Losing the pop plot

The Mercury Prize shortlist has just been announced and, as usual, it's a politically correct muddle, complains Andy Gill
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The Independent Culture

Once again, the announcement of the Mercury Prize shortlist prompts not so much anger as perplexity.

It has become an annual ritual: 1. A conclave of music-industry folk emerges from what one imagines to be a fraught period of horse-trading, infighting and base-covering, to announce the dozen albums that have been deemed worthy of consideration as the best British release of the year. 2. Disinterested parties peruse the list, brows furrowing. 3. A few months later, more music-industry types feast themselves silly at the award ceremony, as the judging panel battles its way to a compromise winner. 4. The winner is announced, and depending on how they've handled the free booze, either thanks their manager, publicist, label, etc., or insults their rivals as they pick up the award. 5. Winner's career goes down the dumper.

Whether last year's winners, Franz Ferdinand, will be able to buck this trend remains to be seen, but past experience suggests not. Gomez, Pulp, PJ Harvey, Badly Drawn Boy, Talvin Singh, Roni Size/Reprazent, Portishead, M People, Suede - the Mercury Prize roll of honour is littered with artists whose careers subsequently suffered a precipitous decline. It's probably too soon to tell if Ms Dynamite and Dizzee Rascal will follow suit, which leaves just the inaugural winners Primal Scream as the survivors of what appears to be pop's poisoned chalice. Watch out, Kaiser Chiefs!

There have always been debates about how the nominees are chosen. Chief complaint is not so much the overt tokenism that ensures representation for a folk act and a jazz act but the more subtle tokenism that seeks to make the list a rainbow coalition of races, sexes, styles and, for all I know, creeds - a gutless, politically correct affair which, in the best New Labour business-friendly manner, somehow manages to placate all of the major record labels, too. Indeed, some years it has seemed as if the nominating panel have been more concerned with advertising their own hipness than with reflecting the true state of British music.

Admittedly, last year's nominations resisted this tendency, with a list dominated by such mainstream heavy hitters as Amy Winehouse, Basement Jaxx, Joss Stone, Keane, Snow Patrol and The Streets. But this year's list swings back towards the usual mix of the trendy and the tenuous. How on earth, one wonders, did Hard-Fi make it on? I hold no brief for The Libertines, but wouldn't they more accurately represent that constituency? And aren't Maximo Park just a low-wattage substitute for bands such as Kasabian and Razorlight? As for The Go! Team, if only their postmodern genre-mixing crossovers were as well effected as those of Gorillaz or (The Real) Tuesday Weld - or maybe that should be: if only Gorillaz and (The) Real Tuesday Weld had line-ups as young and multiracial as The Go! Team?

Any discussion, of course, has to acknowledge the elephant in the room: Coldplay's X&Y stands out like a Ferrari in a dole-office car park. If the Mercury Prize is intended to nurture talent, as previous years' choices suggest, then what is the point of including the latest multi-platinum-selling album by the biggest band in the world? If popularity - a crucial, nay, definitive aspect of pop music - is a serious factor in the decision, then all the other nominees might as well stay at home on award night. But if it has no bearing on the prize's destination, and some "lesser" artist wins out, how could that be construed as anything other than an almighty snub to Coldplay?

Given the panel's desperate desire to appear hip and cutting-edge, some of the nominees could be easily predicted. After awarding the prize to Franz Ferdinand last year, there was no way that their heirs apparent, Kaiser Chiefs, were going to be left off the list. And MIA, the Anglo-Asian garage-rapping daughter of a Tamil Tiger, is exactly the kind of act through which the judges profess their connection to "the street". Antony and The Johnsons are such a critical cult favourite that they, too, were a shoo-in for the list, while The Magic Numbers have likewise accumulated enough of a groundswell of approval that they could not be ignored. But it's in the fringe nominations, the also-rans, that the list falls down.

Ultimately, the most frustrating aspect of the list is that it fails to do justice to what has already become the most stimulating, fruitful year in more than a decade for young British pop. Where are the likes of The Coral, British Sea Power, Clinic and Kasabian, to name the four that spring most readily to mind? And if the Mercury Prize isn't supposed to reflect such notable explosions of talent, then what, ultimately, is it for?

THE MERCURY PRIZE PANEL'S SHORTLIST

Antony & The Johnsons: I Am a Bird Now

Heartstring-tugging performances from transvestite torch-singer.

Bloc Party: Silent Alarm

Spikily intelligent indie-rock; these are pop tunes with degrees.

Coldplay: X&Y

Stadium sensitivity-pop, a vast, oceanic bath of hum-along yearning.

The Go! Team: Thunder, Lightning, Strike

Po-mo hip-hop pop that tries too hard to cover too many bases.

Hard-Fi: Stars of CCTV

Feisty ska-pop featuring social observations.

KT Tunstall: Eye to the Telescope

Wonderful reassertion of classic female singer-songwriterly virtues.

MIA: Arular

Anglo-Tamil patois patter set to springy techno-garage beats.

Polar Bear: Held on the Tips of Fingers

Adventurous second album from the jazz quartet with the two-pronged sax attack.

The Magic Numbers: The Magic Numbers

Charming harmony-pop from the 21st-century Mamas and Papas.

Maximo Park: A Certain Trigger

Frenetic punk-pop coming from Newcastle.

Kaiser Chiefs: 'Employment'

Sparky new-wave pop, as catchy as it's clever.

Seth Lakeman: Kitty Jay

West Country folk singer's original songs about his local, Dartmoor, myths and legends.

ANDY GILL'S ALTERNATIVE DOZEN

British Sea Power: Open Season

Arboreal and maritime metaphors abound in this engaging blend of the anthemic and the idiosyncratic.

Ian Brown: Solarized

The former Stone Roses singer's most accomplished realisation yet of his world/dance/rock/groove blueprint.

Cassetteboy: Mick's Tape

A mix-tape of a different order, with often hilarious dialogue cut-ups punctuating bizarre groove creations.

Clinic: Winchester Cathedral

Songs of mystery and imagination, delivered from the hidden corners of pop history.

The Coral: The Invisible Invasion

More everyday psychedelia from the most extravagantly-gifted, eclectic young band in Britain.

Brian Eno: Another Day On Earth

Soothing but stimulating ambient textures and Eno's lyrical reflections.

Fried: Fried

Beautifully realised retro-soul stylings fronted by the best young female singer to emerge last year.

Kasabian: Kasabian

Indie-rockers invade the mainstream with their hugely confident, Oasis-like, swagger.

Jamie Lidell: Multiply

One-man soul band whose vocal gymnastics are as impressively singular as his electronic cut-ups

Roots Manuva: Awfully Deep

Far and away the UK's premier rapper; intelligent, artful and amusing all at once.

Robert Plant: Mighty Rearranger

The most assured release of the Zep frontman's solo career, a soulful, sophisticated, world and blues crossover.

Real Tuesday Weld: I Lucifer

Concept album about Satan, set to languidly theatrical grooves, heavy on the samples.

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