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The 2004 Graham Awards
by George Graham

(As broadcast on WVIA-FM December 29, 2004)

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And so, dear listeners, whose indulgence we beseech, we come to another of those inevitable rituals that crop up at the end of each year, here on Mixed Bag, a tradition whose beginning are clothed in the mists of audio antiquity, and whose continuation is a tribute more to habit and stubbornness, rather than any merit. Yes it's the 31st or so annual Graham Awards, the awards show of which so many have said, "Oh, not again!" Yes, it's an opportunity for the liberal dispensation of brickbats, and the reluctant extraction of tiny dollops of kudos. As usual, these awards are selected by our impressively biased, partial and curmudgeonly panel of one, who spent a not-inconsiderable quantity of time in the procrastination of its deliberations. The awards are given in several categories, which are highly variable and arbitrary. The Graham Awards also have the remarkable quality of categories that are devised on the fly to fit the deserving recipients.

As usual, because of the extremely distinguished nature of these awards, eagerly anticipated by most of the cosmos, we feel that any physical token -- a statuette, a plaque or a disused carburetor -- would be below our level, and decidedly tacky. Those to whom we make these awards can ask for nothing more than the distinct experience of having their names mentioned on the our airwaves, sent careening off into the ether, perhaps to reach some star in another in this or another galaxy in several thousand years. And practically speaking, it's also the only time the names of some these show-biz figures will be mentioned on our airwaves.

So here we go. May I have the envelope please.

Our "So What Else Is New" award for the show biz scandal that was absolutely no surprise to anyone goes to Ashlee Simpson for her appearance on Saturday Night Live in which her lip sync vocal track turned out to be the wrong song, so she was heard singing the wrong song while nowhere near the mic. It's the occupational hazard of a technologically manufactured pop star.

Our "Woodstock Lounge" award goes to the current fad of old rockers crooning on Tin Pan Alley standards. Most notable was Rod Stewart, but there were CDs by Linda Ronstadt, and in the previous year, Boz Scaggs. It might be an interesting novelty, but it's just not the real thing, and the novelty fades quickly. On the other hand, some younger artists are proving their worth as crooners and chanteuses, Madeleine Peyroux and Norah Jones. Also, one of today's great singer-songwriters, Susan Werner created a CD of brand new songs in the classic Tin Pan Alley style and succeeded brilliantly.

Our "The Bubble Couldn't Burst Too Soon" award goes to the entity that launched the American Idol franchise. It seems that sales of CDs by their contest winners are in a steep decline. Amen.

The "Outsized Egos and Legal Eagles" award goes to rap and pop stars R. Kelly and Jay-Z, who launched an ambitious joint tour they called "The Best of Both Worlds," which quickly turned into a real food fight with the two headliners trading accusations, and then $75 million lawsuits. It's been my experience that the size of the ego tends to be inversely proportional to the degree of talent.

Our "Stupid Cell Phone Tricks" Award has three winners. Second runner-up goes to a Japanese company who announced plans to launch a service allowing cell phone users to hum or play a song into their phone and the service will identify the song, for a fee. First runner up goes to T-Mobile which was the first and probably not the last, to announce that in addition to musical ring-tones, they would offer a pay service that would cause someone calling you to hear, instead of the regular ring-back sound, a tune of your choosing. But the number one Stupid Cell Phone Trick, in the opinion of our Graham Awards panel, is the now increasingly ubiquitous ring-tone feature that actually plays part of the recording of some dumb, and usually annoying hit song, in place of the sound of the phone ringing. This source of irritation has already become a major industry. In 2004, over $300 million was spent by cell phone customers on ring-tones. Ask yourself this, what could $300 million buy, what could that amount of money do to make the world a better place. To underscore how big the ring-tone business is, Billboard magazine, which compiles the industry standard record sales charts, announced that it would be establishing a top ring-tones chart.

The "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing" Award goes to our state of Pennsylvania, along with Ohio, Florida, Michigan and others who won the coveted swing-state designation in the presidential race. We were bombarded with political ads, it was hard not to trip over a candidate, while the firmly blue and red states were ignored. Being swingers, we attracted the "Vote for Change" tour which brought a raft of performers, such as Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, James Taylor and others for at least three major concerts here in the Keystone State. Perhaps it did help a little, with Pennsylvania ending up comfortably in the blue-state column.

Our "Musical Footsteps of Richard Nixon" Award goes to George W. Bush, for being the catalyst for more protest songs than at any time since the Vietnam War, something that's likely to continue and grow. Nixon, however, could do a respectable job playing the piano, but by all reports, Bush is not at all musical.

Our Red and Blue music award goes to the campaigns. It's was really interesting to note how each of the candidates attracted music in different styles, in many ways representing his political philosophy. Bush tended to attract country musicians and their fans, especially styles that critics would might call simple-minded, repetitive, narrow in the range of influences. John Kerry attracted musicians and fans of styles with more musical complexity like jazz, along with rock and folk musicians whose lyrics often reflected a more subtle, poetic approach. Of course, there were exceptions, such as the Dixie Chicks' support for Kerry, but chances are, the music being played in a given locale could provide a idea of the politics.

And, though each campaign had their own songs that would play at rallies, judging from phone calls from listeners through the course of the year, we'll give our "Campaign Song of 2004" award to Country Joe and the Fish's Vietman-era protest song, "The I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag." The campaign seemed to spend most of its time in Vietnam, and isn't it interesting considering this song, and the actions taken by the two candidates back then.

The "Borrowing Political Campaign Tactics" award goes to country artist Chely Wright, whose sentimental song The Bumper of My S.U.V. showing support for soldiers away at war, a was a country hit, mainly on the strength of listener requests to radio stations. Well, it turned out that most of those requests were carefully orchestrated by a fan-club group which may or may not be connected with the artist. It seems that Bush's political advisor Karl Rove may have found his new calling.

Well, enough of politics. It's time for our annual "Johnny Art" award. Johnny Art is a band that appeared in the mid 1990s with a CD that was so astoundingly bad that we were never able to figure out whether it was a joke or not. There was a cornucopia of bad music to choose from in 2004, but much of it was very predictable and variations on the same hackneyed themes. But we'll give out our 2004 Johnny Art Award to a group called Wives, whose combination of unmusicality and lyrical and conceptual dumbness merited special mention, and no more than a few seconds' excerpt of their CD.

And now, ladies and gentlemen, I'm going to try to suppress my curmudgeonly impulses to give out, dare I say, some kudos.

Our grudging award for creative use of sampling, a musical technology that heretofore has been the root of a great deal of bad music, sampling, goes to two creative CDs in 2004 that elevate the use of bits of previously existing recordings beyond dumb dance music or hip-hop ripoffs. Tangle Eye took the field recordings made by folklorist Alan Lomax in the 1950s and wove them into some fascinating and enjoyable music. It's a concept which could have turned into something really bad, but instead, succeeded brilliantly on a CD appropriately called Alan Lomax's Southern Journey Remixed. Also notable was the interesting jazzy funk mix of Terry Bowness' CD Stick Figures, and the world techni fusion of Govinda's Worlds Within.

Our "Moral Values" award goes to three cool albums that build on spirituals and African American Gospel music: Mavis Staples' Have a Little Faith, Ben Harper and the Blind Boys of Alabama's There Will Be a Light, and the eponymous CD by the band Ollabelle.

Our annual "Still At It After All These Years" Award continues for venerable artists releasing new music in 2004 that proved they haven't lost it, even though they may have lost their major label record contracts. Our awards go to Elvis Costello, who released two very different CDs in 2004, one a rocker, and another than ended up on the Billboard jazz charts; to veteran rockers Eric Burdon (of the Animals), and Michael Stanley, folkies Richie Havens, and Aztec Two-Step, who paid us a visit on for a Homegrown Music Concert in October, soul singer Percy Sledge, who released his first new recording in many years, along with country divas Loretta Lynn, who made a CD an alternative rock band, and Dolly Parton, who has never stopped and continues to emphasize bluegrass. There was also Toots and the Maytals' True Love, an all-star collection of remakes of some of the reggae great's classic songs, abd Brian Wilson's new (re)make of the fabled Beach Boys' never completed album Smile. And on the regional scene, the band Dakota, whose formation in the 1970s included early stints on Homegrown Music, put out a new recording.

Our award for best musical comedy album goes to Carla Ulbrich, for her CD Sick Humor, songs inspired by medical problems. She also put in a Homegrown Music concert appearance.

One the other side of things, our award for the best protest songs album that came our way was David Rovics' CD Songs for Mahmoud, with its instant classic anti-war anthem, "Operation Iraqi Liberation." Also appropriate was Richard Shindell's version of Pete Seeger's Waist Deep in the Big Muddy from Shindell's CD Vuelta.

Our award for the year's best development for jazz was the opening on October of the multi-million dollar multi-venue Jazz at Lincoln Center complex. There were all-star concerts, and with settings from a large theater with a view of Central Park to a kind of club setting, the center promises to provide a great new, respectful setting for one of America great art forms.

The Tribute Album of the Year is split two ways. There was the great anthology of reggae versions of Bob Dylan songs called Is It Rolling Bob, and the collection of rock and fusion guitarists doing John Coltrane compositions called A Guitar Supreme.

The Best World Music Album by an American band goes to the group Antibalas, a word that in Spanish means "bullet-proof." They made a great recording that captures the spirit of the late African innovator Fela Kuti.

Best Progressive Rock albums Award of 2004, in an era when such music was supposed to be a historical curiosity, goes to two recordings, Carbohydrates by the Vermont-based band Raq (spell), and Anchor Drops, by the Chicago band Umphrey's McGee. But combine elaborate arrangements with influence from jam bands.

Our Audio Quality award this year among CDs we have presented on Mixed Bag, in a year of increasingly dismal sound on CDs, and the proliferation of even worse-sounding mp3s, goes to a CD that also distinguishes itself in other categories, Jim Gilmour's Quarterline. The artist has worked as a recording engineer himself, and there's a great deal of care put into the pleasingly intimate sound.

And that brings us to our Best-of short-lists. This year, I have a best debut artists list, plus a 10-best CD list, which overlap a little.

Here is my list for most impressive debut albums from among those we featured on Mixed Bag, in alphabetical order:

And now for the moment that so many have been looking forward to with not inconsiderable ennui: Our top CD list. This time, I have two CDs tying for number one. So I'll read the bottom eight in alphabetical order, since the CDs are so diverse that it's hard to rank them against each other.

And now, the top two CDs for 2004:

Ray Charles: Genius Loves Company. It was a pretty obvious choice. Though Brother Ray can get a bit cornball at times, as he has done through his career, this brilliant recording that puts him in the company of a remarkable variety of guests artists, was the best recording he made in decades. Too bad it was his last.

Our other top CD choice is about at the opposite end of the musical spectrum, and one that actually came out at the end of 2003, but which we started featuring at the beginning of 2004, the Irish Band Kila, and their CD Luna Park. It contains a dizzying array of influences from Celtic to art rock to Middle Eastern to techno. And it all comes together in a very infectious mix.

So there you have it, the 31st or so annual Graham Awards. Each recipient will be able to take these honors and stick them in an appropriate place, and the losers can again feel that great sense of liberation by not having been associated with this auspicious event. But their fears may not be entirely allayed: there's always next year, and you might get caught then.

(c) Copyright 2004 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.


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