Seven years ago, when KBAQ began broadcasting out of a cramped office space at Mesa Community College, local radio was caught in a classical drought. The Valley's lone classical station, KONC-106.3, had recently fallen off the commercial end of the dial to be replaced by the alt-rock ravings of KEDJ. For a few months there, the only chance you had to hear a harpsichord on local radio was when the oldies station played Gary Lewis and the Playboys' "Everybody Loves a Clown."

But KBAQ stepped into the breach, ably carrying the Valley's classical burden on its thin 3,000-watt signal. Careful but not conservative, KBAQ has mixed the gems of the 18th-century Viennese masters with smart nods to the modernists. It's also supported the local scene with frequent broadcasts of local chamber-music concerts and a splashy 1998 tribute to the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra on its 50th anniversary.

Best of all, this is one station where the DJs -- sorry, "music selectionists" -- don't sound like they're trying to shout you into submission or sell you a used car.

Readers' Choice: KBAQ-FM 89.5

These days country ain't cool, and most of the blame can be placed on navel-exposing poseurs like Shania and She-Daisy, whose manufactured pop inundates the airwaves on the Valley's two country radio powerhouses. Meanwhile, true country music has remained buried, hidden way up on the AM side, usually nestled somewhere between the police band and the airport traffic station.

But these days Valley listeners can get a taste of hard-core honky-tonk and tears-in-your-beer goodness, thanks to KXKQ-FM, Safford's "Kat Country." Admittedly, the station's playlist does include a handful of "new country" acts. But with two out of every three songs passing the true twang test, KXKQ is a saving grace to those who think country should sound more like Merle than Mariah.

The station's signal isn't flawless, and tends to fade depending on your location, but the sonic selection more than compensates for a bit of static. And, yee-haw! When was the last time you heard Johnny Paycheck and Buck Owens on the FM dial?

Readers' Choice: KNIX-FM 102.5

Phoenix's unlikely reputation as a hotbed for the dance and DJ genres has always tended to obscure the other side of the urban music coin, hip-hop. Part of this can be blamed on the historical lack of a progressive broadcast powerhouse to bring the music to local ears. In more recent years, Power 92 has emerged as something of a force in carrying that musical message to Valley audiences. Though situated precariously close to the NPR affiliate -- we wouldn't want white suburban Eminem fans to have to suffer any intelligent thought -- KKFR 92.3 has shaped itself into the leading beacon of hip-hop programming. Unlike the other urban format station (KMJK 92.7/106.9), which sticks to more adult and smooth R&B fare, Power 92 keeps it, um, real -- so to speak.

Admittedly, the station's playlist never veers off into adventurous or eclectic territory, but it does provide local airwaves with meat-and-potatoes offerings from mainstream (and just outside the mainstream) rappers and harder-edged R&B performers. And the station's ever-improving weekend specialty programming and mix showcases point to an even more promising future.

Readers' Choice: KKFR-FM 92.3

When Ian Hunter sang "It's a mighty long way down rock 'n' roll" in 1973, he couldn't possibly have appreciated the profound insight contained in that lyric. The horrendous and brutal slides many have since taken from rock's dizzying heights to the primordial ooze of oblivion lend that line a frightening significance that makes one wonder whether Hunter and fellow Mott the Hoople members weren't really celestial clairvoyants posing as glam minstrels.

And what better place in Phoenix to witness those on Hunter's slippery slope than at the Mason Jar, that cinder-block pit stop en route to Cut-out Bin Hell? L.A. Guns with bald spots and beer guts, Warrant with jowl wattles, and a crispy, croaky Kris Kristofferson are but a few of the dozens and dozens of onetime gold and platinum acts that have tottered across the beer-soaked carpet of The Jar's pitifully small stage.

We can only imagine the internal monologue running through Dale Bozzio's head a few years ago as her tour van pulled into what appeared to be a beer joint parking lot, only to discover MISSING PERSONS (missing more than a few letters) on the club's marquee. Once inside the club's dark, dank, lager-scented confines, Bozzio might well have shaken her pink mane in disbelief. "Boy, I've played some toilets in my day, but jeeez . . ."

Hey, when you're flush with success, there's only one way to go.

Imagine an autumn evening at an outdoor cafe. As you sip a perfectly executed cappuccino, wisps of exotic languages drift through the evening mist of the nearby lake. Seated at the concert grand piano just inside the open glass doors is world-class pianist Jian Liu, playing as if his life, and yours, depends upon his perfect execution of an intricate Chopin passage.

As the music swells, all languages are silenced, and just beneath the pounding crescendo you can sense -- could it be, the fetal heartbeat of a world-class city?

Nice fantasy, isn't it?

But on Friday and Saturday evenings from 8 to 11, Charlie's Espresso turns fantasy into reality. Just up the street from Tempe's Town Lake, a weekly array of talent featuring international stars such as Liu, who won third place at the 1999 Vladimir Horowitz piano competition in Moscow, appears on Charlie's shaded courtyard.

Tango/flamenco dancers, French horn virtuosos, lute and violin soloists and operatic vocalists also perform for the culturally enlightened and fiscally frugal. There is no cover charge for Charlie's fete to high-end culture. Just bring an open mind, a taste for really great coffee and an imaginative heart.

Charlie's is open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays, 7 a.m. to midnight Fridays and Saturdays.

The Rhythm Room
Most local music aficionados have heard that the Rhythm Room is being forced to move from its central Phoenix digs by early next year. It's been nearly a decade since the onetime go-go joint turned into a house of blues, a period in which booker/co-owner Bob Corritore has continued his one-man mission to keep that music form alive in Phoenix. A home away from home for true legends of the genre, Corritore's club has hosted notables from David Honeyboy Edwards and R.L. Burnside to young lions like the North Mississippi Allstars.

The club favors all styles of the blues, from jump and swing to the harder sounds of Chicago and the Delta. Yet the Rhythm Room has not neglected its roots side, either, featuring regular appearances by top jazz acts and a regular weekly night, headlined by some of the finest national and local talents in country and rockabilly.

Although the venue will have a new address by 2001, if its past track record is any indication, the Rhythm Room will remain the Valley's preeminent palace for heritage music.

Readers' Choice: Rhythm Room

Though some Valley danceaterias may be larger, newer or more glamorous, none has managed to merge aesthetics and content as well as Club Freedom at Pompeii (recently renamed, after an ownership change). From steady appearances by internationally known DJs (BT, Donald Glaude, Sasha) to regular sets from top local record spinners, this two-story Tempe hot spot is a mecca to all things that shake and shimmy. Pompeii has proven itself the top venue by combining progressive music and booking along with a bedrock of indefatigable nightlife charm.

And as you get high on the vibes, you'll find it hard to believe this same joint played host to adult party record queen Rusty Warren's ill-fated early '80s comeback attempt. Knockers up!

Readers' Choice: Club Rio

Like Davy Crockett and the besieged band of rebels holed up at the Alamo, the local swing contingent refuses to wave the proverbial white flag and ditch the retro craze that's been replaced by Latin dance fever. Just as neo-swing bands have seen their sales and popularity dwindle, so too has the local movement of clubs and clubgoers that once led an active Valley scene dedicated to the style. Not surprisingly, the last holdout is the Bash on Ash, a repeat winner in this category, and one of the few nightspots still clinging to its faith in big-band booty-shakers with its weekly Thursday night swing set.

But these dancers are a determined bunch of cats and kittens. Even if the whole world is against this dying fad (and it seems that way), they're gonna go down swingin'!

Readers' Choice: The Bash on Ash

Best Joint for BPM Junkies and Fashion-Conscious Candy Ravers

Swell Records

Through police-instigated turmoil and the rave scene's unfortunate media-hyped drug hysteria associations, Swell has soldiered on for the past seven years selling the records that are spun at parties and the gear that the kids sport, throwing raves (including Musik, an annual event that's arguably the year's best consistently), and releasing cassettes, vinyl and CDs by local luminaries like the Bombshelter DJs and RC Lair.

Owner Russ Ramirez has a stellar cast of techno intelligentsia doing the shop's purchasing, including house master Pete Salaz and DJ Radar. The stock is consistently of-the-moment, a daunting task in the electro scene, which largely revolves around 12-inch vinyl singles. If you're into the BPM scene (that's "beats per minute" to all the rave-challenged) beyond just Ecstasy and Blow-Pops, you already know Swell.

Best Live Band to See in the Middle of a Three-Day Bender

Grave Danger

For those arguing that rock 'n' roll is truly the devil's music, they might just have the evidence they need in the form of local combo Grave Danger. It's not the band's sound -- which isn't really satanic rock, but actually a kind of surf-tinged rockabilly. Nor is it the songs -- usually sprite instrumentals or cartoonish tales of drunken and homicidal mayhem. It's just that whenever this trio hits the stage, the audience -- composed of normally upstanding citizens and community members -- follows the band down a road of booze-fueled hedonism, excess and good old-fashioned destructive fun.

Revived after a lengthy absence this past year, Grave Danger has been earning praise, popularity and costly repair bills for a series of performances that have seen band members passing out, diving into crowds, destroying stages and shaving their heads onstage. Taking their cues from well-imbibed showstoppers (Janis Joplin, George Jones, Foster Brooks), a Grave Danger concert makes folks forget God, good manners and city ordinances, leaving most venues drowning in a post-show ocean of blood, sweat and broken bottles. Forget the old bit about a rock 'n' roll heaven. If there's a rock 'n' roll hell, Grave Danger's gonna be the house band.

Best Of Phoenix®

Best Of