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By Jamie Corley

Remember how much effort you used to put into making the perfect music playlist? Maybe it was a chill mix for the drive to school or a casually romantic mixtape for a guy or girl you liked. (Do I include “Bittersweet Symphony?!” This is so hard!)

With the advent of websites like Spotify and Pandora, we have more music choices at our fingertips than ever before, but with that comes great responsibility. Three places in Northwest Washington, D.C.—a coffee shop, a bar, and a restaurant—appreciate how a playlist can make or break an atmosphere. Here’s how they break it down.


A coffee shop playlist is perhaps the most difficult to curate because you have to take into account the tastes of two distinct types of patrons: the, “I cannot spend another hour in my apartment, so I’m taking my laptop and working from a coffee shop” crowd, and the, “I don’t feel like drinking, so let’s just catch up over coffee” crowd. Too much Garden State soundtrack and you’ve gone overboard but not enough Fleet Foxes and people will wonder why you became a barista in the first place. Compass Coffee, the new spot at 7th and Q Street NW, strikes the right cord.

Here’s how the baristas there wittingly describe their sophisticated method of choosing what to play on any given day. “Compass has developed the Specialized Audio Selection System (S.A.S.S.) to choose The Mix for us. The machine, which resembles a human barista, gauges the emotional vibrations (vibes) of the cafe and selects the tracks it plays accordingly,” they say. “The S.A.S.S. chooses songs for The Mix from a library of all recorded music in history. Whether or not the S.A.S.S. has begun to formulate its own opinions and include them in its algorithm is a topic of heavy speculation lately, but nothing can be said for certain.”

Here’s what’s on their current playlist:

“Heartbeats” The Knife

“Is This It?” The Strokes

“Left Hand Free” alt-J

“Coffee” Sylvan Esso

“Kids” MGMT

And for those concerned about getting their work done without the distraction of a massive sound system blaring, Compass has a take on the art of volume control. It’s “somewhere between a faint whisper and the coffee roaster.”


E Jay Apaga, the bar manager at Black Jack in the 14th Street corridor, has a call to action: EVERYONE, PLAY MORE CHUCK BROWN, PLEASE.

He says the Black Jack playlists adapt to the night’s mood. “Functionally, we have two options: a breadth of options via iTunes Library and (when the internet works) Pandora. The iTunes stuff hits a lot of different arenas. For the first years we were open we were just downloading everything and kept compounding lists. The problem though was how much time curating these lists took up. Enter Pandora. It’s awesome and for a business, it’s quite affordable,” he says. “I have a handful of stations that I use that are pretty carefully pruned, like Mr. Miagi’s bonzai trees. My favorite type of music to listen at a bar has to be The Roots, Mos Def, Common, A Tribe Called Quest, Hieroglyphics, Pharcyde, lots and lots and lots of spoken word. It’s fun and it’s upbeat and it sets a pretty relaxed mood from around 8-10 p.m.”

While there’s no designated opening and closing mix, the happy hour setlist usually includes Spoken Word Hip Hop and jams from Chuck Brown (naturally), James Brown, Otis Redding, The Alabama Shakes, The Police, Black Keys and Talking Heads. Apaga says towards the end of an evening, especially on the weekend, “We’ll transition to add Diplo/Major Lazer, LCD Soundsystem and Daft Punk.”

Here’s what you’re likely to hear while you’re throwing heat at their indoor Bocce Court on a Friday night:

“I Got Mine” Black Keys

“Runnin” Pharcyde

“Wind Me Up” Chuck Brown

“Burning Down the House (Stop Making Sense Version)” Talking Heads

“Dance Yourself Clean” LCD Soudsystem


Michael Schlow, chef/owner of Tico, takes his job as chief playlist creator very seriously.

“Picking the playlists is one of my favorite parts of my job. I create them from scratch, usually while on an airplane. I realized a long time ago that creating the climate for a bar or a restaurant is really about all five senses, so I take the playlist creation just as serious as I do menu creation or the design of a place,” he says.

One of things we were curious about is how a place like Tico, which is open for brunch, dinner and happy hour, shifts its playlists to meet the mood. Schlow appreciates that guests are looking for different tones at different times. “We have a lot of playlists for the managers to pull from so as important as the time period is, the manager also has to look at the guests in the restaurant and make a decision if the playlist will be appreciated by who is in the restaurant at that time,” he notes. “Happy hour has to have good energy from start to finish with the hopes that at the end of the playlist (and happy hour) that guests want to stay longer since they are having a great time. Both brunch and dinner tend to start a little more mellow and need to gradually build. The trick is to keep the pace at a certain amount of beats per minute…I don’t want the playlist to feel schizophrenic, jumping from really fast to really slow…the music has to be uplifting, pleasant and fun.”

Here’s what you’ll likely hear humming in the background while you’re downing a Hibiscus Margarita (which, by the way, is on draft!) at Tico on 14th (in no particular order):

“Kalimotco” Eileen Jewel

“Donde Estas Yolanda?” Pink Martini

“Stereo” Boombox

“Don’t Call It Love” Zero 7

“No Time to Play” Guru and Ronny Jordan