Whether you're organizing an office holiday party, a classy Christmas cocktail party or inviting friends over for dinner and drinks, a well-made and compiled playlist is essential for setting the right mood. The music you choose will influence the way your guests will move and mingle with each other all evening. I recently organized a highly successful cocktail party, and I'd thought I'd share a little of what I did.
So here's a 5 steps to deck out fantastic music in time for your own holiday party.
1. Play timeless classics.
Timeless classics should be the bulwark of your music, possibly up to 70% of your playlist as they are universally loved. For cocktail and lounge-style parties, the selection is typically mellow with soft beats and not prone to drown out conversation, usually involving instrumental jazz or soft vocals.
Instrumental music is therapeutic. Research has shown improvements in verbal performance and enhanced relaxation with the use of instrumental music - perfect for what you're trying to achieve, what with the stress of holiday planning and shopping! On the other hand, songs with strong vocals will compete for attention with guests engaged in conversation.
The best part is that you'll only need a few classic albums to form the skeleton of your playlist, maybe 3 or 4. And you don't have to cherry pick songs out of these albums; usually you can use every song. For my cocktail party, where guests would lounge in soft lighting and a fireplace, holiday jazz albums helped to set the mood. A Charlie Brown Christmas by the Vince Guaraldi Trio is great as guests of all ages will have grown up watching this holiday special. I also recommend An Oscar Peterson Christmas is also unobtrusive and soothing. Pianist Oscar Peterson revisits old songs like "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" and "I'll be home for Christmas" with his sophisticated tinkling of ivory keys. I supplemented this with two other albums - Frank Sinatra's "The Christmas Album" and the more contemporary Michael Buble's "Let it Snow" EP. The vocals are lower pitch and won't drown out conversation. Be careful when choosing female vocalists, as the higher pitch tends to be more distracting. Try the songs out before adding them in.
Of course, for a dance party, you will want more energetic songs with stronger beat. In that case, your goal is to get your guests to dance rather than converse quietly. A mix of jive-able jazz and classic rock would work well. Transiberian Orchestra has several holiday related albums with a lot of energy that could be used for this.
2. Find contemporary music for your audience.
Is it an office party with ages ranging from 25 â 60? Or maybe it's a hip crowd of 20-somethings. You want to pick music that your guests are comfortable and vaguely familiar with. Luckily, well known artists have been releasing holiday albums or EPs since the turn of the century.
If you are entertaining a younger crowd, your job is simple. Turn on your local pop radio station, grab your notebook, and take down the name and artist of songs that will mix well. Most radio stations play holiday music right after Thanksgiving, so you have lots of time to peruse the radio waves. If you find it hard to figure out the artist name, use apps like Shazam or Soundhound. These apps will listen to a snippet of the song, search their online databases, and come back with all the details. I use Soundhound on my phone regularly to figure out what's playing on the radio, in cafes or in stores. If you don't have access to these apps, politely ask someone who works at the shop or cafe what's currently playing. They will usually be more than happy to look it up on their computer or speaker system.
For older audiences, identify popular artists by decade. Then search to see whether they have released any Christmas songs on Google, iTunes or Amazon. I usually use " + Christmas" or " + holiday" as my search term. Test to see whether the songs you find will play well alongside the classics that you have chosen.
For my party, I was catering to a lot baby boomers (which in the US had developed a strong cultural identity by the 1960s), so I narrowed my search to the 1960s and 70s, coming up with Simon & Garfunkel, the Beatles, Jackson 5, Elvis Presley and so forth. A search identified 7 Beatles Christmas Records, 1 Elvis Presley album, 1 Jackson 5 album, among others. I ended up using several Jackson 5 songs.
It's important when choosing contemporary music not to alienate any guests. i.e. Don't play Rihanna if you're hosting a party of retirees, or Wham if you're hosting a teenage dance. If you're not sure about a song, try asking someone close that you're going to invite - or don't risk it!
Contemporary music is great for powering nostalgia, which can lead to some good conversation starters or stories! Make sure your playlist has 10 â 20% contemporary music.
3. Throw yourself a bone too (and other miscellaneous additions).
It's your party, so make sure you have music that you will enjoy thoroughly. After all, what's a party without a happy host? I picked a few favourite artists with songs that would blend in well with the winter theme, including Train, Phantom Planet, Maroon 5, Ben Folds, and John Pizzarelli.
On the note of theme, don't stick to just holiday music! You don't want a playlist with a thousand variations of "Winter Wonderland". Include music that blends well with the other songs you've already collected. This is a good time to sample your list as it is and figure out what's missing. Is your list too slow or soft? Include some faster tempo pieces. Too many vocal pieces? Get out some instrumental pieces.
I felt that my list may be too relaxed, so I added some John Pizzarelli. Although he doesn't have any holiday themed songs, he has some well moving jazz standards. For the same reason, I added Train's "Hey Soul Sister", Ben Fold's "Sentimental Guy" and Maroon 5's "Sunday Morning" (For the last song of a Saturday night party, no doubt). Need more uplifting music? Try sampling movie soundtracks. I used some winter-themed soundtracks from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe".
Be sure to have a good 10 â 20% of miscellaneous music your playlist to improve variety.
By now you should have 4 â 5 hours of music. If you're short, go back and add more songs. If you're really short, go find another classic album to throw in. You should aim for having an extra hour or two of music so you can start playing as guests arrive, or if your party lasts longer than expected.
4. Sort, sort, sort!
You should have all your music now, but don't think you can hit shuffle and walk away. Sorting your music is equally important, especially for varying the dynamic of your party or for timing specific events. Mix up the tempo and pitch of your playlist as much as possible. Too many fast songs in a row will drain energy from the room too fast. Too much soft music at one time may put people to sleep. An easy way to start is to vary the artists and break up those complete albums you're using. Hitting "shuffle" a few times on your iTunes or other playlist manager will work nicely. From there, drag songs in gradually increasing or decreasing tempo.
I recommend that you start with higher energy songs to begin with as guests are arriving to set the mood and to fill the room first. Your songs should gradually soften as guests begin to mingle and settle into conversations. Pick up the tempo again to subtly indicate that dinner is served. Make sure you throw in some silly songs to end the party on a happy note.
You will find that some music will always act as great transitions, so save those songs when you need them.
5. Crossfades and other fine details.
Most songs will have some dead space at the beginning and at the end. In your playlist manager, make sure you set some crossfades to transition from song to song without several seconds of awkward silence! If you're using iTunes, you can find this in the Playback tab of the preferences pane. If you use crossfades, you will want to sample the last ten seconds of each song to make sure the two songs aren't clashing (i.e. dissonant). The best transitions have songs that end and begin on the same note. Sampling through each song like this may be time consuming, but will be well worth it when you hear that seamless transition during the party.
Inevitably, you will have some songs that are louder than others. Make sure you use your playlist manager's built-in volume control to keep the playback volume the same. In iTunes, this is called Sound Check, and can also be found in the Playback tab of the preferences pane.
Lastly, you will want some way of controlling your playlist during the party. Keep a remote in your pocket during the party to adjust the volume or to change songs if needed. I use the Apple Remote app on my iPhone to remotely control the playlist on my computer through the wireless network.
At this point, you should have a rocking playlist ready to go. Hit play and enjoy!
If you want an example, here's the finished playlist that I used for my party:
|1||Let's Never Stop Falling In Love||Pink Martini - Hang On Little Tomato||Hang On Little Tomato|
|2||Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow||Bing Crosby||White Christmas|
|3||Sweet Georgia Brown||John Pizzarelli||Dear Mr. Cole|
|4||The Christmas Song||Michael Buble||Let It Snow (EP)|
|5||Jingle Bells||Frank Sinatra||The Christmas Album|
|6||Santa Claus is Coming to Town||Oscar Peterson||An Oscar Peterson Christmas|
|7||Shine on Your Shoes||John Pizzarelli With The George Shearing Quintet||The Rare Delight of You|
|8||Linus And Lucy||Vince Guaraldi Trio||A Charlie Brown Christmas|
|9||Sentimental Guy||Ben Folds||Songs For Silverman|
|10||Overture||Trans-Siberian Orchestra||Beethoven's Last Night|
|11||The First Noel||Trans-Siberian Orchestra||Christmas Eve And Other Stories|
|12||Give Love On Christmas Day||Jackson 5||Christmas Album|
|14||I'll Be Home For Christmas||Michael Buble||Let It Snow (EP)|
|15||Father Christmas [bonus]||The Kinks||Misfits|
|16||O Holy Night||Trans-Siberian Orchestra||Christmas Eve And Other Stories|
|17||Christmas Waltz||Oscar Peterson||An Oscar Peterson Christmas|
|18||Quality Time||John Pizzarelli||Knowing You|
|19||O Tannenbaum||Vince Guaraldi Trio||A Charlie Brown Christmas|
|20||Style Is Coming Back In Style||John Pizzarelli||Dear Mr. Cole|
|21||Skating||Vince Guaraldi||A Charlie Brown Christmas|
|22||Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer||Jackson 5||Christmas Album|
|23||God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen||Oscar Peterson||An Oscar Peterson Christmas|
|24||Christmas Time Is Here||Vince Guaraldi Trio||A Charlie Brown Christmas|
|25||Wizards In Winter||Trans-Siberian Orchestra||The Lost Christmas Eve|
|26||Somebody's baby||El Perro Del Mar||From The Valley To The Stars|
|27||Christmas Pipes||Celtic Woman||A Christmas Celebration|
|28||Mistletoe And Holly||Frank Sinatra||The Christmas Album|
|29||What Child Is This||Vince Guaraldi Trio||A Charlie Brown Christmas|
|30||White Christmas||Michael Buble||Let It Snow (EP)|
|31||There Are Maybe Ten or Twelve...||A.C. Newman||There Are Maybe Ten or Twelve... - Single|
|32||White Is In The Winter Night||Enya||And Winter Came|
|33||Promises To Keep||Trans-Siberian Orchestra||Christmas Eve And Other Stories|
|34||How About You?||John Pizzarelli||Dear Mr. Sinatra|
|35||Una Notte A Napoli||Pink Martini - Hang On Little Tomato||Hang On Little Tomato|
|36||Christmas Is Coming||Vince Guaraldi Trio||A Charlie Brown Christmas|
|37||Away in a Manger||Oscar Peterson||An Oscar Peterson Christmas|
|38||If Dreams Come True||John Pizzarelli With The George Shearing Quintet||The Rare Delight of You|
|39||Remember||Trans-Siberian Orchestra||The Lost Christmas Eve|
|40||Christmas Jazz||Trans-Siberian Orchestra||The Lost Christmas Eve|
|41||Winter Wonderland||Phantom Planet||
|42||Greensleeves||Vince Guaraldi||A Charlie Brown Christmas|
|43||Be Careful It's My Heart||John Pizzarelli With The George Shearing Quintet||The Rare Delight of You|
|44||White Christmas||Bing Crosby||White Christmas|
|45||Winter Light||Tim Finn||The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Soundtrack)|
|46||It Might As Well Be Spring||John Pizzarelli||After Hours|
|47||Grown-Up Christmas List||Michael Buble||Let It Snow (EP)|
|48||Aspetta Mi||Pink Martini - Hang On Little Tomato||Hang On Little Tomato|
|49||Silent Night||Oscar Peterson||An Oscar Peterson Christmas|
|50||Christmas Time Is Here||Vince Guaraldi Trio||A Charlie Brown Christmas|
|51||Panis Angelicus||Celtic Woman||A Christmas Celebration|
|52||Under the Weather||KT Tunstall||Eye to the Telescope|
|53||Christmas Canon Rock||Trans-Siberian Orchestra||The Lost Christmas Eve|
|54||Carol of the Bells||Celtic Woman||A Christmas Celebration|
|55||I've Got The World On A String||Michael Buble||Call Me Irresponsible|
|56||Up On The House Top||Jackson 5||Christmas Album|
|57||Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town||Jackson 5||Christmas Album|
|58||What Child is This||Oscar Peterson||An Oscar Peterson Christmas|
|59||Jingle Bells||Oscar Peterson||An Oscar Peterson Christmas|
|60||Over the Rainbow||Ingrid Michaelson||Be OK|
|61||I'll Be Home For Christmas||Frank Sinatra||The Christmas Album|
|62||Winter Wonderland||Oscar Peterson||An Oscar Peterson Christmas|
|64||They Can't Take That Away From Me||John Pizzarelli||After Hours|
|65||Zak and Sara||Ben Folds||Rockin' The Suburbs|
|66||Everyone's Rooting For You||Sondre Lerche and the Faces Down Quartet||Duper Sessions|
|67||Let it Snow||Oscar Peterson||An Oscar Peterson Christmas|
|68||Father Christmas||Harry Gregson-Williams||The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Soundtrack)|
|69||The Christmas Song||Vince Guaraldi Trio||A Charlie Brown Christmas|
|70||I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus||Jackson 5||Christmas Album|
|71||Hey, Soul Sister||Train||Save Me San Francisco|
|72||Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas||Oscar Peterson||An Oscar Peterson Christmas|
|73||My Little Drum||Vince Guaraldi Trio||A Charlie Brown Christmas|
|74||On The Sunny Side Of The Street||John Pizzarelli||Dear Mr. Cole|
|75||The Christmas Waltz||Frank Sinatra||The Christmas Album|
|76||Stars And Midnight Blue||Enya||And Winter Came|
|77||Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow||Michael Buble||Let It Snow (EP)|
|78||The Christmas Song||Frank Sinatra||The Christmas Album|
|79||Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas||Frank Sinatra||The Christmas Album|
|80||I'll be Home For Christmas||Oscar Peterson||An Oscar Peterson Christmas|
|81||L-O-V-E||John Pizzarelli||Dear Mr. Cole|
|82||Let it Snow||Celtic Woman||A Christmas Celebration|
|83||White Christmas||Oscar Peterson||An Oscar Peterson Christmas|
|84||O Christmas Tree||Oscar Peterson||An Oscar Peterson Christmas|
|85||Across The Land||Sondre Lerche and the Faces Down Quartet||Duper Sessions|
|86||I Know That You Know||John Pizzarelli||All of Me|
|87||Too Marvelous For Words||John Pizzarelli||Dear Mr. Cole|
|88||O Little Town of Bethlehem||Oscar Peterson||An Oscar Peterson Christmas|
|89||I've Just Seen A Face||John Pizzarelli||Meets the Beatles|
|90||Eist a Stor||Maire Breathnach||The Essential Celtic Woman Collection CDII|
|91||Untitled||Sondre Lerche and the Faces Down Quartet||Duper Sessions|
|92||Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life (Company Bow)||Monty Python's Spamalot||Original Cast Recording|