Each Tuesday, FADER editor Matthew Schnipper highlights an underappreciated release he thinks we need to know about. This week it’s Olaf Arnald’s Innundir Skinni, unofficial runner up for the Nordic Music Prize. Listen to the album’s opener here and read Schnipper’s thoughts about the selection process after the jump.
Last week I was invited to Oslo to judge the first Nordic Music Prize. Seemingly modeled after the UK’s Mercury Prize for best album of the year, I, along with five other jurors, picked from a dozen releases from across Scandinavia to decide what was the best release of 2010 from the Nordic world. Though we only had twelve albums to consider, the process of scaling them down was somewhat massive. Music critics from each country (Finland, Sweden, Norway, Iceland and Denmark) nominated 25 albums. Those got whittled down, then voted on by a smaller committee. That committee also picked another seven records and from the 12 total, we picked a winner. This flow chart should help explain that process.
But, as scientific as that nomination process may be, the act of quantifying “best” is clearly difficult. In 2006, Crash won best picture at the Oscars. Of all of the movies that came that year, it was not the best. No way. This is one man’s opinion, but that movie sucked big time. How did it win the most prestigious film making prize? How did Speech Debelle win the Mercury Prize in 2009? Surely her album was not the best when compared to other nominees like Florence and the Machine or The Horrors? How can something so important be arbitrary? For that matter, how can something so arbitrary be so important?
Just as important as deciding who would win the prize was deciding what the criteria for winning would be. The folks in charge told the jurors—Swedish journalist Andres Lokko, Domino Records owner Lawrence Bell, UK A+R and Quando Quango brain Mike Pickering, Rough Trade owner and woman on the cover of Flowers of Romance (omg!) Jeannette Lee, former Wire editor-in-chief Rob Young and myself—that how to judge was entirely up to us. What made up “best,” it turned out, was a more difficult decision than what the best was. Was this to be a prize about an artist as a whole and not a specific record? About something that sounded current or that we just plain liked the most? Something distinctly Nordic? And what the heck does that mean, anyway?
To start, at least, we tried to cut out the things no one cared for. Robyn was one of the nominees and obviously a big name, though I am not personally a huge fan. I anticipated that the other judges would be and it might be an argument. That was not the case, none of us feeling strongly about Robyn at all and she was set aside. We were all mutually not interested in Paleface and Kvelertak. That left nine albums. From there, we decided the prize should be something that sounded fresh and could only be made now and should ideally have some sense of what it means to be Nordic, however vague that may be. Using those parameters, we set aside almost all the releases. That left Olaf Arnolds and Jonsi. Because that was such a small list, we went back and listened to each of the CDs to refresh. Personally I, along with one other judge, most enjoyed the Radio Dept album of all the records. I did not come into the meeting thinking any artist needed to be the ultimate winner as I wanted it to be a discussion, but in pure blind taste test aesthetic choice, this was my favorite. Still, listening to it with these guidelines, they felt like too much of a throwback to Happy Mondays era pop. Their lyrics are heavily political about current Swedish life, but the overall feel was one we all agreed, for better or worse, was not Nordic-y or 2010-y enough. One by one, we went through and confirmed for various reasons why albums didn’t fit. First Aid Kid? Beautiful album, but straight out of the American south 40 years ago. Dungen are great but heavy throwbacks to My Bloody Valentine or ’80s Sonic Youth. We’d set tight rules, appropriately I believe, and while finding the right fit was difficult, cutting those that did fit not was not. Ultimately we were left with the final two Icelandic entrants, Olaf Arnald’s and Jonsi. This was the only real arguing that happened, even if only our own imaginary straw man to justify the pick. On a day to day listening scale, Jonsi is not my favorite of all the artists. But, again, that’s not what we were considering, so I set aside that taste and thought about him and this album as a statement, something bold and unique and that felt like it came from Iceland, no other place. Arnald’s record had a similar keen sense of place, but felt too lilting, not big. We wanted the first prize to be a distinct statement of arrival that ultimately her beautiful but very quiet record did not have. So, almost unanimously, we voted for Jonsi. The single holdout understood, too.