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Mercury Prize 2011: Adele or PJ? History will Judge...

Posted: 07/09/11 14:16

So, PJ Harvey's Let England Shake is the 2011 Mercury Prize winner. The album of 2011. Apparently.

The Mercury jury's decision last night is possibly understandable. Polly Harvey is one of the most idiosyncratic, unpredictable and creative artists working in music today. Hers is a unique voice in music, across the globe. Personally, I love her - and have done since the rawness of Sheela-Na-Gig.

But the Mercury decision was wrong. And history will surely tell a different story.

The Mercury Prize and the £20,000 cheque is apparently presented to the album of the year. And, good though it is, Let England Shake is not the album of 2011.

The album of 2011 is Adele's 21. Adele has won plenty of other awards already this year, she will have many more to come and clearly doesn't need the Mercury win. But it should have been hers.

Today, probably around now (11am, on September 7th, 2011) someone, somewhere in the UK will buy the three millionth copy of 21 to be sold in the UK, across CD and downloads. This simple transaction will catapult Adele and her stunning, populist, but brilliant album into legend status.

No other album, ever, in the history of music, has sold 3 million copies in one calendar year; in point of fact, 21 will have achieved the landmark in 227 days precisely since its release on January 24.

That is, "no other album, ever." Not Sgt Pepper, Dark Side Of The Moon, Bad, Thriller, Brothers In Arms - all those gargantuan sellers across the past 50 years of music business history. None of them have captured the imagination of the British public so speedily, so comprehensively.

Of course, the Mercury Prize grapples every year with a nightmarish problem. Album Of The Year. What does that mean? The only clue on the Mercury website is the indication that "the music on the album is the only thing taken into account", which doesn't help greatly.

It's true, if this were an award for idiosyncracy and creative innovation, 21 would not be the album of 2011 - it wouldn't be Let England Shake either. It would be James Blake's eponymous album, or Gwilym Simcock's Good Days At Schloss Elmau.

But it isn't - it is an award for the album of the year. And history will surely judge that 2011 was the year of one album. 21 is an album which has spanned generations, which my 11- and 8-year-old daughters sing along to, along with aunties, mums, dads, uncles and grandparents across the country; it is the ubiquitous soundtrack to our time, the background to every TV trail, tear-jerking sports montage or wedding disco playlist worth its salt.

Of course, the Mercury Prize isn't just about popularity. It is designed as an antidote to the blunt instrument of pure consumer favouritism. But herein lies the constant challenge for Mercury - just because an album is popular doesn't make it the best, but it also shouldn't count against it either.

And this isn't an argument that 21 should have won just because it has sold a lot. But it is an iconic album, highly polished, superbly crafted by Rick Rubin (plus a range of other producers), scored through with Adele's own hugely personal lyrics and that exceptional vocal.

At last night's Mercury dinner, Adele was the only artist who didn't perform (because of a chest infection) - but the clip of her performing Rolling In The Deep from BBC's Later which was broadcast to the massed diners served only to underline one fact - she is, currently, in a totally different league. The Lionel Messi of music.

The littering of Mercury's history with a range of "should have been" stories is well rehearsed - Radiohead's OK Computer being beaten by Roni Size, Gomez beating The Verve's Urban Hymns, the Klaxons' victory over Amy Winehouse's Back To Black.

It is a cruel hall of shame. But, to be fair, Mercury's eminent judges have reached the correct conclusion far more often - Primal Scream's Screamadelica, Portishead's Dummy, Pulp's Different Class, Dizzee Rascal's Boy In Da Corner, Arctic Monkeys' Whatever People Say I Am and Elbow's Seldom Seen Kid were all albums of their time and deserved winners.

However, this year's 21 oversight has clear echoes of Back To Black's failure in 2007.

Both albums will go down as the defining album of their particular year - and when we look back on 2011, it will be hard to fathom how Adele didn't scoop this prize.

 

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