1997 Year-End Special

by George Graham

(As broadcast on WVIA-FM 12/31/97)

Once again, it's time for our year-end wrap-up. Usually at this time we bring you our weekly album review, but being that 1997 is about to expire, I've got a review of the whole year from the standpoint of our own little corner of the music world. However, as usual, I do tend to take some potshots at the commercial music scene, the perhaps 2% or less of the music being made that 95% of the people end up hearing all the time. I like to think that this radio program considers a much larger part of the music scene, in terms of the quantity and quality of different music than the tiny fraction of what is being released that ends up being constantly repeated and drummed into people's heads by the commercial media.

I was looking at our year-end tirade of 1996, and the big pop music event of last year was virtually forgotten in 1997 -- and a good thing too -- it was the Macarena dance craze. This year, instead of a musical style, I think that the one trend that seems to characterize a lot of different types of music is youth. This was the year of the teenage stars, from the country music of Leann Rimes to the drive-one-up-the-wall pop of the Hansen kids, to the blues of Johnny Lang, who at age 16 topped the Billboard magazine annual cumulative blues charts this year. Jewel who is barely in her twenties was also one of the top names on the pop charts, and also ranking high on the cumulative blues charts is Kenny Wayne Sheperd, who is also in his very early twenties. Not yet on the charts, recently there was the impressive debut by 18-year-old blues guitarist Derek Trucks, and there was a very good album released on an independent label by a Celtic band with members ranging from 12 to 15 called Journeywork. Just recently, it seemed that with the music business becoming very competitive among artists seeking recognition, it took quite a few years for an artist or group to get a record deal, so many so-called "new artists" were at least in their early 30s.

Although some of these young artists are talented, it is sometimes a bit frustrating seeing the kids who are not yet as well developed hitting the tops of the charts, when veteran performers, who are better musicians or writers or performers continue to struggle to gain recognition, and indeed to make a living from music. Of course, there have been periods when young performers become all the rage, especially when new styles are developing, in the 50s and 60s, for example. But this time, the kids are playing the essentially the same music as the previous generation.

On the other hand, the biggest grossing concert act this year were those senior rockers the Rolling Stones, all of whom are older than the President of the United States. Their tour grossed $89.3 million.

Of course, this year was also a reminder of how the popularity of music is largely governed by forces that have little to do with its intrinsic quality. This year's biggest single -- and in fact the all-time biggest selling single in within a year -- was, of course, Elton John's tribute to Princess Diana. And the second-biggest selling single was Puff Daddy and Faith Evans' I'll Be Missing You, a tribute to slain rap star Notorious BIG. Likewise in the classical world, the biggest selling album was by pianist David Helfgott who was the subject of a Hollywood film "Shine," even though the pianist's music has been largely panned by the critics.

Some years, there is a surprising amount of Mixed Bag-type music that makes its way up the charts. I remember times when perhaps four of the top 10 Billboard albums on their annual cumulative chart were records that we introduced you to on this program. This year, of the top 25 albums, there were only three that we ever, or would ever, play on this program -- Jewel, The Wallflowers, and Alanis Morisette, and all of those were released in 1995 or 1996. This year the top of the charts was a pretty inhospitable place for the eclectic music fan, with the top three album positions being held by the Spice Girls, No Doubt and Celine Dion. And it doesn't get much better as you go down the charts. There are occasional little breaks in the monotony, like the Dave Matthews Band at #29, the Squirrel Nut Zippers at #86, Indigo Girls at #151 and Shawn Colvin at #159, but this year's cumulative sales charts are comprised almost entirely of music that causes me to leave the room.

Despite all that creatively-impaired music this year, the record industry did make something of a slight recovery from the disappointing sales of 1996.

But when instead you look not at the number of copies per CD sold but at the number of different CD releases during the year, a completely different picture emerges. There was once again a cornucopia of interesting and edifying music being released by record companies ranging from the multinational media conglomerates to do-it-yourself artists making music in modest studios, and selling it on their own. Of course, most of the releases that came our way seemed again to be by alternative rock bands, but if the complexion of the releases we received this year is any indication, grunge seems to be fading, to be replaced by folky roots rock bands. There were some excellent ones making debuts, like Whiskeytown and Dime Store Prophets, along with scads of other groups who make an attempt but fall a bit short. It got almost to be too much of a good thing, with some aspects of the style becoming clichés.

Likewise, there was a deluge of singer-songwriter releases, and this year, a great number of them were very good. In fact, the quality level has increased such that albums to which just a few years ago I would have given high praise and prominent attention, for their level of artistry, we just did not have the airtime to give much attention to. They were displaced by some of the really exceptional singer-songwriter recordings this year, including the superb debuts by Chris Rosser and Kami Lyle, and impressive work of veterans like Paul Simon and Patty Larkin.

Another interesting trend is the proliferation of CDs by performers who draw on musical influences that were popular before they were born. An excellent example was the Squirrel Nut Zippers whose 1996 album Hot was a surprise hit -- relatively speaking -- this year. "Retro" was definitely the word with albums by the Asylum Street Spankers, the Cherry Poppin' Daddies, Big Sandy and His Fly Rite Boys and Little Jack Melody and His Young Turks. The sound of 60s instrumental music was also being brought back with groups like the United Future Organization and organist James Taylor's combo.

Sometimes that retro sound collided with electronic dance music for an odd blend of swooping 70s synthesizers with the pounding inflexible rhythms of techno, in a style that has been called electronica. One interesting and refreshing departure is a group called the Egg, who takes ambient dance music and played it on real instruments with a human drummer and no sequences or samples. The result was vaguely like progressive art rock with a twist.

Speaking of classic styles, the blues, despite the sales charts' domination by the kids, had a very good year artistically. There was a lot of great music by veteran performers as well, including septuagenarian John Lee Hooker and octogenarian Pinetop Perkins, along with increasing attention to acoustic blues from people like Corey Harris and Sheila Wilcoxson. Boz Scaggs went back to his blues roots on an impressive new album called Come On Home. There were exceptional albums by veteran guitarists Duke Robillard and Ronnie Earl, and a fine recording by Luther Allison, who passed away during the summer.

The jazz world continued in very good shape musically. This year saw an uncommonly large number of fine big band recordings, by the likes of Phil Woods, J.J. Johnson, Rob McConnell, Bill Watrous and Bill Holman. But the jazz charts were topped by crooner Tony Bennett who has now won the #1 position on the Billboard annual charts three of the past four years. Meanwhile, reissues have been racking up sales, with Louis Armstrong and Glenn Miller being two of the top 10 best selling jazz artists in 1997. This was a good year for the regional jazz scene, with at least two releases each by Phil Woods and David Liebman, and the first major label release in over 30 years by vocalist, pianist and very cool guy Bob Dorough.

Dabbling with classical music seems to be a bit of a trend among pop performers, with new classically-influenced releases by Paul McCartney and Joe Jackson, and Billy Joel announcing his retirement from pop music to pursue classical music full-time.

On the World Music scene, it was definitely the year of the Irish, with the Riverdance production spurring a lot of record sales, as had Enya, whose reverb-laden sounds used in TV commercials also inspired a lot of people to buy CDs. Of the Billboard World Music charts for the year, six of the top ten-selling records were by Irish groups, with the Gipsy Kings flamenco-pop sounds holding down two other positions. But beyond the charts, there was a lot of interesting activity in terms of US album releases, with a worthwhile music from all the continents being represented, and some fascinating mixtures of styles. This year also saw a good number of samplers and various-artist anthologies being released. Among my favorite was a collection of African singer-songwriters issued by Shanachie Records.

The folk and bluegrass scenes brought forth some worthwhile recordings, though compared to previous years, there was as much blazing innovation going on. One of the highlights of the year was Alison Krauss and Union Station's So Long, So Wrong. But just hearing good, honest unpretentious folk and bluegrass was such a refreshing change from the pretense and technological phoniness of music at the top of the charts, made the style a great refuge for those seeking musical solace.

In 1997, the New Age music scene seemed to be winding down. No less an authority than Echoes host John Diliberto, in a guest column in the year-end issue of Billboard lamented the lack of new music, artists and sounds on the New Age charts, with Yanni's now lushly-orchestrated "faux classicism" and similarly bombastic Celtic influenced sounds from Secret Garden. In fact, Diliberto points out that seven out of the ten top New Age albums consist of recycled material from previous releases. There is still some interesting music out there, but it's being pushed aside by the "elevator music" of the 1990s. In that respect, New Age is like so many other styles this year, in that the best rarely rises to the top.

And finally, the regional [Northeastern Pennsylvania] music scene was extremely prolific this year, with at least 37 CDs being issued by artists we have had on the Homegrown Music series. And for the first time in over 20 years of doing the Homegrown Music series, WVIA released our own CD of music from the series, along with a recording of regional classical choral ensembles.

And now for my annual technology review: The great hope for super-high-quality audio, the DVD audio disc has still not been realized. This year the DVD, (which stands for "digital versatile disc" and not "digital video disc") which is the same size as a regular CD but capable of holding much larger amounts of information, was introduced in the US. But so far its capabilities are only being wasted on video, instead of the 24-bit 96 KHz sampling rate digital audio that is possible, a technology that would be a big improvement over current CDs, and will probably satisfy the even last analogue holdouts. I attended a seminar and technology unveiling this past fall on the DVD audio capabilities, and though the technology is great, there is still no agreement on technical standards among manufacturers to ensure that all DVD players would play all discs, and in the last few months, there has been another incompatible technical system introduced, which threatens another VHS-versus-Betamax style battle.

Speaking of digital audio, a particularly alarming and annoying trend to audiophiles continues apace in 1997: the intentional loss of dynamic range on CDs. Even the current generation of compact discs are capable of over 90 db between the softest and loudest sounds that can be reproduced. Increasingly, record companies seem to be in a loudness war, trying to make their CDs sound louder, and in the process using new digital audio compressors to squeeze the sound into just the loudest few decibels of level available on a CD, essentially throwing away 90% of the capability of the medium. There were two particularly egregious examples this year of fine albums of music that contains a lot of dynamics and subtlety, that were spoiled by heavy audio compression on the CD. Alison Krauss and Union Station's 1997 release So Long, So Wrong, and especially maddening, the new Pat Metheny Group CD Imaginary Day, whose superb music which relies greatly on dynamics was for all intents and purposes ruined by compression more typical of a commercial top 40 radio station than an audiophile digital medium. People have come to expect squashed audio over the air, but not when you pay good money for a CD to play on an expensive audio system. As big a Metheny fan as I am, I have trouble listening to Imaginary Day.

The other big technological item is something that people have been talking about -- and on -- non-stop for a couple of years now, the Internet. Two years ago, I said that it is possible that the stranglehold that the big media companies have on music, and indeed the concept of a record company could be supplanted by the Internet, with artists being able to distribute their music directly to listeners and customers, without any intervention by middlemen, or even the manufacture of a physical recording. The Internet is still a lousy medium for delivering high quality sound within a reasonable period of time, but already people are selling music over the 'Net, usually one song at a time, rather than as a whole album. This could revive the single as a music form. Another seminar I attended at the Audio Engineering Society convention this fall discussed audio delivery systems for the Internet, and new software for making secure sales of music directly the consumer, who could then make his own CD with the new CD-R drives for computers. Meanwhile, a form of radio broadcasting has sprung up on the 'Net, with a lot of radio stations putting their signals on the Internet via so-caled streaming technology, and a couple of Internet-only radio stations appearing.

Also, a significant number of record retailers have sprung up on the 'Net, selling conventional CDs by mail with ordering on-line, including providing samples of the music, like a virtual old-fashioned record store, where they used to let you got into a booth to listen to a record before you bought it. Some of the major labels have also set-up direct retail Websites, and in the process raised the ire of conventional record stores, who saw the effort as a way to try to squeeze them out of business. The technology does provide a dilemma -- ordering records on-line can be interesting and fun, but if it drives your neighborhood record store out of business, who will provide the kind of personalized service and musical recommendations, and the important ability to browse and physically pick up and hold a record, that a good record store can give you?

Coming up, the people we lost this year, the uncommonly long list of musical obituaries in 1997.

See also...

(c) Copyright 1997 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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