Music: The Mercury Music Prize: is there a more baffling award?

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The Independent Culture
For the televising of 1995's Mercury Music Prize-giving, a trio of pundits was assembled to weigh up the contenders, writes Nick Barber. Everything went smoothly, and each album was given its due consideration, until the panel came to Into The Blue by Guy Barker, a jazz trumpeter. Tony Parsons led the debate by saying that, personally, he didn't like jazz. The other panellists concurred. The discussion ended there.

The Mercury Prize, now in its eighth year, has always been the most baffling of record industry awards. In theory, it's simple enough. The trophy goes to the best album released in the past year by British and Irish artists.

But there's the first question: why Britain and Ireland? Why not France and Luxembourg too?

More troublesome is the Mercury's insistence on evaluating classical against folk against jazz: each genre always gets a token album on the shortlist. It would be wonderful if, just once, there were 10 classical albums in the competition, alongside the latest Robbie Williams LP.

Instead, the nominations fall into a pattern. Kate Rusby is there to stick up for folk music. Denys Baptiste is the jazzer. Thomas Ades fulfils the classical quota. The Chemical Brothers, Underworld and Faithless chip in the dance records you don't have to go to clubs to enjoy.

Talvin Singh and Black Star Liner fly the flag for the Asian/British crossover, with Singh doubling as the drum'n'bass representative. The other finalists are generally acclaimed alternative rock acts: Blur, Beth Orton, the Manic Street Preachers and the Stereophonics.

We can all grumble about a few of these names, but as cross-sections go, the list isn't a bad one. The judges no doubt did their best with the brief they were given. The question is whether anyone outside the record industry does or should care which act wins.

What, after all, will the result tell us about the victor or the runners- up or about British (and Irish) music? Surely, come Tuesday evening, the judges will pick a name out of a hat, safe in the knowledge that no one could argue logically whether the choice they've made is the right one or the wrong one.

The Mercury Awards Show: Tues, Radio 1 10.10pm and BBC2 11.15pm

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