Radio City Music Hall, the Beacon, the Bowery Ballroom, the Blue Note: all these destinations for live music have earned their place on New York City’s perennial favorites list year in and year out. We love them, too, but we’re not going to rank them here. Our favorite venues have less to do with perfect acoustics, coveted programming and pristine bathrooms and bank more on unforgettable experiences and inimitable moments. Do your eardrums stand a chance of getting blown out at Glasslands? Absolutely. Is the trek up to the Apollo a long one? Undeniably. How long does it take you to shove your way through the bar at the Mercury Lounge? Longer than we’d care to admit, but it doesn’t change the fact that these venues set the standards for music lovers discovering their new favorite band on the streets of New York any given night of the week. We wouldn’t have it any other way, so here’s our take on the best venues of New York City.
Best Mood at a Venue: The Rockwood Music Hall
Between its three stages, The Rockwood Music hall hosts big sounds in its tiny abodes, and an excellent experience is the name of the game here. This is not the spot you hit if you want a DIY show that involves chewing off High Life bottle caps before shoving into a sweaty crowd; this is where you take someone if you want to impress them with their next favorite folk, jazz, blues or singer/songwriter act. The schedule is filled with up-and-coming talent that flocks to Rockwood for the intimate vibe and phenomenal sound, and it’s easy to sit and kill a beautiful bottle of red while taking in the sultry strains of an aspiring French bluegrass aficionado before heading to the next room for a rowdy North Carolinan rock band’s set. 196 Allen St. (212) 477-4155. rockwoodmusichall.com.
Best Living Legend: The Apollo Theater
It’s an honor and a privilege to set foot in the Apollo, let alone play it. This is where James Brown cultivated his pedigree as the Godfather of Soul and where countless others–Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, The Jacksons–passed through, either at the theater’s famed Amateur Night or as reverent headliners themselves. The Apollo still offers season after season of incredible shows, and has recently played host to Charles Bradley (who was first bit by the performing bug watching James Brown there) and, uh, Metallica. 252 W. 125th St. (212) 531-5300. apollotheater.org.
Best Live Music Venue: Cake Shop
The major league bum-out that plagues most live music experiences are the johnny-come-lately bros who only know a band’s one big hit, but proceed to flail and sweat and drink to excess all night, forcing you to deal with their obnoxiousness. That and, of course, the lack of quality cupcakes. Luckily, shows at Cake Shop have a solution for both. The bands that play the tiny space located in the basement grow out of it eventually. At Cake Shop, they’re just the prize of early adopters and cool kids in the know, long before the aforementioned bro ever hears his first note. The bake shop above serves an assortment of cakes and cookies, and some of the best damn cappuccino in the city. The record store in back has music from tons of indie upstarts, many of whom have played the space. That’s a little thing called synergy, and it goes great with a muffin and an audience attending a show for all the right reasons. 152 Ludlow St. (212) 253-0036. cake-shop.com
Best Balcony: Irving Plaza
Watching your favorite band at a sold-out show can turn into a miserable situation quickly if you’re stuck behind some guy who should really consider a career in the NBA–and it’s especially terrible if you head up to the balcony in hopes of catching a bird’s eye view only to be blocked by unforgiving shoulders at every turn. That’s not the case at Irving Plaza, where the demure size of its balcony area puts you right on top of the action without making you immediately regret that decision to try your luck upstairs.17 Irving Pl. (212) 777-6800. thegramercytheatre.com.
Best Least-Liked Concert Hall: Terminal 5
Mention to a friend that you’re heading to Terminal 5 and 85% of the time you’ll get a sympathetic eye roll or a “That suuuuucks.” Its so-far-west-it’s-practically-in-the-Hudson locale, horrible lines at the bar and unfortunate views from the balcony make it a venue that’s tricky to frame as a desirable spot for a show. That said, the sound Is exceptional, and there isn’t another room in New York that’ll put you that up close and personal to Macklemore, the White Stripes, James Blake, The Lumineers or any other band that you’d easily catch on a broader, less intimate stage anywhere else. 610 W. 56th St. (212) terminal5nyc.com.
See also: The Top Ten DIY Venues In New York City
Best Gallery Space/Venue: Glasslands
Glasslands shies away from calling itself a venue, but that doesn’t keep the best independent performers from all walks of music from packing the place for great shows. The only other spot in Brooklyn (or New York City at large, really) that’s got an inventive, interesting backdrop remotely close to Glasslands’ is the Cameo Gallery, so if you’re looking to make the most of an AV trip while show-hopping on a Friday night, hit 285 Kent next door to gawk at the fantastic graffiti murals (more on 285 Kent in a click) or head to the Cameo as well–it’s only a few blocks away. 289 Kent Ave. (718) 599-1450. theglasslands.com.
Best Warehouse Spot That’s Not Actually Warehouse: 285 Kent
The stuff that rock movie montages are made of, really: a night at 285 Kent involves the perfect combination of epic noise, zero personal space and losing yourself in the music one echoing chord and blown-out amp at a time. You don’t necessarily have to be able to see the action at 285 Kent in order to be a part of it, as the stage overlooks a giant, flat expanse that fills with a crowd that only grows thicker and elbow-ier as the night goes on. The everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to booking draws everyone from The Thermals to Kitty Pryde to its concrete recesses, making the bills some of the more sought after ones to see in the city on any given weeknight. (Just don’t bring your dog there. That’s terrible.) 285 Kent Ave. twitter.com/285kent.
Best Place To See Them Before They Blow Up: Mercury Lounge
The Mercury Lounge holds 250 people at capacity–we’re talking the back room and the front bar, all told–and 250 people is exactly the size of the crowd you want to be a part of when you’re seeing the next big thing before they explode into pop or rock notoriety. Lou Reed, Joan Jett, Jeff Buckley and scores of other icons have played the modest venue’s small stage; The National picked this spot to play a secret show back in May when it came time to celebrate the release of their latest record Trouble Will Find Me. In short, it’s a favorite destination for rock stars and their fans alike, and for good reason. 217 E. Houston St. (212) 260-4700. mercuryloungenyc.com.
Best Stadium Situation: Barclays Center
Up until last year, Madison Square Garden was the only place where a massive, expensive, cinematic production of a live show could take place, mostly because it’s an arena and has the capacity for any and all feats concerning lights and sound. MSG is but a mere memory to stadium showgoers now, as the Barclays Center has usurped it as the de facto destination for big time events. The Rolling Stones played the first of their American dates here for the 50 and Counting … tour, and the VMAs ditched LA and Radio City for the Brooklym behemoth in August. Oh, and did we mention Jay-Z (up until recently) owned a stake in the place? Jay-Z (up until recently) owned a stake in the place, but we bet you’ve heard that already from pretty much anyone within orbit of Atlantic Terminal. 620 Atlantic Ave. (917) 618-6700. barclayscenter.com.
Best Non-Venue: Skinny Dennis
Skinny Dennis is best known for its frozen (spiked) coffee, bourbon sweet teas served in mason jars the size of your torso and a taxidermied squirrel riding a motorcycle alongside a velvet painting of Willie Nelson. It’s got a killer country/bluegrass juke box, hot peanuts by the basket and enough seats to hang out with your friends on a weekend afternoon should you feel so inclined. It’s also a fantastic spot for live music, and folk and Americana acts swing through all the time for frills-free sets in the most perfect setting imaginable. 152 Metropolitan Ave. skinnydennisbar.com.
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