Mercury Prize 2013: No More Heroes Anymore?

Just what is the award for in 2013...

Now that the initial “it’s brilliant / it’s awful” Twitter-based bawling regarding this year’s Mercury Prize shortlist has subsided somewhat (find the list here), perhaps a little calm, relatively considered reflection. (This might take a while, sorry.)

Is it a terrible list? Of course it’s not. David Bowie, Jon Hopkins, Foals, Arctic Monkeys, Laura Marling, James Blake: these are excellent artists responsible for some amazing albums. They deserve to have their latest works celebrated as fine examples of their kind.

Others, too, have made indelible impressions: Disclosure (pictured) going to number one, Savages rocketing up the charts with their fiery, politically charged punk. These things happen for a reason: the quality of music, of message, on show is indubitably impressive.

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Disclosure, 'F For You', from the Mercury Prize-nominated album 'Settle' (review)

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But is this year’s Mercury shortlist one that truly, in the words of the prize’s chair of judges Simon Frith, represents a “wonderful range of musical voices… all with something intriguing to say”? Now, what’s of interest to one might well leave another cold, but to these ears there’s much on 2013’s shortlist that feels… safe. That’s the word. It’s a very safe, if not overly predictable, list of 12 albums, all of which have enjoyed pre-nomination success. Only one, Jon Hopkins’ ‘Immunity’ (review), had sold fewer than 20,000 copies globally prior to the shortlist’s announcement.

While I can’t agree with Noisey writer Sam Wolfson that the Mercury needs putting out of its misery based on this year’s pick of the bunch – read his excellent article on the list here – I do agree with his sentiment that the albums listed are unrepresentative of the “ethnic, age, social or musical mix” of today’s Britain. He states: “It’s a narrow view of music picked by judges of a narrow background.”   

The Mercury doesn’t make its panel entirely easy to discover – which is a problem. Music Week ran the list of judges for 2012 (read it here), featuring the likes of celebrated critic Jude Rogers and Radio 2 and 6 Music head of music Jeff Smith. (Yes, the head of music for Radio 2 performs the same role for 6 Music.)

But there’s no obvious mention made on the official Mercury Prize site of who put this year’s shortlist together. This lack of transparency, the opposite attitude to the similarly high-profile BBC Sound Of…, which happily reveals its contributing pundits, is surely a thorn in the side of the Mercury. It undermines the foundations on which its shortlists are based, the equivalent situation of buying a house without commissioning a suitable survey, and just assuming that if it’s standing, it’s probably okay beneath the surface.

Knowing who’s picked these albums at the time of their announcement – or, better, beforehand – would help critics like myself form a more complete picture of how certain albums have made the cut. Because, right now, I’ve no clue whatsoever how anyone working fulltime in the music industry can claim that Jake Bugg’s debut album (review) is one of the best 12 from Britain and Ireland released in the past 12 months. If you like it, cool. But let’s not kid ourselves: it’s pure pastiche, and as creatively relevant to 2013 as learning coding language for a ZX Spectrum.

Making the judges public would also open discussion for immediate improvement – there is no doubt in my mind that the Mercury needs to be based on the informed opinions of music industry professionals spanning demographics based on both genres and age. 2012’s panel was, if one may be so bold, very white, very middle-of-the-road, very safe. And the resulting shortlist was just that: very white, very middle-of-the-road, very safe.

One wonders how the Mercury would be changed if Simon Frith, respected though he is (I studied several of his texts while at university), stepped down. As a published academic voice on contemporary music since the late-‘70s, few can say he’s not played a pivotal role in taking the 1992-founded Mercury Prize from yearly alternative to the BRITs to this country’s premier album award – for better or worse, depending on your thoughts on what the Mercury should represent.

But can we, the critics who line up every year to take shots at the shortlist, really be confident that Frith is as knowledgeable on today’s more emergent scenes as he is the archaic rock styles that comprise the foundations of so many of his theoretical arguments? No, we can’t. (Can we?)

The Mercury’s increasing bias towards already successful nominees – the average charting position of this year’s albums is 10, assuming Arctic Monkeys’ ‘AM’ (review) hangs onto the top spot this week, whereas only a few years ago that average was 48 (thanks, Mitchell Stirling) – might seem inspiring to some. The thinking might be: the critical favourites are also challenging the previously pop-dominated chart landscape; the outsiders are winning the race for mainstream recognition; hooray for Jake Bugg taking “real music” to number one; and so on.

But the reality is that pop is perpetually amorphous. It shapes itself to suit the tastes of a public who are, more now than ever, informed by media outside of music: television shows and advertisements, video games, cinema releases, and recommendations via social media from firmament-established acts. Check YouTube for innumerable “Artist X sent me here” comments. Sure, that’s great for occasionally discovering something new, but sadly it’s a case of crap begets crap all too often.

Yet perhaps this year’s shortlisting of predominantly successful bands is indicative not of a deliberate judging panel penchant for nailing gold-and-above-selling acts to the Mercury mast, but of something rather wider-reaching across today’s society. Perhaps this list is truly coloured by the austerity that informs so many of our monetary choices. Talked-up on social media as potential nominees, Leeds outfit Hookworms didn’t even enter the race – entrance to the Mercury party costing £204 (£170 plus VAT) and requiring the submission of five albums on CD (how else is the panel going to listen to everything?). The simple reason: they didn’t think they could afford it.

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These New Puritans, 'Fragment Two', from the non-Mercury Prize-nominated 'Field Of Reeds' (review)

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Might’ve-been contenders These New Puritans – who tweeted after the announcement, “not ‘industry’ enough” – and Outfit did enter the running. That neither made the cut is a shame to fans, of course. But to sit and ruminate on the myriad albums that could have made the 12 is to go slowly mad. Outfit’s label, Double Denim, is a small operation indeed, and that entrance outlay will be felt. But the rewards had the band made the shortlist would have been enormous indeed. Get on the shortlist, say hello to a wealth of extra sales. Well, streams, I suppose. This being an age of austerity and all.

A common criticism of the Mercury is that it’s never looked to metal for a nominated album. Biffy Clyro, Therapy? and Muse have all been shortlisted in the past – but as the birthplace of heavy metal, it’s reasonable to think that a British (and Irish) music prize might have a little place in its heart for one of our greatest musical exports.

George Garner, reviews editor at Kerrang! magazine, identifies two albums that could well have contested this year’s Mercury: Black Sabbath’s ‘13’ (review) and Bring Me The Horizon’s ‘Sempiternal’. The former was a huge critical hit on its June release, and went straight to number one, keeping Beady Eye off the top spot. The latter has a Metacritic score of 81, indicating “universal acclaim”. That’s a higher aggregated score than those achieved by 2013 nominees Rudimental, Jake Bugg, Laura Mvula, Foals and Villagers. So why doesn’t the Mercury ‘do’ metal? Can it be as simple as the fact that nobody on the panel likes metal? What a tragic thought that is, for a British and Irish music prize.

Overlooked in 2013, too, are the folk and jazz genres. They might not have stood a snowball’s chance in hell of winning in previous years, but every one of the shortlisted jazz acts, from Courtney Pine (1996) to Guy Barker (2002), Polar Bear (2005) to Roller Trio (2012), has benefited from the experience. They enjoyed unprecedented exposure, attracting greater interest from listeners beyond the jazz community.

Can any album on 2013’s list, perhaps excepting Jon Hopkins’ masterful ‘Immunity’, really claim to be an undiscovered gem? And Hopkins has previous Mercury form, anyway – the producer was shortlisted for his collaboration with King Creosote, ‘Diamond Mine’, in 2011. There’s, arguably, not even an Alt-J (winners in 2012) kind of ostensibly indie act: one that’s at least attempting to push towards the boundaries of their chosen field.

Returning to the second paragraph of this piece: nothing on show in 2013 doesn’t deserve some sort of congratulatory recognition. Even Jake Bugg’s nostalgia-laced material possesses an infectious energy that can’t be denied, unless you’re a real grouch. But inarguably there are few amongst the spot-lit 12 doing anything new. Exceptional artists some certainly are, but there’s nothing overly outstanding in the latest LPs from Laura Marling, Foals and Villagers that didn’t already exist in their previous collections. All three, like Hopkins, are previously nominated. Insert your own “if they didn’t win then…” comment, right here.

Drowned in Sound reviews editor Andrzej Lukowski tweeted on this year’s shortlist: “It feels the lists have grown more straightforward indie as straightforward indie has declined in popularity.” It’s an opinion that chimes with Wolfson’s – the crux being that, perhaps, this isn’t the right Mercury panel for our time. A time where styles change in heartbeats, mutating in the online space, through cross-continental splicing facilitated by super-fast broadband and irrepressible appetites to hear something fresh in an age of too-easy digital replication.

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Mansun, 'Being A Girl (Part One)', edited from the never-Mercury Prize-nominated album 'Six'

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Or, perhaps, the records on show simply aren’t as bold, as ground-breaking, as the contemporary critic wants them to be? Mansun’s second album, ‘Six’, turned 15 years old this week. Its co-chief architect, band frontman Paul Draper, has written on inspirational aspects of the album on Drowned in Sound: read that piece here. In it, he states: “I was trying to be artistic, rather than commercial, on the ‘Six’ record.” Nevertheless, the album easily broke the UK top 10, attracted a wealth of critical acclaim, and spawned a number of high-charting singles. It was both an artistic and commercial triumph; a major-label LP that is utterly baffling, bewildering, and completely beguiling to this day. All of its secrets, wrapped tightly in prog-rock-goes-nuclear packaging, may never be revealed.

So where are today’s Mansun-like bands – acts with a sizeable fanbase (Mansun’s debut album, ‘Attack Of The Grey Lantern’, was a number one in 1997) who are legitimately striving to offer something different from their peers? (However much you listen to ‘Six’, it still sounds like nothing else released around it – out at the same time were the Manics’ ‘This Is My Truth Show Me Yours’, Belle And Sebastian’s ‘The Boy With The Arab Strap’, Embrace’s ‘The Good Will Out’ and PJ Harvey’s ‘Is This Desire?’.)

You could argue Wild Beasts is a big act trying something different. Mercury nominations: one, for 2009’s ‘Two Dancers’. Late Of The Pier certainly stirred things up as nu-rave exploded around them in 2008, with their album ‘Fantasy Black Channel’ a hit with critics and going top 30, but failing to attract the attentions of the Mercury panel, who that year gave the prize to Elbow. (Lovely chaps, certainly, but as envelope pushing in music as cheese on toast is to cutting-edge cuisine.)

From 2013, there’s… there’s… Well, These New Puritans are out there, alone, at the fringes of a sound entirely their own. But it’s a confusing one: Clash’s own muddled review almost comically compares ‘Field Of Reeds’ to ‘Kid A’-era Radiohead. Again, one opinion is just that, sometimes at the expense of a wider editorial team’s feelings.

A lot of support was evident for Steve Mason, formerly of The Beta Band, the hugely influential act of the late-‘90s and early ‘00s that earned a total of… zero Mercury Prize nominations. One can begin to understand the frustration of Mason’s fanbase, frankly. His ‘Monkey Minds In The Devil’s Time’ LP is amongst 2013’s more singularly inspired collections. Where are Boards Of Canada, or Pet Shop Boys, or Forest Swords, or F*ck Buttons, or… And so on.

But, again, let’s not dwell on what’s not, and focus on what is: a definite shortage of heroes, of inspirational outfits achieving Mercury attention, the kind that could stir within an upcoming act the belief that they, too, could progress from underground sounds to the world’s biggest stages – or, at least, proximity to them via association with a few of Britain and Ireland’s biggest. What’s become of the less-likely-tos, the acts – like The Invisible and Sweet Billy Pilgrim (2009), Maps (2007), Ghostpoet (2011) and then-relative-unknowns Gomez (1998’s winners) – that can come from nowhere to catalyse a crowd of margins-occupying creative crews to go further, to do better, to be more? What would the British music industry be like if 2014’s new breed comprised a crop of Bugg wannabes, really?

Two years ago I defended (on the now-dead but still-accessible BBC Music Blog) the Mercury Prize’s position as a vital contributor to the evolution of British music – still the most progressive, powerful sounds on the planet. But if its shortlists grow more homogenised, representative only of the already-achieving rather than the deserving-to, what then? My snap judgement on 2013’s list was to tweet that the Prize had gone to (nominations venue) the Hospital Club only to die this year (oh, haha) – but I take that back. The Mercury doesn’t need someone to put it out of its misery, as per Wolfson’s Noisey article. It needs someone to keep it on life support until we can inject some life back into proceedings.

Let Disclosure, or Bowie, or Jon Hopkins win. They’re all worthy. But then let’s draw a line under what the Mercury really needs to stand for: “a wonderful range of musical voices – urgent, reflective, upbeat and tender, acoustic and electronic, and all with something intriguing to say.” Let’s see 2014’s panel take these words from Simon Frith’s mouth and actually apply them to their process. And let’s see who they are, and why they’re choosing these albums.

Let’s make heroes of those that stand in such incredible positions of influence. They have the potential to be gatekeepers of brilliance, to expose the beautiful to audiences worthy of such craft and creativity. This year, they’ve either slept on so much, or been given so little to work with. We may never know. But let’s never have it this way again.

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Jon Hopkins, 'Open Eye Signal', from the Mercury Prize-nominated album 'Immunity' (review)

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Jake Bugg photo: Richard Gray

Disclosure photo: George Harvey

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Below: stream tracks from this year's Mercury Prize shortlist via Deezer.

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