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The Mercury Music Prize is far superior to the Grammys

This year's Mercury Prize winner, James Blake, performing at First Ave in May
This year's Mercury Prize winner, James Blake, performing at First Ave in May
Photo By Anna Gulbrandsen

For a high school/college kid in the early '90s, it was easy to get fed up with the U.S. mainstream's increasingly homogenized take on popular music -- especially whenever the disappointing Grammy Awards came around every February.

The Grammys have always had an elderly, buttoned-down air to their winners, and artistic merit is trumped by corporate strength on a consistent, embarrassing basis. Since its launch in 1992, the Mercury Music Prize has championed the best U.K. and Ireland albums and represented the tastes and trends of younger, more discerning listeners. Based upon its winners, it has always seemed -- despite its ever-present sponsorship straight from the start -- like an award for enlightened music fans instead of ignorant stuffed shirts.

See Also: James Blake at First Avenue, 5/1/13

Just to give a little background, the Mercury is the musical equivalent of the Booker Prize in literature and the Turner Prize for art. It does away with all of the tedious categories and sub-genres plaguing the Grammys, and culls their list of nominees from all types of music. Only one Album of the Year is awarded. That's it. No muss, no fuss -- actually, being the U.K., there's bound to be plenty of fuss, but that's all part of the fun.

In the past, I also kept up with the U.K. music scene via NME and Melody Maker (RIP), but the Mercury Prize shortlist, usually announced about two months before the winner is unveiled, frequently helped guide my musical tastes much more than the Grammys ever did. Today, I still turn to the Mercury Prize to not only discover new artists but celebrate those who I've already grown to love, like the winner of this year's prize, James Blake.

That's not to say that the Mercury always gets it right. M People over Pulp and Blur in '94?! Roni Size over OK Computer in '97?! Ms. Dynamite over David Bowie, Doves, and the Streets in '02?! And don't even get me started on Speech Debelle winning in 2009?!?! But more often than not, the winners are truly worthy of the award and the acclaim, and a large batch of Mercury winning albums sit prominently on my racks and routinely get played with pride. But the Grammys make their share of shameful oversights far more frequently, with Celine Dion's Falling Into You winning out over Beck's Odelay and the Fugees The Score in 1997, or Steely Dan's execrable Two Against Nature being chosen over Radiohead's Kid A in 2001 (just let that disconcerting bit of history sink in for a second).

Primal Scream's Screamadelica won the inaugural Mercury Prize in 1992, over fellow nominees the Jesus and Mary Chain (Honey's Dead), Sainte Etienne (Foxbase Alpha), and U2 (Achtung Baby). By comparison, the Grammy for Album of the Year went to Natalie Cole's innocuous Unforgettable, which turned out to be anything but. And from that point on, I paid close attention to the eventual Mercury winners but more specifically to the coveted ten albums on the shortlist, which kept me musically current in the dark times before instant downloads, album streaming, and social media. My friends at Let It Be were obviously paying close attention as well, getting in imported vinyl pressings of the winners and nominees and proudly displaying them on their new arrival racks.

That temptation proved to be impossible to resist, despite the rather hefty price-tag for imports. But those records went on to be some of my favorites of all time, with the Mercury (and the relative hype surrounding it) introducing me to the musical splendors of PJ Harvey, Portishead, Supergrass, Massive Attack and many others. When the bands came to the States, they played intimate clubs here instead of the large venues they were accustomed to playing back home. I connected with these bands in a way that I never would have without the Mercury Prize.

 

That type of inspiration and influence never filtered down from the Grammys, a show obsessed with making up their tired minds about what aging, grey-haired musician or young female vocalist they were going to shower with awards. The Mercury was THE music award for me at the time, and I found instant kindred spirits in anyone who could discuss the shortlist with alacrity and insight.

The Mercury expanded in 1998, going from 10 nominees to an even dozen, and while that year's winner, Gomez's Bring It On, is a decent record, I was stunned that it won over the Verve's Urban Hymns, Massive Attack's Mezzanine, Pulp's This is Hardcore, or my dark-horse pick that year, Propellerheads' Decksanddrumsandrockandroll. (The Grammy that year deservedly went to Dylan's Time Out Of Mind, and I can't find fault with that.) I picked up their (expensive) import double LP at Let It Be as soon as the shortlist was announced, based solely on the strength of the stellar, Shirley Bassey-driven single, "History Repeating" and its totally awesome album name. Taking a chance on albums like that made me feel like I was in on a secret. For hardly anyone I knew was listening to Propellerheads at the time (or much of anything else from the shortlist), so whenever I had friends over, I would play those records and subsequently blow their minds.

That, in my opinion, is the ultimate power and beauty of the Mercury Prize -- to get someone thousands of miles away to totally fall for music they would not have discovered otherwise. In the U.K., the Mercury is routinely criticized, politicized, and downplayed, as any award for creativity inevitably will be, but thankfully there is enough distance from the center of that tastemaking storm here in the U.S. so those clouds of judgment never tarnish the award in my eyes. Damon Albarn, perhaps still bitter from Blur losing out on the award both times they were nominated ('94 for Parklife and '99 for 13), rejected Gorillaz inclusion in 2001's shortlist by famously saying that winning would be "like carrying a dead albatross around your neck for eternity."

It's understandable that artists pillory the legitimacy and exercise of giving out any award for creative endeavors, but the simple fact is, the nominees and winners of the Mercury Prize are among the best creative artists in music. While the Mercury Prize will never be the sole arbiter of my musical taste, I will continue to pore over the shortlist in a way I never will with the Grammy nominees -- no matter how many times they give Arcade Fire the Album of the Year.

The Mercury Music Prize is far superior to the Grammys

Here is the 2013 Mercury Prize shortlist (one of the best list of nominees in recent memory), with Album of the Year being awarded to James Blake's Overgrown on Wednesday night.

* Arctic Monkeys - AM
* David Bowie - The Next Day
* Disclosure - Settle
* Foals - Holy Fire
* Jake Bugg - Jake Bugg
* Jon Hopkins - Immunity
* Laura Marling - Once I Was an Eagle
* Laura Mvula - Sing to the Moon
* Rudimental - Home
* Savages - Silence Yourself
* Villagers - {Awayland}

And just check out the history of the award. There's a lot you probably already own, or would be worth a listen.


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