The writer Julian Barnes once described the Man Booker Prize as "posh bingo". It has become a cyclical phrase regurgitated every year when the obligatory outrage about the prize begins. What Barnes meant was that – like most people – he had long given up trying to predict who would win. Usually, there's an outright favourite, and someone else entirely different ends up scooping the prize.
Ireland’s Choice Music Prize – the award ceremony for which takes place on February 27th – has, with one or two exceptions, never suffered this fate. Instead, it remains a 10-horse race with every act a potentially worthy winner. It’s always hard to call, and every year after the winner is declared, whispers filter out from the judging room about how close the decision was. (DOI: I was a judge in 2007 and the decision came down to one vote and a lot of people shouting.)
As long as there are arguments and feather- spitting, we can assume that people still care about music. The Choice Music Prize was established in 2005 for that very reason: to champion Irish acts and highlight an album that sums up the year in music. The judges are plucked from the world of journalism, radio and blogging, which rescues the prize from the clutches of predictable, preordained award shows. Instead of a passive sit-down dinner at fancy tables, there is a live show, at which most of the nominees play.
The ceremony is like a live mixtape, and over the years has seen it all. From the heart-stopping acoustic performance of Overpowered by Róisín Murphy to And So I Watch you From Afar, who proved more of a threat to Dublin venue roofs than the recent storms. The shortlist is also a democratic representation of independent labels and self-released work (Big Skin, Sargeant House, Belly Up) and bigger record companies (Universal and Sony), mixing names that are well known (My Bloody Valentine, Villagers, Bell X1) with newer acts who are collectively forging strong musical paths, such as Lisa O'Neill, Girls Names, Little Green Cars.
The prize doesn't have the same reach as the Mercury or Polaris Prizes, but to those who have benefited from it, it has much merit. Adrian Crowley has been nominated twice and won the prize in 2010. "An award like this is a celebration of what is happening in music in a given year," says Crowley. "It helps to remind people to get excited about the music that's coming out of their own country. It does a lot of good in unearthing new music."
When Crowley played the ceremony in 2010, his label boss at Chemikal Underground, Stewart Henderson, came to watch. "He decided that Scotland needed something similar so he set up the SAY award ('Scottish Album of the Year'), which is now in it's third year".
Villagers' Conor O'Brien, who is nominated this year for both album and song of the year (for Nothing Arrived) agrees the prize is important. "There would be a big Mercury/Choice Prize-shaped hole if they didn't exist. I like to pretend that I'm too cool for them but when the day arrives I usually scrub up and put on my fanciest shoes."
After Thursday night, there will be disagreements and griping, but there will also be conversations that hopefully translate into people actually buying the music. The event itself is sold out, but the show will be streamed live on rte.ie and a one-hour highlights show airs on Sunday March 2nd on RTE Two.
And So I Watch You From Afar - All Hail Bright Futures
As a live band, this Belfast four-piece are hard to beat. They've been nominated before but this album supersedes that. Great to see them on the shortlist, but it's a competitive year. Bookies odds: 12/1
Bell X1 - Chop Chop
Serially nominated, a strong contender, but never a winner, could this year be fourth time lucky for Bell X1? Bookies odds: 12/1
Girls Names - New Life
One of the most innovative bands on the shortlist, Girls Names are something to behold live. Dark horses. Bookies odds: 10/1
Kodaline - In a Perfect World
Every couple of years the shortlist throws up a young breakthrough band (Two Door Cinema Club won in 2010) and Kodaline have been touring the world, finding success at home and abroad. Their sound is not for everyone, but they might just pull off a surprise win. Bookies odds: 5/1
Little Green Cars - Absolute Zero
One of the most talked about Irish bands of recent years, LGC's multi-part harmonies and vocals are the lynchpin of their sound. Bookies odds: 5/2
Mano Le Tough - Changing Days
The Choice Prize has always proved to be open to electronic and instrumental work, and Berlin-based Niall Mannion has established himself as an innovator in terms of production and composition. An outsider, but a welcome inclusion. Bookies odds: 16/1
My Bloody Valentine - MBV
The stalwarts of Irish music and a band who are, let's face it, not the go-to band for music prizes. Brilliant, brash and uncompromising, news of MBV 's arrival tantalised for years, until it finally arrived, fully formed. The band aren't playing on the night, but are certainly in with a chance of winning. Bookies odds: 8/1
O Emperor -Vitreous
This is not the first time this Waterford five-piece have been nominated. They continue to develop as a band and the album's understatedness belies its strength as a piece of work . One of the top five favourites to take the prize. Bookies odds: 9/4
Lisa O'Neill -Same Cloth or Not
There's a dearth of women on this year's shortlist, so we're thankful the sole double X chromosome is such a quality act. Bookies odds: 10/1
Villagers - Awayland
The best album on the shortlist. Conor O'Brien is an astute, emotive and talented songwriter. He's a former Mercury nominee, and was nominated for this prize for his debut. Can he pull it off this year? Bookies odds: 7/2