The secret art of the perfect playlist


I might be dating myself a bit with this question, but remember the days of making mix CDs for your friends and, more likely, your crushes? Finding the perfect collection of songs, praying iTunes will actually burn all of them onto the disk and coming up with a witty title and “album cover” for your creation? Playlist-making technology might have moved on and while I have moved on with it, I still have a certain nostalgia for those days in middle and high school where CDs were swapped in the halls after class between myself and the other musically inclined loners. In the pre-Spotify days, this was how we ensured that everyone was up-to-date on the latest releases, and to feed our own egos for having discovered an artist before our friends. It was a glorious time.

Then, the popularity of Pandora exploded, and nothing was the same. The days of burning CDs as the preferred method of exchanging music passed into the annals of history overnight, replaced by radio stations built on thumb-ups and downs, pre-built set lists for any mood and an even more widespread access to downloading and sharing new music through less-than-legal channels online. The fall of the mix CD came not with a loud crash, but rather a dull thud.

This is not to knock all the new opportunities listeners have for discovering and sharing artists and songs or the true believers who still load discs covered in Sharpie scribbles into their car’s CD player (yes, these brave souls are still around). Programs like iTunes Radio are fantastic ways to hear both popular and obscure work, and Songza’s option to find playlists based on moods, activities and times in the day is genius. Yet some of the personal aspect is missing from these options. The listener can dictate to an extent what they want to hear on Pandora, but ultimately there is only limited choice – filtered down to giving a thumb’s up or skipping the track – and only a limited number of times. Songza allows for some customization in their playlists but not, according to their website, for the creator’s “own personal use.” You can share with friends and family, but must pass through an editorial team to be included in the Concierge service or library.

In the end, as enjoyable as Songza might be, it is essentially akin to pressing shuffle on a playlist where you cannot even see what all you will be experiencing ahead of time. Spotify addresses these issues somewhat by allowing users to share playlists with their friends, but how personal is a set of songs if advertisements are interjected every few songs, or if you are being told what to listen to everytime you load up the homepage?

To clarify: I am not suggesting we regress back to the early 2000s in terms of music, but every once and awhile we should set aside the multitude of programs, deactivate shuffle and create a set of songs and listen start to finish, whether for our own personal enjoyment or others.

However, crafting the perfect playlist is not an easy feat. There is an art to putting together the exact right collection of tunes. Much like cooking, the best playlists are not random collections of ingredients tossed together in no particular order, but carefully planned so that the songs compliment each other, flowing together to make the listening experience as intriguing as possible.

As a great man once wrote, “The making of a great compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do and takes ages longer than it might seem…There are a lot of rules.”

While there are many do’s and don’t’s in creating a mix, I will break down three of the essential ones to keep in mind.

The first and most important rule is to know who you are creating the mix for. Sharing a playlist of Killswitch Engage, Slipknot, In Flames and the like to someone who’s top five artists are Colbie Caillat, Jack Johnson, U2, The Lumineers and Morrissey will probably end in passive aggressive words and a loss of trust that could take years to rebuild. As much as I think the entire world should listen to Coheed and Cambria, science-fiction-metal-and-punk-influenced-progressive-rock is not for everyone. Go figure.

Be aware and accepting of your friend’s tastes, and play to what you know they will enjoy, coupled with new tracks within their area of interest.

That being said, it is also important to follow rule number two: do not put a specific request as the first song in the set. If you give the listener exactly what they want right away, odds are they might not listen to the rest of your collection as closely. Much as performers rarely start a live set with their absolute biggest or current hit, you want to build anticipation for the best song in the mix. Placing it right before the halfway mark is a good, safe decision to maximize enjoyability and excitement. The best way to begin the mix then is to lead with the second-best song, or at least a very catchy one, in order to grab the listener’s attention immediately.

Next, up the intensity a bit, but don’t use up all your energy in the first handful of songs. The best playlists should rise and fall in a natural progression. Even a set of all ’80s and ’90s hard rock can be broken up by the occasional ballad.

Or two. There’s no shame in that.

However, there should be a natural flow from one song to the next without necessarily limiting the range of genres and styles present. While it is completely acceptable to have mid-career Bruce Springsteen and Dog Blood in the same playlist, you probably don’t want to skip from “Working On The Highway” to the latter’s remix of “Wild For The Night.”

Instead, you should progress from one to the other in five simple steps. The first goal should be to move from the ’80s to more recent work while still retaining part of the E Street sound and style. Bands like The Gaslight Anthem or certain Arcade Fire tracks would work well in this situation.

Next, you would want to start heading into a more electronic sound while keeping in the alternative rock genre. MGMT is a prime example and a great lead-in to a remix of a well-known song.

Lastly, to prep your listeners for a bit more bite. You would want to include an artist with a good blend of melody and edge. SirensCeol, Dada Life and pre-”Clarity” Zedd are perfect options.

Now your listeners are ready for the last step in the journey without being jarred by an extreme shift in tone. Not only have they been subliminally prepared for the next song, but you have the opportunity to take them on a sonic adventure through a diverse musical landscape.

The key is recognizing what ties songs and artists together, whether it’s genre, decade, instrumental style or even having the same beats per minute. Incorporating as wide a range as your listener’s preferences allows for makes for a more engaging, dynamic playlist. Unless specifically instructed, never feel as if you should have limitations on what goes into your mix.

While there are many more rules, and many layers within those to dissect, these three are the most essential. It takes time to make a playlist as perfect as possible, but it becomes much easier with practice. While we might not return to the days of passing around discs in clear plastic cases, bringing back a more personal touch to mixes is well within our reach. I, for one, would be more than happy to make a playlist for or receive a mix from someone, and who knows? Maybe I’ll even burn it on a CD.

Jack Butcher is a senior history major. He can be reached at or on Twitter @WklyJButcher.