Let’s Get Cynical About: The Mercury Prize (2010 Edition)

Ah, it’s that wonderful time of year again when the Mercury Music Prize nominations roll around and we get to bitch about who should have been nominated (for me, These New Puritans were the biggest omission), who shouldn’t have been nominated, and who we think should win. I’m going to use the same format as last year and talk about each of the nominated albums in reverse order of personal preference. Off we go then.

12: Paul Weller – Wake Up The Nation

Paul Weller - Wake Up The Nation

I’m not one to shy away from butchering a sacred cow when I feel it’s warranted, so imagine my disappointment when I found that Paul Weller’s tenth solo record, Wake Up The Nation, wasn’t actually as bad as I suspected it might be. Granted, it’s still not great, and I certainly don’t find it to be the work of genius that many publications have declared it – it’s a pretty mixed bag. ‘Moonshine’, for example is a snappy, high-energy jam, which makes ‘Wake Up The Nation’ sound generic and dated by comparison – and that’s before you get to its clumsy rallying cry of “get your face out the Facebook and turn off your phone”. Ugh. Much has been made of the record’s experimental nature, but in truth these experiments fail as often as they succeed. Kevin Shields, renowned purveyor of “shoegazing bollocks” (Weller’s opinion, not mine), contributes his trademark sound to ‘7 & 3 Is The Striker’s Name’, but ultimately can’t save the track from being meandering nonsense. ‘She Speaks’, on the other hand, is a lot more interesting than the majority of the record, at least. Another major problem with Wake Up The Nation is that it does seem to drag on, a feeling that’s worsened when you consider that a few tracks could have been dispensed with to no great detriment. Paul Weller may have intended to Wake Up The Nation, but by the end of the record he’d pretty much sent me to sleep.

11: Mumford & Sons – Sigh No More

Mumford & Sons - Sigh No More

Mumford & Sons are a band that seems to draw a lot of ire despite their popularity and the largely positive critical response to their debut album, Sigh No More – but I tried to listen to the record with an open mind. And to be fair, on songs like ‘The Cave’, ‘Winter Winds’ and ‘Little Lion Man’ they do conjure up a sense of sweeping emotion pretty well, via loud/quiet dynamics and straightforward, relatable sentiment. Unfortunately, this is pretty much all they do for the entire album, and it starts to wear a little thin – the only diversions are unspectacular acoustic number ‘Timsel’ and album-closer ‘After The Storm’, which don’t particularly help matters. The main problem I have with Sigh No More is that it often feels like Mumford & Sons are having to strive for the authenticity that seems to come so naturally to the shortlist’s other folk acts – for all their heartfelt outpourings, there’s something slightly contrived and hollow about the whole experience.

10: Dizzee Rascal – Tongue N’ Cheek

Dizzee Rascal - Tongue N' Cheek

Some people pay for thrills, but he gets his for free – not that you can stream the entirety of Dizzee Rascal’s Tongue N’ Cheek for free anywhere on the internet, it seems. After trawling Youtube for some of the non-single tracks, I’m starting to wonder whether that was a deliberate decision. Sure, the big pop singles are admittedly pretty ace, but everything else just seems weak in comparison. There’s something plain cringeworthy about ‘Road Rage’s macho ignorance of the highway code, while ‘Freaky Freaky’s sex-related lyrics are so hilarious I’m not sure if they’re so-bad-it’s-good or just plain bad. And sure, I can relate to sitting around playing video games (not Pro Evo though) as much as the next Xbox-owning man, ‘Chillin Wiv Ma Man Dem’ demonstrates that it doesn’t make for a desperately thrilling song. Regardless, I doubt Dizzee will care much whether or not he wins – his successful crossover into pop territory has already done more for him than winning the Mercury again ever could.

9: Kit Downes Trio – Golden

Kit Downes Trio - Golden

Despite being someone who used to play a bit of Jazz piano when I was younger, I always feel a bit lost when it comes to talking about Jazz records. Golden, by the Kit Downes Trio, is most definitely a Jazz record, fulfilling the yearly obligation to give a token nod to the genre. That’s not to say that it’s a bad record, far from it. It’s pleasant throughout, only occasionally threatening to descend into the kind of overly abstract mess that makes me want to switch some jazz records off (it comes closest to doing so towards the end of ‘Power And Patience (The Bear)’, but saves itself just in time). But equally, I’m not suddenly going to think “oh hey let’s put that Kit Downes record on”. Ultimately, I have nothing really bad to say about Golden, nor any gushing praise for it – consider this the yardstick by which I’m judging everything else, I guess.

8: Corrine Bailey Rae – The Sea

Corrine Bailey Rae - The Sea

My first thought on listening to Corrine Bailey Rae’s second album, The Sea, is that she now seems a world away from the girl who breezily sung ‘Put Your Records On’. Of course, that’s understandable, given that The Sea is very much influenced by personal tragedy – specifically, the death of her husband, Jason Rae, two years ago. It’s that sense of loss that runs poignantly throughout tracks like ‘Are You Here’, ‘I’d Do It All Again’, and ‘I Would Like To Call It Beauty’. It’s not all teary-eyed melancholy though – the album mixes it up a little with the likes of bluesy stomper ‘The Blackest Lily’ and the upbeat ‘Paris Nights/New York Mornings’. Her voice is also pleasingly soulful throughout, and still has a girlish charm to it in places. The accomplished nature of the album is great in itself, but fact that The Sea exists at all is testament to Bailey Rae’s resilience. I do like this record, even if it might not be a particular favourite of mine, and its nomination is deserved regardless.

7: Biffy Clyro – Only Revolutions

Biffy Clyro - Only Revolutions

Fans of Biffy Clyro will probably say that this nomination is well overdue, from what I know of the band that seems fair enough. Only Revolutions continues where previous record Puzzle left off, with massive hooks and stadium-filling choruses the order of the day. Lyrically they veer from relatable sentiment to enjoyable nonsense – ‘Mountains’ chorus of “I am a mountain, I am the sea” is just the tip of the iceberg in that regard. There’s definitely a melodic streak running through the album that makes it an effortless (if somewhat lengthy) listen, but there are tender touches on ‘Many Of Horror’ and a glimpse at the band’s more vicious side on ‘That Golden Rule’. Overall, Only Revolutions is a solid and likeable album that doesn’t do Biffy Clyro’s burgeoning status as one of the UK’s biggest acts any harm whatsoever.

6: I Am Kloot – Sky At Night

I Am Kloot - Sky At Nigh

Let’s get a couple of things out of the way first. Yes, I Am Kloot are from Manchester, and are considered to be one of the city’s oft-overlooked gems. Yes, Sky At Night was produced by Guy Garvey and Chris Potter of former Mercury-winners Elbow. Logically speaking then, there’s perhaps a sense that their nomination will set them up to ‘do an Elbow’ – that is, to bring them out of the shadows and into the big success that they deserve. Personally? I don’t think it will. Not because Sky At Night is a bad record, not at all – but even if it did go on to win, it doesn’t have any big grandstanding moments that can quite match the likes The Seldom Seen Kid’s ‘One Day Like This’ in terms of capturing the public consciousness (though ‘Radiation’ has a decent stab at it). But then again, I Am Kloot are a different beast to Elbow – vocalist and songwriter John Bramwell doesn’t deal in swelling emotion, but rather speaks with frank sentiment and clever lyrics. ‘The Brink’ is a particular highlight, turning the metaphorical ‘brink’ into a literal drinking establishment to drown your sorrows in, and even if ‘Proof’ is a re-recorded version of a track from one of their earlier records, it still fits well here. Overall, Sky At Night is consistently good enough to make the band potential dark horses, though I’d be surprised if they do go on to win.

5: Villagers – Becoming A Jackal

Villagers - Becoming A Jackal

As one of the shortlist’s most unknown quantities, making good first impression probably matters a lot more to Villagers than it does to most of the other nominees. Luckily for the man otherwise known as Conor J. O’Brien, the first track of Becoming A Jackal, ‘I Saw The Dead’, does just that – with its eerie X-Files piano and creepy lyrics, it tells an engaging tale. Indeed, O’Brien proves to be an adept storyteller throughout the album – he even manages to make waiting for a bus ride interesting on ‘Twenty Seven Strangers’. It’s not just the lyrics that are impressive, however – musical highlights include ‘Ship Of Promises’ with its cantering drums, and ‘The Pact (I’ll Be Your Fever)’, which sounds like a breezy, understated ‘Brown Eyed Girl’. By the time we reach the slow-building drama of ‘Pieces’ it seems that his transformation is complete – the song begins with O’Brien lamenting that he’s had to split his personality in two, “one for them, and one for you”, before he breaks out into wolf-like howls. Considering that I’d dismissed Villagers off hand when I caught them at Latitude festival last year, I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by Becoming A Jackal.

4: Laura Marling – I Speak Because I Can

Laura Marling - I Speak Because I Can

To say that Laura Marling sounds more ‘grown-up’ on I Speak Because I Can seems like a misnomer seeing as she’s still only 20 years old, but there’s a huskier tone to her voice that lends her a sense of maturity beyond her years. ‘Devil’s Spoke’ is a stirring and powerful introduction, while ‘Rambling Man’ builds up to a stirring climax and the realisation that “It’s hard to accept yourself as someone you don’t desire… as someone you don’t want to be”. Indeed, Marling definitely has a way with words – the album has plenty of clever lyrics such as ‘Blackberry Stone’s “I could never turn my back on the world, for what I lack wouldn’t let me”, while ‘What He Wrote’ conjures up images of a lonely wife left alone as her husband heads off to war. Overall, there’s something effortless about I Speak Because I Can, a feeling that it already sounds timeless – and ultimately, that’s why it trumps the other folk albums in the list.

3: Wild Beasts – Two Dancers

Wild Beasts - Two Dancers

Wild Beasts’ second effort was met with much critical gushing and myriad high-ranking places in last year’s ‘albums of the year’ polls, but I personally wasn’t among those singing their praises. Not because Two Dancers was by any means a bad record, but because there was one major obstacle obstructing my enjoyment of it – Hayden Thorpe’s extravagant, often deranged-sounding falsetto. Well, I don’t know if I’ve just become desensitised, but upon returning to the album I found his vocals less obnoxious – I’d still argue that I prefer Tom Fleming’s smooth baritone, but Thorpe’s vocals somehow seem to make more sense to me. My first impression was that they were a distraction from the shimmering guitars and atmospheric drumming that make the record so sonically interesting, but upon repeated listens the contrast they provide seems more complimentary. And so, even if Two Dancers still isn’t my favourite record on the shortlist, I have to admit that it’s still much better than I originally gave the band credit for.

2: The XX – XX

The XX - XX

The XX produced one of my favourite records last year, and it’s only by the narrowest of margins that they find themselves in second place here. XX is still as wonderfully atmospheric as ever, and beautiful in its simplicity. Fragile guitar lines, minimal beats and affecting lyrics come together to form a deeply evocative package that’s somehow sparse and expansive at the same time. The whole record feels like an intimate, tender exchange between two lovers late at night, and yet the record’s lyrics will no doubt resonate with many, such is their beguilingly simple but heartfelt nature. The XX are favourites to walk away with this year’s prize – if they do, it will be a decision that I completely endorse. The band may have already crossed over into the UK mainstream and won the heart of critics on both sides of the Atlantic, but that shouldn’t take anything away from this spine-tingling record.

1: Foals – Total Life Forever

Foals - Total Life Forever

I’ve already written a whole post about Foals’ second record, arguing that Total Life Forever is this year’s Primary Colours – so I suppose it’s almost inevitable that it would top my list of the Mercury nominees, much as The Horrors’ second effort did last year. The reason Foals just edge out The XX in my eyes is because of Total Life Forever’s landmark moments – ‘Spanish Sahara’ being the biggest and most obvious example, but ‘After Glow’ and ‘Alabaster’ are almost as brilliant. The album as a whole is bleak yet beautiful, and arguably a more cohesive work than the band’s debut, Antidotes. Even the poppier singles (‘Miami’, ‘This Orient’) fit with the album’s feel thanks to their upbeat vibes being undercut with lyrical uncertainty. Overall, Total Life Forever is a significant leap forward from an already excellent debut record, and Foals deserve all the recognition they can (and will) get for it – and even if that doesn’t include ultimately winning this year’s Mercury Prize, they are certainly more than deserving of their nomination.

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