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George Graham's
2006 Year-end Audio Essay and Graham Awards

(As broadcast on WVIA-FM December 27, 2006)

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We come now to what is a long-running year-end tradition, our look back at the world of music, as seen from our increasingly detached viewpoint, getting further and further from the commercial pop world, or whatever is left of it.

And I guess the state of affairs in music can be summed up by four losses that happened in 2006. Probably the most newsworthy was the closing of the last of the Tower Records stores. Tower Records was the iconic chain of record stores who carried all manner of music from the latest pop fads to the most obscure classical recordings. The steady decline in CD sales, and the increasing availability of music on the web, meant the writing was on the wall. And with the iPod becoming the music playback appliance of choice for millions, it was only a matter of time. Record specialist retailers are more or less being forced to diversify to survive.

The second loss in 2006 came with the closing of the famous, or infamous, CBGBs club in New York. The closing was essentially an eviction over a rent dispute, but the loss of CBGBs was also one of those events that marked the end of an era.

And the year saw the passing of two people long associated with Atlantic Records, which was one of those great record labels that contributed so much to the golden age of rock and soul. Producer Arif Marden, who worked with everyone from Aretha Franklin to Norah Jones passed away in June, and in December, Ahmet Ertegun, the founder of Atlantic died at 83, ironically after a head injury suffered in a fall backstage at a Rolling Stones concert.

Then on Christmas Day, we lost James Brown, the Godfather of Soul.

I think that those events signaled that it's no longer the same music world that those of a certain age grew up in.

And yet, younger artists seemed infatuated with the music of that golden era. More about that later.

Getting back to the music business, here are some numbers as reported by Billboard magazine. After dropping precipitously in 2005, CD sales were down a somewhat more modest 7.3% on the year to 487 million. However, sales of paid downloads were up 66% to 525 million. But this includes both single tracks and full album downloads. Digital sales of full albums is still only less than 30 million. So the CD is not out yet. Nevertheless, more and more people are saying that the paradigm of buying a full album being the main way to get music is on its way out. Buying or downloading by the track, and transferring them to one's iPod has become the way music is distributed to a great number of music fans.

And the iPod in its various forms has become the juggernaut of the market. In 2006 Microsoft introduced its own music player, the Zune, which fizzled. It was about the same price as the iPod, but bulkier and by most accounts less easy to use. This is one arena where Apple has vanquished Microsoft. And in 2006, with everyone presumably having an iPod, the stores were filled with gadgets to go with the iPod, from chargers to docking stations to connect to one's stereo to devices to turn your iPod into a clock radio.

On the subject of digital music, the major commercial labels have finally seen the writing on the wall. People who are willing to pay money for legal downloads want to be able to play them on various devices, instead of having music files crippled with DRM, or digital rights management schemes. The independent labels have been willing to sell their music in the popular mp3 format, and allow music fans to do what they want with their files, and now the majors may be coming around to it. Especially after the controversy in 2005 when Sony Records was found to have included what was essentially a computer virus on their CDs that would reportedly snoop in your computer and tell them what music you had and what you were doing with it, in addition to preventing you from copying music.

In the meantime, cell phone companies are vying to try to sell you music, with music-playback equipped cell phones, and tracks for sale, at two to four times the price of the equivalent tracks on the on-line stores, like iTunes. Cell phone company Sprint claims to have already sold 9 million tracks this way. Many times that were the sales of ringtones, which really upped the ante for those cell phone users intent on irritating those around them even more than talking loudly in inappropriate places.

In other countries, cell phone technologies are much more advanced than in the US, but some of those applications may be coming to an annoying cell phone user next to you: including streaming video of live concerts, satellite radio, and using a cell phone to buy a concert ticket. You buy the ticket on your cell phone, then it brings up a special bar code on your phone which is then scanned by the box office.

Last year, we noted that the marriage between the two venerable music labels, Sony and BMG, who used to be Columbia and RCA Records, was a bit rocky. It may be on the verge of coming apart, with a European anti-trust court declaring that the merger was improperly approved.

Another bit of potential devolution in 2006 happened in the commercial radio business. Clear Channel, the biggest owner of commercial radio stations in the country was sold and taken private. That takes off some pressure for ever-increasing profits for stockholders. But there are also signs that the company is preparing to sell off several hundred stations, which may actually lead to a bit more local ownership of commercial radio. The competition from satellite radio, and in many places, public radio, has caused some commercial station owners to reconsider their way of programming.

Getting back to the Internet, it's interesting that a great number of performers are now using the myspace.com site to distribute music, rather than their own individual sites. I have heard from a number of performers who have had nice websites, but then announced with great fanfare that they are now on myspace.com. I asked someone why this was such a great thing, and couldn't get much of a reason, except that it seems to be the thing to do. The problem with such commercial sites like that is that they can claim ownership of what you put up on the site.

This year, I going to try something a little different. I usually did my year-end philippic on the music business, then separately gave out the Graham Awards, and often ended up repeating an item that was probably not worth mentioning anyway. So to talk about the music itself, let's move right into the 33rd or so annual Graham Awards. <<>>

Yes, it's time for another edition of the venerably vapid, deeply disregarded, bombastically banal and exquisitely expendable awards segment that has been vexing our long suffering listeners for more than a generation. These awards, as usual, are good for the few seconds of remarkably valuable airtime it takes to announce them, and because our awards are so extinguished -- I'm sorry "distinguished" -- the recipients are all assumed to be listening intently, so there is no need to do anything as gauche as notify the winners.

First, our "Mark Twain Premature Obituary" Award. Author mark Twain was famously quoted as saying "reports of my death are greatly exaggerated." We give that award this year to the compact disc. With the iPod appearing to be the only way trendy people listened to music in 2006, here at WVIA we had more physical CDs submitted for airplay consideration than ever, nearly 2800, exceeding last year's total of 2400, which in turn was a record. More CDs are being released than ever, aided by the fact that it is so easy now to make your own recording. Just about any band with some microphones, a laptop and recording software can make an album. Of course, most of them are really, really bad, but not much worse than many of the so-called major label releases, which all tended to sound just like each other and can also be really, really bad, but louder. Of course, buried in all the sonic swill, there are a few gems. But it does seem that in my business, one has to work harder to find those gems.

Our "It's only rock & roll, but it's an industry" award goes to the Rolling Stones, who were the top touring act of 2006. They grossed over $425 million in ticket sales. That's slightly more than the total government expenditures of the country of Togo in West Africa. Our hot ticket award goes to their show at Radio City Music Hall on March 14, where the ticket price was $1500. By the way, the show sold out, with all 5800 seats filled. Barbara Streisand apparently was worth only half as much, with ticket prices on several stops of her tour, a bargain at a mere $750.

Our "Best Use for an iPod" award goes to Wired Magazine who pointed out that when the feds listen in on people's phone conversations, they sometimes use a device that transmits the sound of the note "C" to stop their recording equipment. So they suggested a site to download the appropriate note and then use that to play into the phone and thus supposedly foil the domestic spying initiated by the Bush Administration.

The "Music Industry Neighborhood Bully" award goes to Universal Music, the largest of the four remaining major labels, who decided to get aggressive in demanding a piece of the action in the digital music world. No longer content to sue 15 year-old kids downloading tunes, they convinced Microsoft to pay a royalty to Universal Music for every one of their Zune players sold, whether or not anyone listened to anything on the Universal Music labels. They also demanded and got a piece of the ownership of the do-it-yourself video site YouTube, as it was sold to Google, in return for any music that might be found on YouTube.

Our "Mixed Bag vs. Billboard Chart Inflation" award goes to John Mayer, who came in at #69 on the annual cumulative Billboard sales chart. His CD Continuum was the highest ranking CD on the charts among the recordings we featured on Mixed Bag. Every year, the number gets bigger and bigger, showing what a disconnect there is between the commercial music biz and what I and a lot of people think is the most interesting and worthwhile music out there. Following closely behind at #71 was an album we featured in 2005, Jack Johnson's In Between Dreams. By at the way, the top of the annual Billboard charts were Carrie Underwood, the soundtrack to High School Musical, and Nickelback.

Our "Flash in the Pan" award goes to Bob Dylan. His CD Modern Times, which many have called his best in many years, actually hit #1 on the Billboard charts but for only a week or two, so in the year-end rankings, it came in at #85. If Dylan had been an up-and-coming artist, he would have been dropped by the record label by now with such short-lived record sales.

Our "Flash in the Pan" award part 2 goes to a genuine and mercifully short-lived phenomenon, the Arctic Monkeys. Earlier in 2006, they were hailed as the next major British band, maybe another Beatles. Amidst all the hype, the trend-makers apparently neglected to realize that the band was just plain awful. Fortunately, they barely made a ripple on this side of the Atlantic.

Our "Scariest Album of the Year" goes to yet another ungracefully aging rocker trying his hand at doing Tim Pan Alley standards, Michael Bolton. Fortunately, that CD also disappeared largely without a trace.

Oh well... Now for some semi-serious awards. The "trend of the year" award, at least in our little corner of the music world was traditional folk music. It was the early 1960s all over again as a great number of artists appeared with CDs of traditional folk songs, including Bruce Springsteen, Merrie Amsterburg, and the bands Ollabelle and Crooked Still.

Our "1960s revival award part 2" goes to George W. Bush for being the inspiration for a whole raft of protest songs from both a new generation and some of the venerable artists from back then. The 2004 election brought a great outpouring of such music, and it continued into 2006 election with the continuing news from Iraq, New Orleans and elsewhere, bringing forth a volley of protest songs from such artists as Neil Young, Janis Ian, and Bruce Cockburn, as well as younger artists like Chuck Brodsky, Jen Cass, and the biting political satire of Roy Zimmerman. Given the results of the 2006 elections, they just might have worked.

Our "1960s revival award part 3" goes to a bunch of young artists very much influenced by the late 1960s Beatles and others on the psychedelic-era pop scene. There was the group called L.E.O., who obviously emulated ELO, along with excellent albums by Peter Murray, Bryan Scary, The Ernest Goodlife Band, and The Old Ceremony.

Our "1960s revival award, part 4" goes to Ben Vaughn for his CD Designs in Music. Vaughn made a fun re-creation of early 1960s so-called "beautiful music" which filled FM radio before anyone allowed rock on the FM, or "fine music" airwaves. The CD also caused me one of my relatively rare instances of second thoughts about one of my album reviews. With my more than 35 years in the business, I think I'm reasonably good at telling what music will turn out to be just a fad, or become just plain annoying after the initial novelty, and which will have staying power. With Vaughn's album, I had such a good time initially recalling that loopy music from back then, and what a good job Vaughn had done in re-creating it, that I gave his CD a lot of praise. But then it occurred to me that one of the main reasons I had gotten into radio in the first place was to provide an alternative to the "beautiful music" that had a stranglehold on FM at the time. Vaughn's CD has been played a great deal on the "Echoes" program, and by the end of the year, it was driving me up the wall. Next time, I'll try to curb my enthusiasm for potentially annoying novelty music like that.

Our "most interesting interactive album" award of the year goes to Duncan Sheik for his CD White Limousine. In addition to being another excellent collection of his intelligent songs, augmented by an orchestra, Sheik also included a companion DVD, not of video, but of the various component audio tracks used in the making of the CD, so people could use their computers to construct their own original mixes of the music, bringing in more or less guitar, or drums, or changing the background vocals, etc. The year was also filled with combinations of music CDs with video DVDs, with a number using the "Dual Disc" format, with CD on one side, and DVD on the other. I think that's definitely a good way to enhance the value of the purchase of a physical album.

Two thousand six saw the release of a lot of cover songs, and albums of remakes, including a nice anthology of the music of Randy Newman by artists ranging from bluegrass to roots rock, and of course there were all those recordings of traditional songs. But my favorite cover recording was the Icelandic band Mor and their CD called Duran featuring chanteuse-style versions of the songs of Duran Duran, accompanied only by a bass.

Speaking of cover songs, our award for the most "ambitious album concept of the year" goes to Richard Thompson for his 2 CD set taken from his live performances he modestly calls A Thousand Years of Popular Music, and he included everything from medieval music to a very cool cover of the Brittny Spears hit Oops, I Did It Again.

Our "comeback of the year" award goes to Yusuf Islam, known in a previous life as Cat Stevens. After renouncing music after conversion to Islam, Yusuf, as he now calls himself on the CD, made his first new recording in 29 years, and sounds as if it picked up exactly where he left off. In fact, in an interview, he said some of the songs were ones he had started writing before he left music. Another significant comeback of 2006 was PF Sloan, who wrote the 1960s protest anthem Eve of Destruction, and the New York Dolls, the prototypical punk/glam band re-formed for the first time in some 30 years, and released a respectble CD. And on the regional scene, our friends the band Dakota, with Jerry Hludzik and Bill Kelly, who formed on Homegrown Music back in 1978 as the Jerry Kelly Band, and then went on to tour worldwide with Queen in the 1980s, reunited for some performances, including on Homegrown Music in 2006. They plan to resume recording together, since the band's music from the 1980s is still popular in Europe.

Our annual "still at it after all these years" award to long-time veterans with notable recordings in 2006 include Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ramblin' Jack Elliot, Janis Ian, Ralph Stanley and Dr. John.

And now for our short-list awards. My favorite World Music CD of 2006: Marta Gomez, and her CD Entre Cada Palabra. She is originally from Colombia and lives in the Boston area. She does simple but beautiful music with a Latin American sound.

My favorite blues and soul album of 2006: Irma Thomas, and her CD After the Rain. The Soul Queen of New Orleans made one of the best albums of her career.

My favorite jam band album released in 2006: Derek Trucks' Songlines. The current guitarist with the Allman Brothers Band made another fine album showing the influence of both the Allman Brothers and jazz-rock fusion.

Most interesting singer-songwriter album,: Dee Carstensen for her CD Patch of Blue. Her instrument is the concert harp, and she receives an able assist from her husband jazz vibist Mike Manieri for a wonderful sound. Sadly, not long after the CD was released, Ms. Carstensen was diagnosed with liver cancer, so was not able to tour. We wish her well.

So here are my top twelve album list. This time, unlike some years, I do have a kind of order of preference.

And there you have our look back at 2006, and yet another edition of the incredibly inconsequential Graham Awards. Once again, our congratulations to those who were not tarred by this year's proceedings. Be careful, or your luck may run out and you might find yourself on the receiving end of a Graham award next year, and all the reprobation that might bring.

(c) Copyright 2006 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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