Partying Hard on Mill Avenue

It’s Friday, and you need to put the week (and especially the memory of that lousy Psych 101 exam score) behind you. Mill Avenue beckons.

Will you start on the patio at The Handlebar? You will, because you’re trying to be pandemic-conscious but also because you like to start slow, with a couple of cold brews, and the Handlebar beer menu is impressive. The sausage sandwich at the next table looks tasty, but it’s too early in the evening for food. Maybe at the next stop.

Read the rest of this essay...

Shady's
Lauren Cusimano

Picking the best jukebox in town is no easy feat. Options are pretty limited, as old-school, non-internet machines are a dying breed. Those still left around town are all great in their own right, but no matter which one you chose, someone's going to disagree. Shady's jukebox outshines its CD-slinging brethren and earns our nod because of its sound quality (crystal-clear jams come from the well-maintained machine) and the depth of its curated and rotating selections. Flipping through the pages of the juke is like digging through the crates at a choice used record store as you encounter disc after disc of diverse options, rarities, and obscure gems. Art punk and psychedelic space-surf. Japanese ska and Chicano rock. French New Wave and weirdo soul. And in between, there's R&B from Etta and Aretha, hard-to-find albums from local indie and soul artists, and "grab bag" compilations occasionally included by the staff. We're sure hipsters, music fanatics, and culture junkies will all agree with our pick. Anyone who doesn't can find us feeding bills into the box down at Shady's if they'd like to debate.

414 Pub & Pizza
Allison Young

The thing about karaoke is that just because you like to sing, it doesn't mean you actually can sing. None of that matters, though, 414 Pub & Pizza, where karaoke happens every night and the crowd cheers you on no matter what you sound like. There are hundreds, if not thousands of songs to choose from, and in the COVID-19 era, the staff members hand out cute little microphone covers to keep you safe while you sing. And if you're just there to watch, you're still going to have a good time due to 414's full bar and well-executed menu of pizza, salads, and appetizers (we love the Pizza Styx, kind of a stuffed breadstick/elongated calzone thing). You can catch us there on a Tuesday or Thursday for the $4 drink specials, getting a little liquid courage in us before we belt out a tune.

Cruisin' 7th
Lauren Cusimano

Cruisin' 7th Show Bar & Lounge owners Lynn and Mike McGarry took advantage of the pandemic to do some renovations and redesigns. We're talking floors, walls, ceilings, and a majorly upgraded showroom with a raised stage and fresh neon throughout. But the vibe, and the regulars, are still the same. Cruisin' 7th Show Bar & Lounge dates back to 1977, when it was located just north of Roosevelt Street and Central Avenue and called (appropriately enough) Cruisin' Central. The bar changed its name upon its 2003 move to its current location, where its calling card is painted across the standalone building: "The Best Drag Shows in Town" (the bright sign sits atop a rainbow-colored pole). More cool features? Cruisin' opens at 6 a.m., offers daily drink specials ($3 bloody marys till noon, $5 cocktails all day), and really does host killer drag shows. But most importantly, the McGarrys have built at Cruisin' 7th a second home to many, but especially members of Phoenix's gay and trans communities.

Boycott Bar
Benjamin Leatherman

Located in the Melrose District among antique shops and other LGBTQ clubs, Boycott Bar gives lesbians a safe and cool place to hang. Boycott's team of DJs spins the latest pop and dance hits, and bartenders pour cocktails as strong as the women that pack the dance floor on weekends. The clientele represents a diverse array of females, from androgynous types to bois and lipstick lesbians, and everyone is made to feel welcome. And of course, there are karaoke nights, for those who consider themselves dancers and singers (or who just want to bust a tune out on the mic). There aren't many pure lesbian bars left in the country. We're glad to have this one in our own backyard.

Yucca Tap Room
Lauren Cusimano

So here's what we love about Yucca, a fixture of the Tempe music scene since the '70s: The bar draws local and national acts in all genres — in the space of a week, you could catch a touring punk band, nervous locals at an open mic, a metal showcase, and some Tempe desert rock. Show up a couple of times, and you'll get to know the staff and the regulars, ensuring that there'll be a friendly face or two any time you go. Drinks are cheap and strong and the bartenders keep them flowing. And when you need a break from the musical onslaught, you can step over to the lounge side of Yucca, where you can take a breather and grab a bite to eat (we like the gold wings and the bulgogi bao).

The Van Buren

We like to think about the days when The Van Buren was a car dealership. Could the owners of the Phoenix Motor Company ever have imagined that many decades later, their building would be one of the best music venues in the bustling metropolis of Phoenix? There's no trace of The Van Buren's former life when you walk into the building for a show, just chandeliers, desert murals on the walls, and space for about 1,800 concertgoers to rock out to local acts like Playboy Manbaby and Phoenix Afrobeat Orchestra as well as national ones like Gogol Bordello, Lord Huron, and Cold War Kids. We like the sense of space at The Van Buren; both the outdoor patio and the indoor area near the bar are roomy and open, perfect places to see and be seen. In 2021, car dealerships are a dime a dozen. We're glad The Van Buren got the concert venue upgrade.

Phoenix Suns Arena

It can be a challenge to keep up with the stadium's name changes, but whether it's called America West Arena, US Airways Center, Talking Stick Resort Arena, Phoenix Suns Arena, or now, Footprint Center, there's no place we'd rather see a big show. This year, downtown Phoenix's biggest indoor sports and concert event center finally got a makeover to match its many moniker changes; the $230 million renovation completed in early 2021 includes new suite levels, more comfortable and sleek black pleather seats, a family-friendly food hall on the upper concourse, a state-of-the-art sound system, and new video screens. With a capacity of more than 18,000, it's the best place to see the biggest national and international touring acts, from The Eagles and Guns N' Roses to Twenty One Pilots and The Weeknd.

Old Town Tavern

We really are #blessed to have so many places in the Valley to get out and see live music, but one of our favorites is a bar that just doesn't get enough love (in our opinion). Old Town Tavern is tucked away in central Scottsdale, and on most nights of the week, you can walk in and catch an intimate set by some of the city's best musicians. Pistoleros alum Mark Zubia and Gin Blossoms guitarist Jesse Valenzuela are regular performers, as are Corey Gloden of Wyves and local music legend Shawn Johnson. Old Town Tavern's small interior puts you up close and personal with the musicians, and the bar has a tight-knit community of patrons that will make you feel like one of the gang.

It's difficult to say that any one band is a city's greatest musical asset — metro Phoenix teems with excellent, multi-genre artists. But Paper Foxes represent a choice that also feels properly aligned with Phoenix as a rich and vibrant city. Their infectious blend of New Wave and disco not only packs shows Valley-wide but exemplifies the lively and joyous aspects of the local music scene. Sounding a bit like Duran Duran and a bit like The Killers, Paper Foxes don't trade substance for style; rather, the slick synths and angular guitars draw you in so you can get hit with the lyrics, which are often about heartbreak, political turmoil, and the like. The band is the best example of the "'80s but make it modern" vibe that a lot of local acts put out these days, and although we're still waiting for a follow-up to their 2019 album, Popular Confessions, we can sustain ourselves by seeing them at venues like The Rebel Lounge and listening to songs like the quasi-title track "Pop Confessions." Back when the album came out, synth player Patro Gaston told us the song is about "how it feels like the world is nearly going to end, but it's okay to let go and enjoy life anyway." Sounds like the perfect music for 2021.

Phoenix has no singular defining musical style or sound; you're just as likely to hear great rock as hip-hop, punk, folk, and electronic music. Violet Choir, which is composed of Mickey and Jesse Pangburn of local bands MRCH and The Prowling Kind, fully encapsulates that tradition just a year into its latest configuration. The band expertly marries bits of synth-pop, indie rock, punk, and pop into something that's both dense emotionally and yet hugely playful. Their February 2021 self-titled EP is sleek and moody, and we've listened to it plenty over the past several months when we're looking for music to accompany a chill evening. It's their gusto and commitment that has Violet Choir already among the other great bands that have called Phoenix their home. And they formed during a pandemic — imagine what they'll conceivably accomplish when the world's not on fire.

Best Of Phoenix®

Best Of