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The 2003 Graham Awards
by George Graham

(As broadcast on WVIA-FM December 31, 2003)

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And so, dear long-suffering listeners, we come another annual ritual, for which there is no good reason whatsoever: what could be the 30th anniversary edition of the Graham Awards... (fanfare) the awards show of which so many people have said, "gee I wonder what's on television." Yes, once again it is the glittering radio awards ceremony that has been known to cure at least temporarily, insomnia in cats and certain hamsters, and to tap into a seemingly endless well of public indifference, lassitude, ennui, and indeed, hebetude for 30 years -- on and off. (fanfare)

As usual, these awards are carefully selected in a completely biased and capricious manner by our panel of one, who is approaching the age when the word curmudgeon has increasing relevance. This awards program is also distinctive in throughout its long tenure, the Graham Awards have featured categories that change from year to year, and are generally devised just to have a cheap joke at someone's expense. But we have also been known to give out grudging kudos. But that comes later. As always, because of the incomprehensible prestige of Graham Awards, the winners of these coveted panegyrics win the vast satisfaction of having their name mentioned on these hallowed airwaves. No statuette is necessary, and since all the contenders are no doubt listening on the edges of their seats, we really don't consider it necessary or in good taste to have to go through the trouble of notifying the awardees. So may I have the envelopes please. Oh, that's right. We don't use envelopes. No need to waste paper.

Our Corrected Spelling Confusion Award goes to NARAS, the folks who give out the Grammy Awards, who in 2003 seemed to get confused and presented Grammys to some of the same people who got Graham Awards last year, like Norah Jones and John Mayer. But the situation was definitely corrected this year, with almost no chance for overlap, with artists like Justin Timberlake, Beyoncé and 50 Cent nominated for Grammys.

Our Media Password Award goes to a two word phrase, which, it turns out, must be intoned in order for one to be accepted as a valid member of the media in the 21th Century. I came to realize that this phrase has not, to my knowledge, been uttered once so far this year on this program. So in order for us to be an accepted member of the media, it is therefore necessary for me to say this two-word phrase at least once. So here goes: "Michael Jackson." There, now we are a real member of the media world, and hopefully we it will be at least another year before we are required to say those words again.

Our You're All Geezers Award goes to the big record labels, who on the one hand, release almost no new music by artists likely to appeal to open-minded listeners beyond their teens, while on the other hand continuing to reissue, repackage, remaster, remix and otherwise recycle music from 35 or more years ago almost endlessly, presumably to sell to aging Baby Boomers over and over, under the assumption that none of us could possibly be able to appreciate anything recorded after 1970. But there are quite a few of us who are stubbornly trying to resist geezerdom, and are interested in intelligent new music. And, as you may know from listening to Mixed Bag, there is a wealth of excellent music being created by a new generation of artists who can appeal to those beyond adolescence, much of it frankly better in quality than the music from the 1960s that we geezers are supposed to want. Nostalgia has its place, but it quickly becomes boring.

The Geezers Revenge Award, otherwise known as the Who Would've Thunk Award, Part 1, goes to the Rolling Stones, who almost forty years after their founding, had the most lucrative tour on the concert scene this year, grossing an amazing $299 million dollars, selling almost three and a half million tickets in their 115 date world tour. The other top touring acts of the year were almost all from the near-geezer generation, Bruce Springsteen, Cher, Fleetwood Mac, and the Eagles. One can draw some conclusions that Baby Boomers still like to go to concerts, and that what were called yuppies may be the only ones able to afford the ticket prices.

The Who Would've Thunk Award part two also goes to the Rolling Stones: As Mick Jagger, became Sir Mick, after being knighted by the Queen.

But with the Stones marking nearly 40 years together, this year's Musical Longevity Award goes to the Dixie Hummingbirds, who released a CD in 2003 marking 75 years together, including one member who has been with the African American Gospel group since the 1930s.

The Best Place to Start a Tour Award goes to Simon and Garfunkel, who began their acclaimed, and also lucrative reunion tour, in good old Wilkes-Barre, PA. Too bad it was the same night as the amazing Béla Fleck and the Flecktones also played in town.

The Get It While It's Hot Award goes to the band String Cheese Incident who began releasing CDs of every one of their concerts. Concert promoters, including Clear Channel Entertainment, the big commercial radio conglomerate, also began a venture to sell CDs of concerts, either quickly duplicating them at the show, or taking orders for audience members, for CDs which would then be delivered later.

The Who Would've Thunk Award Part 3 goes to the major pharmaceutical companies. Remember when sex, drugs and rock & roll were decried as marking the decline of civilization. Well now some of the biggest, most established companies are, constantly on national television, selling sex-drugs with rock & roll.

Our Still-Welcome Ubiquity Award goes to Norah Jones, not only for her own album from last year, Come Away With Me, but also for making prominent appearances on 2003 releases by two of her musical friends, songwriter Jesse Harris and guitarist Peter Malick. However, Willie Nelson probably still turned up on more CDs in 2003, including an interesting collection of demos he did in the early 1960s.

The Musical Downsizing Award is divided three ways to the Beatles, or at least to their record company for the stripped down version of Let It Be, to Randy Newman, for his wonderful solo piano-accompanied recording his songs called The Randy Newman Songbook, Volume 1, and to Elvis Costello, for his decidedly spare-sounding album North, also released in 2003.

Well, now for some of our more serious, if you could call it that, awards. We have fallen into presenting Comebacks of the Year Awards for venerable artists who made notable returns to the recording scene during the year. And surely the top award goes to R&B great Howard Tate, who had not released a album in over 30 years, and indeed had fallen on hard times to the point that he was homeless. He re-united with his old producer and songwriter Jerry Ragovoy who wrote most of his old hits such as Get It While You Can, and showed that he had not lost any of his musical prowess. Other Comebacks of the Year include, of course, the reunited Simon & Garfunkel, along with Al Green, who returned to making great secular soul music after many years of concentrating on Gospel; The Bangles, who were also in great form; and the reunited Procol Harum, who picked up just where they left off musically.

The Still At It After All These Years Award goes to durable performers who are still making worthwhile new music, released during the year, and not allowing themselves to be relegated to the nostalgia circuit. This year's winners are the revitalized Allman Brothers Band, blues great Etta James, Van Morrison, who just never stops putting out new music, Little Feat, who are still in great form 30 years on, and Steve Winwood, the veteran British rocker and founder of Traffic, who released a fine new recording on the String Cheese Incident's independent label, after bring dropped by the major record companies.

The Best Archaeological Find Award goes to three CDs released for the first time in 2003 of material dating back decades. One was the Willie Nelson demo sessions, another was the live recording by the famous Bloomfield-Kooper Super Session band recorded live at the Fillmore East in December 1968, and the other was a regional gem by the Lewisburg, PA, based art-rock band Fred, called Notes on a Picnic, recorded in the mid 1970s but never released until now, thanks to the interest by a European collectors label.

Our Anon and Trad Roots Award is shared by Natalie Merchant and John Mellencamp, both well-known as songwriters, and both releasing fine CDs of mainly traditional material during 2003.

In the officially declared Year of the Blues, our award for the most Interesting Blues Album of the year goes to Corey Harris, for his CD Mississippi to Mali, which was just that, traditional Delta Blues along with side trips to West Africa. The recording grew out of the Public TV Blues series, in which he appeared with the same performers.

The Musical Style Most Likely to be Fused Award goes to Celtic music. In 2003 there were CDs mixing Celtic with all kinds of world music influences, from African and Latin American, by Eileen Ivers, to Salsa, by the appropriately named Scottish group Salsa Celtica, to a blend somewhere between Middle Eastern and art rock by the Irish band Kila.

In the sound quality category, we'll give out awards to two CDs that we featured on our weekly album review that had a decent range of difference between loud passages and soft passages. In a day when for no good reason, almost every pop CD is badly compressed to the point of killing the music just to be loud all the time, these CDs stand out, not because they are they are really exemplary, in the overall scheme of things, but because everything else being released these days sounds so bad. We'll give the Decent Dynamic Range Awards to Bela Fleck and the Flecktones' Little Worlds, and Josh Ritter's Hello Starling.

On the other hand, we'll give the Tin Ear Award to several musically outstanding CDs that were greatly undermined by needlessly excessive volume compression. Since the recording involves choices made by the artists, the producers, the recording and mixing engineers, the mastering engineers, and even the record company, it's hard to attach blame to any specific person, but whoever is responsible, the result is a lousy recording of very good music, which definitely detracts from the experience of listening. This year's winners of this dubious honor include Bruce Cockburn for his You've Never Seen Everything; singer-songwriter Darrell Scott's Theatre of the Unheard -- this is particularly disappointing since Scott's previous CDs were notable for their great sound as well as fine songs. To Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem's CD Gambling Eden -- again outstanding mostly acoustic music but bad compression and some distortion, and at the end of the year, to the outstanding and highly eclectic Irish band Kila for their CD Luna Park again badly undermined by sound that was constantly "in your face."

This year I was not able to come up with a Producer of the Year winner. There was not one person who did more than one particularly outstanding release during the year. But many of the most interesting releases during 2003 were self-produced by the artists, so we'll put this award, to which I normally give a lot of weight, on standby for this year.

As I said earlier, one of the things about the Graham Awards is that I make up categories as I go along. I tend not to be much of a fan of anthology releases, but this year, I'll give out an Anthology Album of the Year Award to the Putumayo collection called Cover the World, which a lot of great, and unlikely world music covers of familiar rock tunes, often translated into other languages.

And now for the Johnny Art Award. Johnny Art was a band who released a CD in the mid 1990s that was so incredibly bad that it left us all wondering whether they were really serious, or whether it was some kind of a joke. In 2003, there were many really bad of CDs to choose from some of which found their way to the top of the commercial pop charts but this year we'll pick two of the more obscure. One is a group called Art Ghetto and their CD Slumming <<>> and a band called Soren and their CD The Dying Man. <<>> There were others warranting dishonorable mention, including a thrash sludge metal band called Ill Niño who sang partly in Spanish, and a grunge band with bagpipes called Parts and Labor. But we'll save you the discomfort of hearing any of that.

And so we come to our top albums list for the year. Each year, because of our variable categories, I arrange it to try to fit in all the CDs I want to include. So this year, I came up with a top 11 list. The list is notable in that it includes five CDs that were either debut recordings, or releases that by artists coming to our attention for the first time. It goes to show that there really is a wealth of excellent new talent on the scene. And here they are, from starting with #11.

11. Robben Ford: Keep On Running
10. Relative Sight: More Than One Life
9. Jake Armerding
8. Hem: Rabbit Songs
7. Little Feat: Kickin' It at the Barn
6. Karan Casey: Distant Shore
5. Tim O'Brien: Traveler
4. Eileen Ivers: Immigrant Soul
3. Béla Fleck and the Flecktones: Little Worlds
2. Marcus Eaton & the Lobby: The Day the World Awoke
1. Louis Winsberg: Jaleo

And there you have it, our short list for favorite album releases of the year, and that is it for what may or many not be the 30th anniversary edition of the Graham Awards. It's over now. You can wake up your cat and certain hamsters whose succumbed to the soporific effect of this broadcast. And you can take solace in the knowledge that it is highly unlikely to happen again until at least next year.

(c) Copyright 2003 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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