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The 2013 Graham Awards

(As broadcast on WVIA-FM January 1, 2014)

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This is Mixed Bag and this is George Graham and now we come to one of our annual rituals that goes on from pure unbridled inertia. It carries on a tradition for which I don't remember a plausible reason we started, but I just can't seem to stop, despite the better judgement of almost everyone. Yes, it's that paragon of pointlessness, that Valhalla of vapidity, that touchstone of triviality, the 2013 Graham Awards. (cheesy fanfare) For over 35 years, the Graham Awards have been the reason that practically dozens of people have decided to change stations or watch television instead.

As usual, these awards are given the kind of consideration that their vacuousness demands -- carefully based on personal bias and petulance, while every effort was made to avoid thoughtful consideration or careful research, which means that they mainly pertain to that weird little corner of the music world that we inhabit here on Mixed Bag, that has almost no overlap with the commercial pop scene. Unless you're a regular listener to this program, it's likely to seem that we are from a different planet from the artists who are supposedly the most popular or streamed or downloaded or YouTubed, or turned into ring tones or -- heaven forbid -- actually sold on physical recordings.

I usually have some awards that are complaints of one kind of another, but if you ignore that commercial music swamp, I had only one really big complaint, which is the same as I have had for many years.

So my Big Beef Award for the umpteenth consecutive year goes to the seemingly deaf record producers, recording and mastering engineers for the abysmal sound quality that afflicts what is now the great majority of pop recordings. Just when I thought it could not get any worse, it got even worse in 2013. Even big-budget pop albums by major artists had vocals that were intentionally made to sound like bad analog equipment cranked up well beyond the point of breakup. And the concept that music could be something other than screaming loud at every second, that there would be some ebb and flow to the sound, that seemed like some quaint notion like honesty or equanimity.

But the Faint Hope on the Horizon Award goes to an interesting development on the tech scene. Now that that it seems that almost everyone has portable devices, from tablet computers to smart phones or dedicated media players, the hot items this Christmas according to reports, are premium headphones and speakers to plug into those devices so that the sound will be better than those lousy tinny earbuds that come with them. If people wearing $200 headphones start hearing how bad the new music sounds, and how much better sounding are the recordings made before the loudness wars, they might actually start rejecting badly recorded music. Given recent experience, I don't know. But I'll try to be an optimist. Nevertheless, I do call it the Faint Hope on the Horizon Award.

We give the Mixed Bag Musical Apogee Award to the whole year 2013. A word of explanation. For those who remember astronomy, the apogee is the most distant point in an orbit. We noted last year on the number of artists who had surprise hits with music that overlapped with what we played on Mixed Bag, in many cases long before they caught on in the commercial world, like Mumford and Sons, the Dave Matthews Band, John Mayer, Adele, and the band "fun." In 2013, there was only one act in the Billboard Top 30 artists in terms of sales that came close to our little musical realm, and it was Mumford and Sons at #22, for their 2012 release Babel. Instead, the top three acts on the Billboard 2013 charts were Bruno Mars, Taylor Swift and Justin Timberlake. I like to think we stay pretty much in the same musical realm on Mixed Bag, though always with new music, but the commercial pop world is pretty fickle. And it seems, once again, to have more to do with pandering or less-than-distingushed videos than with the quality of the music.

Our Musical Odd Couple Awards go to two interesting and unlikely combinations that worked on records in 2013. One was the joint album by Green Day's Billy Joe Armstrong and chanteuse Norah Jones doing songs recorded by the Everly Brothers on a CD called Foreverly. The other was Elvis Costello, who has had along career of working with diverse people, doing a joint album by the funk and hip-hop group the Roots called Wise Up Ghost. Neither were the best of their respective careers, but they were interesting and engaging and showed a good deal of artistic courage.

Our Yet Another What Goes Around Comes Around award goes to bands that are bringing back vocal harmonies. In 2013 there seemed to be a quite a spate of emerging groups that emphasized strong harmonies that we featured on the program. They included Cahill, Barnaby Bright, Chester Bay, Bigtree Bonsai, The Gray Havens, the Oak Creek Band, Dolly Varden and quite a few others.

And as a possible corollary to that, our The Family That Plays Together Award goes to a particularly large number of impressive family bands, formed around either siblings or spouses, often with the kind of vocal harmonies that come from being in the same family. Among the albums we spotlighted during 2013 were recordings by Trampled Under Foot, a great blues band of three siblings, The Jitterbug Vipers, with a husband and wife, though the husband doesn't sing, Round Mountain an eclectic brother duo; Barnaby Bright and The Oak Creek Band, emerging spouse-led groups; and new recordings from longer-running spouse bands including The Tedeschi Trucks Band, Naked Blue, and Dolly Varden. Acoustic Syndicate formed around two brothers and a cousin, and there was a new recording by bluegrass patriarch Del McCoury and his band including sons. And on the Homegrown Music scene here at WVIA, we featured Free Range Folk, whose members includs two couples.

On the subject of Homegrown Music, 2013 was a remarkably prolific year for the artists who have appeared here at WVIA on the series. There were at least 24 CD releases by artists who have been on our program. It was a good year for the regional music scene, at least in terms of number of album releases.

Now for a new category: the Award for Not Having to Give This Kind of Award. In 2012 we gave out several awards to significant and talented performers who put out CDs that year that were big disappointments, including Norah Jones -- who has since redeemed herself on her new album -- the band Moe. and a favorite singer-songwriter of mine Duncan Sheik. In 2013, the veteran artists who did release CDs did not disappoint. So we'll hold the category until next year.

And speaking of veteran performers, that brings us to the annual "Still At It After All These Years" Award. And this year's top winner is Petula Clarke, the English pop singer who scored a big hit in 1965 with Downtown. She actually had a career which began years before that hit. In 2013 she reached the age of 80, and released a CD called Lost In You, and was still sounding good. Other notable comeback albums include CDs by Noel Paul Stookey, of Peter Paul and Mary, songwriter Jimmy Webb, the reformed duo of Delbert and Glen, featuring Delbert McClinton and Glen Clark, an interesting album by Elton John, and after a hiatus of about 11 years, probably the best album yet by Julian Lennon.

Our Time Warp Awards go out to the increasing number of young bands who look to the pre-rock rock days for their inspiration. It was a good year for groups that had fun with music influenced by the 1920s or the Depression era. They included Le Percolateur, The Jitterbug Vipers, Who Hit John, Chaise Lounge, Spuyten Duyvil and The Leftover Cuties to mention just a few.

The Nearer Time Warp Award goes to Thomas Feurer, who called his musical project Intended Immigration, which released a CD called La Demoiselle Du Fonque, which was rather like 1960s Euro pop and quirky instrumental sounds of that era on steroids, with a decidedly high-tech approach that worked surprising well. It was one of the most downright fun albums of the year.

Mixed Bag does have a bit of a reputation for eclecticism, so we'll give out some awards for most eclectic stylistic mixes of 2013. One goes to the group Manaiacal 4 for four-trombone arrangements of 1970s and 80s stadium rock tunes. Another goes to an intriguimg album by a young British Band called The Melodic which brought in South American folk instruments into their quirky but pleasing mostly acoustic blend. Singer-songwriter, fiddler and folkie Laura Cortese created an album with a band of mostly string players that was quite interesting. And there was the 2013 CD by our friends from New Mexico, the Rothschild Brothers, known as Round Mountain who were our guests on Homegrown Music a couple of years ago. They again came up with a wild blend of Eastern and Western influences, African instruments and liberal use of exotic instrumentation in a very creative and pleasing sound. Their CD was called The Goat.

And now, one that was little closer to home, we'll give the Getting into the Rotary Dial Telephone Business Award to ourselves here at WVIA. Three years ago, the venerable Jazz record label Chiaroscuro Records was generously donated to WVIA. In 2013, we put out the first new CD in on the label in ten years, just when everyone was saying that physical CDs were becoming extinct, and mainstream jazz is something that few people ever hear on the commercial media. Interestingly, both of the CDs, by Phil Woods and the Festival Orchestra and Bill Mays' Inventions Trio are doing well in terms of glowing reviews and a lot of airplay on public radio and satellite stations.

So that brings us to my annual ten favorite albums list. Some years I arrange it alphabetically and sometimes I have enough ambition to rank them. This is one of the years that I have a ranked list, or at least this is how I feel about them this week. Maybe I would have a different list if you asked me in a few days. Once again, this is a demonstration of the notable arbitrariness and caprice that goes into the Graham Awards.

So here it is. Are you ready? Are you sure now? If you have listened to all of this so far, I'm wondering if you are OK.

Fair warning having been given, I now reveal the list.

#10: Way to Blue a various artists live performance anthology of the songs of the late Nick Drake, produced by Drake's old producer, Joe Boyd.

#9: Allen Toussaint's live album Songbook recorded on a 2009 tour, with the great New Orleans producer and songwriter in a relaxed solo performance at the piano.

#8: Intended Immigration: La Demoisselle Du Fonque, a fun high-tech retro album of movelty songs and creative sonic manipulation.

#7: John McCutcheon: 22 Days. 36 albums and over 40 years on the scene has not dulled this great folksinger in his writing and great voice.

#6: Robben Ford: Bringing It Back Home. The veteran fusion and blues guitarist and vocalist did a nice collection of old cover tunes in his musically astute style.

#5: Ben Sidran: Don't Cry for No Hipster. Another veteran performer who goes back to the 1960s when he was a member of the Steve Miller Band does a funky jazzy and lyrically hip record.

#4: Madeleine Peyroux: The Blue Room. The chanteuse is obviously having a good time on re-creating some country-influenced songs that Ray Charles recorded back in the day.

#3: Bobby McFerrin: Spirit You All. Mc Ferris pays tribute to his father, who was pioneering African American opera singer, and who also made popular albums of spirituals. The younger McFerrin applies his vocal prowess and spirit of good fun to the old songs.

#2: Tauk: Homunculus. This remarkable rock and fusion instrumental CD would be high on our chart even if the group had not been our guests on Homegrown Music. This quartet of guys, three of whom have been making music together since middle school, is creating some of the most impressive electric instrumental music on the scene today.

#1: Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer: Child Ballads. This duo of previuosly independent artists shows that you almost can't go wrong with some of the great old songs. They do simple but beatifully plaintive acoustic interpretations of traditional British Isles ballads with their complicated stories of murders, jealousy, witches and spells, giving the songs an American Appalachain treatment.

And there you have my list. I'm sure that you can come up with something better, but I get to do the radio show. But in all seriousness, these albums are recordings that I think will sound just as good a decade from now as they do toda. And hearing how quickly some trendy pop music gets stale, I think that staying power is important.

(c) Copyright 2014 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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