The ARE is no newcomer to the hip-hop game. He started searching for the perfect beat in 1991 and hasn't stopped moving since. First getting his feet wet as a member of the legendary Houston rap group K-Otix, nowadays the ARE bares the production skills behind the boards to more than prove himself. From winning the Houston Red Bull Big Tune competition to working with a veritable who's who in the rap game, he has shown that he makes some of the best hip-hop in Houston. And this year, the ARE decided to do the world a favor and released his most recent works online to download for free.

Magnolia Hotel

You may not be able to afford to stay at the Magnolia, but that shouldn't keep you from nabbing a drink in the hotel's posh second-floor bar. There's something almost ethereal about the place, which is decked out with plasma TVs and dozens of leather couches and chairs. There's live jazz every evening, and a billiards room. A setting this luxurious doesn't merely have a pool table. It has a billiards room.

West Alabama Ice House

West Alabama Ice House is a perennial Best of Houston® winner, most deservedly, so rather than subject you to a rewording of bygone blurbs, we'll just give the place the Zagat treatment. It's not plagiarism if you're quoting yourself, right? "Cheap beers, pretty bohemian bartenders, roots rock and free hot dogs on Friday make this icehouse in the heart of the Montrose a weekly stop for many River Oaks rednecks, broke punk rockers, bikers, yuppies, dog enthusiasts and lager lovers in general." "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." "Around back there are more picnic tables, horseshoes and hoops to shoot." "You gotta watch for the drunks pitching horseshoes." "A lot of these folks aren't the best when it comes to aiming."

Houston has a nice tradition of short-form improv, so it was nice to see a change of pace this year with The Greatest Thing in the History of the World. The long-form improv troupe works in the style perfected by the Upright Citizens Brigade. (In fact, many of the members of GTHW have trained with UCB in NY — oops, we mean New York.) For those unfamiliar with long-form improv, it's like a Saturday Night Live skit that's created on the spot. GTHW is introducing Houston to the style at venues such as Rudyard's, the Proletariat and Walter's on Washington. Their name might be too long to remember, but it's also pretty hard to forget. So keep your eyes out for the next flyer to find out why size matters in instant comedy.

Two architects took eight tons of cardboard and three tons of wood and created a surreal landscape that consumed all of Rice Gallery. Benjamin Ball and Gaston Nogues of the collaborative team Ball-Nogues previously worked with architect Frank Gehry, the don of cardboard furniture. But Ball-Nogues did Gehry one better — instead of using cardboard to make chairs, they used it to craft a terrain of their own design. They die-cut cardboard into curves and sandwiched it together to create a sturdy but undulating surface. Visitors traversed it and slid down the cardboard slopes of what was truly an interactive installation and a spectacular blend of architecture and sculpture. "Rip Curl Canyon" is one of the coolest things we've seen in a long time.

Sambuca

Live jazz, seven nights a week, in Houston? Look no further than Sambuca. Set in an oasis of dark woods and white linen with the occasional tiger print thrown in, Sambuca features local singers, like the sultry Yvonne Washington and Tianna Hall, and high-energy Houston bands, like the Blue Monks and the Mark Dini Group. The bar also regularly plays host to international acts such as Acoustic Alchemy and Larry Carlton. Want to dance? Sambuca's got you covered. In the mood to just sit back and listen? No problem. The monthly music calendar has something for everyone's taste. Sambuca's menu is a great complement to the music onstage (don't miss the miso sea bass).

Tropicana Nite Club

Hot DJs, an enthusiastic crowd and live music from top local and international Latin acts make Club Tropicana an easy choice for this year's Best Latin Club. (It won the title in 2003 and 2004.) The club is open only three nights a week (Tuesday, Friday and Saturday), so try not to miss the fun. Tuesday is Ladies' Night with music by Grupo Essencia; Friday features Orquesta Kandente and DJ Hollywood; and Saturday brings Orquesta Salmerum and DJ Lino. Past stars to take the Club Tropicana stage include Papo Lucca y Sonora Ponceña, La India and Oscar D'León. The music moves from salsa to merengue to bachata to reggaeton, so there's always something for everyone.

All these decades later, it's still hard to believe that these brassy, jazzed-up funk grooves were made by mere high school kids. It's also amazing how fresh and contemporary these pieces sound today — when done well, classic funk never, ever goes out of style, and Texas Thunder Soul definitely qualifies as well-made classic funk. (Hip-hop DJs, especially DJ Shadow, have been hip to the K.S.B. for years.) And it further astounds when you recognize that this high school band had an actual, identifiable sound of their own — a marriage of the WWII-era big-band brass of Kashmere High bandmaster Conrad O. Johnson's upbringing and the big-city funk of his pupils. Johnson, now 91 and known to many simply as "The Prof," has much to be proud of, but ever the perfectionist, he's still dissatisfied. "The records are just a facsimile," he once told an interviewer. "Seeing and hearing that band perform was unexplainable."

Paris Falls is the brainchild of Jennifer and Raymond Brown. When the two are not perfecting their musical offspring, they're raising their biological one. The pair creates some of the best rock around and recorded most of their first album, Paris Falls Vol. I, after the birth of their son. Pending a good babysitter, you can see them and their backing band around town at least once a month playing their Rhodes-organ infused, Beatle-esque ditties. Time will only tell if Junior will pick up a guitar and help out mom and pop with killer kid solos. Seriously, that would be the best show ever. Get on it, Browns — we'll be waiting with a Best Local Toddler Rocker award.

A chain movie theater is the same everywhere, right? Not so with the one we affectionately call "Fountains." There are indeed fountains nearby, but we hardly ever notice them. We rush right past to get to the unassuming theater that boasts the most comfy seats in town. Maybe it's the vibes from the church that once met in the theater on Sunday mornings; maybe it's the cheery help; maybe it's the blend of folks who go there — if Houston is a melting pot, Fountains is a statistically representative sample. We love it better than all the other theaters, even those that specialize in indies or those that bring drinks and food to your table. It also serves as a Poor Man's Summer Camp: We recommend a self-scheduled double- or triple-feature on scathingly hot summer days. If there's a gap on your menu of movies, you can dash over to the major stores nearby. Or do what we do: Fill out the kiddie games on the placemats at nearby Avalon Diner.

Best Of Houston®

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