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The 2021 Graham Awards
As broadcast on WVIA Radio December 29, 2021

Tt’s time for one of those things we do at the end of the year, mainly out of habit, after not really having a good reason to do it in the first place. But it’s time for the annual Graham Awards, something we have been doing on this show since the 1970s. It’s a ceremony whose origins are clouded in the mystery of a faded memory. Years ago, I used to give a long commentary, which in which I was generally snarky about the music business in general and things that about which were ripe for snark. But as you may know, if you have been listening to this radio show over the past few years, the music we play is so far from the commercial pop mainstream, or maybe I should say that the commercial pop industry has moved so far from the musical styles and ethos that we feature on this program, that they might as well be on different dimensions. So it doesn’t make a lot of sense to make fun of things whose paths we never cross.

But there are still people like you and me, not only geezers and geezerettes who go in for the sort of music we play on the show, but also a surprising number of young people who take an interest in it. It’s also interesting to consider the number of young artists who make this sort of music, from folk, to fusion, to bluegrass, to singer-songwriter material to world music to blues, and are doing a very good job of it. That is demonstrated in the daily new releases segment we feature.

Last year, of course, the COVID pandemic changed everything keeping musicians off the road and in changing the way music was made. 2021 in many ways saw the results of that, with a significant number of albums being recorded my artists doing their parts individually in separate studios, or bedrooms, in same cases. Often, the musicians never met in the process. There were even a couple of jazz big band albums recorded that way. And of course, the traditional paradigm of selling physical albums been greatly eclipsed by streaming, which I think is a shame, though vinyl records had a very good year, to the point that like many other things in 2021, there was a serious shortage of manufacturing facilities to make the vinyl that people wanted.

But be that as it may, by whatever delivery means, here is my traditional Top 10 list of favorite albums. As usual, they cover a fairly wide stylistic range.

Actually, I am going to start with a number 11, it’s short-format EP, so it doesn’t qualify as a full album. But I thought it was very creative, Jordana Talsky and her EP Zahava is almost all a cappella is quite creative with a contemporary sound.

Now for the actual albums:

# 10. Allen Stone’s Alone which we just featured on our weekly album review. It’s an instantly appealing record of classic-style soul done in an acoustic setting.

#9. The Elovaters: Castles. The New England reggae band branched out into more influences on their new release, and excelled with their good-time reggae influence.

#8. Lyle Workman: Uncommon Measures. You have to give guitarist Lyle Workman credit for his ambitious record that combined some first-rate rock guitar shredding with a symphony orchestra.

#7. Elska: On the Shoulders of Giants. This Minnesota-based group served up a nice blend somewhere between the art rock world and the ethereal new age scene, with articulate singer-songwriter-style lyrics, featuring the impressive vocals of Elsa Lee.

#6. AO Music: Kutumba. In recent years, it seemed to me that the New Age scene has pretty much run its course, falling into a lot of cliches. But for me in 2021, New Age music with its calm demeanor seems to be very much relevant again. AO Music is creative group that infuses world music influence, in some cases exotic places only of the imagination, including vocals in an invented language. It’s both sonically atmospheric and musically substantial.

#5. Will Stratton: The Changing Wilderness. This Upstate New York classically-trained singer-songwriter channels the musical spirit of the late Nick Drake in an excellent album.

#4. Jake Shimabukuro: Jake and Friends. Who would have thought that an album of ukuklele music could be so interesting and fun. The Hawaiian uke maven has played on albums by numerous artists over the years. They return the favor on this 16-tune album of duets with artists ranging from Willie Nelson to Ziggy Marley to Jon Anderson of the band Yes to Bette Midler, showing how a ukulele can fit into a remarkable number of styles.

#3. Bela Fleck: My Bluegrass Heart. It has been about two decades since the banjo virtuoso did a straight bluegrass album, with his many forays into everything from Flecktone fusion to African folk to classical. The new album is a generous two-disc set that has features a who’s who of bluegrass and New Acoustic music, including David Grisman, Sam Bush, Chris Thile, Jerry Douglas, Sierra Hull and many others. It’s also obvious on the record that they gathered players are having fun.

#2. Scott Kinsey and Mer Sal: Adjustments. This album is a rare combination of first-rate jazz- rock fusion with articulate lyrics.

#1. Gretchen Parlato: Flor. The vocalist whose work spans jazz, world music and pop created a really enjoyable and creative album that includes some Brazilian, and Johann Sebastian Bach.

And there we have it my favorite releases of 2021. After a year of really bad events, and occasional periods of hope, perhaps this music will help to raise the spirits, and I think, does represent some of the better things that people are doing.

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