My word, is it that time of year again already? Today the nominations for the Mercury Music Prize album shortlist have been announced (live on facebook! how refreshingly ‘now’!). I’m writing this first paragraph in advance of the actual nominations themselves, partly to save time, but also to see if I can guess in advance which bands will be picked. So, my predictions are that amongst the nominees there will be at least one of each of the following categories:
A Token ‘Jazzy’ Act: The Mercury’s sense of righteous self-esteem rests on the fact that the nominations are a critics’ choice, rather than an outright popularity contest like so many other prizes tend to be at the moment: “get a million of your fans to register their emails on our ad-funded website and we’ll give you a meaningless title and an afternoon in a recording studio (but of course you’ll have to pay for mixing and mastering yourself)”. As a result the nominations usually try far too hard to seem ‘diverse’ and ‘open’; with all genres making an appearance. Inevitably this manifests in the shortlist with the inclusion of an ‘innovative’ jazz band, often announcing their traditional jazz credibility by including ‘trio’ or ‘quartet’ in their name, but at the same time being different enough from real jazz to be ‘cool’: 2010 – Kit Downes Trio, 2009 – Led Bib, 2008 – Portico Quartet, 2007 – Basquiat Strings, 2006 – Zoe Rahman, 2005 – Polar Bear, 2004 – does Robert Wyatt count? I’m not sure. (I have also heard people describe ’04 nominee Jos Stone as ‘Jazzy’, but only by people with no ears…), 2003 – Soweto Kinch, 2002 – Guy Barker and Joanna MacGregor… and so on and so forth. (I’ll stop there because there wasn’t really a jazzy one in 2001, and being the sprightly youngster that I am, I was never really aware of the Mercurys in the nineties.)
A Token ‘Folky’ Act: I have a friend who runs a folk night in London who was recently ‘fraped’ by a mischievous soul who simply wrote ‘Mumford and Sons’ as his status. Needless to say, the folkie was apoplectic with rage and genre-based fury. So to say that the Mumfords were last year’s token ‘folk’ act is perhaps slightly controversial, but then such is the nature of the Mercury’s taste for what many call ‘folk’. Myself, I like the Mumfords, but if they have anything to do with a folk tradition it’s one rooted firmly on the other side of the Atlantic. The 2010 nominees had this pseudo-folk in spades, with Laura Marling and Villagers appearing alongside the aforementioned Mumfords, but most past shortlists have had a singer-songwriter/acoustic-style act of one degree or another: 2009 – Sweet Billy Pilgrim and Lisa Hannigan, 2008 – Rachel Unthank and the Winterset (now know as The Unthanks) and Laura Marling, 2007 – Fionn Regan, 2006 – Isobel Cambell and Mark Lanegan, 2005 – Antony and the Johnsons and Seth Lakeman and KT Tunstal, 2004 - again, does Robert Wyatt count? 2003 – Eliza Carthy, 2002 – Gemma Hayes, and so on and so forth. Of these, only Lakeman, Unthank and Carthy could really be called ‘proper folk’.
Will either of these categories make an appearance this year? You betcha! The shortlist has now been announced and is as follows:
Adele – 21
Anna Calvi - Anna Calvi
Elbow – Build A Rocket Boys!
Everything Everything – Man Alive
Ghostpoet – Peanut Butter Blues and Melancholy Jam
Gwilym Simcock – Good Days At Schloss Elmau
James Blake – James Blake
Katy B – On A Mission
King Creosote & Jon Hopkins – Diamond Mine
Metronomy – The English Riviera
PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
Tinie Tempah – Disc-Overy
And what of our predicted categories? Quelle surprise, Gwilym Simcock is a rather normal jazz pianist, but wait! What’s this!? He’s using extended techniques being all ‘experimental’. And for the folky slot? King Creosote sits almost exactly between the faux-folk of Lisa Hannigan et al and real-folk of Carthy and Lakeman.
The tone of this post could be taken as being a little mocking, perhaps, but it is particularly interesting to see how ‘jazz’ as a genre is given far more attention than its popularity would warrant (although with the resurgence in popularity of both faux and real folk over the past decade means that they’re pretty much assured a representative in any list of this kind that aspires to be a least a little bit relevant). All in all, however, I’m a big fan of the Mercurys, precisely because (as I mentioned above) its shortlist is selected by a panel of critics rather than a simple popularity contest, and also for the fact that it puts albums front and centre, where they belong.
The big question now is who do I think will be the overall winner? I’d absolutely love to see King Creosote come through, JP Harvey probably ‘deserves’ to win it, Everything Everything ‘ought’ to win it, but Tinie Tempah probably will win it. Check back on the 6th of September to see just how wrong I was, and keep your eyes peeled for reviews of all these albums on these pages in the coming weeks.
Everything Everything – Photoshop Handsome
King Creosote & Jon Hopkins – John Taylor’s Month Away