This week’s question comes from web producer Baraka Kaseko:
What’s the best mixtape you’ve ever received?
With all due respect to former boyfriend G., one of whose mixes once made it impossible for me to listen to Prince’s “When You Were Mine” without feeling absolutely gutted (which, to be fair, is how one should feel when listening to it), but my favorite mixtape was from college boyfriend Ross, given to me a few months after graduation and we had broken up. There was a good mix of old soul and new pop on there (“Hey Ya!” opened side two—it was quite literally a tape!), sad boys (Leonard Cohen’s “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye” and Bob Dylan’s “Fourth Time Around”), and singer-songwriters who would become favorites (Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s “I Send My Love To You” and “Sinaloan Milk Snake Song” by The Mountain Goats). Ross named the mix “Variations On A Theme.” If he was in love with me, I was ignoring that pretty willfully. One of my favorite entries is the very first track, a recording of the poem “The River Of Bees” by W.S. Merwin, which ends, “On the door it says what to do to survive / But we were not born to survive / Only to live.” Please know that the gap between Merwin saying, “Only to live,” and the opening guitar strum of the following song, the Pixies’ “Here Comes Your Man,” is perfect. It makes Merwin’s recitation sound mythical, like an incantation. What to do to survive? Nothing. But here’s a bunch of music to making living a little easier.
In the early stages of our courtship, my now-husband and I made each other mixtapes. Mine featured my penchant for fun covers (like the Ramones’ “Needles And Pins”) and songs from the Jungle Book soundtrack. His awesome mix introduced me to bands like The Wedding Present, and he ended his side two with Coldplay’s “Everything’s Not Lost.” Years later, we were in a less fun stage of our relationship, but still playing the game in the car where we took turns playing songs off of the iPod. We were barely speaking, but when it was his turn, he chose that Coldplay song, and I started to cry. It was both the throwback to our earlier relationship stage, and the valuable message of the song, that our marriage was going to have its ups and downs, and we were going to weather them all. We’ll be married 16 years this May.
When one of my classmates received highly coveted CD-burning hardware for his birthday in 2001, it was the best thing that happened to our entire high school class. A lot of kids had their little side hustles—selling candy, braiding hair, even I was making terrible beaded bracelets for a while—and his was making mixtapes at the low, low cost of a blank CD and a promise to buy a Coke. We had the option of submitting a playlist, but I simply paid my “fee” and asked him to surprise me. What I received in return was the most aggressively 2001 mix one could muster, and it was my favorite thing in the world. Janet Jackson, Alien Ant Farm, Alicia Keys, and Gorillaz were prominently featured throughout, but the song that remained on repeat was Trick Daddy’s “I’m A Thug.” Did I mention that we lived in Florida? That probably matters.
My wife and I first started dating shortly before winter break in college, and since we lived in different states, that meant spending a few weeks apart. Luckily, I was able to drive up and visit her for a couple days, and before I left, she gave me a mix CD for the drive home. It had a lot of love songs with cool stuff like Ted Leo and Guided By Voices (she’s much cooler than me), but her most brilliant touch was the pacing of it. She had timed the CD so that Onelinedrawing’s “Stay” came on right when I got onto the freeway and I could no longer easily turn back, which was very emotional. Then, as a fun gag, she ended the CD with “That Thing You Do” because she knows that it always gets stuck in my head. It was—if I may reiterate the question above—the best.
I can credit a single mixtape for introducing me to two of my favorite bands, though the mixtape itself will forever trigger a pang of heartache for what was a lovely and ephemeral summer romance. Thankfully, my affection for Beulah and The Mountain Goats have since transcended that melancholy, given that my love for “If We Can Land A Man On The Moon, Surely I Can Win Your Heart” and “Linda Blair Was Born Innocent” blossomed into an obsession with the full catalogs of each of those bands. Beulah split up by the time I discovered them, but, since the summer of 2006, I’ve seen The Mountain Goats a whopping 15 times. That mixtape, which had a sweet and clever name I can’t remember, also endeared me to Camera Obscura (“Razzle Dazzle Rose”), Decibully (“Megan & Magill”), and Metric (“Combat Baby”), all of whom I still listen to. The physical copy, sadly, is long gone, a casualty of ditching my car (and accompanying CD sleeve) once I moved to the city. That still kind of kills me.
The best mixtape I ever received came to me from a girl who worked behind the counter at Jamba Juice back in 2002. I’m not kidding; she randomly commented on the band shirt I was wearing (Dillinger 4, if I’m not mistaken), and then proceeded to make me wait an extra five minutes for my smoothie while she grilled me about a half dozen or so bands, some of which I’d heard of, and more I hadn’t. The resulting mix—which she handed to me a week later, with lots of little notes and addendums in the liner (as the best mixtapes always had)—was my introduction to a world of bubbly, literate, and raucous indie pop-punk that I had long considered anathema to my more art-rock tastes. It single-handedly introduced me to Discount, old-school Alkaline Trio, Atom & His Package, and a bunch of other acts with three chords and an attitude. It was a much-needed argument for the value of a subgenre I had overlooked; to this day, Discount’s “Half Fiction” remains one of my favorite songs of all time.
When our one-year dating anniversary came around, my boyfriend decided to make me a CD of songs that had special meaning to us (like Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” which is our dog’s namesake) mixed with some that he’s always loved (like When In Rome’s “The Promise”). This was just as CD-burning capabilities were going the way of the floppy-disk drive, so he actually had to borrow my older laptop, transfer the mp3 files via USB drive, burn the CD, and then take the music off my laptop so the playlist would be a surprise when I finally put the CD on in my car. Fifty percent out of love and 50 percent out of laziness, that CD would play on repeat for months on end, the songs etching into my brain. This went on for four years until I got a new car that sadly didn’t have a CD player. The annual tradition went on hiatus for a bit but returned for year seven this past February when we finally discovered this newfangled thing called an Apple Music playlist. This year’s offerings range from The Cher Show’s “When The Money’s Gone/All Or Nothing” to Brandi Carlile’s “The Story” to Tobok’s reenvisioning of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car”—but it ends with a song my now-husband has used to close out every “mixed tape” since the beginning, Paramore’s “Still Into You.” I didn’t know the song eight years ago, but now it’s one of my all-time favorites.
Like Sam and Patrick, I also married a mix-making whiz, one whose mastery of the genre and enviably open ears are now expressed in monthly Spotify playlists. But as great as those are, they’ll never beat the CD-R she gave me in the summer of 2007, when we were just a couple of starry-eyed, recent comm-arts-school grads about to spend a few weeks apart between respective Michigan-to-Austin moves. The disc is a time capsule of its era and our courtship up to that point—of mid-’00s twee-pop (hello, Architecture In Helsinki and The Boy Least Likely To), of our shared love of Batman Forever, of the time she was driving me home from a party and I drunkenly realized we were starring in our own version of “Passenger Seat” by Death Cab For Cutie. Memories crystallized in words and music, but also connections and associations that have deepened and intensified with time, as in the case with the centerpiece of the mix, The Breeders’ cover of “Drivin’ On 9.” It’s been ages since I had a convenient method of playing the CD, but I still knew exactly where to find it when I went to take a picture of it the other night.