Mercury Prize 2008.

So, the cat is well and truly out of the bag: the Mercury Prize Shortlist has been announced, and the twelve albums of which it is comprised are:

Adele – ’19’
British Sea Power – ‘Do You Like Rock Music?’
Burial – ‘Untrue’
Elbow – ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’
Estelle – ‘Shine’
The Last Shadow Puppets – ‘The Age Of The Understatement’
Laura Marling – ‘Alas I Cannot Swim’
Neon Neon – ‘Stainless Style’
Portico Quartet – ‘Knee-Deep In The North Sea’
Robert Plant And Alison Krauss – ‘Raising Sand’
Radiohead – ‘In Rainbows’
Rachel Unthank And The Winterset – ‘The Bairns’

My immediate reactions were twofold: firstly, what happened to Portishead and MIA, whose stellar albums have been improbably overlooked; and then, perhaps predictably, who on earth is Rachel Unthank, not to mention her beloved Winterset?

Comparing the actual list to my predictions, I’ve managed to score a not-too-shabby total of six correct predictions (BSP, Burial, Elbow, Last Shadow Puppetse, Robert Plant, Radiohead), but it’s some of the albums I chose that weren’t included that are more puzzling. As I hinted at earlier, Portishead’s Third is the kind of album that only emerges once a decade – that’s not to say that it’s the best album of the decade, just that such an album, with all it’s timeliness and resolute gloominess is as apt a product of its time as we will get this decade. As for MIA, to omit Kala (having nominated Arular three years ago) is utterly bizarre: Kala is a significantly better work, with far more experimentation and boat pushing than before.

The token jazz albums notwithstanding, the surprise inclusion in my eyes is most definitely Estelle’s Shine. I accept that she’s been through the wars these last couple of years, but the fact that she has now decamped to the USA and made a fairly average RnB album with all the producers du jour does not a Mercury nomination merit.  As Andy Gill writes in The Independent,

There’s little evidence of undue PC colour-consciousness affecting recent Mercury nominations, with only one or two black acts appearing in each of the last four years’ lists. This is probably due to the traditionally track-based, rather than album-based, nature of black music generally,

all of which leads me to conclude that Shine’s presence on the list is tokenism at its worst, not least because there have been much better “black” albums this year – Wiley’s Grime Wave is one. To be brutally honest, even Hot Chip’s Made In The Dark works better as a “black” album than Estelle’s Shine.

Though Neon Neon wasn’t on my list, I had already accepted that it would appear on the real thing after I published the last article. Though I still haven’t heard it right through, it’s just the kind of whimsical electro album that the judges would appreciate, over and above the outright sonic geekdom of the Hot Chip album. On an ancillary note, I actually quite like the fact that there’s a token jazz album every year, but I’d have to express disappointment that they didn’t plump for the most recent Polar Bear album, a fast-paced jazz act whose debut was previously nominated in 2005.

On the whole, it’s not a particularly bad set of albums. It was clear that one of the folky, acoustic, female singer-songwriters was going to get nominated, and at least it wasn’t Kate Nash. The two with whom we have ended up are probably the least offensive of the lot, to be charitable. On the brighter side, there’s no Coldplay, no Blunt, no Ting Tings, no Wombats, no Pigeon Detectives… no excreta, basically. Though I’m bitterly disappointed for MIA and Portishead, neither artist probably cares that much, all of which leads me to wholeheartedly endorse Radiohead as my worthy winners of the bunch, with British Sea Power and Burial tied in second place.

Finally, I’d like to point out what an incredible achievement it is for Alex Turner, who has now appeared in the Shortlist three years in a row – proof of his consistent songwriting ability, even if he won with Arctic Monkeys with the wrong album! Now, all eyes must turn to September 9, when the winning album will be announced to much fanfare (and a cheque for £20,000).


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