We can almost all say we love music—it’s a pretty universal appreciation, ingrained in humanity since the first person discovered how to hum. But for me, it’s probably more accurate to say I obsess over it. A song isn’t just background noise on the car stereo or over the speakers at the mall. I hear songs and instantly recall exactly when they were released—where I was and what I was doing at that point in time.
It’s not that I’ve memorized record release dates like batting averages of the ‘86 Dodgers starting lineup. But much like food can call up sense memories for many people, I’ve always had a soundtrack to my life. I naturally associate songs with moments, so many of which have been altered or amplified by the music playing in the background. It can altogether dictate my disposition, or cement an otherwise mundane evening into a lasting memory.
Given the importance of music to my everyday life, I make it a priority to tailor it to individual moments, events and activities. Back in the early days of Napster and CD burners, I made hundreds of mixes full of favorite songs. Each was carefully curated, meant for certain moods, weather conditions, destinations or recipients.
After college, I worked in the music industry before realizing I didn’t enjoy the business side of the art, but those years did solidify my identity amongst my friends as the go-to music guy. I’ve helped put lists together for weddings and baby showers, and played the DJ for midnight apartment dance parties. I’ve put together hours long playlists for road trips and CD-length lists to express my feelings to a girl, or to remind a friend of certain moments in a relationship.
Especially around the holidays, when parties are plentiful and frankly, people have too much other stuff to do—like making their own cinnamon-pumpkin-holly sprig simple syrup for the Santa-inspired old fashioned they plan to serve—I get a familiar request: No need to bring food or wine, but could you please put a playlist together?
I don’t have a universal answer for all playlisting needs; music is so personal. I’d love to waste your time with specific country music tunes that will liven up your ugly sweater party, but we’d need a lot longer than a few hundred words to get through Hank and Merle’s back catalogues. Instead, these are a few tips to get you started down the path to the ideal atmosphere for your next party, turning it from just another end-of-the-year office party with too much craft beer and stinky cheese, into a memory that will stick around long after that last cranberry and goat cheese crostini has been crushed.
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Don’t Get With the Program
For starters, don’t use the pre-programmed playlists that seem to be pre-loaded into all modern listening services. It is hard to resist this easy action, but you wouldn’t blindly tell a catering company to bring “Winter Menu #3” to serve to your guests, or buy a random box of “Manager’s Favorites” red wine from the store, right? Alexa can serve up a quick soundtrack while you’re cooking dinner, but creating a personal playlist for when your guests arrive is necessary to have a night that plays out pitch-perfectly.
Give Yourself to Google
These days, we’re lucky to be living in the era of streamable audio; we have limitless possibilities for what we can listen to, no longer dependant only on our record collections. But the paradox of choice is often paralyzing when digesting the endless options at our fingertips.
Google can be a great friend, and don’t be afraid to use such inspired and specific search terms as, best jazz songs for a holiday party, or top classical albums of 2017. You don’t have to listen to hours worth of options; just give the tunes a twenty-second spin to see if they fit the vibe. This trick works well for every genre if you need somewhere to start. Other personal favorite searches? Best ‘80s dance songs, rock songs to sing along to, and most underrated hip hop songs of the 2000s.
Keep Vibe in Mind
Gatherings this time of year are filled with aromas of nutmeg and mulled wine; it’s so important the playlist compliments the perfect yuletide scene. When you sit down to start your selection, paint that scene in your mind and how you want it to feel. Are you throwing a dinner party? Wine and cheese by a fireplace? Whiskey and cigars on the patio? Cocktails and high fashion? A good, old-fashioned rager?
For an upscale evening where your friends are putting on a tie or dress for the first time since your bar mitzvah, don’t just hit play on a top forty pop loop, make things as different as the affair—seek out some of the best modern classical, or find a few of the most interesting jazz artists of the year. If you’ve decided the time is finally ripe to break the workplace barrier, inviting your boss and coworkers over for appetizers, craft beer and wine, it likely isn’t the moment for mid-90s gangsta rap, but you also don’t want the party to be quiet as the office elevator. Give a shot to some modern, low-key Americana songs blended with a bit of Bob Dylan or classic Elvis, mixed in with a choice selection of classic Christmas songs out of 1950s Nashville.
For the chefs in the crowd preparing an intimate annual feast, the key is to keep the volume low, so guests can have comfortable conversation, even across large tables. Mellow country songs make great dinner music as do acoustic covers. One of my favorite moves is to find some laid back R&B tunes to be played at a moderate volume. I love finding songs that, when listened to as background music, can be smooth and romantic, but should someone listen closely during that inevitable awkward silence, reveal lyrics a little more civilized than the sonic quality (pro tip: R. Kelly is a good place to start if you have a similar sense of humor).
Or, if you’re looking to set your party apart, music may be more than background—it might be the theme to the entire thing. Throw a hip hop Christmas party filled with classics from Nas and Biggie along with Christmas songs from Snoop Dogg. Or perhaps a disco Hanukkah using Donna Summers anthems of the ‘70s and the sleekest, shiniest Christmas covers by the Bee Gees… they must have some.
Be Sensitive to Over-Santa-fication
Even if you are a Christmas-holic, you have to pay attention to the playlist for your holiday sweater party. There are quite literally millions of Christmas songs out there. Be sure to take a few minutes and pick a diverse selection of the ones you love. Nobody wants to hear “Santa Got Run Over by a Reindeer” by three different artists in twenty minutes, and it’s a total buzzkill if your giant playlist of Christmas songs shuffles from Michael Bublé’s rendition of “Blue Christmas” into some uptempo atrocity sung by the cast of Glee. And it’s never a bad idea to throw in a few tunes that aren’t specifically about Santa or snow in order to mix things up.
Give Guests the Honor
No matter the event, take the guest list into consideration. Just because you can’t stop listening to the new Kesha album or mid-century Austrian honky tonk, doesn’t mean everyone is on board. Unless your friends are all huge indie music nerds, in most party situations, the winning music is popular music. Stick with classic soul artists like Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, or Etta James. Literally everyone likes that music (find me someone who says otherwise), or at least tolerates it at a party, plus it has a great ambient quality for a holiday event.
Be Aware of Flow
The progression of the party is something to keep in mind as well. From arriving in from the cold, to when they take off, toasty and warm from hearty snacks and Christmas beers. Start with some classic rock favorites from Zeppelin and The Stones, the kind of songs that make people feel comfortable because they’ve been hearing them their entire lives. After a few hours and several cocktails, the list can morph into ‘90s singalongs once everyone is in the mood to be a bit more wild and free. Finally, switch it into modern dance hits to get down to once your friends have sufficiently overdone it on the spiked cider and start breaking out the Santa hats. A good rule of thumb is to have a couple of playlists ready to queue up the moment you sense a shift in vibe.
Properly Outfit Your Party When Possible
One last word of advice from a man obsessed with music: please, for the love of all that is holy, spend some money on a decent sound system or at least a quality bluetooth speaker. Phones have speakers for watching YouTube videos of cats playing keyboard—not for DJing a party. And if you don’t have some decent speakers, well, Christmas is coming.
Need a hand to get started? Use my Spotify playlist below as a starting point.