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The 1998 Graham Awards
by George Graham
(As broadcast on WVIA-FM 12/30/98)

Well we come now to that part of our year-end special for which you've all been sitting in the edges of your seat and wondering why you're listening to the radio. It's the 26th Annual Graham Awards for achievements dubious and otherwise. Once again, in glittering ceremonies held here in the sumptuous WVIA studios, beneath the brilliant fluorescent lights, we deliver our unique honors to those artists and institutions that seemed like easy targets. And carrying on our grand tradition, these awards are carefully chosen using the most biased and least scientific techniques, evaluated by a committee of one and arrived at after a selection process that is a mystery even to the committee. These incredibly, or perhaps incredulously valuable awards provide the winners with the amazing honor of the few seconds of airtime it takes to announce them. Because of this overwhelming degree of prestige, other prizes, trophies mementoes or statuettes are deemed necessary. In fact, these seconds of airtime on the radio are so utterly remarkable, that alerting the recipients of their honor is considered superfluous. The winners can be confident that their place in history is very likely not damaged by these awards. In fact, over the years, relatively few of the recipients of the Graham Awards have been impeached.

So we go on to our list for this year. The "fad we are glad to see over award," which last year went to the Macarena. This year goes to the Spice Girls. They still sold a lot of records, and were at the top of the Billboard charts for groups in aggregate record sales during the year, but even Ginger Spice was getting tired of the routine and bailed out. Meanwhile the Backstreet Boys seemed to move into their place as the top attraction for teenage girls. Northeast Pennsylvania had the unique honor of hosting concerts both the Spice Girls and Backstreet Boys this year.

The "Bigger is Not Necessarily Better" award goes to the now-five major record companies. Of the albums on our best of the year list for 1998, probably less than 10% were on the major labels. The rest are on the dizzying number of independent labels, the disadvantage of which is that such releases are hard to find in even the best record stores.

The Big Five also get our "tin ear" award, this year, since it seems that some of the worst-sounding CDs, in terms of audio quality, are on the major labels. There seems to be a competition to have the loudest-sounding CDs, and audio quality is thrown to the wind in the process. It's gotten to the point that its easy to tell a major label CD from an independent just from the sound, with the bad sound on the big-budget major labels.

The "keeping a healthy distance award" goes to Bill Gates, who is now providing a convenient target for many jokes. We give the award because Microsoft has not attempted to take over any part of the music business, at least not yet...

The "Madison Avenue mass merchandising award" goes to Garth Brooks, and his record company Capitol, who set up a campaign to sell a million copies of Brooks' latest album Double Live in one week, and pulled it off. It was looked upon in the music business as a merchandising triumph, but nobody seemed to say anything about the music. Even columnist Melinda Newman of that bastion of business side of the music industry Billboard magazine lamented that in 1998, in her words, "music definitely took the back seat to moolah." Mr. Brooks, by the way, managed to top the album sales charts on three separate occasions with three separate records this year.

Our award to the most dubious comeback of the year: the reunion album and tour by Kiss.

Our award for the most appropriate song to summarize 1998: Christine Lavin's National Apology Day from her new live album One Wild Night. And that brings up the question, where are all the topical political songwriters now that we need them?

Now for some of our relatively serious awards. Our award for the most-deserved high record chart position goes to Barenaked Ladies, the witty Canadian group whose latest album Stunt is still doing well. Unfortunately, for me, this is the group's least creative record.

On the other hand, there were two CDs by million-selling groups that were among the best of their respective careers, R.E.M.'s Up, and The Dave Matthews Band's Before These Crowded Streets. They get our Beatles award for using one's popularity and not being afraid to experiment.

On the other hand, we give out three rasberries for disappointments of the year to artists who have done much better work in the past. One goes to Bonnie Raitt, whose Fundamental was an attempt to get back to a harder-edged side of the blues, after her previous Dan-Was-produced records were getting admittedly a little slick. But she got togther with quirky producer Mitchell Froom, who transforms the sound of almost any artist into his own, annoyingly gimmicky sound, such as he did with Suzanne Vega and Cheryl Crow. The result was that the music had a hard time overcoming the genuinely bad production and sound. As much as I like Bonnie Raitt -- and I have been a fan for over 25 years -- I just couldn't listen to the new album. Disappointment number two was Eric Clapton's Pilgrim. After making a couple of albums of great straight blues, Pilgrim was all slick, commercial and quite tasteless, dominated by synthesizer and drum-machines. Again, it was an example of how bad production can spoil even some of the best artists. The other disappointment was probably less an example of production. Gordon Lightfoot, the great Canadian folkie whose career goes back to the 1960s released a rather embarrassing album called A Painter Passing Through. Maybe he was having a bad time. I would like to think that Lightfoot is not yet over the hill. But his new album was only a shadow of what he has done in the past.

Back on the other side of the coin, our "pleasant surprises of the year awards" go three artists, whose previous work I had not found very engaging, but who in 1998 released albums that defied expectations and and proved enjoyable. The first goes to James Iha, the guitarist in the alternative grunge band Smashing Pumpkins, who enlisted producer Jim Scott, who won our Producer of the Year Award last year, and regional artists and Homegrown Music veterans Neal Casal and John Ginty to make an album that resembled the Beatles or Donovan more than the Pumpkins. The second pleasant surprise award goes to Billy Squier, the 70s and 80s power rocker who went back to solo acoustic blues on a CD entitled Happy Blue. And the third goes to Beck Hansen, better known by his first name alone, who went from a debut album Odelay dominated by annoying samples and distorted vocals, to a good pretty straight-ahead singer-songwriter mode on his new release Mutations.

Usually we give out awards for "Comebacks of the Year." In 1998 I was hard pressed to find very many worthwhile albums by artists off the scene for a while. One significant one though was from Terry Callier, a Chicago-based singer-songwriter whose excellent 1998 album Time Peace was his first in 19 years in a career that goes back to a debut album in 1968.

Our "Making Lemonade out of Lemons" award goes to three artists who took the artistically barren reaches of techno-rave music and created something really interesting. They go to Martyn Bennett for his Celtic-rave blend on Bothy Culture, Talvin Singh for his very creative techno-world blend on OK and Jhno for his album Kwno that was just techno but intersting.

Our award for the best album title of the year goes to the debut album by the young Atlanta-based pair of Lowenstein Brothers, Evan and Jaron, who named their appealing album We've Never Heard Of You Either. We're glad to have heard of them, though.

The "Best Album of Beatles Covers" Award goes to jazz-influenced singer and pianist Lisa Lauren for her tasteful and creative new CD What Comes Around, which also includes original material as well.

The "Building the Pyramids" Award goes to Nanci Griffith for new latest album Other Voices, Too, which was a sequel to her Other Voices, Other Rooms, on which she did other people's songs in the company of several well-known guests. The new CD features over 60 guest musicians and vocalists in its cast, and sometimes Ms. Griffith and the songs get lost in the all-star musical crowd scenes.

Now for some actual serious awards for records that won our admiration. The Producer of the Year Award -- and as someone who does my share of producing, I do put a lot of thought into this one -- our Producer of the Year Award for 1998 goes to Darrell Scott, for his work on Susan Werner's album Time Between Trains. It was far and away the best record by one of the bright lights on the singer-songwriter scene. Ms. Werner has written some great songs in the past, but never have they received the wonderful musical and recorded treatment they did with Scott on this album. This album should be held up as an example of tasteful and appropriate support of the songs and the artist. It's a sonic and musical delight.

For my Top Albums of the Year, I tend to do it a little differntly each time, usually because I try to manipulate the categories to fit the worthwhile records at hand. I had been gving my top ten or twelve CDs by debut artists and a separate list of records by veterans. This year, I do have a top debut list, along with stylistic categories.

My favorite debut albums of 1998 are, in alphabetical order:

In previous years, there have been several albums in the respective genres we cover that warranted special accolade, but this year, there are some clear individual standounts.

Blues Album of the Year: This year there were fine releases by John Hammond, John Lee Hooker -- that was mostly re-released material, and Michael Hill's Blues Mob. But our Blues Album of the Year award goes to Henry Butler's Blues After Sunset. Henry Butler is a virtuosic jazz pianist, who studied and peformed operatic vocals, but he's born and bred in New Orleans and his mostly solo album captures the spirit of the town and its great piano tradition. He is also joined on the CD by Chicago harmonica great Charlie Musselwhite. Who would have believed that blues this energetic and sprited could come without any drums, and largely without a guitar?

Celtic Album of the Year: No competition here. Solas: The Words That Remain, the young group of Irish and American musicians takes traditional Celtic music, with mostly acoustic instrumentation, to new highs in musicianship and creativity in arranging.

Art Rock Album of the Year: The Puddle Jumpers' Choices. This Seattle group takes the progressive rock traditions of the past, adds some folk music influence, throws in some appealing vocal harmonies and comes up with a very distinctive blend. Their second CD builds on the foundation laid by their very impressive 1996 debut album Out of the Shadows.

The Bluegrass Album of the Year: Salamander Crossing, a Boston-based quintet and their release Bottleneck Dreams. This is definitely a progressive, rather than traditional style group, but their musicianship is first rate, and they have developed a great feeling for the tradtions of the music.

World Music Album: Papa Wemba: Molokai. With the country formerly known as Zaire in turmoil this year, it's nice to know that such fine music can come from one of its best-known natives.

Fusion Album of the Year, divided two ways: Béla Fleck and the Flecktones: Left of Cool and Steve Khan and Rob Mounsey: You Are Here. Mr. Fleck and company expand their group to include a sax and vocals, and also add a bit more studio production to their new record, but they never fail to combine musical creativity with instrumental virtuosity. Guitarist Steve Khan and keyboard man Rob Mounsey collaborate for the first time in a decade on a fine record that defies ready categorization with world music, jazz and even some new age influences, all marked by the exceptional level of taste these two New York-based musicians are known for.

Our Humorous Album Award is also divided two ways: The Austin Lounge Lizards for their Employee of the Month, and Christine Lavin for her live album One Wild Night, which also has some serious songs on it as well.

As we mentioned, the singer-songwriter field was fertile this year, so we have eight to honor, listed alphabetically:

Our Award for the Most Interesting Albums of the Year go to Corky Siegel's Chamber Blues for their wonderful classical and blues fusion, and their second album Complimentary Colors, and Martyn Bennett's previously mention techno-Celt blend Bothy Culture.

String Cheese Incident CD Graphic
1998 Graham Award CD of the Year
And this year, I do have an single album I'll name as my favorite of 1998. May I have that envelope please... String Cheese Incident, and their CD A String Cheese Incident, an amazing live album by one of the best jamming-style bands I have heard. Their blend runs from bluegrass to latin to African and the spirit of the performance is as high as their instrumental virtuosity. It's an album that I have listened probably more times than any other this year, and I have not gotten tired of it.

So there you have the 26th annual edition of the Graham Awards, proof positive that the Grammys have nothing to fear.

Copyright 1998 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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