Best Of :: Music & Nightlife
In a town like Los Angeles, where every other waiter or Lyft driver is an aspiring singer, karaoke bars can be intimidating. Hell, some karaoke bars even have real artists showing up undercover, like when Jewel dropped in at the Gaslite in Santa Monica a few years back. So what about people who just want to sing “Bohemian Rhapsody” in public but don’t sound quite like Freddie Mercury? Luckily, there’s one karaoke bar that offers the best of both worlds: Cafe Brass Monkey. Located behind a Bank of America and next to a sports club, the Brass Monkey attracts singers with amazing voices that will blow you away, but its low-pressure atmosphere makes it a safe space for those not able to hit the high notes. The place isn’t huge, so get there early on weekend nights if you want to sign up to sing. Even if you have to wait a while, the people-watching — and listening — are just as thrilling as taking the stage.
Long before Los Angeles' dance music scene reached peak levels of cool, we had Doc Martin. Back in the '90s, the venerable house DJ held down a residency at Glam Slam as he built his reputation as a global house-music ambassador. Even when L.A. DJs weren't making a huge impact on the international circuit, Doc Martin was; in fact, he contributed a mix to the famed Fabric CD series in the early 2000s. Today, his résumé reads like a litany of the world's premier nightclubs. He's played the big spots from Berlin to Ibiza to New York, but the best thing about Doc Martin is that you can catch him here often. He's not just the cool DJ who happens to be based in L.A.; he helped build this city's house scene and remains a major nightlife presence. The local legend turns up seemingly everywhere, from big festivals to intimate rooftop parties, spinning sets that can be soulful, futuristic, deep, funky and surprising.
From acid and folk to tacos and Korean short rib, the tradition of melding unlikely elements is deep in the blood of this city. Thee Commons are the new musical torchbearers of this practice — a band that pull together cumbia, punk and psychedelic rock tighter than the strings on a Fender Jaguar. Frontman/guitarist David Pacheco and his brother, drummer Rene Pacheco, are inspired in part by the cumbia sounds they grew up with — music that, for all its subversive power, can't really be said to rock. Now it does. In their short tenure, Thee Commons have hosted legendary live shows, from an early album-release party at the Teragram Ballroom that ascended into chaos to the unhinged carnival that constituted their Coachella set. (From the stage, Pacheco memorably proclaimed: "East L.A. invaded Coachella, baby!") Their new album, Paleta Sonora, is a Technicolor popsicle of sound, spiked with the sly silliness that makes their shows so fun. The record takes the band even further afield sonically, into disco, space jazz, goof-rap and more. It's their best work yet. If you're still not hip, catch the band before they blow up, and let the carnival carry you away. —Chris Kissel
SZA has long outgrown the need to be introduced as Kendrick Lamar's TDE labelmate. Her evolution from metaphorical songwriter to blunt wordsmith thrust her into the mainstream. Ctrl, SZA's debut album, released in June, soared to the third position on Billboard's album chart. She jolts the listener on the very first track, "Supermodel," singing, "I've been secretly banging your homeboy" over sparse guitar. She returns to themes of infidelity on "Love Galore," featuring Travis Scott, and her most controversial song, "The Weekend." Cheating anthems have been done before, but rarely do we hear a female artist sing about time-sharing a partner while expressing no attachment to anyone. SZA's longing and resignation in her quest for a committed lover reverberate throughout the multigenre album, which ranges from the '90s pop of "Drew Barrymore" to the dark, jazzy hip-hop of "Pretty Little Birds." Ctrl is built for repeat listening, because SZA's songs know you before you know them. Her lyrics and far-reaching musical palette form a mirror that reveals the unspoken vulnerability within us all.
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 are expected to 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."
Kendrick Lamar has been the default choice for "best L.A. rapper" since 2012's Good Kid, m.A.A.d City. Acclaim for each subsequent offering has been deafening, and the impact of Lamar's artistic innovation endures long after the buzz has dulled (not died). This year's DAMN. is no different. Tighter and far less cryptic than To Pimp a Butterfly, which was simultaneously dense and sprawling, DAMN. is arguably the greatest synthesis of Lamar's aggressive lyrical assaults, keen sociopolitical insights and pop leanings. Singles such as the Mike Will Made-It–produced "Humble" and "DNA" are near peerless for their combination of thundering beats, unique cadences and vivid displays of intellect. Where TPAB addressed the ills of the black community more abstractly, DAMN. tackles these same issues through direct and arrestingly personal narratives. Lamar also finds new footing as a vocalist, inflecting and crooning with warranted confidence on songs that straddle the divide between rap and R&B. No matter the titular idea or emotion of each bluntly titled song ("Love," "Loyalty"), he cuts to the marrow. With DAMN., Lamar makes it easy to declare him the best rapper in L.A. — or anywhere else.
It's easy to take OWSLA for granted. Co-founded by Skrillex in 2011, the label's early output was pretty much exactly what you'd expect from anything associated with the fratstep prince born Sonny Moore: bangers with big drops from Zedd, Porter Robinson, 12th Planet and the like. But just as Skrillex's sound has evolved, so has OWSLA's, and over the past 12 months the label has been steadily killing it in unexpected ways, with new releases from spacey Florida electro-folk trio Hundred Waters, rising G-house star and Night Bass boss AC Slater and Dutch "jungle terror" pioneer Wiwek, to name a few. Even "Make War," the first single since Moore's surprise return to lead vocals with his old screamo band From First to Last, was better than anyone could have hoped for. And Moore's Skrillex output has continued to delight and surprise as well, especially "Would You Ever," his irresistible house collab with Poo Bear. Just as Skrillex has outlasted his haters, OWSLA has proven to be far more than just a dubstep label or yet another big-name producer's vanity imprint. It's actively remaking the post-EDM landscape in smart, interesting ways.
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.
Every other Friday, Sudamericana fills the intimate (and underground) Continental Club downtown with a sweaty Latin dance party unlike any other in L.A. Beautiful people dressed in the requisite "stylish attire" — some from South America but many not — crowd the space between black leather booths to shake hips and dance their way through a world of rhythms, from salsa to bachata to cumbia to rock. Founded by Toronto native Paula Lucero in 2012, Sudamericana started as a free monthly night that focused on new and nostalgic music from all over Latin America. (Sudamericana also donates a portion of ticket sales to nonprofits in South America, the Caribbean, Southeast Asia and California.) The idea behind the playlist remains the same, but the club has now morphed into a full event company that hosts the twice-monthly flagship night at the Continental as well as occasional booze cruises in Long Beach, rooftop parties in Chinatown and more.
Opened in 1971 in Old Town Pasadena, back when the neighborhood had more hippies and fewer Cheesecake Factories, Poo-Bah Record Shop became famous not just for its vinyl but as the regular meeting spot for the Los Angeles Free Music Society, an avant-garde collective of jazzbos and noise-mongers and analog synth nerds who were hugely influential on later generations of experimental musicians and composers. Today, owner Ron Stivers honors that history by keeping his shop, now in East Pasadena, well-stocked with the latest releases from Brainfeeder, Leaving and other vanguard beat scene labels. He also, ironically, has the biggest easy-listening section in town, so you can walk out with the latest Nosaj Thing and a $1.99 used copy of Engelbert Humperdinck's greatest hits. Beyond that, a cozy listening loft, extensive new-releases section and friendly, unsnobby staff make Poo-Bah well worth the short commute for vinyl junkies weary of the picked-over selections at its better-known Silver Lake and Highland Park competitors.
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.
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.