The 12 acts chosen this year show that the music award is as preposterous and tokenistic as ever. You'd be as well inventing your own shortlist, writes Andrew Eaton, with our handy guide
I PROMISED myself that I wouldn't slag off the Nationwide Mercury Prize this year. What's the point? It's been said before, so many times, how self-important and self-deluding this daft prize is. But for some reason people continue to take it seriously, so the Mercury soldiers on, trapped inside its big bubble of pomposity.
Once again, this year, the Mercury makes the lofty claim that it "focuses on the music on the album – it does not take into account album sales, media exposure or live performances". This is a shameless lie, otherwise it wouldn't have taken them so long to notice Richard Hawley, or Belle and Sebastian, to name just two.
Also, pop music, by its very nature, thrives off media exposure and live performance. Would the Klaxons really have made the shortlist last year, or Adele this year, were it not for the hype surrounding them? Adele's album, by general consensus, is the least interesting thing about her – her voice, her charisma, one or two cracking singles, that's where the excitement lies.
High-minded and earnest, the Mercury desperately wants to be music's Booker Prize. But its literary equivalent would not be the Booker; it would be a barking mad shortlist that threw together novels, short-story collections, teen fiction, biographies, non-fiction, graphic novels and probably a collection of poems to counter accusations that the prize ignored poetry. The poetry would, of course, never win.
In other words, the Mercury simply does not compare like with like, and yet, year after year, it pretends it is actually possible to sit down and discuss whether the Klaxons, say, are more deserving of an award than Basquiat Strings.
The fact is, it is quite impossible to reflect the diversity of music made in this country with a shortlist of only 12 albums. In its flailing attempts at a hopeless task, the Mercury resorts to laughable tokenism, while pretending not to – a jazz album here, a folk album there etc, as demonstrated by the potted history on this page. These unspoken categories aren't exactly the same every year, of course, but they vary surprisingly little.
Quite frankly, the whole exercise stinks of British colonial arrogance, insulting everything from jazz and folk to hip-hop and house by patronising the people who make it (black people, in particular). You could make a reasonably strong case that the Mercury is racist, though you'd possibly be undermined by the fact that it has been equally arrogant in its tokenistic treatment of classical music. I still wonder if chairman Simon Frith knows how silly he sounded in 2004, explaining why Thomas Ads hadn't quite made the list when The Streets had. "Fair enough," I can see Ads acknowledging, "I can't rap."
Let's try to be positive. The Mercury reflects the zeitgeist, sort of. There you go. Then again, if you picked 12 favourite albums from the past year, across various genres, so would you. No-one would put your choices in a newspaper but, trust me, your list would be just as good, particularly if you use the Mercury's methods…
Box ticked on shortlist: Dinner-party music by singer with unusual voice.
• Previous entries: Amy Winehouse (2007), KT Tunstall (2005), Joss Stone (2004), Martina Topley Bird (2003), Beverley Knight (2002), Goldfrapp (2001), 4 Hero (1998), M People (1994), Simply Red (1992)
• Who they could have chosen this year instead: Post-Winehouse, there have been loads of them in the past year. Seventh Tree by Goldfrapp would be an obvious choice though.
British Sea Power: Do You Like Rock Music?
Box ticked on shortlist: Brainy art rock. But with tunes, obviously.
• Previous entries: Bat For Lashes (2007), Guillemots (2006), Bloc Party (2005), Franz Ferdinand (2004), PJ Harvey (2001), The Delgados (2000), Pulp (1998), Elastica (1995), Suede (1993)
• What they could have chosen this year instead: White Chalk by PJ Harvey, or Control by Goodbooks – like Bloc Party, but better.
Box ticked on shortlist: "Urban"
• Previous year's entries:Dizzee Rascal (2007), Ty (2004), Roots Manuva (2002), MJ Cole (2000), Asian Dub Foundation (1998), Roni Size/Reprazent (1997), Mark Morrison (1996), Tricky (1995), Apache Indian (1993)
• What they could have chosen this year instead: Kala by MIA, a glamorous, articulate rebel MC with a strong underground following, who grew up on a council estate. Ideal Mercury material in any other year.
Elbow: The Seldom Seen Kid
Box ticked on shortlist: Nondescript but popular indie guitar band (to show that the panel aren't too arty farty)
• Previous entries: The View (2007), Editors (2006), Kaiser Chiefs (2005), Snow Patrol/The Zutons (2004), Athlete/The Thrills (2003), Electric Soft Parade (2002), Turin Brakes (2001), Catatonia (1998)
• What they could have chosen this year instead: Pull the Pin by the Stereophonics. Yours Truly, Angry Mob, by Kaiser Chiefs.
Box ticked on shortlist: Black female singer
• Previous entries: Jamelia (2004), Floetry (2003), Terri Walker (2003), Ms Dynamite (2002), Shara Nelson (1994), Dina Carroll (1993)
• What they could have chosen this year instead: The Blue God by Martina Topley Bird, which could have easily ticked the coffee-table category too, killing two birds with one stone.
(NB: we are not implying here that the Mercury nominates female singers purely because they are black. But it does appear to help)
Laura Marling: Alas I Cannot Swim
Box ticked on shortlist: Singer-songwriter who you haven't heard of, but the people on the panel have. Ideally a bit kooky.
• Previous entries: Fionn Regan/Bat for Lashes (2007), Lou Rhodes (2006), Antony and the Johnsons (2005), Gemma Hayes (2002), Helicopter Girl/Kathryn Williams (2000)
• What they could have chosen this year instead: Talented singer-songwriters most people have never heard of? There are thousands. Patrick Wolf would be a credible choice though.
Neon Neon: Stainless Style
Box ticked on the shortlist: Electronic music that the panel imagine cool young people possibly listen to in clubs.
• Previous entries: New Young Pony Club (2007), Hot Chip (2006), The Go! Team (2005), Basement Jaxx (2004), Lemon Jelly (2003), Death in Vegas (2000), Underworld (1999), Propellerheads (1998)
• What they could have chosen this year instead: Overpowered by Roisin Murphy, or Hot Chip's terrific new album Made in the Dark.
Robert Plant & Alison Krauss: Raising Sand
Box ticked on the shortlist: Lifetime achievement award, or: "We've not nominated them before, have we? Bugger."
• Previous entries: Scritti Politti (2006), Robert Wyatt (2004), David Bowie (2002), Sting (1993)
• What they could have chosen this year instead: Home Again by Edwyn Collins, a poignantly titled tribute to a remarkable recovery from near death, or 22 Dreams by Paul Weller.
Portico Quartet: Knee-Deep In The North Sea
Box ticked on shortlist: Jazz
• Previous entries: Basquiat Strings (2007), Zoe Rahman (2006), Polar Bear (2005), Guy Barker (2002 & 1995), Nitin Sawhney (2001), Denys Baptiste (1999), Courtney Pine (1996), Stan Tracey (1993), Bheki Mseleku (1992)
• What they could have chosen this year instead: Who the hell cares? They're not going to win anyway. Pick something yourself.
Rachel Unthank & The Winterset: The Bairns
Box ticked on shortlist: Folk.
• Previous entries: Seth Lakeman (2005), Eliza Carthy (2003 & 1998), Belle and Sebastian (2004 – yes, really, Simon Frith said they had a "folk sensibility"), Kate Rusby (1999 & 1998), Norma Waterson (1996)
• What they could have chosen this year instead: Versatile Heart by Linda Thompson (featuring Mercury winner Antony Hegarty)
Radiohead: In Rainbows
Box ticked on the shortlist: Radiohead album (or someone who sounds like Radiohead if Radiohead haven't released an album in the past year).
• Previous entries: Thom Yorke (2006), Coldplay (2003), Radiohead (2003), Radiohead (2001), Radiohead (1997)
• What they could have chosen this year instead: Since Radiohead released an album this year, there really is no-one else who could tick this particular box.
The Last Shadow Puppets: The Age of the Understatement
Box ticked on shortlist: Cool band that NME readers like, ideally the Arctic Monkeys or Blur.
• Previous entries: Arctic Monkeys (2007), Klaxons (2007), Arctic Monkeys (2006), Suede (1997 and 1993), Elastica (1995)
• What they could have chosen this year instead: Take your pick. Foals, the Ting Tings, the Enemy, These New Puritans, or whoever else is the hot new band this week.