Illustrations by Steve Parke
In the realm of the senses, enchantment can take many forms, as you well know. Enchantment may come visually in a beautiful room or image or vista.
It may come through scent, in petrichor, perfume, or potpourri. It may come through taste in food or drink or even snowdrops. It may come through touch, in the brush of a fabric, a gentle breeze, or a lover’s kiss.
And of course, enchantment can come through sound, perhaps as simply as the pure tone of a distant bell or as sublimely as the roar of a waterfall. I am a child of the 1970s who came of age in the ’80s. A musical omnivore from a very young age, I have spent forty years collecting music and working as a dark alternative DJ, so it should be no surprise that I find something singularly enchanting about a well-curated playlist. In the ’80s, a playlist was a physical object: a mixtape, painstakingly compiled from songs recorded off records and other cassettes.
In the ’90s, it was a mix CD, pulled together from digital tracks and burned on a disc. For a little while, playlists even floated around on thumb drives. More recently, we’ve given each other digital playlists on an app or a streaming platform, with no physical artifacts involved. What hasn’t changed is that I make playlists for many different contexts: dinner parties, workouts, rainy days, Sunday mornings.
As the cooler weather moves in and the days grow shorter, more time indoors might mean more opportunities to listen to music, and I’m here as a friendly stranger to compare notes with you on the pleasures of making enchanted—maybe even bewitching—playlists.
Because I wouldn’t be surprised if you’d made at least one playlist for the purpose of enchanting yourself or others, no? For this witching season you’ll be decorating enchanting rooms, choosing something enchanting to burn, brewing enchanting teas—what better way to bind all these enchantments together than with a curated selection of music that stretches the magic from three dimensions into four?
Taste, as always, is personal. I wouldn’t presume to know what music you find bewitching, so I’m not here to present the definitive enchanted playlist (though I do have some songs to share that might entice you into broadening your horizons). I am here, though, to pay tribute to the pleasures of making playlists for the purposes of enchantment. Take a stroll through the possibilities with me, won’t you?
There is a version of an enchanted playlist that is pretty widely known, I would guess, one dominated by what I would call Goddess Pop or maybe White Magic Women (and what a splendid genre that is). This sort of playlist is the home to
“Rhiannon” or “Gypsy” or “Rooms on Fire” (all hail Stevie Nicks!) and possibly Sarah McLachlan. (“Into the Fire” is a personal favorite.) Perhaps some Kate Bush (if you haven’t heard “Nocturn,” do check that one out) or maybe something even more ethereal, like Loreena McKennitt’s “The Mummers’ Dance.”
If that is to your liking, I’d like to recommend “Witchcraft” by Book of Love, “Lake” by Anna Domino, “Blinding” by Florence + the Machine, and “You’ll Be Mine” by the Pierces—and that’s just scratching the surface, as you well know if you’re a fan of Goddess Pop. On the ethereal side, I’d give you “Cloudless” by Cranes, “Mesmerism” by Dead Can Dance, “Cursum Perficio” by Enya, and “Love Song” by Ofra Haza.
Maybe your inner witch is drawn to enchantment flavored with a little more darkness, even a hint of danger. That playlist might feature “Spellbound” by Siouxsie and the Banshees and “A Forest” by the Cure. If this is your genre of choice, I’m very happy to recommend “D for Desire” by All About Eve, “Shallow Then Halo” by the Cocteau Twins, “The Burning Season” by Faith and the Muse, “Garden of Delight (Hereafter)” by the Mission UK, and “Song to the Siren” by This Mortal Coil. As someone with an abiding love for the goth canon, I can tell you that it is deep and rich with darkly alluring tracks.
Maybe Stevie Nicks is your doorway to a more rock-oriented playlist, one that also might include Patti Smith’s “Dancing Barefoot.” In that case, I offer the Cult’s “Brother Wolf, Sister Moon,” Love and Rockets’ “Seventh Dream of Teenage Heaven,” Pink Floyd’s “Learning to Fly,” and, if Halloween is near, maybe even the Eagles’ “Witchy Woman” or Donovan’s “Season of the Witch.” There are mystical and bewitching corners in many a rock discography.
Sometimes enchantment can feel a bit gendered, somewhat confined to the feminine, but I can imagine a lovely mix called Enchanted Boys, perhaps leading off with “Wrapped Around Your Finger,” by the Police and maybe including “Living a Boy’s Adventure Tale” by a-ha (yes, that a-ha!), “Zamba” from Bryan Ferry, “Mercy Street” by Peter Gabriel, “To Look at You” by INXS, and “Mysterious Ways” by U2.
The point I’m trying to make is that no matter what genre you favor, there is magic to be found there. R&B? How about “Close to You” by Maxi Priest, “Caught Up in the Rapture,” by Anita Baker, “Spell” by Deon Estus, and “Haunt Me” by Sade?
Synthpop? “Continuum” by Bel Canto, “Euphoria (Firefly)” by Delerium, “For the Love of Big Brother” by Eurythmics and “Keep the Streets Empty for Me” by Fever Ray. Even musical theater and film have enchantment to offer: “Some Enchanted Evening” from South Pacific. Too on the nose? How about “Love to Me” from Light in the Piazza, or “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” from Pal Joey, or even “Magic” from Xanadu? And genres are by no means sacred cows: Mix and match! If you like the songs, who cares what genre they come from?
Making a playlist is a bit like furnishing a room or making a cake from scratch: Amazing experiences await when you choose the right things, put them in the right combinations and the right order, and trust your senses. Here are some helpful tips for curating an enchanted playlist.
Find Your Purpose.
I try to articulate what I want a playlist to do. Do I want it to keep me enchanted on a long drive or flight? Do I want it to enchant me as I fall asleep?
In this winter season, do I want it to enchant my guests at a bonfire or a séance? It’s also helpful to determine a desired length. Do I want a tight hour? Ninety minutes? Two hours?
Seek and Find.
I go to my music collection, and I always start in divergent mode: I take a stroll through my library and dump any song that might be a possibility into a placeholder playlist. I’m trying to hold in my mind the particular flavor of enchantment I want, and if something seems like it would be a good fit for the soundtrack of that movie, in it goes. I’m not thinking about sequencing yet. I’m quite sure that not all of these tracks will make it into the mix. But frequently I am surprised to find that things I thought were a sure bet don’t make it to the final mix, so at this point I’m giving anything that feels halfway possible a shot.
Revel in the Possibilities.
Once I have my placeholder playlist filled, I proceed as though it is at least twice the length of my desired playlist. That way I can really winnow down to the truly golden options and not have to settle for tracks that are good but not great for my theme.
Narrow It Down.
The first round is usually pretty easy. There will be tracks that, now that I’m seeing and hearing everything I chose, are clearly not strong options. I delete them from the playlist and don’t look back. Kill Your Darlings. Sometimes that first round of cutting will get me close to my desired duration, and I only have to make a few difficult choices. But near the end of last year I was making a playlist for the winter solstice, as I am prone to do, and after a round of winnowing, I still had close to four hours of music. My personal firm limit for these mixes is two. That made for a sweetly tough exercise, thanking some excellent songs but telling them, “Not this time.”
Home In on the Vibe.
I start to think about the arc or journey my playlist might take from start to finish. I may notice that much of my list is acoustic, in which case the really synthy and electronic tracks might be a bit jarring among them. Or I might notice that my list is a bit heavy on male vocals, in which case I’m going to hold on to the female vocals and look for guys to winnow out. (You don’t have to use these rules! Notice your own patterns and do right by them. Your patterns will be different from mine.)
Line Them Up.
At some point I will start to play with the sequencing, figuring out which song sounds right following another song. What is the best first song for this playlist, the one that will properly welcome me into this enchantment? What is the best final song, the one that sets me down where I hope to arrive? Sometimes the last notes or sounds of one song sound similar to the first notes or sounds of another. Sometimes two songs are in the same or harmonious keys. (Circle of fifths, anyone? Any music majors out there?) Sometimes one song thematically builds off another. What ultimately matters is: What order of these songs pleases me the most?
Look for Perfection.
This phase—sequencing while simultaneously making some final cuts—is deliciously arduous. I obsess over this because I know that if I succeed, this collection of songs will transform into something greater than the sum of its parts. The playlist’s collective effect will be more enchanting than any single song by itself. That’s when I feel I have succeeded with a playlist.
Change Your Mind.
Since I imagine most of you will be working digitally, the beauty of modern enchanted playlists is that they can be edited very easily. I might listen to a mix for a few days and notice that something isn’t quite right, and there’s nothing to prevent me from going back in and making adjustments, or even going back to the library to look for something else, now that I have a clearer idea of what this playlist truly needs to be. Sometimes a song wears out its welcome. Sometimes I hear something new and rush to find the right spot for it in a playlist I already have.
Ultimately, this is most important: In the same sense that there is no wrong way to dream journal, there is no wrong way to make an enchanted playlist. The only rules that matter are the rules that get you the results you want. The only test that matters is: Does it enchant you in the way you wish to be enchanted? If so, then congratulations, you have a lovely, living creation that will last longer than any month, any cake, any candle, or any bath. Whenever you need this playlist, it will be there, and at some point in the future this playlist might even be a cherished touch point from a particularly magical season in your life.
Some final thoughts on enchanted playlists: Don’t keep them to yourself! Trade playlists with friends; that’s both a lovely gift and an excellent way to discover new music. And if you are inclined, make cover art for your playlists. That is one of the things I truly miss about the old days of mixtapes and mix CDs: spending another few hours to make a collage that fit inside the plastic case like the cover of a book, giving sweet hints about what the listener would hear. I know that doesn’t apply to digital playlists, but on occasion I’ve made those collages anyway and used them as wallpaper or a screensaver on my laptop, which is delightful in its own way.
Closing with fond wishes that this winter season is enhanced by your perfect enchanted playlist.
Check out Nathan Kotecki’s writing and his DJ work at linktr.ee/20cb.