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4 August 2016

Has the Mercury Prize become so alternative that we can guess which musicians won’t win?

The music award’s penchant for favouring obscure artists makes you question the point of shortlisting acts like David Bowie and Radiohead.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

The Mercury Prize, held annually to showcase the best British and Irish albums from the past year, is known for celebrating underground talent.

While previous winners include the vastly successful Arctic Monkeys (2006) and Dizzee Rascal (2003), these big names stand alongside those who have remained low-key, such as last year’s winner Benjamin Clementine. Whilst small scatterings of the Coldplays and Adeles of this world are apparent on each year’s shortlist, big-name pop acts are generally in the minority.

This year’s 12 shortlisted albums (see below) were announced on Lauren Laverne’s BBC 6 Music radio show this morning. One of these albums will be presented with the prize on 15 September.

Typically, a diverse selection that crosses the boundaries of music genre and artist gender, ethnicity, sexuality,  is all there. It’s impressive. It really is. Long regarded as the most respected music prize in the British industry, the Mercury truly reflects our diverse music scene. This means rap, grime, rock, indie, indie-rock, alternative rock, soul, folk-rock, R&B, electronica, and any genres that lie in between or elsewhere.

But for its edginess, and its open-mindedness, has the shortlist (though perhaps not the final winner) become somewhat too obvious? This year’s list is full of the biggest “indie” or “alternative” bands of the moment. The well-established bands that are shortlisted are very unlikely to win when there is so much newer talent to shout about.

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David Bowie is on the shortlist. His legacy is far too great for the Mercury to ignore; all year, his has been the name on everyone’s lips. It’s much the same for Radiohead. With the nomination for this year’s much-hyped album A Moon Shaped Pool, the Oxford band take the lead when it comes to most Mercury Prize nominations, this being their fifth. But they will likely never win.

This is where the Mercury falls short. For its enigmatic reputation and the uncertainty of who will definitely win, it seems straightforward enough to predict who will not win.

Bowie, Radiohead, Florence and the Machine and the Arctic Monkeys (post their debut and 2006 Mercury winner ­Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not) have been nominated multiple times, and rightly so. To retain the credibility of the shortlist as an honest representation of the best music of that year, these bands must still be nominated.

But at the same time, it seems odd to continue to shortlist records that will immediately be pushed aside in favour of far lesser-known bands once it comes to deciding on the overall winner.

PJ Harvey is the only artist to have won the prize more than once, even more of an achievement when you consider how keen the Mercury is on introducing new music to the British public with each new shortlist and winner.

So I wonder what this will mean for Anohni’s Hopelessness, the stunning electronic protest record from the artist who won the Mercury in 2005 as Antony and the Johnsons. The album, released in May this year, is a definitive removal from anything the artist has done before. But Anohni is still the same person, with this history behind her. Will she be considered as a new artist, as her new name suggests, or will she be unlikely to win, if only because of her previous achievements with the Mercury?

The difficulties I have with such a subjective process are not to detract from the quality of the music nominated. It’s a strong list, as ever.

Perhaps the only loose link this year is the nomination for The 1975’s second record, I Like It When You Sleep For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It. It’s not that the Cheshire-based band released a bad record, just that it is bland compared with Bat For Lashes’ dissonant and intimate concept album The Bride, or Kano’s innovative and upfront grime record Made in the Manor.

A panel of judges decides the winner. This panel represents opinions from all sides of the industry, from musicians Kate Tempest and Jarvis Cocker to broadcaster Annie Mac and Editor-in-Chief of Kerrang!, Mojo and Q, Jeff Smith.

This mass of well-respected musos is one of the features that makes the Prize respected. Yet the grandeur of such a panel also separates the decision from the hoards of the people who are actually listening to these records. In an industry that is so subjective, do these music professionals really know “best”, if such a thing exists?

The process will, for the first time, be different this year. Only six of the 12 shortlisted albums will go forward to the final awards show. One of these will have been chosen by the public, who will be able to vote for their favourite online. The other five will have been chosen by the esteemed judges. It’s a small nudge towards giving some sort of power to the people, while retaining the respectability of the judging system.

Intricacies aside, we are left a list of 12 (mostly) fantastic albums. Interestingly, bookies are already suggesting David Bowie will be the sure prize-clincher this year. But this is the Mercury, the prize where even if the highest odds are on the most obscure act (as they certainly were with FKA Twigs in 2014), they will still be wrong.

Perhaps this year the Mercury will, in a roundabout way, trick us all by choosing the late Bowie as the winner. But would that double-bluffing be too obvious for the Mercury, or not obvious enough?

Now our premonitions have likely been confirmed with the shortlist, anything goes with the prizewinner. That’s how the Mercury likes to play it.

The nominees

Anohni – Hopelessness

Bat For Lashes – The Bride

David Bowie – Blackstar

Jamie Woon – Making Time

Kano – Made In The Manor

Laura Mvula – The Dreaming Room

Michael Kiwanuka – Love and Hate

Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

Savages – Adore Life

Skepta – Konnichiwa

The 1975 – I Like It When You Sleep…

The Comet Is Coming – Channel The Spirits

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