Forget Sharing Playlists—The Mix CD Deserves a Major Comeback

mix cd revival: preteen holding up a handwritten labeled mix CD, surrounded by four other mix cds in colored cases
Paula Boudes for PureWow

It was a chilly evening in 2006. My eighth-grade boyfriend and I were trading Christmas gifts in our local park by moonlight. We were shivering but dealing, because when you’re 13 and in search of privacy, loitering is your only option—winter be damned. We also had limited funds at this age, so he gave me the most thoughtful, personal gift he could afford: a mix CD.

Both of us being music nerds, I was elated. I felt totally charmed by the handwritten tracklist (I was sure I’d cherish it forever, but once the flimsy case cracked, I transferred the disc to my Edward Scissorhands CD case, sans tracklist). It was in this instant that I vowed to give mix CDs to anyone I cared about for any occasion, or none at all. I also swooned over the tracks themselves—which I can tell you number by number, since I’ve kept the CD and my boombox in mint condition all these years.

He started off strong with our first kiss song, “Dani California.” A rerun of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ second SNL performance was playing on his aunt’s TV when I made the move. Next up was “Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight,” a tune from This Is Spinal Tap, which we watched on one of our first dates. “Sweet Child O’ Mine” took spot four (could he be any more obsessed with me?), alongside other ’80s gems like “Let’s Go” by The Cars and “Surrender” by Cheap Trick.

The ’70s tracks—“Barracuda” by Heart, “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” by The Rolling Stones and “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac—seemed to say I know you so well, while his turbulent ’90s picks—“Got Me Wrong” by Alice in Chains, “Pepper” by Butthole Surfers, “Learn to Fly” by the Foo Fighters and two covers by Reel Big Fish—said I want you to know me too. As for his early aughts contributions, he included one of my most beloved Audioslave songs, two Queens of the Stone Age tracks (one of his favorite bands at the time) and “Smiley Faces” by Gnarls Barkley—nary a boy band or pop princess in sight.  

My eyes scanned the jewel case, finding meaning everywhere there was (and wasn’t) some. “I tried to add ‘More Than a Feeling’ but LimeWire wouldn’t let me,” he said, knowing I’d been searching for our ~song~ from the moment he handed me the gift.

mix cd revival: nevermind by nirvana, one more time by britney spears and jagged little pill atop a photo of a guy listening to a walkman with a girl behind him, next to a stack of cds and a boombox
Paula Boudes for PureWow

Such was the dilemma of the era: You could pirate any album, song or movie you wanted from some stranger on the internet for free, but you couldn’t guarantee quality…or that it was virus-free. The artists didn’t get a single cent, but as an adolescent with a growing iTunes library of misnamed, fuzzy MP3s, her mom’s endless supply of blank discs and no money, the thought never crossed my conscience (even when that “FBI agent” gave an assembly at my middle school and told us they’d track down anyone who stole music off the internet—just me?).

Whether it was the party favor at your BFF’s bat mitzvah, a gift from your camp counselor or your own beloved collection reserved for aimless, angsty drives, mix CDs are deeply personal time capsules that deliver us to a simpler era at the touch of a button. Nowadays, most of us pay a modest monthly fee to have access to the works of just about every artist under the sun. We may not “own” the songs, but we can listen to them freely without the worry of viruses and trash quality clouding the experience. To gift someone a curated selection of songs, we make a playlist and send them the link. But am I the only one who finds this modern substitute…impersonal?

Pushing Play on Physical Formats

I’m betting many music lovers will agree. CDs are once again having a moment, perhaps thanks to Gen Z’s fascination with ancient artifacts like disposable cameras. Streaming is still the name of the game, but physical music sales were up 4 percent last year, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. (No surprise here, but Taylor Swift’s Midnights sold the most physical copies, 640,000 of them being CDs.) Vinyl is really leading the way—consumers bought more LPs than CDs for the first time since 1987, says the RIAA. Nevertheless, the desire to own one’s favorite music in any tangible way is clearly strong.

Since their U.S. inception in 1983 (you read that right—40 years ago), CDs promised fans crisp sound without all the fuzz of vinyl or cassettes. They fully dominated the ’90s and 2000s, largely due to their portability (remember Walkmans?) and affordability. Plus, they looked shiny and hi-tech, like a piece of the future. Once MP3 players and iPods entered the scene with their seemingly limitless memory and even smaller size, CDs didn’t stand a chance.

mix cd revival: a quote in black text on white background with pink quotation marks that reads "The '70s tracks seemed to say I know you so well, while his turbulent 90s picks said I want you to know me too"

Perhaps they were a mere steppingstone on the road to a digital music landscape. And maybe LPs will outlive them, with their collectible design, retro charm and striking artwork. (Streaming makes artists more money—albeit not much—than piracy, but tangible merch keeps musicians afloat, CDs included, so I don’t see any of these formats being eradicated anytime soon.) But think about it: When were you ever able to personalize an LP for your loved one? And where are those Napster-fueled relics you loved now? Esquire’s Dave Holmes put it best: “Everything you bought from 2003 to 2009 is stuck on a dusty iPod for which a charger can no longer be found, or on a MacBook that’s three MacBooks ago.”

An Intentional Labor of Love

CDs stick with us for the long haul, mixes included. In my many hours making mixes for my loved ones, I learned that mix CDs’ magic is inextricable from their limitations. Unlike a playlist, you only have 18 chances to make an impact on the listener. If the song choice didn’t strike a chord (sorry), perhaps it was a handwritten tracklist (crafted with glitter gel pen, if you’re fancy) that would. The mixtape generation worked even harder to make their masterpieces; the act of receiving one alone was enough to make you feel loved, even if the songs weren’t your vibe.

The order of the tracks was just as key as the tracks themselves. I’d never place too many songs of the same mood next to each other, and there could be no repeat artists. The most sentimental track would go last, or second to last if it could act as a solid crescendo for the whole mix. Of course, order is important to artists as well: Albums are constructed in a specific order on purpose, and physical formats encourage the listener to hear the work as it was intended to be heard, rather than shuffled on a playlist.

mix cd revival: vinyl record, cassette tape, cd, mp3 player and phone with music streaming in a row, with an arrow underneath pointing to the right

Of course, CDs are also tangible, to be held and cherished forever—or stored in that slide-on visor case in your mom’s SUV. Showing someone your collection, be it vinyls, cassettes or CDs, is a profoundly intimate act. I’ve inherited tons of my parents’ records and CDs; discovering which ones are most worn and listening to them, scratches and all, makes me feel like I’m learning something shrouded and ineffable about them. Could a playlist do that?

In this “me me me!” era of social media where we’re all subconsciously fueled by faceless interactions and the delusion that we’re celebrities in our own digital microcosms, there’s something so don’t I have great taste? to me about a curated playlist, versus a mix CD that says, I made this especially for you.

Today, it can seem difficult somehow to devote our undivided attention to 70 minutes of music; then, we were willing to invest the time and emotional energy in hearing something new, something old or something weird we weren’t even sure we’d enjoy, sometimes along with the rest of the world. Like in so many other aspects of our modern society, limitless options can swiftly become a double-edged sword.

Take it from Rob Sheffield of Rolling Stone: “Streaming is not a ‘place,’ but a barrage of constant options that many fans find less optimal when you’re in the mood to actually concentrate and listen. You’re probably also streaming on a device that’s nagging you about messages you need to answer right now. Like the physical book, the physical disc just transports you deeper into the story.”

Burn, Baby, Burn

It’s for this exact reason that I feel many of us are clamoring for an “antiquated” type of listening experience. CDs may not be making a booming resurgence (K-Pop, Adele, Ariana Grande and T-Swift are responsible for much of the statistical bump), but that doesn’t mean we aren’t eager for one—perhaps without even realizing it.

mix cd revival: quote in black text reading "To gift someone a curated selection of songs, we make a playlist and send them the link. But am I the only one who finds this modern substitute…impersonal?"

Needless to say, I’m ready for the CD renaissance. I can picture it now: TikToks of teens burning mixes for their crushes and writing a tracklist, bullet journal-style, in shockingly gorgeous print (they don’t teach cursive in school anymore, guys), boomboxes and Walkmans gracing every website’s holiday gift guide, Spotify mailing us our Unwrapped playlists in personalized CD cases (OK, probably never). This revival could share the magic of mixes with new listeners, plus give the O.G. CD generation a chance to relish in the past, one where we had all the time in the world to listen to our favorite bands and zero urge to skip a song, even one we didn’t like. Physical formats urge us to connect with, invest in and experience the music we listen to. What better way to feel moved by our most treasured works than through a CD crafted especially for us?

If you’re wondering how to burn a CD in the streaming era, it’s similar to how we’d do it then. If you have an old laptop equipped with a disc drive and iTunes and a boombox or CD player, you already know what to do. But there are also plenty of platforms to buy music on (imagine: a mix CD you actually paid money to create), software that will let you burn digital versions of physical CDs and external drives, in case your computer isn’t equipped with one.

Maybe making a mix CD in 2023 seems like a tall order, but hasn’t that always been the point?

taryn pire

Food Editor

Taryn Pire is PureWow’s food editor and has been writing about all things delicious since 2016. She’s developed recipes, reviewed restaurants and investigated food trends at...