Is there any to get the category data as, say, a PHP array rather than dumping it directly to the browser using list_cats or dropdown_cats? I'm creating a new template for my web site and need to be able to list the categories in the following format:
<p><a href="$url"><img ...>$name</a> ($count, last $date)</p>
I would very much prefer not to have to output buffer and re-parse the output from list_cats, but I've seen in the Codex that making your own functions which execute SQL is a Bad Thing and all the category-related functions in template-functions-category.php do their own database access.
Any ideas? Am I missing something obvious?