Some thoughts on this year’s Mercury Music Prize shortlist
It’s a bad year for token jazzers, folkies, weirdo new classical composers and metalheads. The Mercury Music Prize folks, the annual argument-starter when it comes to the best albums released in Britain and Ireland (best albums released by those who’ve applied to be considered and paid an entry fee, of course), have decided to blank the token entrant from the non-rock/pop ranks. Instead of some album which would have all casual music fans and many so-called experts going “who?”, the Mercury judges – list of same not available to hand, though here’s last year’s worthies – have stuck with 10 tried and tested rock, pop and indie names. And David Bowie.
Then again, going on the recent slew of winners, there’s never really been a chance in hell that recent nominees like Basquiat Strings, Led Bib, Portico Quartet or Gwilym Silcock were going to triumph on the years they were nominated. Even such surprise leftfield winners as Speech Debelle, Roni Size, Antony & The Johnsons and Talvin Singh over the years were always in with a shot because they had gamed the traditional media and profile-building game.
Despite this, you have to wonder if this is a backward step. One of the Mercury’s winning tricks over the year was this very WTF factor. It also did some very handy marketing for the Prize as it showed that anyone who sent in their CDs and entry fee had a chance against the major labels and their big wallets. The berth for the other music proponents also ensured a slew of publicity as people fumed and gave out about the inclusion. And, of course, the act in question also gained column inches and sales, all grist to the Mercury mill.
But such are the vagaries of the Mercury Music Prize and it’s best not to dwell too long on it. For all we know, next year’s shortlist may be wall to wall with sean-nos singers, noseflute maestros and micro-jazz producers. For now, we have 10 fairly recognisable names to consider, 10 albums which won’t frighten the horses.
So who’s going to win? Well, the first thing to do is probably ignore whatever the bookies are saying. Remember they had London Grammar as favourites to win the damn thing, a debut album by a band who weren’t on any radars 12 months ago, a debut album which is good but far from great and a debut album which didn’t even make the shortlist. The bookies are in the business of taking cash from suckers so let’s them to that.
The green jersey wearers and fans of quality songsmithery will be talking up Villagers and quite rightly so. “Awayland” is a glorious album, one which has gained in lustre as the year has gone by. It’s been a fantastic year for UK dance-pop and both Disclosure (with “Settle”, the album of the year so far round here) and Rudimental are representing that camp. The new Arctic Monkeys’ album is a smasher, though eyebrows will be raised at how close their release date was to the closing date for entries. Both James Blake’s “Overgrown” and Jon Hopkins’ “Immunity” are hugely impressive and adventurous.
For my money, though, there are three potential Mercury winners staring back from the page the morning after the announcement night before. David Bowie’s “The Next Day” is not his best album, but it’s fecking Bowie and you can just tell how the talk will go in the jury room on the day at the thought of him saying howdy on the night. Savages’ debut album is not quite as searing or magnetic as their live shows, but there will be a camp within the judging room who will want to reward their musical stance.
Right now, though, it’s Laura Mvula’s debut album “Sing to the Moon” which rings all the right bells. A brilliant album from a striking performer with a formidable voice, a superb band and the right range of songs to cover all bases. If we bet on this kind of thing – we only bet on hurling and greyhounds these dates – our money would be on the Brummie lady. We’re probably totally wrong, mind. Caveat aleator.