ON more than one occasion in the past, I have used this column to lambast the Mercury Music Prize - or at least, those who pick its shortlist - for seemingly aspiring to laud the tedious at the expense of the terrific.

For the last couple of years however, the shortlists and the subsequent winning albums have demonstrated that this is a competition that, more than 20 years in, has at last achieved the status of a meaningful cultural barometer.

I say this not because current and recent shortlists have been packed full of albums that I love.

Every year, should one wish to, one could lament the omission of a favourite album or two, and ridicule the inclusion of others.

It is rather that in the past two or three years, the Mercury Music Prize judges appear to have embraced and in turn reflected the vibrancy of musical culture in the UK.

For much of the first two decades following its establishment, Mercury Music Prize shortlists didn’t lack variety, but it more than often than not seemed to be just for variety’s sake.

Latterly however, that variety feels less like tokenism, and more like a truer reflection of the sheer breadth of quality in British music, whatever its genre.

The Mercury Music Prize, to its credit, has never been a refuge where guitar-based artists and bands can go to pick up some easy acclaim and, for the winners, a few (thousand) quid.

The judges have made some brave choices over the years, but recent winners - James Blake in 2013, Young Fathers in 2014, and Benjamin Clementine last year - demonstrate the riches of a teeming and fertile musical landscape.

Of the above trio, in particular Young Fathers’ magical welding of wit and grit on their winning album Dead, and Benjamin Clementine’s compelling, odd and bravely self-referential At Least For Now demonstrate a culture in rude health.

The Mercury Music Prize also serves an increasingly important role as promoter - in these days when the download is king - of the album format.

Half listening to the radio recently, I heard some expert or other state that there are more than a billion playlists on Spotify, but only 1.5 million albums.

The playlist of course, is a valuable entity in terms of spreading the word about a variety of artists in one block of songs, acting as a sort of ever-expanding and easily accessible library of compilation albums.

But - and it is a massive but - I understand that many of these playlists are generated by Spotify itself, and I have no reason to think that other digital download sites act differently.

Which to my naive mind seems like musical Big Brother. Of course, the corporatisation of music has been there since musicians first entered a recording studio - but some forms are more insidious than others.

Fan playlists are far more acceptable, being driven primarily by enthusiasm for songs or artists, and are more likely to champion the obscure - but even these emphasise individual songs.

In this climate, the album as a collection of 10,11,12 or more songs by one artist, is being diluted as a concept.

Cherry-picking one’s favourite songs is all well and good but a little context - where they fit as a part of a greater whole - is very valuable.

When I was a teenager, I lay in bed, finger poised on the ‘record’ button of my cassette player, ready to capture the latest weird and wonderful songs aired on the John Peel Show on BBC Radio One.

The compilations - mixtapes - that resulted were shared among friends and acted as gateways into new and fascinating musical realms, a single song acting as a pathfinder to an album or albums by the same artist.

Of course, that sort of exploration still happens today but equally, such compilations, or playlists in today’s jargon, are often where the searching stops.

My children, and I know they are not alone, often download albums, save two or three songs, and discard the rest after a few weeks.

I’m not saying this is wrong, and nowadays there is undeniably more music out there to listen to, but I cannot help feeling that the idea of the album has been diminished.

This year’s Mercury Music Prize nominees are a diverse and vital dozen, and all deserve their moments in the spotlight.

Sadly, the culmination of this year’s competition will as always be one of those televised, depressing, ‘star-studded’ gala evenings where the nominees sit uneasily and awkwardly amid an endless sea of tables, while the judges stroke imaginary beards and justify their choices.

The background noise to all this of course, will be the endless chirping of some terminally enthusiastic presenter, usually a radio DJ, who will profess to love everything and will exhaust everyone with their jollity.

This is the bit I have increasingly tended to give a miss to over the years, especially when the victorious band or artist is interviewed.

They are almost without exception completely drunk and would rather be getting even more drunk instead of being asked to spout inanities into a television camera.

Also, they tend to be a bit bashful about their achievement, when really they should be proclaiming it from the rooftops.

At least, whichever of the 12 nominees who is fortunate enough to win the Mercury Music Prize this year, should be bold enough to state that they deserve it.

Not out of narcissism or pomposity, but because they will have been declared the best of a very illustrious bunch.

That will be cause for celebration indeed, in an era where British music can rightfully claim to be a genre-busting world-beater.