Mercury Moments 2012

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Popular favourites Alt-J have won this year’s prestigious Barclaycard Mercury Prize for their experimental debut album ‘An Awesome Wave’. The hotly tipped win was announced November 1st at a blue-lit ceremony hosted by Lauren Laverne at the Roundhouse in Camden.

It was a rather polite and polished affair for the 20th Anniversary of the awards. The biggest names in the UK music scene watched on in hushed reverence as each of the 12 finalists performed in the run up to the penultimate announcement.

Alt-J, who wrote the album while students at Leeds University, humbly accepted the �20,000 prize, thanking their parents: “for not making us get real jobs,” and later promising to take them out for dinner. They joked that the prize money would barely pay off one of their student loans. But prize money aside, the band’s fortunes are doubtlessly bound to change.

Mulling over the impact the awards might have on the band’s future, Lead singer Joe Newman said: “It's dependent on the material that you have after you win the Mercury,"

"We feel as a group we have a real strong set of songs, future songs. It's about the artist."

Listening to Alt-J’s reaction to their win made me wonder what the Mercury Music Prize can tell us about new music today. There was such a diverse mashup of styles and genres of music on display this year that I found it hard to pin down what this disparate group of artists might suggest about the flavour of music in 2012. I'd like to think the award is given to the artist whose album pushes the boundaries and best captures something of the time we live in. Perhaps there is more to it…

Mercury Legacy

As the dust and glitter of the Mercury press carnival settles on another year I can’t help but wonder if the awards are simply about celebrating the merits of individual artists. If the Mercury Music Prize acts as some form of musical zeitgeist, what can this year’s win say more broadly about where new, contemporary music might be heading? More importantly can the acclaim lavished on the merit of a dozen new artists actually tell us anything about new music today? Beyond the industry’s obvious desire for increased album sales. That after all was the central aim of the awards when they were first set up in 1992 by the British Association of Record Dealers.

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It’s no secret that Alt-J were leaders in the album sales stakes this year. And admittedly I’m a bit of a sceptic so I was interested to hear what the Mercury panel had to say about this year’s winner. Perhaps they could shed more light on what the Mercury’s really stand for.

Speaking after the ceremony, chair of the judging panel Simon Frith reflected on these issues and noted that Alt-J won over the panel because “We hadn't heard a sound like that before.”

“If it tells us something about music now it is that the concept of genres is problematic. All these albums are taking interesting things from all sorts of genres.”

Thankfully, I would have to agree with him. That sentiment pretty much sums up the pleasure of discovering great music for me.

It’s difficult to define what makes something good, but I think Simon Frith has hit the nail on the head. The more you try to signify why music is special by talking about labels or fixed genres you get bogged down in the realm of the predictable. Predictable is boring. More often something is good to me, simply because I've never heard anything like it before. The flavour of great new music shouldn't be static. It ought to constantly evolve in our postmodern era and that’s why Alt-J are deserving winners.

Alt-J deserving winners

Alt- J’s ‘An Awesome Wave’ is brimming with intricate soundscapes. With songs that are fresh, inventive and full of genre-defying surprises. You can’t pin them down to what’s gone before. You can’t label them and why would you want to? It is new music. It’s here to be enjoyed now and classified in retrospect.

In the future Alt-J may well become part of a fixed ‘folk-step’ genre or brave new wave of music. They might become part of a new music scene bigger than the sum of their parts. We'll have to wait and see. In the meantime, as the live performances at last week’s ceremony showed, it doesn’t matter what music is called, or that it is or isn’t part of a definable mainstream scene. That’s not what makes it good. What matters is that you enjoy it, that the music connects to you in intrinsic ways and helps to create live, palpable experiences.

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The joy of listening to music for the first time comes through preparing yourself to meet the unexpected. I think the best thing about the Mercury’s is that they encourage us to be more open to listening to new work. That is so important. In the process you help to support those artists who constantly strive to redefine our perceptions of how good it can be.

I still have many of the past nominees in my record collection and each one says something about that year in music to me. From the post-punk noise pop of Jesus and Mary Chain (1992), to Polar Bear’s (2005) experimental acoustic jazz, through to Alt-J today. The best artists are remembered for creating ‘music moments’ which signify a particular time in our lives.

Each year the Mercury’s offer us these eclectic music moments. They also help us acknowledge that, whatever its style or influences, the music of today will doubtless help inspire the new music of the future. That is, so long as we are willing to give it a listen!

***Since the Mercury’s have helped shaped our music tastes for two decades now, we’d love to know which Mercury nominated albums are your all-time favourites and why?***

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