It's a funny old game designed to provoke column inches – much as I'm doing now.
It started innocuously enough. A bright scarlet envelope, waiting for me on the doormat, one gloomy weekday morning. I picked it up and studied the old fashioned spidery handwritten address. It smelt faintly of scent. A Letter from Holland written especially for me.I opened and read it - it said they were suckers. It didn't say it would self destruct in 10 seconds but it might as well have done. My next Incendiary task was to review the Mercury prize at the very same time as the event was being broadcast.
That's right – the instructions were easy enough. Play all 12 albums and decide who I thought should win. As a music lover playing 12 CDs shouldn't be too onerous but there were rules. One after another in succession with only 15 minutes allowed between each album. No illegal substances. Each album would get only one play all the way though. I must sit in a darkened room with no other distractions. The order of play must be random – the names were in the envelope on a dozen separate pieces of paper ready to pick out of a hat. On no account was I to tune into the proceedings taking place simultaneously at a fancy hotel in another part of London. A quick summary of each album – after all, twelve Paul Morley length reviews would bore even the biggest Incendiary fans.
Of course I rang to complain, my contract didn't say anything about this. I needn't have bothered, they were expecting my call. A pre-prepared voicemail clearly told me to get on with it and told me bluntly that when the prize was decided in Amsterdam, they would judge it. Until that date it was the job of the Londoner on the payroll. Like it or lump it, just file the copy.
As the date drew near I mused more and more on the Mercury prize. A PR stunt started in the early 90s by a telephone company with no obvious links to music, which had grown to become an important event on the UK musical calendar. Everyone has heard of it and most could probably name previous winners but I was willing to bet that other than journalists and critics, the amount of people who could actually judge the competition objectively was tiny. Despite the fact that everyone seems to have an opinion on runners and riders, the number who had heard all of the albums competing in any given year would be miniscule.
As with the geek gives us the run down of the rules of slasher movies in "Scream", there are certain unwritten rules which Mercury judges seem to be bound by. The first rule of Mercury club – the big band never wins. Likewise the token folk act. Same story for the token jazz artistes. No matter how good those albums were – they are destined never to win. We are reminded every year that these groups don't really mind – just being nominated brings a big spike in their sales and profiles for the year.
The other rule is never to forget this is a commercial exercise designed to maximise exposure for sponsors. This is why seemingly ridiculous decisions are made. Was Roni Size's album better than OK Computer? Did Gomez and Talvin Singh really produce the best albums of 1998 and 1999? It's a funny old game designed to provoke column inches – much as I'm doing now. I just needed to get inside the mindset of judges such as Lauren Laverne – would any of the nominated sound even vaguely like Kenickie? I remember one year, David Baddiel spouting a lot of pretentious nonsense – what would he do now?
The evening came. Like Renton's self enforced cold turkey session at his parent's house in Trainspotting, I retired to the back room with just a pile of CDs, a flask of tea and some Kendal mint cake to keep me warm.
First up was Bloc Party. Silent Alarm is an album I had already played several times. I didn't really rate it until one day when I turned it up loud and something gave. Playing it again it occurred to me that the singer's voice was limited but effective. A lot of the angular guitar parts have that shimmering sound like early U2 – that is the ones that don't sound like Gang of Four or Orange Juice. It starts brightly taking on the sound of so many 80s bands that you lose track. That cold, atmospheric keyboard sound pioneered by Joy Division. A bass line surely stolen from the Cure? Not a bad album - a great sound with intense highlights in tracks such as Helicopter and Banquet, but disappointingly probably not enough variety for me to mark highly enough to win. Wrote down "samey" in doodled handwriting.
I felt so confident that the mandatory 15 minute comfort break was foregone – straight on through the other side into Polar Bear's Held on Tips of Fingers. I'm not a jazz head but I like this one. Can't really comment on its originality as my jazz knowledge just isn't up to it. Parts of it sounded like music I'd expect to hear in some magnificent Parisian nightclub from years gone by. Shades of the Radiohead track with Humphrey Lyttleton. An album which appears unusual and adventurous mashing genres such as jazz, electronica, rock and hip-hop with energy and enthusiasm. As an album it has good pace and variety. It's one of the token albums which by the unwritten rules of the games can't win – but a good imaginative album nevertheless.
A quarter of an hour later, I was pumped up and ready to go with the Kaiser Chiefs wherever they wanted to take me. Bouncy, tuneful and fun. Early Depeche Mode synth pop meets the more grown-up sensibilities of classic British song-writing which follows a line from Townsend and Davies through to Britpop. Catchy singles which like all great 45s only have to be heard twice to be stored away forever ready to be recalled with a few bars notice. One track sounds suspiciously like SFA's Northern Lights. Towards the end is the best song the Coral never wrote – a sea shanty which put me in mind of James' first album. Not a bad album, certainly more consistent that Bloc Party – good changes of pace throughout and whistle along tunes. Being Bookie's favourite ironically lessened Employment's chance of winning.
I was already on my fourth cup of tea when I pulled out KT Tunstall. Not really an artist I would have bothered with too much. Sounds like Beth Orton but this album is more consistent than any of hers – although Beth probably reaches higher highs. Nice enough, not as edgy as it could have been for me and a bit one paced throughout. There's the haunting one, the ABBA sounding one, the funky one – they all arrive without leaving too much of a dent. Alex Franz Ferdinand had picked KT out as one to watch – must be a Scottish thing.
How many was that? By this point it was starting to become hard work. My mind started to ramble on theme of the modern media. The average consumer is bombarded. I've read but can't remember the figures for how many advertisements our mind has to filter in or out in an average day. To make it all bearable we lean on lists. The media wants an easy life and is prepared to give them to us. Read any magazine on the news-stands – it will be full of lists for us to cling to. Best this, most wanted that, top 20 the other. The Mercury prize gives record stores the opportunity to put stickers on 12 albums and lump them all together in one easy to browse rack. The resulting media interest and airplay will bring consumers over like flies, all dying to try out at least one of the Mercury bands.
Did an obsession with lists somehow equate to the competitive streak which has ensured humans have survived against all odds? As some sort of microcosm of the animal kingdom we need to have competitions – one album or band needs to be better than another just to satisfy our wanton base desires.
Maximo Park arrived and proceeded to perk me up. Standard enough indie pop tunes but well crafted nevertheless. Again lots of 80s keyboard – like the way the singer sounds as if he has a really Northern accent and attempts a "this is Phil talking" style monologue. Shades of Sex Pistols, Joy Division, Stones Roses and The Smiths are all there. The first guitar band signed to Warp – my mind wanders as I start drawing umlauts above every word on the page. No prizes for originality or depth but probably the pick of the bunch so far.
A stabbing pain started behind my eyes which the break did nothing to alleviate. A troublesome one was up next in Seth Lakeman. This album made me sit up and forget any physical glitches. A fantastic voice, with shades of Jeff Buckley and Turin Brakes and haunting lyrics. Great strumming acoustic guitar, simple but atmospheric strings like a film score. A real surprise package this one and the only one so far that made me want to put it on again straight afterwards. The usual English folk themes of ghosts, foul play, shipwrecks and crimes of passion resulting in flowers growing on graves. I could tell this was an ambitious with one aim – to summon up images of Dartmoor and other wild places in England's South West, which it achieves effortlessly. Against strong competition "Kitty Jay" stands out as the best single track I've heard all night.
Thoughts of flirting more with folk in the future stole the break away and I barely noticed when the word "Coldplay" registered. A friend was supposed to be sending me X&Y but hadn't come through. Mixed feelings arose – on the one hand relief that I wouldn't have to sit and listen to a whole Coldplay album. That whining single drives me insane. On the other a feeling that an opportunity might be missed as this is the only time I would feel compelled to listen to this album and attempt to judge it objectively. I might even have changed my opinion of this band – we'll never know. Anyway c/f the first rule of Mercury Club – the big band never wins. I'd gained three-quarters of an hour of my life back.
More than half way though – I felt like chalking a line on the wall like the Count of Monte Cristo. Doubt set in. Anyone imprisoned will surely lose some confidence – loss of liberty must do that to a man used to freedom. How can these albums be compared – all so different. Choosing one over another is subjective. Did Mercury judges have set criteria which each album was judged against? How can feelings about an album be quantified with numbers in such a way? At the end of the day, did they just sit about arguing until someone caved on through sheer boredom and agreed that M People's album was empirically the best on offer?
M.I.A. sparked into life. Definitely the worst one so far for me and appearing at exactly the wrong time. I can appreciate that there is a genuine attempt to fuse hip-hop, banghra, raga and dancehall and do something new. An effort to fuse the sounds of the street in an original and distinctive way. Another part of my brain told me this was like being lectured to by a teenager, even if it is a Tamil teenager. A melting pot and who am I to knock young talent? That said the first album all night that I really wanted to finish almost as soon as it started. I live in East London, everyone talks like that, innit. Maybe I'm getting old.
Down to the last slab of mint cake and tea is getting tepid. Out come my hirsute friends, the Magic Numbers. I know this album and like its airy melodic harmonies. Starting out like the Who but soon settling into shades of West Coast boy-girl bands and Country and Western sensibilities. A real summery sound with the only real complaints being that as an album there isn't a great deal of change – similar sounds and lyrical content dominate. Nevertheless a very strong album which has moved up the order to somewhere near the top.
Should an album with belting tunes lose out to one with more original ideas? This is exactly on my mind when the Go Team! cut loose. An edgy dance floor filler, sounding in parts like the funkiest TV show score never written. A quirky collection of Northern Soul breaks, electro, big drums, hip hop samples and Motown girl harmonies. It should be an eccentric mess but it really works. Some of it reminds me of the best bits of the first Dexy's album. There is even room for Snoopy style piano, last heard on a Felt album. This is funky and fun, jumping all over the place – one track even sounds like My Bloody Valentine with Buffalo Girls rapping over the top. Another reminds me of Boards of Canada if they were tasked with writing incidental music for a BBC sit-com.
Now I'm tired beyond tired. Antony and the Johnsons I am a Bird comes out. A man in a shop told me this album had changed his life. Mind you he did work in an obscure records/clothes shop just off Old Compton Street. Definitely unusual with haunting, double tracked falsetto and androgynous words. Its campy, cabaret style strikes me with rolling piano, melancholy cello and Bowie style sax. Am I alone in thinking of Howard Jones when listening to this? Fantastic, distinctive sound but a little heavy going over the course of an entire CD.
A final sprint over the line with hotly tipped Hard-Fi. In the old days they would have appeared on compilations called the Sounds of the Suburbs or signed for Stiff records. The usual touchstones appear – Clash, Jam etc. Some straight-ahead 80s influenced indie tunes with lyrics about the boredom of British small town life – binge drinking on nights out etc. Bet these boys dreamt of breaking bottles on the adventure playground – but they were probably attending piano and guitar lessons instead. Again catchy singles but not sure the album has enough overall. Imagine Noel Gallagher would like this one. That said, I mark it down as a possible grower which must be played again at another juncture.
Earlier I cracked and put the TV on to see who had actually won at the Mercury ceremony. I can see why Antony and the Johnsons won but wouldn't have chosen it myself. Not a bad album but is it really the best of the past year? So now if you are still with me, the moment of truth. My brain is smashed as I re-read my notes. For what's it worth – I would pick the Go Team! And Seth Lakeman as my favourites. The Magic Numbers and Maximo Park probably just miss out for reasons of originality. OK – I know the drill, I'm only allowed one. The fucking Go Team! it is then.
But would I be playing any of these albums by the time the next nominations came round? Would I even be playing them by Christmas? Had this experience enriched my life? At least for one year I can say that I've actually heard all of the Mercury nominated albums and have the right to give my opinion, not matter how subjective. Bits from each of the albums roll though my head – but I have to clear them. Better refill the flask. Next step is reading every single word of every single book short-listed for the Booker prize – bet Hunter S Thompson would have just said no.
Words: John Cottrill.