The 1997 Graham Awards
by George Graham

(As broadcast on WVIA-FM 12/31/97)

And so we come to another annual ritual, the most esteemed and inconsiderable Graham Awards. And if my recollection of the dim past is correct, these are the 25th Annual Graham Awards, which were first bestowed back at the end of 1973 when Mixed Bag was a once a week program. So the Graham awards have a long history, and unlike other Awards, the Graham Awards have in no way caused any of the recipients any physical or financial harm, nor have they done anybody much good either. In fact most recipients of the Graham Awards are completely unaware of the fact that they received such an overwhelming encomium. However, these honors are being transmitted into the radiowaves, which under certain conditions might propagate into space, crossing the cosmos, and perhaps in a few thousand years reach an uninhabited planetary system somewhere, where they also have minimal effect.

As usual, these awards are selected and given out almost entirely without due care and consideration, and without any lack of bias whatsoever. In order that there be no unauthorized leaks of the results ahead of time, all leaking is entirely authorized. However, we are pleased to announce that no one has ever attempted to leak the results of the Graham Awards ahead of time. The selection process has remained the same over the years, and we are also pleased to announce that very few people have bothered try to find out just what the selection procedure is.

These 1997 Graham Awards again note achievements in the music world, dubious and otherwise, that our selection committee of one believes deserves the almost unimaginable honor of a few seconds of airtime.

Our Hula Hoop Award goes to the Macarena, which was very big in 1996, and most deservedly forgotten in 1997.

Our ERA Award goes to the commercial pop music world for enabling women to win four of the top five Billboard top selling artist positions, with the fifth by a band featuring a woman prominently. But most of the music they made was another matter. The Billboard top-selling artists are Leann Rimes, Spice Girls, Celine Dion, No Doubt, and Jewel. At least there was Jewel.

Our "Hard Times Picking Cotton on the Delta" Award goes to Johnny Lang, the 16-year-old blues guitarist who managed to sell many times more blues albums than John Lee Hooker, Clarence Gatemouth Brown or the late Luther Allison, all of whom also had notable album releases in 1997.

The "Most Promising Country for the Blues" Award goes to Australia, which was the source of two worthwhile blues releases, from the band called the Mighty Reapers, and from Perth guitarist Dave Hole. Who knows, maybe kangaroos get the blues.

"Hard-up for Material Award" award goes to the producers of a 1997 tribute album to Duran Duran. There were some interesting new various-artists tribute releases during the year, including a new anthology of Kurt Weill's music, a collection of Jimmy Rodgers' songs, a reggae-artists anthology of the Police' music and a tribute to ska pioneers the Skatalites. But Duran Duran? Well, I guess that's somebody's idea of high art.

Now for a new category: The "Most Frequently Used Adjective in Evaluating Records." Before I announce this award, a word of explanation is in order. In the process of auditioning the many new releases which come our way, over 2000 in 1997, I write down quick descriptions of records. Even though we feature over 500 new releases in the course of the year on Mixed Bag, most CDs being released of course, never make the grade. I was going back over my little thumbnail synopses of these records that fell short, looking for some kind of trend, and found that the most frequently used word this year was "dumb." I guess that says something about the complexion of a lot of the music coming out in the past 12 months.

Our "Biggest Musical Bumper Crop" award goes to singer-songwriters. There were just so many good singer-songwriter releases in 1997 that there was simply enough time to appreciate them all.

Our "Strangest Artist Debut Album of 1997" Award goes to Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the "suicide doc," who this year released an album of light fusion on which he played flute. The title: A Very Still Life. (really) This of course, prompted all kinds of tasteless jokes behind the scenes here at the radio station. One could describe Kevorkian's music as fairly unctuous, the kind suitable for use in a waiting room... or a doctor's office, or, well, to enhance his business...

The "Lost in a Time Warp" award goes to the Squirrel Nut Zippers, whose 1996 album Hot stayed on the charts for a good part of 1997, and inspired a number of other bands to look back at least 40 years for inspiration, often with equally enjoyable results, including The Asylum Street Spankers, The Cherry Poppin' Daddies, Big Sandy and His Fly Rite Boys, Jaymz Bee and the Royal Jelly Orchestra, and Little Jack Melody and His Young Turks. Next thing you know, the Spice Girls will be singing Andrews Sisters songs. Oh, dear. I hope not.

The "Adding a Saxophone Does Not Make It Jazz" award goes to two bands, Go Dog Go and the Ken Ardsley Playboys. Both decided to add a sax to the lineup of grunge bands and came up with music that was no better.

The "Technology Most Deserving of Being Un-invented" goes to musical samplers -- at least as they relate to singer-songwriters and blues bands. Years ago when the technology first appeared to store a sound and bring it up and play it like an instrument, all kind of intriguing possibilities arose, but now it has become a ubiquitous annoyance, the musical equivalent of ugly billboards along the road. They're everywhere and they are fouling the musical scenery, although often appropriate for some dance music, now samplers and drum loops in the hands of record producers aiming trendiness are invading the work of some good singers-songwriters, and spoiling their work. Rickie Lee Jones, Holly Cole were two of the artists with albums this year who went that way, and are likely to be regretted before long. The Fabulous Thunderbirds also went semi-techno on their latest CD with unfortunate results.

And now for some of our at least half-serious awards. Our award for the Most Fun World Music albums of 1997 go to Fatal Mambo, for their debut album Rumbagitation, a salsa album by Frenchmen with tongue played firmly in cheek, and King Chango, a latino ska band. Definitely quite danceable.

Our annual Comebacks of the Year Awards go John Fogerty, for his absolutely classic 1997 CD Blue Moon Swamp, Boz Scaggs for his great bluesy release Come on Home, Sixties guitar maven Harvey Mandel for his Planetary Warrior, and John Batdorf, who was part of the duo Batdorf and Rodney in the early 1970s, and had not been heard from in close to 25 years. Batford returned as half of the duo Batdorf and McLean with a sound quite reminiscent of the enjoyable folk-rock of Batdorf and Rodney.

Our "Most Pleasantly Surprising Album from the Commercial Pop Star" goes to John Waite's When You Were Mine, showing that former pop metal and glam star can be a very respectable folk-influenced singer-songwriter when he wants to be.

Our best Art Rock or Progressive Rock Album of the year is an unlikely choice, the new Pat Metheny Group CD Imaginary Day. While it is nice and jazzy at times, a great deal of the record consists of fascinating, elaborate arrangements that musically transcend some of the best symphonic rock of the art rockers like Yes & ELP, without the bombast.

The Best Topical Song of the Year award goes to Rod MacDonald for his remarkable piece Who Built the Bomb That Blew Oklahoma City Down. Though it was based on an older Bob Dylan song, MacDonald captured the spirit of the tragedy and the atmosphere that inspired it, while the trials of the accused bombers were unfolding.

Our Record Label of the Year Award goes to a tiny record company on Long Island called Tangible Music, which has only released a few CDs so far. But in both 1996 and 1997, they released albums that tied for our Debut Albums of the Year. Last year it was Naked to the World's Pilgrim's Kiss and this year, Chris Rosser's Archeology. Not bad for a label that has fewer than a dozen albums in its catalogue.

Our Producer of the Year Award is split two ways. One winner is Chris Rosser, who made his wonderful-sounding album on a shoestring, producing and recording a good part of it literally in his bedroom, with other parts recorded in more conventional studios. A recording engineer before he decided to devote full-time to his music, Rosser proved that a modest home made album can sound world class, as opposed to some of the albums coming from major studios that intentionally sound as if they were made on a cheap cassette deck. The other winner is Jim Scott, who over a several years has made a reputation as one of the best producers of folk-rock and roots rock bands and performers. His work is marked by great sonic clarity, even when the guitars get dirty. Among his albums this year was the fine recording by Whiskeytown. Scott has also produced Lowen and Navarro and Homegrown Music veteran Neal Casal, among others.

Before we get to our Albums of the Year, instead of an award, our next presentation is a series of rebukes for good music spoiled by bad production or sound. First it's the Freddie Jones Band, and their album Lucid. The Chicago-based band had previously been one of the bright lights doing a very classy brand of Southern-style of rock. On Lucid, they were produced by David Z, known for his work with (the artist formerly known as) Prince, and the group's breezy style was replaced with a wall-of-sound approach that made a mess of their music. Ironically, the album was mixed by Jim Scott, but the result was horribly compressed in the mastering to the point of distorted vocals, making their CD a great disappointment. Also getting a Graham Sonic Reprimand are Rickie Lee Jones for Ghostyhead and Holly Cole for Dark Dear Heart. Both were attempts to be trendy with samplers, drum loops and the kind of dark sound reminding one of urban decay, very much at odds with their naturally jazzy sensibility. Other sonic disappointments were The Pat Metheny Group's Imaginary Day and Alison Krauss and Union Station's So Long, So Wrong, both musically brilliant records which were both spoiled by excessive sonic compression robbing them of the dynamics that makes their music special.

And now for our Records of the Year. May I have the envelope please... I always write them down an the back of an envelope.

First our Debut Albums of the Year. As I said previously we are splitting the honor two ways. One to North Carolina singer-songwriter Chris Rosser for his superbly tasteful Archaeology, and the other to singer-songwriter trumpet player Kami Lyle, for her very impressive first album Blue Cinderella.

The remainder of our Top 10 Debut CDs of 1997 are, in alphabetical order:

The Egg: Albumen
Fatal Mambo: Rumbagitation
Duke Levine: Lava
Sam Pacettti: Solitary Travel
Brooke Ramel: Movie Star
Tim Ryan: Tried, True and Tested
The Derek Trucks Band
Sheila Wilcoxson: Backwater Blues

Some years I give out an Album of the Year, and sometimes I don't. This year, I don't think there was any one or two clear favorites among my short list. All of these albums are particularly strong in one way or another. So this year we'll just give our Top 12 CDs by Veteran Artists Award to the following albums, again in alphabetical order:

The Fairfield Four: I Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray
John Fogerty: Blue Moon Swamp
Scott Henderson: Tore Down House
Etta James: Love's Been Rough on Me
Alison Krauss & Union Station: So Long So Wrong
Christine Lavin: Shining My Flashlight on the Moon
James McMurtry: It Had to Happen
Pat Metheny Group: Imaginary Day
Duke Robillard Band: Dangerous Place
Solas: Sunny Spells and Scattered Showers
Tune Tabor: Aleyn
Lavelle White: It Haven't Been Easy

So there you have it. The 25th Annual Graham Awards. And to all the losers this year, we say, next year you might be so lucky!

(c) Copyright 1997, 1998 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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