George Graham's 1995 Year-End Essay on Music

(As broadcast on WVIA-FM 12/27/95)

And so, dear tolerant listeners, we come to yet another of our annual year-end traditions, one of those things we've been doing for so long that we've forgotten why we started doing it, but can't seem to stop. It's my year-end audio essay -- the 22nd annual -- on the world of music as I happen to see it. These things are getting to be like some ancient and bizarre rite that is always performed, but nobody can really figure out a good reason for doing it. Well generous listeners could, I suppose, interpret it like other rituals buried in antiquity -- as adding to what we are today, in this case, a long-running radio show that's happened to have uncovered a lot of interesting music along the way. Other, less generous sorts, I suppose, could interpret this as a slightly annoying distraction. So, for the more generous and forgiving souls out there is Radioland, we plunge into the music year of 1995.

For me, this year was not a particularly exciting one, when it comes to innovative new styles or artists. There was a lot of worthwhile new music, and quite a raft of debut artists, but most of the best were just refinements on what came before. I wondered if I might be alone in that viewpoint, having been doing these things for over two decades and perhaps getting a bit jaded. But other year-end reviews in music publications seemed to share the same opinion. Even even alternative-rock publications like Spin for whom a properly jaundiced attitude on the part of the band counts far more than any musical content or artistry, found not much to be excited about this year.

The number-one selling album in Billboard's 1995 eligibility period, which ended incidentally just before the Beatles Anthology was released, was Hootie and the Blowfish's Cracked Rearview, which brought a variety of reactions from critics -- some called it a return to honest, rather unpretentious rock, while those who live off that jaundiced attitude looked upon the group as just lightweight pop, especially after they achieved a measure of commercial success. My reaction to the South Carolina band now is what it was in the summer of 1993 when we first introduced their independent release to public radio listeners: "These guys sure sound like the Badlees," the Northeastern Pennsylvania band we have had on Homegrown Music since 1989. Fortunately, as fate would have it, or perhaps because of the popularity of the Hootie, the Badlees got themselves a major label record deal. Badlees soundalikes notwithstanding, Hootie and the Blowfish were certainly a big improvement over a lot of the vacuous and thoroughly pretentious music, from slovenly grunge to syrupy Kenny G, that has been topping the charts in recent times. Interestingly, Hootie marked an alternative to alternative rock. Thanks to the group, musical honesty did make something of a comeback during the year, though it was still in the minority.

The other slots at the top of Billboard's pop album charts for the year were taken up by other styles: Garth Brooks, Boyz II Men, the Eagles, TLC and Pearl Jam. So if you're looking for a clear stylistic trend, I don't think you're going to find one.

Nineteen Ninety Five marked another year with a mind-boggling number of different album releases. In 1994 I was amazed that WVIA had received over 1900 new releases. In 1995, it was over 2300.

Despite the appearance of a lot of new artists, and an unprecedented number of debut albums hitting the top of the charts, for those of a certain age, two groups from the 1960s dominated rock music during the year -- the Beatles and the Grateful Dead. A quarter century after the band's breakup, the Fab Four sold more records than almost anyone else in the first weeks of release with a much-anticipated set called Anthology Volume 1, the first of three planned double CD releases, with designs further down the line for more reissues of rare material. A six-hour TV series, of which two hours were commercials, provided a lot of interesting footage, though I was left wanting a more, and knowing a lot was left out. And there was that supposedly new song, Free as a Bird constructed around an unreleased demo by John Lennon. I'm afraid the more I hear it, the more I dislike it. Jeff Lynne of the Electric Light Orchestra was, I think, definitely the wrong man to produce the record. Lynne always went in for the pure lightweight pop direction without any of the musical interest and sonic creativity that marked the Beatles work with George Martin. In any case, Beatles fans can revel in the newly unearthed odds and ends, but the finished product that the group chose to release during their heyday remains the standard.

While the one magical mystery tour seemed to be coming back, a long strange trip of 30-years' duration ended in 1995 when after the death of Jerry Garcia on August 9, the Grateful Dead announced just a few weeks ago that they were calling it quits. If anyone had any doubts that the Sixties were over, they were dispelled by that news. The band had a remarkable career, attracting generations of fans to music that would never been commercially viable in the 1990s. Everyone knew it was going to be over after Garcia died. The rest of the band confirmed it formally after what many might have thought to be a rather long hesitation. What this will do to that part of the travel industry who catered to the fans who followed the band around from city to city remains to be seen.

One of the stranger trends of 1995 was the return of what has been dubbed "Space Age Bachelor Pad Music," with reissues of Juan Garcia Esquivel being the best-known. The Mexican composer and arranger created some of the quirkiest, some would argue silliest, instrumental mood music during the dawn of the stereo age in the late 1950s. Such music used to the staple of FM radio in these parts back then, and now that a new generation has come along who have no memory of just how annoying a steady diet of such music can be, it has suddenly become cool again. Even I've got to admit that as a novelty, such music can be a fun. This year saw two new Esquivel reissues, plus several compilations by other artists whose music became the staple of Muzak in the kinds of stores where you could buy whoopee cushions or hula hoops.

Something that may or may not be related is the release of several albums by groups digging into styles well before rock for their inspiration, such as vaudeville, Twenties novelty songs, and musical theater. Interesting examples include the Squirrel Nut Zippers and Giant Ant Farm.

This year also saw a continuation of a trend that I like: acoustic, or mostly acoustic live albums. 1995 saw the release of such recordings by Bob Dylan, David Crosby, Rickie Lee Jones, Leo Kottke, Joan Baez, Indigo Girls, and most pleasantly surprising, the Pretenders. Other Sixties veterans turned up with respectable live recordings including the Rolling Stones, Bonnie Raitt and the Allman Brothers Band.

Another trend that continued this year is the stream of tribute albums -- various artists doing the songs of one composer or group. There were somewhat fewer of them this year, but there were still several pointless ones, as well as some worthwhile releases, including an all-star collection of Leonard Cohen songs, the second such effort, and a great improvement over the first; a nice various artists tribute to Harry Nilsson; an impressive gathering of blues and R&B artists to do the songs of Doc Pomus, an eclectic bunch of people to do the songs of XTC, and a interesting recording that was something of a twist to the tribute album theme: a collection of original recordings of songs that were staples of the Grateful Dead's repertoire. Jerry Garcia participated in the project shortly before his death. There were also two outstanding albums consisting of a single artist doing the songs of another: Holly Cole doing Tom Waits on an album called Temptation, and the Dutch ensemble The Beau Hunks Sextette doing the music of composer Raymond Scott, who provided the inspiration for much of the music for Warner Brothers Cartoons. Perhaps the most bizarre was a full album of versions of Led Zeppelin's Stairway to Heaven done in styles ranging from the early Beatles to full opera.

In terms of sheer number of different albums released during the year, talentless grunge bands are in danger of being displaced by articulate singer-songwriters. While literate folkies pose no threat to the alternative groups in terms of sales or chart positions, this year the number of releases by singer-songwriters has been overwhelming. They include some major-label recordings as well as literally hundreds of independent releases, often by artists putting out their own CDs. And a surprising number are very good. One could easily do entire three-hour daily program of singer-songwriters without much repetition.

Last year, we mentioned in passing something called acid jazz, which added the rhythms of hip-hop with some samples of valid jazz, or at least had a little jazz influence. This year, the sound hit fusion pioneer Pat Metheny, who added the drum machines' repetitive beat to his otherwise complex and interesting music. The result was a mixed success.

The real jazz scene this was as active as ever. This was a particularly good year for big band releases, including new efforts from Maynard Ferguson, Rob McConnell, Gerald Wilson, John Fedchock, and Jim Widner, to name but a few. The return of the jazz organ combo was a trend that very much continued into 1995, with younger performers like Larry Goldings and veterans like Jimmy Smith making worthwhile jazz on the old Hammond B-3. Young lions like Joshua Redman continued to get much of the attention, while some of the veterans like Benny Carter remained active. One of the more interesting releases was a 6-CD set of a virtually unedited three day run of pianist Keith Jarrett at the Blue Note in New York.

One of the great American music forms, the blues, finally got a bit of "official" recognition this year, when acknowledging the growing popularity of the blues, Billboard magazine instituted a blues chart. Eric Clapton promptly claimed the number one position for much of the year with his 1994 release From the Cradle. Toward the end of the year, a Stevie Ray Vaughan greatest hits compilation became Number One. At least one long-time veteran, John Lee Hooker did make it to the bottom reaches of the chart. Off the blues charts, there was a lot of excellent recorded activity, including impressive national debut recordings by Kelly Joe Phelps, Tad Robinson, Larry Garner and Lloyd Jones.

In World Music, the trend was definitely Celtic, with Enya, Loreena McKennitt and the Chieftains selling a decent number of recordings during the year. But a lot of the Celtic sounds are getting to sound like New Age music with dreamy synthesizers, too much reverb and maybe an Uillean pipe or two somewhere in the mix. The Chieftains again got together with an interesting collection of pop performers, including Sting, the Rolling Stones, and Sinead O'Connor on their 1995 release The Long Black Veil. Meanwhile something very different has been happening with artists like the group Stone Edge and Paul Mounsey combining traditional Celtic tunes with hip-hop rhythms, an area pioneered by the group Mouth Music. One of my favorite non-traditional Celtic-influenced releases of 1995 was by Brendan Power, a New Zealand native who added bluesy harmonica to traditional Irish tunes on his appropriately named CD New Irish Harmonica. However, with all the Celtic influence on the World Music charts, the number one album for the year was the soundtrack for the Disney film "the Lion King." From another continent, a lot of fine African-influenced music was released, including albums by Papa Wemba, Baaba Maal and Salif Keita.

The folk and new Acoustic music scene was relatively quiet this year, though there were a good number of outstanding releases including banjo man Béla Fleck's return to acoustic music on Tales from the Acoustic Planet and fine albums by Tim O'Brien, David Grier and Chesapeake.

The New Age scene seemed to fall victim to its own mood and zone out in 1995. There was relatively little innovation happening, with much of the music being released succumbing as much to trends and fads as the Top 40. Only with New Age, this year's fashions were the combining of more exotic traditional instruments to the usual wash of synthesizers and digital reverb, or throwing in some ersatz-Gregorian chants. The number one New Age seller this year, however, was Yanni, who after being something of an innovator in his early days, has become the Montovani of the hot-tub set.

On the brighter side, there were quite a few album releases by regional artists and bands from the reggadelic music of George Wesley and the Irietations to the acoustic folk of Kate Jordan and CJ to the complex art rock of Echolyn. Altogether, I counted 22 CDs by regional artists and Homegrown Music veterans released this year which we have featured on Mixed Bag. While most were independent releases, three Homegrown Music veteran bands released albums on major record labels, the above-metioned Badlees through A&M Records, From Good Homes on RCA, and Echolyn on Sony/Epic.

The music business was again turbulent during 1995. Last year, market leader Time-Warner went through an executive shakeup and long-time veterans Mo Ostin and Lenny Waronker left the company in a dispute over the new corporate management. This year the changes at the top of the major record labels was dizzying. Billboard magazine has a column they call "Executive Turntable," and that name was especially appropriate this year. The Warner-Elektra-Atlantic labels went through even more changes, and the presidents of MCA, Mercury and Sony's entertainment division were replaced. Some of the names went from one label to another, such as Doug Morris going from Warner to MCA, after MCA's president Al Teller was fired. MCA early in the year was sold to the people who own Seagram's Whiskey, after Japanese Electronics manufacturer Matsushita unloaded its interest. Meanwhile, Ostin and Waronker are set to launch a new record company under the auspices of the much vaunted entertainment company Dreamworks SKG, founded by Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg.

On a somewhat smaller scale, the country's two best and largest folk labels merged in 1995. Actually, Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Rounder Records bought out Chicago's Flying Fish Records, after the widow of Flying Fish founder Bruce Caplan decided she didn't want to stay in the record business. Rounder, which celebrated its 25th Anniversary this year, promised to keep Flying Fish independent. Both labels have had a long prior relationship with Rounder distributing Flying Fish for quite a few years.

The mergers and acquisition frenzy in the media world reached a peak in 1995. In addition to MCA changing hands, Time-Warner was merging with Turner Broadcasting, and in the commercial television world two of the networks were swallowed up -- ABC by Disney and CBS by Westinghouse Electric, which had been involved with broadcasting since the very earliest days of radio.

And remember radio? Commercial radio stations were being swallowed up by larger groups almost faster than you could count. Loosened ownership rules, which could be completely eliminated under the pending Republican telecommunications bill, allows one company to own several radio stations in a community and large chains of stations across the country. The idea of a diversity of voices in commercial radio is facing quite a test in the coming era.

Also in the political world, Kansas Senator Robert Dole, was the most prominent of many politicians again using music as an easy target to make political points. In fairness, Dole didn't single out music exclusively, and did aim some of the blame on commercial television and the Hollywood. But rap records on the Interscope label were a specific target, and by later in the year, Time-Warner sold off its interest in Interscope, claiming it wasn't caving in to political pressure. This is always a difficult issue. On the one hand, there is the First Amendment, and the rights it confers. On the other there are people who just go beyond responsible behavior as artists, and turn simply to sensationalism to make a sale. I think that music has relatively little influence on people's behavior, compared for example to the pervasiveness of violence, sex and downright bad examples on commercial television. But pop music becomes an easy and tempting target with a less politically powerful constituency than Hollywood, that politicians can use as an easy target to score sound-byte points in this era when it seems that negativity is the only way to get elected.

And of course, in this atmosphere after the 1994 Congressional elections marked a massive swing to the right, Public Broadcasting became a favorite target of those who say that Rush Limbaugh represents what Public Broadcasting should be doing. Fortunately, listeners and viewers made their voices known, so Public Radio and television were not immediately killed off, but the future is certainly an austere one. Here at WVIA-FM there were layoffs and more cutbacks are likely. At about the time of all the threats of funding cuts, National Public Radio went ahead with a plan to expand All Things Considered from 90 minutes on the weekdays to two hours, and of course, that time came out of Mixed Bag, 20% of the program on Monday through Thursdays. It was solemnly promised that we would get the time back in by the fall after doing some further reshuffling of programming, but I am still waiting for that promise to be kept. We also lost an hour daily of classical music in order to expand Morning Edition to three hours. NPR news is second to none in quality, but where does one draw the balance on one radio station between what are becoming competing unique programming elements? We would certainly like to hear from you on that.

And now on to technology, my other area of interest. Last year, our main topic was the Internet. And this year a lot of people have probably heard more about the Internet than they can stand, and record numbers of people have had the exhilarating and frustrating experience of surfing the 'Net. As far as it relates to music, last year we noted its quite remarkable potential fundamentally to replace the distribution of music as we know it -- with artists able directly to send music digitally to the listener and sell their work without any middleman -- record company, CD manufacturing plant, record distributors or record stores. Likewise, there is also the potential -- which is getting very close to reality -- to provide an alternative to radio, and eventually to television. Some have observed that all the current media merger frenzy is like so many blacksmith shops vying for work at the dawn of the automobile age, that in a few years Time Warner-Turner, the record companies, and the commercial television networks will all be obsolete. Realizing this, many of the large media companies are making forays into the Internet, but with the lack of security for financial transactions, nobody has really figured out how to make much money by selling information on the Internet. Newspapers are also getting into the Internet in a big way, but again, the best way to stop people from visiting your Internet site is to charge for access, when there is so much out there that's free. Major sites are putting advertising up on their World Wide Web pages, but advertisers have no idea how many people are actually reading the ads. There are probably a lot of 'Net surfers like me. I click off a site as soon as an ad starts to come up. And of course, the 'Net is so wonderfully democratically chaotic. Anybody can reach my own World Wide Web site, and read about Homegrown Music just as easily as they can access Time Warner's site. But getting your address out there is now the Cyberspace equivalent to releasing a record and hoping people will hear it. It's interesting and still fun though, and hopefully the big media lobbyists and their pals in the 104th Congress won't fashion legislation that will give the big guys a monopoly on the Internet. In any case, it is remarkable just how much the Internet and its potential have grown in the last year, and what the future brings is anyone's guess.

In other technology news, if the Internet doesn't replace music hardware as we know it, a new recording medium is on the immediate horizon. It's an extension of the Compact Disc and looks like it, but with much higher data density. The development is notable because it marked an agreement on a single standard between two large and competing electronics alliances. Called the DVD or digital versatile disc, the new disk promises longer playing times, or much higher fidelity with 20 or 24-bit audio. But most likely, that potential will end up being squandered on putting in music videos.

Another new technical standard emerged this year, that is agreement on what method to transmit high definition television. As first conceived as a way to deliver very high quality pictures to special TVs, the digital television system also has the potential to transmit several crummy-looking pictures at the same time instead of one high-quality one, over the same channel. Naturally, commercial broadcasters started getting interested in HDTV when the potential to run commercials in several different low-resolution programs became possible, and whether the high quality potential for HDTV will ever come to fruition remains to be seen.

As a recording engineer and producer, one thing that really struck me at this year's convention of the Audio Engineering Society is the dichotomy between high-tech digital audio and a spate of what could only be called technological nostalgia -- dozens of companies introduced products for looked as if they came from World War II. Like so much in the record business, there is a lot of superstition about what it takes to make a hit record, and this year, having glowing tubes in your equipment, despite their tendency toward noise, was the fad.

And last year I grumbled about the so-called lo-fi craze, using the impressively high audio quality potential of the compact disc to make recordings with lots of noise, distortion and all the analogue problems digital audio was supposed to eliminate. The trend continued, though there seemed to be a little less of it on major labels this year. But the amount of compression applied to most pop CDs is still an audio crime, I say. Squooshing the soft sounds and the loud sound so that they are at equal volume may sound like a commercial radio station, but it kills the music and renders one's CD player not much better than a cheap cassette deck.

As finally, on to another of our year-end traditions, the obituary section. In the rock world, we lost Jerry Garcia, Irish blues-rock guitarist Rory Gallagher, Chuck Greenberg, a founder of the eclectic group Shadowfax, folk blues and often street-singer Ted Hawkins, Shannon Hoon of the alternative act Blind Melon, Ronnie White a founder of the Miracles with Smokey Robinson, R&B saxophone great Junior Walker, Sterling Morrison of the Velvet Underground, the highly innovative British musician and satirist Vivian Shanshall of the Bonzo Dog Band, Country Dick Montana of the Beat Farmers, and Tejano star Selena Quintanilla.

Also folksinger and actor Burl Ives, Maxene Andrews of the Andrews Sisters, big band leaders Phil Harris, Les Elgart and Ray McKinley, dancer Ginger Rogers, film composer Miklos Rozsa, country legend Charlie Rich and singer Dean Martin.

The jazz world saw the loss of many of its ranks including three trumpeters at opposite ends of the spectrum -- the iconoclastic Don Cherry, and Dixieland greats Yank Lawson and Percy Humphrey. Also guitarists Jimmy Raney and Brazilian innovator Laurindo Almeida, saxophonists Marshall Royal and Julius Hemphill, violinist Noel Pointer, pianists Jess Stacey and Don Pullen, drummer Art Taylor, arranger Marty Paich and vocalist Phyllis Hyman.

This year also saw the loss of a particularly large number of influential people known for their work behind the scenes, including rock record producers Denny Cordell, Pete Welding, and Paul Rothchild, best known for his work with the Doors; jazz record producer Norman Schwartz; Carl Jefferson, the founder of Concord Jazz Records one of the finest mainstream acoustic jazz labels in the business; and Florence Greenberg who founded Scepter Records back in the late 1950s, the first woman to start a major record company.

And from th7e world of radio, we lost Wolfman Jack, and Alison Steele -- "the Nightbird" as she called herself.

Well, there you have it. As in other years, there was some decent music out there in 1995, but one had to dig fairly deep to find it.

Copyright 1995 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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