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.

Landmark River Oaks Theatre

The River Oaks Theatre is one of a kind in Houston. Built in 1939 in ornate Art Deco style, it's the only movie palace left in the city. Of course, the films shown now are slightly racier than the theater's inaugural screening, Bachelor Mother with David Niven and Ginger Rogers. Today there are regular showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and other cult classics during the theater's popular midnight movie series. Recent features include documentaries (Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson), dramas (Brick Lane), comedies (Animal House in a midnight screening) and thrillers (Roman de Gare). A repeat Best Movie Theater winner, the River Oaks is currently the focus of a heated preservation fight. Its prime location may prove too tempting to local developers before long, but for now, it's still the best theater experience in the city.

The mega-size International Festival is held annually over two weekends in April. From mariachis to Hugh Masekela, if it's music, it's there. Ten stages feature music from around the world — and some from around the neighborhood — and include Latin music, world music, pop, blues, country and jazz. The festival draws names big and small. This year's nationally known performers included Buddy Guy, The Neville Brothers, Grupo Fantasma, Shemekia Copeland, Bettye Lavette, and The Wailers. Local artists included Little Joe Washington and Earl Gilliam, Karina Nistal, and Leo Polk. Best yet, free Friday lunchtime concerts kicked off each weekend, with groups such as the Zydeco Dots, National Dance Theater of Ethiopia and D.R.U.M.

Alley Theatre

Okay, we admit it, one of the best things about Love, Janis was that the show about the life and times of Janis Joplin, the Texas queen of rock, was so, well, unmusical-like. The setup was simple: Two actors played Joplin. One sang the great singer's amazing songs while the other told her story in simple epistolary monologues. Tunes like "Me and Bobby McGee," "Piece of My Heart" and "Ball and Chain" brought down the house, just like they did back in the old days when Joplin was alive. And the singer's story about fame, the fast life and the large-living lure of heroine and alcohol was American mythmaking at its very best.

Pearl Lounge

Yes, we know we gave them this award last year. But Pearl Bar has undergone major renovations since 2007, and you might say, well, it's like a whole new bar. The place that started as an open-every-now-and-then patio bar is now up and running both indoors and out. The inside makes it hard to believe the building once hosted some of the dirtiest bands around town when it was Mary Jane's Fat Cat. The ­latest decor screams Midtown, but the bartenders maintain the old-­Washington vibes. On any given night you'll find a mix of dolled-up singles looking for a new mate and drabby-dressed friends meeting up to play cards, shuffleboard or ping-pong.

Boondocks

When Boondocks celebrated its first anniversary in July, it was kind of a shock. Somehow, it seemed that the split-level bar had been around a lot longer. But in that short time, Boondocks has evolved into an impressive cross-section of the Houston music scene. Its DJ nights feature everything from '60s rock (Reverberations) and hard rock (Hell's Bells) to deep soul, funk and R&B (Dirty Honey) and old-school hip-hop and electro (Shake & Pop). If live music is more your thing, Houston guitar legend Little Joe Washington will blow your mind on Tuesday nights, and Monday's Boondocks Live shows feature a who's who of up-and-coming and established local bands (and $2 Lone Stars). Throw in periodic road shows and free5 p.m. barbecues every Sunday, and we hope Boondocks is just getting started. It certainly seems that way.

Best Of Houston®

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