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The songs of summer, in 5 SoulCycle playlists

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Charlee Atkins listens to more music than you. If there's a song of summer, I would trust her judgment.

Atkins is a senior SoulCycle instructor — and music is the most crucial part of her job.

On a typical day, she teaches three 45-minute SoulCycle classes and creates a different playlist — featuring a mix of EDM, maybe a sprinkle of Janet Jackson, a blush of pop rock here and there, and some unknown earworms to round it all out — for each one. That adds up to a bit over two hours — the result of endless listening, "music-ing" as Atkins calls it, to find and assess new remixes, new producers, new singers, and new songs for her classes.

SoulCycle has been called an obsession, therapy, and a cult (among both its haters and lovers), and there are a multitude of reasons it's become so successful. Some people see results, others find that it's stress relief, and some people find friendship there. But what I've seen throughout the past couple years of going to classes (perhaps it's an addiction) is that music makes or breaks (more often the former) a class.

Atkins's SoulCycle sessions sell out within seconds; I once tried to book one, and an errant sneeze landed me on a waitlist. Her classes have become New York City urban legends.

"As the music reverberates in my bones, I rock out with my hips back and hair wild, just like her," a writer for Self wrote about Atkins's class in 2015. And if you look on Rate Your Burn, which is a Yelp-like review site for fitness instructors, people have described Atkins as a "GODDESS LIVING AMONGST MERE MORTALS," noting that "all rides were timed perfectly with the music."

Music is integral to her success.

But Atkins isn't the only SoulCycle instructor who eats, sleeps, and breathes the soundtrack of her classes. All the instructors have their own taste, and it shapes the way they teach and structure their rides. Atkins's fellow senior instructor, Karyn Nesbit, has achieved her own devout following by mixing in an unexpected Alanis Morissette cut here and there and incorporating up-and-coming producers like Zhu.

Each instructor uses music differently.

And SoulCycle has figured out and tapped into the connection between music, emotion, and sweat — so much so that artists like Lady Gaga and Britney Spears have signed off on album release rides with the company, labels have premiered songs like Ariana Grande, Jessie J, and Nicki Minaj's "Bang Bang" at classes, and some musicians have even participated in rides themselves:

Instructors are listening to exponentially more music than an average listener, and they're analyzing (scrutinizing, even) tunes in a way that most people don't.

I talked with Atkins, Nesbit, Lindsay Buckley, Aubrey Bailey, and Sabine Gerdts about what they're listening to, what makes the perfect workout song, and, of course, what they believe will be the definitive song of summer for 2016.

All five instructors were also kind enough to craft custom summer playlists for your listening enjoyment. Given that my own musical taste hovers between "forever teen" and "enthusiastic bar mitzvah mother," I am going to gladly defer to them.

Charlee Atkins

Charlee Atkins. (SoulCycle)

Atkins, who started her career working at a small fitness studio in Silver Lake, California, has been with SoulCycle for four and a half years and teaches around 14 classes per week — that's roughly 3,276 classes to date.

There's a sense of purpose behind every song she picks. She thinks about each beat and weaves in each piece of choreography to the next.

Charlee's summer playlist:

Alex Abad-Santos: How would you describe your teaching style?

Charlee Atkins: Perfectly aggressive, with a deep understanding of exercise science. And I love my music, so I’m going to go ahead and say that I play the best music … but everybody should say this about their class! I only play stuff I want to listen to or would want to listen to while breaking a sweat.

AAS: What’s the one song you can’t get out of your head right now?

CA: "Pass Dat" by Jeremih:

"With You" by Drake ft. PartyNextDoor:

AAS: How many hours a week — not including the time you spend teaching classes — are you listening to music?

CA: I’m never not listening to music. I dubbed the term "music-ing," which is constantly researching music for work (and life purposes). The only times I do not listen to music are when I'm on Citi Bike and when I am sleeping. There is always background music happening.

AAS: Because you're a SoulCycle instructor, many people discover new music through you. Where do you find inspiration? How do you seek out new bands or producers?

CA: I follow my favorite producers (Zedd, Skrillex, and Diplo) on social media. They often tweet new music. Diplo either pays somebody to do his Spotify or updates his own Spotify, which always has new tunes. So down with Diplo.

Other than that, the best music website for fitness purposes (and electronic music in general) is Dancing Astronaut. Always the newest, freshest tunes, and I appreciate their reviews of new music coming out.

AAS: What’s the one key element of a good workout song?

CA: A song needs to have peaks and valleys, ups and downs. It needs to build, break, have quiet spots. Essentially it needs to have massive texture. Skrillex is amazing at producing music that, from an emotional point of view, quite literally tugs at my heartstrings. There is a chemical/science equation that happens when we listen to music, which evokes certain emotions, and Skrillex does an amazing job at that.

AAS: What's your song of summer so far?

CA: I think Calvin Harris did a good job with Rihanna on "This Is What You Came For":

Galantis nailed it on "No Money":

And I’m still rocking out to "One Dance" by Drake:

AAS: Is there anything music-related (a new album or a concert) that you're excited for this summer? Is there someone flying under the radar we should know about?

CA: There's a new group that I discovered through Zedd called "Grey" — their production is insane; can’t wait to see what else they have up their sleeve(s).

Karyn Nesbit

Karyn Nesbit. (SoulCycle)

Nesbit has been teaching at SoulCycle for three and a half years, and teaches at various studios throughout New York City.

"I was teaching yoga, barre, and indoor cycling all over LA. Soul rolled into town, and I jumped ship," Nesbit told me. "Moved to NYC to train and never left."

Riding with Nesbit is like being reminded you're alive — for better and worse. There are times when you're gulping down air and your vision blurs because she's pushed you to your limit. There are also times where you enter an endorphin-induced state of euphoria that defies all kinds of logic.

Karyn's summer playlist:

Alex Abad-Santos: How would you describe your teaching style?

Karyn Nesbit: Intense, challenging, positive, and playful.

AAS: What’s the one song you can’t get out of your head right now?

KN: "Can't Get You Outta My Head" by Kylie Minogue.

Just kidding. "Innerbloom (What So Not Remix)" by Rüfüs Du Sol:

AAS: How many hours a week — not including the time you spend teaching classes — are you listening to music?

KN: It depends on the week, but I'd say anywhere from 20 to 40 hours.

AAS: Because you're a SoulCycle instructor, many people discover new music through you. Where do you find inspiration? How do you seek out new bands or producers?

KN: I find most of my music on Spotify and then search for remixes and whatnot on SoundCloud.

AAS: What’s the one key element of a good workout song?

KN: I think it depends on where you are in the ride or what you're trying to achieve. A fun, strong beat with powerful drops is key for the most part, but at other times it's about the depth/emotion of the song — music that makes you feel something.

AAS: What's your song of summer so far?

KN: "Life Itself" by Glass Animals:

AAS: Is there anything music-related (a new album or a concert) that you're excited for this summer? Is there someone flying under the radar we should know about?

KN: Radiohead at Madison Square Garden at the end of June!

Aubrey Bailey

Aubrey Bailey. (SoulCycle)

"I really believe that you can create the energy that you want around you by committing to movement," Bailey told me.

Bailey comes from a dancing background, went to school at Ohio State University, and after graduating moved to New York to work as a dancer. So she approaches music as a dancer first.

"I like to react to the music that we are riding to by movement and choreography to accent the beats. I say it over and over again in class, but it is always about showing up and beating the expectation for you, not for anyone else in the room," she said.

Though I haven't taken a class with Bailey — she teaches at SoulCycle's Florida locations — I am pretty sure that the forever young bar mitzvah mother in me would find her music choices very appealing.

Aubrey's summer playlist:

AAS: What’s the one song you can’t get out of your head right now?

Aubrey Bailey: "Work From Home" by Fifth Harmony! I think I have every single remix made, and I can't get enough of the original.

AAS: How many hours a week — not including the time you spend teaching classes — are you listening to music?

AB: I feel like I listen to music all day, every day! If I had to realistically calculate it, I would say two to three hours a day minus my day off. I allow myself one day a week to rest my ears; that way I can feel fresh to start the week and maybe hear things or drops in songs I may not have been paying attention to before.

AAS: Because you're a SoulCycle instructor, many people discover new music through you. Where do you find inspiration? How do you seek out new bands or producers?

AB: I search around multiple sites to find music! I, of course, utilize iTunes, but if there is a song that I am in love with and want to find an extended version or a remix, I look to SoundCloud, Spotify, or YouTube. I also have a membership to a few different DJ sites that I pay for monthly. It's worth every penny.

AAS: What’s the one key element of a good workout song?

AB: I think there are multiple components you could look at to answer this question, but when I am searching for songs to put in my playlist I like to see if my body automatically wants to start moving to that particular song. I look for a good buildup to get that "make you feel pumped" feeling.

AAS: What's your song of summer so far?

AB: "One Dance" by Drake. It has a tropical sound to it in my mind — it just makes me want to groove at an outdoor party!

AAS: Is there anything music-related (a new album or a concert) that you're excited for this summer? Is there someone flying under the radar we should know about?

AB: There are 23 days until the Justin Bieber concert, but who's counting? It's going down here in Miami July 2 and 3, and I absolutely cannot wait. As far as a new album or something flying under the radar — I could be 100 percent wrong, but I am thinking there could potentially be a Justin Timberlake new album? I'm loving his new song "Can't Stop the Feeling" so I am keeping my fingers crossed there is more to come!

Lindsay Buckley

Lindsay Buckley. (SoulCycle)

True story: I took my very first class with Buckley while visiting my family in California.

"I think class should be a joyful experience, and I love pushing the limits and seeing how far hard work can take me," she told me. "I'll be joking around while pushing riders to sprint longer and faster than they ever have."

Lindsay's summer playlist:

Alex Abad-Santos: What’s the one song you can’t get out of your head right now?

Lindsay Buckley: Justin Timberlake's "Can't Stop the Feeling."

AAS: How many hours a week — not including the time you spend teaching classes — are you listening to music?

LB: I'd say probably 10 extra hours a week. I have a baby who loves rap music, and my husband is a country guy, so we always have something going on in the background.

AAS: Because you're a SoulCycle instructor, so many people discover new music through you. Where do you find inspiration? How do you seek out new bands or producers?

LB: I purchase my music from iTunes. I often find new remixes on YouTube too!

AAS: What’s the one key element of a good workout song?

LB: For me and my class, a song needs to serve a specific purpose. So we will either do jumps out of the saddle or climb a heavy hill to the beat, or maybe the lyrics tell an important story that I hope the riders can take something from.

AAS: What's your song of summer so far?

LB: Hmm, I think there's still some great stuff waiting to be released. But I will be keeping Bieber as a go-to for class.

AAS: Is there anything music-related (a new album or a concert) that you're excited for this summer? Is there someone flying under the radar we should know about?

LB: I'm excited for the Twilight concert series that takes place on Thursday nights in Santa Monica on the pier. It draws a great crowd and showcases new music.

Sabine Gerdts

Sabine Gerdts. (SoulCycle)

"I'm all about feeling everything you need to in that room," Gerdts told me. "Feel the beat of the music, feel whatever feelings you want to deal with or work through, feel strong and powerful and beautiful."

Gerdts, who is originally from Long Island, New York, is one of the teachers at SoulCycle's new Ardmore studio in suburban Philadelphia.

"There is nothing more amazing than allowing yourself to feel free," she says.

Sabine's summer playlist:

Alex Abad-Santos: What’s the one song you can’t get out of your head right now?

Sabine Gerdts: I am and will forever be obsessed with "Swimming Pools" by Kendrick Lamar. That man is a musical genius.

AAS: How many hours a week — not including the time you spend teaching classes — are you listening to music?

SG: I feel like I listen to music a ton. So if I were to guess, I would say about 10 to 11 hours a week. I like to listen to my playlists before class. And I also find new music throughout the week. The one place where I really don't listen to music is my car. That's my quiet space. I feel really bad for anyone who rides in my car with me, because it is literally completely silent.

AAS: Because you're a SoulCycle instructor, many people discover new music through you. Where do you find inspiration? How do you seek out new bands or producers?

SG: I use SoundCloud a lot. That's probably the place where I get most of my music besides iTunes. I also Shazam music wherever I go. That's where I find a lot of my gems. And thankfully, all the other instructors at SoulCycle are really giving and amazing about sharing their music, so I find really great tunes from them as well.

AAS: What’s the one key element of a good workout song?

SG: My favorite songs, workout or otherwise, are always these amazing hip-hop-inspired songs with a slight orchestral feel to them. There's something about that combination that evokes a powerful feeling. I love the song "Broken Sorrow" by Nuttin' but Stringz. I also love when hip-hop artists decide to go outside of the box and work with different kinds of beats and feels.

Kanye West's new album is one of my favorites because it's just so different. You have no idea where the album is going from one song to the other, yet it's still cohesive, and that's pretty brilliant.

AAS: What is your song of summer (so far)?

SG: "Freedom" by Beyoncé. She is my queen.

AAS: Is there anything music-related (a new album or a concert) that you're excited for this summer? Is there someone flying under the radar we should know about?

SG: I'm so excited to be going to Beyoncé's concert on June 7. As far as an under-the-radar artist, I love Miguel. A few months ago I saw him in perform in a small little concert hall on Long Island, and he was amazing. It was probably one of my favorite concerts ever. I am absolutely going to see him again. He doesn't get enough credit for how truly talented he is.

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