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Tuning into the 21st century

The advent of the iPod has changed the art of music compilations forever.

Recently I read with dismay that the Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, during her March visit to the US, offered the American President Barack Obama an iPod full of what were referred to as "Aussie classics".

Yes, this is as cheesy as it sounds, with the usual Aussie suspects including Kylie Minogue, INXS, Crowded House (although the frontman Neil Finn is, in fact, from New Zealand) and Savage Garden.

Granted, the iPod gift was a modern-day diplomatic token, and it's easier to carry than some old plaque. But for all its musical benefits, it is also single-handedly responsible for destroying the art of the compilation.

Creating the ultimate playlist is not defined by the sheer number of songs. Like an acrobat, the compiler walks a fine line with a low margin for error.

Back when cassettes were the main "technology", the compiler aimed to use as much of the cassette as possible. If the cassette was 60 minutes long, it was regarded as stingy if more than five minutes at the end was left unused. Alternatively, if the song-list finished halfway through the last song, then the whole compilation would be considered a failure.

And like a curator, the compiler must take the listener on a journey. A playlist should have clear peaks and troughs; moments to thrill and contemplate. If you lean too much on either you will probably give the listener a headache or encourage him to doze off.

These tips have come from my many compilation misfires. As a teenager, I attempted the Herculean task of creating a playlist for each month of my life. I figured it was cooler than keeping a diary. But by the third month, listening to the radio and waiting for a particular song so I could record it became too cumbersome, and I relegated the practice to a quarterly effort.

As I grew older and started amassing an impressive CD collection, I began compiling my annual purchases into a two-part compilation series.

In one year I divided the compilation into Sugar and Salt editions - the latter containing the sweet power pop of Semisonic, Fountains of Wayne and Fastball, while the latter contained more plaintive works by Elliot Smith and Nick Drake.

Other annual compilations were titled Jangle-Pop (dedicated to jangle guitar sounds used by bands such as the Byrds and REM) and RAWK! which was an exhausting 80-minute ode to sludgy guitar riffs.

In a way, those compilations are a good reflection of my teenage years when I found it easier to cope with things once they were clearly defined.

Now with iTunes it's virtually impossible to create a meaningful playlist, as everything can be done automatically. Disparate tracks can be synched together for a smooth listen and with a few simple clicks you can rearrange your song-list by genre or year.

And now music is "dumped" on to a playlist rather than carefully inserted.

My misgivings over this gave me my first true "I am getting old" moment of my life. I am only 29, but the times, they are a-changing.

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