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The 2014 Graham Awards

(As broadcast on WVIA-FM December 31, 2014)

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Good evening and welcome to Mixed Bag. It’s our year end-special, and an abbreviated one with the Coast-to-Coast Jazz New Year’s celebration “Toast of the Nation” starting at 9:00. So in this hour we’ll give out the 2014 Graham Awards and bring you our annual musical obituaries.

So let’s have an appropriate fanfare. <<>> Ladies and gentlemen, I regret to announce that it is indeed the Graham Awards, the nearly 40th annual, give or take. Yes, it’s one of the one of the longest-running broadcast events for which there is no good reason. A maximally desultory, minimally esteemed, cavalcade of twaddle in which people all over the world have justifiably in no way shown any interest. As usual, the winners will be spared the bother of any notice of these honorifics. These people are too good to have to put up with this. But here we are again at the end of the year, so the habit continues.

This time, I’m actually going to make it more succinct. I’ll have the my choices for favorite albums a bit later. This year, at least, I’m going to dispense with some of my usual meaningless snide comments on the commercial music world. It has become such so distant as to be an alternative universe, and I don’t even know what kinds of lifeforms live there. About as close as I’ll come is to note that there were only two artists on the Billboard year-end cumulative artists charts that were played on Mixed Bag this year, Sam Smith – whose album I think we played once on a new releases segment one night when I was running a little short of interesting new releases, and Coldplay, who need no help from us in increasing their popularity,. But their current CD is pretty interesting as things go.

I have a couple of trends I noted looking at the artists whose new releases we featured this year. One was a real revival in soul and R&B, from Motown to Memphis and Gulf Coast styles, performed by a new generation of young groups. There were worthy albums that we featured by the wonderfully named group Mingo Fishtrap; St. Paul and the Broken Bones; Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings; and Naomi Shelton and the Gospel Queens.

Another interesting trend that continued this year was a bunch of creative albums involving orchestral instruments and classical influence. There were notable 2014 releases by Gabriel Kahane, Owen Pallet, and Christopher Bell, who were all singer-songwriters with classical influence and instrumentation, plus Regina Carter, who played her violin on old Southern folk songs, and an eclectic string trio called Time for Three. Even Neil Young used a string orchestra on his latest album.

It was a good year for jam bands, with the top three current groups all having releases during the year, the String Cheese Incident, Umphrey’s McGee and Moe.

Two Thousand Fourteen was an exceptionally prolific year for long-time music veterans, most going back to the 1960s, who were making worthwhile new music. Among the artists whose 2104 releases we featured on Mixed Bag were, in alphabetical order, Greg Allman, Elvin Bishop, Jackson Brown, Eric Clapton, Leonard Cohen, David Crosby, who made an exceptionally fine album, Marianne Faithfull, John Hammond, John Hiatt, Dr. John, John Mayall, Sergio Mendes, known for his work in the 1960s with Brazil 66, Dolly Parton, Robert Plant, Smokey Robinson, Paul Rodgers, of Free and Bad Company fame, Cat Stevens a/k/a Yusuf Islam, Richard Thompson and with members of his family, the late Johnny Winter with a CD released just after his death, and Neil Young with that double album, half orchestral and half acoustic demos of the same songs. On the other hand, there were a couple of artists we featured during the year who I thought were disappointing in that they were essentially rehashing old material or losing their creative spark, Dave Mason and Leon Russell.

And the steady march toward worse and worse audio quality continued, with ever heavier compression that makes the music lose all dynamics and often intentional ugly distortion is added to vocals just to be screaming loud all the time. In auditioning music for new releases, I don’t know how many CDs I rejected out of hand for lousy audio quality. But there were a lot. And don’t get me started about the AutoTune effects used on commercial pop vocalists, To think that with the rate at which digital technology is unfolding, it seems to ironic that recordings of 20 years ago sound so much better and musically alive than those of today, even among some more respectable artists.

All right, time now for the my top recordings list. These are selected from among the 500 physical CDs we featured as new releases on Mixed Bag during 2014. Download-only recordings are not eligible. Almost all are independent releases.

So here is my list I have a dozen.

12. Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn (eponymous)

11. Mingo Fishtrap: On Time

10. Victoria Blythe: Silver Flyer

9. Dr. John: Ske-Dat-De-Dat -- The Spirit of Satch

8. Eric Johnson and Mike Stern: Eclectic

7. Regina Carter: Southern Comfort

6. Ilhan Ersahin’s Wonderland: The Other Side

5. Tauk: Collisions

4. Various Artists: Playing for Change 3 Songs: Around the World

3. Paul Rodgers: The Royal Sessions

2. David Crosby: Croz

1. The Currys: Follow

And there we have it. All those who did not get recognition in this year’s Graham Awards can now breathe a sigh of relief. And to the winners, well, I’m afraid it’s something you’ll have to live with.

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