The aural ecosystem of Orange County never fails to evolve. From the quiet corners of the suburbs and coastal enclaves to the grimiest pockets of inner city madness, local artists seek to abolish stereotypes, bash the status quo and make great sounds for us to greedily enjoy even if they aren’t always given the credit they deserve. That’s why this year’s Best Of OC 2018 issue takes the time once again to remind you about the contributions of artists, venues and creators of all stripes that help make OC the best place for music. Here now is a list of the Best Music in Orange County 2018 chosen by yours truly and the rest of the OC Weekly staff. —Nate Jackson
Best Club DJ
For these Costa Mesa DJs, Funk Freaks are more than a hipster attempt at nostalgia. This is a lifestyle built on endless crate-digging, online scouring and dealing with record collectors around the world for the next song that’s destined to slap you silly on the dance floor at spots such as Original Mike’s and Marty’s On Newport. In the past few years, their brand has gone international. Locals are drawn to the boogie and modern soul selections, as well as live performances from the old-school pioneers of the genre.
Reader’s Choice: DJ Rome
Best Experimental Band
Led by classically trained cellist Emmanuel Ventura-Cruess, EMAEL blend experiments with the weirder side of R&B to fashion eclectic, jazzy grooves with a nod to his roots. The five-piece band blur the lines between electronic textures and instrumentation that can be as soft as it is explosive. That’s a lot to take in—though hopefully not too much to make you forget that at the end of the day, they’re just a solid-ass band.
Best Place for Country Music/ Line Dancing
Cowboy Country Saloon
Being a country music fan in SoCal can be hard, but Cowboy Country Saloon is an authentic, refreshing escape from standard nightclubs. Inside the huge barn, you’ll find a mix of both old and new music on multiple dance floors—and if you get there early enough, you can even learn some new moves.
www.cowboycountry.mu, 3321E. South St., Long Beach, 562.630.3007
Reader’s Choice: The Ranch Restaurant & Saloon
OC Funk Fest
You know a local festival has finally arrived when it’s filling seats in a house usually reserved for Kanye West and Ducks games. But even before its biggest year to date, George Sanchez of Curious Entertainment knew OC Funk Fest had something special. This year’s event only confirmed it. Summoning acts from the Bible of Lowrider culture and the pantheon of ’80s electro funk, the lineup included Morris Day and the Time, the Bar-kays, Dazz Band, Con Funk Shun, the Original Mary Jane Girls, even hometown legend O’Bryan. It was a crowning achievement that didn’t happen without years of dedicated fans piling in the stands and bringing the house down at gradually bigger and bigger venues, a testament to the everlasting power of the funk—long may it live.
Best Record Store
Dyzzy On Vynyl
Plenty of record stores can make you feel as if you’re walking into a time warp; being surrounded by walls full of ancient technology will do that. But walking into Dyzzy On Vynyl, there’s something that makes that stale experience come alive. The two-room record store on Seventh Street is packed to the brim with hidden treasures, making the experience akin to a sonic spelunking expedition in your uncle’s garage. Leaning mostly toward music of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, the stacks hold jazz, funk, rock, folk and a smattering of classic hip-hop ranging from classics to wonderfully weird randomness. No matter what you’re looking for, you’ll always come away with a handful of ultra-cheap gems you didn’t know you wanted. Guiding you on this journey is LBC’s ultimate uncle of vinyl, Kevin “Dyzzy” Diehm, who is as prone to tangents on concerts he saw 30 years ago as he is to pointing out the best stuff you can buy from the ever-popular 50-cent bin. When he’s not slinging wax or gabbing about music, Dyzzy also hosts a fair share of in-store performances by locals who shake the shelves.
3004 E. 7th St., Long Beach, 562.438.8928
Best Live Band
Death Hymn Number 9
Even if we know it’s the last time we can elect them since the band played their final shows this year, it’s worth singing Death Hymn Number 9’s praises from the grave. Going out on nine years strong (eerie, huh?), this Fullerton band made a mark on the scene by burning it to the ground after ripping the flesh from its bones and spitting blood in its face. Whether they were bashing their gear or diving head-first into the crowd, the group’s psychotic pursuit of a good time always left fans with a story to tell. Even those times when Death Hymn smelled even more violently than they played (they never seemed to wash their bloody T-shirts), their music and their attitude will continue to set them apart from the rest of local music until their dying breath.
Reader’s Choice: Flashback Heart Attack
Best Indie Band
Channeling the roots of riot grrrl riffs through spacey reverb and hyper-literate lyrics, Slice have a way of making a complex song about existential woe sound like a day at the park. The female-fronted quartet of LGBT musicians found their footing after members migrated from OC to Long Beach. Since the trio of vocalist/guitarist Megan Magiera, bassist Barbara Barrera and drummer Kelsey Landazuri expanded to include Alex Hattick on keyboards, their sound has stood out in the city’s local scene. Check out songs such as “Horchata Teeth” and “Strata,” released on their self-titled EP in March.
Reader’s Choice: Swirl
Best Punk Rock Bar
Marty’s On Newport
We really are living in bizarro-world. Who would have thought this former karaoke hotspot and middle-age makeout den in bland Tustin would become the local scene’s punk-rock headquarters in 2018? Thanks to a change of ownership and the booking skills of Jeff Schuman (of the Observatory’s ilk) and Mike Rause (manager of the legendary X), Marty’s On Newport hosts punk legends at least one night a week: TSOL, the Dickies, DI, DRI, Agent Orange and more have all headlined recently. Shortly after opening this summer, it even hosted the Adolescents in what would turn out to be one of the final performances of the late homegrown hero Steve Soto. Talk about instantly writing your way into the OC punk-rock history books.
www.martysonnewport.com, 14401 Newport Ave., Tustin, 714.544.1995
Best New Band
More than clever chords or rhythmic rage, Chicano punk comes down to feel. For new(-ish) OC band Stormhouse, capturing the kitschy soundtrack of a grindhouse movie you can dance to at your abuela’s backyard party is sort of the best feeling there is. When Santa Ana native Noel Becerra teamed up with OC Weekly photographer/drummer extraordinaire Isaac Larios, bassist Ozzy Chong and dynamite singer Markie Medina, the perfect storm was born. This year, the band’s long-awaited debut EP, Tfel (that’s “Left” spelled backward for you non-dyslexics), recorded by legendary wingnut wizard Mike McHugh, put them in the right position to unleash their special brand of eclectic electricity, which strikes at the heart of where punk rock is now.
Reader’s Choice: Whiskey & The Wolves
He may be “yung,” but he’s still the only rapper in OC big enough to have his face on a billboard on Pacific Coast Highway in his native “Bluntington Beach.” With a trademark mane of Tarzan locks, the rapper born Blake Sandoval continues to rise as Yung Pinch with the release of this year’s surfside slapper “Piña Colada,” “Sail Away” and “This My Wave.” Combining contemporary beats, a sing-songy flow and memorable hooks with the right amount of mumble, the trap is set for Pinch to catch even more recognition.
Best Venue For Live Music
It would be enough for Garden Amp to win this category simply for giving us a reason to go to Garden Grove (other than when we’re hungry). Typically known as the home of the Shakespeare and Strawberry festivals, Jon Reiser and his team moved into the multipurpose venue—which includes a 600-seat amphitheater, a 150-capacity space dubbed the Locker Room and a massive outdoor area where the High and Mighty Festival drew more than 10,000 reggae rock fans last summer—to cultivate its assets and bring huge, unexpected shows to a sleeper city that finally seems to be waking up.
Gardenamp.com, 12762 Main St.Garden Grove, 949.415.8544
Reader’s Choice: The Observatory
Best Jazz Band
If you follow OC’s jazz scene, then you know Derek Bordeaux and his band have been tearing the covers off cover songs and breathing soul into jazz standards for years. The local, vocal powerhouse is king of making the roof jump wherever he performs, from the Newport Beach Jazz Festival to gigs at Spaghettini. He and his band of virtuoso siblings and longtime friends can still turn any cougar den or fancy dinner party into a smooth-jazz rager, which is actually much more exciting than it sounds if you enjoy getting lit to the tunes of George Benson and Luther Vandross.
Best Tribute Band
Some might think yacht rock’s glory days sailed away decades ago, but every time this OC crew of skippers docks at the House of Blues, fans of Steely Dan, Hall & Oates, and the Eagles come out and party. Blending cheeky stage banter with solid songs from yesteryear and plenty of seamen (um, at least when it comes to their clothing), Yachtley Crew are the Steel Panther of the high seas, and we’re glad to hear ’em whenever they float into town with drinks in their hands and a shipload of cover songs.
Best Musical Production
Cambodian Rock Band
No, this wasn’t a straight-up musical, but Lauren Yee’s world-premiere play about the ghosts of 1970s Cambodia intruding upon the present with a vengeance belongs in this issue somewhere. And why not musical? There were eight songs in the South Coast Repertory show, seven of them originals by Dengue Fever, a Los Angeles-based band with a Cambodian lead singer. All those songs, imbued with the American surf music and psychedelia sounds that permeated Cambodia until the mid-1970s, were performed by the six-person cast, four of whom played instruments. There was a lot more to Yee’s play than the tunes, but the music absolutely amplified and informed its concerns—and it was bitchen to hear it all played live.
Reader’s Choice: The Rocky Horror Picture Show Shadowcast at the Frida Cinema
Big’s American Sports Bar & Grill
During the day, enjoy a plate of buffalo wings and chicken strips with your kids, but after 9 p.m., send the rascals home in an Uber and enjoy a night full of drunks performing butchered versions of Livin’ On a Prayer. Every Tuesday and Thursday, Big’s American Sports Bar & Grill hosts lively karaoke nights with a crowd of all ages, including a plethora of Cal State Fullerton students. Both days include late-night happy-hour deals, but only Tuesday’s come with $2 Coronas and Pacificos. So, take a load off during the hectic work week and drive over to Big’s for some TLC while listening to a gnarly rendition of TLC’s Waterfalls.
www.bigsfullerton.com, 323 N. State College Blvd., Fullerton, 714.526.4950
Reader’s Choice: House of Blues Anaheim
Best Music Festival
Music Tastes Good
Each year, Music Tastes Good continues to up its game. So it was no surprise that 2018’s food lineup was just as good as the musical one. Each version has delivered an expanded, more inclusive taste tent, allowing attendees to expand their culinary tastes via samples from a lineup of talented chefs, local and not. Pair the bites with the musical act of your choice, and you’re guaranteed a great time!
Reader’s Choice: Ohana Music Festival
Best Hip-Hop Act
Who got the jazz? Apollo Bebop got the jazz! Since forming in Santa Ana three years ago, the live hip-hop group bring daft musicality to a scene sorely in need. The quintet dropped their first full-length album, Still Learnin’, this year, a 10-track collection on which rapper Brian Gomez seamlessly rhymes over the band’s vibes. DeAndre Grover’s talent summons nostalgia for a time in hip-hop when saxophone samples defined a catchy chorus. Dom Cruz and Chris Trimmer keeps things slinky in the groove on guitar and bass. Donovan Cruz, the youngster in the group, is a future Art Blakey meets Questlove. Together, these cats possess chops that would’ve fit in smoothly at Steamers in Fullerton in its heyday just as easily as at any hip-hop venue in town. Apollo Bebop is cool like that, you dig?
Best Rock Band
If you are younger than 50 years old and haven’t listened to the Growlers, then you are missing out on one of the most insanely fun music phenomenons in recent SoCal history: beach Goth. Although there are a few other local bands that are part of the scene, such as the Allah-lahs, beach Goth—a mix of surf rock, sea shanties and psychedelic music—will always be identified with the Growlers. Their early music, consisting of a somewhat tighter lineup but constricted by garage-quality acoustics, is worth exploring, particularly their debut, Are You In or Out?, as well as their third offering, Hung at Heart. Their constant evolution in sound and production lead to their biggest hit yet, City Club. Check them out at the next beach-Goth fest near you and feel the vapors!
Reader’s Choice: Harlis Sweetwater Band
Mullberry Street Ristorante’s Anti-Club Night
While out-of-town chuckleheads and college kids are chucking up their fifth Adios at the bars of downtown Fullerton, the real Fullerton/North County locals are at Mulberry Street every night after sundown. They skip the long lines and cover charges to instead enjoy the night at Mulberry’s “anti-club” while sipping cocktails shaken by bartender Kevin Malone and listening to Mr. Fullerton himself Jesse La Tour spin obscure records as the colorful cast of characters from the Fullerton art colony chain smoke out front. The only thing missing from this place these days is a loud, late-night cameo appearance from the Einstein-esque (in both looks and intelligence) artist Bax Baxter!
mulberryfullerton.com, 114 W. Wilshire Ave. Fullerton, 714.525.1056
Reader’s Choice: MDA Wednesdays at La Cave
Best Record Label
Rad Cat Records
One of the biggest things you learn about covering the Orange County music scene is to not overlook its quietest areas. The fact that Mike and Casey Condia are running a rock-music label out of one of OC’s sleepier cities is not only a well-kept secret (until now), but also an appropriately trippy contradiction. Their office and home are hardly reflective of the colorful, often-surreal sounds of their Rad Cat Records. Perhaps best known for albums from its marquee artist, Mr. Elevator & the Brain Hotel—as well as Gantez, Hammered Satin, Spendtime Palace and Chinese Wax Job—the label, founded officially in October 2014, finds a way to thrive as a small-time operation that’s far greater than the sum of its parts.
Best Radio Station
Imagine a world where you can enjoy cool, seldom-heard tunes from legendary artists instead of music made for uncles washing their red Trans Ams in their driveways (think “Highway to Hell” or “Don’t Stop Believin’” AGAIN). Luckily for us, KOCI-FM 101.5 broadcasts from a high-rise building in the bougie part of Newport-Mesa and is the closest thing Orange County has to pirate or college radio from the 1970s. Thanks to this independent, freeform radio station, we get to soak in the best B-sides and rarities from Led Zeppelin, the Doors, Stealers Wheel, Bob Dylan and more without hearing “Another Brick In the Wall” or “People Are Strange” for the zillionth time. It’s like Little Steven’s Underground Garage for those of us too cheap to pony up for a satellite-radio subscription.
Reader’s Choice: KROQ 106.7 FM
Best Punk Band
Blending surf rock with melodic pop-punk, the Grinns splashed onto the OC punk-rock scene with a sound that’s perfect whether you’re grabbing an IPA at Pizza Port in San Clemente or catching an autumn swell at river jetties. Earlier this year, they played at San Diego’s You are Going to Hate This Festival with local pop-punk royalty Together Pangea and the Frights. Check out their debut digital album, Golden Hour, which debuted in January and is available on Bandcamp.
Reader’s Choice: The Adolescents