The Mercury Prize: Too Safe? - Articles - Soundblab

The Mercury Prize: Too Safe?

by Rich Morris Rating: Release Date:

It's a funny old thing, the Mercury Prize. It's never been cool; in fact, it definitively blew any chances of being cool in 1994, when it passed over the likes of Blur, Pulp and Elastica to give the gong to house-pop sax-brandishers M People. However, as that little anecdote demonstrates, it has at least always been entertaining and perhaps even endearing, two qualities which make it much more of a British institution than the woe-begotten Brit Awards. No one bothers trying to predict who'll win at the Brits, the way they undoubtedly will in pubs up and down the country following this week's announcement of the 2011 Mercury nominations.

Yet the very thing which made the Mercury worth following seems to have been tossed out the window this year. Casting an eye over the shortlist, it's hard to pinpoint where the award's traditional leftfield contenders are at. Unlike the Brits, where an Aphex Twin or a MIA might make up the numbers in various nominations, with the Mercury there's always the chance some complete random might walk away with the prize: witness Talvin Singh in 1999 or Speech Debelle a decade later. Chances are you'd never heard of them before and have heard little about them since, except as useful examples of the Mercury's whimsical penchant for rewarding the underdog. But, thanks to the Mercury, they got their brief moment in the spotlight and their record sales were boosted accordingly.

This year's list, however, seems strangely on the safe side, almost as if those compiling it hadn't really got to grips with what the Mercury is about. It's not that there's anything intrinsically wrong with the likes of Adele, Katy B and Tinie Tempah being on there; as pop acts go they've each got something unique about them which you won't find in a lot of chart music. But why Katy B and not Magnetic Man? Are these acts' albums genuinely among the brightest and best released in the last year?

The same goes for previous winners Elbow and PJ Harvey. Harvey's album Let England Shake has been hailed almost ubiquitously as a masterpiece, including on Soundblab. Guy Garvey's band, meanwhile, had the crowd at Glasto comfortably in the palm of their hand. But, really, these acts have had plenty of plaudits over the years, chiefly from the Mercury itself. At least, on the rock front, Anna Calvi's debut album makes an appearance, although the music she makes is not a million miles from that on Let England Shake.

And so you look through the list thinking, why James Blake and not Gagarin or Dam Mantle? Why Metronomy and not Fujiya & Miyagi? Why Everything Everything and not Is Tropical? Okay, the likes of King Creosote & Jon Hopkins, rapper Ghostpoet and pianist and composer Gwilym Simcock bring some flavour to the blandness, but otherwise it's like those compiling the list just had a quick flick through the music mags to check what was hot. There's nothing really wrong with the list but many of those in it are just the most prominent in their chosen genre - not necessarily the best, or the most innovative.

Let's hope this a blip because it could have a serious impact on the way people view the Mercury Prize. Right now, even people who scorn music awards care who wins at the Mercury (though they may deny it) because it's the one awards bash which seems to actively reward difference. If it loses that then it's just another industry event slapping the backs of the biggest and most hyped. And that would be a real shame.

Mercury Prize 2011 nominees

Adele - 21

Anna Calvi - Anna Calvi

Elbow - Build a Rocket Boys!

Everything Everything - Man Alive

Ghostpoet - Peanut Butter Blues and Melancholy Jam

Gwilym Simcock - Good Days at Schloss Elmau

James Blake - James Blake

Katy B - On a Mission

King Creosote & Jon Hopkins - Diamond Mine

Metronomy - The English Riviera

PJ Harvey - Let England Shake

Tinie Tempah - Disc-Overy

Comments (0)

There are no comments posted here yet