1999 was a golden year for the Mercury. Big bands came back and delivered. Blur released 13, their last classic album. The Chemical Brothers, Faithless and Underworld stuck to their dance roots, but had an eye on the charts with Surrender, Sunday 8PM and Beaucoup Fish. Welsh music was represented with the Manic Street Preachers and Stereophonics. The Manics capitalised on the success of Everything Must Go and released This is My Truth Tell Me Yours. While it never quite hit the highs of their past, it definitely didn’t sink to the lows of their future albums. The Stereophonics’ Performance and Cocktails showcased their blend of heavy rock, with pop sensibility. Folk was also well represented with Kate Rusby’s Sleepless and Beth Orton’s exquisite Central Reservation. Both albums were at different ends of the spectrum, Rusby more traditional, Orton taking folk song writing, but mixing it with a form of trip hop, to create something new and exciting. This year’s jazz album was the incredible Be Where You Are by saxophonist Denys Baptiste. Thomas Adès was representing classical with piece Asyla. Indian music was on the list too. Firstly by Black Star Liner with their album Bengali Bantam Youth Experience! and by electronic producer Talvin Singh with his album OK. Against the odds Singh went on this year.
World music has always had its critics. To some it’s nothing more of the bastardisation of traditional folk music, as it has to be mixed with something to get the masses interested. To others it’s nothing more than a fad, or flavour of the month. OK is neither of these things. Since the 1960’s pop music has been obsessed and influenced by Eastern sounds and rhythms. Singh decide to switch things around a bit. Instead of creating Western music with Indian sounds and samples, he created Indian music using Western shifts in dance and electronic music. While listening to OK it is hard to tell where the genres mix and meet. At times tabla’s are playing drum ‘n bass beats, while Western instruments take on Indian sounds and accents. What brings it all together however is Singh himself. His deft touch at composition and production means that everything is perfectly balanced. At no time during the album does it feel like it’s going to fall over under the weight of the idea. Final track Vikram the Vampire showcases this perfectly. In the second half of the song, Indian rhythms are swirling around murky synths and fierce breakbeats. But it feels natural and while everything is in constant flux, it works beautifully.
OK is a worthy winner as it went against the grain that year. This is what the Mercury does best. They pick their winner based on artistic merit rather than sales and hype. Instead of awarding the gong the established bands and musician’s they awarded it an unknown producer working on the fringe of the British music scene, but creating exciting and exquisite music that not only blurs cultural boundaries, but helps create scenes and communities in areas where mutual common ground is lacking.