Karaoke. The name either evokes sheer terror or boundless joy. No matter what side you’re on, who can resist singing your heart out to your favorite tunes? I’ve seen quite a few Karaoke naysayers turn around and hog the mic for hours. Karaoke is a great way to release stress and bring friends together, even if none of us will ever be Lady Gaga.
In 1971, the first karaoke machine was invented in Kobe, Japan, by musician Daisuke Inoue who used it in lieu of an orchestra—karaoke means “empty orchestra.” After becoming popular in Japan, karaoke spread to East and Southeast Asia during the 1980s.
Karaoke became big in the West in the early 1990s and during its peak, 11,000 karaoke nights ran in the United Kingdom alone. But where are some of the best karaoke bars today? We’ve dug a bit deeper so that you can hit the high notes in all the right places. Regardless if you want a classic karaoke night, bring out your inner rapper or be accompanied by a pianist…The stage is yours.
The Highball, Austin, Texas
After a pandemic break, this popular venue in the Texas capital is making a comeback. The Highball is famous for its seven uniquely decorated karaoke rooms. Here, wannabe singers can choose between the eight-bit wonderland–themed Joystick room, the heavy metal church The Inferno, the wheelchair-friendly circus room Big Top or sing backwards in the Twin Peaks inspired Black Lodge. Every room features a comprehensive and current selection of songs, plus a voice synthesizer that can turn the most tone-deaf friend into Adele.
Each room has a dedicated waiter who will serve you snacks and cocktails such as the Blue Steel with mezcal, chareau aloe liqueur, creme de violette, green chartreuse and lemon. At The Highball, karaoke is taken so seriously that league competitions are arranged. You can also install their karaoke app and access the song list to prepare for your big show beforehand.
Hip Hop Karaoke, London, England
Here’s a London karaoke night that’s hard to beat. Lose yourself to the rhythm of R’n’B and hip-hop hits in the basement of London’s trendy East End bar Queen of Hoxton. From 8 p.m. every Thursday, you can choose between more than 200 songs, from classics to today’s pop hits. Event DJ and host Rob Pursey started Hip Hop Karaoke 12 years ago in a pub basement. The night became so popular that it grew into weekly parties, festivals and national events (including a Tate Modern guest spiel!).
What makes Hip Hop Karaoke so special is the welcoming crowd that encourages all performers to grab the mic and live out their rap fantasies.
“No matter their ability, everybody gets love from the audience and the extended Hip Hop Karaoke family. This is a place to let go of your inhibitions and you’re guaranteed to make new friends and maybe even some fans!” Pursey says.
With that kind of support, go Biggie or go home for your next karaoke night out in London.
Sid Gold’s Request Room, New York, New York
Does singing accompanied by a pianist appeal to you? Then head to New York’s Chelsea district to Sid Gold’s Request Room, a sophisticated karaoke bar. The intimate Mid-Century lounge is divided into two rooms, where you can either sip Velvet Underground–inspired cocktails by the marble-topped counter or sing along from your comfy alcove booth in the Baldwin piano bar. Bar owner Paul Devitt opened the spot in 2016 with Joe McGinty, the keyboardist for The Psychedelic Furs. “I owned a number of different bars, but I never saw a reaction like this before,” Devitt says.
“It became a tremendous success. Everybody gets to be a star for a few minutes and everybody wants to sing along and be your friend and support you. It’s a magical experience,” Devitt says.
This is not a showtune place (except on Mondays, if that’s your jam), you can sing everything from punk to “Hit Me Baby One More Time.” A piano player will back you up and there’s an iPad to help with lyrics. It’s so popular even Tina Fey and the SNL crew celebrated a birthday party here, and although COVID-19 has been tough on karaoke bars, Dewitt adds, “You can’t stop people singing, even in a pandemic.”
Monster Ronson’s Ichiban Karaoke, Berlin, Germany
This queer-friendly karaoke bar has attracted fun-loving Berliners and tourists to the capital’s Friedrichshain area for more than 20 years. Monster Ronson’s plethora of mirror balls and bright pink lights provide the venue with a disco flair and is filled with colorful punters. Choose from eight karaoke boxes (with names like Jimi, Kurt, Freddie and Amy) with a first-come-first-serve policy for spontaneous guests. You can also reserve one of the two big boxes, Janis and Elvis, for larger parties of 12 or more. If you’re feeling brave there’s also a big stage for live performances.
Make sure your top karaoke songs will be available by searching the broad song selection on their website beforehand. Monster Ronson’s also hosts drag performances and liquid brunches and warmly welcomes all gender identities. The bar’s motto is “Making people miss their flights since 1999.” As a Berliner myself, I can attest to this.