Warren's Inn

Those digital jukeboxes where a patron can download anything they want to listen to are the scourge of the Houston bar scene and a sign you should question the quality of an establishment. Imagine, letting some douche with appalling musical taste play whatever he can dream up. Nobody should ever hear Don Johnson or Shaq at a bar. Ever. Thankfully, there are places like Warren's Inn with its CD juke and great selection. It features many of Houston's finest choices, like Bobby Bland's "Two Steps From the Blues" and plenty of Lightnin' Hopkins. Miles Davis and Ella Fitzgerald sit next to Hank Williams Senior and Buckwheat Zydeco; the jukebox is like a primer on what's acceptable to play at a bar. Clearing quarters out of your pockets has never sounded so good.

Any one of Houston's major music venues has a million-dollar lighting array to beat the band. That's why we chose Meridian, because for the sprawling Chartres Street club, less is more. At June's Peter Murphy show, for instance, the most striking moments — like his a cappella cover of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt" — came when the former Bauhaus frontman was illuminated with a single spot. For Ace Frehley, one or two colors were all that was necessary to accentuate those Detroit-rock-city riffs. (Although sometimes it was hard to see the lighting at all, what with the smoke machines working overtime.) And most of all, Meridian deserves this award for its aptly named Red Room, where the wall-to-wall scarlet hue — even more than the generally macabre or metal musical fare — never fails to remind us of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death."

Justin Doran has been so busy performing around the city this year that it's hard to pin down just one role that makes his work so outstanding. He was hilarious as a long-limbed Little League dad in Rounding Third at Stages and disturbing as the scary fantasy man of a lonely little girl's dreams in Mr. Marmalade, also at Stages. But as Senator Joseph Cantwell in Main Street Theater's production of Gore Vidal's The Best Man, Doran found fabulous new depths in a lowlife politician who wants to win at all costs. Taken as a whole, it's hard to imagine the past season without Doran. He gave Houston audiences a charming, sexy, smart and even vaguely disturbing reason to spend their hard-earned dough at the theater.

She's only just arrived in Houston, but Mikelle Johnson is already making a name for herself. The Yale graduate first starred as a disenfranchised teenager in Big Death, Little Death, Catastrophic Theatre's opening show. Then she moved on to darker subject matter in Stages's Mr. Marmalade, the cautionary tale about raising kids in America. And Johnson was brilliant as the precocious four-year-old Lucy, a child living in a dangerous imaginary world shaped by violent images from television. All elbows and knees, Johnson found the awkward grace of a child without resorting to trite silliness. Her Lucy was very much her own person, and Johnson broke our hearts as the lonely little girl with the dark imagination.

In the early morning hours of May 11, Houston lost a dear friend. Fifty-one-year-old Tom Jones, curator and spokesperson for the Art Car Museum, was basking in the glow of ­another successful Art Car Parade, chatting with friends outside the museum after the traditional Illuminated Cruise, when a drunk driver hit a parked car, which in turn hit Jones and pinned him under it. He later died at Ben Taub during surgery. Though he was intrinsic to daily operations at the Art Car ­Museum, as well as dedicated to his own pursuits as an artist and as a champion of the Art Car "lifestyle," Jones was probably best known for his trademark "Swamp Mutha," a 1982 Chevy Monte Carlo layered in ­provocative ­imagery and adorned with all ­manner of swampy ­critters. A symbol of the ­urban ­frontier, "Swamp Mutha" now ­symbolizes Jones's unique contribution to Houston's cultural ­history. A proponent of individuality to the end, one of his last statements on record, taped during a video interview before the 2008 Art Car Parade, summed up his work and hopefully his legacy. "Keep America's roads weird," he said. We'll sure try, Tom.

We're giving Sarah Tollemache top honors this year despite her recent move to New York. The comedian spent a better part of the year here and was even featured on the Houston edition of Last Comic Standing's season six. Tollemache amassed more laughs around town in less than a year than most joke-slingers would in two. Whether she's flying solo or part of an improv comedy troupe, she manages to give the audience fits. Thanks to some investigating (read: MySpace stalking), we know her family still lives in Houston, so we're guessing — and hoping — she'll drop back in sooner than later to wax hysterical about video games, sharing porno with her boyfriend and cheap prosthetic limbs. But don't be surprised if you see her before then on Letterman or Conan.

There's nothing fake about K-Rino — all of this Southside rapper's street tales positively peal with hard-earned authenticity. Although he has been in the game longer than almost everybody else in Houston, K-Rino has never seen fit to coast or ride on his own coattails. His lyrical ability and flow are matched by few, not just in Houston or the Dirty South, but the entire world. All of which helps explain why you won't hear his dangerous mind showcased on commercial radio — he's a dominator, not the lowest common denominator.

Poison Girl

Good writers? Check. Alcohol? Oh, check! The folks behind the Poison Pen Reading Series took their cue from greats like Dylan Thomas and Hunter S. Thompson and set up literary shop in a bar. Normally, the idea of poetry and bars sounds like a surefire way to get stuck at an open-mike listening to some guy describe how his first time was like riding a unicorn out of a burning bush, but the Poison Pen organizers keep the mike regulated with their own selections — and you won't be disappointed. There's always a refreshing mix of upcoming and seasoned writers from Houston and beyond. And the ambiance allows for an experience that's as enjoyable for bookworms as it is for drunks (and even better for combinations of the two).

Scratch-off lottery tickets can be a great gambling fix. There's something about the physical act of furiously scratching that makes you feel like you're gambling real hard. Taking that to the next level is the Texas Hold 'Em Poker scratch-off, which allows a double fix: poker and lotto. For $5, you can "play" five hands, then scratch off the community cards to see if you've won. The game is sponsored by the World Poker Tour, and the ticket allows you to enter a drawing for stuff like a World Poker Tour duffle bag or poker table. For extra fun, yell "All in!" before you scratch the river card.

Big Top Lounge

Let Midtown get as gentrified as it can, certainly not a problem these days, but walking into the Big Top ("No phone, no pool, no pets") will always feel like being transported back to 1976. A toy store once upon a time — supposedly the place that provided the inspiration for Toys "R" Us mascot Geoffrey the Giraffe, no less — the Big Top retains its playtime theme in everything from the circus-themed paintings on the walls, leftover toys behind the bar and the circus-parade grillwork and elephant-trunk door handles out front. It's easily one of the darkest bars in town and, whether you're bellied up to the bar on one of the plush barstools or sunk into one of the booths, one of the most comfortable. The satellite radio is stuck on Sirius's '70s station, and frequent musical guests such as Peter & James (soft-rock piano/guitar request kings), the Light Rock Express (famous for their "Takin' It to the Streets" processional) and the Allison Fisher Band (vintage Gulf Coast R&B) keep the retro vibe intact without ever needing to fall back on the crutch of kitsch.

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