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The 2010 Graham Awards

(As broadcast on WVIA-FM December 29, 2010)

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This is Mixed Bag and this is George Graham and it's time for a year-end tradition we have been doing for more than 35 years without any good reason at all. It's like one of those strange ancient rituals that seems quaint, and nobody can figure out why. In any case, our strange ancient ritual is The Graham Awards, our annual look back at the year's music. And if there was any sense to it, we'll cast enough opacity and nebulosity to obscure any order there might have been.

We used to take pot shots at the music business, but there is not much of it left, even though the corporate music industry has now embraced the download model, by making it fairly easy and not very expensive, and providing higher quality files that you can transfer to various players. YouTube has replaced the old guard gate-keepers who used to try to find good talent and filter out the inept and incompetent. Sometimes, it seems, the worse the musicianship, the more viral it goes on YouTube. All that is interesting to consider: when I started doing the Graham Awards, no one could have foreseen that low quality videos of really bad bands would be such a popular phenomenon, and indeed the use of the word "viral" in reference to music would have seemed pretty weird. Perhaps the music is a reflection of the general craziness of the world in 2010.

But though it may be a new world, there is still a lot of worthwhile traditional music around that stands on its own without the aid of badly-made videos. But it has just become in a way, somewhat more difficult to find. In the tech world, it's still called "signal-to-noise ratio," I like to think that old-fashioned-media people like us can still have a place in doing the filtering of the noise.

But I digress. We have some awards to give out. Many are in the form of brickbats, but later on, we do have some grudging, and even enthusiastic kudos to bestow, in this, one of the most justly ignored of Awards ceremonies. As usual, these awards are given almost entirely on the basis of whim and pique, aided by a scrupulous adherence to the principles of carelessness, bias, caprice, impulse, and curmudgeonliness.

So without too much further ado, let's get to the awards. And on the subject of recordings, we give the Mark Twain "Reports of My Death are Greatly Exaggerated" award to the Compact Disc. While the great majority of sales of music has shifted to downloads, in 2010, WVIA received almost 2400 CD titles in submission for airplay consideration. One would have thought that physical CDs would be fading away, especially among younger performers, but that was not the case. 2010 was one of the most prolific years ever for actual compact discs. One hundred percent of the new releases we featured on Mixed Bag were from physical CDs, and not one was from a download. Oh, we were offered lots of downloads, but with five times as many physical CDs arriving than we have time to present on the air, it was not worth the time and effort of trying to deal with downloads, many of which have questionable audio quality and may not be compatible with the professional audio systems we have here at WVIA.

On the other side of the coin -- or should I say the ocean -- our "They Do Things Differently in Europe" award goes to a website called "Spotify" based in Denmark which provides free legal streaming of music, working on the "freemium" basis. It's advertiser supported, and you can get listen to all the music you like for free, anytime, but if you want to store it, you pay, and premium services also come with a fee. It does not work in the US because of the way the copyright laws are set up. I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing -- it's a boon for music fans, but it also can greatly diminish the control artists have of their music and whether they want it available for free.

Our Baron Frankenstein award for the most ubiquitously abused and flaunted technology, goes to the Antares company's Auto-Tune software. It drew on high-tech space and military signal processing technology to alter the pitch of a sound, sensing the actual pitch and then correcting it so that's it's on key. Used subtly -- and I'll admit to having used it on a few of the recordings I have produced -- it can correct a note that an otherwise good singer might have gotten a bit off key. But it has become a monster, first of all being used as effect when it's cranked up far too much, and perhaps most insidiously, resulting in a whole generation of video-genic so-called performers who couldn't sing on key to save their lives being turned into stars. And even non-musical utterances being turned into a bad tune, such as the popular "Double Rainbow" video on YouTube.

Our technological anachronism award goes to Capitol and Sony Records who both made a big promotion of mono versions of the Beatles and Bob Dylan, respectively, with the angle that the original mono versions were slightly different that the familiar stereo versions. They apparently convinced a lot of people of that. Next, they will probably be inserting record scratches on mp3 files and selling those at premium prices. I'm not sure what that says either about the motivations of the record labels, who keep turning to trying to re-sell old music instead of trying cultivate good new music, and what it says about the baby boomer music fans who just seem to keep regressing back into the 1960s. There were also reissues of Paul McCartney's Band on the Run with video, and an altered version of John and Yoko Lennon's Double Fantasy.

And speaking of technological folly, the loudness wars on pop music recordings, in which producers, record labels and even artists compete to have the loudest music, reached something of a tipping point in 2010. That loudness is generally achieved by using compression in the mastering process to squash the music so that the quieter moments are just within a hair's breadth of being just as loud as the loudest moments in the music. There's a physical limit to how loud you can get in a digital file before the sound breaks up. Well, in 2010, after people went as far as they could with the compression, increasingly they are pushing well beyond the point that the sound breaks up. And I suppose it did not make a lot of difference to people listening at excessive levels to crummy iPod earbuds. So even though an effort has been made for better bandwidth on digital downloads for sale, 2010 was not a good year for audio quality.

Our Unbelievably High Art award for the most remarkable concept album for the year -- and there were some notable concept albums in 2010 -- goes to a group called McSaprr, for a CD called Hot Dog Rock, a collection of songs entirely about frankfurters.

So that brings us to some semi-serious, perhaps grudging awards that are kinda-sorta-maybe complimentary.

Here's an award we often give out: our Still At It After All These Years award for notable comebacks and long-time artists continuing to do good work. Perhaps the most surprising comeback for me was Gary U.S. Bonds, the rock and R&B singer whose recording career started in the very early 1960s. He released a very worthwhile CD in 2010 called Let Them Talk. Veteran British guitarist Jeff Beck made probably his best new recording since his classic Blow By Blow album in the 1970s. Beck's new one was called Emotion and Commotion. Other notable comebacks after lengthy hiatuses included Huey Lewis and the News, 1980s electronic pop artist Howard Jones, singer-songwriter Livingston Taylor, and South African world music pioneer Johnny Clegg. And special mention to bluesman Pinetop Perkins, who at age 94 released a worthwhile new album with Willie Big Eyes Smith.

The year 2010 was interesting in the way there were so many juxtapositions of new and old. There were all those reissues of old mono recordings, but there were lots instances of artists combining the new with the old. So we'll give out a number of creative anachronism awards.

In the technical division of the creative anachronism category is one of the most conceptually and musically fascinating albums of the year, Pat Metheny's Orchestrion, in which he combined 21st century digital technology with old fashioned turn-of-the-20th Century mechanical automaton instruments to create a recording, and a tour, with a room full of what looked like a Victorian museum of machines that played string, wind and percussion devices that were in part actuated by Metheny's guitar. Perhaps the only drawback was that it was so good it sounded like a real band on the CD, and that it was hard to tell that it was so many Rube-Goldberg type contraptions playing the music.

The "We Can Be Retro if We Want to" award in the creative anachronism division goes to Huey Lewis and the News who for their first album in a decade, decided to record their own versions of a bunch of Memphis Soul songs, called Soulsville. They pulled it off very well.

The Dead Artists Who Just Keep Putting Out New Albums awards in the anachronism category goes to the new Jimi Hendrix collection Valleys of Neptune, a full CD of previously unreleased material; also Johnny Cash, and the sixth and last of the American Recordings sessions he recorded toward the end of his life, and the best, Ray Charles, The Undiscovered Masters, a collection of some great sessions from the 1970s into the 1990s, many with unknown backing musicians that were found in various recording studios. There was one really corny duet with Johnny Cash, but there were a lot of gems there.

The Too Young to Be Playing This Kind of Music award goes to the numerous artists who have decided to immerse themselves in the music of some 40 plus years ago and have been doing it better than some of the original artists. They range from the Beatles-influenced music Seth Swirsky, the bands Harper Blynn and Good Old War, to the Bert Bacharach infused sounds of Alessandro Magnanini, to the wildly eclectic almost vaudeville sounds of Katzenjammer from Norway.

Our Defying the Recession award, for ambitious album projects in the midst of a world full of retrenchment, goes to four worthwhile recordings that could well be described as major works. First, the aforementioned Pat Metheny CD Orchestrion. He not only had all the mechanical instruments custom made, he had the courage to go out on the road with them. To Bobby McFerrin, for his CD VOCAbularieS, which involved more than 50 different vocalists painstakingly overdubbing orchestral vocal parts in large-scale works based on some of McFerrin's vocal improvisations. Also, Sting's album Symphonicities, with full orchestral versions of some of his songs, both the hits by the Police and more obscure material. It was also a considerable artistic success. And finally, Herbie Hancock for his CD The Imagine Project, which featured an interesting collection of musicians from world music to commercial pop. Some parts worked better than others, but it was interesting to hear such diverse artists combined.

Our award for the Best Extracurricular Activity goes to The Autumn Defense, a band made up of a couple of members of Wilco who also got into some great retro.

Our Pleasant Surprises awards for 2010 go to Timothy B. Schmidt of the Eagles for his very nice folky and rootsy CD Expando and to Cyndi Lauper for her very unexpected release called Memphis Blues in which she was joined by such luminaries as B.B. King.

After the election of 2008, the number of political protest songs definitely tapered off. But I suspect they will be ramping up in the coming year after the results of the election. But I do have an award for a Topical Song Recording of the Year, Tom Chapin and John Forster's Broadsides, a collection of tunes they originally created for Morning Edition.

And that brings us to our Debut Artists of the Year Award. They include the band Harper Blynn, a great retro-sounding rock group, the wildly eclectic Norwegian all-female group Katzenjammer, the fusion and art rock band Tauk from Long Island, and the Australian bluesy jazzy group called the Hipstones, who did previous albums Down Under, but their US debut Dreamers was notable.

And, I guess that brings us to our Top 10 list. This year I'll read them in alphabetical order, since it's really a diverse bunch of recordings and it's hard to compare them. So here they are -- may I have the envelope please...

Jeff Beck: Emotion and Commotion
Karan Casey and John Doyle: Exiles Return
Crooked Still: Some Strange Country
Marcus Eaton: As If You Had Wings
Buddy Guy: Living Proof
Katzenjammer: Le Pop
Bobby McFerrin: VOCAbuLarieS
Pat Metheny: Orchestrion
The Punch Brothers: Antifogmatic
Tauk: Brokedown King

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