Feature: The Lost Art of The Mix CD

In the world of Spotify and MP3s, the humble mix CD has taken a backstep. Take my advice and don’t forget them: they can be a gift, an education or a window into your own past.

There are few ways to reach my heart or mind like a mix CD. They can be the ultimate romantic gesture, a thoughtful gift for a friend, or way to share new bands you’ve discovered. A mix CD can also be a time-capsule, reminding you of your former-self; what better way to wrap up your memories?

Like many people in their late 20s/early 30s, I grew up with a very romanticised view of mixtapes and mix CDs. I am too young for mixtapes, really. My parents had a stereo with a tape deck in the kitchen, and I remember my Dad showing me how to record songs off the radio but CDs were already in vogue. The concept of the A and B sides and the meticulous effort that went into their recording wasn’t lost on me, though.

For me, what cemented the idea of the mixtape as the ultimate thoughtful gesture was High Fidelity. The opening scene of the film features protagonist Rob Gordon – flawed romantic and record-store owner – explaining the rules for compiling songs:

This stuck with me, and I abided by those arbitrary rules when making mixes throughout my teenage years.

Growing up, I made mix CDs for my friends. I wanted them to love music as much as I did, and to share all the exciting new bands I kept stumbling upon. I was over the moon when a friend would return the favour. My friend Jessie has the most beautiful handwriting, her words used to melt delicately across the CD covers. I still cherish a CD that a school pal, Jennie, made for me: without even looking, I remember the autumn leaves on the cover. Sleater Kinney was the first track. I listened to that on repeat for weeks because I was so chuffed that someone had gone to that amount of effort for me.

Nowadays I still exchange mix CDs with friends, but it’s a more practical affair. My friend Mark loves music but enjoys different genres to me, so we exchanged our favourite songs as an introduction. I’m listening to it right now; it’s different but I love it.

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I’ve made mix CDs for most of my past romantic conquests.  Just after we got together, an ex made me a mix that featured I’m The One by Descendents – a move which won my affections for years to come. I used to listen to that mix over and over again; it was like being wrapped in a giant warm blanket.

I’ve made mix CDs for people I’ve fancied, that I’ve never had the guts to give to them. They sit in a CD wallet at the bottom of my collection. I don’t look at them.

I make my Dad a mix CD every year. He introduced me to music and I’ll be forever grateful for that, so even though he listens to less new noises nowadays, each year I compile my latest musical discoveries to share with him. It’s worth it if he finds one band he enjoys, although I doubt I’ll ever repay him for introducing 11-year-old me to The Offspring.

Frankly, I’m not sure he ever listens to them. It’s worth it anyway.

There’s one kind of mix that’s more important to me than any other: I’ve made myself a mix CD every year since I was 14, purely for my own enjoyment. When I was younger, I used to just chuck on all my favourite tracks, but nowadays it’s a better-curated, more emotional affair.

The early ones are simultaneously embarrassing and heart-warming: it’s all Sum 41, OPM and Private Eye by Alkaline Trio. Around 17 it all gets a bit pretentious: obscure Chicago rhythm and blues, tear-jerking acoustic folk, rare b-sides and live recordings from specific shows I attended. Rediscovering those CDs immediately transports me to the moment in time when I first made them.

I’m currently midway through a 2017 mix CD, just for myself. I’ve been through quite a bit so far this year – a relationship that ended, plenty of drunken antics, romantic liaisons, mind-blowing gigs and more funerals than anyone needs. Life’s never been more turbulent and chaotic, and I can’t imagine a better way to commemorate it than by collecting the songs that have gotten me through it.

Municipal Waste reminds me of getting drenched in freezing January rain, running half-lost up Kentish Town Road in the dark. Legend Has It by Run The Jewels conjures flashes of watching them play in Manchester, winding up at a squat show, then bumming around Leeds with a 48-hour hangover. BANGERS’ The Trousers of Time summons a vivid recollection of sitting on a train in the cold, wondering what the fuck I was doing with my life. Second Glimmer by Hard Girls is the soundtrack to drunken fumbles, while my heart soared with excitement. Vanilla Pod’s Saturday Night evokes a day wasted bingeing Dr Who on my mate’s sofa, trying to ignore my big life decisions.

While clearing out my Nan’s house, we discovered a photo album that she kept near her bed. It’s full of pictures of me at various ages, nothing else. It’s meticulously curated – carefully selected photos ordered and centred on the pages, held in place by those little plastic photos corners. It’s a catalogue of memories collected and kept where she could most enjoy them. For me, creating mix CDs is the equivalent. A compendium of songs compiled a particular time in your life can evoke a sense of nostalgia that can’t be gained any other way.

So take my advice, and go create your own compilation. Make it as an opening move for someone you fancy. Introduce a friend to a genre they don’t know. Or just burn it onto a CDR for yourself, forget about it and rediscover it on the shelf in 5 years’ time. There’s no better way to rekindle your memories.

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