Holiday Mix Tapes

I remember watching my parents prepare for the Christmas and New Year’s parties they hosted, and one of the lasting lessons I absorbed was how important it is to create a soundtrack for the guests’ enjoyment.  Today I guess we’d refer to this as creating a mix tape: sequencing favorite songs in a way that we enjoy and hope others will too.  My parents did this with 45 RPM singles, a record player (with six-disc spindle attachment) and the “good stereo” in the basement.  (In execution this translated to about twenty minutes of “uninterrupted” music, if you counted the “interstitial” silence while the mechanical changing took place.)  My parents’ real skill was in integrating holiday or Christmas songs (hereafter referred to as “chestnuts” into a broader musical playlist, so that when the famous songs delivered the emotional wallop they invariably did, the party would seemingly suspend for three minutes, then magically pick up again where it left off.  So here are some tips for programming a holiday evening’s worth of dinner and dancing music, with enough chestnuts to create warm feelings while having your guests compliment you on your DJ skills.

First, bookend Christmas songs with either two other favorite performances (non-seasonal) from the same artist, or include one from the artist, and an instrumental song that “comes from the same place” as the artist’s famous work.

  • For example, sandwich Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas” between “Don’t” (another top Elvis hit from the late ‘50s) and “The Girl Can’t Help It”, a 1956 hit from Little Richard.
  • Another example: sequence “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” by The Beach Boys, “Little Saint Nick” (again by The Beach Boys), followed by “Frosti” by Bjork (from the album “Vespertine”).  “Frosti” is an instrumental track with lots of bells, and that allows you to flow into something liturgical featuring church bells, organ, etc.
  • An easy sequence is Nat King Cole’s “Route 66”, followed by “Chelsea Bridge” by Duke Ellington (an instrumental ballad that slows down a bit), ending with Nat Cole again doing “The Christmas Song”, allowing guests to hear it “on its own” as a ballad, not just a Christmas song.

I promise this is easier and more entertaining than you might first imagine.  You already have a mental list of the holiday chestnuts you’d include in a straight-ahead holiday mix tape – just expand your creativity and delight your guests by adding in unexpected and thematically linked selections.

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