The Mercury Music Prize is far superior to the Grammys

Categories: Music
Photo By Anna Gulbrandsen
This year's Mercury Prize winner, James Blake, performing at First Ave in May

For a high school/college kid in the early '90s, it was easy to get fed up with the U.S. mainstream's increasingly homogenized take on popular music -- especially whenever the disappointing Grammy Awards came around every February.

The Grammys have always had an elderly, buttoned-down air to their winners, and artistic merit is trumped by corporate strength on a consistent, embarrassing basis. Since its launch in 1992, the Mercury Music Prize has championed the best U.K. and Ireland albums and represented the tastes and trends of younger, more discerning listeners. Based upon its winners, it has always seemed -- despite its ever-present sponsorship straight from the start -- like an award for enlightened music fans instead of ignorant stuffed shirts.

See Also: James Blake at First Avenue, 5/1/13

Just to give a little background, the Mercury is the musical equivalent of the Booker Prize in literature and the Turner Prize for art. It does away with all of the tedious categories and sub-genres plaguing the Grammys, and culls their list of nominees from all types of music. Only one Album of the Year is awarded. That's it. No muss, no fuss -- actually, being the U.K., there's bound to be plenty of fuss, but that's all part of the fun.

In the past, I also kept up with the U.K. music scene via NME and Melody Maker (RIP), but the Mercury Prize shortlist, usually announced about two months before the winner is unveiled, frequently helped guide my musical tastes much more than the Grammys ever did. Today, I still turn to the Mercury Prize to not only discover new artists but celebrate those who I've already grown to love, like the winner of this year's prize, James Blake.

That's not to say that the Mercury always gets it right. M People over Pulp and Blur in '94?! Roni Size over OK Computer in '97?! Ms. Dynamite over David Bowie, Doves, and the Streets in '02?! And don't even get me started on Speech Debelle winning in 2009?!?! But more often than not, the winners are truly worthy of the award and the acclaim, and a large batch of Mercury winning albums sit prominently on my racks and routinely get played with pride. But the Grammys make their share of shameful oversights far more frequently, with Celine Dion's Falling Into You winning out over Beck's Odelay and the Fugees The Score in 1997, or Steely Dan's execrable Two Against Nature being chosen over Radiohead's Kid A in 2001 (just let that disconcerting bit of history sink in for a second).

Primal Scream's Screamadelica won the inaugural Mercury Prize in 1992, over fellow nominees the Jesus and Mary Chain (Honey's Dead), Sainte Etienne (Foxbase Alpha), and U2 (Achtung Baby). By comparison, the Grammy for Album of the Year went to Natalie Cole's innocuous Unforgettable, which turned out to be anything but. And from that point on, I paid close attention to the eventual Mercury winners but more specifically to the coveted ten albums on the shortlist, which kept me musically current in the dark times before instant downloads, album streaming, and social media. My friends at Let It Be were obviously paying close attention as well, getting in imported vinyl pressings of the winners and nominees and proudly displaying them on their new arrival racks.

That temptation proved to be impossible to resist, despite the rather hefty price-tag for imports. But those records went on to be some of my favorites of all time, with the Mercury (and the relative hype surrounding it) introducing me to the musical splendors of PJ Harvey, Portishead, Supergrass, Massive Attack and many others. When the bands came to the States, they played intimate clubs here instead of the large venues they were accustomed to playing back home. I connected with these bands in a way that I never would have without the Mercury Prize.

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