My High School Mixtapes: A Critical Analysis

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This time of year, when visiting my parents’ house for tree trimming and turkey eating and general holiday festivities, I’m always confronted by insistent reminders of my not-so-distant adolescent self: my mixtapes. Though by the time I got to high school, the tape was being swiftly eclipsed by the mix CD and iPod playlists, my beloved broke-ass 1994 Saturn Coupe wasn’t equipped to handle such technological innovations. Add in the relative difficulty of destroying a tape — as opposed to the fragile and scratchable surface of a CD-R — and, of course, the Wes Anderson-instilled romantic appeal of outdated audio equipment, and you’ll begin to understand why I ended up making a lot of tapes.

Every Christmas, I rediscover them, scattered in the backseat of my younger brother’s car or stacked in neat piles next to my college textbooks. This year I chanced listening to their potentially cringe-inducing contents. Listed below, as best as I could muster, a critical reassessment of four of my high school mixtapes.

Wine in the Morning and Some Breakfast at Night

Side A:

“Beginning to See the Light” by the Velvet Underground

“Here Comes the Sun” by the Beatles

“Baba O’Riley” by the Who

“What Goes On” by the Velvet Underground

“The Wind” by Cat Stevens

“Tiny Dancer” by Elton John

“Good Vibrations” by the Beach Boys

“She Don’t Use Jelly” by the Flaming Lips

“Pink Moon” by Nick Drake

Side B:

“Search and Destroy” by the Stooges

“Kick Out the Jams” by MC5

“See No Evil” by Television

“Gloria” by Patti Smith

“Blitzkrieg Bop” by the Ramones

“Your Phone’s Off the Hook (But You’re Not)” by X

“The Murder Mystery” by the Velvet Underground

“Wild Thing” by the Troggs

“Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life for Me)” by Disney

As you may have deduced from the title, this tape is from a pretty serious Velvet Underground phase. So serious, in fact, that it led me to defy one of my cardinal self-imposed mixtape rules: “Don’t put more than two songs by one band on the tape.” Hence the triple whammy of “Beginning to See the Light” and “What Goes On” followed by the weird, off the hinges crescendo of “The Murder Mystery.” They are broken up by some Cat Stevens, Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer,” and, sort of suddenly, a streak of primo 1970s grime: “Search and Destroy” by the Stooges, “Kick Out the Jams” by MC5, and “Gloria” by Patti Smith.

Listening to this streak, I remembered something I read once by the critic Ellen Willis, to the effect that good music makes you forget about all other music. The Stooges exist. That was enough to get you through high-school calculus. But then there’s a weird lull in the action courtesy of “Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life for Me),” salvaged off an old Disney tape. Crucial error: novelty songs are fun the first few listens, but the nature of a tape makes it difficult to skip them. I give it a B plus.

Tea Leaves and Constellations

Side A

“Don’t Leave the Light On Baby” by Belle and Sebastian

“Speed Trials” by Elliott Smith

“Human Behavior” by Björk

“Bone Machine” by the Pixies

“I Am a Scientist/The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory” by Guided by Voices

“Get the Letter Out” by Enon

“Unwind” by Sonic Youth

“Agaetis Byrjun” by Sigur Ros

Side B:

“Lost Cause” by Beck

“When Will You Come Home” by Galaxie 500

“Please, Please, Please” by the Smiths

“Lose My Breath/Moon Song” by My Bloody Valentine

“Just Like Honey” by Jesus & Mary Chain

“I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times/Heroes & Villains” by the Beach Boys

“You’re So Vain” by Carly Simon

“Brandy” by the Looking Glass

I had been avoiding this one for a couple years. The moony title, the scrawled playlist that was clearly compiled after a romantic rejection of some sort. It reeks of the sort of histrionic emotional baggage that I wish I had been too cool for in high school. But I was pleasantly surprised. Sure, it’s moody — The Smiths, then Björk, then some Galaxie 500, followed by a heaping platter of My Bloody Valentine, and, just for good measure, “You’re So Vain” — but it’s not quite as terrible as I feared. Or maybe I’m just as susceptible to Elliott Smith and Nick Drake now as I ever was. The only real confusing one is Aaliyah’s “Try Again,” which is sort of jarring after all that gloom rock.

Let’s Sew Our Pants Together

Side A:

“My Name is Jonas” by Weezer

“American Hearts” by Piebald

“Ocean Avenue” by Yellowcard

“The Middle” by Jimmy Eat World

“Sunday Bloody Sunday” by U2

“All Nite Diner” by Modest Mouse

“Invalid Litter Dept.” by At the Drive-In

“Punk Rock Princess” by Something Corporate

“The Happiest Place on Earth” by the Desaparecidos

“Surf Wax America” by Weezer

Side B:

“Believing Is Art” by Spoon

“Sweepstakes Prize” by Mirah

“Bowl of Oranges” by Bright Eyes

“Let’s Sew Our Pants Together” by Weezer

“Through Being Cool” by Saves the Day

“Scientist Studies” by Death Cab for Cutie

“5 W’s” by Teen Getaway

“Shady Lane/Cut Your Hair” by Pavement

Before we go further, you should probably know that in early high school I was droolingly obsessed with Weezer. I made T-shirts. I had a binder scrawled with lyrics. I knew all of Pinkerton by heart. And so, this tape is mostly Weezer and Weezer knock-offs, complete with Jimmy Eat World and Piebald, the world’s first self-described emo band.

Critically speaking, it’s not the best — pop-punk of the sort that populated the Warped Tour for years upon years is at best boring, at worst aurally offensive — but I also can’t deny how much I love listening to this tape. Partly because the Blue Album is still unimpeachable, from the first-pumping “My Name is Jonas” to the titular B-side that would have been part of Weezer’s space-rock opera, but also partly because that era marked when I began actively — nay, rabidly — consuming music. Though there were missteps (Yellowcard? Yes, you were a misstep) there’s still some of that residual stomach magic of discovering a band you really really like. Which is why, even though I know I will have my heart broken, I anticipate every Weezer album. And why I’ll probably listen to this tape more than the rest of them combined.

No More Foxtrots

Side A:

“Pretty” by the Raincoats

“Little Babies” by Sleater-Kinney

“Good Fortune” by PJ Harvey

“Tuff Luff” by the Unicorns

“Nuclear War” by Yo La Tengo (Sun Ra Cover)

“Once in a Lifetime” by the Talking Heads

“Police and Thieves” by the Clash

“Theologians” by Wilco

“Fist City/”Coal Miner’s Daughter” by Loretta Lynn

“Fujiyama Mama” by Wanda Jackson

Side B:

“Riding Dirty” by Chingy

“Try Again” by Aaliyah

“Scraper” by Liquid Liquid

“Alabama Sunshine” by the Rapture

“Interstate 8” by Modest Mouse

“Satan is My Motor” by CAKE

“2 Kool 2 Be 4Gotten” by Lucinda Williams

“Washing Machine/The Empty Page” by Sonic Youth

Truthfully, my best tapes were all made for other people. Friends, boyfriends, potential fellow music obsessives — those were the recipients of the ones I worried over. But this one is by far my favorite, probably because it was a collaboration between a friend and I of the music we wanted to listen to on a road trip to New Orleans. PJ Harvey and Sleater-Kinney, plus a healthy portion of Loretta Lynn, “Police and Thieves,” and, of course, Chingy’s seminal classic “Riding Dirty.” I still can’t listen to “Interstate 8” without thinking about cruising towards New Orleans in the August heat, scheming about how best to make use of a long weekend. And this, ultimately, is the problem with critically assessing my own tapes: they are often hopeless bound up with adolescent memories, of the sort that it is impossible for me to look at without some degree of cringing and overwhelming nostalgia. Isn’t that what tapes are all about?