What do Take That, Radiohead, The Spice Girls and Underworld have in common?
They’ve all been nominated for the prestigious Mercury Music Prize.
It’s also perhaps the only common link between underground Asian dance-dub trio Black Star Liner and pop star Robbie Williams: the former’s second album was shortlisted in 1999, while the latter’s debut solo album was shortlisted in 1998.
Nothing better fuels the ‘pop versus indie’ debate than the Mercury Music Prize, as this tweet about the 2016 result exemplifies:
Are they joking!?!? Bowie loses out to Skepta?!? Sorry but that is an even worse decision than when M People won #MercuryPrize
— Rebecca Carr (@debesleycarr) September 15, 2016
This was my own restrained reaction to the 2017 shortlist:
Mercury Prize shortlist is a bit of a puzzler. pic.twitter.com/rW4kr3QUCk
— Joe Donnelly (@kildarejoe) July 27, 2017
The annual accolade bags the winner €25,000, plus a massive boost in album sales, even though it’s often been regarded as a kiss of death.
Some feel it has cursed certain artists, who faded into obscurity immediately after the win. You could possibly point to the 2007 and 2009 winners, Klaxons and Speech Debelle, as prime examples.
The shortlist – and winner – is decided by a group of musicians, critics, industry professionals, and so on.
On Thursday the 2018 finalists were announced, it’s fair to say the reaction was negative. UK garage rock band Shame – whose superb debut didn’t get shortlisted – tweeted this:
hope this ‘noel gallagher’ fella brings home the award for the lesser known artists
— shame (@shamebanduk) July 26, 2018
On The Last Word, John Caddell told Susan Keogh that it’s not really a ‘best album of the year’ contest, but a ‘best album of all the albums submitted by record labels’ competition, his point being that the Mercury Prize doesn’t truly represent the breadth of diversity and talent of the year’s album releases.
Labels must pay to submit their artists. Yes, the shortlist almost always contains ‘fringe’ genres of music, such as jazz, folk revival, world music, and so on. However, mainstream pop acts have also been nominated: the Spice Girls in 1997, Simply Red in 1992, Ed Sheeran last year.
You’d have thought Blur’s Parklife would have stood a chance of winning in 1994, but much to the surprise – and horror – of many music fans, M People won with their album Elegant Slumming. Still, as ultimate hen party albums go, it’s up there with the best.
But who said the Mercury Prize is ‘exclusively’ for alternative music? According to its website, the prize promotes ‘the best of UK and Irish music and the artists who produce it... recognising artistic achievement across a range of contemporary music genres.’
Fair enough, but then it also states: ‘It is the music equivalent to the Booker Prize for literature and the Turner Prize for art.’ Hang on, if Noel Gallagher’s most recent offering is the album equivalent of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi or John Banville’s The Sea, then I’m a monkey’s uncle.
Is Coldplay’s X&Y artistically comparable to the work of Steve McQueen or Damien Hirst? It is in its arse.
This year’s nominees include Florence + the Machine, an artist some critics would accuse of peddling bland mid-table pop rock, and Arctic Monkeys, whose album received very mixed reviews and can hardly be considered in the same league as their Mercury-winning debut.
Wolf Alice are also nominated this year, an act that dropped by Today FM recently and performing this stunning and stripped-back version of their track 'Dont Delete the Kisses':
Lily Allen has also been nominated this year, but I won’t hear a bad word said about her seeing as she once replied to a tweet I sent her, and obviously she instantly became one of my best friends.
(we were going to link the tweet but her Twitter account has mysteriously been taken down this morning)
So, is the Mercury Prize still relevant in an age of music streaming and blurred lines between pop and indie? Of course, it is. People still buy albums, don’t mind what the scoffers on Twitter say.
Golden Discs recorded a €12m turnover last year, and the company puts a lot of that result down to vinyl sales. The Mercury Prize is as relevant as ever for one specific reason: it constantly challenges our perceptions and tastes. What a dull world it would be if we were never exposed to new and interesting styles of music, or conventional thinking was never challenged.
And who do I think will win the 2018 prize? Your guess is as good as mine, but of all the albums I’ve listened to on this year’s shortlist, my favourite is Nadine Shah’s Holiday Destination. Check it out, you won’t be disappointed