Wolf Alice are worthy winners – but the Mercury prize must think bigger

The quartet’s shapeshifting blend of shoegaze, grunge and folk was rightly loved by the Mercury judges, but this is a prize fewer and fewer people care about – so something needs to change

It feels strange to relate that, some years ago, a criticism levelled against the Mercury prize was that its shortlist was too diverse: how, naysayers wondered, could anyone make a meaningful qualitative judgment between James Macmillan’s cantata for choir and strings, Seven Last Words from the Cross, and I Should Coco by Supergrass? It was an interesting point, but recent Mercury shortlists have nevertheless offered an object lesson in Being Careful What You Wish For.

This year’s offered not even a vague pretence of covering a wide range of music: its two jazz entries aside, it was a narrow sampling of albums from the mainstream or, at best, a couple of inches to the left of it. The chairman of the judges, Radio 2 and BBC 6Music controller Jeff Smith, found himself presiding over a list substantially less eclectic than the output of either of his stations: no folk music, nothing avant garde, nothing from the spectrum of hard rock, no modern classical, not even any dance music. The quality of the shortlisted entries ranged from overhyped to pretty good to unequivocally excellent, but there were no curveballs, nothing to frighten the horses, nothing you wouldn’t already know about if you had been keeping abreast of a broadsheet newspaper’s music pages. Dark conspiracy-theory-minded mutterings were heard about the fact that the Mercury, sponsored by Hyundai, is now run by the BPI, the same organisation that runs the Brits, an annual event indefatigable in its efforts to make British music appear less interesting than it actually is.

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