Is the SAY Award better than the Mercury Prize?

Opinion: Is the SAY Award better than the Mercury Prize?

Absence of Scots, Welsh or Northern Irish artists makes for a strange Mercury shortlist, argues David Pollock

We can say that shifting the date of the SAY (Scottish Album of the Year) Award's longlist announcement from May until the first day of August was a strange call, what with the Edinburgh Festival's preview performances starting on the same day and with much of the nation's arts correspondents hurrying around trying to get their coverage sorted. But on the other hand, maybe it was a stroke of genius. After all, only a week after the announcement of the Mercury Prize's shortlist, it was possible to compare and contrast the pair with both still fresh in the mind.

What I'm trying to say here is that looking at the latest Mercury shortlist and thinking, 'hmm, that's quite shit', then looking at the SAY and letting out a 'wow, that's pretty good actually!' can only reflect well on the SAY. I mean, the Mercury has its moments; in Nadine Shah's troubling meditation on immigration Holiday Destination and Sons of Kemet's confrontational and sonically outstanding Your Queen is a Reptile, there are two deserved potential winners whose lifting of the prize would be a real statement.

But otherwise? Noel Gallagher's Who Built the Moon? feels genuinely honest, as the work of a fairly content guy in his fifties with lots of vinyl in his garage, playing music which excites him. That it's one of the stand-outs, though? Arctic Monkeys, Florence and the Machine, the perfectly pleasant nu-soul of Jorja Smith or the tuneful pop-rock of Wolf Alice… It's a list as predictable as the Brits circa 1985. Is Noel Edmonds free to present it, if they need him?

That SAY Award list, though… And yes, I know it's twice as long so has more space to move, but why not try picking any ten records from it and seeing how many duffers you can find among them? And some of the choices which have found their way on there: the glorious, unvarnished disco-punk of Golden Teacher's No Luscious Life; the experimental drone mantra of Happy Meals' (to be referred to with the suffix 'now known as Free Love' or 'formerly known as Happy Meals' for some time yet; presumably McDonald's told them to quit it) Full Ashram Devotional Ceremony (Volumes IV - VI); Siobhan Wilson's gorgeous, haunting There Are No Saints; the Spook School's punk-pop tribute to trans life Could It Be Different?.

Even the old-stagers don't feel like they're on there just because they were the only bands some nominators could think of. The new-look Franz Ferdinand's reinvention with Always Ascending has been widely regarded as a success; Karine Polwart's A Pocket of Wind Resistance with Pippa Murphy is the soundtrack to the stage show of (almost) the same name, and Polwart's most ambitious project yet; and as for previous winners Young Fathers, Cocoa Sugar is arguably their career high so far, and surely a strong contender to make them the first artist to win the SAY for a second time.

As a number of people have remarked upon since this year's SAY announcement, the one glaring admission on the list appears to be Gerry Cinnamon's Erratic Cinematic, the product of a genuine phenomenon and working class musical folk hero of the kind which just doesn't seem to exist elsewhere; an artist who is arguably as popular as Ed Sheeran in Glasgow but increasingly unheard-of the further you travel from the city. For what his success represents as much as the music he makes, it would have been nice to celebrate the fact an artist like this can exist in Scotland. But, according to the SAY, nobody placed him on the Eligible Albums list during the open-submission month of May; not the artist, his management or any of his thousands of fans. Arguably, this apparent – and non-existent – 'snub' by the music industry is perfectly in keeping with his strategy to avoid mainstream channels, which has been wildly successful for him so far.

Anyway, it's probably tempting to draw easy parallels from the difference in quality between the SAY and the Mercury this year: that Scots are better at music than anyone ever, or that the lack of Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish artists on the Mercury list makes it – as one joke online had it – the 'most Brexit Mercury ever' (Shah and Sons of Kemet may disagree). What's more likely is that the SAY's completely open submissions policy makes the resulting longlist more diverse and democratic; no fees are paid to enter, the public can flag up eligible albums beforehand themselves, and the fact that 100 industry figures select the list makes it as free from cliquey bias as possible, no matter what some insist.

While its true that there are probably dozens of good albums on indie labels around England which could have borne a place on the Mercury list, however, the absence of Scots, Welsh or Northern Irish artists this year is an interesting point, and a chance to show some sort of solidarity and interconnectedness between musicians everywhere.

In addition to the SAY, there is also a Welsh Music Price (Gruff Rhys, Sweet Baboo and H.Hawkline were on last year's shortlist) and a Northern Irish Music Prize (past winners include Foy Vance and SOAK), not that you'd know it if you didn't live there. Perhaps, in addition to their own prizes, winning any of these three awards could also result in a bye onto the next Mercury list? It might be one way to improve it, at least.

So which one is best? Here's the SAY Award 2018 Longlist in alphabetical order:

Adam Holmes and The Embers – Midnight Milk
BABE – Kiss & Tell
Best Girl Athlete – Best Girl Athlete
Blue Rose Code – The Water of Leith
Catholic Action – In Memory Of
Chris Stout and Catriona McKay – Bare Knuckle
Elephant Sessions – All We Have Is Now
Franz Ferdinand – Always Ascending
Golden Teacher – No Luscious Life
Happy Meals (now known as Free Love) – Full Ashram Devotional Ceremony (Volumes IV - VI)
Karine Polwart with Pippa Murphy – A Pocket of Wind Resistance
Kobi Onyame – Gold
Martha Ffion – Sunday Best
Mogwai – Every Country's Sun
Neon Waltz – Strange Hymns
Out Lines – Conflats
Pronto Mama – Any Joy
Siobhan Wilson – There Are No Saints
The Spook School – Could It Be Different?
Young Fathers – Cocoa Sugar

…and here's the Mercury Prize 2018 shortlist, also in alphabetical order:

Lily Allen - No Shame
Arctic Monkeys - Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino
Everything Everything - A Fever Dream
Everything Is Recorded - Everything Is Recorded
Florence + the Machine - High as Hope
Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds - Who Built the Moon?
King Krule - The Ooz
Novelist - Novelist Guy
Nadine Shah - Holiday Destination
Jorja Smith - Lost and Found
Sons of Kemet - Your Queen Is a Reptile
Wolf Alice - Visions of a Life

The SAY Award Shortlist will be announced on Thu 23 Aug, before the award ceremony itself takes place on Thu 6 Sep in Paisley Town Hall.