Every host knows how important good music is when having people over. But assembling the right playlist can be hard. Maybe you spend days laboring over creating just the right collection of tunes or routinely awake with a start in the middle of the night, freaking out that you’ll be judged on what guests hear.
When Gail Simmons and her husband, Jeremy Abrams, host a party, the music is just as important as the menu. They take a divide-and-conquer approach, “I take care of food and he takes care of music,” says Simmons. For them, the menu planning comes first. In the fall, Simmons turns to hearty comfort fare like stews, braises, and roasts. “Recently, I’ve been on this fig kick,” she says. “I like to serve figs roasted in the oven with brown sugar on top. I make them in a big copper pan that people can dig into with a scoop of ice cream.”
Just as the couple is inspired by the seasons when planning the menu, they let the desired feel of the party guide their music selection. Abrams, a managing partner of Audiostiles, which creates customized playlists for restaurant groups like Michael White’s and Thomas Keller’s, has even outfitted their home kitchen with an iPod dock and speakers so Simmons can listen to music while she cooks. “Without Jeremy, I feel that I would be lost in music from 1999,” she jokes. Together, they share their tips on how to make the music sound just as good as the meal tastes.
Find the Right Tempo
“With a party, you never know how long you’ll be sitting at the table or having cocktails, so I’ll often set up three different playlists,” says Abrams. “I want it more convivial when people walk in, dinner is usually when I bring it down a bit, and then I turn it more upbeat for afterwards.” He recommends sticking to songs with a steady rhythm. “'Stairway to Heaven' is probably the worst song for a party, unless it’s the end of the night and everyone is feeling good,” he says.
Match the Music to the Party Theme
Abrams and Simmons walk the fine line between matching a certain genre of music to a themed party and still adding some needed variety. For example, if they’re throwing a Latin-inspired party, “I like switching it from half Latin to half other kinds of music, because you don’t want it to come across as too contrived,” says Abrams. The same goes for upcoming holiday parties. A few winter classics are fine, but an entire playlist devoted to them is too much.
Spice It Up with Cover Songs
The fun of cover songs is listening to something you’ve heard a million times over in a completely new way. Simmons and Abrams like the Bossa n’Stones albums, which do mambo covers of The Rolling Stones and Guns N’ Roses. “It’s perfect dinner party music because it’s not super loud, Guns N’ Roses-style electric guitar, but is a mellow, cool, percussive sound,” says Simmons. For another unique and catchy flavor, Abrams suggests listening to Rhythms del Mundo, a collaborative album of Cuban artists singing Creole versions of such pop hits as U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” Coldplay’s “Clocks,” and Jack Johnson’s “Better Together.”
B-Sides Shouldn’t Be Overlooked
To spin a fresh sound from beloved mainstream artists, like an Aretha Franklin or Ella Fitzgerald, Abrams advises checking out the B sides that listeners have forgotten or don’t know about. “Aretha does a bunch of cover songs like 'The Weight,' and 'Son of a Preacher Man,'" he notes.
Like Classical? Add a Twist
When hosting a white tablecloth and china plate affair, Abrams notes you don’t have to stick to classical music. “I love jazz, and in the jazz realm, you can mix old stuff with new artists who cover the jazz standards.” Try Jamie Cullum, an English singer who, in addition to his own songs, riffs on Rhianna’s or Jay-Z’s songs on his piano. Some of his other favorites that mix well with the classics are Jill Scott, John Legend, and Erykah Badu.
Introduce New Songs
For Abrams, one of the best parts of a party is introducing guests to new bands. “We never try to get music that is totally out there, but get stuff that is just beyond what people already know and like,” he says. Currently, he’s sampling Mayer Hawthorne, Raphael Saadiq, and She & Him. All three sound like something you’ve heard before, but with an original twist. On the horizon, Simmons and Abrams are excited about Feists’s new album “Metals” that just came out, and Florence and the Machine’s “Ceremonials.” Says Simmons, “My sign of a good party is when people are really engrossed in the food and conversation, and then once every few songs someone looks up and says 'I love this song!'”
Gail Simmons will judge Top Chef Texas, which premiered on Nov. 2. Her new book, Talking with My Mouth Full will be published in February 2012.