The first text arrived just hours after the shortlist for this year’s Choice Music Prize was announced. ‘‘Turn your face to the wall,” it read. ‘‘No Future Kings of Spain? No A Lazarus Soul? Shame on you.” And with that (only half-joking) message, my tenure on the judging panel for this year’s Choice Music Prize, Ireland’s relatively newly-established equivalent of the Mercury Prize, began in earnest.
Never having judged anything in my life before, when the call came in September from one of the Prize’s two coordinators, Irish Times journalist Jim Carroll, I was both flattered and a little nervous of what might lie ahead of me — would disappointed bands come after me with pointy sticks? Considering that the award is open to any artist with an Irish passport who has released an album within the correct timeframe, that makes for a lot of sticks.
As it transpires, the bands have been the last people I’ve had to worry about. Their followers, however, are more irascible and determined. While no one has yet attempted to sway my vote by plying me with chocolates and flowers, there have been plenty of unexpected text messages and high-octane conversations, where people have told me in no uncertain terms who they think should win the prize. Three days before the awards, all I can honestly say in response is that it’s anyone’s game.
There are ten brilliant acts – ranging from electronica to trad – nominated for this year’s prize. They are: Adrian Crowley (Long Distance Swimmer); Cathy Davey (Tales of Silversleeve); Delorentos (In Love With Detail); Dry County (Unexpected Falls); The Flaws (Achieving Vagueness); David Geraghty (Kill Your Darlings); Kila (Gambler’s Ballet); Róisín Murphy (Overpowered); Stanley Super 800 (Louder & Clearer); and Super Extra Bonus Party (Super Extra Bonus Party).
To some, taking home the award on Wednesday night from Vicar Street may not mean a significant boost in monetary terms – the winner receives a cheque for €10,000, provided by IMRO and IRMA – but, as previous winners the Divine Comedy and Julie Feeney have experienced, it will ensure a huge publicity boost for them. The prize matters. A lot.
Over the past months, it’s hardly any wonder that I’ve been listening to the albums intently. I keep thinking of the words of Antony Hegarty, of Antony and the Johnsons, when he won the Mercury Prize back in 2005 – the prize, he said, was like ‘‘a contest between an orange and a spaceship and a potted plant and a spoon’’. All the artists truly have in common is that they’re gifted. But decisions have to be made.
Right now, there are four albums I believe would be deserving winners of the prize; if one of them nabs it, I’ll go home happy. When all 12 judges – drawn from print and radio outlets – get together on Wednesday to whittle the bunch down to just one album, there will be arguments; there will be drama.
But I’m looking forward to the process. In the few short years since its inception, the value of the Choice prize has been shown, not necessarily by the decisions made by the judges, but by the amount of debate, arguments and passion it has aroused in fans of Irish music. We won’t necessarily get it right, but Irish bands will gain a little extra attention through the process. That’s the best result of all.