How I helped to anoint PJ Harvey at music's biggest night

The Independent's Elisa Bray was one of the judges who chose the Mercury Prize winner this week. She reveals the passions behind the process

Having spent many a summer deliberating on the Barclaycard Mercury Prize shortlist as a music-loving student, advising friends on which artists to put their money on, and then shouting about it from the pages of this very newspaper, I jumped at an invitation to join this year's panel.

It's a funny business, being on the other side of the fence. There's a certain responsibility that comes with selecting the album of the year and, as a judge, with the criticism that you're inadvertently inviting, it's the equivalent to wearing a fur coat. There are always going to be outraged music fans demanding why so-and-so didn't make the shortlist, and this year it was "Why isn't Wild Beasts' Smother on there?", and "Where are The Horrors?"

In 2008, it was declared that the judges "got it right" when Elbow, after 20 years of creating music, secured the prize for The Seldom Seen Kid. A year later Speech Debelle won, over the more commercially successful Florence and the Machine. The Mercury Prize pays no attention to what is commercially successful or indier than thou. Our mission as judges is to select the albums that best represent 2011 in music; albums that we love and we think you'll love, too.

Let me take you back to the beginning of the process, in June. An iPod and two enormous boxes full of CDs were delivered to my front door, and would occupy the floor space of my living room for the next three months. They contained around 250 albums by British and Irish artists, although it seemed more like 2,000. While the competition embraces all genres of music, contrary to what's often believed we received no stipulation on including a token jazz or folk artist. Comparing genres is a challenge best summed up by Antony Hegarty in his 2005 acceptance speech for Antony and the Johnsons' I Am a Bird Now: "It's almost like there's a contest between an orange, a spaceship, a potted plant and a spoon. Which one do you like better? It's mad."

Some albums I found easier to eliminate than others. Other albums I already knew and loved.

Any social life was replaced by nights spent at the CD player and notebook. Each journey on London transport was spent plugged into headphones – not ideal for appreciating King Creosote and Jon Hopkins' beautiful, understated Diamond Mine, but good for brightening the journey with Katy B and Tinie Tempah. A holiday was spent for the most part inside a chalet, further eliminating albums, while everyone else went surfing. I'm not complaining. The main pleasure of being on the panel is the discovery of new artists. I'd somehow missed Diamond Mine, while Gwilym Simcock's piano compositions, making use of the instrument as percussion, might be my first jazz love.

The first judging meeting takes place at a central London venue. I was expecting a casual round-the-table chat over a cup of tea, but a large square table with elegant place names and a dish of fancy biscuits suggested otherwise. We passionately discussed the merits of each album, with a view to reaching the shortlist of 12. Each of the 12 judges (presenters, artists and music journalists) was invited to boldly champion their favourite artists. P J Harvey was my favourite to win, followed by Anna Calvi, the most striking rock guitarist/songwriter to emerge in the past year. I spoke out for hip-hop newcomer Ghostpoet, whose melancholic, bleak portrayal of urban life I find compelling, and James Blake, who turns experimental beats, empty spaces and effects into somethinghaunting, melodic and emotive. If a judge doesn't support an album, they don't speak, which makes for a positive discussion and gives each album a chance. When the shortlist was revealed, yes, I lamented the exclusion of a couple of my choices. However, the shortlist that emerged was an accurate reflection of the judges' enthusiasm, and turned out to be one of the best-received lists by the public in the 19-year history of the Mercury Prize.

Not by everyone, though. At the shortlist announcement on 19 July at the Hospital Club venue, a few metal lovers gathered outside with placards asking why the Mercury Prize ignores metal, in support of their snubbed band Bring Me the Horizon. That was it for two months – except for continuous listening. We would reconvene for the second judging meeting at Tuesday night's awards ceremony at Grosvenor House, where all the artists would be celebrated for achieving one of the albums of the year. The bookies may have decided Harvey as the favourite, but when I walked into the judging room none of us had any idea where the discussion would go and who would win.

This meeting seemed ruthless by comparison to our first meeting. In an elegant room deep within the hotel, the early evening hours were spent discussing the albums. Later, stepping into the Great Room, as music industry types debated the list and swigged wine, the weight of responsibility hung heavy. Nerves were soothed with wine as Tinie Tempah made a storming start with "Pass Out", changing his lyrics to "I've done the Mercurys, but I've never been to Scunthorpe." Harvey's "The Words that Maketh Murder" was stunning. Crowds typically chat through the acoustic and folk performances, but not this night. The room fell silent, mesmerised by King Creosote and Jon Hopkins's tender performance.

During the second half of the judging session, tensions peaked. Things can get heated in that room. People had different views, voiced clearly; pressure mounts as the minutes tick by to the point where we must decide on who is most deserving of the prize. Through discussion, artists were eliminated one by one until one remained. I can't have been the only judge to have felt a pang of guilt on letting some favourites go.

At 9.40pm, just minutes before our deadline, we had the winner of the £20,000 prize. I couldn't be happier with what we all finally agreed was the album of the year. Now we had to face the reaction of the crowd, but I had an inkling it would be less like the ripple of bemused surprise at Antony and the Johnsons' win and more the rapturous ovation that greeted The xx last year.

When the whole room gave Harvey a standing ovation, we knew that we had made the right decision. Still, there will always be dissenters. Trawling through Twitter, I unearthed comments such as, "Surprise, surprise PJ Harvey won the mercury awards. Did the judges listen to any other album but hers?" and another: "This is shocking! Judges need their ears cleaning out!" That's some bad karma.

But it is wonderful to hear that on the back of Harvey's win, Let England Shake is headed for the Top 10. That the prize draws attention to all the albums on the shortlist – and what we found to be the best album of the year – is worth the many hours spent listening to hundreds of albums.

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Farewell, my lovely

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

    Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

    The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

    Commonwealth Games 2014

    Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
    Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

    Jack Pitt-Brooke

    Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
    How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game