FEATURE: The Hyundai Mercury Prize 2017: The Best of British?



The Hyundai Mercury Prize 2017:  

 The Best of British?


I shall keep this short but, seeing as the chatter regarding…

IN THIS PHOTO: Ed Sheeran (his album, %, drew criticism from many who felt it should not be on the Mercury shortlist)

this year’s Mercury Prize shortlist has died down; I wanted to examine it from both sides and ask the question as to why it has quietened down so readily. Last year, as I remember; people were talking about the nominations for a little while longer. Why has this year’s dozen artists not lingered in the attention as long as previous years?! Perhaps I am over-analysing because, as with every awards show; people are only going to be interested a short time – the actual awards are not for a while so it would be illogical being enthused for weeks on end. Many have been debating whether this year’s list of artists is the weakest we have seen in recent memory. Last year, we had the likes of David Bowie and Radiohead on the shortlist: this year, the impressive, but perhaps less-stellar nominations of Sampha and alt-J. I wondered why the panel decided to omit critical favourites such as Laura Marling, Sleaford Mods and Jane Weaver in favour of Ed Sheeran, Blossoms and alt-J – three artists whose most-recent albums were not as popular and well-received as the aforementioned? Someone I know on social media asked whether the Mercury Prize should be about brand-new artists and giving them a platform. To me, it should be a meritocracy: the finest British albums making the cut of twelve. In fact, I am starting to find myself siding with the friend. If we are going to have an award for British artists: should we be dedicating it to underground and hot-off-the-press acts? Sampha and J Hus are two-such artists who would fit the bill; in that sense, Blossoms would also fit – I argue we should substitute them with IDLES to make it more quality-driven. This year’s list of nominees is ethnically diverse and certainly covers a range of genres – from Sampha’s beautiful and soul-searching songs to the extraordinarily unique sounds of The Big Moon and Dinosaur.

In fact, The Big Moon – and their album, Love in the 4th Dimension – is a proper band-made record that gives me hope in Britain we have some of the finest groups around. Dinosaur might be seen as the rank-outsiders for 2017 – seeing as their album, Together, As One, is a Jazz record. The ‘J-word’ might bring about scowling in many but for me, who loves legends like Miles Davis and John Coltrane, can see the same majesty and depth that runs through a record like Kind of Blue (Miles Davis). The Laura Judd-led band might not win the Mercury but are a worthy inclusion. On the other side of the argument; there are lesser albums like Ed Sheeran’s Divide (or %) and Blossoms' eponymous debut. Both albums reflect mainstream sensibilities and seem to address a different market. In the past; the Mercury Prize has been about Indie music and bands: in recent years, there is a sonic and demographical shift to address the changing nature of modern music. I admire an award that recognises a broad demographic but one can argue the BRIT Awards has enough categories for artists like Ed Sheeran and Blossoms: are they encroaching on foreign territory and taking too much focus away from other artists?! I feel there need to be limits when it comes to award ceremonies and the likes of the Mercury Prize. You could say there should be no limits imposed when it comes to celebrating music – if it is good then it deserves to be credited and acclaimed as much as possible. The panel of the Mercury Prize has, especially in the last couple of years, started to recognise Urban acts – those who are more fiery, charged and fast-flowing than their peers. Skepta scooped the award last year for Konnichiwa: this year, we have Stormzy’s incredible debut, Gang Signs & Prayer vying for the gong – it is already tipped as one of the favourites. I love the fact black artists are being given nods: last year, Kano and Michael Kiwanuka were on the list; this year, Sampha and Loyle Carner join Stormzy in that respect. It is clear the organisers and bosses are making positive shifts when it comes to racial equality and recognising genres like Hip-Hop, Rap and Grime.

IN THIS PHOTO: Loyle Carner (his debut album, Yesterday's Gone, is one of the favourites for the prize)/PHOTO CREDITSonny Malhotra 

Is it, therefore, hypocritical criticising a more Pop-driven motive if we are going to celebrate the resurgence and recognition of Urban acts?! That is a fair point because I think, more than anything, the Mercury Prize should not be stifled, homogenised and rigid. Looking at the twelve artists; there are very few women nominated – Kate Tempest, The Big Moon and Dinosaur are overcrowded by a largely male dozen – and that is something that needs to be addressed. If we get it back to new artists and recognising them: is it causing issues cramming mainstream artists and upcoming talent in the same award list? I think an award that limits to a single list of twelve is going to cause splits when you include everyone from British music. Should we, then, make the Mercury Prize solely about the best-established artists are limit it to debut acts and underground musicians? I think there should be an award ceremony that has various categories that is exclusively for unsigned and new acts. I see so many great bands and artists come through the underground: they do not have their own award show and it seems rather strange. Many would say the point of a music award is to celebrate an artist that reaches a certain level/audience. Does that refined assumption mean we are deliberately overlooking artists who, despite their tender experience, are superior to the so-called ‘best’? It is thorny and complicated but we need to establish another award show that goes away from the mainstream and recognises new and unsigned acts. I feel the likes of the BRIT Awards are too focused on the mainstream and less-effecting artists – niche awards like Q, Kerrang! and MOBO caters to certain tastes but are confined to a certain taste/genre. I am aghast BBC Radio 6 Music does not have an award show as they, with their wide remit, would probably cure the malady. Taking it back to quality and, whatever your viewpoint, the Mercury Prize should ONLY represent the twelve BEST British albums of the year. It is not solely about new artists or mainstream; it is not about making things diverse and overhauling old practices. Like film awards; music ceremonies should reflect quality and the absolute finest of the sector.

IN THIS PHOTO: Blossoms (their eponymous album is one of the twelve that has been nominated this year)

The Oscars have been accused of racism and ignoring the best black actors around. Music, in a way, suffers racism and sexism but, as we can see from the list of nominations for the Mercury Awards – the last few years, especially – we are making strides, at the very least (bigger than the Oscars, that is for sure!). I feel the Mercury Awards should solely reflect the very finest British albums of the year. We want to showcase a prestigious award that promotes the absolute pinnacle of British music. Whether that is new musicians (unsigned acts) or mainstream stars: it should be about the sheer quality and critical acclaim. I admire the need to diversify and expand the Mercury nominations and give nods to lesser-known artists. If it weren’t for the Mercury Prize; would the likes of The Big Moon, J Hus and Dinosaur get acclaim and recognition anywhere else? Kate Tempest would do alright elsewhere but one feels she would be overlooked by the looks of the BRIT Awards and other ceremonies. We can create a shortlist that reflects diversity and genre-mix; included a fair balance of black-male-female artists and a sprinkle of bigger albums and underground treasures. If you take British albums in terms of quality/critical acclaim alone, then three albums that should be on the list are Paul Weller’s A Kinder Revolution; Laura Marling’s Semper Femina and Sleaford Mods’ English Tapas. Take away the less-than-effusive reviews accrued for Ed Sheeran, Blossoms and alt-J and, not only would you still keep the genre-spread clean and solid, but would bring in an older artist, a female performer and a consistent duo – not only improving the quality but adding diversity into the mix (the all-male artists all playing mainstream-ready sounds as opposed to the trio that would take their place). Even those small changes would placate the critics of this year’s list and ensure the Mercury Awards recognise the very best British albums – that revised list, surely, would be the absolute cream of the crop?!

In fact, one could remove J Hus (sorry!) and have IDLES take his place. It might be a step too far but it would show we are making cuts based on quality and no other factors. Maybe I am overthinking things but I take music seriously – and feel British music is the very finest in the world. Given the fact there are only a dozen spots on the Mercury shortlist; could we ever please everyone and make it perfect?! Perhaps not but I feel there is, in an attempt to broaden the nominations (genre and sound) a danger it is becoming too broad and less focused. It is clear this year’s shortlisted artists have provoked conversation and debate. There were some definite notable omissions which make me wonder what the criteria was for this year’s line-up. I know the race will come down to Sampha, Kate Tempest and Loyle Carner: it is clear people favour artists who write their own stuff and have a diverse and astonishing palette – not songs with endless credits on them; sallow and generic sounds. I shall leave it there but wonder whether, next year, we need to implement some guidelines or review – ensure the Mercury Award retains its reputation as one of the finest (if not the very best) awards of the music calendar. Whoever wins the award on 14th September – the fact the official site for the Mercury Prize does not mention when it is happening or where it is taking place is quite poor! – should be commended. Put all the arguments and nitpicking aside and this year’s Mercury Prize is going to be…

A hugely memorable evening.