By Brian Audette
“If it takes a broken heart
Just roll the tape
– Jets to Brazil, Little Light
I came of age musically during the reign of cassette tapes, a turbulent time for audio fidelity filled with the sounds of tape hiss and the high-pitched whirring of tape deck spokes. Noise aside, the cassette tape had a democratizing effect on music from the standpoints of both piracy and production. Dual cassette recorders not only made thieves of us all, they also made us all producers, turning our bedrooms into music studios. The compilation or “mix” tape was the epitome of musical expression for the masses.
Mix tapes were a great way to put all your favorite songs in one place and, thanks to innovations like the Walkman, take them everywhere you went. Coupled with the explosion in the 80’s of new music from New Wave, to Hardcore, to Rap, Metal, and beyond, the ability to make your own mix tapes ushered in a new sense of freedom for music fans that had never existed before and has since only expanded. Did people make mix tapes because there were so many more bands to listen to or were there so many more bands because people could make mix tapes?
I have mix tapes dating all the way back to the late 80’s. They are radio-dubbed, pre-teen, musical awakening affairs chock full of the likes of MC Hammer and New Kids on the Block. The vast majority of my tapes are radio dubs, collections of songs taped off the radio as I heard them. In 1991 I began crafting year-end mixes, the first truly thought-out tapes I had ever made. While the first tape in what would become my “Classics” compilation series covered a three year span between 1989 and 1991, subsequent tapes would feature one year on one side each of a 90 minute cassette. I think you can tell from the track listing on Classics #1 ‘89-’91 that even as a tween I had my finger firmly on the pulse of what was cool in the worlds of music.
The last “Classics” tape I made was sometime in college and it may have been the last tape I ever made except maybe a tape I made for a girl I worked with one summer around the same time. The goal of those year end mixes was simple: make a collection of my favorite songs from the previous year, both for present and future posterity. While that’s simple enough for most people you can see that even in that first track list, the mix-tape auteur within me was developing. For the most part it’s just a random collection of songs, until you get to the last track of side B: “God Save the Queen”, the final track on Queen’s A Night at the Opera. Even then I knew that a good mix had to go out with a bang.
No one ever spoke about mix tape rules back then. There wasn’t a class you could take or a self-help book to be found at the library and High Fidelity wouldn’t hit movie screens until the end of the millennium. Those of us who had that mix tape itch, though, we just knew there was more too it than a random collection of songs. First off, the type of mix was always important. A year end mix was usually straight forward enough, but then there were the tapes you made for girls you liked or the ones you made when they dumped you. There were tapes for chilling out (such as my Mellow Music I and II collections from the mid-late 90’s) or tapes for cruising along with the windows down (Car Songs I, II, and III).
Whatever the occasion, the more tapes one made, the better one got at figuring out how to put a bunch of different songs together in a way that was meaningful beyond their original intention. It was all about sequencing, putting songs together that not only said what you wanted to say and had the right auditory emotion, but also that sounded good together. Few mixes have ever come together without that frustrating moment when the two songs that are so perfect and so emotionally resonant, turn out to sound like ass when they follow each other. Maybe one ends with a long fade out and the other starts abruptly or worse yet, starts as a bleed in from the previous song on the album so it never sounds right when you play it alone. Most people wouldn’t care, but to the mix tape perfectionists, this is what separated art from craft.
During college, and for a few years, after I mostly stopped making meaningful mixes. Cassettes had been replaced briefly by CD-R’s and then by MP3’s and I just wasn’t listening to as much new music at the time. The most I did was a sort of musical walkabout every now and then where I’d start listening to something on WinAmp and then immediately follow it up with another song and another. After an hour or so I’d have a mix, albeit one that was more autobiographical than thematically purposed. It wasn’t until I moved in with my friend Mark in the mid 00’s that I started making mixes again. You see, Mark was the mix master and every year he would put out these amazing multi-CD mixes of his favorite tracks from the previous 12 months. What Mark was great at though (and still is) was finding not only the best track on an album, but finding a way to make it fit in with all the rest of the best tracks from other albums in a way that sounded natural. The man had a gift. That, coupled with his DIY zine skills from “the old days,” meant that you not only got some great music, but fun packaging and Mark’s own liner notes with blurbs regarding his thoughts on each track.
Partly inspired by Mark’s mix mastery, I started my return to the world of mix-making slowly in ‘04 with a disc simply titled The Year-Ender and that (like my earlier Classics tapes) was mainly just a collection of songs I liked that year and that I had made sound good together. For the end of ‘05 I put together Tracks, several slightly different, tailor-made compilations that I gave out as gifts to a few people, but that were composed of music I had liked and listened to that year. For some reason I skipped ‘06, likely due to my big move to a new career in Virginia. ‘07 was my first double-disc year end compilation. Titled What Goes Around, Goes Around, it was still more or less a collection of songs, but definitely structured in such a way as to befit it’s lofty length. Frame of Reference was my ‘08 compilation and it was a bit of a concept album, wherein I attempted to let the sequencing convey a feeling of the year’s emotional tide.
Like any artist I had been progressively perfecting my skill at crafting mixes and by the time 2009 rolled around I was ready for something big. Thankfully I ended up with just the kind of year that warranted a mix of epic proportions. For one thing, I had turned 30 the previous November. For another, I had spent the majority of the spring and summer suffering anxiety, depression, and insomnia for a great many reasons, not the least of which was my growing disdain with my job, a career that I had spent years pining over and that I had defined myself by only to have betray me. By the end of 2009, I had changed jobs, moved to Austin and wrapped my head around a whole new philosophy of life. Taking a page from my own book, I set out to create a mix in the same vein as Frame of Reference from the previous year, but this time with real life-changing experience to back it up. What I ended up with was perhaps the single greatest mix I had or ever will create: Citizen A and the Palace of Endless Waking.
Encompassing over 2 hours and 30 songs, Citizen A’s hand-crafted cardboard case contained my usual liner note musings on each song (my emulation of the master Mark Wood) and a short story detailing the narrative concept behind the choice of songs and their sequence. It was a story in 5 parts. In Part I: Eaten on the Inside, Citizen A talks about a world at war with invisible enemies, an all consuming conflict that raged inside every living person. In Part II: Awake in the Wasteland, he finds himself alone, the only survivor of the conflict and wandering through a gray, featureless landscape. Alone with his own anger, fear, and desperation, Citizen A sits dazed and despondent until he hears the distant sound of waves. In Part III: Journey to the Sea, A travels the wasteland, unable to sleep, and moving ever closer to the sound of the shore. His only companions are the thoughts of his life before the war. In Part IV: The Palace of Endless Waking, Citizen A arrives at a lone structure surrounded by the sound of the ocean but with no water visible. He enters the palace and confronts his own inner turmoil, but instead of succumbing to grief, he shatters his own perception of self and in doing so shatters the palace as well, waves crashing down on him. In the epilogue Citizen A awakens on the beach with the ruins of the palace behind him. Knowing that behind him is only the wastes, he walks forward into the water, submerges, and disappears. Heavy stuff, right?
Somehow beyond all rational explanation, the music I had listened to that year had provided me with the perfect selection of paints with which to cover my canvas and I ended up with a mix that still thrills and fascinates me. I’ve continued making mixes at the end of year since then, most of them along the same lines as Frame of Reference. 2010 saw Broken; Beyond Repair, 2011 Must Not Sleep. Must Warn Others, and 2012 Sword of Orion. Cassettes may have come and gone, but the freedom to choose how to craft your own listening experience has only grown over the decades. In preparing for this essay I decided that I needed to get off my ass and make my 2013 mix rather than letting it slip several more weeks. 2013 has been nothing like 2009 (if anything it’s been a bit of a rebuilding year for me) and musically (aside from being introduced to the music of Frank Turner in a BIG way) there wasn’t a ton of stuff that defied my expectations, which is not to say that there wasn’t a lot of great music to choose from. I could probably fill another whole essay with my blurbs for each song on the mix, but we’re running out of space so check out the mix over on Spotify.
There is one caveat however in that there are 3 tracks in the mix that were not on Spotify. Here are your instructions:
Just after listening to “Pink Stallion” by Mother Falcon, play “Who Acts Like Ravenwood, Marion?” by Cherry Cola Champions
After “C3 Presents” by Halaska, play “Identical Movements” by Tactics
And at the end of the mix, after “Fisher King Blues” by Frank Turner, you should play “The Smartest Kid in the World Takes a Break” by Be My Doppelganger, except there’s no audio stream…there is this YouTube, though.
Brian Audette lives somewhere in Austin within a pillow fort made of broken dreams. He only comes out to see shows and buy beer. He has a surprisingly well maintained lawn and is using it to breed an army of attack mosquitoes with which to take over the world. Brian can be reached at email@example.com or at @bjaudette.