Sunday, 25 July 2010

The Mercury Prize 2010

It’s the time of year when a bunch of people in “the biz” put their heads together and come up with a dozen acts to put forward for the Mercury Prize (or, to give it its full title, The Barclaycard Mercury Prize). Almost as traditional as the mid-July unveiling of the list is the customary griping about the make-up of said list. People always say that Christmas seems to be getting earlier year on year, but I think the gap between the releasing of the list and the deluge of criticism of the choices is getting smaller as each twelve month passes. In fact, some music journalists on Twitter, so jaded of the inevitable impending criticism, were pretending to have a moan about the judges’ selections an hour or so before the list was made public.

So, since we’re here, why don’t we sit down, have a nice cup of tea, peruse the albums on the list and offer up our views on this year’s shortlist?

Actually, do you mind if we don’t? My opinions on the list will be incredibly similar to yours and pretty much anyone else who’s decided to vent their spleen on the subject. All critiques follow a simple formula, namely: “I’m glad they included [Band A], what are they doing including [Band B] and what kind of moron would leave out [Band C]?” My Band A, B and C are The xx, Biffy Clyro and Field Music respectively - yours will probably be different - but it’s completely immaterial really.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a piece rubbishing the prize or even the concept of it. The majority of awards are fairly meaningless, and the Mercury is better than most at making brave choices and not necessarily kowtowing to public opinion. The point is that this hackneyed, predictable cliché of dismissing the list as worthless is beyond tiresome.

As far as I can tell, anyone who writes off the list would only be happy if their favourite twelve records of the year made up the Mercury shortlist, but how realistic is that? The chances of a team of experts and professionals coming together and choosing the exact dozen you want on the list are fairly slim. Guess what, everyone, taste is subjective, and your favourite album of the year not making the cut equates to a difference of opinion rather than a failure on the part of the award.

While we’re on the subject, the whole concept of “the best album of the year” is near-impossible to pin down. How do you define “best”? Most enjoyable, most inventive, most different, most surprising or any other superlative you care to toss into the ring? Any award for the “best” anything is wildly open to interpretation: in 1997, Titanic won Best Picture at the Academy Awards, but how was that the best? If you’re judging “best” in terms of special effects or box office gross then the victory is fairly undisputable, but if you think of “best” pertaining to story or dialogue, then the success of Titanic (and subsequent nomination of Avatar for the same award in 2009) must be one of the indications of the impending apocalypse.

Critics also like to find trends amongst the winners of the Mercury prize: another pretty fruitless exercise. Attempting to apply anything remotely mathematically rigorous to such a small data set (there have been 18 winners) where the choice of who is victorious is influenced by so many external factors is essentially futile. There is a different panel of judges each year, attitudes change, scenes come and go, and if you want to predict who’s going to win this year, a look at the role call of previous champions will tell you absolutely nothing.

There is also the much-vaunted “Curse of the Mercury”: examples of acts fading into obscurity after their prize win, such as Talvin Singh and Ms. Dynamite. This was said to have been “lifted” in 2008 with the success of Elbow, but its return was heralded last year with a poor post-win sales showing from Speech Debelle. Interestingly, no-one seems to argue that a Mercury Prize win offers a significant boost in sales for an album. So, considering the fact no-one’s ever won the prize twice and a win means units shifted, it’s little surprise that follow-ups tend to relatively under-perform.

What was meant to be a defence of the Mercury Prize looks to have turns out as a defiant stance against the nay-sayers, but the point remains. The Mercury Prize is an interesting award, can lead to healthy debate and often rewards acts that look to do something out of the ordinary with their music. So, this year, let’s not pass judgement prematurely, let’s acknowledge that not everyone agrees with our own personal tastes and let’s look upon it as an opportunity to discover something that may have otherwise slipped through the cracks. The Mercury Prize has honoured fantastic artists like Suede, Pulp, PJ Harvey and Dizzee Rascal, while giving much-needed publicity to smaller acts like Burial, Fionn Regan, Seth Lakeman and, this year, Kit Downes Trio. It should be celebrated in what it seeks to do, whether we agree with the winner or not.

That said, if Corinne Bailey Rae wins on September 7, the judging panel are clearly a load of cloth-eared cretins who wouldn’t know a decent tune if it slapped them round the face of a weekend. But then again, that’s just my opinion…

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