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December 12, 2015

advent: day 12
posted by soe 3:36 am

Since this is part of how I’ll be spending this weekend, I thought I’d update my 2010 post on how to create a great Christmas mix for this year’s Tour:

Christmas music is as intrinsic a part of my holiday season as is a tree or presents. Each year my family looks to see who has new holiday albums coming out and breaks out the old favorites from years past. Each of us has a pretty sizable collection of Christmas albums crossing genre and spanning a variety of delivery formats from LP to 8-track to mp3.

My dad has been making annual Christmas mixes for the last 20 years or so. He made a few Christmas tapes when I was growing up, but making it a yearly event definitely became much more feasible once you could build your playlist on the computer and then burn it to disc. Each year you eagerly look forward to seeing what he’s included on his holiday cd.

After making a few gift tapes myself back in college, I found the process to be a lot of work and stopped making mixes. But the allure remained and, after mulling it over for a couple of seasons, I finally started making Christmas mix cd six years ago. It’s a surprisingly involved process if you’re like me and prone to getting a bit obsessive about getting your mix just so. But I thought today, as part of the Virtual Advent Tour, that I could offer some insights into creating a Christmas mix that you and your loved ones will enjoy for years to come:

  • Start with a wide selection of music. It helps to have a collection of cds, records, or mp3s from which to draw. It is not imperative, however, as you can find plenty of holiday tunes online from which to draw. Clearly, free options are your friend, particularly if you’re starting from scratch.
  • Begin early. Prep now for next year. Just create a playlist labeled Christmas 2016 in iTunes or your preferred music playing program and dump songs you like there. Consider this your vault. It’s not too late to create one for this year, but if you want one done by Dec. 25th, don’t wait!
  • Song selection is key. Here are my rules. Obviously yours will vary by taste and inclination:
    • I like to keep it pretty even between male and female singers. That’s a personal preference because I definitely notice when a mix slants one direction or another. (Although, usually I find that if there’s a noticeable bias it tends to be toward the mix creator including a mostly male line-up.)
    • Shorter songs are preferable. Aim for roughly three and a half minutes per song. Older songs are usually shorter; more modern ones tend toward the five-plus minute mark. I’m not saying to exclude long songs, although I try to keep those to a minimum. Christmas songs tend to get a bit repetitive and the longer one goes on, the easier it is to get tired of it. Plus, if you choose to burn your mix as a cd and you pick long songs, you get to include fewer songs.
    • Include some artists you love even outside Christmas. Last year’s cd included Ellis Paul and Pentatonix. This year I have the Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. (I also try to include artists that relate to the past year in some way — I saw an act live or I’ve been watching them on tv or they’re local.) You might decide only to include artists you listen to year-round, but I tend also to add artists I’m not familiar with who have songs I find very catchy. A few years ago, for instance, I found a track featuring Tuvan throat singers performing “Jingle Bells” with Bela Fleck. I’d never heard of them until I came across that song, but it’s a fantastic twist on a familiar carol.

      Find a balance between modern and traditional holiday music. By traditional I’m referring to songs everyone can sing along to. Marvin Gaye’s “Purple Snowflakes” is a song you can groove along to, but it’s not one that’s likely to get a carload of people singing along with it on first listen. But those unique tracks tend to be ones that people remember because, honestly, nearly every singer with a Christmas album has done a version of “Silent Night.” (I also like to throw in an instrumental or two. If your audience’s attention has wandered, a lack of vocals can help recall it to your mix.)

    • Once you’ve assembled a collection of songs you like, it’s time to start playing with them. First, if you plan to burn a cd, know your target number. With a cd, you have 79 minutes to play with. If you’ve picked mostly longer songs, that’s probably 15 tracks. If you’ve gone with shorter pieces, you could get 20 or more songs on the cd. But it’s good to check this number regularly because there’s nothing worse than putting together a mix you love only to find that the last five songs aren’t going to fit on. Clearly, if you’re not putting this on a cd (and fewer and fewer of us will be), you’re not bound by this parameter.
    • I find it’s important to get your first and last songs right. The first song needs to draw your audience in, so I like an upbeat song to get you started. And the final song is that last taste you’re leaving people with. I like something a bit quieter here to send your listener out on a peaceful note. “Silent Night” would be a good choice here or “O Holy Night.”
    • In between those I try to alternate every couple of songs, upbeat for a couple, then slow for one or two. Listen to your mix several times. If you find you’ve stopped hearing it or you get bored, move your songs around to create better transitions or bump the song that bored you. Sometimes a song sounds perfect by itself but just refuses to play nicely with any of its neighboring tunes.
    • Finally, don’t forget to come up with a catchy title for your mix and artwork for it if you’re making cds.

  • And, as with any holiday endeavor, try to remember you’re doing this because it’s fun and you like Christmas music. If it becomes too much of a hassle, by all means stop. There’s nothing wrong with just putting albums on the stereo or computer or listening to an all-Christmas stream or radio station. This way gives you a unique and special holiday mix, but it’s definitely less important than spending time with your loved ones. And there’s always next year.
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