This year’s Mercury Prize nominations seemed to be met with a mix of mild outrage and general apathy, if Twitter is anything to go by. The lack of bass music (Rustie’s Glass Swords being the most-cited example) and the omission of Kate Bush were sticking points, but the main accusation is one of being ‘safe’ or even ‘boring’, which, at a glance, I can’t really argue with. As far as my personal opinion on overlooked records goes, there’s no obvious clanger a la Wild Beasts/These New Puritans, while The XX seem to have suffered the same fate that The Horrors did last year by releasing a great album too close to the cut-off date to receive proper consideration. As for other eligible British records, I would have liked to see FOE, 2:54 or Islet in the list, but I never seriously expected them to make the cut. Still, I’ve only actually heard one of the twelve records that were nominated this year, so lets see if any of them can challenge my preconceptions, eh?
N/A: Roller Trio – Roller Trio
Leeds-based jazz group Roller Trio are the only group who will go officially unjudged – primarily because their album isn’t available to stream in full anywhere (that I could find), but also because I still have no idea how to discuss jazz music in a critical capacity. (Perhaps not the greatest admission for a music critic to make, but hey, it’s not like I’m getting paid for this.) Of the four tracks on their Soundcloud page (here), I found the off-kilter guitar and soulful saxophone playing of ‘D-O-R’ to be the most immediately appealing, but if you’re of a more avant-garde persuasion, perhaps the skittish sounds of ‘The Interrupters’ would be more to your liking. For the best of both worlds, try the album’s opening track, ‘Deep Heat’, whose staccato honks, smooth melodies and frenzied riffs run the full gamut of saxophone tones.
…it’s a good job I only talk about one jazz record every year, isn’t it?
11: Lianne La Havas – Is Your Love Big Enough?
I couldn’t really get a handle on who exactly Lianne La Havas was supposed to sound like when I first heard her at the beginning of the year, and listening to Is Your Love Big Enough? suggests that she hasn’t quite figured it out either. Opener ‘Don’t Wake Me Up’ begins things with an arresting a capella intro, while the title track changes tack entirely and offers a smart, sassy and soulful sound. La Havas’ more upbeat side ends up being woefully under-utilised – after a brilliantly cold turn on the infectious ‘Forget’, the record gently floats off a cliff into a sea of middling balladry. ‘Age’ is simply tedious, her take on Scott Matthews’ ‘Elusive’ feels pretty sterile, and ‘Everything Everything’ is unfortunately titled given that it lacks any of the excitement offered by the band of the same name. It’s a shame, because the record has its moments – her duet with Willy Mason on ‘No Room For Doubt’ is lovely, and ‘Lost & Found’ rises above many of the other ballads thanks to its stark lyrical sentiment. Ultimately, the record’s major failing is one of pacing, as neatly framed by album-closer ‘They Could Be Wrong’ – it strikes a perfect balance between her more upbeat and laid-back sides, but the record desperately needed a shot in the arm about two or three songs prior to that point.
10: Plan B – Ill Manors
In a strange way, you can draw parallels between Ill Manors and last year’s Mercury-winning record from PJ Harvey, Let England Shake – both records are focused on Britain, but while Harvey’s record was steeped in the history of war, Plan B has created a record that is very much rooted in the here and now. It begins with the title track, with its references to David Cameron’s “broken Britain” and the London riots matched with D’n’B beats and urgent string samples to create a battering-ram protest song. The rest of the album, however, is dedicated to vignettes of urban life that are relentlessly, oppressively bleak – from the John Cooper Clarke-featuring ‘Pity The Plight’, which tells of a revenge murder, to ‘Runaway’, a tale of an escaped prostitute who’s forced back into the sex trade as she can’t find another way to support her newborn son. The album is conceived as a soundtrack to the film of the same name, and as such these songs are often accompanied by snippets of dialogue from the movie – a technique that on occasion can be disturbingly effective, but at other times is merely jarring and disorientating. The fundamental difference between this record and Let England Shake, however, is that Ill Manors is a record that’s easy to admire in concept, but difficult to actually enjoy listening to – but then again, I suppose that’s almost the point.
(Note: Yes, I’m putting this record down here despite bemoaning albums further up my list for not being very ‘challenging’, which might seem hypocritical. But while I have to give Plan B credit for what he’s achieved here, I’m ultimately basing this list on how much I enjoyed listening to the records in question – and as I said before, I didn’t really enjoy listening to Ill Manors all that much.)
9: Ben Howard – Every Kingdom
It’s difficult to know what to say about Ben Howard – given that his debut album has already gone gold in the UK, his nomination might feel a tad pointless (though certainly not on the monumental scale of last year’s inclusion of 21 by Adele). For the uninitiated, Every Kingdom is an accomplished, if not particularly groundbreaking record of acoustic rock ballads, and as such your mileage may vary – it might be the most life-affirming thing you’ve heard in the last 12 months, or it may just wash over you like so much empty sentiment. Personally, I can recognise its quality – ‘Only Love’ is a great example of a laid-back yet affecting love song, while ‘Keep Your Head Up’ has a pretty good go at being stirring and motivational. The only thing holding it back is that it doesn’t feel particularly challenging in any way – I don’t think I can objectively call Every Kingdom a ‘bad’ record, but it doesn’t really have that certain spark of inventiveness that I’d hope for in a Mercury Prize winner.
8: Michael Kiwanuka – Home Again
There are a lot of male solo artists on the list this year, aren’t there? To be fair though, Michael Kiwanuka has a good voice going for him, and his debut album Home Again starts out promisingly with ‘Tell Me A Tale’, a song that’s retro-leaning in a way that sounds timeless rather than simply fetishistic. This proves to be a strength throughout the record – from the shuffling rhythm and tasteful strings of ‘Home Again’ to the the sun-kissed guitar and orchestral flourishes of ‘Any Day Will Do Fine’. But while the album is effortlessly soulful and quietly touching in places, it somehow lacks that spark which would make it truly compelling. Granted, it’s very much designed as an easy-listening record, and it serves that purpose well – unfortunately, it’s sometimes to the point of being completely innocuous.
7: Jessie Ware – Devotion
It’s debatable as to whether the phrase ‘Dubstep singer-songwriter’ really constitutes a genre – but if it does, then Jessie Ware is the impeccably realised end product of its evolution. It’s clear from the outset that her debut record Devotion has been polished to a fine sheen – the sharply processed beats, shimmering keys and effortless vocals of the title track are more than enough evidence of that. The problem is that, while it’s incredibly easy listening, it doesn’t feel particularly engaging. There’s nothing particularly awful here, apart from the shonky rap section on ‘No To Love’ that makes it feel like a bad trip-hop track. But equally, truly standout moments seem few and far between – ‘Wildest Moments’ and ‘Running’ feature a couple of good chorus hooks, and ‘Taking In Water’ stays just about on the right side of the line between ’emotive’ and ‘overblown’. But overall, Devotion feels like a well-executed technical exercise, instead of the emotional show-stopper it really wants to be – making Jessie Ware an artist who many reviewers are suggesting I should love, but who ultimately just leaves me shrugging my shoulders.
6: Richard Hawley – Standing At The Sky’s Edge
Sheffield’s Richard Hawley may have been “robbed” (as Alex Turner put it) of the prize in 2006, but he’s back for another go this year. However, it’s fair to say that his latest record Standing At The Sky’s Edge isn’t for those with a short attention span – sprawling opener ‘She Brings The Sunlight’ runs for over seven minutes and features not one, but two frazzled guitar solos. That’s not to say that the record meanders aimlessly – the title track feels tightly focused despite its lengthy running time, with Hawley narrating dark tales of broken souls, while ‘Don’t Stare At The Sun’ ramps up from an understated ballad to whirlwind of sound. The woozy psychedelia of ‘Time Will Bring You Winter’ and the full-blooded rock soundscape of ‘Leave Your Body Behind You’ are among other highlights of this strong, expansive record – though I have a feeling it might not quite be enough for Hawley to take the prize this time round.
5: Sam Lee – Ground Of Its Own
It’s fair to say that the ‘token folk’ nomination has thrown up a true oddity this year in the form of Sam Lee and his debut album Ground Of Its Own. Opening track ‘The Ballad Of George Collins’ starts out straightforwardly enough, with Lee’s distinctive tones and some plucked guitar, but halfway through it transforms itself to give off a sort of aboriginal vibe. It’s indicative of a record that’s completely unafraid of subtle experimentation – ‘On Yonder Hill’ mixes solitary trumpet blasts with ambient steel drums, while ‘The Jew’s Garden’ combines otherworldly twangs with a dynamic string section. Even the more traditional-sounding tracks like ‘Wild Wood Amber’ and ‘Goodbye My Darling’ still feature exotic flourishes to their instrumentation. Overall, Ground Of Its Own is an intriguing listen – the kind of thing Damon Albarn might have come up with if he’d spent several months living in a tent in the wilderness.
4: Django Django – Django Django
I’d been kinda tempted to write Django Django off as another filler indie band after their irritatingly catchy but ultimately throwaway earworm single ‘Default’, but it turns out there’s more to their self-titled debut than that. Django Django is, in fact, a scattershot collection of songs that jumps between different styles and sounds seemingly on a whim. ‘Introduction’ bounds onwards purposefully, like a rider crossing sandy dunes, before segueing neatly into ‘Hale Bop’, which smushes together languid indie guitar and implacable synth riffs, sounding at once both retro and futuristic. ‘Firewater’s bassline channels The Fall’s ‘Mountain Energei’, while ‘Waveforms’ begins with a blast of oddly reductionist dubstep noise. It gets even odder later on – ‘Zumm Zumm’ sounds like an improv a capella group banging on a tin can while someone plays their favourite old Nintendo game in the background, while ‘Skies Over Cairo’ uses fairly standard Egyptian motifs to create a tune that somehow sounds fairly fresh. Not every track comes off as well – ‘Hand Of Man’ feels a bit dull, while ‘Love’s Dart’ is a little too meandering for my liking. It’s a good effort though – Django Django might not be consistently great, but at least it’s constantly interesting.
3: The Maccabees – Given To The Wild
The inclusion of The Maccabees in this year’s shortlist surprised me a little, if only because Given To The Wild came out so far in the distant past (i.e: January) that I’d forgotten about it. But, to give the band credit, their third album is pretty good – it might aspire to be their Skying/Smother/Total Life Forever/The English Riviera (delete as you feel appropriate) a little too openly, but that’s not really a bad thing. And so ‘Child’ mixes Wild Beasts-esque atmospherics with blissed-out vocals, and ‘Feel To Follow’ effortlessly transitions from its delicate verses into a giddy, Foals-like rush in the chorus. ‘Ayla’ even sees them fleetingly aim their ambitions at Coldplay-style stadium anthems – though its sparkling piano line and propulsive tempo set it apart from the aforementioned band. It may seem like The Maccabees are jumping on a bandwagon, but I don’t think we should begrudge our indie bands for aspiring to a more ‘mature’ sound – certainly, it’s difficult to complain when you listen to the way that ‘Forever I’ve Known’ bursts into its glorious, widescreen guitars, or how ‘Unknow’ sounds like the kind of intriguing, multi-layered piece of music we might wish that some of our stadium-filling bands were still making. Given To The Wild is a little patchy, and could probably have stood to be a little shorter – but as the only album on the shortlist you’ll find for a fiver in HMV right now, it’s certainly worth a punt.
2: Field Music – Plumb
Despite my residence in the north-east for the best part of four years while I was at university, I only ever briefly got into Field Music at around the point when they released ‘You’re Not Supposed To’ as a single. Since then, they’ve been a band who I’ve admired without necessarily falling completely in love with, and I find myself feeling the same way about their fourth full-length album Plumb. It’s an enjoyable listen though, packed with matter-of-fact northern charm (‘Sorry Again, Mate’, ‘Choosing Sides’) and even a smattering of mid-period-Beatles whimsy, most notably on ‘A Prelude To Pilgrim Street’. It’s a record that’s understated in its own excellence – ‘A New Town’ manages to be funky without being charmless, ‘From Hide And Seek To Heartache’ reaches a tasteful crescendo on a bed of sweeping strings, and ‘(I’ve Been Thinking About) A New Thing’ rounds the album off with a stomping, multi-textured indie-pop song. All in all, Plumb is quite a fine achievement, and Field Music are, perhaps, a band I’ve underrated for far too long.
1: Alt-J – An Awesome Wave
According to the bookies, Alt-J were strong favourites to walk away with the prize before the shortlist was even announced – but even then, I was (naively?) hoping that the final twelve records might throw up something to challenge An Awesome Wave. Not because it’s a bad record, quite the opposite – I had just hoped that maybe there was another truly inventive British record that I’d somehow missed over the last 12 months or so. Apparently not, if we truly take these twelve records to be the ‘best’ of recent times (yeah, I know, ha ha ha). So why’s this record good, anyway? Well, while ‘folk-step’ may seem like a ridiculous genre tag, it’s actually pretty accurate as a descriptive term. The two influences are rarely separated – the only purely ‘folk’ part of the record is the traditional-sounding a capella of ‘Interlude I’, while the closest the album comes to a ‘dubstep’ track is during ‘Fitzpleasure’, where buzzsaw bass and 2-step beats collide to create a curiously danceable moment. For the most part, it’s the subtle weaving of these two opposing textures that brings the record to life. The likes of ‘Something Good’ and ‘Dissolve Me’ simultaneously feel timeless and modern, thanks to a mix of folky lyricism, warm instrumentation and dynamic percussion, while ‘Tesselate’ is an absolute standout due to its mesmerising atmosphere. The album occasionally demonstrates some slightly more eclectic influences too – parts of ‘Taro’ could, if you squint hard enough, be the most tasteful remix of ‘Mundian To Bach Ke’ you’ve ever heard, while ‘Matilda’ directly references the film Leon in its lyrics. If I had to pick fault with An Awesome Wave… I dunno, I guess closing track ‘Hand-made’ is a bit throwaway? But that’s almost irrelevant when you consider that Alt-J’s debut record stands head and shoulders above the vast majority of the other albums here in terms of creativity. Not only is it the album I enjoyed the most out of these twelve, it pretty much feels like the most logical winner.