Message to music awards juries: don't forget to vote for best album

Fri, Jan 15, 2010, 00:00

REVOLVER:Three years ago a novel “written” by Kate Price outsold the entire Man Booker prize shortlist. This year’s X Factorwinner (whatever his name is) has sold a gargantuan amount of singles compared with the paltry amount of albums sold by Speech Debelle, last year’s Mercury Music Prize winner.

Without wishing to reheat the old Keats-vs-Dylan debate, there is an enormous chasm between music of “artistic merit” and stuff that actually sells by the truckload. And now that we’re deep into award ceremony season, the gap is more gaping than ever.

While the Grammys, Brits and Meteors mainly reflect cash-till sales in their various award categories, a whole clutch of “alternative” (wrong word, I know) music award ceremonies seek to shine a light on the musical works that don’t go in at number one with a bullet but are nevertheless worthy of some form of recognition.

The Mercury Music Prize for best British/Irish album was set up in 1992 as a direct riposte to the mainstream award shows. It took almost a decade before other territories wised up to the fact that a music award show that rewarded the music (as opposed to units shifted, chart placing attained or marketing budget spent) was a good idea.

The US jumped on board in 2001 with the Shortlist Music Prize, which refined the process even further. Any album from

any country was eligible for the Shortlist – so long as it hadn’t sold more than 500,000 copies. The first award went to the-then little known Sigur Rós, and it remains one of the few music prizes to have rewarded the colossal talent of Sufjan Stevens.

France got in on the alt.action in 2002 with the Prix Constantin Award, which has a pretty low profile abroad (French music doesn’t travel that well). In 2005, Ireland and Australia followed suit with the Choice Music Prize and the Australian Music Prize, respectively, and now Canada is in the frame with the Polaris Music Prize.

All very commendable in the sense that there really needs to be a different take on music awards than the unremittingly awful mainstream ones, not least because, while you can usually guess the winners of the latter, the alt.prizes are as eccentric and erratic as they come. And that, paradoxically, is the problem.

For all their “artistic halo” glow, the alt.prizes can make a more spectacular mess of affairs than their mainstream counterparts. U2, David Bowie, Van Morrison, Oasis, Blur and David Bowie have never won the Mercury (despite being nominated) but Roni Size, The Klaxons and Speech Debelle all have.

The latter is a particularly troubling winner. The album is the lowest-ever selling Mercury winner in the prize’s 18-year history: 3,000 copies pre-win and only about 10,000 post-win. In fact, the album isn’t very good, but it was released by a woman whose back story made for good newspaper copy.

Which brings us to the judges. Most of these alt.prizes are adjudicated by “media professionals”, DJs, print journalists, festival organisers, and radio and TV producers. The assumption is that because all concerned are involved in an “alternative” prize, they always go “alternative” in their voting. But this does everyone a disservice.

How else do you account for the Mercury panel favouring Roni Size over what is generally agreed as being one of the best albums of all time (Radiohead’s Ok Computer). Or for the fact that the Shortlist panel favoured Damian Rice’s O over The Streets’ magnificent Original Pirate Materialand the mediocre TV on the Radio over The Killers.

In the Australian Music Prize, The Go-Betweens (the best Aussie band ever) were beaten out by The Drones (who?). And, get this: at the Canadian Polaris one year, Patrick Watson (who?) won over Arcade Fire.

Having been a Choice Music Prize judge one year and drawn blood alongside the other 11 judges in a vow to never talk about what happened in the judging room, I won’t rant on that prize. But a word to all this year’s alt.judges: drop the “alternative” nonsense and just vote for the best album on the list.