The 2000 Graham Awards
by George Graham
(As broadcast on WVIA-FM 12/27/2000)
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Once again we come to that annual feature of our program of which so many people have said "I wonder when this is going to be over." Yes, it's the Graham Awards, the highly facetious, thoroughly and monumentally inconsequential awards, that each year are missed by almost the entire population of the earth. And, for those with better things to do, we can assure you that they will be over in less time than it takes to decide not to count a ballot in Florida. This year marks at least our 27th annual ceremony bestowing ephemeral pangyrics on unsuspecting figures in the world of music, for achievements dubious and otherwise.
As usual, these awards are given out in a completely biased and arbitrary manner by our august panel of one curmudgeon who uses the end of the year to be even more opinionated than usual. As usual, because of the amazingly prestigious nature of these honorifics, the recipients of the Graham Awards need not be burdened with any plaques or statuettes, when the mere mention of their names in these solemn ceremonies is more than most of the winners could ever hope for in a lifetime. And so, as we begin our glittering radio ceremony, we turn to the first award.
Although this has little to do with music, we'll start the proceedings with a special honor that I felt should be noted. The Delayed Reaction Award goes to the Y2K phenomenon. Although the computers ran smoothly on January 1, 2000, it wasn't until November 7 that the real breakdown of numerical systems occurred -- in Florida, that is.
Our Scary Thought Award, in-the-sink (N-the-sync) division, number one, goes to a group called 2gether which was formed for a satirical film production, a kind Spinal Tap for the year 2000. It was intended as a parody group of the teen pop boy bands with songs like Say It, Don't Spray It. But they suddenly became stars themselves, with fans who took them seriously.
Our Scary Thought Award, in-the-sink division, number two, goes to the co-incidence at the end of the year of chart topping CDs by both the Beatles and N'Sync, and the reminder that the Beatles at one time appealed to the same type of audience of screaming teenage girls. Will 30 years from now, N'Sync be looked upon as the Beatles of the current day? Scary thought indeed.
Our 21st Century Luddites Award goes to the five major record labels, who when Napster and other Internet music technologies arose, did not try to figure out how to take advantage of them, but hired teams of lawyers to try to stop them, before the lawyers all got sent to Florida to try to stop the vote count there.
Our Bizarre Classification of the Year Award goes to Billboard magazine, and this is actually true. The current number one World Music album is the Baja Boys with their incredibly annoying Who Let the Dogs Out. Another curiosity on the World Charts is the presence of classical singer Andrea Bocelli. At least Ricky Martin didn't get put on the World Music charts -- at least yet.
Out Nick Drake Memorial Award for new-found popularity for worthwhile but obscure old music, thanks to a television commercial, goes to the Eastern Pennsylvania band Huffamoose, who performed their song I Want to Buy You a Ring here in a Homegrown Music Concert back in 1994. Now everyone in earshot of a television has been hearing the song. Meanwhile Hannibal Records has once again re-released the late Nick Drake's 1973 album Pink Moon, thanks to the exposure of a car commercial.
Our No Good Deed Goes Unpunished Award goes to three veteran performers who previously sold albums by the millions, and who in the year 2000 made exceptionally fine, no-compromise records that made almost no impact on the pop charts. Mark Knopfler, who with Dire Straits sold tens of millions of albums worldwide, released Sailing to Philadelphia, an album that was musically superb and probably his most interesting lyrically. It peaked on the charts at #60 before quickly heading back down. Paul Simon released You're the One also his best since his ground-breaking Graceland album, and though it did better than Mark Knopfler, peaking at #19 on the charts, it also made a hasty retreat. Little Feat marked their 30th anniversary with a great, rollicking album called Chinese Work Songs, that I don't think even cracked the top 100. And of course, at the top of the charts for the year was N'Sync.
Our Jerry Garcia Lives Award goes to The String Cheese Incident, who are not only, I think, the best jam band on an increasingly active scene, but they also accommodates people who want to travel around with them as Deadheads used to do, setting up their own travel agency.
Our George W. Bush Following in Daddy's Footsteps Award this year for debut albums by the children of performers, though in this case, showing significant musical talent, goes to Teddy Thompson, son of British singer-songwriter and Fairport Convention founder Richard Thompson, and to Femi Kuti, son of the late, great Nigerian musician Fela Kuti, who also released an outstanding debut CD, following in the musical traditions of his father.
Our Bizarrely Eclectic Even for Mixed Bag Award goes to the band called Instrumental and their CD Acoustek, whose raison d'etre involved using cellos and other string instruments to do performances of the electronica dance music of groups like the Orb.
Once again our Tin Ear Award goes to almost all the record labels, large and small, for the deteriorating sound quality of CDs during the year. Even music that is not associated with the aggressive grunge style was given that kind of sonic treatment with noisy, distorted recordings compressed beyond all reason. One merely has to go back and listen to some CDs from the mid 1990s to realize just how much worse today's CDs sound. It's really sad that with the technology of digital audio improving by leaps and bounds all the time, you have to go back five or ten years to find a CD that sounds at all decent.
And in that vein, we give our Back to the Studio Awards to two noteworthy bands who released albums marked by bad, overly commercial production that seriously marred their work: Barenaked Ladies, whose CD Maroon was even given a tepid review by the normally very commercially-oriented Billboard magazine, and the quartet of funny folkies, the Four Bitchin' Babes. They got together with a commercially oriented producer who completely undermined their witty songs with annoying pop clichés.
And now we work our way around to some of the more semi-serious awards which actually give out some degree of grudging praise.
In addition to getting our Best Jam Band Award, the String Cheese Incident's CD Carnival 99 gets our award for Best Live Album of 2000.
Our Art Rock Album of the Year award goes to Transatlantic for their great debut release SMPTe. They make symphonic length rock in the best traditions and minus most of the pretense.
Our Bluegrass Album of the Year Award goes to the superb national debut by Nickel Creek. The group features a couple of real instrumental prodigies, and also mixes a great singer-songwriter appeal with their remarkable, but subtle musicianship.
Our World Music Album of the Year is Cómo Era y Cómo Es by the amazing Venezuelan group Guaco. The huge band plays a high energy style that resembles salsa, but as many Venezuelans have told me in e-mails after reading my album review of their CD, it is actually a distinct Venezuelan sound called Gaitas that they play. Whatever it is, it makes for great listening and dancing and a wonderful antidote for the pseudo-Latin sounds appearing on the pop charts.
Our Comebacks of the Year Award is split between two bands who had been apart for more than 20 years. Steely Dan, who released Two Against Nature this year, and the innovative art rock band Happy the Man, who while they did not release an album this year, nevertheless got back together for a series of concerts and proved that they were in remarkable form.
Our Celtic Album of the Year goes again to Solas, for their fourth CD The Hour Before Dawn. Although the group had to replace their fine vocalist Karan Casey, who departed, Dierdre Scanlan proved to be an able replacement, and the Solas' musicianship remained stunning.
The Graham Award for Blues Album of the Year narrowly edges out some high-profile recordings, including CDs by Koko Taylor and the impressive joint album by B.B. King and Eric Clapton. We give our award to the duo CD by Corey Harris and Henry Butler, called Vu Du Menz. The all-acoustic recording by two fine New Orleans bluesmen was marked by a combination of excellent musicianship and a spirit of great fun.
My pick for Roots Rock Album of the year goes to Bill Mallonee and the Vigilantes of Love for the CD Audible Sigh. The album features great, unpretentious playing, with Mallonnee's plaintive vocals and impressive wordcraft.
Our Awards for Most Notable Debut Albums of the Year go to Nickel Creek, for their aforementioned eponymous album. It was not actually their first CD, but it was the first to get national distribution. Also notable as debuts were the art rock band Transatlantic's SMPTe, and the interesting rock band with a cello called Clem Snide for their recording Your Favorite Music.
In a year of deteriorating sound quality on new CDs, I do want to give out Awards for Notable Sonics to recordings that combine worthwhile music with a respect for the sound quality, especially dynamic range and clarity. We give the awards to Ryan Adams for his CD Heartbreaker, engineered by Ethan Johns; to Mark Knopfler's Sailing to Philadelphia whose recording and mix engineer was Chuck Ainlay, and to Ned Farr for his Desert Motel, with the production duties handled by Evan Richie. I must confess to being involved with the latter CD as mastering engineer, though not actually part of the recording of the CD. Still, putting on my reviewer's hat, I was much impressed with the subtlety of the production and mix.
And so, ladies and gentlemen, that brings us to the overall top albums list. Every year, I handle it a little differently. Some years, I have a clear Album of the Year. Sometimes I stretch the top 10 into a top 12. Some years, in order to get in all the albums I thought deserved mention, I sort it into two lists, one for debut albums and one for recordings by veteran artists.
This year, I have a Top 11, and I'll give it by alphabetical order, since I don't have a single strong favorite for the year. They include recordings by veteran artists as well as debut recordings. So here they are:
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