The Best Mixtapes I Ever Made

When I was fifteen, I met my friend Madison. We’d been going to the same school for about six years, but our paths had never really crossed until we were in a play together. Madison’s a musician and I’m, well, not, but we both had a feeling that our music tastes were on par, so we exchanged mixtapes one day. While “Madison, Vol. I” had prevailing dark tones and Madison’s mix for me was mostly of the WombatsMcFly, and Alphabeat persuasion, we overlapped on one song – The Hoosier’s “Goodbye Mr. A.” Truth be told, this is still something of a miraculous coincidence, for two girls with compatible but not similar music tastes to put the exact same song on the first mixtape exchange.

This was my first mixtape. Well, the first on record. I used to make a summer mix every June, an odd collection of songs that I’d listen to on repeat for the entire summer. Those, for whatever reason, don’t exist on my iTunes, just on hard copy CDs covered in loopy middle school handwriting. They were also mostly radio hits, as middle school was the awkward transition period between listening to everything my brothers did (They Might Be Giants, Linkin Park, and Red Hot Chili Peppers) and building my own taste. Like I’ve said countless times in Best of the B Sides, I owe a lot of my musical awakening to Gossip Girl, a show whose soundtrack is so on point it’s chilling, but the rest of it is owed to Madison and another musically inclined friend Chris. I still exchange music with both of them.

Madison and I went through seven mixtape exchanges in high school on a completely irregular basis. Most were standard twenty-track compilations of favorite songs, but twice we went for the long haul, burning DVDs with an easy fifty to seventy-five songs that just needed to be shared. Our ultimate goal was simply to exchange music we loved and hope that the other saw the same merit in the songs. Safe to say that goal was realized. Madison gave me Alphabeat, The Weepies, The Honorary Title, Janelle Monáe, McFly, Florence + The Machine (way before she was well-known, I might add), and The Pretty Reckless. I gave her Gotye, Kate Voegele, Mutemath, Company of Thieves, Johnny Foreigner, The New Pornographers, and The Dollyrots.

I’ve saved every one of these CDs, and what’s so charming about them is the way that they are able to capture a moment in time. Everything from what cover we slipped into the jewel case to which songs went on the mix (and in what order) is indicative of what we were both going through at the time, good or bad. This is the music we loved when we were fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, and into college; the music that stuck to us like glue through the formative years of pre-adulthood. Music that I sneer at now and think wow this song is dramatic or how could I have ever liked this track and yet at the time these were the songs that spoke to me through my first heartbreak, my first death, my first great victories. And as important as every track on “Madison, Vol. III” was, the tracks on “Madison REMIXXX” (my high school designation for mixes received, the number of Xs denoting the mix number (I know, I was a dork)) became integral to my life experience as well. It was, and is, a give and take, a solid declaration of what music mattered to me and what music should matter to me in received mixes.

When I was eighteen, I met my friend Victor. We had similar enough music taste, but I was starting to become that girl, the one with the massive collection and obnoxious knowledge about a certain band or another. I tried to keep it in check – still do – but Victor’s relative lack of defined music taste was a perfect blank slate for me. With Madison, we were equally sharing what appealed to us, but Victor as my next mixtape recipient was something more of a project and an excuse for musical exploration. Not only was I piecing together fantastic bands for him, but I was seeing the connections myself. I would search through my library to find the songs that perfectly fit with each other, discovering beats and refrains and licks from different bands that seemed to be like brothers, that seemed to belong on the same playlist. If a song ended on an intro (sometimes they do!) I would look for the exact beat and feel that would naturally follow. I started to hear music differently through this exercise.

Songs I added merely for flow and continuity’s sake took on new meaning as I went through college. “Hipster, Vol. 10” starts on Family of the Year’s “Hero,” two years before I heard it in Boyhood, and ends on Explosions in the Sky’s “Your Hand in Mine,” the song we played at our friend’s memorial service. Years before they had concrete significance in my life, these songs were buried in my mixtapes. Suddenly, “Your Hand in Mine,” which was the soundtrack for walking across a silent and snow-covered campus, took on a new poignance and the mixtape as a whole changed in meaning.

The thing that still astounds me about the Hipster mixes is how closely related they are to what I was feeling at the time. “Hipster, Vol. 1” is, on the whole, a hopeful mix. I put the playlist together while sitting in the back of the car on my way to my freshman year of college. “Hipster, Vol. 5” hits a low point as my first real winter started to slam the east coast and I started to get homesick when some kind of superbug swept the campus and left me laid up in my dorm for a week. Every new addition to the collection comes with a story, without exception, and with fifteen Hipster mixtapes, the chapters of my college experience over the past four years unfold. These mixtapes were something of a secret language, a way to convey what’s going on without putting the onus on my words. Truth be told, it’s the most intimate and detailed diary I’ve ever kept.


I believe in the power of the mixtape. It’s a dying art, now that music isn’t confined to a strict memory limit and people so rarely keep blank CDs. I love albums, don’t get me wrong, but every now and then there’s something magic in the way two songs from two different bands can play next to each other and build a feeling. I learned the value of building feeling, arranging each song in such a way as to complement the one before it. Think about it – there’s something jarring in the way Taylor Swift needs to jump from the heart-crushing “All Too Well” to “22” on Red. She can’t stay on the plaintive tone of “All Too Well” for a few songs, but in a mixtape you can. You can capture that feeling in different musical languages, in different tones by different bands with different perspectives.

The music we love is so much more than what simply appeals to us; it’s what speaks to us. So a mixtape, in truth, is a terribly revealing piece of yourself. They capture what you’re drawn to at specific points in your life. I’m sure my latest mix for Victor or the one I’m working on for Madison would be completely different if I were in a different headspace, because I’d be hearing music differently. I know these seem like silly details, but I like to think they make a difference. I like to think a mixtape can reach feelings that an album can’t, and that’s why we still make them, why we still have them. Songs take on new meanings, as do mixtapes. You can revive a tired middle school favorite or an old classic by putting it on a fresh mixtape – I once threw Mickey Avalon’s “Jane Fonda” on a mixtape of new Los Angeles hip hop and it blended beautifully.

There’s also something to be said for the pure personal aspect of the mixtape. Sure, you can discover new artists on any streaming site with just the click of a button and the whirr of an algorithm, but there’s nothing in that algorithm that can endow meaning. A mixtape is loaded with stories; it’s a friend handing you what they consider to be music you would enjoy. Your own personal tastemaker that comes with an explanation rather than a formula, a motivation rather than mechanism. Even if there’s no deep reason for Lemuria‘s “Pants” to be on the mixtape, even if it’s just this song reminded me of you or I thought you’d dig this one, that’s a way better train of reasoning than the this song sounds similar to… rote explanation you get from Spotify or Pandora.

When all is said and done, I keep making mixtapes to keep making connections. Everyone who’s ever received one of my mixtape is vastly important to my life because it’s the subtle art of reading a person’s tastes and incorporating your own. It’s, like I said, a coded language. It’s a way to let people know that I care. Music has changed, shaped, and saved my life in incalculable ways, and I hope to pass that on to my friends in whatever way I can, whether it’s a sad playlist for deep February or a mix of the best summer songs I can dig from my library or a first mix to say this is who I am. Whatever the style, my mixtapes always mean something.

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