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By James Benge
So once more the Mercury Prize, the award that claims to be the thinking man’s Brits, has returned to judge the 12 best British albums of the past year. The Mercury Prize seems tailored to stir up controversy and debate and this year is no different. Twitter has been covered in a barrage of complaints and furious Bring Me The Horizon fans bemoaning the continued lack of metal. But what is different this year is just how average the shortlist is. Last year the decline was becoming apparent, Dizzee Rascal’s worst album yet shouldn’t have been nominated, but this year the state of British music seems all the worse. 21, Man Alive, Disc-Overy: are these really the best albums in Britain? Surely not?
Obviously every year as much of the reaction over the shortlist is as much about what is missing as what is not. And granted there are some major oversights. Anyone who can explain why Farris Rotter hasn’t found himself on the list for either the wonderful alternative pop of Cat’s Eyes or the modern interpretation of shoegaze that is Skying deserves the award themselves. Wild Beasts, who had every right to feel robbed when Two Dancers didn’t pick up last year’s prize, also deserve to be nominated for the magnificent Smother. But these two aside are there any really surprising absences from the list?
Which brings us to the list itself: a list full of the mediocre, underwhelming and banal. What’s particularly discouraging about this list is how it seems to be exactly what a group of Radio 1 controllers would come up with if locked away in a broom cupboard for ten minutes. Take Adele’s 21, definitive proof that the British public are truly idiotic and have come to much prefer having their emotions drilled into them by X Factor warblers.
The Mercury Prize has often prided itself on introducing the British public to new, exciting music and undervalued treasures, giving a commercial leg up to magnificently talented but criminally underrated artists. The fact that in 2005 Anthony and the Johnson’s jumped 119 places in the albums chart in a week is proof that a Mercury can take artists to a new commercial plain. But there don’t seem many artists who could do with a commercial boost, Metronomy and Anna Calvi maybe, but otherwise it seems a list of mega sellers, previous winners and the token obscure jazz act (sorry Gwilym Simcock). Elbow hardly need a leg-up again and James Blake doesn’t need any more critics slathering over him.
There is one notable exception to my rant, PJ Harvey’s sublime Let England Shake, not just the best album of the year but an album that already deserves the tag ‘masterpiece’. Unfortunately Harvey has already won for Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea so whilst she might be favourite with the bookies I would doubt she will be taking home the prize.
The Mercury panel prides themselves on picking a group of albums that represent the British music scene as it is today. I suppose in that case you can’t really blame them for the 12 albums they’ve selected. Look at the charts, look in the music press, check the blogosphere. It’s all pretty drab in this country at the moment. If you want my advice go and listen to The English Riviera and hear everything that can be great about popular British music. Then go put a tenner on it to win and hope the judges see sense and give this band the commercial boost they richly deserve.
Who do you think should win this year’s Mercury? Comment or tweet us (@OxStuMusic)