(As broadcast on WVIA-FM December 30, 2015)
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This is Mixed Bag and this is George Graham with an annual feature that goes back so far in history that not even I remember why we started doing it, and I don’t think there is any good reason to continue, but here we are again, like a bad habit one can’t seem to quit, the Graham Awards, the 41st or so annual. <<>> It’s our once-a-year look back at the music scene from our weird little isolated perspective, which seems ever further from the alternate universe of the commercial music scene. It’s time for some pettiness, pique, paltriness, frippery and other exemplars of insignificance. May we have another bad fanfare please? <<>>
Yes, the Graham Awards are given out at the end of each year by our totally biased and capricious panel of one. They are good for the few seconds of valuable airtime it takes to mention them. Because we don’t want to endanger the health of the recipients from the overwhelming honor that being a winner represents, we save said recipients that shock by never letting them know. And over the years, many many people have also seen fit to avoid such trauma by studiously avoiding these broadcasts. But for you listening now, it’s too late. Now you know and you’re going to have to deal with it.
So, my first award is a razz for the annoying habit of people starting sentences with the word “so.” Sorry, that’s a different department.
First an observation we make annually, which seems not so much a trend by now but an established fact: This year, on Mixed Bag, we introduced you to 510 new recordings, and of those, only one ended up on the Billboard year-end charts and it was one by James Taylor. In years past, sometimes several of the recordings we have featured on the show have gone on to some commercial success, despite almost no exposure on the commercial media. But in 2015, the separation between the results of creative people making interesting music, and whatever it is that the commercial media is feeding on, is almost complete. For your information, according to Billboard Magazine, still considered authoritative in the commercial music scene, the top artists, based on a combination of sales, airplay, streaming, and concert tickets, were: Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran, the Weeknd, Drake and the boy band One Direction. Later on, we’ll hear my choices, based on that silly thing called artistic merit. It continues to amaze me that with so much worthwhile music being created that almost none of it gets to be commercially successful.
Another razz is my constant complaint about the terrible audio quality of most recordings being released. I make this complaint almost every year, and just when I think that the sound quality had hit rock bottom, it gets worse, more overdriven, distorted vocals, more super heavy compression, background noise, dark, dull cold sound. There may well be a generation of music fans coming up who have never heard what a real instrument sounds like or heard any good quality recordings. So I guess we’ll give out the Tin Ear award for that.
Our Roll Over Chuck Berry award goes to the raft or emerging bands who are incorporating string instruments, including San Juan, Pocket Panda, the Ballroom Thieves, Miracles of Modern Science, Led to Sea, Birdsong at Morning, and notably, alternative rocker and pianist Ben Folds who released an interesting album in 2015 with a chamber ensemble.
Our “Family that Plays Together Stays Together” award goes to what seems quite a flurry of family bands featuring spouses or siblings who released records in 2015. And many went in for the kind of vocal harmonies that happen from people who grew up together or are married. They include The Levins, Bourbon & Bliss, Oak Creek, the latter two also veterans of our Homegrown Music series, The Staves, The Cerney Brothers, the Pierce Brothers, the Brothers Reed, The Vespers, The Grahams, plus new recordings from veteran family groups The Kennedys and The Proclaimers.
The “Did Anybody Check the Year” award goes to numerous interesting retro groups, from the bunch of neo-psyechedlic bands including the whimsically named King Gizzard and the Wizard Lizard, some retro soul albums by Saun and Starr and Gospel Machine, and my two favorite, Pokey LaFarge and his Something in the Water, and Ryley Walker’s evocation of the 1960s English folk scene on his album Primrose Green.
Now for our annual “Still At It After All These Years”honor to a large crop of new albums by artists who made their debuts 30 or more years ago, and in some cases close to 50 years ago, and are still making worthwhile music. The list is a lengthy one and includes, 1960s folk icons Leonard Cohen, Judy Collins, James Taylor, and Buffy Sainte-Marie, plus Loudon Wainwright III, Richard Thompson, Steve Forbert, Van Morrison, Neil Young, British blues great John Mayall, Van Morrison, hard rock pioneer Leslie West of the band Mountain, Richie Furay of the band Poco, folkie Jonathan Edwards, 70s artists Mark Knopfler, and Joe Jackson, country veterans Willie Nelson and Merge Haggard in a joint album, a couple guys who went by one name back in the day, Freebo and Banana, a/k/a Lowell Levinger of the Youngbloods. There was yet another album by veteran jazz-oriented Ben Sidran who was a founding member of the Steve Miller Band in the 1960s, a respectable album by the reunited Zombies, one by the progressive rock band Gong, whose founder Daevid Allen passed away shortly after the release of the album. There was even a new album by (The Crazy World of ) Arthur Brown. And head Beach Boy Brian Wilson released a new album in 2015.
Our World Gumbo award goes to three albums that cleverly mixed world beat influences in ways that were a kilometers from tradition styles, Rebel Tumbao who mixed reggae and salsa and included a John Coltrane piece; plus St. Germain, a French project that mixed cool techno beats with a some fairly exotic world music textures, and Black Masala who mixed New Orleans horns with African and other influences.
The Fly in the Ointment Award goes to two albums that were disappointments from artists who have done much better. The first was from the Freddy Jones Band, a long-running group who were a first-rate jam band back in the 1990s. Their 2015 album Never Change was bland, predictable commercial rock. The other was the Wilco’s Star Wars, not, by the way, related to the movie. I could not get past the bad sound and grungy guitar on that one.
So that brings us to that climactic moment, which great numbers of people will pass without any knowledge of its significance. A moment when we don’t open an envelope, but nevertheless read from a piece of paper, the arbitrarily decided upon 10 favorite albums of the year. Actually, I came up with 11, and since I make up the rules as I go along, we’ll make it eleven.
11. Ben Folds: So There – alternative rock pianist singer-songwriter works with a chamber ensemble for some appealing songs, and goes so far as to create a piano concerto.
10. Last Charge of the Light Horse: Nine Kinds of Happy. A group led by Long-Islander and Homegrown Music veteran Jean-Paul Vest, it’s a kind of art-rock singer-songwriter record with an occasionally atmospheric sound.
9. Ben Sidran: Blue Camus. Veteran jazzy, rocky hipster combines funk with a kind of beatnik poetry feel.
8. Rani Arbo & Daisy Mayhem: Violets Are Blue. The eclectic New England acoustic group never disappoints with their combination of original and older songs.
7. Becca Stevens Band: Perfect Animals. Ms. Stevens often works as a jazz singer, but her now album is a creative art-rock, alternative, singer-songwriter blend with intriguing, musically sophisticated compositions.
6. The eponymous album by St. Germain, a French project led by Ludovic Navarre that combines electronica dance chill-out grooves with interesting world music ingredients.
5. Umphrey’s McGee: The London Sessions. The art-rock jam band journeys to the legendary Abbey Road studio, where the Beatles made most of their music, and captures some of the ambiance.
4. The String Cheese Incident: Live in Las Vegas. This is a massive three CD set of a 2001 performance by arguably the best jam band ever, captures them at their creative peak, in an unlikely location. It’s not really new music, but it is a recording being released for the first time In 2015.
3. Dawes: All Your Favorite Bands. On their fourth album, this Southern California roots rock group comes to epitomize how good the genre can be with literate songs, classy playing and very good vocals.
2. Pokey LaFarge: Something in the Water. Some might consider this a novelty record, with its quirky sonic blend that sounds as if it came out of the 1930s, but it was so well done, with clever songs and first-rate musicianship that it stands on its own merit, irrespective of the musical time warp.
1. Tigran Hamasyan: Mockroot. I guess I’m showing my esoteric taste on this one. I know it’s not a record that everyone will like, or indeed “get.” But the Armenian-born jazz oriented pianist-composer has created music that can be stunning in its combination of mind-boggling virtuosity including things like 35-beat rhythms, dynamics that can go from plaintive whispers to an all-out sonic assault, often-haunting wordless vocals, and Eastern European influences manifesting themselves in various ways. It’s a record that still makes my jaw drop when I hear it.
So there you have it, the 2015 edition of the Graham Awards, 41st or so annual. Once again, we have spared the winners the ignominy of being informed of their mishaps, And for the rest of the makers of music who were not included, you can rest for another year, safe in the knowledge that it’s something you won’t have to live down.
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