A music blog from Ireland.
Trash. Vibrant! Fun. Dull as dishwater. Agile lyrics but plods on and on for ages. These are just a few of the notes I looked down at over a cup of coffee in the Morrison Hotel at 17:35 on Thursday evening. It seemed a miracle I was early but there was no one there at all that I recognised. My phone beeped and “NUMPTIE” flashed up in a message from the Choice Prize organiser Tony Clayton-Lea. He was waiting with nine other judges over in the Morgan. Fuck.
It’s horribly awkward having to put on a professional face and walk towards a group of strangers with a smile and an outstretched hand when you’re bricking it inside, guiltsick and heartsore knowing that this big dollop of responsibility will make an enormous difference to someone very soon. I don’t take awards ceremonies lightly and have been through the wars over the Choice Prize for years now. It’s fair to say there are some bridges burnt, if it’s fair to say that Vietnam was a bit of a mess. So when I was asked if I’d like to grab my guns and get involved, well, it seemed like the time had come to put my money where my mouth was.
Imagine my surprise to discover that participating in the selection process for the best Irish album of 2011 was one of the most enjoyable and entertaining experiences I could’ve wished for. Maybe we got lucky with the panel, or perhaps it was the crop of albums that tallied up the individual shortlists, or fortune’s chips just fell that way but it was as fair and civilised as you’d expect of the high courts. All ten artists were listed on a board and each person around the table shared their impressions of the album in question, with a vote cast in its favour that showed its rank in the final. There wasn’t a speck or a shred of the so-called sniping and bitching I’d been led to believe was in store.
Most of the judges around the table brought notes, printed, handwritten, on phones, and definitely in their heads because every record was given proper appraisal round that table. There was no rushing, nor interruptions bar a mid-point loo-break. No animosity, no derison (bar some reviews of my own), and an awful lot of personal reflection and consideration. Why is it a big deal that the process of discerning the winner is restricted to those working in the media? They were courteous and listened attentively, and cross-referenced their views with others’. Perhaps because as Jennifer Gannon pointed out, the public “can’t be trusted with picking a winner”. I might venture my own stab and guess that reviewing albums is quite difficult and it’s unlikely that public voters would sit down and assess each of the contenders. Every year someone seems to ask the question ‘did they even listen to all of the nominated albums?’ and I can say there were very clear indications that all the judges took the proper time and attention to evaluate the final list of records they were given. We volunteered our five favourite songs by email in December but had no involvement in the result of the Meteor Choice Prize Song Of The Year.
I won’t say who voted for what or which albums didn’t score at all, nor will I go over my thoughts on each artist but I went in there with Tieranniesaur and Golden Syrup tucked under my arms like twins. These two records personify 2011 in music as far as the Choice is concerned (my own favourites are here) and I was really interested in hearing what the others thought. I knew that Patrick Kelleher & His Cold Dead Hands were the band I wanted to win, and that Tieranniesaur had made a brilliant, bouncing box-ticker of an album that deserved to do well. And when my turn came, I tried to convey my affection for Golden Syrup because it stands so steadily as a record that indulges and eschews at such an anti-cool slant, so ungainly the lesser-tempered call it hipsterish, following its own flair regardless of the genre cordons that mark hostile territory. It’s perfectly executed in every regard I could hold against it, from its lyrics, instrumental construction, consistency, ambition and craftiness, seeping into the many niches of Patrick Kelleher’s previous efforts to present a smooth and polished follow-on to the mixed-up scratchy surface of You Look Cold.
There were four votes left with four albums still to go and I stuck with my gut and cast Golden Syrup as the best album on that list but was alone in my nomination for PKCDH, and felt a pang when it came to Tieranniesaur’s tally, because I also hold it in such high regard. It’s another quirky effort that made a considerable dent on the music scene despite its non-conformative structure of what should sound like dated fashion-pop. Genres from the Eighties are going to piss off critics until the end of time but the point is to have an ear for what’s done well, rather than what’s just done.
And so the final four contenders were; To The Death Of Fun with 3 votes, Passenger with 2, Ocean of Frequency with 2 and Today I Realised I Could Go Home Backwards with 2. Secret ballot. Piece of paper, ten seconds. Which of those four albums is the best Irish album of 2011? Gut instinct. I barely recognised my handwriting as I wrote the name, it was an instant and automatic reaction. And goes to show why end-of-year lists are bullshit.
And with Scorpio‘s rousing chorus trilling through my head as we sat in the heights of the Olympia for the winning announcement, I willed Jape to win but deep down, knew Lisa Hannigan had it. There was a lot of love in that room for Passenger, the album with its misleading title that never seems to go anywhere. And since that split-second shock when Tony called out for Jape to come and join him on the stage, I’ve known that the best man won. I knew that Paddy K and Co don’t make music to win, that Tieranniesaur win hearts and that Jape’s music wins everything. And with the verdict’s finality, all favourites aside, it’s easy to concede that Ocean Of Frequency is the best of those final four. It’s assured, arranged with such finesse and so richly seasoned with the kind of perfect pop-prog mix that marks out the evolution of the band to this point. And it’s evolution of the Choice too, a second win, though funnily Ritual never seemed to be an obstacle in the deliberations. The financial aspect of winning doesn’t weigh as heavily as the prestige, so whatever about who could have used the cash the most because there’s never enough money in a band, but as he’s set to start a new chapter of his life in Sweden, I think it’s important that the man can move abroad knowing he’s made a successful name for himself at home.
I’m really happy to have contributed to that. It’s all about sharing the best music with people who’ll appreciate it. Now that I can move ahead with my own informed opinion of the Choice Prize at this time, the best part of all for me I think, was regaling the proceedings to my brother over a cuppa the next day, and being able to take down from my CD stacks not only the winning album, but all its peers, and present them to Anton in the context of their nominations and tell him to make up his own mind. In the same way, the shortlist was presented as something that everyone else can assess and conclude on their own terms. It was a wonderful year and there’s an awful lot to love there.