Sunday Special: Mercury Music Prize

The Mercury Prize is probably still the big deal as far as UK music awards go, which is strange, considering the amount of times they give it to the wrong album just to make a splash. That’s the nature of a private judge based system, and credit to them for doing something a bit different, but let’s be honest, it’s led to some clangers. Like the last couple of years however, there were a couple of top albums on the shortlist this time out, so that’s something to get as excited about as the eventual winner. I’ll get straight to the unsubstantiated opinionating, since that’s apparently what I’m best at and I’m unlikely to hurt too many feelings.

I know this is going to come off as reactionary and deliberately contrary, but the new voting system is total garbage. Only six albums of the final twelve make it through to the “final” stage, the public was asked to vote for one to join the selected five. This is dumb for a variety of reasons. Either something is on the shortlist, or it is not. Either it is the best album of the year, in which case it will be in the final five anyway, or it is not. It is a system that does not provide any additional exposure to smaller artists, instead basically guaranteeing that The 1975 were going to be in the final list no matter what, due to the capital and label power behind them. Also, it was confusing; at first it was splattered all around that all six artists were going to be public vote dependant, then it transpired later that only one would be. What is the point of that? It’s a really bad system. Get rid of it, go back to the old one.

In case you wanted to know, the six albums that didn’t make the cut were by The Comet Is Coming, Anohni, Jamie Woon, Kano, Bat for Lashes and Savages. The six that did were from David Bowie, Radiohead, Skepta, Michael Kiwanuka, The 1975 and Laura Mvula. For me (with apologies to Kiwanuka and Mvula, who would be casualties of war in this scenario), you could swap those lists round and it would make for a much more exciting, original and high quality short-shortlist. Perhaps that’s why I’m not a judge.

I’m not going to go through every album like I did previously, (for one reason, because there’s three I’ll admit I’ve not listened through to) but I’ll throw out some observations. Firstly, the Bowie questions: given that he never bloody turned up anyway, wouldn’t it have been amazing to give him the award after he died? A fitting tribute. It would have been cliche as all heck though, and whilst Bowie’s hauntingly beautiful musical last will and testament is a great album, I don’t think it was the best album of the year. I did find the suggestion that Bowie would have wanted Skepta to win absolutely laughable though. I know Jarvis Cocker is a britpop legend and all that, but he does talk some absolute gibberish sometimes (okay, maybe more than just sometimes). Anyway they couldn’t have given him the prize because it wouldn’t have been seen as “cutting edge”, so that was never going to happen.

I really like Jamie Woon’s Making Time, it made my top ten fave albums last year. I’m a big fan of Bat For Lashes, as well. That said, there were a couple of albums that I felt were more deserving of the award, for slightly different reasons. These were Anohni’s Hopelessness and The Comet is Coming’s Channel the Spirits. You could make arguments for Mvula, Kiwanuka and the Savages as being truly unique artists making special music and I’d hear them for any one of those guys, but Comet legitimately are the most absurd musical experiment on this list. The fact that they often sound absolutely amazing while doing it is a testament to the brilliance of both the idea and the execution. It’s alien, and it’s special, and I’m just happy it made the twelve, but it would have been an ace winner. Hopelessness is more conventional in format and musicality, but it’s the message(s) that mean it deserves to be shouted about non-stop. Any album that is this lyrically bold and stark, that can get you singing along to a track about quite literally burning the world down, deserves serious recognition. It’s in your face because it has to be, because these issues are genuinely important, and it’s a brilliant musical ode to them. Giving it the prize would have been the statement move, in my eyes.

A word on the winner. I’m happy that British grime is getting the recognition it deserves, because people like Wiley (and Skepta and Kano, to be fair) have been pounding the pavement for too freaking long with basically no mainstream recognition which is a crime, and it’s great that this award is for them. That said, if this is the best album that grime has to offer this year, I’ve got a pretty good shot at winning the award next year. It has some moments, but there’s only one really fun track on it, ‘Numbers’ which has a bit of joy and character to it in an album that otherwise has one tone, which is being hardcore and knowing the score. As a result, for the most part, I found Konnichiwa pretty self-indulgent and repetitive. People can shout that I’m hardly a big supporter of grime, but it wasn’t even the best grim album on the shortlist! Kano’s Made In The Manor had more lyrical interest and sonic variety in the first two songs alone, and is a much more clever and enjoyable album. The production sparkles on multiple tracks, there’s a lot to be said for additional variety, and Kano’s patter is absolutely on song from soup to nuts. It’s a great listen, and I would genuinely recommend it, grime fan or no.

Looking forward, we’ve already established that I’m going to be in the final six, along with whoever next year’s golden oldie will be (I’m thinking Boy Gearge). On a serious note, I really hope that one day this award will acknowledge the existence of dance/electronic music (no, James Blake doesn’t really count). I’m not optimistic, as this is an institution that passed over Music for the Jilted Generation and Dig your own hole for M People and Reprezent (that should tell you all you need to know), but it’s getting kind of ridiculous now. I’m rooting for the Squarepusher win next year, and that’s why I shouldn’t gamble.

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