Choice Music Prize has been many things over its short existence.
From a celebration of the undeniable successes of Irish music and the key funder of the early releases from several artists, to having a sense of being a bit too ‘industry’ and a little too hip, the annual event certainly draws attention to both the Irish music scene and the people involved. Which, we guess, is kind of the point.
The key facts for 2020. As usual, ten acts were put forward by a panel of judges as representing the best ten full-length releases of the last year (the prize relates to albums released in 2019). Singles are based on radioplay and a system we don’t really understand within RTE, but it doesn’t matter too much: the single is symbolic anyway, while the album receives an actual prize.
As is typical, the nominations cause a stir, both for who makes the shortlist – discussed on the night by a group of judges, with a €10,000 prize awarded to the album voted the winner – and for those who don’t. This year, for example, relative unknowns like Maija Sofia, Junior Brother and Sorcha Richardson made the shortlist, with big name releases from the likes of Kodaline, Hozier, Westlife and industry buzz band The Murder Capital missing out.
In defence of the reward’s slightly hip tendencies, it is billed as the ‘best’ album (unlike the song award given on the same night, which is clearly simply for the most popular). The judges have no contact between them (they’re not made aware of each other’s involvement) until after they’ve made their nominations. In other words, they’ve genuinely concluded the ten albums that make it to the night itself are the ten that deserve consideration.
For those of us not in the room, what Choice is mainly about is the live event in Vicar Street. As far as live events go, it’s a slightly odd, bitty one. Filmed for TV (you can catch it on RTE in mid March) and broadcast live on radio, each act gets three songs, and the gaps in between are filled with some pretty insipid interviews backstage, and the frantic changing of the kit ready for the next person to step up.
Mid way through the night – this year, as opposed to regularly – Louis Walsh made an appearance, collecting the award for Westlife’s ‘best song’ (read most popular with the public – it went down like a lead balloon in the room), and promptly suggests the main award should be given to either Dermot Kennedy or Picture This. Which generates a few laughs, as neither have even been nominated.
Those that have made the cut are a mixed bag: there’s folk and historical feminism in the form of Maija Sofia, frantic local rock from Girl Band and favourites Fontaines DC, heartfelt pop-punk from Sorcha Richardson, and a frankly bizarre acoustic vocal mix from Junior Brother. Daithi brings clever dance remixes, and SOAK playful, vocally-led power-chord melodies.
In terms of live performances, several stand out. Fontaines DC remain an absolutely electric live band, and their visceral assault on the senses is a call to arms amongst Ireland’s music fraternity, one met with a certain amount of cynicism in some quarters, but that seems to be the nature of the Irish music scene.
There are a couple of other stand outs: Daithi brings out Paul Noonan, Sinead White and Elaine Mai as part of his vibrant fiddle-meets-beats showing, and Mick Flannery offers up a moving performance despite having rushed over from playing an entirely different show elsewhere in the city.
Maija Sofia, who opens, is clearly quite nervous but also shows massive potential in her evocative, historically-influenced songs, and Sorcha Richardson is ripe for the bounce-along, big chorus crowd.
The winner on the night is one of the two acts who can’t actually make it, Lankum, who can briefly be heard laughing down the phone from their tour in New York as their manager holds up his mobile to the microphone as part of his acceptance speech on their behalf.
Their album ‘The Livelong Day’ is a genuinely treasure, and while they probably went into the night as second favourites behind edgy local punks Fontaines D.C., few would argue that their delicate masterpiece didn’t deserve it.
Signed to iconic indie label Rough Trade, Lankum probably don’t need the €10,000 to produce a follow up to their hugely acclaimed third record, but then again, they did spend their evening stranded on a broken down tour bus, so perhaps it’ll ease that journey.
Like every year, in some senses Choice isn’t much more than an enticing, industry-led sampler of the Irish music scene’s greater whole. It’s not entirely satisfying as either a gig or an awards process. But then again, you have to ask yourself what would work better, and that’s a far tougher question.
This is promoting Irish music to the world, and done with the best of intentions, so we’ll just have to treat the live musical glimpses and the sometimes slightly leftfield nominations in the way they’re intended: this isn’t the Mercury Awards, but it sure is a shining glance at what our scene’s got. It funds creative works, something desperately needed, and showcases a heap of albums that have real quality, but haven’t quite sparked in the charts. A win all round, in other words.