We’re all busy people, and the world of music appears to be churning over with ever-growing speed, so it’s beneficial to sometimes have a signpost that suggests which records from the last 12 months are worth bothering with (and, by extension, which can probably be left ignored. If you haven’t bothered by now, do as the lady from Frozen says, and let it go).
And it is with this in mind that we present the 12 nominees in this year’s Mercury Prize. This is the most prestigious award in British music, voted for by a panel of critics and experts, and one that has little connection to the marketing or sales of the albums on the list. This can occasionally lead people to accuse the award of being elitist, unrepresentative or even willfully obscure, but as a chance to look back over the past 12 months and consider the great peaks of musical achievement that took place, it’s enormously useful.
The nominees have just been announced, with the final winner getting their trophy (and cash prize) at a ceremony on October 29. Here’s who they are and what they do:
Jungle by Jungle
Founded by west London schoolmates Josh Lloyd-Watson and Tom McFarland, the Jungle sound is a gang show of slow ’70s soul and funk ideas garlanded with the heavy use of group vocals, bangs and hoots, clanks and swooshes. Y’know, like a rainy day version of KC and the Sunshine Band.
First Mind by Nick Mulvey
Nick has Mercury form, having been part of the Portico Quartet, whose Knee-deep In The North Sea was nominated in 2008. His first solo album has some of Portico’s discipline and Cuban swing, but is more noticeably in thrall to the whispery gothic English folk revival of artists such as Nick Drake and Laura Marling.
One Breath by Anna Calvi
Own up, who said “PJ Hardly”? That’s just mean. Anna’s second album is also her second to be shortlisted for a Mercury, and takes her theatrical voice and strident melodic signature—part indie rock, part Kurt Weill—into ever more crimson territory.
v2.O by GoGo Penguin
The Mercury is often accused of throwing in jazz or folk albums just give the shortlist the illusion of range, and it would be tempting to claim GoGo Penguin as the token jazzbos on the list, were it not for the presence of Polar Bear (who definitely are the token jazzbos on the list). Also, what they do is as indebted to the tight structures of pop music (Keane and Coldplay, for example) as it is to jazz, so clearly they’re either here on merit, or they’re the token popbos instead.
So Long, See You Tomorrow by Bombay Bicycle Club
Credit where it’s due, this BBC is even less likely to rest on its laurels than the one that makes all the TV shows (and top quality Anglophile blogs). Four albums in, and they’ve already covered indie rock, electronica, folk music, and now the spiraling strings and exotic musical colors of world music. You often hear British people claim the U.K. as a cultural melting pot, well here’s some proof.
LP1 by fka twigs
The name stands for “formerly known as ‘Twigs'” because Tahliah Barnett, whose album this is, used to be a model famed for her spectacularly cracky (and spindly) joints. The nickname stuck, but competition from a rival Twigs forced a rethink. Far from such trivial concerns, the fka phenomenon is one of reverberant noises and ghostly poise. It is not music in which things tend to happen, but the feelings are left jangled and raw nonetheless.
Total Strife Forever by East India Youth
William Doyle is young man with the treated instruments and fiddled-about-with voice in this arresting album of electronic un-dance music. And again, it’s a record in which events are few and far between. And by events I mean familiar things to cling on to. Disorientation looms large in this album, particularly in songs like “Song for a Granular Piano” and “Dripping Down.”
Dead by Young Fathers
They may consider themselves to be a “psychedelic hip hop boy band” but that’s far too cosy a title for this bunch of Scottish rapscallions (pun intended). Actually the Young Fathers noise may tickle at the part of the mind requires expanding, it also prods at the scared inner child that would rather hide behind the sofa whenever Daleks commence shouting. Listen to the bass on this song; that’s far too eerie a noise to be friendly.
Royal Blood by Royal Blood
Speaking of unfriendly bass, Royal Blood are a guitar group with only one guitar, and it’s a four string. Not that this stops them from creating their two-man Arctic Monkeys riff-rock ruckus. The question of whether this is impressive because making that noise is hard to do as a duo, or because it’s a good noise, appears to have largely been answered by the Mercury panel.
Everybody Down by Kate Tempest
The only up-and-comer on this list that doesn’t really need the attention, having already been commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Kate is a performance poet, playwright and rapper who has supported fellow musical wordsmiths John Cooper Clarke, Billy Bragg, Benjamin Zephaniah and Scroobius Pip. She also won the Ted Hughes award, and the 2013 Off West End Award for her theatrical spoken-word performance Brand New Ancients. The album is good too!
In Each and Every One by Polar Bear
The token jazzbos of all token jazzbos, featuring members of previous token jazzbo ensembles Basquiat Strings and, erm, Polar Bear (their album Held On The Tips Of Fingers was nominated in 2005). Although far from being a hat tip to the great musical ideas of the past, this is also a disorienting and eerie listen. Which just goes to show that this is the year for tunes that are not here to reassure anyone.
Everyday Robots by Damon Albarn
The most familiar name on this list by several miles—especially in Britain, where Blur remain a big deal—and yet this is only his third release under his own name, and the first to be an album in the conventional sense. The other two were a collection of odds and ends called Democrazy and Dr. Dee, a stage musical about the life of the visionary doctor of Queen Elizabeth I. He’ll have finished yet another project by the time the award is announced, of course.
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