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The 2011 Graham Awards

(As broadcast on WVIA-FM December 28, 2011)

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This is Mixed Bag and this is George Graham, and we come again to one of those mysterious rites, a ceremony whose origin is buried in murky antiquity. It's something that people just keep on practicing, even though there's sure to be at least one or two kids who look at the spectacle and say "What do you do that, that's stupid!" And we say, "We do that because that's the tradition. When you grow up, you'll understand." But then by the time you get older, you realize you forgot why it's done, too.

So anyway, here's another of those bits of tradition that accomplish very little, but keeps going on defying good sense. It's the 30-something-ith edition of the Graham Awards. (fanfare)

It's our annual end-of-the-year awarding of a passel of plaudits and slurry of citations for accomplishments, both dubious and otherwise, that have to do with obscure little corner of the music world that we inhabit, as if there were not enough awards being given out. As usual, these awards consist of absolutely nothing more than the incredibly valuable few seconds of airtime that it takes to announce them. Thereupon, they then travel off into the ether at the speed of light and disperse into nothingness in a matter of microseconds, unless of course, the radio waves may happen to travel off into space and reach an extremely large void.

This first award is rather a sad one for many long-time music fans. The "Another One Bites the Dust" award goes to Capitol-EMI Records, the venerable record label that was the home of many legendary performers on both sides of the Atlantic including Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, and the Beatles. In the internet age of downloads, they just could not survive as a major label, and their assets, including the masters for their classic recordings were sold to Universal/Vivendi, while their publishing and the copyrights to the songs were sold to Sony. There's also a regional connection, since for thirty or so years, one of Capitol Records main manufacturing plants, stamping out millions of Beatles albums and 45s, was located in Scranton. Back in the 1990s there were 6 or 7 major international record labels, now there are three. The major record labels have become anachronisms in the Internet age where anybody can release their own recording, sometimes having a hit without ever manufacturing a physical record. The great majority of the music we feature on Mixed Bag is now independently released. While we don't play download-only music, the number of new releases we select for Mixed Bag from the remaining major labels is ever diminishing.

Our "Blue Moon" award, as in "once in a blue moon," goes to Adele for her aalbum 21. Back in February we featured it as one of the 500 new CDs have presented on the Mixed Bag new releases segment this year. Adele would go on to be the top-selling artist, song and album in Billboard magazine's year-end sales charts. I thought the CD was pretty good. What makes it a rare coincidence is how over the past several years, there has been so very little overlap between the commercial music scene and what we try to do on Mixed Bag. The rest of the Billboard top-charting artists are much more in keeping with that alternate universe of commerical music, with people like Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Katy Perry also topping out the charts. Interestingly this year, most of Billboard's top-selling artists are women solo acts.

Our "William Shatner" Award for movie and television personalities who should stay away from making music, goes to director David Lynch for his CD Crazy Clown Time. <<>> A musical excerpt, in this case, is worth a thousand words.

But on the other hand, two popular male actors did release very respectable rootsy or bluesy albums, Jeff Bridges and Hugh Laurie.

Our "Breaking Up Is Hard on Others" award goes to R.E.M. for adjourning after 30 plus years, and doing it with a lot of class, no litigation, and no hanging around until their only gigs were county fairs and the like.

Our "Rolling Over Into Beethoven" Award goes to the increasingly blurred distinction between classical orchestral music and rock or alternative music. If there was a trend in 2011, I think it was the significant number of releases in which classical influence and musicians easily mixed with rock people, and not just forcing them together as a novelty such as they used to do in the 1960s and 1970s. 2011 saw some very creative releases by Gabriel Kahane, a singer-songwriter who also works as a classical composer, a band called Build whose music completely blurred the distinction between rock and contemporary classical, My Brightest Diamond, a singer-songwriter record with the classical ensemble Y-Music, Peter Gabriel's orchestral remakes of his well-known songs, a group called Scala that did choral covers of rock and punk songs, and near the end of the year, a great collaboration among classical cellist Yo Yo Ma with bluegrass pickers including Chris Thile, Stuart Duncan, and Edgar Meyer.

Our "Family That Plays Together" award goes to the Tedeschi-Trucks Band. After years of maintaining their separate careers, the notably bluesy spouses Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks finally decided form a joint band and release a CD. It lived up to the high expectations.

The award for for the "Most Interesting Albums of Cover tunes" goes three ways for three very different albums. Moody Bluegrass: Two... Much Love was as its name suggested, a second album of worthy bluegrass covers of Moody Blues material, this time, featuring guest appearances by all five of the original members of the British band. Mary Fahl, of the October Project did a song-by-song remake of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon with a rather more atmospheric sound. And guitarist Pat Metheny did solo acoustic instrumental versions of songs from Sixties soul to rockabilly.

Our "Washington Lawyers and Bureaucrats at Work" Award goes to the band The Caribbean, whose 40-something members include a partner in a major Washington law firm, whose day job is high-power civil litigation often in financial matters, and with other members working for government agencies. Their 2011 release Discontinued Perfume was quite respectable.

2011 was also quite a year for retro albums, not just old music repackaged, but original performers doing music that drew on the past in creative, and often fun ways. Our "Time Warp" awards for noteworthy retro albums go to The Red Button, for another recording of Beatles and Beach Boys influenced original music, Raphael Saadiq for his album Stone Rollin' which recreated the psychedelic soul sound of the late 1960s, and groups that went back to pre-rock days for their influence, including Bella Ruse, whom we had on Homegrown Music, the Leftover Cuties, Gaucho, and the Hot Club of Cowtown. Most of those were debut albums. And there was also a very respectable Beatles-influenced retro album on the regional scene by Tim Husty of the band Three Imaginary Boys.

Here's one of our annual awards who, as someone of a certain age, I give with a degree of respect: the "Comeback Awards" for venerable performers who made a return to the recording scene after a long hiatus with worthwhile recordings: Hot Tuna, for their first album together in over 20 years, Christopher Cross, the rather mellow singer of the 1970s who had the hit Sailing made an album including a good protest songs for the current era. Also Leslie West of the band Mountain, Jon Pousette-Dart of the Pousette-Dart band of the 1970s, and the Atlanta Rhythm Section, whose surviving members reunited, but did mainly cover tunes.

So now we come to my short list of my favorite CDs of the year that we featured on Mixed Bag. Some years, I have a clear favorite so I rank them numerically, but this year, I'll arrange the list alphabetically by performer. So here are my Top Ten.

Burlap to Cashmere: Burlap to Cashmere, impressive folky duo debut CD

Bela Fleck and the Flecktones: Rocket Science, CD reunited original lineup

He Said, She Said: Duets for Two Voices, wildly eclectic two-voice a cappella

Yo Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile: the Goal Rodeo Sessions, great acoustic instrumentalists

Michael J. Miles: Collage, eclectic banjo

Playing for Change 2: Songs Around the World, interesting composite worlrd music

The Red Button: As Far As Yesterday Goes, great retro

Paul Simon: So Beautiful or So What, Simon's best since "Graceland"

Gillian Welch: The Harrow and the Harvest, great melancholy songs

Susan Werner: Kicking the Beehive, one of our best singer-songwriters

As there we have the Graham Awards, continuing our grand tradition of insignificance and irrelevance for something like 35 years.

(c) Copyright 2011 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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