After being broadcast on Channel 4 for the past three years, 2015’s Mercury Prize has returned to the BBC, celebrating the ‘Albums of the Year’ from the past twelve months. And our beloved Beeb didn’t half shout about it. The BBC set up an online live blog to hype up nomination announcements as they came in, revelled up in all their excitable glory as they were revealed by Lauren Laverne on Radio 6 Music. As always, Twitter was rife with speculations and bets seeping in from every music publication (and just about anyone who fancied shouting about it) as to who would make the shortlist of this year’s ‘best’ twelve British and Irish albums. And what of the shortlist? It is, of course, as eclectic as ever. Because that’s the Mercury’s thing, isn’t it? They don’t go for the obvious. The Mercury seems to pride itself on choosing somewhat underground, or – dare I say it – ‘edgy’ artists, many of whom, in most likelihood, even the keenest Radio 6 Music listener will not have heard of prior to the announcement.
Amongst the twelve nominated albums, seven are debuts. These newbies stand against artists like Florence and the Machine – who has been selling out arenas for a couple of years, now – and the well-established Róisín Murphy and Gaz Coombes (initially of Supergrass fame). This ‘range’ of albums suggests that the Mercury Prize is an enigmatically diverse award, seeking out the best of British music rather than drawing attention to acts whom everyone’s already been talking about all year. And so we come to respect the Mercury. We’re talking about serious music here.
But the prize is hardly faultless. If you take just a few of the albums on the list, we’re comparing Aphex Twin’s dance-y, intricate Syro with the gritty punk of Slaves’ Are You Satisfied; Jamie XX’s clubtechno In Colour with the comparatively dulcet, thoughtful tones of SOAK’s Before We Forgot How To Dream; Wolf Alice’s grungy, angst-filled My Love Is Cool with the atmospheric soul of Eska’s self-titled release. This diversity is often said to be the greatest thing about the prize. But how can anyone be asked to compare these albums, to choose a ‘best’, when their end results – these soundwaves that we’re basing this all on – sound so different? Not to mention how distinct the craftsmanship and creative process behind each album must be. By choosing a winner, are the panel also declaring a rulebook on how best to ‘do’ art?
Even amongst this haphazardous thrill of mishmashed genres, not everyone is represented. No classical album has been nominated for the Mercury Prize since 2002, and a metal album has never made the shortlist. In a current music scene which seems saturated with indierock outfits, is it really representative to arguably have just one band – Wolf Alice – represent the lot?
Last year Edinburgh-based Young Fathers won the Mercury with their socio-political hiphop-come-electro godsend of a debut, Dead. This year’s second album, White Men Are Black Men Too is perhaps better than their debut. It is starker, richer, and even more intelligently-written and politically-driven than the first, which was deemed ‘Album of the Year’. If the Mercury Prize really is only about the music that has been released this year, with no comparisons to external ideas, it’s not ridiculous to say White Men should also have been nominated. But the organisers seem pretty set on introducing new names to us all the time, with PJ Harvey the only artist to have ever been awarded the prize more than once.
In contrast, reviews deemed Florence and the Machine’s How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful her weakest album yet. She still has the huge songs, and instrumentally has stepped up her game, but the album is not as succinct as either of her previous endeavours. Debut Lungs was nominated for the prize in 2009, but is Florence’s nomination this time around suggesting that How Big is a better album than 2011’s Ceremonials? Because critical reviews would suggest otherwise; something doesn’t quite fit.
At the crux of this, I’m asking why we feel the need to rank these albums at all. It is near impossible to discern boundaries and gradients to an ideal as subjective as music. As humans, we feel the need to rank these things, give them figures, finite values, when the whole point of making music is to move beyond nominal figures, and transcend ideas into something numbers and rankings can’t touch.
I suppose following the Mercury shortlist is a bloody easy way to listen to some high-class music if you’ve been asleep for the last year, though. And, well, I just cannot wait to see whether Richard D. James (Aphex Twin) will make a very rare public appearance at the ceremony come 20th November.