Let’s Get Cynical About: The Mercury Prize (2013 Edition)

It’s once again that time of year, where the Mercury Prize shortlist appears and we all bitch and moan about its strengths and weaknesses and argue about who should and shouldn’t have been included. For my money, These New Puritans have been robbed again, and I was expecting Daughter to be a shoo-in. One of the odder suggestions I saw a few people make was that Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds should have been nominated – while Push The Sky Away would have absolutely been deserving of a nod, its inclusion would have required some very lax interpretation of the nomination criteria. There’s also a prevailing train of thought that the Mercury panel has once again played it pretty safe – the list contains five number one albums, seven artists who have previously been nominated (if we include Jon Hopkins’ collaboration with King Creosote, Diamond Mine, which was nominated in 2011), and only one record that had sold less than 20,000 copies worldwide before the nominations were announced (thanks to Clash’s Mike Diver for that factoid – read his excellent article on the Mercury Prize here). It’s certainly not as bland or mediocre a list as last year’s, but it’s difficult to argue that it’s much more challenging. All that aside, however, the list has been chosen – so all that remains is to offer you my opinion on this year’s twelve shortlisted albums.

12. Laura Mvula – Sing To The Moon

Laura Mvula - Sing To The Moon

Laura Mvula – Sing To The Moon

Laura Mvula is in possession of a perfectly fine voice, but there’s really not a lot to be said about Sing To The Moon apart from that it’s terminally boring. Aside from the jazzy ‘Green Garden’ and the twinkly ‘She’, nothing really held my interest – I can only listen to so many ballads before I wish I was listening to something else. Definitely a slot that could have been taken by a far more exciting album – the idea that this got nominated ahead of the Daughter record just seems absolutely ridiculous to me.

11. Rudimental – Home

Rudimental - Home

Rudimental – Home

The fact that Rudimental are nominated for this year’s prize seems weird somehow. Let’s be clear, Home isn’t total dross or anything – it’s a mostly solid and surprisingly varied dance record that does a decent job of blending together different electronic genres –  but it doesn’t feel like it’s pushing any boundaries. Besides, the album already went to number one, and you’ve almost certainly heard its two best songs (‘Feel The Love’ and ‘Waiting All Night’) if you have found yourself located in ‘tha club’ at any point in the last year – add all of that up and you end up with an album that struggles to really justify its inclusion on the shortlist.

10. Jake Bugg – Jake Bugg

Jake Bugg - Jake Bugg

Jake Bugg – Jake Bugg

I’ll openly admit that Jake Bugg is the kind of artist who’s hyped to the point that I actually just want to find an excuse to dislike him – but his self-titled debut album isn’t it*. He does a pretty good line in skiffly, observational snapshots (‘Taste It, ‘Lightning Bolt’), but his attempts at balladry are a little bit more mixed, which is a shame, as the album seems to include more of the latter, with nary an upbeat song to be found after ‘Trouble Town’. The slightly psychedelic-sounding ‘Ballad Of Mr Jones’ suits Bugg’s voice fairly well, but ‘Broken’s overblown, maudlin backdrop seems to overstate his ability to tug at the heartstrings. While Bugg’s words generally seem authentic, it’s fair to say that the way they’re presented isn’t exactly original – all told, you’ll think Jake Bugg is amazing if you like Dylan-esque singer-songwriters and happen to think that Arctic Monkeys began and ended with Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not (protip: they didn’t, but we’ll get to that later). Which is all well and good – but it’s not Mercury-winning material.

*The shoddy Arctic Monkeys rip-off he released as his latest single, on the other hand…

9. Disclosure – Settle

Disclosure - Settle

Disclosure – Settle

Much like Rudimental, my appreciation of Disclosure is mostly limited to their singles. They’ve got some undeniably good tunes, though ‘Latch’ and ‘White Noise’ probably remain the best, with an honourable mention going to the London Grammar-featuring ‘Help Me Lose My Mind’. But as it stands, I’m just not that interested in listening to a whole album of deep house, no matter how accomplished it may be. Sorry chaps.

8. Laura Marling – Once I Was An Eagle

Laura Marling - Once I Was An Eagle

Laura Marling – Once I Was An Eagle

It seems that Laura Marling has surpassed herself with Once I Was An Eagle – it’s both her longest and her most critically acclaimed album yet. But while the critical acclaim is pretty much spot on, the running time proves to be an issue – it honestly feels a bit drawn out, and you could absolutely split the record down the middle into two separate albums. However, if you can’t get enough of Marling’s timeless, world-weary songwriting then this record will prove to be a bountiful pleasure, as apart from the pointless ‘Interlude’ that’s pretty much what you get from start to finish. Myself? I can hardly fault the record, objectively speaking, but do I feel particularly compelled to come back to it? Not really.

7. Villagers – {Awayland}

Villagers - {Awayland}

Villagers – {Awayland}

I’m probably going to look a bit silly putting this above Laura Marling’s album, but for whatever reason I find Villagers to be the more engaging storytellers. I think it’s because, with Conor O’Brien involving his bandmates in the writing process more than last time round, the end result is a more expansive and varied sound. Highlights for me were ‘The Waves’, ‘Nothing Arrived’ and ‘The Bell’, but it’s a pretty solid listen throughout. If you like well-crafted, interesting folk-rock, then {Awayland} will definitely work for you.

6. David Bowie – The Next Day

David Bowie - The Next Day

David Bowie – The Next Day

While many of the other ‘token’ awards seem to have been done away with this year (there’s not a jazz act in sight, and both Laura Marling and Villagers can hardly be considered tokenistic, having both being nominated before), the ‘token veteran’ award is still alive and well. It’s fair enough in this case though, as 2013 has given us a doozy in the surprise return of David Bowie. Really, Bowie could have released an album of avant-garde spoken word or impenetrable noise and people would probably have still lapped it up, but we’re fortunate enough that The Next Day is actually pretty good – particularly in its more reflective moments (‘Where Are We Now’, ‘You Feel So Lonely You Could Die’, ‘Heat’).

5. James Blake – Overgrown

James Blake - Overgrown

James Blake – Overgrown

If I had one major problem with the self-titled debut from James Blake, it was that it was a bit inconsistent. Fortunately, Overgrown addresses that problem fairly well. That’s not to say that there aren’t any definite standouts – step forward, ‘Retrograde’, ‘Overgrown’ and ‘Life Round Here’ – but there’s less of the weird quasi-experimental stuff and more actual tunes in general. ‘Retrograde’ in particular shows that Blake has a head for a hook, both instrumentally and vocally – and while there are times in the latter half of the record where you might wish him to demonstrate that more readily, it’s still a definite improvement over his debut.

4. Foals – Holy Fire

Foals - Holy Fire

Foals – Holy Fire

The more I think about it, the more I realise that the career trajectory of Foals is very similar to that of The Horrors – except without the critical derision of their first record. But if Total Life Forever was their Primary Colours, Holy Fire is very much their Skying – a confident, accomplished refinement of the expansive sound that they’d already demonstrated so well on the previous album. In Foals’ case, not only did their album hit number 2 in the UK, it also spawned a top 40 single (the infectious ‘My Number’) and acted as a prelude to their first major festival main-stage headline slot at Latitude. Not exactly what you might have predicted for a math-rock band from Oxford, but deserved success nevertheless.

3. Arctic Monkeys – AM

Arctic Monkeys - AM

Arctic Monkeys – AM

Let’s stop and be honest with ourselves here – Arctic Monkeys don’t need this nomination, particularly for an album that was released a mere two days before the shortlist was announced and was a pretty much guaranteed number one record. We’re not quite at Adele levels of monumental pointlessness, but we’re close. However, unlike 21, AM is actually a good album – it’s not an NME 10/10-they’re-basically-the-next-Beatles (though perhaps that review may yet prove prescient), but it’s definitely worth more than the 5/10 that Drowned In Sound’s Jazz Monroe gave it. In my eyes, it’s a solid 8 or maybe even a 9 – the only problem for me is one of pacing, in that the mid-section consists of the album’s only iffy track (‘I Want It All’), and two slow tracks back-to-back, which does both of the latter songs a disservice in my eyes. Still, it wears its hip-hop influences on its sleeve whilst still sounding very much like Arctic Monkeys, which is only a good thing in my eyes. It’s possible that AM might top both Silence Yourself and Immunity in my end-of-year list, but in terms of being nominated for the Mercury prize, it only seems right to put it below those two records.

2. Savages – Silence Yourself

Savages - Silence Yourself

Savages – Silence Yourself

At this point you probably fall firmly on one of two sides when it comes to Savages – the “they’re derivative and they suck!” side or the “they’re amazing!” side. If you’ve read anything I’ve written about them previously then you probably won’t be surprised to hear I fall into the latter camp. Either way, Silence Yourself is not about to change anyone’s opinion regarding the band. To these (naive?) ears, it sounds more urgent and vital as any post-punk record I’ve heard in quite some time, never mind the fact that they’re an all-female band (which ought not to be a big deal but is nevertheless all too noticeable in our present time). You can argue that it’s cynical and calculated all you want, but the end result is undeniably powerful.

1. Jon Hopkins – Immunity

Jon Hopkins - Immunity

Jon Hopkins – Immunity

I know I’ve been giving previous nominees a hard time this year (regardless of how good their album is), so logically speaking I should do the same to Jon Hopkins. However, there are two things that separate him from the other six artists with previous nominations – 1) he’s only been nominated for a collaborative work, not his solo material, and 2) remember that I mentioned how only one of these records had sold less than 20,000 copies before its nomination? That’s Immunity. Which is a crying shame because it’s a fantastic record – I’m by no means the biggest electronic music fan in the world, but something about this album really struck a chord with me. I think it’s the way that Hopkins somehow manages to imbue his music with a sense of emotion – no better emphasised than on ‘Collider’, which is possibly the most sexual song I’ve heard all year. And I don’t mean ‘sexual’ as an arbitrary positive adjective, I mean that it has all the intensity that you ought to associate with actually having sex. It also contains the most brilliantly-placed track on a record, with the sparse, reflective ‘Abandon Window’ providing the perfect comedown after the previous four tracks of pulsating, forward-thinking electronica. But not only would Immunity be a worthy winner in its own right, it also feels like the most deserving winner in terms of nudging the ‘general public’ towards music they may not have heard before – and I think, with a shortlist of increasingly obvious choices, Jon Hopkins might just be the winner the Mercury needs.

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