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Let’s Get Cynical About: The Brit Awards 2014

Brit Awards 2014 logo

You know you’ve been taking the piss out of the Brit Awards too long when you look at the current year’s shortlist and think “…well, at least it’s not as bad as last year’s.” You might disagree, and I’d very much understand that – perhaps I’ve just reluctantly come to terms with the fact that the Brit Awards are primarily designed to reward (chart) success first and musical credibility second. You’re never going to see Jon Hopkins or These New Puritans or Daughter or Savages or (insert other deserving British artist here) on these shortlists, and if you prefer your music to be prominently feature guitars then you’re largely out of luck – in much the same way as most ‘guitar bands’ are in the charts these days. This year’s selection of awards looks pretty lean at first glance, with no ‘Best Live Act’ and only three international categories, though what the Brits website doesn’t tell you is that the ‘Brits Global Success Award’ is returning after its introduction last year. ‘Best British Video’ will also be making a comeback after being absent for over a decade – apparently the nominations will be announced on the night and voted for via social media. While the sprawling mess of the Grammies is perhaps a little overkill, it does feel like the Brits could do with spreading its wings a bit and introducing some more genre-specific categories – we might see a few more interesting acts getting nominated that way…

Anyhow, let’s have a quick look at who might win, eh?

British Breakthrough Act
Bastille
Disclosure
Laura Mvula
London Grammar
Tom Odell

I briefly thought that the Brits had finally dispensed with public voting, but no, the British Breakthrough category continues its long tradition of being thrown open to the public. Sadly, my trusty method of judging who’s the most popular fell flat last year after Ben Howard won despite not having anywhere near the most fans on Facebook. However, that’s not going to stop me from using the very same method this year and declaring that Bastille will win this one – though it’s also because I reckon they’re the most likely to have the sort of obsessive fanbase who’d vote en masse for this sort of thing. London Grammar are probably the only other band who’d come close.

British Female Solo Artist
Birdy
Ellie Goulding
Jessie J
Laura Marling
Laura Mvula

Only one of these women has had a number one single (and, eventually, a number one album as well). That woman is Ellie Goulding, and I would be very surprised if anyone else wins this award. Any other result would seem a bit half-hearted on the Brits committee’s part, no?

British Group
Arctic Monkeys
Bastille
Disclosure
One Direction
Rudimental

What statement do the Brits want to make this year? You may as well rename the ‘Brits Global Success Award’ the ‘One Direction award for being One Direction’ again this year, and you’d think that would allow the judges to avoid making a potentially controversial choice here. But could they do the unthinkable and pull off a rare victory for pure pop music in this category? Or will the organisers pick the only ‘traditional’ choice and go with Arctic Monkeys, bucking the year’s predominant trends in the process? Or they plant their flag firmly in the ashes of ‘guitar music’ and proclaim Disclosure or Rudimental the winner?

I predict they’ll do none of these things and pick Bastille, which as far as statements go is roughly equivalent to a non-committal shrug.

British Male Solo Artist
David Bowie
Jake Bugg
James Blake
John Newman
Tom Odell

Well, we can safely say that David Bowie won’t win because the ‘token legend’ never ever wins. James Blake is mainly here because he won the Mercury Prize, but will that translate to Brits success? Probably not, though we can live in hope. Honestly, out of all of these I reckon John Newman might take it, if only because he’s got the most obvious hit single to play over the PA as he goes to collect the award.

British Single

Bastille – ‘Pompeii’
Calvin Harris feat. Ellie Goulding – ‘I Need Your Love’
Disclosure feat. AlunaGeorge – ‘White Noise’
Ellie Goulding – ‘Burn’
John Newman – ‘Love Me Again’
Naughty Boy feat. Sam Smith – ‘La La La’
Olly Murs – ‘Dear Darlin”
One Direction – ‘One Way Or Another (Teenage Kicks)’
Passenger – ‘Let Her Go’
Rudimental feat. Ella Eyre- ‘Waiting All Night’

I do love the way the Brits website can’t even be arsed to list the names of the songs. You’d think that would be quite important for a ‘Best Single’ award, no? Anyway, whilst looking them up on Wikipedia, I discovered an interesting fact – these 10 songs were literally the 10 best-selling singles by British artists in 2013. Look here if you don’t believe me – you’ll find these ten songs at numbers 4, 5, 11, 12, 14, 15, 20, 24, 29, and 32. It’s also worth noting that Lily Allen‘s godawful cover of ‘Somewhere Only We Know’ was number 11, so thank your lucky stars that this list wasn’t even worse. (Looking at last year’s list, exactly the same process seems to have been used, except there were 15 nominations rather than 10.)

Anyway, as for the award itself, I’ve genuinely no idea how they’re going to decide this one. If we go purely on sales figures it’s a straight fight between Passenger and Naughty Boy (4 and 5 in the year-end sales figures respectively). However, Ellie Goulding might also be in with a shout because she spent the longest time at number one (three weeks, compared to one or zero for everyone else). Fuck it, I’ll go with that logic and say she’ll win.

International Female Solo Artist
Janelle Monáe
Katy Perry
Lady Gaga
Lorde
P!nk

Ok, process of elimination time – Janelle Monáe is too niche, Lady Gaga‘s last album felt like a relative flop despite going straight to number one, P!nk… well, P!nk somehow had the 20th best selling album of last year despite the fact it came out in 2012. What is life? Anyway, that’s not zeitgeisty enough for the Brits panel, so we’re left with Katy Perry or Lorde – established star vs. up-and-comer. I reckon they might actually go with the New Zealand up-and-comer, particularly after last year’s demonstration that the judges are willing to use the International categories to make themselves look a bit cooler.

International Group
Arcade Fire
Daft Punk
Haim
Kings Of Leon
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis

Surely Daft Punk are a shoo-in here, given that their chart success totally eclipses everyone else on the list? I mean, it’d be cute if Haim won and all but I just don’t think they’ve sold enough records.

International Male Solo Artist
Bruno Mars
Drake
Eminem
John Grant
Justin Timberlake

Well, they always find room for one total curveball eh? John Grant is easily this year’s most unlikely nominee in any category, but of course that means he’s probably not going to win. The field’s pretty open for any of the others to take the award though, so let’s go with the lowest common denominator and say Bruno Mars will win.

MasterCard British Album of the Year
Arctic Monkeys – AM
Bastille – Bad Blood
David Bowie – The Next Day
Disclosure – Settle
Rudimental – Home

Honestly, I was willing to give Bastille the benefit of the doubt – but then I actually listened to Bad Blood, and let’s just say I am now no longer willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. I’m pretty convinced that anyone else on this list would be a better winner, but realistically, given their combination of sales and critical success, it has to be Arctic Monkeys, right?

…right?

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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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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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Let’s Get Cynical: “Stuff that already came out this year” roundup.

In which I break my current run of not actually talking about any records that came out this year.

The Joy Formidable – The Big Roar

The Joy Formidable - The Big Roar

You know when a record has an opening track so staggeringly good that you almost feel like ignoring the rest of the album and listening to it on repeat? The Big Roar is one of those records – opener ‘The Everchanging Spectrum Of A Lie’ swells up gracefully before exploding into a glorious mix of crashing drums and mammoth guitars that’ll leave you wanting more. But if you get distracted long enough to listen to the rest of the record, you’ll find that there are plenty of similar treats in store – the hectic rush of ‘The Magnifying Glass’ and the infectious, euphoric ‘I Don’t Want To See You Like This’ are only the start of a record that barely lets up until ‘The Greatest Light Is The Greatest Shade’ ends proceedings in a stately squall. Sure, they’ve recycled four songs from 2009’s mini-album A Balloon Called Moaning – but hey, if you had tracks as good as ‘Austere’ and ‘Cradle’ in your arsenal, wouldn’t you want them on your debut album proper? It’s been a long time coming, but The Joy Formidable’s debut has been worth the wait.

Esben And The Witch – Violet Cries

Esben And The Witch - Violet Cries

Esben And The Witch’s dark and twisted music isn’t for the faint of heart, but take the plunge and you’ll find that Violet Cries is an atmospheric and immersive experience. Album-opener ‘Argyria’ builds ominously into a sonic battering-ram of guitars and eerie, wailing cries – but then suddenly everything goes quiet, and the focus switches to vocalist Rachel Davies’ cryptic, sinister tale of “strange metallic voices”. It’s indicative of the record’s constantly evolving soundscape – ‘Marching Song’ beats a relentless, foreboding path to the violent squall of guitars at its conclusion, while ‘Marine Fields Glow’ serves up a complete contrast with long, echoing guitar notes and lamenting, regretful vocals. It’s a credit to the band that, despite these contrasting ideas, the album works fantastically as a cohesive whole – because of the effortless transitions between tracks, ‘Chorea’s skittering drums and oppressive, paranoid feel can sit perfectly alongside the contemplative, expansive-sounding ‘Warpath’. By the time Violet Cries reaches it’s zenith with the stunning twists and turns of ‘Eumenides’, there can be no doubt that Esben And The Witch have produced one of this year’s best debut records.

James Blake – James Blake

James Blake - James Blake

When I first listened to James Blake’s self-titled album, I have to admit that I wasn’t really feeling it. But sometimes a record only clicks when you revisit it at a different time, or in a different situation. For me, the stark minimalism of James Blake made so much more sense when I decided to listen to it after a long night of monotonous drum ‘n’ bass at work – however, I still have my reservations about it. There isn’t really another immediately accessible track in the vein of ‘Limit To Your Love’ here – which isn’t an indictment in itself, but the record veers across the line between coherent songs and vague sonic experimentation a little more often than I’d like. This comes to a head on ‘Lindisfarne I’, which takes minimalism close to its absolute limit, but loses all sense of purpose in the process – even the contrast when ‘Lindisfarne II’ kicks in doesn’t feel like enough of a payoff. At its best though, the record is sublime – ‘The Wilhelm Scream’ is simply jaw-dropping, ‘I Never Learned To Share’ builds up slowly to a satisfying conclusion, and of course there’s the aforementioned ‘Limit To Your Love’. For me, James Blake isn’t quite the earth-shattering debut some have made it out to be, but not for a lack of trying – and it has enough great moments to indicate a promising future.

PJ Harvey – Let England Shake

PJ Harvey - Let England Shake

You don’t have to be familiar with the entirety of PJ Harvey’s 20-year career to know that she’s not exactly prone to sitting on her laurels, but Let England Shake is arguably her most ambitious work yet – it tackles the weighty subject of war. Dangerous territory, even for an artist as formidable as Harvey, but the good news is she absolutely makes the subject matter work. The key is that she doesn’t adopt a preaching or political tone, instead taking on the voice of an observer or narrator – seeking not to judge, but to inform. The First World War in particular features heavily, but much of the record’s sentiment is applicable to more recent conflicts too. Harvey’s lyrics are mostly delivered in the same piercing high register that she used to such good effect on White Chalk, and it makes for pretty disarming listening – and the effect is heightened further on jauntier-sounding tracks such as ‘Let England Shake’ and ‘The Words That Maketh Murder’. I could simply fill the remainder of this page with thought-provoking and evocative lyrics from this record, but why not discover them for yourself? After all, the stirring music that accompanies Harvey’s words is an integral, perfectly complimentary part of the album – together, they make Let England Shake one of her finest works to date.

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Let’s Get Cynical About: The ‘BBC Sound Of 2011’ Longlist

Oh hey, is it really that time of year again? Yeah, the BBC have announced their Sound Of 2011 longlist, and I’m going to lovingly rip it to shreds/lavish it with praise (delete as appropriate). Let’s begin.

Anna Calvi

I’m not sure why, but there’s something about Anna Calvi that rubs me the wrong way – I think I just find her voice a little bit *too* melodramatic. This is most noticeable on her interpretation of popular 50s song ‘Jezebel’ – there’s something about those effortless, quivering bellows of “JEZEBEEEEEEEEEEL” that’s a little bit unsettling to my ears. Still, there’s some interesting stuff going on instrumentally on tracks like ‘Love Won’t Be Leaving’, and I’m sure her voice will find many new fans in the coming year.

Clare Maguire

Claire Maguire is another artist in possession of a big voice, but will it be enough to get her music noticed? Probably, in the short term at least – debut single ‘Aint’ Nobody’ is perfectly serviceable, if not particularly inspired, but it works as a vehicle for her voice. Maguire’s staying power will depend on what other tunes she may (or may not) have up her sleeve – as it stands, she seems like she might be pretty forgettable come the end of the year.

Daley

Daley definitely looks like he should have been in the ‘Being A Dickhead’s Cool’ video – but still, he’s already put in a good turn on Gorillaz’ recent single ‘Doncamatic’, so perhaps I can put aside that particular misgiving. Unfortunately, his own material is a brand of radio-ready soul so smooth that it simply drifts in one ear and out of the other.

Esben & The Witch

Esben & The Witch make music that would be the perfect soundtrack to an apocalyptic rave – foreboding, sinister, dark and atmospheric. Singer Rachel Davies voice cuts through the slow-building chaos of ‘Marching Song’ like a knife, while ‘Warpath’ whips up a swirling haze of noise. Don’t expect to see them on the CD racks in Tesco any time soon, but the critical buzz around Esben & The Witch is only going to increase in 2011.

Jai Paul

Jai Paul is, thankfully, not a Bollywood version of Empire Of The Sun, as the artwork on the BBC Sound Of 2011 page might suggest. ‘BTSTU’ is a schizophrenic slice of funky future pop – one minute he’s singing “don’t fuck with me” in falsetto, the next minute the track takes a turn towards dubstep territory with some wobbly synth bass. Future material from this guy could turn out to be ace, or it could turn out to be a total pile of crap – but at least it’ll probably be interesting, either way.

James Blake

James Blake’s Klavierwerk EP got people talking earlier this year, but it’s his sublime cover of Fiest’s ‘Limit To Your Love’ that has really been making waves recently. Taking the dubstep influences of the EP and splicing them with piano-led, emotionally-charged pop seems to be a recipe for success – his debut record is due out in February, so I look forward to seeing whether his own material maintains the high standard set by ‘Limit To Your Love’.

Jamie Woon

The first I’d heard of Jamie Woon was his current single ‘Night Air’, which I definitely got more than a little bit obsessed with and ended up listening to on repeat countless times. His collaboration with Burial has produced an effortlessly soulful, dark sound that’s the perfect late night soundtrack and has me intrigued to see what he’ll come up with next.

Jessie J

My first reaction on seeing Jessie J’s video for ‘Do It Like A Dude’ was that she looked like Lily Allen restyled as a Crunk Lady Gaga. After subjecting myself to it again, my reaction remains unchanged. Brash, in your face, and completely awful musically, but no doubt she’ll be hailed as a feminist icon and ‘next year’s Lady Gaga’. Kill me now.

Mona

Hey, did someone order another Kings Of Leon? No? I’ll just put these guys in a box over here then – seriously though, Mona sound more than a little bit indebted to the Followills (they’re even from Nashville, for crying out loud). It seems clear that they’re not going to wait for three or four albums to incorporate stadium-rock ambition into their music though – debut single ‘Trouble On The Way’ doesn’t seem a million miles away from something Bono and co might come out with, albeit with a more rabble-rousing streak.

Nero

Presumably nominated for the potential to be the next dubstep act to crossover into the mainstream a la Magnetic Man or Katy B, Nero are definitely headed in the right direction. Current single ‘Me And You’ is a huge-sounding, accessible floor-filler – more of the same will undoubtedly see them cemented in the nation’s consciousness.

The Naked & Famous

The Naked & Famous have already been compared to MGMT and Passion Pit – upon listening to ‘Punching In A Dream’, these comparisons seem entirely accurate, leaving me with very little to do. Whether or not I will give a shit about them will probably rest on whether or not their album is full of similarly good tracks, as opposed to being 3 good singles and a load of indeterminate prog bollocks (yes MGMT, I’m talking about you).

The Vaccines

I was fortunate enough to see The Vaccines on their first UK tour last month, and it was pretty clear that they’re destined for bigger things than playing to 200 people in Stereo on a Thursday night. Did I actually like them? Yeah, I’d say they’re decent enough, although Zane Lowe’s hyperbolic claim that they’ll “start a new era” seems a bit of a stretch. In reality, tracks like ‘If You Wanna’ and ‘Wreckin’ Bar (Ra Ra Ra)’ will simply help spawn a number of copyists of variable quality (see also: The Strokes, The Libertines, Arctic Monkeys).

Warpaint

Including Warpaint on this list almost feels like cheating, given that they’ve already released debut album The Fool – an album that generally went down pretty well with critics and has appeared in the likes of NME’s ‘Best Of 2010’ list. That said, I did rather like The Fool, so I certainly wouldn’t complain if Warpaint’s star continued to rise in 2011 – understated, expansive and effortlessly cool tracks like ‘Undertow’ deserve a bigger audience.

Wretch32

Despite the fact that Wretch32 looks more like an Xbox Live gamertag than the name of the next big thing in British hip-hop, there is no denying that ‘Traktor’ can only be described as a ‘BANGIN CHOON’. If he’s got more like this to unleash on the unsuspecting public, then this guy’s got massive crossover potential.

Yuck

Remember Cajun Dance Party? Ok, now forget all about them. Despite containing a pair of ex-Dance Party members, Yuck don’t really sound anything like that band. Instead they’re playing a pleasing, fuzzy hybrid of shoegaze and grunge, and it works pretty well overall – see ‘Georgia’ for a prime example. Again, not Top Of The Pops material, but Yuck are definitely going to pick up a lot more indie buzz next year.

Overall, my personal top 5 favourites are:

5. Yuck
4. Warpaint
3. James Blake
2. Jamie Woon
1. Esben & The Witch

And, working on the basis that the nominations for the Brits ‘Critic’s Choice Award’ are a massive hint, my guess at the BBC’s eventual top 5 is as follows:

5. Mona
4. Nero
3. The Vaccines
2. Jessie J
1. James Blake

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