By Chris Moore:
For those who don’t know me, it can safely be said I’m a music dork for the ages. And so, with that distinction clearly in place, it is with great honor that I present to you an article for the Laptop Sessions new music blog dedicated to what is perhaps my favorite digital innovation:
For anyone that owns an mp3 player and certainly anyone that uses iTunes, playlists offer new and unique ways to group your songs. Whether you’re making one for yourself, a friend, or significant other, there are countless formats you can use. Here are the major categories:
1.) The Artist Compilation
This is the ultimate test of your knowledge and love for a given artist: Can you create a compilation of a band or artist’s best songs? Here’s the added twist: In my personal opinion, I think compilations should adhere either to the length of a CD (about 74 minutes) maximum, or 20 songs at most. Giving yourself a boundary to work within forces you to nix some songs that just shouldn’t make the cut, even if they do remind you of the first time you kissed your significant other, or whatever.
The trick here is to compile a set of tracks that are both comprehensive and satisfying in one grouping, taking care to order them in an interesting manner that gives the compilation a life of its own. Sometimes, chronological is okay. But if you’re just going to choose tracks and throw them randomly into a playlist, then please don’t even try.
These are valuable playlists to have, particularly for more under-the-radar bands like Ben Folds and (until last week’s “Best of” release) the Wallflowers, as well as artists whose greatest hits come in multiple and/or unsatisfying formats, like R.E.M. and (until recently) Bob Dylan. Even when you love albums like I do, you may just want to hear a mix from time to time.
2.) The Artist Catalog Playlist
Similar to the artist compilation, the artist catalog playlist focuses on one band or artist. However, this is for true fans only. The playlist comprises a chronological collection of any and all tracks you can get your hands on. Oh yeah, I’m talking about all those demos, live tracks, and soundtrack cuts you’ve accumulated over your long career as a fan.
Personally, I drop all the studio albums into the playlist first, ordering them by release date, and then I add all other tracks around those mainstays. Even when a track has technically come out previous to a studio album during the same year, I put the tracks after the album. My reasoning? Hey, the albums are — hopefully — the first, best source for great tracks and provide some great structure to what could be an exhaustive (and exhausting) playlist.
This works very well for bands with popular, lengthy careers — like Pearl Jam — or more under-the-radar artists, such as Wilco (I spent more time than I should have compiling my “Wilco, etc.” playlist, which includes a ton of Jeff Tweedy solo work, Golden Smog, Loose Fur, and more) and Jim Fusco (don’t even ask — of course I included such great rareties as “Parody Writer” and all the bonus tracks on releases like My Other Half and the enhanced CD section of Formula).
3.) The Themed Playlist
Perhaps the most popular of all playlists, I think anyone who considers him/herself a fan of music or of life in general should have to make at least one themed playlist for someone special, or at least for personal use. Just last night, my friend Dana Camp was describing the track listing of a “Date Playlist” that he has.
Recently, I’ve made playlists for the drive to the beach, rush hour traffic, the unfortunate bank overdraft/identity theft crisis of a friend, and you better believe that I had a downright melancholy compilation prepared and put to good use while I was broken up from my girlfriend last year. These sorts of playlists are the most versatile, and the degree to which you take the song choice and track order into consideration say at least as much about you as the tracks say about the artist/band.
4.) Long Format Playlists
Last but not least we come to the long format playlist. Similar to the artist catalog playlist (which can be played straight through in chronological order if you prefer), this list is most often played while your iPod or other mp3 device is in shuffle mode.
My favorite examples of this type are the “Albums by Year” compilations I put together recently. On my iPod, I have playlists titled “Albums – 1990,” “Albums – 1991,” and so on up to the still-expanding “Albums – 2009.” Because I’ve been spending a lot of time working recently, each day I choose a year and just let it play. This is fun and fascinating because you can laugh and say, “Wow, I haven’t heard that song in FOREVER!,” as well as begin to appreciate in retrospect the songs and albums that came out during the same years. For instance, I didn’t really fall in love with albums and music in general until the turn of the millennium. Now that I’m listening to the 1991 playlist, I’m coming to appreciate the juxtapositon of Tom Petty’s more straightforward Into the Great Wide Open with the more alternative Ten (Pearl Jam) or Temple of the Dog (by the one-off band of the same name), as well as the atypical acoustic format and vocal clarity of R.E.M.’s Out of Time. What will it be today? Maybe I’ll go back to the hey day of my early musical roots, circa 1997 or 1998…
…and then remember why I came to love the Sixties music of bands like Bob Dylan and the Beatles!
Seriously, though, I hope you have enjoyed my breakdown of playlist formats. If you have any of your own, please comment — I would LOVE to be able to think of more ways to effectively utilize the playlist functions of my iPod.