Most of my memories are musical. When I reflect on stories from childhood, vivid images are punctuated by songs. My parents’ black-and-white tiled kitchen (before they renovated) is filled with the sounds of Delta blues, a favorite of my dad’s since back when he hosted his own college radio show. After the renovation, the copper-hewed tiles that replaced them sound like folk music on a Sunday morning. Memories of birthday parties are accompanied by the twang of my dad’s acoustic guitar and his earnest attempts at Pete Seeger sing-alongs.
Memories of car rides are the most vivid—and boast the widest range of sounds. After my parents finally junked our ’99 Corolla with its fuzzy vintage tape deck, their new CD-equipped ’04 Forester blasted tracks with a newfound crispness. When my parents passed me back the CD case to choose the soundtrack to our drive, my fingers always stopped on one of many suspiciously blank-looking discs, the words “Holiday Mix” scribbled across them in sharpie. Whether it was the 2004 mix or the 2006, I was drawn to their inevitably eclectic tracklists, reflecting the range and unpredictability of my dad’s musical sensibilities. With one of my dad’s mixtapes in the disc drive, our trips could be accompanied by anything from Baha Men’s 2000 classic “Who Let the Dogs Out” to Green Day’s 2004 “Wake Me Up When September Ends.”
Reflecting back on these car rides today, my dad’s mixtapes form something of a musical archive. Beginning in the early ‘90s, my dad crafted an annual “Holiday Mix”––appropriately titled for our interfaith family––to send to his siblings every December. Some of them reflect his own take on a given year’s greatest hits, while others offer more of a musical ode to the social and political struggles of the year. Making up for an off-year in 2005, “Holiday Mix 2006” pays tribute to the devastation wrought on New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. Some songs from the mix, like the Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s rendition of “The Saints Go Marching In,” commemorate the city’s rich musical culture injured by the storm. The song was originally made famous by the renowned blues pianist Fats Domino, an avatar of the city’s music scene, who saw his baby grand piano submerged by 10 feet of flood water at his home in the Lower Ninth Ward. Other songs, like Roseanne Cash’s ode to her father’s recent passing, “God is in the Roses,” are simply meant to evoke feelings of loss, melancholy and mortality.
My dad’s holiday mixtapes were also curatorial gifts. With his family members in mind, he delicately crafted each mixtape to not only reflect his own sonic sensibilities, but to share something his siblings would appreciate. He might turn them on to an otherwise obscure local artist, or maybe evoke a shared feeling the year had presented them with. It is no wonder the poet and music critic Hanif Abdurraqib, an ardent mixtape-maker himself, calls the process “a labor of love.” Mixtapes are a way to show another person the many ways you’ve been thinking of them, and the tunes that have soundtracked that thinking. Despite each tape’s musical range, my dad’s mixtapes flowed together with perceptible care. “When I place one song next to another song,” explained Abdurraqib on his podcast Object of Sound, “there’s a real opportunity for a story to be told.” With his holiday mixes, my dad affirmed that, more than simply appreciating another artist’s work, crafting mixtapes constituted an art form in and of itself.
I caught the mixtape bug myself as early as my dad taught me how to burn a disc. I started off as he did, mixing CDs as holiday gifts, reciprocating his labors of love. But as CDs fall increasingly out of fashion, I’ve reluctantly resorted to newer technologies to curate stories out of songs. Close friends of mine know that burning a mixtape on a CD is still one of my go-to gifts—a practice I’ll maintain as long as there are boomboxes and car stereos around to spin them. But as other reluctant adopters of music streaming might agree, adapting the mixtape to its modern incarnation as a playlist has also expanded its curatorial possibilities.
Scrolling through my Spotify playlists is akin to flipping through the pages of an old journal. Like my dad’s mixtapes, each playlist evokes a particular moment, a particular story I told myself or my friends or whomever it was for. The indie anthems on “Dish Crew” transport me back to time spent in the kitchen with friends my junior year of high school, while the swinging bass lines across “sunburn” carry a lustful nostalgia for summers spent working at camp. Where some playlists celebrate a particular occasion, others, like the calming ballads on “morning” or the adventurous tracks on “road,” are dedicated to cultivating a feeling for more ubiquitous experiences.
Don’t get me wrong—I’ll still be the first to advocate the practice of listening to albums all the way through, from point A to point B as the artist intended. Indeed, streaming platforms have undoubtedly encouraged more consumptive listening habits: it is now easier than ever to play our favorite songs on repeat, squeezing them of their sweetness like a sponge before moving on to the next algorithm-sponsored single. Playlists needn’t substitute the value of albums. But amidst a sea of necessary critiques of streaming, there is also something to be said for the persistent value of the playlist in the era of streaming.
My dad made his last official Holiday Mix in 2015. His reasoning was self-evident: “Nobody listens to CDs anymore.” There is reason to mourn the homespun simplicity of the mixtape––the value of actually holding it in your hands or placing it into the hands of someone else; the way it demands your attention and resists the temptation to “shuffle.” For all their nostalgic value, though, mixtapes lack a certain living quality of playlists. Just as I continue to evolve, so too can my playlists. I started “Dish Crew” in the spring of 2016 with ten-or-so songs. Six years later, it now boasts over three hundred songs, almost twenty four hours long. Unlike a mixtape, which might tell me about a specific moment in time, playlists might capture our more dynamic nature, ever-unfolding like our musical tastes.