Monday, November 17, 2008

The Wrong Mercury

The Mercury Music Prize is a weird thing, I'm not sure anyone can adequately explain why it really exists. Their website has a reasonable stab at it: 'The prize exists solely to champion UK music by promoting the 12 albums of the year by British or Irish artists'. Given this I'm not quite sure how the American Alison Kraus sneaked in this year, possibly under Robert Plant's greatcoat or behind Mark Lanegan, another American collaborator who was found on last year's list. I mention him as he's superb, around 6ft 6in tall and has the deepest voice on earth.

Anyway, back to the Mercury. It started 17 years ago as a sort of reaction to The BRITs which were considered 'too mainstream' - something The Mercurys could never be accused of. However, when you consider this as your rationale then having any pop albums in the shortlist seems something of a contradiction. In 1997 The Spice Girls' 'Spice' was on the shortlist which was surely an anomaly in every sense of the term.

I always figure that if I own or have at least heard around a third of the albums on the shortlist then I can probably still consider myself as contemporary or eclectic; every year I just about squeak by. This year I've heard five and probably still listen to three of them - so that's probably a result. Here's the list for your own analysis -

Adele 19
British Sea Power Do You Like Rock Music?
Burial Untrue
Elbow The Seldom Seen Kid
Estelle Shine
Last Shadow Puppets The Age of the Understatement
Laura Marling Alas I Cannot Swim
Neon Neon Stainless Style
Portico Quartet Knee Deep in the North Sea
Radiohead In Rainbows
Rachel Unthank & The Winterset The Bairns
Robert Plant & Alison Kraus Raising Sand

To further complicate matters the prize itself is named after a sponsor that no longer exists, Mercury having once been a telecoms firm. Hence all subsequent sponsors get to add their brand to one that went bust. Having a generic title gives you free rein of course and the website helpfully informs us that 'All genres of music are eligible and all albums are treated equally'.

It's hard to argue against a winner like Elbow when the judging criteria are so open. Musical taste is a subjective matter, it is tricky to evaluate the comparative merits of artists work within the same genre - so how do you decide fairly between dubstep (Burial) and folk (Laura/Rachel) or jazz (Portico)?

The formula for the shortlist seems simplistic enough: 3 x pop, 3 x indie, 2 x urban, 2 x folk and 2 x artists that no-one has ever heard of. For The Portico Quartet this year, try Zoe Rahman in 06 or Susheela Raman in 01, Thomas Ades in 99, John Tavener in 97, etc. I love the fact that it gives a spotlight to albums in an age where single-track or selective-track downloads would appear to be the future, but with only 12 they could at least all be fairly accessible?

Some artists seem to drop on the shortlist just by virtue of releasing an album - both of Arctic Monkeys releases to date (and their frontman's side-project this year), both of Amy Winehouse's but no winners, Radiohead have four appearances on 17 shortlists (five if you count Thom Yorke's solo album, on 2006's shortlist) but no winners and PJ Harvey had three until she won it in 2001, since which nada.

The classical artists may be happy to share a shortlist with their pop & rock contemporaries but none has yet lifted the trophy. Perhaps more bizarre in the year of Britpop's peak (1994) there were at least a couple of more-likely winners than M People who actually took it home.

For this reason it has always seemed a wilfully obscure award. For example they picked Badly Drawn Boy in 2000 ahead of clearly better albums by Doves & Death In Vegas. Or going with a drum n bass frenzy in 1997 picking the admittedly great Roni Size; but suggesting that 'New Forms' was better than Radiohead's 'OK Computer' or The Prodigy's 'Fat Of The Land' may have been a mistake.

If the best thing we can say about the Mercury is that it's unpredictable is that a solid enough basis for a ceremony? It throws a spotlight on a wide variety of musical titles, which is a great thing but how many of us are now inspired to go and listen to The Portico Quartet or Rachel Unthank? Sadly, me neither.

What we really need is The Sunday Mercury Music Prize. I may compile a shortlist by walking blindfolded around HMV in the Pavilions and picking up whatever CDs I knock to the floor. You can then choose the winners by drawing raffle tickets, or rolling a dice to match the number I've randomly given to each of the discs. I have a feeling it could easily be as valid as the real thing. I expect Channel 4 to commission the TV documentary shortly.

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