Tuesday Tunes: A Guide to Crafting the Perfect Playlist

A couple of weeks ago I went personal and talked about my musical history, and I made it extra special by including a playlist for you guys. Because I care. And in light of that (and because I actually already had most of this post written before I wrote that one…) I’ve decided to give you my own guidelines to creating perfect playlists. It’s something I do a lot of, actually; it’s a way I’ve bonded with my family and with friends. All of my examples here are going to be straight from my own library. Playlists and titles of playlists copyright Jorfimus Prime, I guess? Whatever, I don’t care, copy them if you want. Anyway, if you’ve been paying attention, especially to my newer music reviews, you’ve likely noticed that I talk a fair bit about things like track order and album flow. Those things have a very strong effect on your listening experience and your perception of the album. And perception is everything. You could have a fantastic song and your track order could cause it to go unnoticed or underrated, like I talked about with Meat Loaf’s “Heaven Can Wait” from Bat Out of Hell. You could slow your pacing too much or too jarringly and make listening feel dragged out or even tedious. Or you could craft everything damn near perfectly and just have it all work in the best way.

So that’s why I’m here today. I put together a lot of playlists, and, not to brag, feedback has always been pretty good. So I’ve come to share with you what it takes to put together that perfect playlist. Let’s get started.

    1. Have a clear focus. One of the things that’s important when making a playlist is that you have a clear idea of the kind of playlist you want it to be. Whether that focus is a specific topic — songs about cars and driving, songs about music, songs with sexual innuendo, songs that mention Jesus (all things I’ve made, by the by) — or just your favorite songs by one artist, you need some core to build your list around. And you need to make sure you stick to that focus. If a song doesn’t quite fit, don’t just put it on because you like it. Writers have a saying, “kill your darlings,” which means that if a passage doesn’t add anything and isn’t necessary to your work, cut it, no matter how much you love it. Especially if you love it, actually, because that fondness is likely coloring your ability to tell if it’s truly necessary. That holds true in playlist building as well (and with albums, too, for that matter; look at all of the material Springsteen has released that never made it onto the albums it was recorded for, a lot of it is really good). Just because Don McLean “drove [his] Chevy to the levee” in “American Pie” doesn’t mean it belongs on a playlist about cars. It’s one line. Cut it and put “Drive My Car” by The Beatles on. Or, like, half of the songs Bruce Springsteen has ever released. Hell, his car songs could fill a playlist of their own!screencap1

    2. Have strong first and last tracks. I base this on two things. First, a matter of interest. A strong first track grabs a listener’s attention and pulls them in. A strong last track leaves the listener satisfied and with a sense of closure. There is a second consideration, though, and that goes back to my limited psychology training. In pysch, we talk about the effects of primacy and recency. These are terms used when discussing memory, particularly as it pertains to lists. Basically what it means is that we are more inclined and better able to remember the first and last things we encounter. That might mean the first and last items on a list, or the first and last songs on an album. Of course, it does have further implications — consider the importance of first impressions, or the fact that you generally have pretty clear memories of the first time you meet someone important to you and the last encounter you had with them (be it permanent or not). But that’s beyond the scope and point of this post. Basically it comes down to making a strong first impression and a satisfying last impression.
      • Examples of strong opening tracks:
        1. “Bat Out of Hell,” Meat Loaf, Bat Out of Hell
        2. “Raw Sugar,” Nalani & Sarina, Lessons Learned
        3. “Thunder Road,” Bruce Sprinsteen, Born to Run
        4. “Let it Rain,” David Duchovny, Hell or Highwater
        5. “American Idiot,” Green Day American Idiot
      • Examples of strong closing tracks:
        1. “White Dove,” Nalani & Sarina, Lessons Learned
        2. “Clean,” Taylor Swift, 1989
        3. “All I Wanted,” Paramore, brand new eyes
        4. “Famous Last Words,” My Chemical Romance, Welcome to the Black Parade

    3. Don’t be afraid to experiment with song choices. The best way to keep a playlist interesting is to subvert expectations. Use a cover version instead of the original. Counting Crows’ version of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi,” or Uncle Kracker’s version of Dobie Gray’s “Drift Away,” for instance (both of which you can see in my examples above). Look for album tracks that fit your theme instead of just popular singles — Paramore’s “Fast in my Car” came from their self-titled album containing  the singles “Ain’t it Fun” and “Still Into You,” which are probably the only two tracks most casual listeners know. There are a ton of options available to you if you look beyond the popular hits.

    4. Don’t be afraid to experiment with genre choices, either. Just because you can find tons of references to Hell and the devil in metal music doesn’t mean you should make the playlist all metal. Mixing genres makes the playlist more interesting, diverse, and unpredictable to other listeners.
      Admittedly my track order was less than stellar here -- notice the clot of metal tracks in the middle.
      Admittedly my track order was less than stellar here — Disturbed and Slipknot should never have been back to back, and I probably could have kept it to only one Disturbed song.

    5. Come up with a creative title for your playlists. Don’t just use generic things like “Car Songs” or “Sex Songs,” the latter of which is probably more appropriate for a playlist you shouldn’t share with anyone but your partner, anyway. A good title is the final touch that makes your playlist truly original and brings it all together. Some examples from my own library, aside from the ones above, include:
      • “American Idiots” (my favorite Green Day tracks)
      • “I’m a Rocker” (ditto, for Springsteen)
      • “New York Minute” (songs about New York City)
      • “Nightmares and Dreamscapes” (cribbed from Stephen King, theme should be apparent)
      • “The Final Frontier” (outer space, and yes it includes the original Star Trek theme)
      • “Where Everybody Knows Your Name” (songs about bars)

    6. Keep an eye on your length. It’s easy to do a Google search to find every song in history that fits your theme. Go ahead, pick a topic — we’ll call it “x,” for ease of writing — and then open a new tab. Search “songs about x.” You’ll find more than you ever knew existed. Unless you just typed “songs about jane,” because that’s just going to show you Maroon 5’s first album. Anyway, you could just download all of those songs and put them on a playlist, but you shouldn’t. Creating a playlist is a personal experience, and thought should be put into the song choices. Also, using that method will make you list ridiculously long. I usually shoot to get my lists as close to 80 minutes long as I can — that’s the amount of music you can fit on a standard CD. I’m usually burning my playlists to discs for people, so that’s why that length is my benchmark, but it’s also a very reasonable length. It’s basically an album and a half of music. I’ve gotten 21 songs on a disc, and that’s actually pretty long. The average comes out to somewhere around 16 tracks or so, which is a pretty solid length. Remember, the more tracks you have, the harder it gets to manage the flow and feel of the playlist (see #7), and you might find that after a while the theme starts to get stale. There are only so many songs you can listen to about the same thing before you start to get a little crazy. Limit your length, though, and you get to be more creative. You have to really think hard about what tracks make the cut, because there’s only so much room for them on your list. The rest of them get shown the no-vacancy sign and have to sleep in the stable out back.

    7. Pay attention to the overall flow of the playlist. Now that you’ve got your theme and your first and last tracks picked out, you can just toss the rest in there, right? Nope. Playlist creation is a big-picture game. You have to pay attention to how the tracks work together and the effect it has on the playlist as a whole. Two or more slow songs in a row will slow down the pacing of the list and make it feel like it’s dragging. On the other hand, back-to-back heavy metal songs, for instance, can feel overwhelming and might create an unwelcome clot in the middle of the playlist that can distort your pacing. This is circumstantial, of course; if you’re making a list of the best metal you’ve ever heard, multiple metal tracks in a row are kind of the point. But on a themed mix with multiple genres and styles, for instance, you want to watch out for things like that.
      • Examples of pacing issues:
        1. “Hundred,” “Vienna,” The Fray, How to Save a Life
        2. “Lost in the Flood,” “The Angel,” Bruce Springsteen, Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.
        3. “Inside the Fire,” Disturbed, “The Devil in I,” Slipknot, on the above playlist titled “Sympathy for the Devil.” My bad.

    8. Exceptions: I should point out that I an aware that last week I broke my own rule regarding the length of a playlist. The one I posted clocks in at around 1 hour and 28 minutes, or 8 minutes too long to fit on a CD. But making playlists is, to me, more of an art than something with hard and fast rules. That playlist last week was specifically designed to be shared on the Internet and to go with that post, so certain allowances had to be made. The order of the songs is probably not ideal, but I was going in a pseudo-chronological order in terms of when the songs entered or impacted my life. There were songs that I added above my usual length limit because I felt there would be something lacking without them, and given the format, length was a nonissue anyway. I could feasibly have just made it hours upon hours in length with every song I ever liked or performed, but that would have been ridiculous. Certainly rules and guidelines are made to apply to the vast majority of circumstances, but there are decidedly moments in which those rules are bendable at best. It all depends on the purpose and format of you playlist, and, of course, your own preferences. If you want a playlist of every song ever written about an animal — and I can probably make a disc’s worth off the top of my head — go for it! The only true rule for making a playlist is to follow what moves you and when you’re done, enjoy the hell out of it!

      If you're making playlists for practicing music, you're probably not going to be following any of these guidelines, for example.
      If you’re making playlists for practicing music, you’re probably not going to be following any of these guidelines, for example.

And that’s the end of that, I suppose. I don’t profess to be any kind of expert, but I’ve been at this a while, so I thought it might be helpful to share what works for me. If you get something out of it, great! If not, well, that’s ok too, I guess. As for me, I suppose I should get back to reviews. I have no idea what’s up next, but stay tuned nonetheless!

As an added bonus, I’m going to put in the full version of this post’s “Featured Image” (read: cover photo), because I like how it came out and it gets cut off as the Featured Image.

Much artsy. Very photo. Wow.

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