The Mercury Prize's Innovation
The 2018 Mercury Prize nominations are out--and there’s something missing from the shortlist. The Mercury Prize is known for celebrating the diversity and innovation in British music, so surely, that is what it should support in its annual nominations? In a year that demolished and rebuilt music from the ground up, I assumed that the most critically prestigious album prize would reflect this. However, this year’s shortlist shows something entirely different.
I feel like consumers of music do this every single year. I don’t think a year has gone by wherein the majority has been pleased by the Mercury Prize’s nominations. You can never satisfy everyone, but you can do a damn sight better than satisfying 1%.
Often, my main issue with music is that it is prescriptive, repetitive, and lacks any kind of artistic flair. Why, then, is this year’s Mercury Prize shortlist full of the artists I tend to quote when describing what music I don’t like? As an objective criticism, music that follows what has come before it is lacklustre, 2-D, and, frankly, more than a bit superfluous. There isn’t any purpose in simply creating something that has already been done, and I will stand by that assertion for as long as I am a fan and critic of music.
The Mercury Prize isn’t completely useless in noticing deserving talent, though--namely Jorja Smith’s Lost & Found, Novelist’s Novelist Guy, Nadine Shah’s Holiday Destination, and King Krule’s The Ooz. These records do surmise the living, breathing talent so rife across the UK, and the artistic eclecticism present in all four of these records is astounding. For that reason, these albums deserve their place on the Mercury Prize shortlist.
The biggest disappointment on the list can only be the biggest disappointment when it comes to albums from the past year. Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino, whilst championing a fantastic title, was, arguably, the biggest musical let-down of 2018. Hyped up for years, and, given the quality of The Last Shadow Puppets’ second record Everything You’ve Come to Expect, Arctic Monkeys’ fifth album was perhaps overshadowed by expectation. Even so, the record felt lazy, uninspired, and an unwelcome U-turn in genre. I am a full supporter of changing style when it’s a natural artistic evolution, but Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino felt forced. Even Alex Turner himself admitted that he only turned to the piano because he was finding it impossible to write songs on the guitar, but after listening to Tranquility Base, I don’t think it was the instrument that was the problem. Perhaps it’s because this was just so expected, of course Arctic Monkeys would be on the shortlist, but that makes it even less tolerable.
It would have been incredibly easy to guess Noel Gallagher’s place on the Mercury Prize shortlist, as well. Yes, with Who Built the Moon? Noel has clearly attempted to redefine his place in modern music, with elements of psychedelia and bluesier rock colouring the record, however that doesn’t mean it has been effective or particularly innovative. There was something missing from the almost tiresome album--it was a redyed regurgitation of all of his previous work. It is certainly not an LP that should be celebrated in the realm of the Mercury Prize, of all places. Perhaps an NME award would suit?
Whilst some artists on the shortlist--Wolf Alice, Florence + the Machine, Everything Everything, to name a few--also call my personal musical library home, and have released good albums, that doesn’t mean they deserve to be on this particular shortlist. Wolf Alice’s second album Visions of a Life was a solid 8/10, with only one skippable song on it. Florence + the Machine’s recently released High as Hope showcased a new version of the singer, stripping her of facade and hairography. Everything Everything’s A Fever Dream, whilst a generally disappointing record, was still creative and meant something. These are simply records that found themselves on radio stations’ A-Lists, that found themselves topping the charts, and perhaps overrated. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with featuring on a station’s playlist, or reaching number 1, or having multitudes of adoring fans. Nothing wrong with that, at all. There is something wrong, however, with the Mercury Prize as a British institution preferring these records over some that well and truly redefined genres, or launched a new wave of musical appreciation.
In what could be seen as the most horrendous snub of this year’s nominations, Hookworms’ third LP Microshift has been left off the list. A record that moved sounds and built bridges between noise-pop and synth-psychedelia, Microshift was released to almost universal appreciation. The band have since been placed in the spotlight, basking in the acclaim they deserve. Microshift is a record that moves, inspires, and doesn’t fit itself into a kind of box.
This past January, punk was given a new face. It was given a rebirth, a renaissance, a second, third, fourth chance. With their unapologetic debut Songs of Praise, Shame brought the concerns of the young Brexit-Britain into the central focus. The record was strong, infectious, and just really important. It symbolised a new version of punk, a new version of political music--it could be funny whilst being scathing, important whilst being entertaining, and visionary whilst being easy to listen to. Songs of Praise deserves its recognition.
Matt Maltese’s piano-led careful yet ambitious record Bad Contestant really did something for music this year. With striking melodies and delicate choruses, the album shone in the ever-changing face of emerging pop music. Whether it was the hook-filled tracks or the intelligent delivery, Matt Maltese did not shy away from the craft of writing and making music. It’s almost criminal that the conscious songwriting of Bad Contestant was ignored by the academy (I am fully aware the academy is a completely different thing).
Leading onto nouveau-jazz, Tom Misch’s collaborative and fantastic debut LP Geography is another record that has expanded genres and styles this year. With warped jazz pianos and bass, Misch’s pensive vocal and the craftsmanship of each track made the album stand out. The collaborations with Loyle Carner, De La Soul, GoldLink, and Poppy Ajudha only developed the album further, really densely filling it with enchanting and soulful tracks.
One final alteration I’m going to suggest, even though I genuinely could list album after album, is the addition of Let’s Eat Grandma’s recently-released second effort I’m All Ears. Let’s Eat Grandma are an emphatic duo, who, with I’m All Ears have managed to generously and easily sum up the struggles of womanhood on this record. The synth-heavy production and artistic scathe of the duo solidified I’m All Ears as one of the most important records of the year immediately upon its release. Whilst doing so much for character relatability, the record builds upon the wholly experimental nature of the duo’s sound, generating something glitchy and glittery and addictive.
The Mercury Prize will always be just one of those things that gets music fans up in arms once a year. Whether you’re a fan or a critic of the nominations, there will always, always be something to talk about. It’s just a shame that, in this past year, there has been a true renaissance in music--if you just scratch beneath the surface. All the artists I have mentioned, plus countless, countless more (Boy Azooga, Superorganism (if they qualify--they’re not all British, but are based in London), SOPHIE, Jon Hopkins, to name but a few) are truly reshaping popular music and popular culture. It’s such a shame that even a prize dedicating to championing innovation fails to innovate.