t used to be the case that the three major music awards in Britain each year formed an isosceles triangle, with the Brits at the distastefully commercial wide corner, the NMEs Brats directly opposite in the narrow point and the Mercury just above both of them in the adult angle. Now though, the three are coming together in a lopsided circle not unlike a slightly deflated football (or soccer ball for our American friends), with the likes of Coldplay nominated happily by everyone- no matter what their commercial stance or ideological take on credibility.
With a past winners list that includes Pulps Different Class, Portisheads Dummy, PJ Harveys Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea and Primal Screams Screamadelica (yes, it does appear that if your bands name begins with P youre a shoe-in for the award) the Mercury Music Prize clearly isnt the laughing stock its sometimes made out to be, historically at least. The nominees and winners arent chosen by fans, industry members or journalists, but rather by a panel of experts chaired by respected rock sociologist Simon Frith, who have nothing to gain from the increased sales of artists and no motivation to vote for whatever may be deemed cool at that particular moment of the ever-fluctuating zeitgeist. Sure, record labels or artists may have to pay a fee (some £150 or so, I believe) in order for records to be entered for the award, meaning its not quite the democratic/meritocratic institution its made out to be, but the Mercury is still the most objective, quality-based music award we have in Britain. Assuming, of course, that the panel are qualified to judge quality
This years list is one of the weakest and least understandable in the Mercurys history though, more so even than 2001s, which featured a staggering 7 debut albums amongst the dozen nominees. 2003 would appear to be Mercurys anti-dance year, fitting neatly in with the NME-sponsored New Rock RevolutionTM
and the recent tendency of the British broadsheet press to repeatedly announce the death of dance music, citing increased guitar sales and bands like The White Stripes as evidence. Thus for the third year in a row the list is dominated by guitar-bands, with the usual tokenistic stabs at eclecticism stuffed in for good measure; an urban choice, a country/folk choice, a nu-soul choice, and a jazz choice (no classical this year, mind you). Personally I wish Four Tet, The Nextmen and British Sea Power had found their way onto the nominations shortlist, but Lemon Jelly, Dizzee Rascal and Athlete got there first. Such is life.
The question remains though; what exactly is the Mercury Music Prize for? Is it an objective badge of quality, elevating all those nominated to a slightly higher level of cultural worth? Or is it just a slightly middle-aged attempt to be cool? Were so used to the annual debates and questions now that no one even bothers to ask why were talking about them anymore; awards ceremonies mean nothing to anybody who actually cares about music enough to actively seek it out and become involved with it, and everything to the passing consumer who buys a handful of CDs each year and wants a safe recommendation as to what they might enjoy on the daily commute. The type of consumer you are thus decrees which award ceremony you give credence too; anti-consumers go for the Brats, tabloid consumers the Brits, and broadsheet consumers the Mercury. Except, of course, that thats a sweeping generalisation which reveals about as much of the truth about the importance of music awards as the winner of the Mercury Prize reveals about the best album of the last 12 months.
No; what the Mercury Music Prize is really good for, like any music award, is inspiring the kind of aimless, irreverent and opinionated banter that gives us a reason to get up in the mornings. Which is why I (rather unwisely, perhaps) asked Dom Passantino and William B. Swygart to discuss this years nominees for us
Dom: So then.
Dom: The Mercury Music Prize.
Swygart: Where to begin.
Dom: It is the gay really, isn t it?
Swygart: Hmm... this year, definitely.
Swygart: I mean, in years past it s been good, cos there s albums you could root for.
Swygart: But this year...
Dom: There s that Brummie guy with the stupid name!
Dom: Kenko Soweto?
Swygart: Soweto Kinch.
Dom: That s the bugger.
Dom: What musical genre is he again?
Swygart: It s hip-hop. It s jazz. It s craziness.
Swygart: D you reckon we should try and get some files of the types we haven t heard?
Dom: We could guess what they sound like.
Dom: Let s deal with the "names" first.
Dom: Start off with France and Brazil, and move onto Tunisia and Scotland.
Swygart: I ll get my list up...
Dom: Oh goody.
Dom: I first heard Athlete when they dropped "Westside" the first time round.
Swygart: Me also.
Dom: I thought they sounded like The Supernaturals lost in a maze.
Swygart: That is far too kind.
Swygart: They sounded like they d trapped the Supernaturals in a maze and were laughing at them while listening to Starsailor and discussing Coupling.
[bad UK adult romantic comedy series ed.]
Swygart: On skateboards.
Dom: ON DRUGS.
Swygart: Rubbish drugs.
Swygart: Anyway, when in doubt, go to All Music Guide!
Dom: They are a "post-grunge foursome"
Dom: Insofar as they formed after grunge finished.
Swygart: Who are? Athlete?
Dom: I m keeping on topic; If this goes down well, I could be writing for Pitchfork by the end of the week.
Swygart: They re like the Beta Band as visualised by the writers of Teachers.
[bad UK adult comedy about, um, teachers ed.]
Swygart: Except worse.
Dom: AMG s similar artists list includes Leaves and British Sea Power.
Dom: And Beck, but AMG compares every fucking artist to Beck.
Swygart: Leaves I will take. But British Sea Power TWAT Athlete.
Swygart: BSP - now, if they d been nominated, I d be interested.
Swygart: But they weren t.
Swygart: Instead, we got Athlete.
Dom: They would have made for an interesting offcentre indie pick.
Dom: But, instead, the "cray-zeee in-deee" pick of the year was Athlete.
Swygart: The worst thing about Athlete = the sheer inevitability of the selection.
Dom: True, true.
Swygart: Pushed hard to radio for at least a year now, floundering commercially, a bit left-field , re-releasing all their singles like bastards, dull as horseshit.
Dom: They re a Jo Whiley band.
Swygart: It was her that first played Athlete, I think...
Dom: I mean, we can criticise the rest of the Radio 1 DJs for as long as we want, but major label indie rubbish is Jo Whiley music.
Swygart: Also - it was her that first played
Swygart: The Darkness.
Dom: I ve decided that I despise the Darkness.
Swygart: You would.
Dom: Their drummer has probably been laughing at a photo of a mullet for eight years nonstop.
Dom: It s just so Hoxton.
Swygart: I was about to say you ve never even been to Hoxton, but then again, neither have I.
Dom: But it s too ironic for me
Swygart: Still, I don t mind them.
Dom: They re from Norfolk
Swygart: Thing is -
Dom: Does that make them better or worse?
Swygart: they ve been built up as this wacky funster kind of band.
Swygart: Which they aren t.
Swygart: The Darkness are not funny, apart from the rumour about them and Conor McNicholas, which is bloody hilarious.
Dom: So you re saying it isn t ironic then?
Swygart: Well, possibly.
Swygart: But at the same time, it s the automated response of they re being ironic! by the Colin Murrays of this world...
Swygart: Perhaps they re just trying to have a little fun.
Swygart: The assumption that music that sounds like that HAS to be taking the piss just seems like a kind of reflex action by those that think Athlete are a good thing.
Dom: But The Darkness probably used to run an "Ate My Balls" site back in the late 90s.
Swygart: I dunno.
Dom: And metal is shit.
Dom: It s just goblins and feedback
Swygart: I d very much doubt that anyone I know that likes metal would classify the Darkness as that.
Swygart: That s the odd thing.
Swygart: If The Darkness are all irony
Swygart: How ve they got their album to number one?
Dom: Because irony makes people think they re clever.
Dom: The last time I heard this was when someone jukeboxed it at the student pub.
Dom: And it s just like.... no.
Swygart: I dunno. I do think I Believe In A Thing Called Love is a bloody lovely song.
Swygart: The rest, I could take or leave, and I won t be buying the album.
Dom: Are they meant to be Queen then?
Dom: Or Meatloaf?
Swygart: Again, that is also odd, cos I fucking hate Queen.
Swygart: Do you reckon the Darkness had a hand in House Of Rock?
[bizarre, late-night animated comedy starring dead rockstars ed.]
Dom: Which Mercury Music Prize nominee would have loved House of Rock, though?
Swygart: That s an interesting question...
Swygart: How about Eliza Carthy?
Swygart: Cos we re not gonna link to her in any other way, are we?
Dom: Yeah, go for that.
Dom: Say it s her favourite TV show.
Dom: AMG calls her "progressive folk".
Dom: This is her ninth album.
Swygart: I think she might be the only artist that s previously been up for the Mercury on this year s list, though I d imagine both Radiohead and Coldplay were too.
Dom: She played on Mermaid Avenue as well.
Dom: This is the thing though, tokenism, is it a good idea? As Terry Christian would say.
Swygart: Not really, no.
Swygart: It s like I felt last year -
Swygart: If you really give a shit about classical and jazz and folk -
Swygart: Why have you shortlisted the Electric Soft Parade?
Swygart: There were five or six guitar bands on last year s list, and there are again this year.
Swygart: If classical and jazz and folk matter that much, why do you need all this guitar stuff? Why not pick two or three classical albums?
Dom: But what are the Mercury meant to be?
Dom: Q or the NME?
Swygart: I think it s more likely the review section for the Sunday Times, actually. But seriously - putting token albums just seems pointless. Everyone knows they won t win, because it s always moderately popular stuff that does.
Dom: Except Talvin Singh.
Swygart: Though on the other hand, you could argue that it helps boost the sales and image of artists - I m tinking of the buzz that surrounded Kathryn Williams in 2000 - she really was not that well known before then.
Dom: I tell you what d help these artists more: the fucking music press pulling their damn finger out and covering music outside of whichever damn buzzword they ve written on the whiteboard that week.
Swygart: Never happen.
Swygart: Still, if you fancy, that could bring us neatly onto The Thrills.
Dom: It s like NAM never went away.
[no, not Vietnam; NMEs New Acoustic Movement, circa 1999 ed.]
Swygart: I swear I liked them when I saw them live.
Dom: Are you sure you weren t watching Red and Meth instead?
Swygart: Really unnerved their keyboardist at the aftershow thing an all.
Swygart: No - thing is - they do have some good songs.
Swygart: But no charisma At All.
Dom: I mean, they re just The Flaming Lips.
Swygart: And the singer s voice is pretty lame also.
Dom: Except... duller.
Swygart: Horrific band name also.
Dom: Completely innacurate.
Swygart: I don t think they re ever going to get better, either.
Dom: Can they keep it up with some fame?
Dom: Or are they just going to do a Supergrass/Suede style collapse to singles charting at 27?
Swygart: They have potential. But it just really doesn t seem like they ll fulfil it, and they ll carry on down their increasingly average road to being the new OCS.
Dom: Are they NUROCKREVOULTION?
Dom: I worked out another thing wrong with the NME the other day. You know when they had that wimmin only issue? And they called it the "No cock revolution"?
Dom: They should have called it "The broad band revolution"
Swygart: Stop using slang from the last century. It ll confuse the kids.
Dom: You know what the kids do like, though?
Dom: Not Dizzee Rascal, that s for sure.
Dom: I mean... the album charted at 40.
Dom: Just think about that for a second.
Dom: Is their a single magazine that didn t go with Boy In Da Corner as their lead review?
Swygart: Hmm... probably not.
Dom: And yet... 40.
Dom: Point of course being, garage music really doesn t sell copies.
Dom: At all.
Swygart: But at the same time, he hadn t had much radio exposure.
Swygart: And it s not really the kind of genre that shifts that many albums.
Dom: That s why all the old So Soliders have gone R&b
Swygart: And yet, the singles off his album have actually done quite well.
Swygart: I Luv U went #26 with no radio play.
Dom: I still maintain that "Blackmarket Boy" shits all over this album.
Dom: Wasn t it C-listed?
Swygart: And Fix Up Look Sharp was top 20.
Swygart: Fix Up Look Sharp was B-Listed.
Swygart: But at the same time, The Thrills were A-Listed and only made #33.
Dom: I think Dizzee Rascal s fans put me off really.
Swygart: Dizzee is also going down the chart fairly slowly too, only dropped nine places this week.
Dom: They re all white guys with deliberately messy hair and stupid tee-shirts and dads who play golf.
Swygart: Well, the ones who write about him are, anyway.
Dom: Has he got any other fans?
Dom: I mean, if his critical fanbase was as widely spread as his full fanbase...
Swygart: I think I sort of agree with what Playlouder said about it, though, in that he s more promising than anything.
Dom: He d be Gareth Gates.
Dom: His beats are dreadful.
Dom: I mean, who makes them?
Swygart: His voice is certainly a unique one, though.
Swygart: And quite an interesting one too.
Dom: I have an aversion to 2step, to be honest.
Swygart: I don t really know anything about garage, other than that it was invented by Dane Bowers, and he seems a bit of a nob...
Swygart: Rather like Lemon Jelly, in fact.
Dom: Dane Bowers invented Lemon Jelly?
Swygart: I meant the nob bit.
Dom: Lemon Jelly...
Dom: How to describe them to the unwitting....
Swygart: I reckon they ll win.
Dom: Basement Jaxx crossed with Dick and Dom?
Swygart: If they dunno who Lemon Jelly are, how the hell they gonna know Dick and Dom?
Dom: Dick and Dom are actually massive in America. They do Vegas. They just go onstage and hold bananas. They re like a two man flashmob.
Dom: But, back to lemonjelly.
Dom: I m pretty sure its meant to be all written in lowercase.
Swygart: Well, so is ballboy. And they re fantastic.
Dom: And silverchair
Dom: But it s...
Dom: What are lemonjelly?
Dom: Except two c*nt stoners?
Swygart: Graphic designers.
Swygart: Idols to people who wear Turin Brakes hoodies.
Dom: It s dance... but it s funeee. And you cant dance to it.
Swygart: Do you reckon they re mates with Rhys Ifans?
Dom: They re mates with Mark Woolson.
Swygart: Anyway - I reckon they ll win.
Swygart: Dance-y types haven t won in ages, and they seem the safest choice post-Talvin Singh which I think has scared the Mercury panel off selecting anyone who hasn t gone near the top 40 previously.
Dom: Surely it s a guitar year, though?
Swygart: Hmm. Don t think so.
Swygart: You had two guitar albums win before Ms Dynamite.
Dom: I still think The Darkness sound like a Mercury band.
Dom: They like tame weirdness.
Dom: Having said that, that could apply to lemonjelly as well.
Swygart: It does.
Swygart: And maybe it applies to Martina Topley-Bird too.
Dom: She was the real shock pick of the year, surely?
Swygart: She used to sing with Tricky.
Swygart: Back when he was good .
Swygart: Though I ve not really heard anything of his that I can remember.
Swygart: And she s done the whole Later With Jools thing.
Dom: She s a bit dinner party, agreed?
Swygart: And she s on One Little Indian, and her album s called Quixotic.
Swygart: So, yes, she is.
Swygart: I thought Need One was a really good single.
Swygart: But then I saw her on the aforementioned Later With... and she seemed rather dull.
Dom: Let s see what AMG says.
Swygart: Which was disappointing really.
Dom: She s worked with David Holmes as well.
Dom: And according to AMG, she played bass on a Primus album.
Dom: I find that quite hard to believe.
Swygart: You never know.
Swygart: She has QOTSA guesting on her album.
Dom: All of them?
Swygart: Lanegan and Homme at least, can t remember if Oliveri did too.
Dom: Which one s the guy who gets his dick out all the time?
Dom: I guess he d just run around making a mess.
Dom: Talking of complete messes....
Swygart: Now, the Thrills must ve breathed a sigh of relief at realising that maybe they weren t the worst named band on the list after all.
Dom: Floetry... could be a new member of Black Eyed Peas
Dom: Have we actually heard any of their work?
Dom: Two girls give it some jazzy-pop-rap, right?
Swygart: Apparently so.
Swygart: Presumably with poetry elements.
Dom: So... Luscious Jackson then?
Swygart: Now, they ve been nominated for this Shortlist Prize in the US too.
Swygart: So I m assuming something must be going on.
Dom: Only band to make it to both?
Swygart: And it s quite probably very, very average.
Swygart: Oh, maybe Radiohead did too.
Swygart: Or Coldplay, or someone.
Dom: When in doubt, ask AMG.
Swygart: But Radiohead and Coldplay...
Swygart: Well, should we even bother?
Dom: They re good for cheap laughs.
Dom: Chris and Gwyneth are the new Kurt and Courtney!
Dom: Has the NME tried that line yet?
Swygart: Give em time, tho.
Dom: And Radiohead....
Dom: I mean, a load of fringes, and a twat, and that s it.
Swygart: Well, they re probably relieved that they don t have the worst album title in the list either.
Swygart: Cos Floetry s one is called Floetic.
Dom: Not Justified then?
Swygart: Anyway - Coldplay and Radiohead aren t going to win.
Swygart: Cos everyone s heard of them
Swygart: And them winning wouldn t mean shit.
Dom: Well duh.
Swygart: Thus, the Mercury wouldn t mean much either.
Dom: The Mercury s for new exciting upcoming bands.
Dom: Like The Thrills.
Swygart: Or, er, Soweto Kinch.
Swygart: And his hip-hop saxophone.
Dom: Is he just some dude that DJ Shadow fans like?
Swygart: I don t really know.
Swygart: I think he s this year s token jazz.
Swygart: Which means next year we get a folk album and a classical, and maybe a guitar album with some harmonica or something.
Dom: Speaking of tokenism, Terri Walker. She s got a top 20 name, at least.
Swygart: She is being pushed by Trevor Nelson.
Dom: I d like to push Trevor Nelson.
Swygart: She s had one top 40 single, about #38 or thereabouts, R1 B-List.
Swygart: It wasn t very interesting.
Dom: New.... Beverley Knight?
Swygart: I m trying to remember it, and I keep getting it muddled with the Romeo/Christina Milian thing.
Swygart: She s been on Later with Jools too...
Swygart: And her album s called Untitled, I think. Which is very... dull.
Dom: Distinct lack of ideas.
Dom: Must try harder.
Dom: That sums this year s awards up really.
Swygart: Yeah... see what you ve done there.
Swygart: Anyway... shall we pick a winner?
Dom: A desired winner or a likely winner?
Dom: Lets do both.
Swygart: Desired - on quality, probably Topley-Bird.
Dom: I ll go with Kinch.
Swygart: On principle, probably Soweto Kinch, cos I ve not heard two of them, and there s no way in hell I m picking anyone that has a name as awful as Floetry.
Dom: Likely... it has to be The Darkness.
Dom: The tabloids like them as well.
Dom: They re like the Lock Stock of bands.
Swygart: Yeahhh... but I still see them getting pipped.
Swygart: The Thrills last single doing so badly must help their chances, and Athlete are re-releasing another of theirs...
Dom: So your choice would thus be....
Swygart: Thus making it the worst thing ever, and coming full circle nicely.
Dom: Stick a fork in it, it s done.
By: Nick Southall, Dom Passantino, and William B. Swygart
Published on: 2003-09-08