Let’s Get Cynical About: The Mercury Prize (2011 Edition)

As promised, it’s time for my annual run-through of the good, the bad, and the token jazz nominations that make up this year’s Mercury Prize shortlist. I’ll be running through the 12 nominated albums in reverse order of personal preference – let’s get this party started.

12. Adele – 21

Adele - 21

Adele’s second album needs absolutely no introduction, as it’s pretty much spent the entire year in the top two of the UK charts. The sheer ubiquity of 21 makes it both the most obvious and the most pointless of this year’s nominations. Seriously, Adele doesn’t need either the exposure or the prize money, so why bother? I suppose it’d look a bit odd to leave the biggest-selling album of the year off the shortlist, but it’d be a complete farce if she actually won. Nevertheless, since I haven’t actually heard 21 in its entirety, I resolved to give it a fair listening to…

…wait, what’s that? There’s only one song from the album on Spotify? Well fuck you then Adele, if you don’t actually want me to listen to your album, I suppose I’ll just have to declare you a complete waste of a nomination slot.

11. Tinie Tempah – Disc-Overy

Tinie Tempah - Disc-Overy

Clearly, Tinie Tempah missed the ‘less is more’ memo that appears to have been passed around a lot of the nominees this year. But that’s ok, he’s got some BANGIN’ CHOONZ INNIT. To be fair, that’s true to a certain extent – ‘Pass Out’ is a legitimately great, smash hit single, and ‘Written In The Stars’ has a genuinely anthemic feel to it. Unfortunately, that level of quality isn’t present throughout the rest of Disc-Overy. ‘Just A Little’ feels like a bog-standard floor-filler, ‘Miami 2 Ibiza’ sees Swedish House Mafia set their dials to “Generic Euphoria” and then fall asleep at the mixing desk, while Kelly Rowland sounds pretty anonymous on the snooze-worthy ‘Invincible’.

And then there’s the underlying problem – that an entire album of Tinie spitting out his clever-clever mix of pop culture references, product placement, male bravado and shout-outs to his family gets a little tiresome after a while. I think it’s at around the halfway point that the record jumps the shark, with ‘Frisky’s lyrics straying across the line from “playfully LAD-ish” to “a little bit creepy”. The world-weary “being a pop-star is tough” diatribe of album-closer ‘Let Go’ sees Tinie Tempah attempt to humanise himself –  but it feels like too little, too late.

10. Gwylim Simcock – Good Days At Schloss Elmau

Gwilym Simcock - Good Days At Schloss Elmau

You definitely weren’t alone if your reaction upon seeing Good Days At Schloss Elmau in the shortlist was, “who’s Gwylim Simcock? Oh, he’s the token jazz nomination!” I’m always in two minds about these sorts of things. On the one hand, it’s nice for the genre to get a bit of exposition, and it’s not like this is in any way a ‘bad’ album. On the other, it sits so oddly with the rest of the nominations (despite their disparate genres) that it feels weird, and it always seems highly unlikely that a jazz entry will ever win (indeed, in the history of the prize, there has never been a jazz winner).

To be fair, the album starts out well – ‘These Are The Good Days’ begins with a jaunty, adventurous feel, and ends with Simcock playing the strings of his piano like a guitar and using the woodwork as percussion. Unfortunately, the rest of the record doesn’t really capture my attention in the same way – sure, it’s a pleasant listen throughout, but as someone who’s not a great connoisseur of jazz, it struggles to rise beyond the level of “nice background music.” Shame really – although if you’re into the genre at all, I guess you’ll find a lot to like here.

…also, ‘Northern Smiles’ reminds me of a song from Super Mario World in places. NEEEEERD.

9. Anna Calvi − Anna Calvi

Anna-Calvi - Anna Calvi

After my lukewarm reception to Anna Calvi’s appearance in the BBC’s Sound Of 2011 poll, I was subconsciously prepared not to like her self-titled debut album all that much – so imagine my surprise when I found myself actually kinda enjoying it for the most part. Key to this, I think, is the fact that the sort of bellowing that made debut single ‘Jezabel’ such an affront to my ears has been mostly reined in. Sure, ‘The Devil’ gets a bit melodramatic towards the end, but for the most part Calvi shows remarkable restraint. ‘Rider To The Sea’ sets the tone with swelling drums and haunted, western-movie guitars, before ‘No More Words’ gives us our first demonstration of Calvi’s breathy, seductive vocal. While many comparisons have been made with fellow nominee PJ Harvey, I honestly don’t think that Calvi sounds all that much like her – even on her out-and-out poppiest album, the Mercury-winning Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea, Harvey was more gritty than Calvi ever tries to be here. That’s not a bad thing, per say, just an observation.

As for the album itself, Anna Calvi proves to be a decent listen, with the galloping ‘Desire’ and the stirringly upbeat ‘Blackout’ proving to be highlights among its ten well-executed tracks. My only problem? It’s not a record I particularly feel compelled to come back to. And while I don’t think the comparison holds much weight, PJ Harvey already wrote a better song called ‘The Devil’. Just saying.

8. King Creosote & Jon Hopkins – Diamond Mine

King Creosote & Jon Hopkins - Diamond Mine

2010’s three-album folk extravaganza was evidently a one-off, as we’re back down to a single, token representative of the genre – and King Creosote is more of a Villagers-type outsider than a Marling or Mumford. Still, the man has recorded a shedload of albums in his 14-year career, so he’s deserving of a nomination for prolificness, if nothing else. Diamond Mine is a collaboration with electronic musician Jon Hopkins, and for an album that’s the result of seven years of on-off work, it feels remarkably cohesive. Creosote’s gentle, pastoral folk runs throughout, with Hopkins’ field recordings and subtle electronica complimenting the experience.

There are times when Diamond Mine feels like a really beautiful record – for example, the vocal interplay between Creosote and a female vocalist on ‘Bats In The Attic’ and ‘Bubble’, or the part at the end of ‘John Taylor’s Month Away’ when it goes a bit Death In Vegas. At other times, however, it threatens to float past without leaving any sort of imprint on your memory. It’s fair to say that Diamond Mine an enjoyable listen that’s arguably deserving of its nomination – but personally, I feel it falls short of being truly essential.

7. James Blake – James Blake

James Blake - James Blake

It’s fair to say that James Blake might be one of the most ‘challenging’ artists to have graced the UK album chart top 10 this year – his minimal, dubstep-influenced tracks are a mile away from typical pop chart fodder. Perhaps it’s ironic then, that I think the two best tracks on this album are arguably the most accessible ones. Most obviously, there’s his stunning take on Feist’s ‘Limit To Your Love’, and ‘The Wilhelm Scream’ is also utterly jaw-dropping. Elsewhere, however, the record tends to veer into vague sonic experimentation a little too often. The likes of ‘Unluck’ and ‘Why Don’t You Call Me’ struggle to feel like coherent songs, while the pairing of ‘Lindisfarne I’ and “Lindisfine II’ is basically just an experiment in comparing the minimalism of the latter with the ultra-minimalism of the former.

To be fair, there are other good moments too – ‘I Never Learned To Share’ builds slowly to a satisfying conclusion, while ‘To Care Like You’ provides an intriguingly minimal take on dubstep. Ultimately, however, James Blake isn’t quite the earth-shattering debut that some have made it out to be – but frustratingly, its best moments indicate that it could have been so much more.

6. Katy B − On A Mission

Katy B - On A Mission

The dirty bass and sassy vocals of ‘Katy On A Mission’ made the world stand up and take notice of Rinse FM starlet Katy B, and thankfully her similarly-titled debut album has more to offer. ‘Witches Brew’ features Crystal Castles-esque synths sprinkled over four-to-the-floor beats and the kind of straightforward lyrical come-on that a hopeless introvert like me can only dream of (“come with me, I’ll make you feel so good”) – by contrast, ‘Go Away’ has a more low-key, sinister vibe, and sees Katy pushing a former beau away. Elsewhere, ‘Broken Record’ competently riffs on late 90’s/early 00’s dance tracks, but it’s Katy’s delivery that elevates it to something special, perfectly conveying the feeling of fragile obsession – and the longing, ever-so-slightly faltering way she repeats the line “like a broken record” at the song’s climax is spine-tingling.

Sure, On A Mission has some clunkers – ‘Lights On’ features a typically cringeworthy turn from Ms Dynamite, and both ‘Movement’ and ‘Disappear’ are a tad forgettable. At its best, however, Katy B’s debut album makes me wish I enjoyed clubbing more than I actually do. Mission accomplished.

5. Ghostpoet − Peanut Butter Blues & Melancholy Jam

Ghostpoet - Peanut Butter Blues & Melancholy Jam

Ghostpoet is an MC in possession of an idiosyncratic, slightly slurred vocal style, but the really odd thing about Peanut Butter Blues & Melancholy Jam is that the lyrics don’t seem as interesting as the production behind them. At first, it feels like a weakness, but then you realise that it’s kinda the point –  Ghostpoet’s words capture the mundanity, boredom and loneliness of everyday life, while his skittering beats and subtly oppressive synths provide a suitably bleak backdrop. Debut single ‘Cash And Carry Me Home’ provides a neat encapsulation of the world Ghostpoet inhabits – a spacious instrumental invokes the deserted streets that he’s now staggering home through after a night of drinking to forget the everyday troubles of life.

At the same time, there’s a sense of resilience running throughout the record, with the quiet defiance of ‘Us Against Whatever Ever’ and the singular focus of ‘Survive It’ providing particularly highlights. And then there’s the upbeat nature of album-closer ‘Liiines’ – guitars and pianos provide a surprising contrast to the rest of the album’s instrumentation, while Ghostpoet looks to the future with a newfound sense of optimism. Overall, Peanut Butter Blues & Melancholy Jam sees Ghostpoet stake his claim as one of the most interesting new voices in alternative hip-hop. Don’t let the fact that it’s not quite at the top of this list fool you – this record is worthy of your attention.

4. Elbow – Build A Rocket Boys!

Elbow - Build A Rocket Boys!

Winning the Mercury Prize in 2008 proved to be a breakout moment for Elbow – they’d always been a dependable band, but that victory with fourth album The Seldom Seen Kid thrust them into the public eye in a whole new way. To be honest though, their newfound success doesn’t seem to have changed them – their latest record, Build A Rocket Boys!, still sounds unmistakably like Elbow. The fact that it takes the album nearly 15 minutes to get to its third track underscores the feeling that they’re not trying to pander to anyone in particular – and besides, it’s a damn beautiful opening pair of songs. ‘The Birds’ is a sprawling expanse of whirring guitars and cheery synths that breaks into a sweeping orchestral high at about the five minute mark, while ‘Lippy Kids’ is a tender ode to being young, reckless and carefree.

If you’re looking for massive anthems in the vein of ‘One Day Like This’, or an instantly-appealing stomper like ‘Grounds For Divorce’, you may find Build A Rocket Boys! a tad disappointing. Regardless of that, you’ll still find great songs – ‘Neat Little Rows’ and ‘The Night Will Always Win’ being two of the most prominent examples, with the latter perfectly showcasing Guy Garvey’s charming, honest lyrics with lines like “I miss your stupid face/I miss your bad advice.” You can argue that Elbow’s nomination this year doesn’t seem entirely necessary, but I think you’d struggle to argue that it’s undeserved.

3. Everything Everything – Man Alive

Everything Everything - Man Alive

I’ve enjoyed Everything Everything both times I’ve seen them live, but for some reason I’d never actually sat down and listened to their debut album Man Alive in full. Having now done so, I can probably split the songs on it into two camps – those that are, quite simply, bloody brilliant, and those that are still good, but not quite as good as the others. Sure, every track amply demonstrates that they’re a very clever band, with guitars, synths, drums and rapid-fire lyrics meshing together pleasingly – but for reasons I can’t quite pin down, the resulting effect is somehow more enjoyable on some tracks than others.

It might just be a case that some songs just have little moments that elevate them above the rest – the cheeky synth riff on ‘Schoolin”, ‘MY KZ, YR BF’s breathless chorus, or the “who’s-a gonna sit on your face when I’m gone?/who’s-a gonna sit on your face when I’m not there?” hook on ‘Suffragette Suffragette’. There are certainly lyrics that my inner nerd can appreciate too, with ‘Two For Nero’s opening gambit of “tell me why you came here/squatting round a Game Gear/like Sega never died” being a personal favourite. Overall, it seems that Everything Everything have managed an uncommon feat with Man Alive – they’ve actually made an album that’s as clever as it thinks it is.

2. Metronomy – The English Riviera

Metronomy - The English Riviera

I will admit to having flitted between being disparaging and ambivalent about Metronomy in the past, and while third album The English Riviera hasn’t completely turned me into a gushing fanboy, it’s given me a newfound sense of respect for the band. Throughout the record, Joe Mount and his compatriots demonstrate a knack for crafting interesting, left-field pop songs – ‘Everything Goes My Way’ feels like a post-modern attempt at re-imagining an early Beatles song, while ‘The Look’ is simply stunning in its minimalism. Also impressive is the breadth of ideas on display – the brooding ‘She Wants’ blurs the line between romantic and obsessive, ‘The Bay’ reconciles the band’s current pop slant with their dancier past, and ‘Loving Arm’ has Mount singing over what sounds like the soundtrack to a NES game. By the time you’ve reached incessant, pulsating album-closer ‘Love Underlined’, it’s clear that the band aren’t lacking in imagination.

It might not quite be 100% glorious pop gems (although it’s not far off), but The English Riviera is a fantastic reminder that ‘pop’ doesn’t necessarily have to mean overblown production and hackneyed emoting. Metronomy have shown remarkable restraint on this record, and have rightly been praised for it – instead of the usual lowest-common denominator bullshit, wouldn’t it be nice if pop music this intelligent was a more regular feature in the charts?

1. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake

PJ Harvey - Let England Shake

It’s interesting that my list is bookended by artists who don’t necessarily ‘need’ the exposure that the Mercury Prize provides. But, while it would have been difficult to leave Adele off the list due to her sheer ubiquity, it would have been infinitely more ridiculous to ignore PJ Harvey this year. Why? Because Let England Shake is quite possibly the best thing she’s ever put her name to. Tackling the subject of war is a bold move for any artist, even one as formidable as Harvey, but the key to the album’s success is one of narrative tone – Harvey doesn’t judge with her words, she merely observes. And yet, the likes of ‘All And Everyone’ and ‘On Battleship Hill’ paint a more damning portrait of war than a hundred tub-thumping “WAR IZ BAD” protest songs ever could. Harvey often adopts the same piercing high register as on previous album White Chalk, which provides a stark contrast to the tone of her lyrics – and the effect is even more unsettling on the jauntier-sounding tracks such as ‘Let England Shake’ and ‘The Words That Maketh Murder’.

And make no mistake – while the music is suitably stirring throughout, it’s the lyrics that steal the show. The title track portrays the upbeat, adventurous spirit of soldiers leaving for war in a decidedly sinister way (“Smile, smile Bobby/with your lovely mouth/pack up your troubles/and let’s head out/to the fountain/of death, and splash around”) – and their exuberance quickly turns to contempt on ‘The Last Living Rose’ (“Goddamn Europeans!/take me back to beautiful England”). And so, through the blasted battlefields of ‘On Battleship Hill’ and ‘In The Dark Places’, we come to a most Pyrrhic of victories – ‘The Colour Of The Earth’ recounts the tale of a soldier who has not only seen his “dearest friend” fall in battle, but has also seen the blood of countless others stain the earth red. Rather than preaching, Harvey paints a picture of the past and allows us to draw our own conclusions from it – and that is the genius of Let England Shake.

For more information on the Mercury Prize, visit their website.

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4 Comments

Filed under Albums, Music

4 responses to “Let’s Get Cynical About: The Mercury Prize (2011 Edition)

  1. Pingback: Let’s Get Cynical’s Albums Of The Year 2011 | Let's Get Cynical

  2. Pingback: Let’s Get Cynical About: The Brit Awards 2012 | Let's Get Cynical

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