I blame NOW.
I think my first NOW That’s What I Call Music! compilation was NOW 8. I think I got it with the money I got for my 8th birthday. What a cross-section of the 1986 pop world it was. That opening run of songs – ‘Notorious’, ‘Suburbia’, ‘Walk This Way’ and ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’. Tunes, every single one of them. Who needed the full albums when you had the best of the best, right here?
And before too long, lucky enough to have a dual cassette recorder to hand, and inspired by the NOW series and reading Smash Hits like any respectable late ’80s child, I thought I’d have a go at making them myself. I think I made half-a-dozen compilation tapes. I gave them the name Trax, numbered them sequentially (Trax 1, Trax 2…) and gave them arty covers and everything. The songs included? Well, if you didn’t like the Pet Shop Boys or anything from the Stock/Aitken/Waterman stable, there would be nothing to love here. I’m confident all of the tapes have been destroyed, thank God, but back then, those tapes would be all I would listen to on my chunky Walkman, at least until I’d run out of AA batteries.
For whatever reason (probably to do with not being able to afford to buy music), I fell out of love with music in the early ’90s, my only education really coming from my older sister playing James and Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine a little bit too loud from next door’s bedroom. I’d chip up for the odd CD here and there. But it took until the Britpop boom to start finding music I liked again. And then someone at Creation Records had the inspired idea to put all of the Oasis EPs on sale at three for a tenner. That’s where all my Christmas money went in 1996. And from then on, with a steady income from a job at the local nightclub, that’s where all my money went – buying music. As much as I barely listen to them now, I can’t truly hate Oasis because they got me started all over again.
At the summer camp I worked at a couple of years later in the USA, someone had distributed CDs and tapes of songs of the summer to some of the staff there. I never got one, but from there, I realised I wanted to do one for myself. Trouble is, I’d discarded my old tape Walkman for a CD one, and I couldn’t afford a CD burner for myself. So I harangued my friend Neil into letting me use his mother’s computer, took a stack of source CDs round to their house, and set about making a record of what I’d listened to in 1999. I did briefly consider calling it ‘Trax 1999’ in a nod to what I’d done as a 10-year-old. I’m glad I didn’t. I went for the slightly more classy ‘Graham’s Soundtrack To 1999’. When I started at university I finally got a CD burner for myself. The first thing I did was to go and do 1997 and 1998 Soundtracks, and then do a 2000 one. Each one with the same basic artwork – an enormous number on the front – in a different colour each year – and on the back cover, a simple tracklisting in Arial Sans. And since then, it’s been an annual event – last year, 2012, was my 16th compilation and I don’t plan on stopping any time soon.
Why did I start? Well, practically it was a good way of collecting the very best of what I was listening to, and having it all there in one go. Also, friends and family began asking for copies, and it was a chance to show off a little bit of my music tastes to them, and maybe convince them to buy a couple of records that they didn’t know existed. Like any good mixtape. And with the advent of Facebook, I can talk about them and distribute them much more easily. End-of-year mixtapes are not a concept I would dare take credit for – they’ve been around long before I ever was – but it’s been pleasing to see a few of my friends be inspired enough to start doing it for themselves.
But most of all, I quickly realised that as I was doing it, I was collecting snapshots of myself at a given point in time. I’ve just recently finished sending copies of the Soundtrack To 2012 to people, while also giving a listen to the 1997 edition as part of the ‘research’ for this blog. This is not the 34-year-old Graham picking his favourite songs of 1997, it’s the Graham of the time – well, more accurately, my 21-year-old self remembering what my 18-year-old self was listening to. And though many of the songs are very good indeed – ‘Bachelorette’ by Bjork still sounds utterly transcendental – you’ve got songs that have become weary from over-familiarity (The Verve), songs that seemed great at the time but now seem pompous (Oasis), and some points where I just think… I was listening to that? (Alisha’s Attic). But what you hear, for better or for worse, is the choices of me at 18. My tastes changed over time and you can hear it in the slow progression of the mixes you’ll be hearing. As time has gone on, doing an end-of-year mix has really motivated me to keep searching for new music. Sometimes the words ‘music snob’ get thrown at me and there’s an element of truth, but I’d rather keep looking for something new rather than just be one of those bores who thinks that the best era of music ever was the era that he/she was 18 in.
And over the coming year I’ll be posting every single one of my Soundtracks, at the rate of about one disc a week. I’m starting at 1997 disc one this week, and I’ll work my way through all of them (including the Camp Mason Songs Of The Summer CDs, which were a sort-of spin off of my own series, and a best-of-the-first-10-years compilation I made) until I reach my 2012 editions in late November if I can keep to the timeframe – leaving me enough time to post the 2013 edition in December.
I’ll post them all on here, with links to my Mixcloud page. I didn’t even know that Mixcloud existed until last month, when my friend Dan posted his own best-of-2012 mix on the site. When I realised that the site was completely legal, it seemed like the natural thing to follow Dan’s lead. And one of the great things about Mixcloud is that you throw a few tags on there and people are listening right away without any need for me to promote it.
How do I pick the songs? I have just a few ground rules – maximum two songs per artist (split across discs if possible), and all songs must have been released in some shape or form during the year in question. As time went on (starting in about 2002 I think), I relaxed this rule a bit to allow for songs that weren’t released during the year – I call them ‘wildcards’, and I’d typically allow three or four maximum.
I have thought long and hard about making minor edits to the tracklisting to try and gloss over a few shocking choices I made – but decided against it. Why rewrite history? What you’ll hear are the exact same tracklistings and running orders that they always have been. The only slight difference will be that I’ll have mixed some of the early soundtracks again (just because the source CDs for them which I burned to iTunes turned out to be knackered). By clicking on the Mixcloud timelines, you’ll also be able to buy tracks you like directly.
Please do keep coming back to this blog and share your thoughts via Twitter, Facebook and on this blog itself. It’ll be more fun to know that someone’s listening in, maybe listening to a new mix each week in the office to make their work day go a little bit faster. I hope that you discover plenty of music that you like – and forgive me for the stuff that you don’t.
PS. A doff of the metaphorical cap to Spacemen 3’s Natty Brooker who inspired this blog’s background artwork.