Mercury Prize 2018: Wolf Alice are a safe choice, but their album deserves to be celebrated

A former judge gives their verdict on the music industry's most prestigious award

Elisa Bray
Friday 21 September 2018 10:35
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Wolf Alice win Mercury Prize 2018

Every so often, there’s a ripple of approval that the 12 Mercury Prize judges have made the right call. It was hard to argue when Elbow – a band who had toiled over 20 years – won in 2008 for The Seldom Seen Kid, inspired by the loss of a friend. And it was last felt overwhelmingly in 2016, when Skepta won.

I was a judge for five consecutive years from 2011. As we judges were told, the Mercury’s aims were to help people discover new music by drawing their attention to albums that they may never have heard, and to present a snapshot of music that year. Skepta’s self-released Konnichiwa did just that, thrillingly capturing the resurgence of grime.

It also happened in my first year of judging, when PJ Harvey won for her astounding Let England Shake, a body of work so coherent and carefully crafted that it felt like a model for the perfect album. But, as I would learn in the tense and in-depth discussion that unfurled over several hours that evening, not everybody backed it as the winner. So I can well imagine the fevered debate that happened in yesterday’s judging chambers. For a start, Wolf Alice, with two No 2 albums, were big enough to headline the Radio One Stage at this year’s Reading and Leeds Festival.

There has been increasing criticism that the shortlist is too mainstream, and concerns that the award is losing its way. Back when I started following the Mercury, it was the stamp of approval for music geeks, and when I wanted to place a bet at my local bookie, its leftfield status meant they had to look it up. There will always be a big name on the shortlist, because it’s quite hard to drum up wider support for – and draw attention to – an award that celebrates only below the radar acts known to serious music fans.

Since I left the judging panel in 2015, there has been a shake up on the panel: fewer critics, more mainstream radio broadcasters and popular artists, and a chair who heads Radio 2 and 6 Music. You wonder how much this has to do with a shortlist that includes just three debuts, seven Top 10 albums, and one third by household names – Lily Allen, Florence & the Machine, Noel Gallagher and Arctic Monkeys. So what is the Prize’s aim today? Wolf Alice don’t exactly help answer that question.

But the twice-nominated north London shape-shifting guitar band (they call it “rocky pop”) did make one of the best albums of the year – and that we should celebrate. Visions of a Life spans raw, ferocious punk-rock energy (“Yuk Foo”), grunge, folky vocals and brooding dream-pop introspection (“Planet Hunter”), and blissed-out synthpop (“Don’t Delete the Kisses”). To have the expletive-ridden “Yuk Foo” as your album’s second track, and be able to cross genres so seamlessly, is both bold and accomplished. This four-piece could never be described as turgid “meat and potatoes” indie-rock. And in Ellie Rowsell – who was herself a judge for two years - they have a strong, passionate role model of a frontwoman whose cool insouciance suggests the band do exactly what they want to do. But with its across the broad acclaim and commercial success, the album feels a safe choice.

Nadine Shah was the artist who would have received that ripple of approval this year. And I am certain that a few of the judges would have picked her as their favourite. The Sunderland artist’s third album Holiday Destination encapsulates 2018 in its tackling of heavy, and prescient, themes of Brexit, refugees, and divisive politicians through intense post-punk inspired by PJ Harvey. A slow burn of an album, it’s certainly more challenging, but repeated listens reveal melodies that you don’t want to shake off.

As a judge, you feel the weight of responsibility of what it means for a leftfield artist such as Sons of Kemet to be shortlisted – a much-needed boost to their audience and sales – let alone crowned the winner. And, as the outspoken Shah so brilliantly stated: “I need that 25 grand a lot more than a lot of the others. Let’s be crude about it, Noel Gallagher would just buy a pair of trousers with it.”

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