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The 2012 Graham Awards

(As broadcast on WVIA-FM December 26, 2012)

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This is Mixed Bag and this is George Graham and we come to an annual ritual here on Mixed Bag -- actually more like an inexplicable habit that I can't seem to break -- the Graham Awards. (wheezy fanfare) At over 35 years, the Graham Awards have compiled a long record of being one of the more prolix, desultory, somnific and supremely vacuous of award ceremonies. Through almost incomprehensibly little consideration, and relying almost completely on the key factors of bias and impulsiveness, we mark the end of the year in the musical styles we consider here on this program, and can't resist taking a few swipes at the part of the music world we usually manage to avoid. And along the way sometimes by sheer accident we can sometimes provide a little kudos as well. As usual, because of the the incredibly invaluable nature of these award, no tacky statuettes are given. Instead, the winners are provided with the few seconds of incredibly valuable airtime it takes to announce them. Their level of prestige requires nothing more.

So here's fair warning to those who have not yet tuned away, we're about to begin.

Our Universes Collide Award goes to several 2012 releases that we featured on Mixed Bag and that strangely went to the top of the charts or close to it. For years, I have been noting how the commercial music industry and the kind of music we play on Mixed Bag have become almost completely mutually exclusive. Once in a while, through some weird occurrence, there may be one or two artists that may overlap. But 2012 has seen chart-topping albums by Mumford and Sons, the Dave Matthews Band, John Mayer, Adele, and the band "fun." -- all artists we introduced you to on Mixed Bag in some cases years ago. And there were was also the hit album by Bruce Springsteen, an artist who has been moving in our musical direction, and thus away from the commercial media, for several years now.

Our Maybe Record Companies Did Serve a Purpose Award goes to the hundreds, yea, thousands of independent recordings that have been largely self-released by bands. While the slow death of the big record companies has opened a lot of doors to independent artists, I often think that the doors may sometimes be open a bit too wide. In the past, record companies famously rejected artists like the Beatles, but now the gatekeeper is almost completely gone, and there is no one to tell a band that they stink musically, and that they should go back at least learn how to sing on key and tune their guitars. I don't know how many CDs have come along during the year that would never have gotten through the door of even a very open-minded record company A&R person. I'm sure that there are family and friends of those bands would feel obligated to buy their recordings, but most of the time, the band invests a lot of their own money in making their record and end up losing most of it. Sometimes I feel sorry for these people. But it doesn't make their music any better.

Of course, the other side of the coin is that the great majority of the best recordings we have featured on Mixed Bag during 2012 were also independent releases, too eclectic for the commercial market. So slogging through the all the bad music is the price one pays for the occasional discovery of some musical gems.

Our award for This Year's Flavor of Retro goes to the proliferation of semi-acoustic folk-rock influenced groups with vocal harmonies that have been recalling Crosby, Stills, and Nash among others. They include the hit band Mumford & Sons, plus the Dunwells, Busby Marou, Good Old War, The Well Pennies, and Poor Moon. Last year's retro trend of 60s soul was continued by an enjoyable album by the band The Right Now.

My favorite retro album of the year is the debut CD by the Scottish band Snowgoose, who nicely evoke the 1960s-70s British folk sound of the Pentangle and Fairport Convention.

The Invasion of the Geezers Award goes to the remarkable number of veteran artists who released new material, much of it quite worthwhile, in 2012. There was the much vaunted 50th anniversary tour by the Rolling Stones, but the year also had new releases by other artists who have been on the recording scene for 50 or more years, including Bob Dylan, Dion DiMucci, the Beach Boys, Paul Simon with a new live album, Bobby Womack and the Chieftains. Other artists who came to prominence in the 1960s with new releases in 2012 included the two surviving Beatles, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr with separate and very different albums, Van Morrison, Leonard Cohen, Hugh Masekela, Dr. John, Jimmy Cliff, Jeff Lynne of the Electric Light Orchestra, and there was a new band album by Wishbone Ash; and Ian Anderson made a new Jethro Tull album that was a sequel to the Thick as a Brick to mark its 40th anniversary. Even Gary US Bonds, whose career goes back to the dawn of the 1960s released a new rocking Christmas album.

The Who's on First Award goes to the three album releases in 2012 by different performers all named Bill Evans. There was Bill Evans the banjo player, Bill Evans the saxophonist, both of whose CDs we featured on our weekly album review series, and there was a recording of previously unreleased material by the late, great jazz pianist Bill Evans, all within the space of about two months.

Our Where Was Tom Lehrer When We Needed Him Award goes to the all the astute and clever songwriters on the scene who were oddly quiet during the election cycle. With the huge tide of media sludge and the nearly two billion dollars spent on the presidential campaigns, the situation should have been ripe for scads of topical songwriters to have a field day. But there were very few of them that I came across. Compare that to 2004 when there were dozens of topical songs in connection with that election. About the only one I found that really stood out in 2012 was a song from our Homegrown Music series by Noam Weintein called I Believe in Mitt.

Our Tin Ear Trumpet Award goes to more CD releases in 2012 than I can count for really bad audio quality. In an era when powerful computer and digital signal processing can be brought to bear -- the sonic equivalent of the amazing CGI effects than can be done in film, instead, more and more recordings are going for the sonic equivalent of scratchy black and white movies that are over-exposed and washed out. Not content to compress the audio so that it has no dynamics, no ebb and flow of loud or soft, now apparently half-deaf producers are turning things up to beyond the point where the sound breaks up, especially on vocals. And they are going for old analog recording equipment that by now is in rough shape. I could understand wanting to do that on, say a hardcore metal band, but that kind of daft sonic approach on artists like singer-songwriters is just inexcusable. There were almost no rock albums released this year that were standouts for audio quality, especially compared to the vastly better fidelity of CDs from 20 years ago.

And now perhaps our cruelest awards: The Musical Letdowns of 2012. These are CDs that in and of themselves, are actually pretty good, but in the context of the careers of the outstanding artists who made them, they are considerable lapses -- at least as I look at them. They include Norah Jones' Little Broken Hearts. I know that she likes to try new things musically, and probably did not want to be pigeon-holed as a ballad singer. To that end, she did great work with her country-influenced side project The Little Willies. But Little Broken Hearts with its dark intentionally edgy sound and crummy audio quality, by the way, was not a good match for Ms. Jones.

Another musical disappointment from an otherwise great band was the 2012 CD by the jam band Moe., What Happened to the La Las. For the first time, the group brought in an outside producer who managed to take away what seemed like all the band's best musical qualities in perhaps an attempt to make a more pop-oriented record of short songs. And the other Letdown of the year was the new CD by Duncan Sheik, called Covers Eighties Remixed. The outstanding singer-songwriter and theatrical composer, who can sound brilliant with moody songs often with a some classical instrumentation, made covers of not-very-good songs from the Eighties and then had them remixed by some musical butchers.

So having thrown all those brickbats, we come to my annual list of favorite CDs of the year, from among those released in 2012 that we featured on Mixed Bag. Sometime years I have a clear favorite and I'll give the list in order of preference, but this year I'll list them alphabetically.

So may I have the envelope please -- it's got my medication in it.

  • Anna Dagmar: Satellite a brilliant singer-songwriter and guest on Homegrown Music
  • Good Co.: Electro Swing for the Masses. Interesting samples of big-band music in remixes.
  • Susannah Hoffs: Someday. Bangles member does great retro pop.

  • Chuck Leavell: Back to the Woods. Ex-Allman Bros. keyboard man in great piano blues
  • Punch Brothers: Who's Feeling Young Now eclectic art-rock bluegrass, though impaired by poor audio
  • Lee Ritenour: Rhythm Sessions. Veteran fusion guitarist with various guests
  • Snowgoose: Harmony Springs. Impressive debut by British-folk style band
  • Tauk: Pull Factors (EP). Brilliant instrumental art-rock/fusion.
  • Triosence & Sarah Gazarek: Where Time Stands Still. Jazzy German trio with US singer-songwriter
  • Weaver at the Loom: Before Now, Was Then creative semi-electronic pop singer-songwriter

    And there we have it, the 2012 Graham Awards. Congratulations to all the artists who escaped having their names sullied.

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