So, I was recently browsing a local CEX store, looking for hidden gems as you do, and I came across a CD of the 1997 Mercury Music Prize. Looking at the playlist, it highlighted what a strong year it was for British music, with nominees including THE CHEMICAL BROTHERS,RADIOHEAD, THE PRODIGY, SUEDE, THE SPICE GIRLS and PRIMAL SCREAM. This got me thinking, as truth be told, I’ve never really paid the Mercury Music Prize much attention, so, I did a little digging...
Established back in 1992, it was designed as an alternative to The Brit Awards, focussing less on mainstream popularity, and focusing more on talent and musical merit, as oppose to record sales and chart success etc. Your record label would nominate you, so long as you were a British or Irish artist, and a panel of journalists, producers, festival organisers, presenters and all sorts of music industry figureheads would narrow entries down to the final twelve, and these would be the year's nominees.
Seems fair and reasonable, so I then wondered what the current state of affairs were regarding the 2022 awards. This is where things get interesting, to put it politely. The music bit is gone, it’s now simply called The Mercury Prize. That’s a BIT of a red flag. Sure, you could argue that, the accolade has become prestigious enough to only need the shortened name, or you could suggest that, the music part has gone a little bit downhill in recent years. Remember when MTV used to show music videos? Now it’s all reality TV bullshit...has the quality here really dipped too? Looking at this year's nominees, I have to say yes...yes it has. Just like the film “Watchmen”, with the tagline “Who watches the Watchmen?” Well, here we have to ask, who’s critiquing the critics, because if THIS is the best selection the UK has to offer in the last calendar year, it’s no wonder the industry is heading down the pan. Let’s run through each entry to see if the winner was deserving, at least out of the twelve albums in question...
Let’s start with FERGUS McCREADIE and the album “Forest Floor”. The 25-year-old Scottish jazz-pianist went straight to number one on the UK jazz and blues chart back in April upon the album's release, and all three of his albums have been nominated for Scottish album of the year, so the lad must be doing something right? Now not judging a book by its cover, but before we even press play, the album art doesn’t inspire excitement. It honestly looks like some, disastrously vegan Michelin Star still-life arrangement. I digress. Opener “Law Hill” is full of jovial yet pulsing ivory notes and frenetic, up-beat percussion. It’s light yet lively and quite intense in its own way, but it goes on a bit. “The Unfurrowed Field” is a lot mellower, a lot slower with its gentler approach but again, is drawn out, and we realise that this is going to be a purely instrumental album. “Landslide” is a busy little track, continuous, relentless almost, but gets annoying, while the title track is about as entertaining as an ACTUAL forest floor; full of fungus, dead leaves and squirrel shit.
Where do we go from here? GWENNO is the next nominee and the Welsh songstress has channelled her love of poetry and positive femininity through her album “Tresor”, and it’s been delivered in Cornish. I didn’t even realise the Cornish had their own language or dialect, but apparently, it’s been going through a revival of sorts, highlighting identity and heritage. “Anima” stands out with its folkish, indie-vibes, with Gwenno’s soft, harmonic vocals lulling the listener into a near trance, like it was part of some, southern Wicker Man type effort. “N.Y.C.A.W.” uses more of the Welsh language over a simple drum beat and it’s practically spoken word in delivery for the most part, while “Kan Me” incorporates subtle synth elements, and it harbours similar vibes to “Anima”. Maybe instead of a Wicker Man she wants to cook me in a giant pasty? I don’t know. It would probably be more fun than this album truthfully.
HARRY STYLES is next up and this is a bit of an oxymoron regarding nomination. Arguably one of the biggest male pop-stars on the planet since parting with ONE DIRECTION, he’s absolutely all over the radio and is about as commercial as you get, and he’s already won the Brit Awards, so does he fit in here? His album “Harry’s House” is a solid slab of mature pop it has to be said. Opening track “Music For A Sushi Restaurant" has this strong, upbeat brass energy resembling something BRUNO MARS might drop on a summer playlist, while there’s no denying the popularity of “As It Was”. His mega hit single has racked up over one BILLION streams on Spotify, probably earning him a whopping 74p. The quirky, retro aesthetic resulted in a genuine ear-worm, but the rest of the album is frankly quite one dimensional in tone and delivery, it’s quite mundane actually, but you’d think this might actually win? Surprisingly no...
It’s collaboration time now as Irish actress JESSIE BUCKLEY teams up with former Suede guitarist BERNARD BUTLER, for the album “For All Our Days That Tear the Heart”. Mutual fans of each other's creative character and expression, working together was inevitable. Another entry of string-based, folkish, country aesthetics, it’s another generally slow, emotive record, with opening track “The Eagle & The Dove” housing subtle FLORENCE & THE MACHINE elements. It’s very lagging for the most part, but it does come to life midway, especially with the track“We’ve Run the Distance”, which harbours a grittier, southern blues type delivery, and that swagger brings the track to life. In places it almost reminds of TEXAS, but this is as good as it gets here.
Onwards we go and find JOY CROOKES 2021 album “Skin” and a noticeable pattern has emerged. All of these albums are, sonically or musically, what you could describe as, mature or sophisticated in presentation. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a place for sombre, soulful, folk or, jazz or, whatever. Slower tempos, mellow presentation, it’s almost a case of musical snobbery on display here in these nominations, but annoyingly, none of these albums so far have been really enjoyable. Even on a musical merit standpoint, it’s all been really quite dull. “Skin” is no different. “When You Were Mine” harbours a certain AMY WINEHOUSE influence with Joy’s husky vocals and brass instrumentation, while “Kingdom” has a decent up-beat, clap-along rhythm, the rest is quite lacklustre.
Shaking things up a bit next we have KOJEY RADICAL and his new album “Reason to Smile”, and we get some rap for a change. I don’t think I’ve ever been grateful for a rap album before. Well done, Kojey. “Together” has a strong 90’s aesthetic with its strings and post-retro funk heavy flows, it's actually a breath of fresh air. “Beautiful” has a smooth, soulful delivery to it, but as with most rap albums these days, you end up getting lost in features, cameos and collaborations, with there being 12 artists including Kojey here, and it's more like a playlist actually.
Staying on the rap path...we have this year's winner; ”Sometimes I Might Be Introvert” by LITTLE SIMZ, and this makes me question absolutely everything about these awards. First off, get rid of the five interludes, and that still leaves us with fourteen tracks, which is more than enough if it was a DECENT album. But decent this is not. Simz has a theme here of empowerment, feminism, and being that strong independent woman, and that message is admirable, young girls and women need these role models, I’m absolutely all for that. But that’s seemingly the only thing really going for this album as she’s bloody tone deaf. She neither sings nor raps, she just speaks in rhymes with the most monotonous, lifeless and sleep-inducing presentation I’ve heard in a long time. Honestly, any positive messages to be found in these songs are blanketed by a veil of utter boredom. THIS, was the 2022 winner...God help.
Two of the records I am already familiar with; “Supernova” by NOVA TWINS and “The Overload” by YARD ACT, and we get to some more rock-based presentation, but you’d be wrong to assume any immediate favouritism here on that basis alone let me tell you. Nova Twins have been praised and acclaimed since their debut album made heads turn and ears pick up, so there was expectation for “Supernova”. It’s got a hip-hop laced, grimy nu-metal core sound and it’s full of attitude and swagger, and does provide a welcome dose of energy to these entries, but it’s like when you ask your mum for SUMO CYCO, and she says you have some Sumo Cyco at home, but it’s Nova Twins. “Sleep Paralysis” is fine with it’s almost YONAKA vibes, but truth be told listening to these nominees thus far feels like I’m in the middle of a bout of sleep paralysis myself. Absolute nightmare.
Yard Act then, with their debut album, got to number 2 in the UK charts upon its release, and is rich in its indie-based post-punk delivery, which musically is absolutely fine; it’s a back-to-basics guitar band, but James Smith spends the whole album churning out spoken word lyrical content with a certain, wry satirical charm, and by charm, I mean monotony. When the rock-based entries begin to disappoint, you know you’re in trouble. Hopefully WET LEG can salvage something?
The Isle of White duo consisting of Rhian Teasdale and Hester Chambers topped the charts back in April with THEIR self-titled debut, here in the UK and Australia, and while it houses a lighter, bubblier tone overall, it’s still predominantly spoken word in style, or at least very subdued vocally. I may as well have been living under a rock if this is the current in-thing, seriously, this isn’t a shortlist of quality albums, this an open mic night at your local poetry club that’s inevitably going to get replaced by a Greggs or a Turkish barber.
Penultimately, we have SELF ESTEEM with her album “Prioritise Pleasure” and this made me laugh on multiple counts. Real name Rebecca Lucy Taylor, the singer has delivered us another brooding dose of indie-pop, but yet AGAIN the album is so SLOW. “Still Reigning” is a genuinely decent orchestral-led ballad but that’s pretty much our only real highlight here. Self-esteem is something The Mercury Prize seems to be lacking in itself it would appear, and I’m going to prioritise my own pleasure now by turning this album off.
Finally, then, we finish things up with SAM FENDER and please, please let there be some sort of redeeming factor here! Two successive number one UK albums? NME’s album of the year 2021? Two Best Album awards at the 2022 NME Awards? It’s too good to be true, isn’t it? His British indie mixed with subtle Americana style, coupled with his northern vocal drawl gives off certain THE KILLERS vibes which is a good thing to be fair, but can he produce the same bangers? “Get You Down” houses similar vibes, and “Long Way Off” is a wonderful guitar ballad, but at seventeen tracks long, even this becomes stagnant, and we’re left scratching our heads.
Naturally we aren’t privy to every single submission. However many albums that may actually be, or any idea of criteria for that matter, but going by this year, things are not looking promising. Don’t take this entirely negatively by any means...FRANK TURNER had huge success with his newest album “FTHC”...PALE WAVES, THE SHERLOCKS and AUGER have all released superb records, I’ll even throw CHARLI XCX in there for her own continued growth in pop writing. British artists are flourishing, and are releasing some quality albums, but whoever was in charge of finalising this selection of twelve entries, needs some kind of cranial enema.
I’m all for artistic freedom, expression, and understand all critics do is share a supposed educated opinion. I KNOW that it’s all a matter of taste, because there is no right or wrong in music...but I say this again. If these twelve albums, were the best that the UK could come up with inside the last year, I honestly don’t know what’s going on. For such a small island nation, the UK has produced some of the biggest, most successful artists in the world...the heritage and respect are there...but this pile can respectfully get in the bin. The Mercury Prize? If this downward trend continues you may as well cut your losses and drink actual mercury, it’ll be more fun than listening to this lot. Better luck next year, eh?