Best Of 2017

Best BEER-FUELED Family Game Night

Popular Northside brewery/venue Urban Artifact attracts a crowd with fresh beer and mostly free live music — it even has a Swing dance night on certain Sunday afternoons, and longtime local favorites the Blue Wisp Big Band perform every Wednesday. Its appeal also expands beyond the expected age range for a “bar.” The brewery has a huge selection of board games and allows kids in with accompanying adults, so some evenings can turn into genuine family affairs, especially on warmer nights, with parents letting their kids run around in the yard between the converted church and the rectory buildings. And you thought the only options for “beer-assisted family game night” were at home or at an overcrowded Dave and Buster’s. Urban Artifact, 1660 Blue Rock St., Northside, 513-620-4729, artifactbeer.com. 

Best Big-Box-Store Black Friday Musical Alternative

Shopping locally is a great way to avoid those nightmarish day-after-Thanksgiving (aka “Black Friday”) sales at the mall or chain retail outlet stores. And if the person you’re buying a present for is a big music fan, Cincinnati musicians are now regularly providing some cool Black Friday options for your gift list. Timed to Record Store Day’s nationwide Black Friday alternative, local record shops in 2016 offered exclusives from local artists like Country singer/songwriter Jeremy Pinnell (who reissued an expanded vinyl version of his stellar OH/KY album) and Wussy (which put out the rare Funeral Dress II acoustic album on vinyl for the first time). Legendary downtown bar Arnold’s Bar and Grill and Neltner Small Batch Records also teamed up for a great local-music holiday compilation (issued on vinyl), featuring Christmas-themed songs by Honey and Houston, The Part-Time Gentlemen, The Tillers and many other superb Roots/Americana acts.

Best Cha-Chunker Outside Of Nyc

Mecca OTR, a new no-frills, local-artist-decorated bar in Over-the-Rhine, specializes in a cocktail called a Chunker. Basically, the drink involves taking a tiny airplane bottle of liquor and placing it upside down in the mouth of a full can of San Pellegrino sparkling water. A machine called an arbor press widens the mouth  of a can so the bottle can slowly drip into it, allowing you to mix rum, gin, vodka or bourbon with flavored San Pellegrino. The idea came from Genuine Liquorette in New York City, which does a similar thing called a Cha-Chunker. Mecca OTR, 1429 Walnut St., Over-the-Rhine, facebook.com/meccaotr.

Best Chance To Hear A Bond-Movie Theme Live With Fireworks In A Five-Day Span

It was a good summer for music in Greater Cincinnati, particularly if your favorite song was the Paul McCartney/Wings James Bond theme song “Live and Let Die.” In early July of 2016, McCartney and Guns N’ Roses performed along the riverfront within five days of each other, so if you were a super-fan of the tune — as well as punctuating fireworks — you were in heaven. GNR played the song (a longtime centerpiece of the reunited band’s set) at Paul Brown Stadium on July 6, while the former Beatle pulled out his standby jam (which we’re pretty sure he still plays purely for the pyrotechnics) at U.S. Bank Arena on July 10. 

Best Cincinnati-Music-History Street Cred

Cincinnati has gotten increasingly good about honoring its rich musical history, thanks to increasingly “woke” politicians (including Mayor John Cranley) and organizations like the Cincinnati Music Heritage Foundation. In the past couple of years, the city has helped honor the 11 fans killed before a 1979 Who concert at Riverfront Coliseum with a historical marker and staved off attempts to tear down the original King Records building in Evanston. At the beginning of 2017, three artists closely associated with King, the revolutionary local label that released seminal Country, Bluegrass, Soul and R&B recordings between 1943-1971, were honored with intersections re-named after them, making it possible for music history buffs to cruise the East Side of Cincinnati and visit Philip Paul PlaceBootsy Collins Way and Otis Williams Place within just a few minutes. 

Best Classic Old Fashioned in Classic Surroundings

Who doesn’t want to drink fancy drinks in a blinging Art-Deco palace? Well, maybe people who don’t drink, which is totally fine. You should still go to Orchids at Palm Court’s bar and get some appetizers concocted by AAA five-diamond chef Todd Kelly and take in one of the most ornate locations in Cincinnati. If you are an imbiber, watching the bartenders assemble their take on the Old Fashioned is an experience in itself. Blending culinary innovation and classic mixology, simple syrup and bitters are frozen inside the Old Fashioned’s ice cubes and blended with chef’s choice bourbon; the flavor changes as the ice melts. Part of Cincinnati history, the bar holds court at the heart of the Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza Hotel in Carew Tower, which was constructed in the dawning days of the 1930s. Resplendent in rosewood, marble and angular, crystalline light fixtures, hanging out under Orchids’ soaring green and silver roof would be worth it even if the drinks weren’t excellent. Luckily, they are. Orchids at Palm Court, 35 W. Fifth St., Downtown, 513-421-9100, orchidsatpalmcourt.com

Best Covington Bar Triangle

In case you didn’t notice, Covington is flourishing, especially on Madison Avenue. In September of last year, Hotel Covington and its Coppin’s Restaurant & Bar opened their doors. In November, cocktail bar The Hannaford opened, joining the taproom at nearby Braxton Brewing Company as a cool neighborhood hangout. It’s easy to hit up all three places in a short span of time to work up an appetite for Coppin’s new late-night food window The Walk Up. The Hannaford, 619 Madison Ave., Covington, Ky., thehannaford.com; Coppin’s Restaurant & Bar, 683 Madison Ave., Covington, Ky., hotelcovington.com/dining/coppins; Braxton Brewing Company, 27 W. Seventh St., Covington, Ky., braxtonbrewing.com.

Best Fancy Bar Bites

Visiting OTR cocktail lounge Japp’s is already a bit like walking into an era gone by, the space’s sprawling, high ceilings reflecting the low light back down upon your friendly, hip server. So when proprietor Molly Wellmann added a snack menu last year, it was expected to be crafted with as much care as her historically inspired cocktail lists. The food offerings are comprised of small “contemporary bites,” including deviled egg yolk mousse, citrus-serrano pickled shrimp and dark chocolate truffles. The snacks come from another of Wellmann’s Brands’ establishments, a more recent venture on Republic Street called Bottle & Basket, which offers freshly prepared grab-and-go food and essential groceries. If you’re all set to spend the better part of $10 on a carefully crafted cocktail, what’s another $4 for some corn nuts and roasted kale dust? Japp’s, 1136 Main St., Over-the-Rhine, 513-381-1524, wellmannsbrands.com.

BEST FERMENTED SUGARCANE cocktail

Mita’s is chef and owner Jose Salazar’s tribute to his Colombian grandmother’s spirit — his mamita — and to Spanish and Latin American food and drink. Like Latin culture itself, the restaurant is fun, designed with Moroccan-influenced tiles, architectural columns and concrete, plus one-of-a-kind lighting. The atmosphere is lively, especially at the bar — a great place to get familiar with mezcal, the smoky agave spirit-of-the-moment, and cachaça, a Brazilian spirit made with fermented sugarcane. The inventive Mezcal Manhattan is getting lots of buzz, with mole bitters and maraschino, but the Central and South American classics are as close to traditional as you can get. Hemingway’s Papa Doble pays tribute to the author with a take on his favorite Cuban daiquiri recipe, and the Caipirinha, a frothy and citrusy cocktail made with rum-like cachaça, lime and sugar. It’s the national cocktail of Brazil, and what the locals drink as the sun goes down, making it perfect for a post-work happy hour. Mita’s, 501 Race St., Downtown, 513-421-6482, mitas.co.

Best Free-Range Trivia

The Approximate Knowledge Institute of Cincinnati, a local pub-trivia company helmed by Justin Schafer, is one of the only independent trivia creators in the city. Each week, Schafer conceptualizes and writes entire trivia games — including a name-that-tune halftime — for his group to present at multiple area bars, including the Northside Yacht Club, Queen City Radio, Ché and Arcade Legacy: Bar Edition. Teams can wager points based on confidence in their answers, and the top three winners take home prizes. Most Approximate Knowledge Institute nights include two separate games to accommodate all types of quizmasters: an early round for happy-hour bargoers and a late round for normal-bar-hour drinkers. Approximate Knowledge Institute of Cincinnati, facebook.com/nsyctrivia.

BEST HEALING VIBRATIONS

Jennifer Simone classifies her music as Soul — as in real soul, from her soul to yours. A self-described blend of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, whale calls, Gregorian chants, Nina Simone, Paul Simon, Erykah Badu, Elvis and “a ton of Jazz and Blues,” each musical performance is an improvised healing process. At her shows, emotions run high. People openly cry and she often invites crowd members to sit on the ground with her. People tell Simone about their problems before she plays. And after listening to what those around her are thinking, she incorporates those feelings into her music. She believes in the healing frequencies of music — that in the vibrations of noise, there can be comfort. Known for her use of looping sounds, her visceral and etheric layering transitions from a noisemaker to instrument to wind chime or her own voice, and she begins looping sound over sound, voice over voice, until her music falls like water into your lap. Jennifer Simone, facebook.com/jennifersimonemusic.

Best Johnny Cash Impression

While award-winning local Outlaw Country music hero Dallas Moore has certainly been influenced by the Man in Black (not many genuine Country artists haven’t), he’s far from a sound-alike copy of Johnny Cash. But Moore paid more subtle tribute to Cash in 2016 when he ventured to Kentucky’s Bullitt County and performed for prisoners at the Bullitt County Detention Center. The recordings were released as Dallas MooreLive at the Bullitt County Jail, a nod to Cash’s live At Folsom Prison, which is widely considered one of the best albums ever made. Moore took the Cash comparison one step further by enlisting as executive producer Bill Halverson, who assisted in the engineering of the Folsom record. Dallas Moore, dallasmoore.com.

Best Kentucky Beer Lineup

Crafts & Vines, a great new wine and beer store, opened in Covington’s MainStrasse last fall. The shop has more than a dozen different beers and wines on draft, and all of the beer is from Kentucky and Cincinnati. It also features Mash Cult beers, making it one of the only places in the area to pour their drafts, plus beers from Paducah’s Dry Ground, Louisville’s Apocalypse Brew Works and Lexington’s Ethereal Brewing. Crafts & Vines, 642 Main St., Covington, Ky., 859-360-0476, facebook.com/craftsandVines. 

Best Local Badass, Original-Music-Making Machines

Mad Anthony’s “Mad Anthology” project made the famously (infamously?) prolific Robert Pollard of Dayton, Ohio’s Guided By Voices (who released his 100th album this year) look like Axl Rose. In late winter 2016, the Cincinnati Rock trio launched the project, for which the band promised to release a new song weekly for 52 weeks. The group accomplished the remarkable feat with a little help from their friends, collaborating with other musicians (including fellow locals like Jess Lamb and members of Alone at 3am, Ohio Knife and The Afghan Whigs), producers, video creators and other artists on the tracks (and sometimes accompanying music videos) over the course of a year. Perhaps the most impressive part of the endurance test? All of the songs are pretty damn good. Mad Anthony, madanthony.bandcamp.com.

Best Local Beer/Local Music Synergy

Soul Step Records, a Cincinnati-based record label specializing in pressing vinyl releases, hatched an ingenious idea that brought two hometown specialties together in its Cincy Brewers Series. The label curated the pairing of a local music act and a local brewery, releasing a 45 rpm single from the artist and hosting a free release party at the brewery. In turn, the brewery created a special beer in honor of the release and show. The first installment of the series (from September 2016) paired Soul/Funk squad Krystal Peterson & the Queen City Band’s “I Ain’t Cryin’” single with Madtree Brewing; in December, the series brought together Indie Rock newcomers Sylmar with Listermann Brewing Company. Tasty! Cincy Brewers Series, soulsteprecords.com/cincinnati-brewers-series.

Best Massive Brewery Expansion

Cincinnati is exploding with new craft breweries these days, but that doesn’t mean the early entries into the market are resting on their laurels. The latest massive investment by a local brewery was MadTree Brewing’s $18 million expansion in Oakley. After just two years, the company realized the need for MadTree 2.0, presumably due to the high demand for its growing list of quality brews and the number of patrons rushing across Kennedy Avenue trying to get into the place to drink in person. The new facility, located just down the road, will have no such problems, as it is equipped with additional parking to serve what is sure to be big crowds inside the brand-new brewery, taproom, beer garden and private event space. MadTree unveiled the new digs to the public in February 2017 with a packed-house launch party that included guest breweries, live music and local food vendors. Selling beer is good business.MadTree Brewing, 3301 Madison Road, Oakley, 513-386-8733, madtreebrewing.com

Best New Downtown Live-Jazz Hangout

If you follow the music/pop culture press, Jazz music (particularly in a live setting) has died a million times over. Even if that was true, it must mean Jazz cats have nine million lives. The great American artform has proven its endurance over and over again. Every time Cincinnati’s Jazz club scene takes a shot (like the Blue Wisp Jazz Club closing or last year’s Schwartz Point end with the passing of local legend/club founder Ed Moss), someone seems to step up. Joining Washington Platform on the downtown live Jazz scene most recently has been the Bromwell’s Härth Lounge, with its classy and romantic but laid-back and welcoming atmosphere and a rotation of local Jazz piano greats, including Steve Schmidt and Phil DeGreg, among other Jazz performers. Bromwell’s Härth Lounge, 125 W. Fourth St., Downtown, 513-621-3473, bromwellsharthlounge.com.

Best New Live A/V Musical Showcase

In September of last year, WCPO (channel 9 on the TV; wcpo.com on the interwebs) launched WCPO Lounge Acts, a new series in which local and touring bands are invited into the studio to record performances and an interview. Solid production values and a knowledgeable host — veteran music journalist Gil Kaufman — have made the series (named after the Lounge Acts heard on former Oxford radio favorite WOXY) a must-hear, as has the solid list of guests who’ve appeared. Cincinnati buzz acts like Dawg Yawp, Leggy and Frontier Folk Nebraska have performed on the web show/podcast, as have on-the-rise national artists like Beach Slang, Malcolm London and Banners. WCPO Lounge Acts, wcpo.com/loungeacts.

BEST NEW REASON TO WALK ON WOODBURN

Woodburn Brewery is one of the city’s newer microbreweries in general and, more specifically, one of the newer highlights of East Walnut Hills’ booming Woodburn Avenue. The brewery and taproom were created by an L.A. Transplant and lifelong Cincinnatian, combining — as the website says — “West Side hustle and West Coast swagger.” Their innovative beer menu features core brews, like the earthy Cedar IPA; limited releases, like the Chocolate Mint Imperial Stout (tastes like a Girl Scout cookie!); seasonals; and a very cool Home Brewer series, where they let accomplished home brewers tap their brews at the bar. Woodburn Brewery, 2800 Woodburn Ave., East Walnut Hills, 513-221-2337, woodburnbrewery.com.

Best Ohio Pride Anthem

When the Cleveland Cavaliers became NBA champions in 2016, legendary Cincinnati Hip Hop producer/DJ Hi-Tek (who has worked with greats from Talib Kweli to Snoop Dogg to 2017 Grammy nominee Anderson .Paak) showed that Cincinnati’s rivalry with Cleveland can be put aside in the name of Ohio love. Tek released the celebratory song and music video “Ain’t No Place Like This,” which featured footage of the Cavs’ championship-drought-ending run, but also served as a reminder of Ohio’s musical importance as the birthplace of everyone from Bootsy Collins and The O’Jays to John Legend and Levert. Tek said he had the song stored away for a few years and was waiting for the right time to release it. After the Cavs came back from a 3-1 game deficit in the series (just as Tek predicted), the time had come.