The relentless march of digital technology may well be upturning old archetypes on a daily basis, but awards are important. They’re a marker of progress, a symbol of empowerment, a nice thing to put on your shelf.
The Hyundai Mercury Prize has always felt a little bit more important than the rest – in part because there’s only one winner, in part due to its panel of artists, producers, and broadcasters, and in part because of it’s ability to look beyond fashion and trends to pick out some wilfully left field choices.
This year’s shortlist feels sadly absent of this freethinking. Announced a few moments ago, it contains some absolute pearls, but these are over-shadowed by a predilection to return to big names rather lift up new talent, seeking out flashy attractions rather than platforming fresh names.
There’s a lot of positives to be taken from the list. Nadine Shah is a national treasure, Sons Of Kemet are an apt choice to represent the waves of creativity emanating from UK jazz, while Novelist’s place with a self-released record is a tribute to the South London rapper’s hard fought independence.
It’s impossible to ignore that Wolf Alice are becoming a generation-defining rock band, while Jorja Smith’s talent is undeniable, and King Krule’s ‘The Ooz’ was a singular, entrancing, magnetic experience.
But the inclusion of so many artists on their third – or more! - album is a symptom of supporting the establishment rather than broadening its scope and identity. Florence + The Machine, Arctic Monkeys, Noel Gallagher, and Lily Allen hardly gain anything from their place on the list – a case could be put for each album, but including this grouping en masse simply excludes new talent, groups who desperately need some sort of foothold in a perilous music landscape that increasingly favours the monied over the talented.
Where are Shame, for example, the South London group whose searing, politicised debut album lit up the opening months of 2018? Where are Hookworms, the Domino-backed group whose links to the DIY underground are pretty much without question? Where are The Magic Gang, Goat Girl, Sacred Paws, and countless other figures operating on the margins, each of whom would arguably benefit more from this spot than an arena-filling act who doesn’t need, require, or particularly wish for more exposure?
Furthermore, other than Novelist’s rightfully hailed debut this year’s Mercury shortlist almost entirely dodges club culture. Where in the past the Mercury has shone a light on electronic innovation – from Roni Size / Reprazant’s win onwards – this year the list feels more reserved, more guitar-heavy than it has in some time.
When Clash compiled our own wish-list we included albums from both Jon Hopkins and Leon Vynehall, not because we felt genre merited their inclusion but because both have simply crafted some of the finest, most absorbing music in their field over the past 12 months.
Where Jon Hopkins matched hallucinogenic tapestries to exquisite technical nous Leon Vynehall sought out personal inspiration, producing a pair of releases that rank with anything on the Mercury shortlist.
Finally, we must highlight a pair of albums that blast firmly into their own space, lacking any kind of genre tag to place them under. SOPHIE’s debut album and Let’s Eat Grandma’s ‘I’m All Ears’ are truly breathtaking experiences, aural feasts that we’re only just beginning to fully assess in scope and impact.
Neatly joined by SOPHIE’s involvement in Let’s Eat Grandma’s music, the two are absolutely wonderful experiences, inhabiting their own worlds but connected by the most beguiling – if slender – of bridges.
It’s almost impossible to get an award shortlist fully right – after all, it’s music at its most subjective, the source of countless pub arguments for onlookers, let alone for those involved. Yet after Skepta’s surging victory, and Sampha’s emotional triumph, this year’s shortlist feels a little lacking, blessed with a slightly less excitement than previous instalments.
These are tough times to be an independent artist – fortune favours the bold, but the digital climate seems to increasingly favour the rich, the prominent, the established. With a shortlist that favours the mainstream over the margins, the Hyundai Mercury Prize has missed out on a potent opportunity to speak up for artists increasingly disenfranchised by the industry.
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