This year’s winner of the Mercury Prize, which is awarded annually to the best album by an English or Irish band, will be revealed Thursday.
Is the award still relevant? The answer, of course, is a resounding yes, as the Mercury Prize even brings valuable attention to the losers each year. But some things need to be brought into focus this year, especially concerning two wildly contrasting nominees -- David Bowie and the 1975 -- and one glaring omission -- Underworld.
As in years past, discussions and arguments will persist in certain corners of the internet -- and possibly within your set of friends -- for weeks to come. Who won and why? Why did several of the losers not win instead? What about the bands that got left out in the cold? You can see and squabble over this year's list of nominees here.
The Mercury Prize is no stranger to controversy, and 2016 will undoubtedly prove no different. 1994 was a particularly egregious case, wherein M People -- name an album or song of theirs, I dare you -- bested both Blur’s Parklife and Pulp’s His ‘n’ Hers, both of which are cherished records.
The award has long been accused of touting long-shot underdogs over favorites. To wit: Radiohead has lost four times. They're nominated again this year for A Moon Shaped Pool, arguably their best album since Amnesiac, which in 2001 lost to PJ Harvey’s Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea, which featured Thom Yorke on backing vocals.
Radiohead should be clear favorites this year, but it seems they can’t catch a break. A Moon Shaped Pool is magnificent; it may, in time, come be regarded the same manner as OK Computer and Kid A. Savages also must be feeling a bit put out after losing in 2013, and they surely won’t win this year with their critically lauded Adore Life.
That's because the clear favorite this year, on paper, has to be David Bowie’s Blackstar. The Mercury Prize has the chance to restore some of the fading shine by crowning Bowie. In doing so, it would be the first year they would award the prize posthumously, which is always a crowd-favorite move. They would also be honoring an icon who has been nominated twice before for albums that are far inferior to Blackstar.
Bowie created a masterpiece with his final offering (though, actually, we found out this week there may be another album in the can for release next year), so a Mercury Prize win would be well-deserved. Blackstar, while light years different in overall tone and texture, recalls the Thin White Duke’s ‘70s heyday in spirit. It's a go-for-broke yet intensely personal and reflective affair, one that suggested another Bowie reinvention, though it proved, sadly, to be a brilliant one-off. For once, the Mercury Prize could do the right thing and name Blackstar the winner.
Problem is, there's a massive new band called the 1975 -- why, for the love of all that is good, they are even on this list? This plays in tandem with the glaring omission from this year’s shortlist: Underworld’s Barbara Barbara, We Face a Shining Future, which like Radiohead’s offering this year, is the band’s best in more than a decade.
To be fair, the 1975, like Athlete and Gay Dad before them, are a band that does not translate properly across the pond. They’re held in higher regard in England, but that admiration isn't always mirrored in the U.S. However, that doesn’t mean their album, I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are Beautiful yet So Unaware of It, doesn’t objectively sound like the worst Smiths' song title of all time. It also fuses so many disparate genres together -- they cite both Boards of Canada and Christina Aguilera as influences -- that no one thread of coherence runs though the LP.
The 1975 are like listening the Arctic Monkeys if all the raucous fun was drained out, replaced with calculated indifference. It’s like a game of three-card monte being played in the middle of Trafalgar Square instead of some dusty Whitechapel back alley. It seems more fun because the surroundings are nicer, but the end result is the same -- you’ve been conned.
Underworld are among a handful of other worthy bands who got left out in the cold this year, slighted in favor of a band who’ll be relegated to the dustbin of pop music. Given the Mercury Prize’s history of awarding the least worthy, the 1975 could very well win this year. It’d be a mistake on several levels, but it’s certainly not an outside-chance-type scenario.
Considering the circumstances surrounding the Bowie album, however, maybe nothing else matters in regard to the other nominees. The award should rightfully be his (or, in this case, his family’s). It’s the most rational choice, and we sincerely hope 2016 is the year the Mercury Prize does the right thing instead of being so married to the idea of being renegades.
As is often the case when attempting such a maneuver, they end up looking foolish in the end more often than not. While the Mercury Prize's prestige is still mostly intact, it’s slowly being whittled away -- an action that can easily be stopped with rational, measured thought. For once.