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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 (2012 Edition)

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

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?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 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

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

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.

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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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The Mercury Prize 2011: Initial Thoughts

So, yesterday saw the announcement of the nominations for this year’s Mercury Prize. As I’ve done in previous years, I’ll do a more in depth article once I’ve had a listen to all the albums, but here are my initial thoughts on the matter. Before we go any further, here’s that list of 12 albums:

  • Adele – 21
  • Anna Calvi – Anna Calvi
  • Elbow – Build A Rocket Boys!
  • Everything Everything – Man Alive
  • Ghostpoet – Peanut Butter Blues & Melancholy Jam
  • Gwilym Simcock – Good Days At Schloss Elmau
  • James Blake – James Blake
  • Katy B – On A Mission
  • King Creosote And Jon Hopkins – Diamond Mine
  • Metronomy – The English Riviera
  • PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
  • Tinie Tempah – Disc-Overy

It’s fair to say that this year’s list had the potential to be pretty brilliant – but unfortunately, while there are some good albums on the shortlist, there are also some pretty glaring omissions. I thought it was pretty amazing that These New Puritans’ landmark record Hidden was left off the list last year, but this time round the panel managed to make an even more dumbfounding mistake by omitting Wild Beasts’ third album, Smother. The band ended up trending on Twitter despite not being nominated, so clearly I’m not the only one who thinks so. Really, why is it not there? Ok, they were nominated last year for Two Dancers, but bands have been nominated for successive albums before (in consecutive years, in the case of Arctic Monkeys). Is there some unseen quota for previously nominated artists? Whatever the case, it just doesn’t make any sense.

Almost as baffling is the lack of a nomination for The Horrors’ latest album Skying. Although I’ve seen various people saying that it was just barely eligible for this year’s shortlist, it may have been a victim of its release date lying too close to the announcement date. Perhaps, like Wild Beasts, it was deemed too soon after their last nomination (for Primary Colours in 2009) to shortlist them again – or maybe it just doesn’t make any sense at all. Other previous nominees who may feel hard done by include Friendly Fires, Arctic Monkeys and Radiohead.

As for other albums that missed the cut, there are probably enough to fill the shortlist up twice over – but Cat’s Eyes, Esben And The Witch, The Joy Formidable, Vessels, Talons and Three Trapped Tigers would all have been particularly worthy nominees in my eyes. But, as Wild Beasts once sang, “this is our lot” – suppose I’d better see if any of the albums I haven’t heard yet can top Let England Shake

The Mercury Prize ceremony will take place on the 6th September – check the official website for more details.

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

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

12: Paul Weller – Wake Up The Nation

Paul Weller - Wake Up The Nation

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

11: Mumford & Sons – Sigh No More

Mumford & Sons - Sigh No More

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

10: Dizzee Rascal – Tongue N’ Cheek

Dizzee Rascal - Tongue N' Cheek

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

9: Kit Downes Trio – Golden

Kit Downes Trio - Golden

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

8: Corrine Bailey Rae – The Sea

Corrine Bailey Rae - The Sea

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

7: Biffy Clyro – Only Revolutions

Biffy Clyro - Only Revolutions

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

6: I Am Kloot – Sky At Night

I Am Kloot - Sky At Nigh

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

5: Villagers – Becoming A Jackal

Villagers - Becoming A Jackal

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

4: Laura Marling – I Speak Because I Can

Laura Marling - I Speak Because I Can

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

3: Wild Beasts – Two Dancers

Wild Beasts - Two Dancers

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

2: The XX – XX

The XX - XX

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

1: Foals – Total Life Forever

Foals - Total Life Forever

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

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There Can Only Be One: Thoughts On The Mercury Prize Winner

So, Speech Debelle eh? Certainly the not the most likely candidate to win this year’s Mercury Prize, but if you take a look at the nominees then she ticks the right boxes. Perhaps, the judges felt it was time for a more left-field winner, so it couldn’t be someone too popular (Kasabian, Florence & The Machine, La Roux) or too critically acclaimed (The Horrors, Friendly Fires, Glasvegas). If you eliminate the more ‘obvious’ choices, everything fits into place. Speech is the only relatively unknown artist who could be picked without seeming wilfully obscure, the only ‘token’ artist who could be picked without it seeming false – and she still fits conveniently into one of the year’s prevailing trends (i.e. female artists are big news right now).

Of course, to say all that is to take a rather cynical view and ignore her album entirely – and it’s the album that’s supposed to matter, after all. To be fair to her, on those terms she’s a deserving winner – of all the records that I hadn’t listened to before the nominations, hers was one of the most impressive, to my ears at least. Lyrically and instrumentally, she’s doing something a little different from clichéd hip-hop, and that’s worthy of praise. There’s also the fact that she probably needs the £20,000 prize more than many of her compatriots – not exactly the best justification, admittedly, but it does make some sense for the prize to go to one of the lesser-known artists.

The question is, where will she go from here? Talking to Lauren Laverne shortly after receiving her award, she cited Ms. Dynamite’s Mercury Prize win in 2002 as a key motivator – let’s just hope Speech doesn’t follow in the footsteps of her inspiration and fade into obscurity. Right now, her future is firmly in her own hands – with the money and exposure from the prize, she has every opportunity to go on to bigger things. For her sake, I hope she pulls it off… lest we end up looking back at 2009’s Mercury Prize and wondering, “what were they thinking?”

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Let’s Get Cynical About: The Mercury Prize

Yes, I’m a bit slow on the uptake I know. But I wanted to give each of the albums a reasonably thorough listening before spouting off about them, and I’d heard less than half the list beforehand. Unfortunately, Sensible Shoes by Led Bib isn’t to be found on Spotify, or Last FM, or anywhere else that I could think of, so I’ll have to leave it out of my critique. But here’s my take on the 11 other Mercury nominated albums, in reverse order of personal preference.

11. Glasvegas – Glasvegas

Glasvegas - Glasvegas

Glasvegas – Glasvegas

You may be surprised to find an ‘indie’ album at the bottom of this list, but in my opinion Glasvegas are shit.

Ok, maybe ‘shit’ is too strong a word when you consider the sweeping strains of ‘Geraldine’ and the heartfelt, tub-thumping bellow of ‘Daddy’s Gone’, but beyond that I honestly don’t think they’ve got much going for them. The swathes of guitar noise that define the album are too often dragged down by awkward nursery rhyme/playground chant lyrics – see ‘It’s My Own Cheating Heart That Makes Me Cry’, which features James Allan singing “liar, liar pants on fire” more earnestly than any grown man ever should, or the mawkish chorus of ‘You Are My Sunshine’ that’s extraneously tacked onto the end of ‘Flowers And Football Tops’. And at worst, the album ignores the band’s strengths entirely – as on ‘Stabbed’, which is basically just Allan monologuing morbidly over Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’. By the time I’ve arrived at dreary album-closer ‘Ice Cream Van’, I’d pretty much fallen asleep – how Glasvegas have received such widespread praise for an album with so few highlights is beyond me.

10. La Roux – La Roux

La Roux - La Roux

La Roux – La Roux

Ah, La Roux. Catapulted into the spotlight and duly embraced by the British public after a string of admittedly very good singles (‘Quicksand’, ‘In For The Kill’, ‘Bulletproof’), I’d almost be disappointed that the quality of the singles hasn’t carried over to the album… if that fact wasn’t so damn predictable. Front-loaded to the extreme in typical pop record fashion, after it’s dispensed with its singles and ‘Tigerlily’, (which is fairly decent despite a bizarre ‘Thriller’ pastiche towards the end), it quickly tails off into dull, dull, dull territory. ‘Cover My Eyes’ is a yawnsome sub R’n’B ballad, ‘Armour Love’ is so sluggish that it makes me feel like I’ve been tranquillised, and there’s a song called ‘Fascination’ that’s so full of nothing that it makes me long for the Alphabeat track of the same name. And I love video game style synths as much as the next geek, but tracks like ‘I’m Not Your Toy’ and ‘As If By Magic’ just manage to make them sound trite and formulaic – not to mention that by the time that ‘Reflections Are Protection’ rolls around, there’s a nagging feeling that the album has descended into repetition.

Overall, I can sum up my opinion of La Roux’s nomination in four words: Little Boots was robbed.

9. Lisa Hannigan – Sea Sew

Lisa Hannigan - Sea Sew

Lisa Hannigan – Sea Sew

This year’s ‘token folk’ nomination is Irish singer-songwriter Lisa Hannigan, who (like me) you may have heard without realising – she made major contributions to Damien Rice’s first two albums. However, after their writing and touring partnership ended in 2007, she returned to Ireland to record her debut solo album, Sea Sew – and from its handmade patchwork artwork and the fact that it contains a song called ‘Splishy Splashy’, it’s clear without listening that it’s all going to be very lovely. Indeed, even after listening, the word ‘lovely’ is pretty much all that comes to mind. Hannigan’s quietly beautiful vocal glides over gentle acoustic strums and graceful strings – it’s all just rather nice really. Thankfully, just as the album threatens to make you zone out completely, it mixes things up a little – ‘I Don’t Know’ is cute, catchy and has a pleasing simplicity about it, and the minor key tones of ‘Keep It All’ make a welcome change. But then it returns to ‘lovely’ territory again – even album-closer ‘Lille’ is overshadowed by its cutesy pop-up book video.

It seems harsh to place this album so low largely for the crime of being ‘too nice’ – indeed, in my opinion it’s markedly better than the previous two albums – but unfortunately it just doesn’t grab me enough to warrant a higher position. Sorry about that, Lisa.

8. Florence & The Machine – Lungs

Florence & The Machine - Lungs

Florence & The Machine – Lungs

Like La Roux, Florence Welch (otherwise known as Florence & The Machine) was another female artist who was hotly-tipped at the beginning of the year, and she makes it higher on the list than the red-haired one largely on the basis that her Kate-Bush-lite schtick is more interesting than La Roux’s one-dimensional electro. ‘Dog Days Are Over’ and ‘Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)’, start the album compellingly enough with blissfully ethereal vocals, dreamy instrumentation and harmonious chanting. Thankfully, the quality doesn’t completely drop off after the first two tracks – ‘Howl’, ‘Drumming Song’ and ‘Cosmic Love’ are all suitably dramatic, and the scuzzy guitar of ‘Kiss With A Fist’ provide a good contrast to the rest of the album. It’s not without it’s duds, however – ‘I’m Not Calling You A Liar’ merely plods along, and ‘Girl With One Eye’ is a lethargic warbling exercise that’s also rather creepy. The decision to tack her cover of ‘You’ve Got The Love’ on the end is potentially a double-edged sword as well. It’s good, yes, but it threatens to become her ‘Hounds Of Love’ – except, unlike The Futureheads, she hasn’t truly made the song her own.

At the end of the day, however, the main reason I can’t place Lungs any higher than this on my list is that there’s already a far better ethereal pop album present (take a bow, Two Suns). Florence & The Machine’s effort is certainly far from unlistenable, but it lacks the truly jaw-dropping highlights that Natasha Khan’s record has in abundance.

7. Sweet Billy Pilgrim – Twice Born Men

Sweet Billy Pilgrim - Twice Born Men

Sweet Billy Pilgrim – Twice Born Men

I’d never heard anything at all about Sweet Billy Pilgrim prior to this year’s Mercury nominations, but upon listening to the opening track of Twice Born Men I was prepared to be blown away – ‘Here It Begins’, with its majestic instrumental build-up and world-weary, spoken word lyrics, almost signalled the beginning of something brilliant. As it turns out, I wasn’t quite as amazed by the rest of the album as I’d hoped – but I was nevertheless very pleasantly surprised. ‘Truth Only Smiles’ is a charming, pretty, multi-instrumental ballad, while ‘Bloodless Coup’ has an air of quiet melancholy about it. As a whole, the album is well composed, thoughtfully textured and beautifully played… and yet, it has a tendency to just drift past, barely noticed, like a quiet breeze. Depending on what you want from your music, that may or may not be what you’re looking for – for me, the shimmering beauty of Twice Born Men is easy to like, but difficult to truly fall in love with. Nevertheless, it’s an accomplished album that’s deserving of a place on the shortlist.

6. Kasabian – West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum

Kasabian - West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum

Kasabian – West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum

If you were surprised by Glasvegas’ placing then you may well be balking that Kasabian have even ended up this high. In truth, I wasn’t convinced by West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum at first – but with repeated listens the number of dud tracks seemed to steadily decrease. ‘Fire’ was an instant winner with its jaunty, wild-west verses and anthemic chorus, as were the fuzzy bass and thumping beats of ‘Vlad The Impaler’. ‘Take Aim’, ‘Underdog’ and ‘Fast Fuse’ were also fairly quick to impress, but it’s when the band attempt to break from their usual sonic template that the songs take a little longer to reveal their charms. Drowned in Sound pointed out that ‘Thick As Thieves’ has more than an air of The Kinks’ ‘Sunny Afternoon’ about it, but it works just about passably with the bands’ swaggering demeanour, while ‘Secret Alphabets’ isn’t any worse off for trying to sound a bit like psychadelic-era Beatles. On the other hand, ‘West Ryder Silver Bullet’ attempts to take a crack at being ‘epic’, but ultimately ends up sauntering around aimlessly for five minutes without really going anywhere. Album-closer ‘Happiness’ is also pretty much an outright dud, with the best word I can use to describe it being ‘nice’ – and when the Gospel choir kicks in you’ll probably think “WTF? This isn’t Kasabian.”

It’s good to see the band trying something a bit different, but most of the best tracks on West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum are the ones where they sound like the ‘old’ Kasabian. Maybe that opinion aligns me closer than I’d like to the lager-lads who the band seem to be perpetually linked with, but hey, I’m just calling it how I see it.

5. Speech Debelle – Speech Therapy

Speech Debelle - Speech Therapy

Speech Debelle – Speech Therapy

It’s good to see Speech Debelle continuing the trend of ‘token urban’ nominations that are far from ‘token’ (never mind the fact that I’ve no clue what ‘urban’ is supposed to mean these days). If there’s one thing that Speech Therapy does well is throw ‘urban’ stereotypes out of the window within its first two tracks – the plaintive guitar of opener ‘Searching’ is disarming, and second track ‘The Key’ features clarinets. Yes, clarinets! Bog-standard beats ‘n’ rhymes rap this ain’t. Of course, all that would count for very little if the eclectic instrumentation wasn’t matched with a solid flow – thankfully, Speech has effortlessly affecting rhymes in spades. And they’re spoken from the heart – ‘Go Then, Bye’ tackles break-ups without being trite, ‘Daddy’s Little Girl’ is an emotionally raw, yet calmly restrained attack on Speech’s absent father, and title track ‘Speech Therapy’ is both a crucial insight into Speech’s motivations and a moving tribute to her mother.

To ignore Speech Debelle simply because she’s an ‘urban’ artist, or because she’s a rapper, would be foolish indeed – she provides an emotional and thought-provoking view into a world that you may not have even considered thinking about.

4. The Invisible – The Invisible

The Invisible - The Invisible

The Invisible – The Invisible

The Invisible were surely one of this year’s more unexpected nominations, but their self-titled debut is certainly deserving of the exposure. It takes a little while to get going – ‘Constant’ is a slow-burner that sounds like the moody, disaffected cousin of Bloc Party’s ‘Banquet’, but once the funky bass of ‘London Girl’ kicks in the album rarely looks back. ‘Baby Doll’ is subtly builds up to an understatedly anthemic chorus, ‘Monster’s Waltz’ bubbles along pleasingly before breaking out into a wall of guitars, and ‘Ok’ is just pure feel-good funk. The band also know how to switch things up a little – ‘Climate’ features oppressive synths building up to an urgent coda, while ‘Tally Of Souls’, shows that a sparse acoustic guitar also works well as a backdrop for David Okumu’s gently soulful voice. But just as you think the album’s pace has dropped off completely, ‘Time Waits’ smacks you in the face with a blast of raw guitar to take the album out on a high.

The Invisible may have been a surprising nomination, it would surely be an even more surprising winner – but that shouldn’t stop you from giving it a listen. You may well like what you hear.

3: Friendly Fires – Friendly Fires

Friendly Fires - Friendly Fires

Friendly Fires – Friendly Fires

In a review on my previous blog, I called the debut record by Friendly Fires “one of [2008’s] most effortlessly listenable albums”, and I’m sure anyone who’s had this album on repeat will agree with me. From the samba rhythms of ‘Jump In The Pool’, through the wide eyed, hopeful euphoria of ‘Paris’ and the Hot Chip-esque funk of ‘On Board’, all the way to the sinister guitar and dark emotion of ‘Ex Lover’, the band switch styles while maintaining an effortless sense of coherence and flow. Friendly Fires has both hands in the air moments (‘Skeleton Boy’) and touches of understated brilliance  (‘In The Hospital’) – indeed, the only reason that this album doesn’t rank as the best of the Mercury nominees this year in my eyes is that it doesn’t have anything quite as good as the best tracks on the two albums at the top of my list. But that’s just me nitpicking – in reality, the quality of songs on Friendly Fires is so consistently good that it would be as worthy winner as either Two Suns or Primary Colours.

2: Bat For Lashes – Two Suns

Bat For Lashes - Two Suns

Bat For Lashes – Two Suns

Bat For Lashes was a hot favourite to bag the Mercury Prize two years ago with her debut album Fur And Gold, and some would argue she was duly robbed by Klaxons (who, for the record, were surprising but worthy winners in my eyes). She more than deserves a second go round this time though – Two Suns is an absolutely stunning record. Bombastic, jaw-dropping centre-piece ‘Siren Song’ is almost worthy of the prize on its own, while ‘Glass’ and ‘Two Planets’ are both spectacular highlights, featuring thundering drums, atmospheric instrumentation and soaring vocals in equal measure. Crucially, she’s also capable of mixing her ethereal stylings with pop sensibilities, as demonstrated perfectly on singles ‘Daniel’ and ‘Sleep Alone’. She handles her slower numbers well too – ‘Moon And Moon’ is a beautiful piano ballad, and her fragile, haunting duet with Scott Walker on ‘The Big Sleep’ wraps up the album perfectly.

I would certainly have no complaints if Natasha Khan walked away a winner on her second try – the only reason that Two Suns doesn’t make the top of this list is that it’s not as startling a jump forward as Primary Colours is. What it is, however, is a masterful progression from the already very solid foundations of Fur And Gold – this album deserves your attention.

1: The Horrors – Primary Colours

The Horrors - Primary Colours

The Horrors – Primary Colours

Who’d have thought it? This time two years ago, I doubt the Mercury judges were rushing to nominate Strange House – although maybe they should have been, it was miles better than The View’s debut for fuck’s sake. However, two years and one almost completely different album later, The Horrors are on the shortlist, and it’s not hard to see why – critics have fallen head over heels with the band’s second album. Whatever influences you may pick out on Primary Colours, chances are that they were already present in their impressive record collections even around the time of Strange House. This is just them realising their potential by exploring a different set of influences and making a bloody brilliant album.

From the dark, queasy swirls of ‘Mirror’s Image’ through to the astonishing 8-minute soundscape of ‘Sea Within A Sea’, the album rarely falters. ‘Who Can Say’ sees Faris tackle fading love with surprising sincerity as his band create a wall of relentless beats and guitar fuzz, while ‘Scarlet Fields’ is a hazy masterpiece of understated bass and swirling synths. It’s not perfect of course – ‘I Only Think Of You’ drags on for a little too long and ‘I Can’t Control Myself’ isn’t quite as good as everything else in my opinion, but overall these are minor complaints. If you didn’t like The Horrors before, put aside any prejudice you previously had for them and give this a listen – and if you did like them before, prepare to fall in love with them in a whole new way.

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