After the announcement of Young Fathers as the surprise winner of the 2014 Mercury Prize, Sean Hayes takes a look at what it now means for the illustrious award and asks the age-old question, ‘Is the best music always the most popular?’
BACK IN SEPTEMBER, the shortlist for the 2014 Barclaycard Mercury Prize was announced to, what has become almost tradition, much speculation, controversy and criticism. The shortlist made a very deliberate and audible departure from the alternative rock, indie-pop sounds that critics and listeners of previous years had become accustomed to and, ultimately, tired of. Overall, it was widely agreed that the list made for a more inclusive and dynamic selection.
Quintessentially British acts such as George Ezra and Sam Smith who, any other year, would have been dead certs for a nomination didn’t even get a civil nod from the Mercury powers that be. Earlier in the year, the University Observer argued that “even our own James Vincent McMorrow had been left out in the cold without even a beanie to keep him warm.” Indeed, the only already established names to be acknowledged this year were Bombay Bicycle Club and the once loud-mouthed, brash Damon Albarn. (Let’s not forget the “dead albatross” comment.)
Yet the snubs and exclusions which this years list has become noted for opened up some much needed space for seven debut albums and some unexpected genres. Hip-hop was represented by eventual winners Young Fathers while Jungle offered up funk soul to the table. Royal Blood brought the closest thing to hard rock and grunge that Mercury has seen in many years while the growing appeal in electronic experimentation led East India Youth and former bookies favourite, FKA twigs to each get a shot at the title.
Perhaps most bizarrely was the nomination of Kate Tempest, a spoken word artist and rapper whose debut album made waves across the music scene, her style effortlessly blurring the lines and definitions between poetry and music.
FKA twigs and her euphoric combination of pop, hip-hop and experimental electronica fast became the bookies favourite, uniting fans, critics and other established names alike. The 2012 winners, alt-J’s frontman Joe Newman told the University Observer of his admiration for twigs. “I was a big fan of FKA twig’s first album. I always expected her to be a nominee. I think she might win.”
Alas it wasn’t to be when, last night, Young Fathers were crowned as the winners of the 2014 Mercury Prize. The win was largely unexpected for the Scottish threesome. The alternative hip-hop group hardly featured as bookies favourites and neither did they experience the increase in attention and sales which previous Mercury nominees have become accustomed to. Alt-J gained a quite literal wave of momentum, doubling the sales for their debut An Awesome Wave after their win, while a nomination was all that was needed to push Florence + the Machine’s Lungs to the top of the charts in 2010. In stark contrast, Young Fathers’ Dead managed to shift only an additional 561 copies since their nomination in September.
This, however, raises the age-old question, “Is the best music always the most popular?” Award ceremonies such as the Grammys and BRITs have been glowing beacons of industry self-congratulation and glaring examples that the above question is rarely the case. One is filled with an overwhelming reaction of remorse and exasperation at last years Grammy winning, Record of the Year, “Get Lucky”. Remember that one?
But it’s hard to find fault in Young Fathers debut record and their unique sound. Seamlessly mixing influences from their current home, Edinburgh, with their homeland roots in Liberia and Nigeria. The album is wildly innovative. It incorporates catchy melodies, intricate harmonies and electronic experimentation all to the rhythmic pounding of hip-hop beats. It’s an uncontrived piece, rarely feeling forced or deliberately high-brow. Instead, the result is far more natural with the same grounded, take it or leave it attitude that Young Fathers accepted their award with: “Thank you, we love you, we love you all” “We’ll take it in our stride” and “We go out and do what we do.”
It’s hard to tell if Young Fathers won on purely their musical achievement or if their complete obscurity gave them a final helping. Not that it particularly matters either. The Mercury Prize team may have just saved themselves from certain death by awarding Dead the coveted title and shunning their usual contenders. In turn, Young Fathers’ win should see some much needed attention come the groups way and, after one listen to their unusual sound, it’s easy to agree to that it’s completely deserved.