Your Favorite Artists:  Captured in their Natural Habitat

It’s that time of year again, the time when you expect to see a lot of very familiar faces as the top vote-getters in our Readers’ Choice Awards.

And you will. But there’s a new breed of artists who is changing the terrain, resulting in some genuinely unexpected winners.

So how to keep these annual awards fresh? Well, there’s been a whole lotta shakin’ going on.

We shook up the survey by adding some fun new categories. You shook up the polls with your selections, sometimes choosing artists who’ve never reached the top before. …

FAVORITE NEW ARTIST:  Hawk Nelson
2. The Afters
3. Krystal Meyers

JUST CHILLIN’ … The guys in Hawk Nelson are Canadian so they’re required by law to love hockey. “Jason is a Calgary Flames freak.  He has everything from the team jerseys to the matching sleeping bag and pillowcase. He even has a genuine Calgary Flames tuque,” reports bass-man Daniel Biro. “The rest of us are into the Toronto Maple Leafs.”

But they’re not just fans, they’re players (especially of street hockey), and they’ve got the war stories to prove it.

The year 2005 was a real hat trick for Hawk Nelson because every little thing they did went right. They won tons of new fans (enough to score our February 2006 cover photo), rocked up the radio playlists and even hit both the tube and the big screen (see “Most Likely to Go Mainstream” below).

But their greatest accomplishment? “Staying together through good and bad,” says Daniel.

Speeding ahead to April, you can face-off with their new album, "Smile, It’s the End of the World."

FAVORITE GROUP:  GRITS
2. ZOEgirl
3. Avalon

TOP VINYL-ISTS … These eloquent elocutionists (look it up) aren’t just music makers; they’re music lovers. Bonafide (aka Teron Carter) tells us, “I can honestly say I go faithfully to the record store or one of the retail chains once if not twice a week.” And his partner Coffee (aka Stacy Jones) admits that he recently pared down his collection to about 2,500 CDs. “I had to get rid of some of them. It was getting out of control.”

The year 2005 goes down as a year that GRITS was definitely in control. The duo’s video “Hittin’ Curves” hit the Dean’s List at MTVu, they’ve been cookin’ in the studio and on the road, and "Dichotomy B" got a GRAMMY nom for “Best Rock Gospel Album.” (Rock?? Go figure).

They also came out of nowhere to stand on the top of the stacks in our polls -- the first time a straight-up hip-hop act has conquered pop for Favorite Group.

Looking ahead: “We are putting together a very special album just for the fans that will release around March/April simply titled "7," which not only stands for spiritual completion but represents our seventh release,” offers Teron. “And we are also working on a brand new record — all new stuff — for release in the spring of ‘07.”

FAVORITE BAND:  Third Day
2. Casting Crowns
3. MercyMe

FAVORITE LIVE PERFORMANCE:  Third Day
2. Superchic[k]
3. tobyMac

THIRD DAY IN 3-D … Sure, those big tour buses look roomy from the outside but it makes for close quarters when the guys in Third Day squeeze together for a little filmfest. And they log plenty of movie-time because last year alone they performed 68 Third Day concerts, plus special events.

But their film picks might surprise you. “We love offbeat documentaries,” divulges Mark Lee. “The truth is usually stranger than fiction.”  Recent favorites include "Off the Charts" (about the song-poem industry) and "Okie Noodling" (about fishing with your bare hands). “And pretty much anything featuring Will Ferrell.”