(As broadcast on WVIA-FM December 30, 2009)
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This is Mixed Bag and this is George Graham, and we come to what has been a long-running tradition for the end of the year, the Graham Awards. I have lost track of how many times I have given out these totally meaningless accolades and brickbats, but it has been at least 35 years. We also used to have a big long-winded look back at the year's music events, and usually throw some snide comments about the state of the music industry. But the music business that we used to joke about is pretty much gone now, replaced by something that has still to be defined, and perhaps will never settle down into the kind of stable paradigm that the recording industry existed upon for almost exactly 100 years -- from the start of the 20th Century to this decade we are just about to end. No longer is music tied to the medium, the manufacturing and the hardware. It's all moving into a something that almost has no connection with a physical object.
Much has been said and written about this, but with this also being the end of the decade that I suppose could be called the "aughts" I thought I might take a minute to assess where we are, versus where we were with the arrival of Y2K.
I hate to say I told you so -- well actually I rather enjoy saying this -- back in the mid 1990s, when the Internet first became available to the public at large, I remarked in one of my year-end essays that this could mean the end of the tyranny of the big record companies, which many, including myself, accused of perpetuating musical mediocrity by signing sound-alike bands and ignoring original and creative music. It took about 15 years, but it has well and truly happened. But there there is always the law of unintended consequences. A decade ago, fans would still go to the music store, often anticipating a new recording, or making a purchase based on recommendation or airplay, and then take it home, put in on their stereo and give it their attention. That is something that will seem positively quaint to a whole generation. Internet downloads divorced music from the physical recording, and the iPod and similar devices has completely replaced the paradigm for the way people listen to music -- deconstructing the concept of an album, and generally giving people access to large amounts of music, that for many has become a kind of background hum on their earphones. And without the physical recording and the artwork that used to go with it, music has become completely disposable. People think nothing about deleting a track they don't like. I guess I don't need to tell anyone about that, but for those of generations who looked upon music as a kind of important event and a recording as a physical object to be collected, this past decade represents a kind of end of an era. So one wonders if there will ever again be music that marks, or indeed changes an era as was the case in the 1960s. Will today's iPod-deletable tunes even exist 40 years from now?
As for the law of unintended consequences, while the Internet has liberated the world of music from the tyranny of the major record labels -- the record labels who a generation earlier had at first turned down the Beatles -- it has also removed some of the basic gatekeepers -- the A&R people who used to filter out the singers who couldn't sing on key, the guitar who couldn't play, the people who wrote really dumb songs. Now anyone who wants to make music can distribute their music, regardless of competence. The Internet is an amazing thing in the way it has leveled the playing field. It has helped for example get the word out about protests in oppressed countries like Iran, but it has also allowed the spread of a lot of junk, and even caused the mainstream media to give time to things like the "birthers" or the "tea baggers," that any responsible fact-checked media outlet would never have bothered with in the past. While the consequences are hardly as significant in the music world, there is the danger that bad music, usually with bad sound quality, will completely crowd out the good -- making it all the more difficult to find the talented and creative music that we lamented was being turned down by the major labels. But then again, who is to say what is bad music and what is good. Another factor in the law of unintended consequences is that back when the major record labels dominated, once they signed an artist, it was usually for several albums, and the labels would invest in that talent, taking losses on their early releases, and supporting their live touring in the hope that they would build their audiences. All of that is pretty much gone now. One wonders about some artist today who didn't score on an initial file download release on i-Tunes, then gives up. Might that person, have developed into a durable and important artist as Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen did back in the days of multiple album support by the record companies?
Nevertheless even with this new paradigm in music, physical CDs are still being released in huge numbers. Here are WVIA, we received over 2300 titles in 2009, up from 1900 last year. Who said the CD was dead?
Partly because of all those petabytes of bad music out there on the net, on Mixed Bag and All That Jazz we still limit ourselves to music released on physical CDs. Releasing something on CD does tend to engender a more professional attitude.
Before we get into our odd little corner of the music world, I thought it might be interesting to take a quick look at what is happening in the rump of what was once the mighty music industry, in terms of sales. In the past, I used to depend on Billboard magazine for a lot of the facts on the music business. But Billboard has gotten very expensive, so in these tough times for public broadcasting, we let our subscription expire, and I must say I did not much miss it. Referring to the free part of the Billboard website, the top 5-selling albums of the year were by Taylor Swift, Beyonce, Nickelback, the "Twilight" soundtrack, and Hannah Montana. Interestingly, the top-selling album of the 2000s was No Strings Attached by n'Sync. In what I think are a couple of surprises on the decade-long charts, #4 was Norah Jones' Come Away with Me and #20 was the O Brother Where Are Thou soundtrack, featuring some traditional bluegrass artists. Of course, those came considerably earlier in the decade, when a lot more recordings were being sold.
So now from the ruins of the commercial music world to the tiny and very strange sphere we inhabit on this radio program, and for the Graham Awards. I usually like to start with a couple of tongue-in-cheek accolades. So here we go.
The award for the "Realization of How Much of a Difference Over-the-Air Radio Airplay Makes to Alternative Bands These Days," goes to two groups whose names I shall not mention. Why? Because the bands gave themselves totally unbroadcastable names. So as not to encourage them, I won't even provide a hint as what words they used in their names.
The "What was He Thinking" award, which goes to Bob Dylan for his Christmas album, called Christmas in the Heart which employed some good musicians to do a collection of really schlocky Christmas songs. Dylan released a bluesy album earlier in the year called Together Through Life which partially redeemed him.
The "All the Good Songs Have Already Been Written" award goes to several artists who did albums of cover songs, including Marianne Faithfull, the Easy Star All-Stars who did a reggae version of the Beatles' Sgt. Peppers' album, Ben Sidran who covered Bob Dylan -- without doing any Christmas songs, by the way -- Roseanne Cash, and Steve Earle, who did a collection of Townes Van Zandt songs.
The "All the Good Songs Have Already Been Written But Let's Mess Around with Them" award goes to several interesting and fun CDs which were all or mostly covers done in styles radically different from the originals, including Zydecosis, who did heavy metal and classic rock songs as Zydeco; the New Standards, who did rock songs from the 70s and 80s in a kind of creative lounge style with piano, bass and vibes; and the Lost Fingers, who did some 80s rock and techno in the style of Gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt.
Our award for the Best Chanteuse from an Exotic Place, goes to Zee Avi, from Kuala Lambur, Malaysia for her self-titled CD that was clever, literate and not-at-all exotic-sounding.
Our award for the Best Use of Technology in Making Music goes to Imogen Heap, whose CD Ellipse not only features a lot of digital sound manipulation, but also features some sonic ideas and samples contributed through the Internet by fans, also the artwork was also submitted by fans, she kept her fans apprised of the process of making the CD on her blog, and also used the Web to invite fans to attend small previews she did and used the reaction to make refine and make changes. It all came out very well, using the technology, but avoiding a lot of the tired tech cliches that you hear all the time in commercial pop music.
And now another regular part of the awards, given by one who has been doing this for a very long time. It's our "Still at It After All These Years" award for veteran performers who either staged a recording comeback, or did particularly notable new work during the year. The top award definitely goes to Tom Rush, the iconic 1960s folkie made his first new recording, What I Know, in 35 years, and seemed as if he picked up exactly where he left off, sounding great with some fine new original songs. Honorable mention also does to Al Stewart, for a live album, Rickie Lee Jones, with her best album since the 1980s, Levon Helm, of The Band; Jorma Kaukonen of the Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna with a nice acoustic solo album, Steve Forbert, Paul McCartney, John Batdorf of the early 1970s duo Batdorf & Rodney, and on the regional scene, the Badlees made a nice new reunion CD.
At the other end of the age spectrum, our award for the best Debut Recording by a Teenager goes to 18-year-old singer-songwriter and bluegrass mandolin player Sarah Jarosz for her fine CD Song Up in Her Head.
And now we come to our top 10 CDs of the year. Like everything else here, this list is 100% subjective, generated completely from my musical prejudices and peccadillos, but tempered with the fact that I have had the chance to year a lot of music, and this is the stuff that stays with me. This is in roughly an order of preference.
(c) Copyright 2009 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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