Cries & Whispers: Mercury by name, mercurial by nature

THE SHORTLIST for this year's Mercury Music Prize was made public on Tuesday, and from the look of it, the committee had to put a few albums in there just to make up the numbers. One of the top 10, for instance, is Catatonia's International Velvet, of which the judging panel's spokesman said: "I would defy anyone not to be enchanted by the way Cerys Matthews rolls her Rs." He's right. I yield to no one in my admiration for Matthews's Rs, but the fact remains that International Velvet hasn't a hope in Hell of winning. The same goes for the albums by Robbie Williams, Propellerheads, Asian Dub Foundation, and probably Gomez. They're all enjoyable records, and they all deserve the publicity leg-up which is the whole point of the Mercury Prize shortlist (not that Robbie needs it), but I would defy anyone to put any of those albums on the stereo, sit back and listen, and say, yes, this is peerless. British music has reached no higher peak in the past 12 months. While it may not be plain to see which album will win the prize, it is clear which albums won't.

The obvious choices to take the trophy are Pulp, Massive Attack, Cornershop and - the bookies' faves - The Verve, but the obvious choices don't always win. Last year, Radiohead's OK Computer had the least flaws, but the judges felt that drum and bass was due some recognition, and they chose Roni Size. A couple of years before that, Blur's Parklife was in the midst of changing the course of British music, but because the previous two Mercury Prizes had gone to white boys with guitars, the judges plumped for M People.

With these thoughts in mind, I'd put my money on Eliza Carthy, the dance- folk 16-1 outsider, or John Surman, whose album is "a jazz musician's choral suite", according to the Mercury spokesman. Every year there are a couple of token albums on the shortlist that aren't rock or pop - a bit of jazz or classical or folk, by Courtney Pine or John Tavener or Eliza Carthy's mum, Norma Waterson - and every year they fail to win. It's got to the stage where you just assume they don't have a chance. In order to retain some credibility, the judges can't let this trend continue for much longer, and this year - when the quality of the pop and rock contenders is so mixed - they have the perfect opportunity to buck it.

THE BEST THING about the shortlist is the absence of Jane McDonald's album. McDonald, for those of you fortunate enough not to know, was the crooner on Cruise, one of the many, many docusoaps to have been on our TV screens recently, and thanks to hours of free plugging from the BBC, her record went straight to No 1. And now Lakesiders, the shopping-mall docusoap, has reaffirmed its commitment to ground-breaking television by introducing its own aspiring singer, Emma Boundy. The spin-off album can't be far away. And to think, just a few years ago we thought it was annoying when every soap actor started making records.

FINALLY, an apology. A month ago, in a review of Cruise and Lakesiders, I joked that there would soon be a docusoap about people who watch docusoaps, entitled Bored Viewers. I repeat, this was intended as a joke. But, sadly, I had forgotten just how influential a journalist I am, and the following item appeared on the Noticeboard page of last week's Radio Times: "Are you a keen TV watcher? Do you think docusoaps are boring or the best things to hit our screens? ... If you have strong views about BBC programmes and would like to take part in a TV discussion, call Kelly ..." OK, it's not a docusoap about docusoap viewers, exactly, but it's certainly close enough to make you wonder what they'll come up with next. A documentary about a Sunday newspaper critic who wins the Lottery, or something ...

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