The 1996 Graham Awards
by George Graham

As broadcast on WVIA-FM 1/1/97

And now we come to yet another annual ceremony bestowing the Graham Awards, for achievements -- if you can call them that -- in recorded music. This, as you know, is one of the more persistent and negligible of all awards ceremonies, an occasion when people, artists and events are immortalized, or more likely, further ignored, by the panegyrics we accord them. As usual all Graham Awards are given by a selection process places a high value on personal pique, prejudice and favoritism, and plus the warped judgement that comes from more years of auditioning records for a profession than Walter Cronkite spent anchoring the evening news on TV. That's scary to think about.

Well, we'll start with getting this one out of the way. We, of course, have to give an award to the Macarena. One could think of all kinds of honorifics to bestow on the Spanish dance that makes grown women and men move in such as way that you want to would cross the street to avoid them. But our award will tie in to the other great even of 1996, the election campaign. So we'll bestow on the Macarena the Newt Gingrich Job Security Award. Chance are that the Democrats would have re-taken both houses of Congress, along with the White House, if the Democrats hadn't danced the Macarena at their convention, thus driving annoyed voters by the thousands to the GOP.

In the spirit of bipartisanship, we give our Brother Can You Spare a Song award to Former Senator Bob Dole. The Dole campaign wanted to adopt the old Sam & Dave hit Soul Man turning it into "Dole Man," but they didn't bother to check with the song's composer, Isaac Hayes, who threatened to sue if his song was corrupted. So they tried Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA, but Springsteen wouldn't have any of it either. In the end, they might have approached Karla Bonoff to use her song, Lose Again.

The Devolution Award for turning over a government function to private industry goes to Sheryl Crow. In recent years, much has been said about objectionable lyrics in pop music, and many legislators threatened to pass laws to restrict the sales of such material. In 1996, instead of the government trying to censor lyrics, it was Wal-Mart, who refused the carry Sheryl Crow's new album not because of any indecency, but because one song contained a line that was uncomplimentary to the retailing giant.

The Broken Tuning Knob Award goes to the fallout caused by the recently passed massive communications law overhaul. Intended to foster diversity in commercial radio, the law allowed a given company to own more radio stations. As a result, thousands of radio stations were swallowed up by bigger broadcasting companies, who often put the same signal on several radio stations in the same locale. So, not only are the same handful of bad hit records being played repetitively by all the commercial radio stations, but now they're being played at the exactly same time, with the same identical programming coming out of several spots on the radio dial. This has definitely been felt in our own area. Another consequence is that literally thousands radio professionals across the country, including many here in our region, have lost their jobs, with their former radio station just echoing programming from somewhere else. I guess the diversity part comes from the equal-opportunity programming loss on commercial radio.

Enough of politics. Some of our Grump awards include the "Killing Your Song Not so Softly" Award goes to the Fugees for their destruction of Roberta Flack's 1972 classic Killing Me Softly With His Song.

Our Most Overrated Pop awards is split between Alanis Morisette and Beck. Both are competent artists, but it makes one wonder, with all the much better music out there, why such artists sell so well, and even become the darlings of certain music critics.

Our Alternative Might Actually Mean What It Says Award goes to the Squirrel Nut Zippers, a fun and very retro band from North Carolina, who delight in the atmosphere of old pre-big-band novelty songs of the 1920s. The album actually showed up on the Alternative charts of CMJ, a publication oriented toward so-called alternative rock, a style that has become so utterly formulaic that the term is now an oxymoron. But the trumpets and tubas of the Squirrel Nut Zippers may actually be an alternative to corporate grunge.

The annoying trend of last year that hasn't gone away award goes to the so-called "lo-fi" movement, intentionally making records that sound bad technically. Those of us who grew up tweaking their stereo systems to get the lowest noise and best sound, shudder at the idea that now that we have the previously undreamed of fidelity of compact discs, so-called artists are mixing albums with distorted vocals, general hum and noise, and terribly muddy mixes, and people somehow think this is cool. And a pox on all those producers and engineers who use excess compression when making CDs, killing the wide dynamic range that all the R&D at technology labs worked so hard to give us on compact discs.

Along the same lines, we give our Bad Sound by People Who Ought To Know Better Award to the team of producer Mitchell Froom and engineer Tchad Blake. The odd, clangy sound with the very unpleasant reverb that they brought to Suzanne Vega's album 99.9 Fdeg. three years ago was interesting at first. It was OK when they applied it to an album by Los Lobos, but by the time they did it again this year on Richard Thompson's You? Me? Us?, and Nine Objects of Desire, the new one by Suzanne Vega, now Mrs. Mitchell Froom, the effect was getting pretty stale. And both albums suffered as a result. Blake also applied his sonic sludge to Sheryl Crow's eponymous sophomore CD. Froom and Blake guys are first-rate studio people, but it's a case of getting caught up in one's own eccentricities.

Our Best and Worst of Celtic Award goes to Enya, who did much to popularize Celtic music, but in a way that reduced it yuppie elevator music by piling on too much reverb and very un-traditional synthesizers, with the saccharine control turned up to 9. Now, other more traditional groups like Altan, are also beginning to include some Enya-isms in their music, much to the dismay of more stalwart Celtic fans.

The Steely Dan-Fleetwood Mac-Boston Award for speedy record production goes to guitarist extraordinaire Eric Johnson, who actually took much longer than Steely Dan took when making their albums to create his newest CD Venus Isle. He labored more or less full-time for four years to create only his third release, after scrapping months of worth of work twice to start all over again. However, unlike some overlong gestation projects, this one really showed the effort expended, in one of the most sonically brilliant albums of the year.

Our Some Hippies Never Grow Up Award goes to Donovan, who was one of the originals and remains honest to himself, even though one sometimes can chuckle at parts of his 1996 album Sutras.

And that brings us to some of our more serious awards, that actually go give out a measure of appreciation.

Our annual Comebacks of the Year Awards go to Donovan, for his first album in close to 15 years, Tracy Chapman, who enjoyed even great popular success with her bluesy song Give Me One Reason than she did with Fast Car back in 1988. Also rock & roll pioneer Bo Diddley, 60s protest singer Country Joe McDonald, 70s pop band Orleans, whose surviving members re-united and released a decent CD in their familiar style, New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint, who waited nearly 20 years before releasing a solo album in 1996, the English Folk band Steeleye Span, and Joe Cocker who didn't really disappear from the music scene for that long, but released an album in 1996 that put him in classic form. And one of the most interesting comebacks, if you could call it that, was Island In the Sun, featuring Irving Burgie a New Yorker, who wrote many songs many of us grew up thinking were traditional Caribbean Island songs, such as Day O, and Yellow Bird. He provided charming interpretations of his own classic songs.

The Most Interesting Concept for a Band award goes to Rasputina, a rock group consisting of three women playing cellos and singing dark, Gothic lyrics, many about murder and mayhem. Their album was called Thanks for the Ether.

Our Still Brilliant After All These Years award goes to two veteran British superstars who released outstanding albums during 1996, Sting for his Mercury Falling and Dire Straits founder Mark Knopfler for his Golden Heart.

The Best Country for World Music in 1996 Award goes to the island nation of Madagascar, where again some wonderfully charming and interesting music was made, as represented on several albums, including one by the group Tarika Sammy, plus anthology releases spotlighting bands from Madagascar, A World Out of Time Volume Three, and the distinctive Malagasi acoustic guitar style on an CD entitled The Moon and the Banana Tree.

But by a whisker we'll give out World Music Album of the Year Award to the eponymous release by the Bulgarian acapella group Folk Scat, who combine Eastern European traditional styles with jazz scat singing for an arrestingly appealing sound.

Our pick for Celtic Album of the Year goes to the debut by the young Irish-American group Solas, featuring the brilliant young multi-instrumentalist Seamus Egan.

Our Political Album of the Year Award goes to the Foremen's second release What's Left, on which they accurately predicted the tenor of the two major party political conventions, and combined political barbs with a fun sense of the theatrical.

Our Best Album of Dylan Covers Award goes to Tim O'Brien for his Red on Blonde, on which the outstanding Nashville songwriter does some fine, often playful acoustic and bluegrass-oriented interpretations of the songs of Robert Zimmerman.

Our Blues Album of the Year Award goes to Duke Robillard for his Duke's Blues. It was one of many fine blues recordings released during the year, but he gets my award for his combination of brilliant guitar work, plus a sense of history for the period of the jump bands, which gave rise to early R&B, rather than going for the electric Chicago or Texas style of blues that is otherwise so common.

But we also give out an award for Traditional R&B and Soul album of the year to Francine Reed for her rollicking full-tilt Memphis tinged release Can't Make It on My Own.

Our Live Album of the Year Award goes to banjo man Béla Fleck and the Flecktones' Live Art, another remarkable recording by one of the most inventive and eclectic musicians in any kind of music these days. It also features a very interesting and diverse cast including such luminaries as jazz pianist Chick Corea and Bruce Hornsby.

Our Best Pop Producer Award goes to Donald Fagenson, a/k/a Don Was, the veteran producer who handled Bonnie Raitt's recent albums. This time, he did what producers used to do and lined up a great selection songs for a specific artist. In this case, it was veteran British Rocker and Woodstock veteran Joe Cocker, whose 1996 release Organic is one of the best of career, thanks to the classic material he performs with an excellent backup band.

Our general Producer of the Year award goes to Eric Johnson for his own album Venus Isle. He may have taken four years, and goodness knows he probably went way over budget, but the result is one outstanding rock album and sonic experience.

Best Engineered Album of the Year award is split between Mark Knopfler's Golden Heart, which had several engineers in several studios, and Lyle Lovett's The Road to Ensenada. Once again, Lovett's album, this one engineered by Nathaniel Kunkel is a paragon of sonic understatement.

And that brings us to our two big awards for the year: May I have the envelope please...

The Graham Award for the Debut Album of 1996 is split two ways between Naked to the World's Pilgrim's Kiss, and the Puddle Jumpers' Out of the Shadows. Naked to the World is an acoustic band who perform some of the most thoughtful and tasteful folk-influenced songs one can imagine, while the Puddle Jumpers is a fine band from Seattle who call their music progressive folk, combining the progressive rock sophistication of Yes and Emerson Lake and Palmer, minus any of the pretense, with folky mandolins and lyrics typical of the best folkies. Both were do it yourself efforts by the respective bands released on small record labels.

And now for our Album of the Year Graham Award. This was a tough one, so again, I'm going to split it two ways, between Lyle Lovett's The Road to Ensenada and Béla Fleck and the Flecktones' Live Art. Both artists are no strangers to the Graham Awards, but both continue to release work that gives one confidence in the creative future of music, by inventing and building their own distinctive and eclectic style that's not just interesting to listen to for its sound, but has solid intelligent content that will make for great listening a decade or more from now.

(c) copyright 1997 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.

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This page last updated August 03, 2014.