George Graham's Radio Essay on the Music of 1996

As broadcast on WVIA-FM 1/1/97

Time once again for our annual look back at the music of 1996, with a few observations and biased opinions thrown in as well. We'll also give out what I believe is the 24th Annual Graham Awards, for achievements dubious and otherwise in the areas of music we cover on Mixed Bag and All That Jazz.

So let's cut right to the chase: there is one word that epitomizes the commercial pop music scene of 1996 "Macarena." The most ubiquitous dance craze since Chubby Checker's "Twist," created by a couple of middle-aged guys in Spain, souped up by a hip-hop dance remix, had a great number of people wondering how such a record could become such a huge hit. Just when there was cause for optimism as grunge seemed to be fading away, along comes the Macarena, that made the polyester disco dance records of the 1970s look like minuets. One is tempted to cast verbal broadsides, but the record speaks for itself. The problem I had with it was the inability to get away from it. The great news is that I don't have a copy of the record to play to you while talking about it.

Other trends on the mainstream pop music scene included the continued revival of the Beatles through Anthology series, and the rather unexpected success of Alanis Morisette, who had the top-charting album for the year in Billboard magazine's annual cumulative pop album charts. This year was an especially good one for women on the commercial pop scene, with the three top-selling albums as well as the top three artists on Billboard's combined albums and singles sales charts being women: Ms. Morisette, Mariah Carey and Celine Dion, in order. Another pleasant surprise was Tracy Chapman coming in at number 6 on the same chart, thanks to the also unexpected success of her single Give Me One Reason, from her 1995 album New Beginning, which turned out to be a very appropriate title, with her career getting a well-deserved revival. For me, the rest of the pop music scene was something generally to be ignored, with the Fugees, Garth Brooks, Metallica, Bush and Smashing Pumpkins among the artists holding down the top chart positions.

In our own little areas of music, where much of the Empty Vee crowd hasn't got a clue, things seem to be in a holding pattern -- steady as she goes, with lots of good releases by both veteran artists and a healthy crop of debut recordings by intelligent rock groups, thoughtful singer-songwriters, virtuosic instrumentalists, blues artists hot and cool, and World Music practitioners, both authentic and eclectic. In World Music style bending and blending continued apace in 1996, with the expected mixed results, ranging from the wildly successful like Folk Scat to the utterly pretentious like Dead Can Dance.

I suppose that if there is an undercurrent to much of what is happening, it is a continuation of the retro influence of last year. It seemed that everywhere "retro" was the trend, from television commercials to graphic art to music. The success of the Beatles inspired a revival of psychedelic music which took on added significance with the death of Timothy Leary. One of the original hippies Donovan returned with an album that sounded as if he picked up right where he left off, and the pop music scene was buzzing over a young band called Kula Shaker, which was sounding very paisley in the 1996. There was also the sophomore effort by Rusted Root, who also seem at times as if they might have been lifted from San Francisco in 1967. Of course, over the past few years there have been several younger bands who took up the psychedelic pop sound. Also in the retro groove was The Cardigans from Sweden, who recently have been showing on the charts, and Ocean Colour Scene, who are unabashedly 60s Mod. The revival of 70s style Southern Rock continued with first-rate releases by Jupiter Coyote and .32-20.

In the pop world, the 1970s seemed to come back with a vengeance. Both Journey and The Sex Pistols reunited. The Who re-convened yet again to perform Quadrophenia, Kiss toured in full makeup, Meatloaf refused to go away, and one of the package tours that come rolling through our area combined Fleetwood Mac, Peter Frampton and REO Speedwagon. Get out your pet rocks.

Also in the Retro department is a decided revival of twangy guitar instrumental rock, in the tradition of the Ventures and Dick Dale. 1996 featured a trio of notable twangers, albums from the Aqua Velvets -- their second release, plus debuts from Four Piece Suit, who brought in a big saxophone sound, and The Civil Tones.

The folk and acoustic world was a whirlwind of activity. The number of high quality, world-class singer-songwriter albums released during the year was in the hundreds. And the New Acoustic Music scene, though not full of real stylistic innovation, also saw some fine albums, most notably by Psychograss and Joe Craven.

Now that Billboard magazine instituted a blues chart, the number of blues albums released in 1996 was overwhelming. Though the late Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Clapton's 1994 release From the Cradle stayed near the top of the blues charts, there were enough fine new blues albums by both veteran and upcoming performers to keep a blues fan in hock to his record store.

1996 was also another good year for regional artist album releases. There were at least 26 CDs issued during the year by regional groups and artists -- most of whom are veterans of our Homegrown Music series -- that we featured on Mixed Bag during the year. There were quite a few others by artists in styles we don't cover on the program, like aggressive alternative rock and heavy metal.

In another area in which I hold a special interest, the technology world as it relates to music and sound, a couple of things we talked about last year at this time, have not really materialized. The DVD, or digital versatile disc, a new kind of CD that can hold video -- but far more significantly -- holds the potential for an entirely new level of sonic quality with 24-bit resolution and much higher digital audio sampling rates, has yet to be introduced in this country. As usual, it's not the technology that's holding it up, but business politics, as arguments ensue over copyright protection.

The other interesting technology topic we have talked about in these year-end essays, music over the Internet, is beginning to take shape slowly. Many had predicted the demise of the physical record store, whth people being able to download music over the Internet, with the potential of making large multi-national record companies obsolete, with artists being able to distribute their music directly to consumers. Though it's possible now, it's not easy. But more Internet Record stores are setting up business, and allowing customers to sample little soundbytes of records over the World Wide Web before placing orders. That has a lot of potential, but I hope there will always be a place for your local neighborhood Mom-and-Pop record store, where you can deal with real people, who can speak to you face to face and give you their recommendations.

One development that has been around for a couple of years, but was really coming into its own in 1996 is the enhanced CD -- a compact disc that plays normally in a regular CD player, but also contains computer files and software. Quite a few have been released, with much of the initiative being taken by small, independent record labels. A typical CD-Plus includes herky-jerky videos of the artists, photos or graphics, sometimes a little game, plus more detailed credits or song lyrics. Like music in general, they range from clever and interesting, to pointless and dumb.

Coming up, the 24th Annual Graham Awards...

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