Safe Mercury shortlist once again raises questions about prize's purpose

Damon Albarn

Groupe / Damon Albarn 159 Views comments

After grime was properly recognised at last year’s Mercury, the album prize is back to playing it safe, rewarding commercial success rather than creative innovation

The “token jazz album” has been part of the Mercury’s DNA since the prize’s inception in 1992. These brassy outliers – from that year’s Bheki Mseleku to Dinosaur in 2017 – never win, making their nominations seem like that Christmas card to a long-estranged acquaintance that you can’t quite bring yourself to stop sending. Once again, there is a jazz album on this year’s list – Sons of Kemet’s excellent Your Queen Is a Reptile – but for the first time in years, British jazz feels central to culture: vivid, youthful and relevant, intertwined with sweaty dancefloors rather than confined to rarefied enclaves.

Just as the Mercury gave grime its dues in 2016 and 2017 (this year limited to Novelist, for Novelist Guy), in 2018 we might have seen the token choice taken seriously, with – humour the thought – more than one jazz contender. Kamaal Williams’ The Return is oddly absent, and albums by Tenderlonious (The Shakedown featuring the 22archestra), Zara McFarlane (Arise) and Joe Armon-Jones (Starting Today) were similarly worthy of recognition.

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