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The 1999 Graham Awards
by George Graham

(As broadcast on WVIA-FM 12/30/99)

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And so, dear listeners, we come once again to that inevitable and sometimes almost harmless part of our annual year end review, the Graham Awards. This is the 26th or 27th annual such ceremony, the uncertainly being caused by poor documentation and memory back in the early days. The Graham Awards are well-known for the remarkable and widespread ennui they induce among both our audience and the recipients, many of whom had no idea they were nominated. As usual, the Graham Awards are selected in a secret ballot, after careful consideration by our completely biased and arbitrary panel of one. In keeping with the free spirit of contemporary music, the rules for eligibility are improvised on the spot, and subject to change depending on the weather, the phase of the moon, and especially the mood of our panel of judge. Of course, because of the extremely prestigious nature of the Graham Awards, we feel that the winners will be anxiously awaiting the results, so this broadcast will represent the official notification of the winners. And instead of a useless statuette or other tasteless memento, winners of the Graham Awards receive instead, the few seconds of incredibly valuable airtime that it takes to announce the results, with the knowledge that the radio signal could leave the earth and propagate into space, where in hundreds or thousands years, it may reach some uninhabited planet somewhere in the galaxy.

Of course, we have our share of awards for dubious achievements, but toward the end, we actually get a little earnest and give out some real accolades.

But, first, all seriousness aside, we get to our opening awards.

To begin, we want to note that last year, we gave our "keeping a healthy distance" award to Bill Gates for not trying to take over the music business, yet. This year, we give Gates the award for paying most attention to last year's award, as Microsoft this year, despite being declared a monopoly in a court of law, plunged into the Internet music field with their own music download system, attempting to displace the popular MP3 system, and enticing record companies with a system that can prevent people from making copies of their downloaded music.

Also in the Internet world, out Nosey Neighbor Award goes to the folks who gave us the popular Real Audio Internet Jukebox player, free software that allows one to download music, and store and catalogue music from your own CDs. It turns out that the software takes note of what music you are playing and when you are on line, sends that information back to the company, where it could be stored in a database. Once this snooping potential became known, Real Networks, red-faced, quickly made available a fix which they claim will defeat the snooping feature. It's another example of how the once free and wonderfully anonymous Internet is being co-opted by corporate interests determined to collect as much data as possible about you, better to pursue you relentlessly with marketing.

Our Sign of the Times Award for the Musical Event Most Typical of the State of Affairs in the Commercial Music World during the year was Woodstock 99. Greed, violence, disrespect for women and bad music -- it was all there.

The I Have Good News and Bad News Award goes to Volkswagen, who a few years ago helped catapult the Celtic group Clannad (Enya was their vocalist for a while) to fame by using the group's music in their television commercials. Recently, they started using a recording of the late and highly influential English singer-songwriter Nick Drake. Nick Drake has always been a special favorite of mine, and chances are that literally millions of people who have never heard of Nick Drake will now hear his music. But the thought of all those people associating him with a car commercial is downright horrifying. With Drake dead for 25 years, and the record company probably owning the rights to those recordings, there was probably no way to stop it. It's perhaps another commentary on the state of the music business these days, where a commercial has much more power to get music to people than the strength of an artist, or for that matter, outlets like Public Radio.

Our award for the Best Antidote to Shania Twain and Britney Spears goes to 85-year-old blues pianist and singer Pinetop Perkins, who this year released a CD called Live at 85, and was in great form, saying more with almost every note that any of the teen bands in a whole album.

On the other hand, our Best Actual Teen Artist award goes to Shelby Starner, who shows remarkable maturity on her debut CD From in the Shadows, recorded when she was 15 years old.

Our Tin Ear Award goes for the second year in a row collectively to most of the major labels for the continuation deterioration in the sound quality of their CDs with the so-called lo-fi fad resulting in noisy, distorted recordings with no dynamic range. Bad sound is not cool.

Special dishonorable mention goes the Indigo Girls' 1999 CD Come On Now Social. It's virtually unlistenable with its heavily compressed, aggressive sound. The famously high quality songwriting of the respected folk duo was not enough to overcome the just plain miserable and downright irritating sound of their CD. Also getting our sonic razzberry is producer Mitchell Froom and his engineer Tchad Blake, notorious for their quirky, dark production with Froom's wife Suzanne Vega and others. In 1998, Froom ruined Bonnie Raitt's most recent album. This year, he provided a wholly inappropriate sonic approach to Randy Newman's otherwise fine album Bad Love. Admittedly, Froom toned down his lo-fi approach a little for Newman's CD, but it was still a case of a producer providing the wrong sound for an artist. Froom also produced a CD by singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith that was similarly sonically inappropriate.

And now our Dread Zeppelin Award for wacky concept albums. Dread Zeppelin, as you may recall, was a group which concentrated on reggae versions of Led Zeppelin songs with an Elvis-impersonator as lead vocalist. This year, we have to divide the award three ways. First to Skanatra, a group that as its name implies, does Ska versions of songs made famous by Frank Sinatra. And they are from Old Blue Eyes' home town of Hoboken, NJ. Also sharing the award is Ned Sublett for his album called Cowboy Rumba, which again says it all, epitomized by his salsa version of the old cowboy ballad Ghost Riders in the Sky. And rounding out our recipients of the Dread Zeppelin Award are the Groovegrass Boys, for a CD combining hip-hop with bluegrass, with a special guest appearance by Doc Watson. All were fun CDs, but they were one joke apiece.

Two quirky concept albums that did work this year, and get honorable mention for originality, are Snakefarm's Songs for My Funeral with very 1990s, dark, unusual treatments of old folk songs, accompanied by such things as drum samples; and a joint album by David Grisman, John Hartford and Mike Seeger called Retrograss with old-timey and traditional-style bluegrass versions of rock & roll songs.

Our Award for the Most Surprising Commercial Success by Veteran Artists is split between Santana, whose album went to #1 on the Billboard charts, and Van Morrison, who while not making to the top of the charts, had surprising success, including some commercial radio airplay, for his serendipitously named CD Back on Top.

And now for some of our more sincere awards, where we actually grudgingly give out some praise.

Our annual Comeback of the Year Awards for 1999 go to several artists making artistically significant returns with albums after extended absences. We say welcome back to legendary 60s folksinger Ian Tyson, original Woodstock band Canned Heat, with still two of the original members, the always creative English band XTC, blues-rocker Edgar Winter, the excellent Lancaster, PA area group The Innocence Mission, The Pousette-Dart Band, who appeared on Homegrown Music a few years ago, and especially to soul legend Wilson Pickett, who emerged with a CD called It's Harder Now that proves he's still got it. Also making a somewhat more dubious return during 1999 was the 60s band ? and the Mysterians.

On the other hand, our Award for the Worst News About a Potential Comeback concerns the teen pop group Hanson, who are threatening to do another album after giving us peace for a while.

Our award for the Best News from Nashville is split between Ricky Skaggs and Dolly Parton, both of whom released fine straight bluegrass albums. Ricky Skaggs has been making first-class bluegrass on and off throughout his career. He earlier announced that he was going to concentrate on bluegrass now and this year released Ancient Times, which lived up to expectations. Dolly Parton's album, The Grass Is Blue, was quite a pleasant surprise, and interestingly was released on the small, Durham, NC, based bluegrass label Sugar Hill Records.

Our Best Classical and Rock Collision Award had some serious nominees, including Short Trip Home by Edgar Meyer and Joshua Bell, and violinist Nigel Kennedy with his group The Kennedy Experience doing Jimi Hendrix, but our award goes to singer and composer Joel Pelletier for his delightful CD Chamber Pop which starts with original pop-oriented songs and brings in a tasteful string quintet.

Our award for most Impressive Singer-Songwriter Debuts goes to Pat Burtis and Julian Coryell. Burtis combines great lyric writing with excellent musicianship and interesting musical compositions. Julian Coryell creates fascinating, almost art-rock style music reminiscent of the late Jeff Buckley.

Our award for the Best Live Album goes to Jonatha Brooke, whose CD called Jonatha Brooke Live was very impressive for its combination of power and simplicity.

Our Blues Album of the Year Award goes to the late Jimmy Rogers for Blues Blues Blues. The guitarist, who passed away in 1997 just a few months after the CD was completed, was one of the highly influential players to come out of the early days of Chess Records, and was a great inspiration for many of the young English players in the 1960s. They returned the favor and appeared on his CD. The guests include Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Mick Jagger, and Keith Richards, among others, and they all sound as if they are thoroughly enjoying themselves.

Our Award for the Best Revision of History goes to the Beatles Yellow Submarine Songtrack, which consists of brand new mixes of famous original Beatles songs, approved by the surviving members, using new technology which made a lot of things possible that were not possible in the 1960s. The new mixes really brought out a lot of things not previously very audible, while maintaining the original character of the famous Beatles recordings. To some, tampering with the original Fab Four master tapes may have been sacrilege, but for me, the original recordings were so good, that the new mixes brought out a lot more of what was actually there than the original mixes, which were limited by the technology of the day.

Our Best Engineered New Recording Award goes to Guy Clarke's CD Cold Dog Soup. The CD is mainly just a trio of guys singing and playing acoustic instruments sitting in a circle, but the sound by engineer Chris Latham is just wonderful.

Our Producer of the Year Award goes to Béla Fleck for his Tales from the Acoustic Planet Vol. 2: The Bluegrass Sessions. It also marked a return to bluegrass by another notable artist. Fleck gathered together some of the finest pickers of different generations, including Tony Rice, Vassar Clements, John Hartford and even Earl Scruggs, and made some great music, most of it original. It also sounds great sonically, which is very rare for a major-label release.

And that brings us to our annual list of favorite CDs from the year. Some years, I have trouble limiting my list to ten or twelve. Sometimes, I separate it into debut CDs and those by veteran artists, and often present them in alphabetical order when I can't decide which I like more. This year, I can come up with a top 12 list in order of preference. Now I should point out that I purposely excluded CDs by artists who have appeared on the Homegrown Music series. It's hard to be unbiased when one's friends are on the albums, or in some cases, when one is the producer of the album oneself. But suffice it to say there are some personal favorites among the many albums by regional artists that we have featured on the program.

But of the albums by people I don't know: (May I have the envelope please)

12. Anders Osborne: Living Room (Shanachie)
11. Joel Pelletier: Chamber Pop (Way Home)
10. Darrell Scott: Family Tree (Sugar Hill)
9. Eric Bibb: Spirit and the Blues (Earthbeat)
8. Jonatha Brooke Live (Bad Dog)
7. Cheryl Wheeler: Sylvia Hotel (Philo)
6. XTC: Apple Venus, Vol. 1 (TVT)
5. Jimmy Rogers: Blues Blues Blues (Atlantic)
4. The Beatles: Yellow Submarine Songtrack (Apple)
3. Monica Salmaso: Trampolim (Blue Jackal)
2. Kelly Joe Phelps: Shine-Eyed Mister Zen (Ryko)
1. Béla Fleck: Tales from the Acoustic Planet Vol. 2: The Bluegrass Sessions (Warner Bros.)

So there you have it, the 26th or 27th annual edition of the profoundly insignificant but stubbornly durable Graham Awards, the last before the turn of the year 2000. Now you can enter the new millennium with the knowledge that when Y2K comes, the Graham Awards will be safely over for another year, having taken up part of one of the few remaining hours of the 1900s, time which you might have otherwise used more productively.

(c) Copyright 1999, 2000 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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