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Why The Mercury Prize Needs To Be Put Out Of Its Misery

If last year's list was unadventurous, then this year's is positively agoraphobic.

by sam wolfson
11 September 2013, 6:32pm

Tonight, the judging panel of the Mercury Prize have not only shown that the award has ceased to be relevant but, in claiming that the nominations reflect the most "urgent" and "reflective" records of the year, have created the deeply false impression that British music has had its progressive, subcultural tendencies expunged.

This year's shortlist is largely made up of young artists that wear their establishment credentials on their sleeve. Jake Bugg proudly denounced any class or cultural interpretation of his work, repeatedly saying that he is "just a guy, playing some songs" when it's been suggested he might stand for anything at all. Disclosure have distanced themselves from the subcultural history of rave music to make "dance-influenced pop", Rudimental have softened the edges of drum and bass to create palatable, faceless radio-friendly hits. All three artists have undeniable talent, especially Disclosure who made one of our albums of the year, but all three artists have also had number one records. The idea they are "urgent" or "reflective", never mind alternative, is disingenuous.

These records are joined by globe-straddling artists like Arctic Monkeys (100,000 sales just this week) and David Bowie (you know, David fucking Bowie). Foals's impressive but stadium-y third record Holy Fire is on there as is Laura Marling's Once I Was An Eagle, a record that really didn't need to be nominated considering her last two have been. These albums would have all be fine as part of a more adventurous list, but as it stands they represent the Lauren Laverne establishment - decent records that people who still buy records bought, but entirely irrelevant to the frontline British music.

The less said about Laura Mvula and Villagers the better.

The only truly deserving records on the list are those by James Blake, Jon Hopkins and Savages. All three of these records at least attempted to brush the listener up the wrong way, to challenge and play with sound in an attempt to create something that doesn't sound like a pastiche of something that's gone before.

None of the nominees are bad albums, but every single one of them has been playlisted on 6 Music, appeared on Jools Holland or Jonathan Ross. As a list, it does little to forward or expand that cause of contemporary British music. There is not the slightest nod to the underground electronic, experimental, rap or even just youthful records that have been released in the past year.

Where is Darkstar's cinematic adventure in electronica News From Nowhere, King Krule's pained coming-of-age masterpiece 6 Feet Beneath The Moon, Melanin 9's slow-purposeful hip-hop record Magna Carta, These New Puritans's spectacularly ambitiously scored classical gloom party Field Of Reeds, Swindle's grime-jazz hybrid Long Live The Jazz, London Grammar's yearning quarter-life crisis record If You Wait, Gold Panda's euphoric Half Of Where You Live, Lapalux's frickin weird Nostalchic, Lee Gamble's Dutch Tvashar Plumes, a genuinely inventive record that doesn't sound like any other music you've heard before OR I DUNNO, A RECORD THAT'S ACTUALLY A BIT OF FUN, LIKE RINSE PRESENTS: ROYAL T?

Instead, we got a largely staid group of albums that are unrepresentative of the ethnic, age, social or musical mix of Britain (even the youngest nominee, Jake Bugg, makes old people's music.) It's a narrow view of music picked by judges of a narrow background, claiming to represent the best of British. How did it get it to this?

The Mercury Prize by Sam Taylor

The Mercury Prize started in the 90s as an alternative to the mainstream, sales-oriented Brit Awards, its varied and controversial shortlists gave a more accurate picture of the state of British music. In the 90s, it charted an alternative narrative to the dominance of Britpop, with Portishead, Gomez and Roni Size being honoured over Blur and Oasis. In the 00s, it provided an career-altering boost to Dizzee Rascal, M.I.A., Amy Winehouse and The Streets.

In 2009, it took what many perceived as a risk too far, naming Speech Debelle the winner of the prize ahead of The Horrors and Sweet Billy Pilgrim. In truth, there were no obvious winners that year, and the judges thought appropriate to use this opportunity to let one of the more left field acts win the award rather than just including them as token nod to the virginal readers of WIRE magazine.

The Mercury Prize never recovered from the Debelle debacle and over the past three years its nominees have become so painstakingly safe they're almost sedative. Last year's nominations included Ben Howard, Alt-J, Michael Kiwanuka, Lianne La Havas: some of these artists are remarkably talented, some of them made enjoyable records. But they are all heavily referential and potently inoffensive. Most pick at vintage sounds that come from an indistinguishable "past", desperately trying to reference a former authenticity of music without ever being specific about what that means.

But if last year's list was unadventurous, then this year's is positively agoraphobic. It proves that none of the judges selected each year by Simon Frith, which last year included the head of Absolute Radio and the head of Radio 2, have any desire to either challenge the establishment or even introduce people to new music.

It's intentions were good, but it's time this miserable award ceremony was locked in a room with a shotgun and bullet.

Follow Sam on Twitter @samwolfson