Sunday 25 February 2018

Radiohead and the Mercury Prize jinx

Sixth roll of the dice: Radiohead lead singer Thom Yorke has been nominated five times before this year's nod - four times with the band and once as a solo artist
Sixth roll of the dice: Radiohead lead singer Thom Yorke has been nominated five times before this year's nod - four times with the band and once as a solo artist
John Meagher

John Meagher

There was little surprise when Radiohead's latest album, A Moon Shaped Pool, was named among the dozen nominees for the Hyundai Mercury Prize last month. It would have been a travesty had it not made the shortlist and, in fairness to the judges this year, they've ensured several wonderful albums are in the mix, including David Bowie's Blackstar - released two days before his untimely death in January - and Hopelessness from Anohni, the artist former known as Antony Hegarty.

It's arguably the best Mercury shortlist in years and one that has seen properly deserving albums acknowledged and less of the box-ticking, obscure and - let's be honest here - politically correct choices of before.

It's Radiohead's fifth album to be up for the gong and they've failed to take the prize on each of the last four occasions. Mercury's floating band of judges has a habit of failing to recognise truly great albums and there's every chance that come Wednesday, Thom Yorke and gang will be left out in the cold once more.

By any reckoning, A Moon Shaped Pool is one of 2016's key releases and offers further confirmation - not that it was needed - of Radiohead's stature as the most essential rock band of the past 20-odd years. One feels it would have been a shoe-in last year, when a largely pedestrian shortlist was eventually won by Benjamin Clementine. The award didn't exactly push his career interstellar, did it?

But these 12 nominees offer far sterner competition - and not just from the aforementioned Bowie and Anohni: Bat for Lashes, Savages and the 1975 are all in with more than a shout, while anyone fancying a flutter could do a lot worse than putting some cash on Michael Kiwanuka, who really impressed with second album, Love & Hate.

I certainly wouldn't be upset to see Bowie enjoy posthumous triumph for Blackstar, a marvellous parting gift to the world, but there really would be a sense of justice if Yorke et al were to prevail, having been overlooked so frequently in the past.

It beggars belief that their 1995 album, The Bends, failed to even get a nomination, although the Mercury did go to another decade-defining album, Portishead's Dummy. Oasis's Definitely Maybe and Tricky's Maxinquaye were in the mix that year, and - somehow - the judges saw fit to exclude The Bends and instead favour such genre choices such as James McMillan's Seven Last Words from the Cross and Guy Barker's Into the Blue, a pair of albums that barely made a ripple in popular culture.

They did get a nomination for their next album, the huge-selling OK Computer, a master-work that helped capture the pre-millennial tension of the time, and yet it lost out to Roni Size/Reprazent's New Forms. It's a perfectly decent album, but not for the first time it demonstrated a Mercury tendency to reward a passing fad, in this case the comparatively short-lived drum 'n' bass genre. Fast-forward 19 years and you'll be hard pressed to find anyone - Roni Size, too, probably - who would argue that New Forms is a superior album to OK Computer.

Radiohead's next album, 2000's Kid A, represented an exciting departure away from conventional rock, but the Mercury judges failed to see its avant garde approach as worthy of nomination. Somehow, Richard Ashcroft's very patchy solo debut, Alone with Everyone, was among the nominations for an award that was eventually won by Badly Drawn Boy's charming debut, The Hour of the Bewilderbeast.

Kid A's follow-up, Amnesiac, is a fine album, but not as essential as Kid A, and yet it got a Mercury nomination the following year.

Of their three subsequent albums, 2003's Hail to the Thief, 2007's In Rainbows and 2011's The King of Limbs, only the middle one secured a nomination and, even then, In Rainbows lost out to one of the most popular Mercury winners of them all, Elbow's The Seldom Seen Kid.

Those who might be of the view that Mercury judges have a thing against Radiohead, should also bear in mind that their frontman Thom Yorke also failed to beat the jinx. His solo album The Eraser was nominated in 2006 but lost out to Arctic Monkeys' Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not, although it has to be said that the Sheffield band's debut album was the red-hot favourite to win that year.

The stand-out favourite from the bookies this time around is David Bowie and Ladbrokes are offering odds of 6/4, with Radiohead in (distant) second place at 7/1. But as I know from two separate occasions as a judge on the Irish equivalent, the Choice Music Prize, bookmakers' odds go out the window as soon as everyone gets into a room together to trash out who's made the best album of the year.

One can only hope that certain prejudices don't colour the decision, including the one that suggests a band of Radiohead's stature - and sales - "don't need" the prize. It's hard to escape the feeling that some previous winners - Benjamin Clementine, Alt-J, Young Fathers and Speech Debelle, to name four comparatively recent 'champs' - have been given the award above more established nominees because they're seen as new and fresh and might benefit from the exposure winning can sometimes bring.

Elbow's Guy Garvey said winning the Mercury was "the best thing that ever happened to us" and the week after the Mancunians bagged the prize, they saw sales of The Seldom Seen Kid rise by 800pc.

But not everyone wants to bask in the glow of the Mercurys. Cartoon band Gorillaz were selected for their self-titled debut album in 2001, but had their nomination withdrawn at the request of bassist Murdoc: "Mercury award? Sounds a bit heavy, man. Y'know sorta like carrying a dead albatross round your neck for eternity. No thanks. Why don't you nominate some other poor muppet?"

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