THE BLOG

What It's Like to be a Mercury Prize Judge

17/11/2015 17:56 GMT | Updated 17/11/2016 10:12 GMT

I've just completed a questionnaire about what it's like to be a judge on the Mercury Prize. It's one of those tasks that you accept willingly, without thinking of the resulting quiet storm of quandary. For this is when you are forced to attempt to articulate processes that for months, with the exception of a couple of group meetings, go on only in your mind. Most of that thinking takes place while listening or having listened to the albums. At my desk, on the move, in company or on my own. Weighing up the strengths and weaknesses of a work. Balancing personal biases with objective considerations. Constructing lists of potential nominees that shift around like grains of sand on a beach.

Over 290 albums were entered for the prize this year and of course as a judge you listen to them all. The arguments you might have with yourself about why one album is more deserving than another become laughable when confronted by the arguments of your fellow judges. Your obvious positives can be their obvious negatives. You reappraise your thoughts from a fresh slant. Or you choose to disagree. A subtle balance of objectivity and subjectivity has to be arrived at. And then multiplied by 12. Twelve people who all go through the same processes from their own perspectives.

It hadn't occurred to me until I interviewed him for my show on Xfm (as it was then) that even the Chair of the Mercury Prize can be flummoxed and disappointed that the other judges don't share his tastes exactly. And I've sat on the judging panel with Simon Frith since 2009. That is what is so interesting and exciting about being part of the panel. We all have different tastes and views but we share a common aim to highlight music that has defined, reflected, entranced or enhanced the last twelve months to such an extent that it needs to be recognised and celebrated. Apart we can shout about our enthusiasms in our various roles as writers, broadcasters, musicians and promoters. But when we cast off our own particular prejudices or leanings and come together we can lend greater weight to one set of varied, eclectic and wonderful albums that will hopefully reach a few more people because of their inclusion.

That's the idea anyway. And that's why I like being part of the Mercury Prize judging panel. It is a chance to be involved in something that goes beyond what I do on my own or as part of Radio X. Plus it's fun to debate with other music obsessives who listen, as part of their living, to as much music as I do. The struggle to articulate why one thing is more worthy than another can be a stimulating challenge that is helpful in my day to day role as a DJ and radio producer. But my involvement is just a part of the whole. And this is where the Prize takes on another element that I've often wondered about. One that you could say is a bit spooky.

I've often thought that in some ways the Mercury Prize seems to have a life of its own. As if it is a sentient being. To use a science fiction style analogy the judges, for all their deliberations and discussion, actually become subsumed in the host organism. Although twelve people construct a list of twelve albums and then choose one as a winner, somehow I always feel as if the prize itself decides who should win. Judges come and go on the Mercury panel but the prize remains. An ever changing twelve headed beast carving out new strands of music history as each year goes by.

It is a beast of which dreams and nightmares are made. It can shape lives and futures. It stirs argument, confounds and delights. That it can ignite such fire shows that despite its' age and the changing world it lives in, it still has a valuable role to play. A multi-faceted one as bogeyman, temptress or muse.

Rest assured that within the judging chamber on the night, the pressure and anticipation will burst into rants and raves, conjecture and bile, all to be absorbed and digested by the beast, then expelled as the final result - the Mercury Prize winning album 2015.

Now if only I could have found a way to put that into the questionnaire.

John Kennedy, presenter/producer, X-Posure Radio X, Monday to Thursday 10pm-1am

The overall winner of the 2015 Mercury Prize in association with BBC Music will be announced on BBC Four and BBC Radio 6 Music on Friday 20 November. BBC Four coverage begins at 9.30pm.