Hold My Drink: How to Make the Best Wedding Reception Dance Playlist

Dancing at outdoor beach wedding

Think back to some of the best times you’ve had at weddings, and I’ll bet many of them were “hold my drink” situations during the reception. You know the ones—you hear that song start and, suddenly, makeup and blowout be damned, the dance floor becomes your stage.

“Those three-minute connections are some of the most memorable moments from a wedding,” says Shanon Cook, a Spotify Trends expert, former entertainment correspondent for CNN, and longtime music journalist. Cook recently got married herself, so we decided to capitalize on her musical expertise and recent personal experience by having her curate the ultimate wedding-reception playlist.

Now while this baby had me making full use of the wheels on my rolly chair, the Spotify team and I also recognize this isn’t a one-set-fits-all solution. Every couple’s wedding-day soundtrack will, and should, be different. There are over 3.5 million wedding-related playlists on Spotify. And that’s the benefit of premeditated tunes: They’re a thrifty substitute for a DJ or band, and they’re personalized—all the way down to that obscure remix that forever cemented the friendship between you and your maid of honor.

Thus, in addition to jukeboxing, I asked Cook to give us guidance on how to choose your inclusions and get people movin’! (Remember—research says your attendees are likely way stoked to dance.)

“You really have to think about your guests,” she says. “At a wedding, you have a very broad list—from your grandparents to guests as young as two. You have to think about music that is not only appropriate for that varied audience but also that they’re going to like and get into. That’s very difficult to achieve.”

But don’t fret your set yet! She’s going to get you there with just five tips:

1. Recognize Sometimes It Is a Popularity Contest

For your first selections, let’s throw back to high school by looking at the superlatives and then judging the hell out of them. (Kidding.) Remember when Spotify figured out which songs were most often added to users’ wedding playlists? What is it about these that make them such great additions?

Check out the top 10 again:

  1. “Thinking Out Loud,” by Ed Sheeran
  2. “Marry You,” by Bruno Mars
  3. “All of Me,” by John Legend
  4. “Uptown Funk,” by Mark Ronson, featuring Bruno Mars
  5. “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me),” by Whitney Houston
  6. “Don’t Stop Believin’,” by Journey
  7. “Crazy in Love,” by Beyoncé, featuring Jay Z
  8. “A Thousand Years,” by Christina Perri
  9. “I’m Yours,” by Jason Mraz
  10. “Hey Ya!” by OutKast

“Nothing in this list surprises me,” says Cook. “You’ve got representation of up-tempo fun songs with ‘Hey Ya!’ and ‘Uptown Funk.’ Some of these songs are very romantic with an appropriate message for a wedding like ‘I’m Yours’ or ‘Marry You.’ Then you’ve got John Legend’s song ‘All of Me’ that’s been popular since its release because Legend wrote that song about his fiancé, Chrissy Teigen, and it’s all about how much he adores her. What bride wouldn’t like to echo that sentiment at her wedding?” For our playlist, Cook found this remix with a sick dance beat that doesn’t detract from the song’s emotional quality.

Even if you feel like some songs, such as Pharrell’s “Happy” or JT’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” are overplayed on the radio, they can take on new life at a wedding. “They’re still great additions because most of your guests will have heard them and they’re such feel-good tracks,” says Cook. “They encourage your guests to move or sing, and they’re also great for younger kids.”

And, don’t underestimate including some freshman picks in your lineup. What’s currently owning the Top 40 charts? Play songs people are listening to and talking about right now. (See Cook’s choices like “Mi Gente,” Justin Bieber’s “Friends,” or Maroon 5’s new collab with SZA.)

2. Embrace the Crossover

Pop. Country. Rock. Hip-hop. What do all these genres have in common—besides a hit song featuring Nelly? They can all feel at home on a reception playlist. “I think anything goes at weddings,” says Cook. “Most of the time, you’ve got a mix of genres. It’s all about what makes people happy and puts them in the mood to dance. It makes sense that you’re going to have the full spectrum.” While you and your sorority sisters may have an entire choreographed routine to “Crazy in Love,” maybe your mom and her pals have an equivalent with ABBA’s “Dancing Queen.” (By the way, we recommend springing for Spotify premium to download your songs beforehand and avoid duking it out with spotty Wi-Fi. God forbid a lost connection throw off your 8-count!)

So go ahead and put Frank Sinatra, Notorious B.I.G., and Dolly Parton in a room together; you’ll wonder why you’ve never done it before.

3. Serenade Your Guests…Even If Especially If It’s Weird

If your wedding day is simultaneously the only time your kooky aunt is willing to fly across the country and the only time she’s game to juju on that beat, you’ve got to make the most of it.

“You can’t expect every song to cater to absolutely everybody,” says Cook. “What you can do is include specific songs for specific guests, especially if they’re traveling really far distances to come to your wedding. That is such a big commitment and such a loving thing for them to do. It’s nice to sprinkle in one or two songs they especially would appreciate.”

You can easily reach out beforehand to poll guests on what songs they’d like to hear, or include a song-suggestion space on the RSVP card. “Hopefully, you’ll like their choices,” says Cook with a laugh, “because you guys have to be happy and they have to keep people in the mood to dance.”

And are there certain songs that really encourage people to let their freak flags fly?

“Songs that include extreme emotion are great songs for weddings,” says Cook, specifically mentioning Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and “Hey Ya” by Outkast. “We played ‘Hey Ya’ at our wedding. That’s just a fun, outrageous song that helps people let their hair down.”

Cook also recommends up-tempo songs that appeal across generations. “If your mom really loves Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’ and that’s a song that’s going to get her excited, why not put it in there?” she says. “It’s a song for many people. My four-year-old daughter loves that song, and my own mom knows that song.”

4. Mind Your Sh*t List

We’ve already established the power music has over people’s emotions, so be careful! If a song, or the bad memory (read: ex-boyfriend) behind a song has made it onto your list of names “in red underlined,” keep it off your playlist.

“Even if it’s a song that everybody loves,” says Cook, “if you have some negative association with it, you don’t want to hear it at your wedding—where you should be as happy as can be.”

Similarly, if there’s a song that’s going to upset someone else at your wedding, probably best to leave it off too.

Or, maybe your sh*t list just includes songs that make you feel crappy or actually say the word shit.

“You don’t want sad songs, and you don’t want songs with perhaps overly offensive lyrics,” says Cook, who switched out explicit tracks here for their radio-friendly versions—a good idea if you’ve invited the entirety of the tee-ball team you coach on weekends. Better to be safe, and sometimes it’s more fun to yell obscenities over the censored silence anyway.


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