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The 2023 Graham Awards
As broadcast on WVIA Radio December 27, 2023

Good evening, and welcome to Mixed Bag. In the hour that we have, it’s our annual year-end “thing” the Graham Awards <<>> in which I share my 10 favorite albums of the year in the realm we cover on Mixed Bag. In April of this year, WVIA Radio marked its 50th anniversary, and in May of 2023 Mixed Bag marked its 49th anniversary as a daily program on WVIA, and we have been doing the Graham Awards pretty much since the beginning, including these cheesy fanfares. <<>> At first, I spouted off about the pop music world in general, but over the decades, commercial pop music has evolved to the point that it hardly overlaps at all with what we play on this program. So rather than opine about one or another pop star, by now we are on essentially separate planets, so it’s rather pointless to talk about music we would never play on this program. But in our little corner of the music world, I think there is a lot of creativity going on, and since I have been doing it this long, I like to think that we might have an idea of the music that will have a lasting quality, rather then being a fad, and might have cross-generation appeal.

So at the end of the year, we go back over the new releases to which we introduced you during the course of the past 12 months. In past years, there were over 500 new albums we featured. But in June, after 49 years as a two or three hour program, Mixed Bag, has been truncated a single hour, so we have a lot less time to spend on the new music. Nevertheless, we’ll endeavor to make something out of this – i.e. yet another of those meaningless awards ceremonies.

I have to say, in going over the albums we did have a chance to feature, there seemed to be fewer real standouts. But the number of artists making music has grown astronomically with almost anyone with a microphone and a laptop with music software, in their bedrooms, making and dispersing their music on streaming platforms and social media. Obviously, the great majority of it, let’s say, a long way from lasting art. But at the same time, most of the music we have featured on the program this year has come from independent artists, in many cases self-releasing their music. With a deluge of maybe 40 or 50 download links I get every every day, it’s like panning for little particles of gold in a raging river. But I try to share with you what I think is worthwhile, given the time our restriction. It also helps to have released the music on a physical CD, which is the medium we play here on the radio. One notable trend this year, has been a significant increase in the number of younger acoustic folk-oriented groups. In fact NACC, which compiles charts for college and non-commercial stations now has folk music charts, in addition to world music, hip-hop, and alternative.

And several of our 2023 Graham Awards picks show their acoustic folk influence.

Some years, I have a top 10 chart, with each entry ranked. But this year, I have one album that will get the top Graham Award, and it’s not even one I featured much on the program. The other nine, we’ll list in alphabetical order.

So in positions 2 through 10 in alphabetical order:

The Bombadils: Dear Friend. One of several recent acoustic folk albums with great vocal harmonies, and one of several albums by husband-wife duos.

Kingsley Durant: Convertible. A first-rate instrumental jazz-rock fusion album by a veteran guitarist whose main gig has been as a mathematician.

Ben Folds: What Matters Most. The North Carolina pianist-singer-songwriter has grown beyond his alternative rock roots to become an astute composer and lyricist. The new album features sophisticated writing and arranging, still with attractive melodies.

Nickel Creek: Celebrants. This virtuosic bluegrass band has been together since the members were barely teens. This reunion album features a very eclectic mix of acoustic sounds.

Tom Paxton and John McCutcheon: Together. A great example of old folk musicians who have not lost it. Paxton is well into his 80s, and John McCutcheon is about a generation younger. Both are at the top of their form, with writing that shows the best of what the folk music scene, going back to the 1960s, has to offer in the 2020s.

Tim O’Brien: Cup of Sugar. This veteran songwriter, mandolinist and founder of the band Hot Rise seems incapable of making an album that’s anything less than excellent. His songs are witty, and astute, and the acoustic musicianship is outstanding.

Tim Stafford and Thomm Jutz: Lost Voices. A pair of Nashville veterans, one of whom was born in Germany, join forces for a great collection of intelligent songs also with a bluegrass setting.

Sufjan Stevens: Javelin. With over a quarter century recording career, Stevens is an always interesting musical character. He is one of those artists who plays almost all the instruments on this near-art-rock album by himself. This new release came in the wake of the death of his long-time romantic partner and Stevens himself recovering from a debilitating disease. The album is partly elegy, but quite creative in many ways.

The band TAUK, and the album TAUK Moore. The fusion and jam band TAUK, has been one of my favorite on the scene for years. They appeared on Homegrown Music about ten years ago, before they got to be so big on the national jam band scene. This album is a departure for the instrumental group, bringing in vocalist Tanika Moore for an interesting mix of soulful vocals and creative compositions.

So those are the nine below my pick for favorite album of the year. I usually limit the Graham Awards to what we featured on Mixed Bag. But my favorite is an album I have played on All That Jazz, but think that it’s eclectic enough to appeal to listeners of both shows. The album is called Raymond Scott Reimagined and it’s by Quartet San Francisco and Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band.

Raymond Scott was a somewhat eccentric composer and inventor whose main work was done in the 1930, though he lived into the 1970s. He created whimsical jazz-influenced pieces that what in classical world might be called “program music.” Though he never composed for film, Warner Brothers obtained the rights to his compositions, and they serve as the basis for many of the scores for the classic Warner Brothers cartoons, like Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and the Road Runner. So anyone who remembers those cartoons will recognize many of the pieces of this album, which are given very creative new arrangements. It’s an album that I can’t help but smiling broadly whenever I hear it. So that’s our album of the year.

And there you have it, the Graham Awards, good for no more than the time it takes to mention them on the air. Later on, we’ll have another long-running tradition, the annual music obituaries for the year.

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