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The 2005 Graham Awards
by George Graham

(As broadcast on WVIA-FM December 28, 2005)

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And so, dear tolerant listeners, and those who were not quick enough to turn off the radio in time, we come to another of those traditions on Mixed Bag that we have been doing so long I forgot why we started, and have just kept on going, despite many good reasons to cease and desist. It's the 32nd or so annual edition of the Graham Awards. Yes it's one of the more supremely superfluous, daringly desultory, acutely adscititious, and fabulously fatuous awards presentations that are given in these parts, more or less. An awards ceremony of that is conducted under such tight security that even the recipients don't know the results, an awards ceremony that once you have listened to it, you'll never be able to get back the time consumed in the process.

As usual, the Graham Awards are notable for their abundant capriciousness, with the categories devised to fit the recipient, with the awards given by a completely biased and arbitrary panel of one. One of the traditions of the Graham Awards is, because the honor of receiving these awards is so unparalleled, the use of any kind of statuette or other trinket is considered overly tangible, and no physical object could ever match the grandeur of the having a recipient's name mentioned on WVIA's hallowed airwaves, where they travel off into space, to dissipate somewhere in the cosmos.

So here we go. Normally, I would ask for an envelope, but this time, we're too cheap for that.

Our "the company you keep" award goes collectively to the major-label record industry. A couple of years ago, in an effort presumably to get more clout in Washington, the Record Industry Association of America, the music industry's lobbying group, and the organization that gives out the gold and platinum records, hired a prominent Republican to be its president, which was a bit of a surprise, given that much of the music industry does tend toward the progressive in its politics. Now in the past year, we have seen prosecution for corruption in the payola scandals, launching a war on 11-year-old music downloaders, after calling their activity a major threat, now, we find, injecting spyware into people's computers to monitor the music they play, along with the pervasive incompetence in dealing with new technologies and developments. Sounds familiar doesn't it.

Speaking of competence, our "is anybody home" award goes to Sony's Columbia Records, who let Bruce Springsteen's contract lapse.

On the other hand, our "sheriff in the white hat" award goes to New York's attorney general Eliot Spitzer, the crusading corporate crime buster who has gone after many Wall Street types. He turned his attention to the music industry and prosecuted the payola scandal, winning $15 million in settlements. A close second, goes to Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott for prosecuting Sony/BMG for their spyware program they included on CDs.

Our "if this is reality, I prefer fiction" award goes to the band INXS. The 1980s Australian group, after being inactive for several years following the death of their lead vocalist Michael Hutchence, decided to make the search for a replacement singer into a so-called reality TV series.

Also on the subject of reality or lack thereof, our David Seville memorial award goes to the Gorillaz, a group of cartoon characters that sold enough CDs to get to #41 on the annual Billboard charts, this making them the first cartoon band to score a hit since David Seville's Chipmunks in the 1950s.

Our award for non-linear thinking in the music business goes to a company called Flamingo Features, who announced plans to produce a series of 52 90-minute documentaries on prominent artists -- for use on the Playstation Portable electronic game.

Our "price is right" award goes to 50 Cent. He managed to sell more CDs than anyone else in 2005. But for many of us, and indeed for many music fans all over, 50 Cent might be a bit on the high side for what one might want to pay. But a significant price cut nevertheless would likely give the record business a much-needed shot in the arm.

Our "King of All Media Award" award goes to Bob Dylan. In addition to his music, and constant touring, he was the subject of a documentary on public TV, and now he has set his sights on that most significant and profound of all media, radio. It was announced that Dylan would be doing a radio show on one of the satellite channels. Who knows, maybe he'll displace Howard Stern.

Anyway, here are some awards that actually elicit grudging praise.

Our award for the "best late bloomer" goes to Louise Grasmere, who in 2005 released what was essentially her first CD at the age of 48, doing a great collection of original blues and rock.

Our award for the best example of nepotism goes to the Wayne Scott for his CD The Weary Way. Wayne Scott is the father of talented producer, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Darrell Scott. The younger Scott had learned country music at the feet of his father, and decided to produce a CD by the reluctant father. The result, contrary to what one might expect, was a delightfully honest, unpretentious debut album of original music by the father, who really is a good as his son says.

Our award for the "best use of cheater technology" goes to Imogen Heap for her CD Speak for Yourself. She used vocal pitch shifters, which are normally used to correct the out-of-tune singing by tone-deaf pop stars signed on the basis of their looks, and created something quite interesting.

Our best "vocal harmonies by a gender-bending folk trio" goes to the group Girlyman, who released their second CD, Little Star, in 2005. With a woman, a guy who wears lipstick and makeup, and a person of undisclosed gender, they created some great new original music with three-part harmonies on the par with the golden days of folk music.

Our awards for the "best career moves" go to Lizz Wright and Jamie Cullum. Both had reputations as jazz singers, though with a decidedly pop bent. Ms. Wright was considered part of the dreaded "smooth jazz" scene. In 2005, both released recordings that put them more in the singer-songwriter mode, and both became career highlights. Cullum wrote some worthy new songs, rather than concentrating on jazz standards, and Ms. Wright did fascinating interpretations of songs from Neil Young and the Youngbloods, along with original music.

Our award for the most interesting jam band recording goes to an unlikely recipient, the Pat Metheny Group, for their 2005 CD The Way Up. Metheny's music has tended to be elaborately orchestrated, but the new CD has a distinct jam-oriented quality, especially with tracks than run as long as 26 minutes. On the other hand, one of today's best rock jam bands, the String Cheese Incident, released a CD that was almost devoid of jams, instead favoring near pop-songs.

Our award for the most prolific band that has been on Homegrown Music goes to Dave's True Story, who during 2005 released three full length CDs, Nature in the spring, then a CD of remixes, and then toward the end of the year, a recording of creative Bob Dylan covers.

Speaking of covers, our award for the best cover song of the year goes to Judith Owen, for her very sultry version of Deep Purple's Smoke on the Water.

Our award for "tasteful rock is still alive in the 21st Century" goes to two bands for excellent unhyphenated rock albums during 2005, Virginia Coalition, from the state of the same name for their CD OK to Go , and the Muckrakers, from Louisville, Kentucky, for their release Front of the Parade.

Our "string theory" award goes to four albums that made creative use of classical string instruments: Corky Siegel's Traveling Chamber Blues Show, a live album by the eclectic band combining blues with a string quartet. Also Hem, and their CD Eveningland. The band traveled to Bratislava, Slovakia, to record a string orchestra there. Also, Will Taylor and Strings Attached, and their CD Collaborations. Will Taylor is viola player who worked with a group of Texas singer-songwriters to perform their songs with string accompaniment. And finally to Lindsay Mac and her CD Small Revolution. She is a singer-songwriter whose instrument is the cello.

Here is our annual award for the comebacks of the year, and they go to Al Stewart, for a fine album called A Beach Full of Shells; to Jordan Chassan, a talented, bluesy-folky singer-songwriter who released a second album after a 12 year hiatus, East of Bristol, West of Knoxville, and then appeared on Homegrown Music; to Happy the Man, the brilliant art rock band who reunited after a 25-year gap for a CD called The Muse Awakens, and to John Prine, who after some disappointing albums in recent years, released Fair & Square is 2005, his best album in decades.

The "still at it after all these years" awards go to Jackson Browne, Stephen Stills, Carole King, Neil Young, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, John Mayall, Chris Hillman of the Byrds, the Siegel-Schwall Band, Ry Cooder, and even Neil Diamond, who all released worthy albums in 2005.

Now for our picks for my favorite debut artists of the year: Louise Grasmere, the 48-year-old blues singer from Massachusetts, Sylvie Lewis, an interesting and quirky chanteuse for her CD Tangos and Tantrums; The Duhks, a Canadian eclectic folk Celtic band, whose eponymous CD was produced by Bela Fleck; and the Dreamsicles, a folk duo from Texas and their CD Luv Songs for Grownups. And in the jazz world, I was very impressed with teenaged pianist Eldar Djangirov, a native of Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia, who sounded like a mix of Oscar Peterson and McCoy Tyner.

In the sonic department, we'll give our kudos to the Pat Metheny Group's CD The Way Up, which had a fascinating blend of sonic colors, and the audio was not too badly compressed. On the other hand, there were quite a few CDs whose music was undermined by bad sound, mainly from excessive volume compression in an effort to make them loud all the time. One salient example of very good music undermined by heavy-handed volume compression was Rebecca Pidgeon's CD Tough on Crime.

And that brings us to our short list of favorite albums of the year. This year, I could not pick one over the others, so I'll put the list in alphabetical order by artist:

  • Zöe Lewis: Small Is Tremendous
  • Pat Metheny Group: The Way Up
  • Nickel Creek: Why Should the Fire Die?
  • Judith Owens: Lost and Found
  • Kate Rusby: The Girl Who Couldn't Fly
  • Corky Siegel's Traveling Chamber Blues Show
  • Al Stewart: A Beach Full of Shells
  • Richard Thompson: Front Parlour Ballads
  • Cheryl Wheeler: Defying Gravity
  • Lizz Wright: Dreaming Wide Awake
  • various artists: Our New Orleans 2005

  • So there you have it, the 2005 Graham Awards. Our congratulations to those who did not win, and thus avoided being dragged into this thing. And for those who did win, well, there's always next year.

    (c) Copyright 2005 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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