This time last year I suggested the Mercury award had moved so far away from the purpose of its creation – to provide a credible alternative to the Brits – that it was redundant. The shortlist was as groundbreaking as a pneumatic drill made of omelette. To wit: Rustie’s ‘Glass Swords’ was omitted in place of wildly exciting artists Lianne La Havas and Michael Kiwanuka. Now the 2013 nominations are out, has anything changed?
In the ‘music made on a laptop’ corner, we have the Kaisers of the nu-garage UK dance revival, Disclosure and Rudimental. The former’s album is undoubtedly good, a sophisticated reappropriation of the Detroit and Chicago house, funk, 90s pop and garage the young brothers Lawrence consumed years after their heyday. Rudimental’s drum ‘n’ bass debut has some punch to it, though 2012 banger ‘Feel The Love’ remains the best track. But in terms of original thought and creative ingenuity, there’s a Fuck Buttons, Holden, Maya Jane Coles, Factory Floor and Mount Kimbie-shaped hole. James Blake’s nominated for the second time for ‘Overgrown’, a well-crafted, stylish dub-howl that takes nothing away from his position as one of Britain’s most innovative artists.
In the Radio 2 corner, you’ve got Laura Mvula, Villagers and Jake Bugg. Very nice, bit retro, not going to set the world alight. Laura Marling’s got one leg in that camp although ‘Once I Was An Eagle’ is her masterpiece to-date, the chronology of a broken relationship cast in delicate, moving verse. Showing British Guitar Music Is Still Alive And Well are Savages, Foals and Arctic Monkeys, though the latter two experiment with sound on, respectively, ‘Holy Fire’ and ‘AM’. Foals’ ‘Prelude’ is undoubtedly the greatest opening track of the year. We’ve got a bonafide deity in the Old Legend corner. David Bowie’s out-of-the-blue return in January was one of the most exciting moments of 2013 – and ‘The Next Day’ didn’t disappoint. It’s a weird, complex record with a quick glance at the past and two eyes balling the future.
Where’s the ‘token jazzer’? There’s a distinct lack of random Roller Trios or Gwilym Simcocks. An easy target for mockery, yes, but I almost miss it this year. Come back Basquiat Strings! I suppose the leftfield entrant is Jon Hopkins with his blinding techno epic, ‘Immunity’.
But what does the shortlist say about British music in 2013? First, the albums have as much bite to them as a pangolin. Politics and subversion are thin on the ground. In fact, it’s down to Bowie, the oldest person to be nominated for the award to say something with his critique of celebrity culture, the church and US gun laws. There’s no Dizzee Rascal saying he’s a “problem for Anthony Blair” or Plan B narrating the London riots. Does it matter? Are huge, wonderful, life-affirming pop songs enough? I like to think we want music to say something culturally interesting about the human condition in a messed up modern-day world. Second, it’s salad days for UK hiphop, R&B and grime. There’s no representation on the list because nothing’s come out this year to warrant it. Wiley’s ‘The Ascent’ was weak, Dizzee’s album got pushed back, we only got an EP from Roots Manuva, and acts like Task Force, Braintax and Jehst haven’t released anything for years.
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If an alien saw this shortlist, what would he think? I imagine he’d wonder what the hell we’re doing in stasis, shying away from experimenting with technology and sound to create something new. These New Puritans made an impressive fist of it with the bizarre ‘Field Of Reeds’ and should have been nominated, Boards Of Canada made a diluted effort, even Atoms For Peace created something original, weaving afrobeats and human vocals into mechanic clicks and blips. But it’s Hopkins who has truly achieved. He use vintage synths and novel techniques, weird samples – the sound of the Olympics fireworks from his roof terrace for example – and a narrative arc to create a relentlessly intelligent tour de force of pummelling techno and luscious electronica. With ‘Immunity’, Hopkins took techno to a new level of emotion.
You’ve got to remember that a lot of bands don’t put themselves forward because of the entrance fee. MJ from Hookworms, a band who’ve released one of the best debuts of the year, called it a “rip off” recently on Twitter. Who knows if Drenge, Palma Violets and Peace even submitted a form. Surprise omissions? London Grammar, who were tipped by Paddy Power as the favourite yesterday, Mumford & Sons, King Krule, Daughter, Dutch Uncles, Bastille.
So who’s going to win? The Mercury prize is notoriously contrarian so it’s impossible to say. Does anyone remember Speech Debelle? I’d call Bowie or Marling, but don’t hold me to that.