Thursday, July 22, 2004

The Mercury Music Prize

Having a pop at the Mercury Music Prize has long since become a cheap shot, and before I launch into my rant at this year's shortlist I would like to make it clear that I have absolutely nothing against the prize itself, or indeed awards ceremonies in general. I see nothing wrong in quality British music being recognised in the form of an award, even if that is usually merely the corollary of some self-congratulatory industry back-patting. I also see absolutely nothing wrong with the token jazz and folk entries and have no problem with radically different strands of music being judged against each other. Quality is quality in any genre - and what the prize should be recognising is an album that has had a major impact. The problem with these token entries is that, as yet, the judges have not had the courage to award the prize to one of them. In 1998, a brave (and arguably accurate) decision would have been to give the award to John Surman's remarkable Proverbs and Songs.

My main problem with the shortlist this year is actually in its subtle rejection of the conscious diversity that has made previous shortlists commendable. I concede that dance, R&B, rock and pop are all represented, but only in their most mainstream form. Where Belle and Sebastian were once a whimsical indie cult, they are now a highly successful pop group strongly favoured by radio 2. Much as I admire their energy and intelligence, I still do not believe that Franz Ferdinand is the best British indie-rock album of the last twelve months. It is too one-dimensional a record. As for The Streets and Amy Winehouse, their nominations were the most crushingly predictable and the most banal. Whilst I voiced mere agnosticism towards the first Streets album, I am now entirely convinced that they are the most contrived and overrated musical prospect around. Producing music completely derived from R&B, garage and other urban genres, they are producing a neutered version of these sounds for critics and listeners unable to appreciate the original forms. 'Dry Your Eyes' is tepid, insipid and entirely devoid of merit, whilst 'Fit But You Know It' seems to me to be an utterly charmless novelty record. As for the lyrics, being dumped by your girlfriend with only a rhyming dictionary as a parting shot does not decent poetry make. Winehouse appeals because she is feisty and female - but there must be more deserving female songwriting talent around. Her voice is distinctive only because it is gratingly nasal - her 'feminine' qualities characterised by angst and man-baiting rather than anything more emotionally questioning. The music is merely bland and unremarkable. Are we really expected to get excited about this as music lovers? These albums seem to be alike in their lowest common denominator appeal rather than their cultual and musical diversity.

So where then, are the great achivements in British music in the last twelve months. If The Streets represent an appropriation of urban and electronic forms - why not select an album that pulls off a similar trick with humour and originality - Hot Chip's genuinely marvelous bedroom gem 'Coming on Strong'. There are no real jazz albums on this list - Robert Wyatt's 'Cuckooland' is certainly jazz inflected, but it is not a straight jazz album. Where then are Denys Baptiste's wonderfully swinging evocation of the Martin Luther King on 'Let Freedom Ring'. What about the fine songwriting in the folk tradition on recent albums from Adem and Polly Paulusma? What about Dani Siciliano's debut, which benefits from the production genius of her partner Matthew Herbert (another key figure in British music to be completely ignored by the prize) and very deftly melds jazz, electronica and soul? What about Elbow's 'Cast of Thousands', an improvement on their impressive debut and a record with a very subtle and bewitching mix of influences with unusual rhythms and textures. Even Broadcast's atmospheric and unsettling 'Ha Ha Sound' would have been a welcome inclusion on the shortlist.

As it stands, the list seems horribly biased in favour of hip-young gunslingers with whom critics are uncontrollably besotted. I do wonder whether the likes of Franz, The Streets, Winehouse, Keane et al will really have any lasting influence. There is only one artist on the shortlist whose influence is unquestionable and whose current album is genuinely impressive - and that is Robert Wyatt. 'Cuckooland' is the work of an artist set completely apart from short-term musical trends or patterns. It is set apart from lifestyle genres or the current generation so cruelly patronised by the NME. It is politically astute, brilliantly arranged and strikingly honest. Wyatt is never anything other than self-effacing. He claims it would be a 'disgrace' were he to win. He needn't worry. He will not win the award.

My money is with Amy Winehouse. The Streets and Franz Ferdinand would be too predictable, and Keane are just simply too dull and earnest. I live in hope that Wyatt will win, whether he wants to or not.

Anyway, rant over - I can now get on with the business of writing about more music I've bought recently...

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