L.A. has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to live music, with more historic, top-tier venues that arguably any other city in the country. But the venues selected by our writers and editors for this year's Best of L.A. issue have a little something extra that sets them apart. It's not so much that they book the coolest bands, or have the best sound. It's more that attending a show at these places, regardless of who's playing, is a unique experience that you won't soon forget.
Best New Music Venue: Zebulon
Seeing experimental, avant-garde music in Los Angeles nearly always used to mean a trip to either REDCAT or a semi-legal warehouse in some remote industrial park, with few options between those two extremes. But since opening in April, Zebulon has offered a blessedly civilized, unpretentious middle ground, with a spacious, finely tuned listening room, two full bars, a patio and a menu of Moroccan-themed dips, salads and small plates. Transplanted from Brooklyn to Frogtown by its original owners, with help from L.A. label Everloving Records and local singer-songwriters Jesse Peterson and Mia Doi Todd, Zebulon has already booked numerous genre-defying artists who hadn't played L.A. in decades, or ever, largely because there was nowhere for them to go: Japanese noise-rock legend Keiji Haino's Fushitsusha, Suicide's Martin Rev, Tuareg electro-blues guitarist Mdou Moctar, Spanish/Indonesian electronic duo Drapetomania. This month, it hosts two of its coolest events yet: a metal-jazz night, co-presented by Angel City Jazz Festival, and a rare U.S. appearance by Krautrock pioneer Hans-Joachim Roedelius. What the Zebulon team will book next is anyone's guess, which is what makes their place such an exciting addition to L.A.'s live-music landscape. — Andy Hermann
2478 Fletcher Dr., Frogtown; 323-662-0966, zebulon.la.
Best Dance Club: Union
The demise of Jewel's Catch One disco in 2015 was a real gut punch for many longtime nightlife denizens. It was the first disco in town owned by a black woman, and it catered to gay people of color who often couldn't find much hospitality in West Hollywood, as well as providing a venue for after-hours house parties like the legendary Does Your Mama Know? Nothing could fill the void. Except that Union did. Club impresario Mitch Edelson, whose family owns Los Globos and El Cid, dusted off the circa-1920s dance hall, added some paint, installed Funktion-One and Eastern Acoustic Works sound systems and — thank you, Jesus — kept the neon “disco” sign intact. A Club Called Rhonda does events there. Los Angeles deep-house king Marques Wyatt is a regular. Drum 'n' bass often rumbles till 4 a.m. along the venue's pockmarked, black walls. And George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic will perform there later this month. “I learned from my dad you can't pigeonhole yourself doing one thing or another, especially with a place the size of Union,” Edelson says. “I wanted to keep the spirit of inclusivity that Jewel's had.” — Dennis Romero
4067 W. Pico Blvd., Arlington Heights; unionclubla.com.
Best All-Ages Venue: Bridgetown DIY
Located in a nondescript strip mall behind a zumba studio in La Puente, Bridgetown DIY is an all-ages, alcohol- and drug-free venue that fosters a scene of local punk, metal, experimental, noise and electronic acts. The venue specializes in booking SGV bands but also brings in up-and-coming touring acts, including an early West Coast tour for rising Rhode Island punk heroes Downtown Boys, and even the occasional scene veteran, such as anti-folk singer-songwriter Jeffrey Lewis. Bridgetown also regularly hosts workshops in everything from community political organizing to home gardening to, more recently, DACA support groups. Behind Bridgetown is a collective of locals in their late teens to mid-20s, so the space is run both by and for young people. They encourage locals of all ages to come experience and create communities for art, music and political expression. It's a radical, and wonderful, example of what an all-ages venue can be. — Sam Ribakoff
1421 Valinda Ave., La Puente; facebook.com/bridgetowndiy.
Best Concert Venue in a Cemetery: The Masonic Lodge at Hollywood Forever
While the folks at Hollywood Forever are no strangers to promotion, with their popular outdoor movie screenings on the Fairbanks Lawn, the Masonic Lodge, a darkly ornate Spanish Baroque former Freemasons' meeting place just a gravestone's throw from the crypts of the famous, is now one of the most talked-about concert and cultural venues in town. In recent years it has hosted appearances by everyone from Dawes and Depeche Mode to Joyce Carol Oates and Roxane Gay (the lodge also hosts literary salons, in partnership with PEN Center USA). With its lugubrious trappings, it's a kind of Transylvanian Troubadour. Other recent performances have included Hurray for the Riff Raff, Ty Segall and Bad Religion's Greg Graffin. Lately more and more Southland concertgoers have awakened to this hip space, which may also have awakened the nearby dead. — Jeffrey Burbank
6000 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; (323) 469-1181, hollywoodforever.ticketfly.com.
Best Old-School Punk Rock Club: The BLVD
Punk rock in L.A. never died; it just moved to Boyle Heights and has stayed steadily buzzed off cheap beer in the tiniest bar imaginable on Whittier Boulevard. If you're tired of going to the same old venues in downtown and Echo Park to catch local punk acts, try the Blvd, a class-A dive bar located just over the L.A. River. It has been around since 2010 and has stayed a locals-only type of place. The acoustics inside aren't the best, but that hasn't stopped bands such as Millions of Dead Cops, Lower Class Brats and Battalion of Saints from dropping hourlong sets in the tiny space. On any given weekend, you can expect to catch a random band playing really fast street punk, hardcore, grindcore, black metal or any related bastard subgenre. The lineups have been particularly killer over the last couple of years thanks to Big-Mike Red of Poor Kids Radio fame handling the talent. So come have a drink and be part of the scene. — Javier Cabral
2631 Whittier Blvd., Boyle Heights; (32) 261-3090, facebook.com/theblvdbh.
Best South L.A. Jazz Club: The World Stage
The World Stage is more than just one of the most vibrant jazz clubs in Los Angeles. It's also at the literal and figurative center of the Leimert Park arts scene, a crossroads and nexus point of African-American culture that includes poetry readings, drum circles, jazz and writing workshops, and wildly open-ended, high-level jam sessions. Since poet Kamau Daáood and the late drummer Billy Higgins opened the small performance space/gallery in 1989, such stellar musicians as Bennie Maupin, Rose Gales, Rickey Woodard, The B Sharp Jazz Quartet, Tiffany Austin, Charles Owens and vocalist/World Stage executive director Dwight Trible have shared the club's tiny stage, which is wedged into an old storefront next to a painting of the solar system that inspires even more freewheeling flights of words and sounds. The World Stage's entrance is actually through the back patio, where people gather outside at tables to play chess and listen to the rich variety of music spilling out the door. — Falling James
4321 Degnan Blvd., Leimert Park; (323) 293-2451, theworldstage.org.
Best Underrated Bandshell: Starlight Bowl
Although amphitheaters such as the Hollywood Bowl, the Greek Theater and the Ford get the lion's share of adulation when it comes to glorifying bandshells in the Southland, there's one amphitheater you might not be aware of that deserves your attention. Built in the Verdugo Mountains on parkland deeded by local Mexican-American War veteran O.J. Stough and opened in 1935 for an Easter sunrise service, the Starlight Bowl boasts great sightlines, a remarkably robust sound system and a big, wide lawn seating area for picnickers, making it one of L.A.'s true gems among concert venues. Booking everything from graduations and Fourth of July fireworks shows to concerts by artists ranging from Poncho Sanchez to Jefferson Starship, the Starlight offers a majestic yet intimate setting that feels far removed from the city — especially when you see the rattlesnake warnings posted up near the lawn. Hey, sometimes snakes want to rock out, too. — David Cotner
1249 Lockheed View Drive, Burbank; (818) 525-3721, starlightbowl.com.
Best Surf Shop to See a Rock Show: Mollusk
Silver Lake can feel pretty far removed from the coast, geographically and otherwise. Yet right there on Sunset, amid more landlubber-y retailers, Mollusk is selling surfboards, wetsuits and a branded line of casual wear made in California. Even if you're not in the market for surf stuff or comfy, beachy clothes, there's a good reason to visit — particularly after hours. Since the store opened in 2014, manager Dave Osborne has been booking bands and hosting shows inside Mollusk, which has surprisingly good acoustics (racks of clothes and surfboards work, I guess). It all started with Allah-Las playing the friends-and-family grand opening in September 2014; the shop has gone on to host Blake Mills with Benmont Tench and Jim Keltner, Cass McCombs and the Skiffle Players, and Osborne's own band, BattlaX (full disclosure: my husband plays drums in that last one). Keep an eye on Mollusk's site for upcoming events, and get ready for the sort of good-vibes show only a surf shop could house. — Gwynedd Stuart
3511 Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake; (323) 928-2735, mollusksurfshop.com.
Best Place to Listen to a Greek Theatre Concert for Free: Greek Theatre hillside
On his 1972 live album Hot August Night, recorded at the Greek Theatre, Neil Diamond gave a shout-out to “the tree people,” those fans who couldn't get into the sold-out concert and were instead sitting on the hillside just beyond the amphitheater's back fence in Griffith Park. It's long been an Angeleno tradition to climb down the steep hill on the eastern side of Griffith Observatory, circle past the water tank and continue down the slope above the Greek to listen to concerts for free. Because of the shape of the canyon, the sound rises up clearly, and the views downhill are much better after dozens of drought-damaged trees were cut down a couple of years ago. — Falling James
2700 N. Vermont Ave., Los Feliz; (844) 524-7335, lagreektheatre.com.