Meteor Choice Music Prize 2014

Dara Higgins takes a look at this year’s Meteor Choice Music Prize nominees, while pondering the wisdom of offering prizes for art. So, prizes for art?

One of the problems with offering a prize for art, is the empirical nature of the exercise. Who gets to say, almost clinically, that this piece of art is better than that piece? Let’s be honest, we all do it, all the time, we do it with books and film, Sky even turned portrait painting into a spectator sport.  However, when we’re being told by an assemblage of music doyens, that This piece is head and shoulders above the rest, because we say so, our collective teeth get set on edge, not least because we’ve already made our personal decision, and our decision is invariably right. We understand our own reasons for liking or loathing something. Sometimes we love something and we’re not even sure why. With the Choice Prize, the process is so opaque. Why is this record better than that, and how was the decision reached? In the past there’s been a sneaking suspicion that the winners of the Choice prize are a compromise, everyone’s second vote, decided on after a lack of agreement on the number one. 

The Choice Prize is a relevant as you let it be. For many, the shortlist is a chance to check out what’s currently supposed to be hot in Irish music. You, random punter, may not have heard of some of the acts involved, you may want to explore further after listening. In the past there’s no doubt that a lot of people were introduced to Super Extra Bonus Party or Adrian Crowley or Julie Feeney via their Choice winning exposure. While there’s always been some “mainstream” acts in the mix, there was a balance struck with lesser known, or rising artistes. Sure, we had The Script and Róisín Murphy and Snow Patrol getting a nod, but we also had countless lesser known, underground acts. I say countless. I could count. I could even name a few, but then someone would come along and complain that such and such isn’t underground, or unknown, or that the whole thing is just a massive, small town, Dublin-o-centric, Whelan’s lock-in circle jerk. Which it probably is.

The panel who decide for us what the best album of the year is are journalists, bloggers, radio deejays. The kind of people that the musicians usually distrust anyway. The received wisdom about music journalists is that people who are both failed musicians and failed writers become music writers. There’s never any musicians on the panel, which is odd, possibly because by wanting to be a musician in the first place you’ve shown a tremendous lack of judgement. The panel is never going to please everyone, any more than the shortlist is. But then, we like a bit of controversy. Like when Tom Dunne chucked his toys out of his gilded pram because pop-larcenists The Strypes weren’t nominated. That might be something the shortlist has gotten unequivocally correct. It stokes debate, though, and debate is good, isn’t it? Like where’s the trad? Clannad had a fucking album out this year, for Christ’s sake. And who’s standing up for Bressie?

There are no previous winners on this year’s list, but there are some serial offenders none the less.

BellX1 are stalwarts of Choice, being, as they were, nominated for Flock during the inaugural year. At the time Paul Noonan claimed that being chosen for Choice was a bigger deal than their Meteor Music Award listing in the same year (for best Irish Act, but curiously, not for best album). Now that Meteor have a glorious union with Choice, there’s no more reason to split hairs. BellX1 were also nominated in 2009 and 2011, but failed to win either. Fourth time lucky, perhaps? Dave Geraghty, ivory tinkler with the Bellies, is now facing his fifth nomination, having had his debut solo album, Kill Your Darlings, overlooked for glory in 2007. He must be sick to death of this charade by now.

Abundant with simple, cyclical piano lines, BellX1 seem to have gone past the smartarse pop-hookery that thus far defined them. In a more contemplative, somewhat epic frame of mind, Chop Chop is quietly confident. There’s always been a canny self-awareness to BellX1, they know whereof their influences originate, and they’ve used them well. To award them the prize would be like when Pacino won Best Actor for Scent of a Woman. Perhaps they deserve the recognition, but it may not be for this particular work. Having said that, Chop Chop is a better album than Scent of a Woman was a film. That was a shit film. Do you remember that movie? Hoo ha! An Oscar? It didn’t deserve an IFTA.

With a comparatively pathetic third nomination are Belfast’s And So I Watch You From Afar. Having failed on two previous occasions, they’ll be hoping that this is their year, despite releasing pretty much the same record again. I’ve never really gone in for their Highlander 3 posturing, but their international success and fervent support suggests that I’m probably wrong. Wouldn’t be the first time. Chances are they’ll be disappointed yet again, assuming that not winning is an actual disappointment to them. One suspects they’ll steamroller on, just as before, and be back on the list in a couple of years, again.

O Emperor and Villagers appear for the second time each, so it would be unfair to refer to them as serial losers just yet. Both bands have released albums that seem similar. Both records are constructed to be albums, suites to taken as a whole. It’s a dying art; oftentimes we’re presented with a collection of songs, the only common thread through being personnel. O Emperor’s Vitreous takes the more linear approach, vocals are distant and layered, the playing precise. It’s a bit Department of Eagles doing All Things Must Pass with rumbles of synths, but contains ghostly pockets of intrigue and the band are clearly at ease with trying to deconstruct and reconstruct their tunes. It’s a better album when it’s loud, particularly on ‘Contact’. Oh, but will they win it? I hear you entreat? I don’t know, they don’t tell me anything. Is it the best Irish album this year? What was that? Well, there’s your answer then.

Conor O’Brien won the Ivor Novello songwriting award for ‘Becoming A Jackal’, the title track of the album deemed, by the Choice acolytes, to be lesser than Two Door Cinema Club’s Tourist History back in 2010. {Awaylands} is a better record than that debut disk. It’s the sound of a band growing up, and out, and all over the place. There are some bands who are releasing their first album on this list, and sometimes it’s dangerous to over promote those overtures, lest the bands in question fail to follow them up, or end up repeating the tropes that got them recognition in the first place. Villagers have released a sophomore record that suggests, as band and as songwriters, they’re getting more interesting, more nuanced and taking far more risks. This isn’t a singer songwriter’s album, this is the sound of a burgeoning band, but we only know this because we have a reference point by which to judge (oops, did I say judge?) it.

Same can’t be said of Little Green Cars, at least not yet. There’s no doubt that Absolute Zero showcases a band who know what they’re about, and have the requisite confidence to pull it off. It contains little or no uncertainty. There’s edges and corners to their music which belie the hype, interesting things that happen among the arrangements, vocals mesh, and are varied, the playing can take some ordinary ideas in tangential directions. LGC’s rise to super stardom has been swift and brutal. All comers have been squashed, and thusly they’ve been installed as the favourites to win this year’s gong. You might think that a band who’ve played on the Jimmy Fallon show in the US of Americay and are rostered on an Island records imprint mightn’t necessarily need the fillip of an earthenware pot or glob of crystal or whatever the actual prize is, but you feel that way because your band weren’t nominated. Just when we were standing atop a hill of unsold CDs proclaiming the end of the record label, this happens. LGC are good, Absolute Zero is a very good record. Maybe record labels know what they’re doing all of a sudden? I thought artists were far too canny this weather to be swallowed up by Island Records, only to be shat out after a couple of years with nothing to show for it but a bill for a 14 berth tour bus that needs cleaning. Next it’ll be payola and cocaine and clean towels backstage. Did we lose a war, people?

While we’re on the subject of bankrupting your record label, there’s My Bloody Valentine, whoseinclusion is akin to Bowie’s on the most recent Mercury list. It’s kind of pointless, but necessary. To ignore a return to the fold as momentous as Kevin Sheild’s would be a travesty, one suspects, and had he released a compilation of after-dinner bum-tootles, recorded in various curry houses over the last twenty years, it would have to be on this list. After all, how could they take themselves seriously in Choice town were they to ignore a band of infinite influence such as MBV. Can’t see them winning. Can’t see them turning up either.

Were Kodaline to win, Choice may have that international cachet it so dearly hankers after. They are, after all, a band destined for the top, whatever that diffuse notion means. Polished to a gleam and with a mainstream emotive weariness, Kodaline are readymade for Middle American MOR radioplay, up there with Maroon 5 and The Script, who missed out on their own Choice award a few years back. In fact, many of the bands and artists on this year’s list have futures so blooming bright, they’d better wear shades. At least that’s how it looks. Maybe the panel want to avoid undermining the whole shindig by giving it to an artist that, shock, no one outside of Ireland knows about, or worse yet, a band no one inside of Ireland knows about. After Super Extra Bonus Party fell off the radar so utterly and completely, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Choice was no more than a Waterford Crystal-ed kiss of death. No one knew where Julie Feeney had gotten to until she reappeared on the nominations list a couple of years ago, and Victory for the Comic Muse, which ambushed 2006’s award, was The Divine Comedy’s poorest performing album chart-wise, since the mid-nineties. So, by packing the ticket with bands who are already a tad successful, and will continue to be, you may think: are Choice covering their arses just a little bit?

Perhaps Mano Le Tough will win it, and punch a hole in that thesis. Acting as the competition’s only curve ball, by dint of the fact that it’s electronic music, which along with trad and metal and scumpunk and so forth, is a genre that’s rarely represented in the list. Changing Days is a fine piece of bedroomatronica that hasn’t a hope of winning the prize because, well, where’s the Grizzly Bear bit? Where’s the Arcade Fire bombast? Seriously, don’t you know anything about music, Mano?

Girls Names get my grammar goat. There’s an apostrophe missing somewhere, but I can’t say for sure. This Belfast troupe play music that’s reminiscent of Xmal Deutschland, heavily plectrumed running bass lines, motoric drumming. It’s dark and stroby, and breaks up the earnestness of the running order a little. It doesn’t, however, offer anything tangible to suggest that The New Life is this year’s love. If this was 1989, I’d bet the house on it, but in 1989 I didn’t own a house. I still don’t.

Lisa O’Neill should win, just because. When Lisa plays and sings you know it’s because she has to. There’s not a great deal going on in Same Cloth or Not precisely because there’s no need for very much else to be said underneath her distinctive voice. The players behind her judge everything perfectly, adding just enough. The lack of baroque arches or the need to sear a guitar “solo” at any stage is good enough for me. Give her the gong, let us go home.

Does that, therefore, mean that I think this album is the best album Ireland has to offer in 2013? No. Clearly that was Beastenders by The Bridges of Madison County and their exclusion from the shortlist is a crime, a heinous one, up there with Thierry Henry’s handball. But hey, that’s how it goes. You’ll never please everyone all the time, so it’s best not to even try. In this regard, Choice should just plough on, regardless of the criticism. The list will annoy some, please some others and be nothing other than a list of albums complied by someone, somewhere, to most. That’s the way it has to be. To think that we, as in the people who buy Irish music, support their scene, play in bands, put on gigs, manage venues and everything else that goes into creating a vibrant, creative atmosphere around the country, have any kind of vested interest in the shortlist is a fallacy. In reality, it ultimately matters not a jot. For when it comes down to it, you cannot judge the amount sweat and tears, effort, energy, fisticuffs, coffee, cheeky doobs, fights with the soundman, flat tyres and wrecked relationships that have gone into the making of any one album. To judge an album, you’re judging a life. To say to someone, your life, your travails, your energy aren’t good enough to make our shortlist is, in the final analysis, the epitome of bogus.

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