Mike started a thread on ILX polling the twenty albums to have won the Mercury Music Prize since its inception in 1992, and people, as they are wont to do, went about it by listing all 20 album and proffering (generally negative, sarcastic) opinion on all of them, one by one, in chronological order.
A few years ago this would have been the kind of activity I’d have been fulsomely involved with, but my working days for the last couple of years haven’t afforded me the time to keep tabs on forum discussions like this, so I read the morning’s posts during my lunch and the afternoon’s when I got home from work and longed to get involved. Rather than post directly into the thread it struck me that this is the kind of thing I should probably blog about while I’m invalided out of cycling (perhaps more on that later), so here I am, this evening, with the laptop and a list of winners and my abhorrent and disgusting elitist opinions.
1992 – Screamadelica – Primal Scream
Matt, who is the same age as me, posted this about Primal Scream’s opus: “Voting for Screamadelica now is like admitting defeat, a bit like buying Beatles albums because you can’t think of anything else you want.” Earlier this year I bought the remaster of Screamadelica, after much deliberation, pretty much exactly because I wanted to buy a new CD but couldn’t think of anything actually new. And I already own all the remastered Beatles albums. So I can empathise.
I do love Screamadelica dearly though, and enjoyed revisiting it again massively in the late spring and early summer. Despite it being the inaugural winner, I never think of it as a Mercury album, for some reason, so it seems strange to consider that it might be my favourite on this list.
1993 – Suede –Suede
I like Animal Nitrate; the guitar is awesome, and sounds like a synthesizer. It overwhelms the bass and drums almost completely (not hard to do, admittedly), but beyond that song Suede mean practically nothing to me. I think I owned this album, and Dog Man Star, once upon a time, pre-university, but lent them out and never bothered to call the loan back.
1994 – M People – Elegant Slumming
I have never heard this album; it is one of only three on this list that I haven’t. M People exist for me even less than Suede do. This seems to be routinely laughed at as the most incongruously mainstream winner of the Mercury, M People aligned with Simply Red as pseudo-sophisticated pop it’s OK to dismiss out of hand.
1995 – Portishead – Dummy
Portishead command my respect but I will never love them. I prefer Third, these days, to Dummy. Again, I think I lent this to someone before I went to university – I did buy another copy, though. I can’t remember the last time I listened to it.
1996 – Pulp – Different Class
I feel much the same way about Pulp as I do Portishead – there are a handful of songs, generally singles, from across their career that I adore in the way one adores anything that you never think of except when in direct contact with it. Which means that I never put an album on, not even this one. 1996 also marks the first year where my favourite record on the shortlist may just have been the notorious token jazz choice – Courtney Pine’s Modern Day Jazz Stories, which would have split my vote with Underworld.
1997 – Roni Size/Reprazent – New Forms
We still own this; I doubt I’ve listened to it since 1998, though. Drum n bass never really spoke to me, though the surface aesthetic appealed; it’s too urban, I suspect. I like my electronic music to be expansive, to speak of open skies and coastal vistas, or else to be microscopic and solipsistic. I should probably play this again, and a handful of other drum n bass and jungle records we own (Goldie, Boymerang, T-Power), if only because unlistened-to records may as well not exist.
1998 – Gomez – Bring It On
Oh, Gomez. I owned this, and sold it later on, after their second album seemed to lose all the idiosyncratic, accidental garage-pop-blues charm that a handful of songs on this managed to achieve, and instead turned into trudging, worthy, heritage-railway rock.
1999 – Talvin Singh – OK
Much like Roni Size, we own this but it’s been unplayed in over a decade. That these are essentially the only two “electronic” / dance (as opposed to “urban”, whatever arbitrary genre tags mean) records to win the Mercury saddens me a little. Where were Orbital, Underworld, Four Tet, Aphex Twin, Massive Attack, Boards of Canada, etc, etc, etc? Some of them got nominated, sometimes, but none of them won, when Talvin did. A nice record, as I recall, a good, and worthy record, but not one that excited or delighted me.
2000 – Badly Drawn Boy – The Hour Of Bewilderbeast
I make no qualms about having loved this record. 2000 felt like a very strong year to me, and this, alongside XTRMNTR, was a highlight. It’s overlong, it meanders terribly, many of the songs are unfinished snippets and snatches, but it oozes melody and character and charm, even if he looks, and sometimes sounds, like a busker. I’ve just put it on again. Those opening strings and trumpets, giving way to gently strummed, melancholy, but not sad, guitars. It’s lovely, unassuming, pleasurable, sonically varied, as songs dissolve, or are submerged, or emerge from behind bus stops, beguile for a moment, and then pass by to leave another melody in place. But still, XTRMNTR wasn’t even shortlisted, and it felt like an epochal work of art to me as a 20 year old. Occasionally it still does.
2001 – PJ Harvey – Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea
I think this felt like the moment when the Mercury started to feel like it mattered as a cultural event; perhaps it coincides with me finishing university, coming home, starting to really use the internet as a channel for discussing music; maybe it was the gravitas of the way Polly won, trapped in Washington watching the Pentagon burn. This was my gateway drug into PJ Harvey, who had always scared me before. I love her catalogue right the way through now; the conversion was strong and comprehensive. This isn’t my least favourite record by her, but perhaps is the one I’ve outplayed the most.
2002 – Ms. Dynamite – A Little Deeper
I loved the singles from this but never fell for the whole record. I was thoroughly happy for it to win, though; the field in 2002 seemed a little wan and pale. Looking back at lists of albums from 2002 and it seemed like a strong American year – Wilco, Missy Elliott, Spoon, Justin Timberlake. I was deeper into mainstream radio pop than any other time, and Ms. Dynamite fitted that pretty well. I may have preferred The Streets to have won, but my passions didn’t run deep, I don’t think.
2003 – Dizzee Rascal – Boy In Da Corner
This was the year I flipped for Four Tet and Manitoba, was asked to write for a specialist electronic music journal (as if I was some kind of authority rather than a dilettante– ha!), and felt as though rock and indie had collapsed beyond the point of ever being saved. Like Ms. Dynamite, I never really fell for Dizzee beyond the singles, but I was pleased to see him win, I think. If not him, who? The Thrills? Please no.
2004 – Franz Ferdinand – Franz Ferdinand
Better this than Keane, but really, 2004 felt to me like a year on a different planet to the judges and the shortlist. I can only presume that no one paid the submission fee for Bark Psychosis…
2005 – Anthony and the Johnsons – I Am A Bird Now
I was convinced, utterly, that this would be the year, that Polar Bear would win, that the token jazz nomination would no longer be token, that the panel would throw hands up and say “you know what? the rest of these records suck”. But alas, they pulled the wild card, the record nobody expected to be nominated because everyone thought he was American, and, besides, nobody expected it to be nominated because nobody had heard of him. Steve, who I worked with for a while, had worked in marketing for the bank that sponsored the award this year, and asked to be involved in the awards. He claimed he was delighted that this record won, even though it pissed off his employers mightily. I believe him. I like the record, too; but I adored, adore, the Polar Bear, and thought this really would be the year.
2006 – Arctic Monkeys – Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not
I liked half the shortlist in 2006, and hoped for Richard Hawley or Guillemots to win. Even the actual winners thought Hawley was robbed. This felt like a safe political choice, a return to populist indie, after the curveball of 2005, but really, I think the potential politics of this award are over-emphasised by naysayers – I’ve emailed Simon Frith asking if I could get on the panel, and he replied with advice that I was silly not to pursue further. It’s always difficult to find out who is actually on the panel, and I try most years without success. I suspect that it’s actually just the same as any committee – consensus belies passion, and breeds conformity, which is why so often a safe and disappointing choice is made, rather than any ulterior motives.
2007 – Klaxons – Myths Of The Near Future
As borne out by 2007’s choice, which shows that no one on the panel can have had any sense, let alone any ulterior motives. I thought 2007 was a fantastic year for music – Battles, Caribou, Patrick Wolf, 65daysofstatic, LCD Soundsystem, Spoon, Studio, Electrelane, Menomena, Stars Of The Lid – but the Mercury nominations from that year make no sense to me at all. I recognize barely any of the names. OK, most of the records I’ve just listed where American or Canadian, but even so. Klaxons is the second of three Mercury-winning albums I’ve never heard, because what little I did hear angered me (in the midst of my sound-quality campaign). Probably the most wrong-headed winner of the 20, to my mind; I’d been convinced that Acoustic Ladyland’s epochal (to me) Skinny Grin would be not just the token jazz choice but the only really exciting, experimental choice, and would thus win. It didn’t even shortlist.
2008 – Elbow – The Seldom Seen Kid
Not their best album, but probably the one I wanted to win. 2008, as I’ve written before, felt like a dreadful year for music, and this was a dash of comfort. I cannot begrudge the panel or the winners at all, even if it was an unexciting choice.
2009 – Speech Debelle – Speech Therapy
Poor Speech Debelle has probably been the victim of the most opprobrium for winning, as if it was somehow her fault that she was up against such absolute tosh as Glasvegas and Kasabian. My own British favourites from the year, Fuck Buttons, Super Furry Animals, Patrick Wolf, all escaped nomination, and I was left thinking that I’d quite like The Invisible to win for obscurity giggles. The previous year’s winner had seen it as a vindication and celebration, and experienced a tipping point that pitched them into stadiums and living rooms across the nation. Speech Debelle, whose album I have not heard and have no opinion of whatsoever, was lambasted from all sides as being worthy, urban, black, female, as ticking boxes and being chosen for that rather than for her music, as being a choice emblematic of the do-gooder liberal taste-maker ennui that the Mercury is purportedly guilty of. My brother-in-law tells me he loves her album, is shocked that she was the object of such scorn. Heaven only knows what Matthew Cain thinks. Me? I don’t pay attention to lyrics so there’s sod-all point in me listening to it, at a guess.
2010 – The XX – XX
I wanted Laura Marling or Wild Beasts to win, really, or These New Puritans, Steve Mason, and Four Tet to have even been shortlisted. The XX seemed like the obvious consensus choice, and I am fine with that. It’s a stylish record, but a little vapid to me. It suits the endless incidental-music usage it has fallen into. So it goes.
2011 – PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
So it’s almost certainly a pitched battle between the first winner and the latest winner for my favourite. Right now, PJ wins.