For a band to be the best in any given city, they should sound like that same city. Los Skarnales -- that fearsome agglomeration of ska, norteno, rockabilly, punk, surf and even zydeco -- sounds like Houston. Or at least the funky parts of town -- places like Magnolia Park, where beer-fragrant icehouses stand next to Mexican Pentecostal churches, and every house is on cinder blocks and has a wrought-iron fence. This year's Pachuco Boogie Sound System was Los Skarnales' best album yet, and their live shows are nonstop thrill rides. They may have been around a while, but they've never been better, and Houston's never had a better band.
Readers' choice: Dune*TX
Guava Lamp
We were big fans of Guava Lamp in its old location, tucked away over there at Shepherd and Richmond, but we like its digs on Waugh even better. The new circular bar, covered in copper-colored tiles, just makes it a lot easier to check out who's checking us out. The clientele seems to have remained pretty much the same, and local poet-comedian-cutie Todd Gresley is still hosting kick-ass karaoke on Wednesday nights. This place really is perfect for when you don't want to deal with the Pacific Street drama -- not that the regulars here don't have a little drama of their own.
Readers' choice: South Beach
West Alabama Ice House
No effing contest. Once again, West Alabama Ice House gets the prize. The beer, the bikers, the bands -- this place has it all. Where else can you dine on dogs, pitch shoes and take it to the hole, all in one place? In your own backyard, you say? Well, that's the point. This place has always been more of a family barbecue than a watering hole, albeit one where even your ne'er-do-well uncle can fit in. On any given day the party is populated by hippies, yuppies, kikkers and hipsters. At least a few of them have got to have something in common with your drunk unc. Bring him out, but make sure he stays clear of the horseshoe pit: A lot of these folks aren't the best when it comes to aiming.
Rudyard's
Sure, Poison Girl may have come along and seduced away some of this venerable bar's clientele and staff, but Rudyard's has kept on keeping on. Mike Simms has continued longtime booker Scott Walcott's great tradition of quality music; the new outdoor seating area is the tops; and the beer, burgers and fish and chips are as tasty as ever. All of 27 years old now, Rudyard's today seems reinvigorated, somehow a bar apart from what it was a few years ago. Or as Mr. Kipling himself once put it, "Funny how the new things are the old things."
With the Inner Loop getting all cosmopolitan and whatnot, it's often all too easy to forget that you're in Texas. Thank our lucky stars for the Armadillo Palace, Jim Goode's latest paean to all things Lone Star State. There's museum-quality lore on the walls, twangy sounds on the stage, lots of little Texas touches (pistol-grip door handles, saddles on the barstools), the clack of dominoes and plenty of Goode's wonderful Gulf Coast grub. It may not be subtle -- 15-foot, red-eyed, smoke-breathing armadillos like the one outside the saloon's front door never are -- but Houston needs more oases of Texan-ness like this one.
The cell-phone tower a pistol shot away is probably frying your brain. Horns are honking. But once you're inside Next Door Coffeehouse's garden labyrinth, that world starts to disappear. This secret spot features short, teenage shrubs clipped into a sort of labyrinth, a meditative path. Somehow, it encourages you to pay closer attention to your steps, and to what's happening right now. When you get close enough to the center, you'll spot a leaning live oak with a fanned-out canopy surrounded by a semicircle of plain wooden benches, perfect for sitting. And looking. Here, there is solitude. Under the shade and the imperfectly shaped oak that offers it, things are still. And quiet.
This is the last place on the commercial dial where the DJs still pick a lot of what they want to play. This is the last place on the commercial dial where virtually all of the DJs are natives of Houston and care about the city for its own sake -- Houston ain't some stint on a resume to these folks. This is the last place on the commercial dial that still knows how to mix talk and music effectively, and only the Box mixes in as much local music to the playlists. And what playlists they are: tremendous mixes of R&B, soul, funk, blues and zydeco. And then there's The Passion Zone, DJ Stevie Good Time T's nightly love power hour -- 60 minutes of luscious jams ideal for...Well, you know what's up.
Readers' choice: KPFT/90.1 FM
"Thought Crimes: The Art of Subversion" was a like a tent revival, a great awakening for subversive art in an America becoming increasingly more repressive. Curated by DiverseWorks visual arts director Diane Barber, the exhibition was rife with provocative art that dealt with everything from politics and social issues to pure, joyful brattiness. Preemptive Media asked us to subvert the evil empire of Wal-Mart using giant Madagascan hissing roaches. Tricksters the Yes Men masqueraded as corporate spokespersons to dupe the BBC and shame Dow Chemical. Joe Wezorek gave us a portrait of George W. Bush constructed from the faces of the dead. Then there were the Neistat Brothers, who showed us how to blow up a pickle. "Thought Crimes" gave the finger to the repressive powers that be.
They always bring the rocenrol, but you never what they'll be wearing when they do. Over the years, Chango Jackson has taken the stage in everything from dresses to gorilla suits to ruffled tuxes to cowboy duds to chemical suits and gas masks. They break stuff, throw tamales into the crowd, jump around, fall down...In one memorable rock and roll apocalypse, all of them except the drummer ended one song in a five-foot-tall pileup of tangled limbs, some of which were still flailing away at guitars. What's more, little of it seems calculated. It's like they put on their costumes and improvise based on what they're wearing.
Is that Rush Limbaugh in the corner? Probably not, but we figure if the neocon blowhard ever finds himself in Space City, it's a spot he'd frequent (well, it and Coco Loco, of course). Huge and luxurious mahogany tables with raised ashtrays dot the room around a statue of famed Brit Winston Churchill. Talk of all things England (10 Downing Street is the residence of the prime minister) can be heard over the inhaling of the finest stogies the city has to offer, kept in a state-of-the-art humidor. Ice tings in glasses of those sipping only the top-end 15-year-old Highland Scotch.

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