Last year, the shortlist for the Mercury Prize was announced on the 17th of July, suggesting that in just under a month’s time, this year’s shortlist is sure to make an appearance. My interest in the Prize waxes and wanes, depending on the shortlist: all too often the judges fall back on lowest-common-denominator material such as, on last year’s shortlist, the thoroughly boring Hats off to the Buskers by The View, along with every Coldplay album ever. My experiences of the winning albums have also been something of a mixed bag: in 2006, Arctic Monkeys won with their debut, ahead of (in my opinion) more worthy albums from Muse and Guillemots; conversely, last year, Klaxons won the prize ahead of Arctic Monkeys, who had since returned with the infinitely superior Favourite Worst Nightmare.
Nevertheless, there’s no doubting the Prize’s ability to – overnight, frequently – thrust a struggling yet talented artist into the limelight, thus ensuring a short-term boost in sales. Elsewhere in its history, the nominees and winners have definitely caused me to further investigate a particular artist, as in the case of Antony and the Johnsons in 2005 (who won), and Richard Hawley in 2006 (who didn’t).
Though I have no fear in saying that British music is at an all time nadir, it is with some optimism that I would suggest the past twelve months have seen signs of a resurgence among our more experimental and esoteric, risk-taking artists, and I really hope the judges take a careful look at such albums when making their decisions this year. Though I doubt my selections will bear any relation to the real shortlist, here are some British albums that have been released since last August (the usual cut-off point) that I feel the judges would be loath to ignore:
British Sea Power, Do You Like Rock Music? – I’m aware that Pitchfork have significantly decreased their love of BSP since this third LP, owing to it sounding (to their ears) more and more like U2. However, I would have to disagree, since the album is not at all bereft of soul and human interest, and is instead full of sonic experimentation (no doubt stemming from Efrim Menuck‘s input) and highly agreeable songs that certainly evoke comparison with Echo and the Bunnymen. It’s not unthinkable to suggest that the Mercury judges may finally acknowledge the band’s existence with a nomination.
Burial, Untrue – It’s dubstep at its most evolved. It plainly evokes the unique experience of wondering through the city in the post-club comedown hinterland, and does so with these somewhat familiar 90s-sounding R&B vocals, mutated and squelched alongside harrowing beats.
Elbow, The Seldom Seen Kid – Tragically, I haven’t actually heard this album yet, but I remain hopeful that, on the basis of their previous work, and the acclaimed reviews this one’s been getting, it will be nominated, which would be an apt peak for such a hard-grafting band as Elbow. It’s even got a collaboration with Richard Hawley on it.
Foals, Antidotes – One of the most hyped-up British bands for a while, particularly in more adventurous circles, and this, their debut, really didn’t disappoint, for me. While it will always plague me as to whether critics would have preferred the Dave Sitek mix, I think it’s only appropriate to applaud a band who have taken the far-out branches of math rock, and honed them into what is, in the end, a great pop album. Admittedly, the vocals and lyrics are sometimes on the wrong side of obtuse, but my personal feeling is that the technical virtuosity of the instrumental work far outweighs the album’s problems.
Jonny Greenwood, There Will Be Blood – One of my less likely suggestions, particularly since it consists of half an hour’s worth of modernist, minimalist classical music composed for one of the most awe-inspiring films I have seen in my entire life. However, there’s no denying its scope and beauty, and the unrelentingly bleak mood that it conveys with a traditional orchestra creating wildly experimental sounds. More importantly, I really think it does work as an album, as opposed to just being a soundtrack: the sequencing of the tracks is good; there is an intelligent arc in tone, pace and texture.
Hot Chip, Made In The Dark – Their third studio effort isn’t at all flawless, but I think it is the unexpected things and the constant sense of surprise and wit that might win it a nomination. In Ready For The Floor the band have surely written their perfect Christmas pop song, while elsewhere on the record there’s a definite feeling that the band is learning to embrace their live potential in making songs that just build and build, and then take some unexpected step, such as on Hold On.
The Last Shadow Puppets, The Age of the Understatement – It wouldn’t be a surprise at all if this was nominated and indeed won the prize, which would be a fairly unprecedented feat for Alex Turner. It may not be at all forward-thinking (not that that stopped Klaxons from taking home the award last year), but it makes up for that by capturing the spirit of Scott Walker ballads, and embellishing solid hooks and vignettes with some of the most lush and inventive orchestration used in this context for a long time.
M.I.A., Kala – An acquaintance of mine believes that this will never win, because the British press remain sceptical of her confused political agenda, and because they don’t like music that’s so aggressive and wilfully sloganeering. Whatever the outcome, it only just missed the release deadline for last year’s shortlist, and I really do believe they’d be foolish to have forgotten about it. On Kala M.I.A. takes all the sonic invention and global influences on Arular, and builds on them with further-reaching production values and slightly less of the banal anecdotes that peppered its predecessor. It’s a stunning work, blending a wide range of talents and samples to make something relentlessly attention-seeking.
Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, Raising Sand – Another one of which I’ve only heard snippets, but, on the basis of what I have heard, it could be a worthy contender. The song selection is fantastic; the arrangements very appropriate; and, of course, in Plant and Krauss there is one of the most effective and unusual vocal pairings for a while.
Portishead, Third – I find it very difficult to write about this album: what is there to say about such a wilfully difficult, tortured album that has universally silenced the critics who thought either that Portishead would never make another album, or that any future album from the band would be an extension of the Bristol sound. It’s comparable to Massive Attack’s Mezzanine only in the fact that they’ve followed two albums of (admittedly talented) dinner party music with something you would be scared to expose to young children. Musically, the two albums are completely disparate; similar only in their consistently bleak, grimy tone. Third is alternately mechanical, languid, industrial, chilling, upsetting, unrelenting and apocalyptic. And I love it.
Radiohead, In Rainbows – Radiohead have never won the Mercury Prize, and I don’t think they will with In Rainbows either. Though it is their best album since Kid A, I don’t think it pushes nearly as many boundaries, and, for me, proved to be a relatively ‘easy’ listen. It’s not that their lifting up their feet and taking the foot off the accelerator of invention and rule-breaking, it’s just that they’ve decided on a more relaxed, soulful tone on this album, which I don’t think gels with the forward-thinking agenda of the judges. Nevertheless, it’s a delight to listen to.
Spiritualized, Songs in A&E – Every positive review of this album has hit the nail right on the head with an extremely large hammer: it sounds like he’s writing and singing from beyond the grave; the music is a distillation of all his best work since the days of Spacemen 3; it’s life-affirming music made by someone who almost died. And they’re all correct, because the album can be beautiful and moving, and then shift into the full-on, space rock sprawling mess that everyone loves.
Oh, by the way, the biggest mistake the judges ever made was not nominating Field Music’s Tones of Town last year. It should have been on the shortlist and it should have won.