Like all good kids in the 1990s, I made mixed tapes. Primarily, I recorded songs off the radio, focused primarily on the weekly Top-40 countdown, waiting patiently by the boom box to press down on Play+Record, ready to press pause as soon as Shadow Stevens started talking. And then, my step-father won the lottery. Not a huge sum, mind you, but enough that I was gifted an early diskman. This now meant that it was much, much easier to make mixed tapes because you could reliably start a track at the same time as you started recording, as well as knowing when the song will end. So while I still recorded the weekly Mix Down countdown off the radio for the best dance songs for my pre-race psych-up tapes, I also was able to make chill-out, kinda sad, kinda hopeful and comforting mixed tapes.
And I called them “Stuff.”
Stuff became a genre all its own. I would take an afternoon on a quiet weekend, having borrowed friends’ CDs, as well as culling my own and my brother’s collection of more recent purchases, and curate and create a Stuff mixed tape. I carefully wrote down the track names on the cassette’s cardboard jacket, figuring out track lengths to make sure I could get all the songs I wanted on the 90min cassette (45min a side). The songs had to resonate in my soul, have some strong memory attached to them, had to make me feel something.
I made one mixed tape a year, and then when there were playlists instead of mixed tapes, I dutifully recreated them all in iTunes, and then kept making one every year. I’m up to Stuff 27, which tracks because we won the lottery in 1993. I can always tell what year each playlist represents because most of the songs will all be from the same year. But even if I didn’t have the date handy, I know when and where they each are in terms of where I am in my life: late high school, CEGEP, the Sherbrooke years, my PhD, California, etc… I can also tell where I abandoned cassettes complete because suddenly the playlists are no longer a disciplined 90min, but sometimes as long as 2.5hrs. Call it sonic sprawl.
Of course, there are ones that I go back to, especially when I need to get into a certain headspace, mood, or just feeling nostalgic and in need of something familiar. I’ve been trying to find the perfect one for this current moment and mood I find myself in. It started when I wanted to listen to “My Greatest Mistake” by Sheryl Crow. I knew it was on one of my early playlists (duh) but I couldn’t remember which one. It was on Stuff 6, and it has been on a continuous loop ever since.
- Lovers in a Dangerous Time, Barenaked Ladies
- Anas Song, Silver Chair
- Time After Time, Cyndi Lauper
- Stay, Lisa Loeb
- Perfect, Alanis Morissette
- Waiting for that Day, George Michael
- Beautiful Boy, John Lennon
- White Rabbit, Jefferson Airplane
- Monday, Monday, The Mamas & The Papas
- The Sounds of Silence, Simon & Garfunkle
- That I Would Be Good, Alanis Morrissette
- Dance with You, Live
- Re-Arranged, Limp Bizkit (yes, I know, save it)
- My Favorite Mistake, Sheryl Crow
- Driftwood, Travis
- Adam’s Song, Bling-182
- Wise Up, Aimee Mann
- Again, Lenny Kravitz
- Amalgame, Les Respectables
- Tiny Dancer, Elton John
Whew, if that doesn’t scream late 1990s, I don’t know what else to tell you. What’s with so many golden oldies? Remember, this was the time when everyone was re-releasing their catalogue on CD or putting out greatest hits compilations, so songs that I didn’t have access to on CD for a long time we suddenly available. Combine that with the seductive marketing of 7 CDs for only a penny, well, we build our collections in a hurry, greatly expanding the variety of songs I could put on any given playlist.
But the giveaway for me about what this playlist was for and when it was made, it’s the closing track. I included it because of the movie Almost Famous, which if you follow me on Twitter, you know it’s one of my favorite movies ever. That scene, where everyone is on the bus, not speaking, angry at one another, and then start singing along to Tiny Dancer? PERFECTION. The movie was released in 2000. Our friend group from university, so tight, was drifting apart. We were getting jobs, growing up. I was a year away from moving away to do my PhD but the inevitability of leaving was clearer and clearer. This mixed tape was not quite Sherbrooke (with only one French song), but also not quite post-Sherbrooke. It is probably the most liminal mixed tape I had ever curated, even if I didn’t understand it at the time.
So its seemingly bizarre mix of songs is meaningful to me because I was a bizarre mix of feelings and state of being at the time. Did I make this during or just after my bought of depression, where I barely ever left our apartment, where would watch TV for 18 hours a day. Probably, I can’t see myself having the energy to curate anything, and I imagine once I got better, there was just an outpouring of feelings. If it made me feel, then I was putting it on the tape.
There’s high school stuff in there, like the Barenaked Ladies as well as The Sounds of Silence (we used to sing it to each other during kick sets at 5:30am practices and the only sounds were our kicks in the water). Waiting for that Day is even a pre-Stuff song, when I used to listen to my Listen Without Prejudice cassette endlessly, rediscovering it during this period. Maybe I downloaded it off of Napster. But I found it again and it took me back, even then, to those times in my room, plugged into my Walkman, listening to George Michael and relating to whatever he was trying to communicate in that album, even if I didn’t quite understand it. And, of course, the Lisa Loeb classic, Stay.
And let me go all the way back to the 1980s with Time After Time. I remember watching and re-watching that video, and it never not devastating me, even as a 6yo. It’s still (sigh) timeless.
There’s evidence of the onset of my Brit Pop phase, with Travis. I will even defend the inclusion of Limp Bizkit, as a part of that transition I was going through. But it also fits with the late 1990s/early 2000s transition we were all going through. It just so happened that I was also graduating college, deciding what to do next, who I wanted to be.
Live will never not remind me of my best friend in university. Aimee Mann is there because she was introduced to me by one of my first friends in university, one who didn’t make it past the first year (don’t worry, he’s ok, he just left after the first year). My Favorite Mistake pretty much summed up how I felt about a lot of my decisions in university, how I needed to stop making mistakes (spoiler alert: I did not).
So why now with this playlist? Maybe it’s because there is now enough distance and enough variety of nostalgia, situatedness, and timelessness that I can listen to it and be comforted. Maybe it’s because it is a transitional, liminal mixed tape and I need a reminder that I have been in these spaces before and will come out the other side. Maybe it makes me just sad enough but also just hopeful enough that I can work my way through my feelings right now about the world and life.
I’ve wanted for a long time to write about each of these mixed tapes/playlists. Who knows if I’ll be able to find space or time to do it. But I did want to write about this one, today. May it bring you some comfort, knowing that you are not alone is seeking comfort in the past, in nostalgia, in art that makes you feel, unapologetically.