The Mercury Prize 2016: A bad year for debuts

Breakthrough names usually win it, but they’re light on the ground in this year’s shortlist. Is a long-time legend about to bag the hippest prize in music?

Mercury Music Prize 2016 nominess featured image Every year it’s a source of fierce debate – and derision – among musos, journalists and hipsters on Twitter. But whether you agree with it or not, the Mercury Prize shortlist is renowned for acting as an indicator of key themes, ideas, styles and concerns in contemporary music.

The shortlist is usually awash with the latest breakthrough names – the bands and artists with a ‘bit of buzz’ around them, and usually the ones that didn’t make the clinically careful cut of the Brits. Last year the upstarts who earned that coveted Mercury seal of approval included Slaves, Wolf Alice and SOAK. The year before, Jungle, Kate Tempest and FKA Twigs got nods for their boundary-pushing debuts.

In fact, four of the last seven Mercury Prize-winning albums came from brand new names – The xx in 2010, alt-J in 2012, Young Fathers in 2014 and Benjamin Clementine in 2015. Recent shortlists have rarely featured less than four first timers, to the extent that it’s almost become Mercury custom to champion a crop of new kids on the block.

Yet surprisingly, the 2016 judging panel has opted to include just two debuts on its list – the most obscure record in the set from little-known jazz outfit The Comet Is Coming, and the first album by Anohni, a former Mercury winner as Antony and the Johnsons. Filling other sought-after slots are five time Mercury nominee Radiohead, three time nominee David Bowie, and former nominees Savages, Michael Kiwanuka, Bat For Lashes and Laura Mvula.

The pioneer pomp of the likes of James Blake, alt-J and Young Fathers has been notably lacking

It’s certainly a curious development. The Mercury Prize prides itself on being the champion of musical innovators; indeed, its website boasts that the Prize is “the music equivalent to the Booker Prize for literature and the Turner Prize for art”. What’s the reason for this uncharacteristic lurch away from a trend as old as the Prize itself?

The all-powerful panel is in no way obliged to award debuts; indeed its arguably a reflection of a job well done that such considerations aren’t pandered to. If debuts weren’t the best, then they weren’t the best – and there’s no rule that says innovation has to come from a fresh spring.

However it’s not only this year’s shortlist that goes against the grain. Interestingly, this year’s judging line-up represents another Mercury first: the panel is for once made up of as many artists as journalists and industry experts. Even more interestingly, Kate Tempest, Jessie Ware and Wolf Alice’s Ellie Rowsell, artists who all scored nominations for their debuts, are sitting on the other side of the desk.

Might this more balanced panel, weighted less than usual in favour of press and publicity minded figures, explain the move away from rewarding highly-hyped, breakout stars? And as such, could this year’s shortlist, tightly focused on quality musicians by quality musicians, be the best shortlist ever?

Image: Juan Bendana

2016 shortlister Anohni won the prize in 2005 as Antony and the Johnsons

Debut records released this year which might ordinarily have struck a chord with a Mercury panel include the excellent punk-mayhem effort from Spring King, Merseyside glam-rockers and Steve Lamacq favourites She Drew The Gun, and Radio 1 favourite Jack Garratt – just some examples of new artists doing interesting things. Yet it hasn’t really been a year of earth-shattering, groundbreaking debuts – the pioneer pomp of the likes of James Blake, alt-J and Young Fathers has been notably lacking.

When you stop and think about it, it makes entire sense that the dab hands are pulling in the accolades; why shouldn’t Radiohead and David Bowie, with a collective 85 years of career experience, be making the most laudable, intelligent music of the day? The follow-ups and late career highlights of the last year really have stolen the show, and the panel should be commended for fearlessly recognising that.

In fact the panel, half of whom are below the age of 35, has selected a list of nominees with an average age of 37 – and half of those nominees are four albums or more into a career. The irony won’t be lost on the Mercury organisers that in picking a younger, hipper, more artist-orientated panel of judges, they’ve wound up with a more mature shortlist that isn’t hot on the heels of the latest ones to watch.

It seems that in music, 2016 has been the year of the experts – one for the old dogs with quality tricks. Perspiration, it turns out, is innovation – who’d have thought?

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