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4th November 2013

Opinion: Is the Mercury Prize worth winning?

Matt Byrne considers whether the prize that declares itself the musical equivalent of the Turner award for art, and the Booker prize for literature is worthy of such a claim.

James Blake took home this year’s Mercury Prize thanks to his talent for producing sumptuous electronic minimalism whilst in his bedroom. Perhaps his debut album would have been a more worthy winner but James Blake deserves the acclaim that this prize will grant him.

I feel though, that the award has been overshadowed again by the surprise exclusions from the shortlist. Impressive albums from These New Puritans, Bat for Lashes and Fuck Buttons were all overlooked. Whilst My Bloody Valentine’s missed out because they released their album independently off their website, rather than having a big distribution deal with companies such as ITunes or Amazon in the UK. To exclude an album for corporate reasons like that devalues the artistic merit of the award, leaving the winner questioning if there are better albums out there that simply didn’t adhere to the rules.

For a prize that on its website declares that it is the musical equivalent of the Turner award for art, and the Booker prize for literature. It bewilders me how Radiohead, the band that has been one of the most innovative in their long career, and always challenged the way people think (like any good book or piece of art does), have somehow missed out thus far. Despite being nominated more times than any other artist, the Mercury’s reputation of making controversial decisions looks like it has counted against Thom Yorke and co.

You can never accuse the judges of the Mercury prize of siding with public opinion. They have ignored popular acts such as Oasis and Blur and crowned unknowns like Speech Debelle. The judges should however, pick the album that is the best and not be contrary for the sake of it. I’m not arguing that the Mercury Prize hasn’t been claimed by some superb albums though, with Portishead’s mesmeric Dummy and Franz Ferdinand’s fantastic debut deservingly scooping the gong. Although an apparent curse seems to loom over some of the more controversial acts that have triumphed, with Speech Debelle , Ms. Dynamite, and Antony and the Johnsons seemingly
disappearing into the musical abyss afterwards.

Normally the Mercury prize does at least pick a varied short list which encourages people to delve into albums that they wouldn’t usually listen to. This boosts the sales for the smaller artists and increases their fan base. But in opting for a list filled with big hitters such as Arctic Monkeys, David Bowie, Jake Bugg, Rudimental, and Disclosure this year, they’ve overlooked artists that would have benefited more from the attention. Why not nominate Fuck Buttons instead of Jake Bugg’s bland country folk?

There is no doubt that being chosen for the Mercury Prize does mean something to a lot of artists. The confidence they must gain from being recognised for all their hard work must be very fulfilling. Does it equate to a long affluent career with a large fan base? Of course it doesn’t. Would they trade their award, to write an album as great as In Rainbows? I’m sure they would.

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