A century ago this year, a Rochester, New York, man named Hobart Niblack patented an automated record player that paved the way for hundreds of thousands of jukeboxes in bars and restaurants around the country.
Today, many of the classic jukeboxes built around CDs and vinyl records have been replaced with digital devices, which can stream any of hundreds or thousands of songs for a small fee. They may feel like a natural upgrade; there are no discs to get scratched and no gears to jam, and some can even be controlled through a smartphone, so you can queue up your favorite tunes without having to leave your barstool or fumble for dollar bills.
But many bars around New Orleans have still held on to their old-school jukeboxes, equipped with distinctive sets of recordings that become the de facto soundtrack of the bar. The devices become gathering places and conversation pieces, drawing in regulars looking to hear familiar tunes and new customers attracted by music beyond the mainstream.
Here are a few of our favorites:
Chart Room, 300 Chartres St.
This unpretentious corner bar has a reputation as a locals' haven in the touristy heart of the French Quarter. Along with its cheap beers and cozy seating, regulars rave about the Chart Room's great jukebox. It's loaded with R&B, soul, and blues classics—think Marvin Gaye; Muddy Waters; and Earth, Wind and Fire—alongside New Orleans artists like Louis Armstrong and the Radiators. It inspires many the impromptu singalong with visitors and longtime residents alike.
Sample Tune: Roy Orbison, "Blue Bayou"
Marie's, 2483 Burgundy St.
On a quiet corner in the Marigny, this neighborhood dive serves inexpensive drinks in a less frenetic environment than some of the rowdier nightlife spots on nearby St. Claude and Franklin Avenues. It also offers a jukebox packed with oldies, including pop compilations from the '50s and '60s, as well as greatest hits compilations from artists of the era like the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, and Elton John.
Sample Tune: The Penguins, "Earth Angel"
The Saint, 961 St. Mary St.
This Uptown late-night dance spot is often cited as a good final stop after a night out. And when it doesn't have a live DJ, customers can play tunes on a jukebox that specializes in punk and what might be called punk-adjacent rock. That means bands like the Descendants and the Misfits, the Buzzcocks and the Damned, along with '90s grunge bands like Soundgarden and newer artists like King Khan.
Sample Tune: Gang of Four, "Damaged Goods"
The Abbey, 1123 Decatur St.
This 24-hour lower Decatur Street dive attracts a mix of service industry workers, curious tourists, and old-school French Quarter punks. Not surprisingly, its jukebox is loaded with plenty of 1970s punk and glam rock: T. Rex, Patti Smith, and The Clash all get plenty of airplay. But the jukebox also has a decent selection of classic country, and it's not all that uncommon to see heavily tattooed punks put down their Pabst bottles to croon along with Patsy Cline.
Sample Tune: The Dead Boys, "Sonic Reducer"
Brothers III Lounge, 4520 Magazine St.
This Uptown 24-hour dive with an eclectic clientele actually has two independent jukeboxes. One is in the front near the entrance and a second one is in the rear of the bar. It's not unheard of for both to be playing simultaneously, especially in the early hours of the morning when customers drift to Brothers III from nearby establishments with more limited hours. Both focus on classic country: Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn and George Jones.
Sample Tune: Merle Haggard, "Swinging Doors"
Pal's Lounge, 949 N. Rendon St.
This neighborhood hangout located just a couple of blocks from Bayou St. John in Mid-City isn't quite a dive bar, though it does have the late hours and idiosyncratic decor that the term evokes. And it's not quite a cocktail bar, though it does have its own signature cocktails and good takes on all the classics. Its jukebox is similarly eclectic, or perhaps well-curated: Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings sit alongside Iggy Pop and Led Zeppelin, New Orleans artists like Ernie K-Doe and the Meters, and modern acts like Alabama Shakes.
Sample Tune: The Kinks, "You Really Got Me"
Bud Rip's, 900 Piety St.
The jukebox in this longstanding corner bar in the Bywater emphasizes artists not typically heard on bar mixes, perhaps catering to the many artists and musicians in the neighborhood. Experimental rocker Captain Beefheart, indie bands like Parquet Courts, Big Thief, and King Gizzard & The Lizard Gizzard, and singer-songwriter Bonnie "Prince" Billy are a few examples.
Sample Tune: Avalanches, "Frankie Sinatra"
Old Point Bar, 545 Patterson Rd., Algiers
This no-frills Algiers Point bar, steps from the Mississippi River levee and a couple of blocks from the ferry to the French Quarter, attracts a mix of Algiers locals, wandering tourists, and music fans stopping by for its frequent live shows. And when there's no band playing, its jukebox spins up a good assortment of classic rock and a bit of R&B. Hits from the Allman Brothers Band, Guns N' Roses, Lynyrd Skynyd, Bruce Springsteen, and Aretha Franklin are all represented.
Sample Tune: The Cars, "Just What I Needed"
BJ's Lounge, 4301 Burgundy St.
Tucked away in the Bywater, this neighborhood bar plays host to events from punk shows to literary readings, and draws in everyone from longtime neighborhood residents to tourists staying in nearby Airbnb rentals. Its jukebox has a mix of classic rock tunes and New Orleans music you're unlikely to find playing in a bar anywhere else in the country, including Lee Dorsey, Professor Longhair, and Big Chief Monk Boudreaux.
Sample Tune: Little Freddie King, "Bywater Crawl"
Toulouse Dive, 738 Toulouse St.
This French Quarter bar features distinctive goth-ish decor like skull-lined mirrors and a bathroom door disguised as a bookcase, and tends to attract an interesting mix of service industry workers and tourists from nearby Bourbon Street. But its jukebox is without a doubt the most distinctive in the city. It's a touchscreen computer running an ancient edition of Microsoft Windows, built into a faux coffin decorated with skeletons, and loaded with 1990s hard rock: Tool, Nine Inch Nails, Temple of the Dog, Stabbing Westward, and at least two albums by Sevendust.
Sample Tune: Type O Negative, "Black No. 1"