It may be an industry that's rarely shy of self-congratulation, but the annual spectacle of the Mercury Prize shows the music business at its most smug and least charming.
For the last 19 years, the Mercury has presented itself as a connoisseur's alternative to the Brit Awards, a classy Cannes Palme D'Or to the Brits' trashy Oscars (though it's debatable how genuine an alternative it can claim to be, given that it, like the Brits themselves, was set up by the BPI).
Where the Brits retain an element of democracy, with the Great Unwashed invited to express their tastes via ballot, the Mercury Prize is chosen unilaterally by a shady cabal of a dozen journalists, musos and industry insiders, a faceless and unaccountable politburo who high-handedly dismiss public opinion and instead honour an album which they arrogantly consider to be superior.
This, you may argue, is exactly what music critics such as I do every week, but there's an air of the definitive and the monolithic about the Mercury, a sacred and often baffling verdict handed down like a tablet of stone from some musical Mount Sinai.
The only thing that's certain is that the token folk, classical and jazz nominees will never walk away with the cheque. The winners, over the years, have varied wildly from the bleeding obvious to the wilfully perverse. In the former camp lie the 2006 winners Arctic Monkeys, whose Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not had already reached platinum sales by the time of the ceremony. In the latter, last year's already-forgotten Speech Debelle, who had only sold 3,000 albums at the time of her win, and has barely broken 10,000 since.
Indeed, the concept of The Curse Of The Mercury has entered pop folklore, with the likes of Gomez, Roni Size, Antony And The Johnsons and Talvin Singh either disappearing from view or, at least, failing to ride the momentum to the big time.
This won't be a problem for 2010's winners The XX, whose subtly alluring haunt-pop made them the word-of-mouth phenomenon of the last 12 months (albeit one assisted by a very clever minimalist ad campaign). Their coffee table-friendly debut album has screamed "Mercury Prize" so loudly, for so long, that it almost counted against them: as any bookie will tell you, it rarely pays to be the early front-runner.
The XX are, when all's said and done, worthy winners of this essentially meaningless gong, but that doesn't defuse the feeling that the judges are cloth-eared fools who should be taken outside and pelted with tomatoes for their unforgivable omissions from the shortlist. This year, McAlmont & Nyman's The Glare and Plan B's The Defamation Of Strickland Banks were crying out for inclusion. Last year, the absence of Manic Street Preachers' astounding Journal For Plague Lovers defied all comprehension. Maybe the relevant record labels simply forgot to stump up the £500 fee required – somewhat disgracefully – for consideration by the panel.
This year, like a chimpanzee hitting a typewriter for eternity and finally bashing out Hamlet, the Mercury panel got it right. That doesn't mean that the whole charade isn't deeply wrong.
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