Building the Perfect Party Playlist

A friend recently asked me for some recommendations on putting together a music playlist for a party. And while I’m pretty sure he was just asking for some song suggestions, I decided that what he really needed was something much more valuable: my advice.

Sure, I could have simply told him that drunk Gen Xers like “Mr. Jones” by Counting Crowes. But that would be both accurate and helpful, two things I’m not fond of being. (I kid.) (Not really.)

So here goes – my proprietary approach to building the perfect party playlist:

One List

First you’ll need to decide whether one playlist will suffice or if you’ll need multiple playlists to properly structure the flow of the evening. A keg party usually needs one big playlist. A fancy dinner party will probably require two lists: one for cocktails and one for dinner. And I always keep a ‘70s dance mix up my sleeve for the late night bump-and-grind crowd.

Two Decades

Think about who’s coming to your party and how old they are. Most peoples’ interest in music tends to peak in college, so build your list around the era that most partygoers were in college. The later the night gets – and the drunker your crowd gets – the more you should move backwards in time. Booze-infused people tend to get nostalgic for the music that was around when they were kids. That’s your prime window: the 20 years between childhood and college for your average attendee.

Three Genres

While I’m perfectly content to listen to late ‘60s/early ‘70s hippie rock all day, every day, not everyone has the sophisticated taste in music that I do. Therefore I always make sure that three genres are well-represented in my party playlists: rock, pop and R&B. For the most part you’re going to want to avoid the polarizing genres of blues, jazz, rap and country. (Unless you’re a big Cowboy Troy fan, obviously.)

Four Minutes

I’ve often said that good songs don’t even get cooking until the fifth minute. Hell, I’m listening to “Cowboy Movie” right now, which clocks in at a healthy 8:26. But no party playlist should contain any songs over four minutes. A good mix will feature a lot of variety, which means that not everybody will dig every song. The best way to keep the momentum going for everyone is to make sure the songs change pretty quickly – which sadly means no long jams.

Five Last Tips

1) If you’re making a themed list (e.g. Christmas, Halloween, St. Patrick’s Day) keep the specialty music to no more than 25% of the list. (No one can take that much U2.)

2) Lesser-known hits from well-known artists always play well. Too much Top 20 and you’ll sound like a shuffle radio station; too many obscure bands and people will get bored.

3) Limit the number of songs from any one band. (Especially U2.)

4) Avoid songs with depressing chord structures and lyrics – they’ll subconsciously ruin the party. As the great Nigel Tufnel once said: “It’s part of a trilogy, a musical trilogy I’m working on in D minor which is the saddest of all keys, I find. People weep instantly when they hear it, and I don’t know why.”

5) Seriously, no U2.


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