I’ve Made a New Playlist Every Month for the Past Four Years

"Music is like breathing to me. I need it when I’m cleaning the house, when I'm driving down the Turnpike and when I’m elated or heartbroken on the train into Center City."

My ritual is making a monthly playlist every month — I’ve done it for the past four years. | Photo by Westend61 for Getty Images; design by Caroline Cunningham.

Welcome to Ritual, Be Well Philly’s column of essays about the low-tech, inefficient things we do that pleasurably slow us down. From taking the long way home to hand-washing dishes, these simple habits allow us to be more present — even if only for a few minutes. 

With coffee breath lingering in my mouth, pajamas still on and the birds chirping their morning song, I start on my favorite task of the month. I curl my legs towards my body and put my headphones on. I let the melodies of Tom Misch, Young the Giant and Taylor Swift wash over me. It’s time to slow down and craft my monthly playlist.

Without fail, at the end of every single month for the past four years, I’ve constructed a monthly playlist. Sometimes the playlist is only ten songs; sometimes it’s 50. But no matter the length, I always take the time to create one. It’s been even more of a necessity in 2020 — taking my usual time to focus solely on music has helped me get centered in a time when I feel anything but. It’s become a part of my routine that nothing can affect — and that temporary control is increasingly helpful to have in an otherwise uncertain time.

Like a lot of things in my life, the idea for monthly playlists originated from YouTube. In 2016, when “Favorites” videos were as popular as TikTok dances are now, I saw one person talk about their favorite songs of the month. That idea was foreign to me. At the time, I was still gritting my teeth and putting up with the iTunes Store, which didn’t afford the luxury of new music every month. Every time a holiday or special occasion came up, I would ask for iTunes gift cards. And when I received one, it became one of my most valuable possessions. I would spend hours scrolling the iTunes library, desperate to find the most worthy songs to buy. When I hit that “Are you sure you want to buy this song for $1.29?” button, it was an adrenaline rush.

Those were the days when music was a prize held behind 30 second preview barriers. But after I watched that YouTube video where the person detailed their favorite songs of the month on Spotify, I scrambled to sign up for a free trial. There’s no way Spotify could be that good, right?

Turns out that getting Spotify was one of the best decisions I made that year. Music is like breathing to me. I need it when I’m cleaning the house, when I’m driving down the Turnpike and when I’m elated or heartbroken on the train into Center City. You know how when tourists (and myself) visit the Philadelphia Art Museum steps and play the Rocky theme song? I try to recreate that movie-esque feeling in my everyday life. Gaining access to millions of songs on Spotify expanded my life’s score.

My method for finding and adding songs is just as exciting as listening to the playlist itself. First, I’ll see if there’s any new music out from artists I already love. Then, I’ll go to last month’s playlist to find more new songs. (Spotify has a feature at the bottom of every playlist that suggests more songs similar to the ones on the playlist. You can refresh that suggestion list as many times as you want.) I take an hour and slow down. I listen to tons of different songs, weeding out what’s not my taste, or what I’ve already heard.

The rest of the month will usually contain a myriad of hectic days. While doing the laundry I can dance to the rhythm of James Bay on my playlist. When driving in the rain I can skip to a softer song on the playlist to match the mood. While doing busy work I can simply hit play and it makes time zip by. Sitting down in Talula’s coffee shop with a friend and talking about music is made that much simpler when I already have the new SZA and Clairo on that month’s playlist to share.

But arguably the best part about my monthly playlists is that I can go back to any month in the past four years and see what I was listening to at the time. It’s an unconventional diary. In August 2018, I visited friends in Spain and had a long flight there — there were dozens more songs than normal on that playlist. In January 2020, a mixture of the new Harry Styles album, a few TikTok famous songs and the uplifting funky beats of Still Woozy reveal a moment when I was still hopeful about the new year.

My taste in music has evolved so much over the years. And every month, I take the time to actively engage in that evolution, and learn more about what my current tastes are. If it’s the second day of a new month and I still haven’t made my playlist, I feel incomplete and unbalanced. It’s the stolen time I take to check in with myself — what I’m feeling, what I’m liking, and what I’m hoping the month ahead will hold. No matter if I’m at home during a pandemic, relaxing on the Jersey Shore, walking to a concert at The Fillmore in better times, or writing my to-do list in Washington Square — I’ll have the beats of my monthly life soundtrack to accompany me.

Read more Ritual essays here.

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