The Choice Music Prize is a unique award in the Irish music industry in the sense that the only merit considered is the music. It is awarded to what is considered to be the best Irish album of the year, regardless of how much radio play the band received or how many albums they sold.
Despite such circumstances making the winners a little bit more difficult to predict, the announcement of this year’s winners was still greeted with huge surprise from the audience at Vicar Street last week. Nine of the ten shortlisted artists performed, while the twelve-person judging panel (including Ray D’Arcy, Dave Fanning and Michelle Doherty) deliberated over which of the ten albums should be declared the best Irish album of 2011.
From the moment we walked into the venue, there was discussion about Villagers being not only the critics’ favourite, but also the bookies’, and with indie god (and apparently a huge Villagers fan) Morrissey watching, all evidence pointed towards them walking away with the prize. However in the end, Two Door Cinema Club emerged victorious. Their debut album, Tourist History, narrowly beat off not only Villagers, but serious competition from the likes of James Vincent McMorrow, Cathy Davey, Imelda May and the Cast of Cheers.
Upon receiving their trophy and a cheque for €10,000 (donated by IMRO and IRMA), Two Door Cinema Club announced they would be donating it to Abaana, a Northern-Irish charity set up near their hometown, which works on projects for impoverished children in various African countries.
This decision to donate their prize to charity, while commendable and very generous, is a curious one. The prize’s presumed intention is to help the band’s continued work, and it could accidentally set a precedent for future prize winners (regardless of whether they need the money or not). Ultimately, it was not a bad trend to set, but one that could obfuscate the original aim of the prize.
Regardless of their win, Two Door Cinema Club’s set was not nearly the night’s highlight. Considering their twee indie sound is utterly dependent on a rhythmic beat, they were never going to do themselves, nor the album, justice by playing an acoustic set. It was a somewhat bland set that just got lost in the mix of generally outstanding performances.
Halves’ meticulous instrumentation and atmospheric aesthetic netted them a place on the shortlist, and despite being first on the bill playing to a half full audience, one could easily argue that theirs was the most absorbing performance of the night.
They were followed by our fellow O-Two writers Fight Like Apes, but in comparison to Halves’ attention to detail; this performance just seemed a little messy. With Pockets appearing to be having some sort of pseudo seizure, knocking his keyboard over in an effort to be a bit insane, and spending the rest of the song trying to fix it. It wasn’t the smoothest of performances, but it worked all the same. Their show came with the announcement that this would be the last gig bassist Tom Ryan would play with the band, which seemed to provoke a less dramatic response from the audience than perhaps the band had hoped for.
The same cannot be said for James Vincent McMorrow’s set. As the opening chords of his first song rang out, the audience became silent for the first time all night; all eyes were on stage, completely in awe. James’ heartfelt vocals were stunningly captivating and easily could have been the best performance of the night.
Imelda May was the only artist with a nominated album who could not attend to perform on the night as she was on the other side of the world, touring in Australia.
However, we were treated to the flawless Cathy Davey, showcasing her incredible voice. Villagers’ Conor O’Brien joined her onstage, but by no means did he overshadow her. This was Davey’s second nomination for the Choice Prize, and based on the night’s evidence, it was clearly well deserved. O Emperor’s folk-tinged alternative rock was also well received on the night, but they had an extremely tough act to follow in Davey, and their performance suffered in comparison.
One of this year’s surprise nominees was the experimental Adebisi Shank. Their intense math-rock sound (not unlike 65daysofstatic) set them completely at odds with their fellow nominees. While their uniqueness is undisputed, whether they were ever really a contender for the award is somewhat questionable.
Villagers were the penultimate act on the night and it was really quite obvious just why they seemed to be tipped to win. As the swirling organ of ‘The Meaning of the Ritual’ started, O’Brien’s haunting lyrics cast a beautifully dark atmosphere over Vicar Street. ‘Set the Tigers Free’ was an upbeat follow-up, capitalising on the rapt attention that they had drawn on themselves.
The Cast of Cheers closed the show with their own brand of danceable alternative rock with clever augmentations to the recorded versions of their songs, adding guitar loops and synth to get the audience going and to extend their set. Their performance made it difficult to believe that they’re the youngest band on the shortlist, having only been together for just over a year. Their album, Chariot, was released for free online (via bandcamp [http://thecastofcheers.bandcamp.com/]) making it the only album distributed this way to ever make the shortlist.
The Choice Music Prize ceremony is a night to celebrate the past year in Irish music, and it did exactly that. Two Door Cinema Club may have won the trophy, but based on the performances we saw; nearly any one of the acts could have been declared the winner. A night of mostly incredible performances ranging across a diverse lineup in terms of genres and styles made it easy to see just why the Irish music industry has a reason to celebrate.