favourite Chords” is another staple on most of my tapes (I tend to end side one with it).

  6. I still make mixtapes because our car only has a tape deck. I cheat a bit though by making a playlist on my iPod then recording it onto a tape. But that’s ok. The mix tapes are only for me, since I seem to be the only person left with a tape deck, so I don’t have to listen to the tape when I make it. I save it for when I’m in the car.

  7. Of all the mixes I’ve had the pure, unadulterated joy in crafting, I’d have to say my favorite opener must be Yo La Tengo’s luscious cover of “Be Thankful for What You Got,” from their Little Honda EP. Having said that, there are so many great ways to start… “Time Has Told Me,” off of Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left LP, was a stroke of genius too.

  8. The opening song on side one of my favorite mix entitled “Tentacles of Destruction” was Mr. Bungle’s “Quote Unquote”, which really starts things off with a kick. I think my favorite closing song had to be “Moonlight Mile” by the Stones. Thanks for the great post as this is something I think about often.

  9. My car, too, has only a tape deck, and I prefer it that way. You can toss tapes around, drop ‘em on the ground, and they always rebound, with the same old sound.

    Years ago I made mix tapes from the radio — that took time. Now I too start with a CD mix, and make a tape of that. For years (before ITunes) I wanted to do a mix of different artists singing “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word,” and finally did it recently. This is my analysis of that sorry mix:

    Best arrangement: Blue Feat (but they did have Elton John participating)
    Best sorrow in voice: Richard Marx (with Kenny G)
    Best high note at the end: Clay Aiken
    Most touching version: Ray Charles and Elton John duet (Ray’s last album)
    Most surprisingly good version: Kenny G and Sung Si Kyung
    Most forgettable version: Barry Manilow (he added runs that made it too “loungey”)
    Funkiest version: Re4mation (but I didn’t like it)
    Freakiest version: The St. Christopher Ensemble (Gregorian Chant – spooky)
    Worst arrangement: Fiona (flattened out the melody too much)
    Worst version: Wolfgang Petry (sung in German; too harsh a language for this beautiful song)

    I have a muxtape if anyone is interested — probably way too tame for any of you, though. It’s at http://www.4kiki.muxtape.com. (kiki is my childhood nickname. The program wouldn’t let me use it until I added the 4 in front of it.)

  10. I love how a mixtape to a prospective always made me feel smarter. I opened once with “Tupelo Honey” – Van Morrison. The dude in question, loved it, but not me. I think he used it on someone else. That, ironically made me realize how much he actually sucked. Thanks for talking about mixtapes. It is an art, that can not really be conveyed in a mix-cd, but we all try don’t we?

  11. i know i know. i’ve got satellite radio and a cassette deck in my gas guzzling truck, which is going up for sale on this very earth day. i’ve made mix cd’s but those just get scratched and put in a pile somewhere (i am also a pack rat) but my mix tapes always have a place. Some of them are played so much that they are barely listenable anymore but i still love that 30 second song that gets cut of on the second to last note of side a.

    building this muxtape was fun tho. it’s what we’ve been up to the last year or so and it still defines the spirit of my original mixtapes with an evolutionary spin…….oddball songs that nobody else knows that put me in a sweet ass driving mood.


  12. you’ve stirred up memories of my untitled “1991-high-school-Z-28-wreckless-drive-home” mixtape. as i recall, songs by- too short, eazy-e, bachman turner overdrive,
    ac/dc, uh, and the Humpty Dance! Digital Underground (i had to google that)

    scary. very scary.

    p.s. i too had recently revisited the same LEMONHEADS cassette you spoke of. i think the more times i listen to it the more perfect that ‘album’ becomes. crashing in with-“”””lover, don’t turn your head!””

    so i gotta ask what was the LAST cassette you bought?
    mine was radiohead-pablo honey. i hated that tape for about a year before it grew on me.

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