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The 2002 Graham Awards
by George Graham

(As broadcast on WVIA-FM January 1, 2003)

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Time one again for that most dispensible of features, the part of our program that so many people look forward to missing, and which has been compared to the drying of paint in its level of unrestrainted excitement. Yes, it's the 29th annual Graham Awards (out-of-tune fanfare). The radio award ceremony that each year strains the limits of ennui, explodes with a glittering array of tedium, blazes new trails in vapidity, and pushes the envelope of jejuneness. (fanfare)

As usual, we expect that all the candidates for these inconsiderable panegyrics be listening intently for the results of our completely biased, partial, and arbitrary voting panel of one. So there is obviously no need to notify the recipients, and the presentation of any statuette or other memento that might cost any money would obviously be considered tacky. But it's an award that can offer what relatively few others can only dream of -- a few seconds of our airtime on an off night, reaching an audience of many dozens of people. As usual, the achievements celebrated are dubious, though later on, we'll actually give out some grudging praise. Not that it will get you anything.

Our Enron Corporate Responsibility Award goes to Vivendi Universal, the French water utility which over the past few years has become one of the world's biggest media companies, buying up the MCA and Polygram labels, and thus becoming the world's largest record company. In 2002, they were caught up in their own coporate scandal, with the company's head Jean-Marie Messier being given the boot, and coming under criminal investigation. There was some question as to whether the record companies would be jettisoned in an effort to stave off bankruptcy.

One of the many Pedal-Extremities Target-Practice Awards goes to the major labels for their attempts at making CDs copy-proof, and thus not playable on computers, the appliance that is increasingly becoming the CD player of choice for many. RCA Records during the year released to radio a copy-proof version of the new Bruce Hornsby album, but since many professional broadcast CD players use a mechanism similar to those of computers, we were unable to provide any airplay of the CD, since it would not play on our CD players. I suppose that if we really wanted to play the music, we could go onto the Internet and download it.

The Innovative Paranoia award also goes to the major labels for coming up with what is already being called the "Glueman." They record companies have been sending to key reviewers and music writers an advance copy of a CD sealed inside a walkman CD player supposedly to prevent the music from being distribued over the Internet.

The well-deserved vacation award goes to Britney Spears, who decided to take some time off from her whirlwind career. Let's hope she really likes it there and will stay a long long time.

The Waiting for Godot Award goes to Axl Rose and Guns N' Roses. A 34-date national tour was planned for the fall and winter, with Rose was the only original member left in the group. The first show in November in Vancouver was cancelled after Rose never left Los Angeles to go to the gig. Then on December 6 in Philadelphia there was a near-riot when Rose again failed to show up. He happened to be in New York, and even a helicopter was dispatched to fetch him. The opening act played for nearly three hours, then the show was finally called off after 11 PM. After that, the whole tour fell apart.

The Why Public Radio Plays Mostly Classical Music Award goes to Gene Simmons of Kiss for his downright boorish interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air that attracted a good deal of media attention.

The Tunnel Vision Award goes to most jazz record labels, both large and small, for releasing mostly female vocal and organ combo recordings during the year.

And that brings us to the now annual Johnny Art Award for the recording that is just so bad one really does not know whether the artists are serious or not. Johnny Art was a group that released, so far as I can tell, and hope, one CD back around 1997 that was so incredibly bad that we all hoped it was a joke, but could never really tell. <<>> This year's award goes to a band called Jucifer for their CD I Name You Destroyer, which combined just-plain bad heavy-metal guitar grunge, annoying techno synthesizer sounds, really off-key vocals and supercilious lyrics. We get plenty of bad albums that I have often wanted to share with you for how awful they are, but I decided that the best policy is never to mention them publicly, to deny them the publicity they seek, even as examples of tastelessness. But once a year, I feel I can allow myself a few seconds to impose on our valued listeners one example of exquisite badness. This is our 2002 winner.

The Most Unlikely Bluegrass Artist award goes to Jorma Kaukonen, of the Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna for his CD Blue Country Heart which turned out to be a fine album of great old songs.

The Never Sleeps Award goes to Ryan Adams, founder of Whiskeytown, who seems to release a new album every few months, and who also seems to be everywhere on the music scene. His latest CD, or at least last time I checked, was Demolition a collection of mainly demo recordings that has already gotten onto a number of critics' Ten Best lists.

Our annual Still At It After All These Years Awards for veteran performers who continue to do outstanding work, is a crowded field this year with fine releases by: Mark Knopfler; Paul McCartney; Peter Gabriel, Yes; the aforementioned Jorma Kaukonen; Fairport Convention, celebrating their 35th anniversary together; Richie Havens; Peter Wolf (of the J. Geils Band), English folk artist Linda Thompson, who released her first CD in 17 years; Hugh Masekela; Tom Petty; Johnny Cash and bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley, who has achieved fame thanks to his performance on the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack.

Best CD by an Oncologist Award goes to Dr. Christopher Conti, and his band Squamous Eddie, a fine-retro-flavored record that spans Beatles influenced pop to soul, with worthwhile original material.

The Largest Number of Stars on One CD award for 2002 goes to Jools Holland for his CD Jools Holland's Big Band Rhythm and Blues with 22 significant guests including Eric Clapton, Sting, Van Morrison, Dr. John and the late George Harrison and Joe Strummer taking turns appearing, along with 52 other studio musicians. <<>> A runner up is Willie Nelson's Stars and Guitars with only about 18 name guest stars.

And now on to some of more serious awards, in which we actually give out some grudging praise.

Out choice for best engineered album is split between the to the acoustic trio Phillips, Grier and Flinner for their CD Looking Back, and Patricia Barber's Verse. The former features a wonderfully intimate sound, virtually free from studio effects, and boasting a decent dynamic maintaining the span from loud to soft. <<>> That was also a characteristic of Patrician Barber's CD, which did take creative advantage of some subtle studio effects, while the sound of the drums and bass was remarkable and very impressive on a system with good woofers. <<>> They were definite standouts in a year of too many CDs spoiled by bad, overly-compressed sound.

Ms. Barber also shares our award for the most conceptually fascinating and artistically successful recordings along Cassandra Wilson's CD Belly of the Sun, Ruben Blades' Mundo, and Craig Armstrong's As If To Nothing. Each had its own highly distinctive, ofter stunning sound. Ms. Barber, a jazz singer and pianist created a collection of sulty songs with some of the most interesting and literate lyrics you're likely to hear. Ms. Wilson, also known as a jazz singer, went to the Mississippi Delta to record a collection of mainly cover songs from Bob Dylan to Robert Johnson in very unexpected treatments. <<>> Ruben Blades combined Salda with Celtic and other world music, <<>> and Scottish composer Craig Armstrong created a stunning recording of classical style orchestral music with unusual bits of elctronic techno.

Our Best Retro Album Award: In a crowded field with a lot of good candidates, our award goes to Liquid Soul and their very funky release Evolution.

Our Diversity in Action Award goes to the Pat Metheny Group, whose revised lineup contains members born in Cameroon, Mexico and Vietnam. Their 2002 CD Speaking of Now was brilliant, combining a remarkable number of influences.

Our Jam Band Album of the Year goes to the String Cheese Incident, who released a great live collection of material recorded during their 2002 spring tour. Actually the award is enhanced by the group's innovative concept of releasing all their concerts, as they take place, on CD.

Our award for Best New Country singer goes to Tift Merritt for her CD Bramble Rose.

Best Hip Children's Album Award goes to They Might Be Giants for their CD No!, which was full of the wit the group for which is so well-known.

Best World Music album goes to Ruben Blades for his Mundo, with its Salsa, Celtic, African and other sounds deftly combined.

Our Record Label of the Year Award is split two ways to artist-family-owned Nashville-based Compass Records, who released a great collection of New Acoustic, Celtic and English folk, including Fairport Convention, Tony McManus and Swan Dive. Our other Record Label of the year is Sugar Hill, the Durham, North Carolina-based primarily-bluegrass company that released the fine CDs by Nickel Creek, Dolly Parton and Railroad Earth, who appeared on our Homegrown Music series.

And that brings us to our top albums list. Each year, I struggle to come up with a way of defining the list to fit the CDs I want to put on it. Last year, we had a traditional top 10 list by rank, though it was actually a top 12 list. This year I have another top 12 list, but since I could not decide which CD I liked the most, I put the list in alphabetical order by artist name.

So here they are. May I have the envelope please.

So there you have it. The 29th annual edition of the Graham Awards. The winners are going to have to live with the results, or ignore them, as the case may be. And all those who did not receive an award can rest easy now. It's going to be another year before there's any danger of your reputation being sullied by in our illustrious ceremony.

(c) Copyright 2003 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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