Pass It On

Your personal soundtrack = the perfect holiday gift

I have some married friends who send out genius homemade holiday cards, so funny and meticulously planned I'm sure I'm not the only person who looks forward to getting one in the mail, wondering how they'll outdo their previous creations. These two are obsessive collectors of various hard-to-find goodies -- '50s vinyl with glamorous album covers, glass salt and pepper shakers, deco clocks, and even vintage wrapping paper -- and last year's card featured an eye-candy photo of their coolest antique Christmas ornaments. On the flip side was candid, cheeky commentary about their acquisitions.

They told me their creative idea for this year's card, but I'm sworn to secrecy.

Another couple always makes artsy invites for a daylong cookies-and-cocktails party, a family affair in the afternoon that caters to grown-ups after the kiddies have crashed out at night. It would be unthinkable to miss the yearly schmooze fest. And my aspiring-beauty-mogul friend told me that the custom bath and body concoctions she made last Christmas were a hit, so she's whipping up another batch of yummy potions for this year's gift.

Especially right about now -- when stress and shopping burnout threaten to take away the simple pleasures of giving and receiving, of spending time with your favorite people -- there's so much to be said for personal gestures and homemade gifts, small-scale traditions that crop up organically and then take on a life of their own.

No surprise, my favorite do-it-yourself holiday ritual is all about music.

When I head back East every Christmas, it's the only time of the year I get to see a certain bunch of old friends in one place. They're all spread out in different cities now, but somehow we manage to meet up at the same small-town bar to drink too much beer, catch up on each other's lives, and share copies of our Christmas comps.

Everybody puts together a CD mix of the stuff they've been listening to -- the soundtracks of their lives, for that particular year -- and then makes plenty of copies to hand out to whomever shows up. So for the effort of rounding up one batch of good music (and for little expense), each person gets to bring home several more compilations.

It started several years ago, when one friend showed up at the bar with copies of an impressive homemade hardcore comp. After that, we all jumped in on making one. Some have had color inserts and inside-joke titles, while others have been bare-bones creations with something scrawled in Sharpie on the CD, and a photocopied track list if you were lucky.

A couple guys who spend way more time digging through dusty crates of old vinyl than shopping for new CDs actually made some amazing mixes of rare stuff from the '60s and '70s . . . on cassette tapes. Ten years ago, I still had racks and racks of tapes in my collection, but these days tape players are so obsolete that it was truly hard to find a way to listen to those particular comps. (The effort was worth it. I have a whole new appreciation for Yoko Ono now.)

Each CD inevitably reveals something interesting about the person who made it -- who had a bad breakup or got a new girlfriend that year, who's branched out into new genres, who's feeling nostalgic, or even who's obsessed with the same random bands that I am, even though they live in a different time zone. There's always a range of sounds, from indie rock and hip-hop to metal and alt-country, and it's a great way to discover new acts. I found out about My Morning Jacket and Dungen long before they blew up in the press, thanks to a couple of pals with great taste.

The potheads and skate punks might have turned into big-city professionals, but everyone's still as picky about music as ever.

This year, I started feeling the pressure to choose songs back in late September when that Bob Dylan documentary aired on PBS, and my husband said, "I think we have to put some Dylan on this year's comp." He had his mind made up about going in a rootsy direction. I was thinking more about rock and hip-hop -- stuff I'd been keeping to myself and listening to in my car. We made peace by settling on doing his-and-hers mixes.

But when it came down to it, our grandiose ideas of doing a handmade sleeve to hold two discs fizzled out as reality and practicality set in. Just the other night, we finally sat down in front of the computer to take turns clicking and dragging songs into a single new playlist. (iTunes has made the process considerably easier than it was the first time around, when we got by with clunkier software.) We honed the comp down to 21 songs, spent at least another hour playing around with the sequencing, then burned a test copy to listen to the next day.

Oddly enough, our mix is nothing like either one of us expected, and we love it. It's extremely funky, with lots of percussion-heavy grooves, like Queens of the Stone Age's "Little Sister" and the new remix of Beck's "Clap Hands." There's no Dylan, but Two Gallants sound a little like him. We've got a lot of danceable indie stuff -- Bloc Party, Of Montreal -- and some older tracks like a Doors demo and a circa-1989 Nine Inch Nails song to commemorate seeing Trent Reznor three times this year. We've even gone international, with the Bollywood-glam Kronos Quartet and a ton of Brazilian sounds, like Curumin, and Nouvelle Vague.

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