"We try very hard to please our customers and try to be the cornerstone retailer of the Houston music community," says Quinn Bishop, general manager of the Houston-owned-and-operated music-and-video haven. Bishop believes that what sets the 24-year-old store apart from other record boutiques is its embrace of local and independent acts. Says Bishop: "We take artists that might only press as few as 500 CDs and take their music, their CDs, and position them right beside artists that sell millions and millions of records."

Another plus for Cactus is the occasional live, in-store performance; Robert Earl Keen, the Chieftains, Wayne Hancock and even Sarah McLachlan have jammed inside the joint. Add the free beer the store often serves at these shindigs, and how could you not love this place? (C.D.L.)

CRITIC'S CHOICE: Cactus Records

BEST ROCK VENUE
The Fabulous Satellite Lounge, 3616Washington Avenue, (713)869-COOL, www.fabsat.com

Since the demise of next-door neighbor Rockefeller's and the construction of the even bigger Aerial Theater, the Satellite has been the place to catch hip regional and national rock acts on small tours, though the club also books a wide variety of adventurous "rock," from Link Wray to the Scabs, Reckless Kelly to the Cadillac Voodoo Choir, and Soulhat to Sister 7. The venue's Thursday Planet Texas showcases (co-sponsored by KPFT radio) also bring a lot of the Lone Star State's unsung talent to Houston.

"We're always looking at what's new and exciting in music. That's always been our intent since we opened in 1993, and it will continue to be that way," says music booker/manager Susie Criner. "We try not to let our acts get stale and repetitive." And though the Satellite can get packed during weekend shows, the majority of which are standing room only, there's an undeniable vibrancy and energy to this space station. And the beer is pretty cheap, too. Just give yourself enough time to wade through the crowd and make it to the bathroom. (B.R.)

CRITIC'S CHOICE: Aerial Theater

BEST BLUES/R&B VENUE
The Big Easy Social and Pleasure Club, 5731 Kirby, (713)523-9999

Described affectionately by its clientele as a "dive blues bar," The Big Easy has earned the title of Houston's best blues club for the fifth time in its five-year existence. Why? It focuses on what matters most: the music. The club consistently draws the best talent from a pool of Houston blues mainstays, the occasional traveling act and even live zydeco bands on Sundays.

Not surprisingly, the club's often packed. Even at its most hectic, though, The Big Easy lives up to its name. It's an easy, comfortable, familiar-feeling place, whether you're a regular or a newcomer, whether you're clad in suit or sandals. The intimate confines and lounge chairs up front allow for a perfect setting to take in the music. Or you can take your beer to the back and shoot darts well within earshot if that's your pleasure instead. (C.S.)

CRITIC'S CHOICE: The Big Easy

BEST JAZZ VENUE
Sambuca Jazz Cafe, 900 Texas, (713)224-5299

Since its grand opening last November, Sambuca Jazz Cafe has been one of the most controversial topics in the Houston jazz community. It is one of only two full-time seven-nights-a-week jazz clubs in Houston (the other being Scott Gertner's Skybar). There's rarely a cover charge. There are also performances by top-quality national jazz acts including Chuck Mangione, Terence Blanchard and Larry Carlton about once a month, but the emphasis is on Houston and regional jazz talent. It was also the venue for the Tod Vullo memorial jam, where some of Houston's elite paid homage to their fallen comrade.

So what's the controversy? Well, jazz purists will complain there's too much smooth jazz, not enough traditional. Smooth jazzers, of course, will make the same complaint in the reverse direction. The acoustics aren't exactly anything to note, and the audience is often inattentive. Ask the average Sambuca patron to name a Bill Evans or John Coltrane tune, and you'll likely get a blank stare. Sambuca has become an "in" spot because of its great location, and it has created a hip atmosphere. But at the same time, that's the problem. The crowd Sambuca attracts is often more interested in the food or picking up the person on the next bar stool than in what's happening on the bandstand. As such, often the music falls deep into the background, which is unfortunate because often the players are burning. Sambuca deserves a lot of credit for giving Houston a hip place to experience jazz. Unfortunately, many of its patrons don't understand the jazz experience. (P.J.M.)

CRITIC'S CHOICE: Cezanne

BEST C&W VENUE
Blanco's Bar & Grill, 3406 West Alabama, (713)439-0072

Substance over flash and the countrypolitan cowboys win again in this perennial favorite. Providing a down-home and no-frills atmosphere for more than 15 years, Blanco's has also continued its dedication to presenting original country music from old friends and upstarts alike.

Though Blanco's offers bar meals (burgers, chicken-fried steak, etc.) and bar games (shuffleboard, pool), the real attraction here is the live music on Thursday and Friday nights with an open mike on Mondays.

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