Critics' Choice Awards

Best Band or Artist: Calexico

Runners up: Howe Gelb/Giant Sand; The Beta Sweat

There's a reason why Calexico's star keeps rising--locally, nationally and internationally. They're a versatile, multinational outfit that can seem to do no wrong, and they've done as much to shine a light on Tucson's music scene as anyone.

Whether he's releasing solo albums or with Giant Sand, performing with his Danish cohorts or by himself, switching deftly between guitar and piano, Gelb and Sand have been doing that ramshackle, unpredictable thing they do for more than two decades, and they show no signs of slowing down.

Featuring a pair of sisters on bass and vocals/guitar, and a male drummer whose crash cymbal is way too high in the air, The Beta Sweat update Jimmy Page's riffs and adapts them to the punk ethos. Add tension, dynamics and a soulful singer who can whisper or scream, and make you believe both equally.

Best New Release: Garden Ruin, Calexico

Runners up: 'Sno Angel Like You, Howe Gelb; Blackbird, Love Mound

Calexico's fifth proper full-length won't have anyone using the term "mariachi rock" or comparing them to Ennio Morricone to describe it. Garden Ruin is the sound of an ever-shifting band making one of their biggest shifts so far--into more traditional pop and rock--while still sounding exactly like Calexico.

Howe Gelb has also experimented with his sound over the years, while still putting his indelible stamp on everything he does. This time, he's grouped together a batch of new songs, some old Giant Sand nuggets and some tunes written by his late friend Rainer Ptacek, and added a Canadian gospel choir to make things even more interesting. It's the best thing he's done since Giant Sand's 2000 masterpiece Chore of Enchantment.

Love Mound has been one of Tucson's best live bands for a while now, using the powerful guitar playing of gentle giant Mike Mihina as an anchor for a winning mixture of blues and hard rock. Blackbird is the first time that power has been successfully captured on disc.

Best Songwriter: Will Elliott

Runners up: Howe Gelb, Joey Burns, John Coinman

Having seemingly emerged out of nowhere, Will Elliott released two CDs, The Doorman and A Devil's Drought, in the span of a few short months. Both are chock full of minor-chord melancholy that updates the sound of the better singer-songwriters of the '70s to the era of freak-folk, without really getting freaky.

Howe Gelb's been writing songs for so long--and without suffering a diminishment of quality--that he could probably do it in his sleep. Come to think of it, since so many of his songs have the surrealism of the dream state, maybe that's his secret.

Primary Calexico songwriter Joey Burns' work has evolved in great strides over the years. He can write political songs that aren't ham-fisted, and he's learned the art of the turn of a phrase.

The term "desert noir" could have been coined to describe the songs of John Coinman, whose literary tales fuse the myth of the Old West with the modern reality of living in the urban desert.

Best Live Band or Performer: Calexico

Runners up: Bob Log III, The Beta Sweat

Watching Calexico perform live, one gets the sense that the players can read each other's minds, which is made all the more interesting when you consider their disparate backgrounds. The tight arrangements of yore have given way to open spaces in which they can stretch out and improvise.

Bob Log III could have made this list based on his musical chops alone--his punky, breakneck-speed slide guitar take on Delta blues is simply dazzling. But add in the jumpsuit, the helmet wired to a mic from an old telephone, the hilarious between-song banter, the leg rides--well, you get the idea.

They're powerful. They're engaging. They're easy on the eyes, and they just plain fucking rock. What's not to love about Beta Sweat?

Best New Band or Artist: Andrew Collberg

Runners up: Found Dead on the Phone, Afrodelic Stegosaurchestra

Prodigious teenager Andrew Collberg is a singer-songwriter whose work evokes such timeless performers as Elliott Smith, Simon and Garfunkel, and Bright Eyes. Once this kid gets a little bit of living under his belt, he's going to be truly dangerous.

Composed of veterans of bygone local acts such as Mala Vita and Pathos, Found Dead on the Phone manage to sound current even as they trade in the memes of '70s-era classic rock, arriving at what can only be described as sprawling rock epics.

An ensemble of American high school students performing polyrhythmic Afrobeat grooves may not sound so promising, but if you don't know why they made this list, you haven't seen them perform yet.

M.V.P.: David Slutes (Club Congress)

Runners up: Don Jennings (KXCI), Craig Schumacher (WaveLab Studio)

Club Congress has become far more inclusive to up-and-coming bands under entertainment director David Slutes and his crack staff. Within the last year, the club hosted such notable events as The Great Cover-Up and the club's own 20th anniversary bash, which has already been logged as one of Tucson's greatest weekends of live music ever.

In an era of homogenized commercial radio stations, KXCI is a beacon of light, providing oodles of info about organizations and events around town, playing an eclectic assortment of music you won't hear anywhere else and--gasp--music by local artists. Don Jennings' weekly Locals Only provides not only recorded music exclusively by local bands, and an hour-long interview and live segment by a local artist, but also a plethora of info about the local music scene, courtesy of Jennings' extensive knowledge.

You tend to hear an awful lot about all the famous acts that have recorded albums with Craig Schumacher, but the main reason he made this list is because he offers local acts reasonably priced studio time to record--something many of them couldn't afford to do if he wasn't around. Plus, he makes 'em sound good, too.

Hardest-Working Band or Artist: Jeff "Mr. Tidypaws" Grubic

Runners up: Dimitri Manos, The Wyatts

Whether it's playing sax and keys for local indie rockers La Cerca, jazz with Naim Amor in the Amor Grubic Duo, or organizing his experimental Ad Nauseum Project, Jeff "Mr. Tidypaws" Grubic simply seems to love playing music of all varieties.

A former member of Sugarbush and Galactic Federation of Love, Dimitri Manos has become a utility drummer of sorts, a go-to guy, if you will--though he's a permanent member of some acts, too. In the past year alone, he's smacked the skins for Golden Boots, The Fashionistas, Tom Walbank and the Ambassadors, Amor and Marianne Dissard.

Country-rockers armed with poppy hooks, The Wyatts are tireless self-promoters--not shamefully so; they just believe in what they're doing and want to share it.

Best Musicianship: Tom Walbank

Runners up: Molehill Orkestrah, The Determined Luddites

Brit expat Tom Walbank has not only absorbed a wealth of history about the blues; he's able to channel it in ways that astound. He can fire off Delta blues licks with aplomb and make his harp sound more like a train than an actual train.

Molehill Orkestrah bring an authenticity to exotic gypsy and Eastern European music--its quiet passages that swell into soaring climaxes--and they function completely as a unit. They make a difficult endeavor appear easy.

Each member of The Determined Luddites has chops out the wazoo, but it's their ability to bring that talent to such a wide array of styles that truly impresses.

Best Band or Artist Presentation: Michael John Serpe

Runners up: The Pork Torta, Spacefish

Michael John Serpe is the man behind Home Recorded Culture, a CD-package-design company and label. He did some excellent packaging work for Will Elliott's latest EP, but he truly went out of his way on his own CD, A Night in Gins Hollow. The cardboard CD cover folds out to resemble a bottle of Bombay Sapphire, with the disc held inside a tie-dyed felt envelope that's scented with juniper oil and gin.

Though Pork Torta gigs have become less frequent, you still never know what to expect. Musically, you know you're going to get absurd garage-funk, sure. But it's the band's attire that shifts from gig to gig--if there's any attire at all. Tutus, bubble wrap--these guys could craft silly costumes out of a paper clip and a pencil.

Ditto the costume element for Spacefish. Additionally, we've seen 'em do choreographed dance moves in tennis outfits and serve omelets from the stage. At last year's Great Cover-Up, they were U2.

Best Single Live Performance: Seven to Blue (covering Queen at Bohemian Plush benefit)

Runners up: Calexico/Iron and Wine/Salvador Duran (Rialto Theatre); The Jons (covering Tom Jones at The Great Cover-Up, Club Congress)

Queen's music is so difficult to replicate in a live setting that even Freddie and company had trouble doing so from time to time. Which made it all the more impressive that Seven to Blue completely nailed it, even if it took nine people on stage to do so.

While some complained the Calexico/Iron and Wine/Salvador Duran show, while entertaining, dragged on too long, think about it: In roughly three hours of nonstop music, how many boring moments were there? And who didn't get a bit misty when Duran pounded his chest because he was so overwhelmed at the outpouring of love from the audience?

From the wigs and polyester attire to the panties being thrown on stage to the music itself, The Jons' take on Tom Jones was nothin' but a good, good time.