It’s not immediately clear what about Britain’s Mercury Prize has made it such a fixture in the international music calendar. Every year, the unveiling of the shortlist is met with eye-rolling, cynicism and articles and comment boxes filled with spleen-venting about exactly which supposed classics the judges have overlooked this year.
But the Mercury, founded in 1993 by the British Phonographic Industry as an alternative to the rather stuffy, establishment Brit Awards, has captured something in the public imagination. Perhaps it is the prize’s simplicity: one British album picked from a shortlist of 12. It acts as a convenient stamp of quality for the semi-lapsed music fan who might not go out to many gigs these days, but still wants to keep an ear on what’s cool.
And in recent years, the so-called “curse of the Mercury” – a suspicion by some that winning the prize could be a bullet in the foot, rather than a shot in the arm – has appeared to fade. Yes, Klaxons’ second album failed to follow up the promise of their Mercury-scooping 2007 “nu-rave” blueprint Myths of the Near Future, and 2009’s winner, Speech Therapy by the London rapper Speech Debelle conspicuously failed to capture the public mood. But Arctic Monkeys, Elbow and The xx have hardly faded from view since their wins and much like the Man Booker prize for fiction, the Mercury can often offer a significant sales boost to work that might otherwise be overlooked: Amazon.co.uk reported a 1,000 per cent boost in sales of P J Harvey’s Let England Shake following its triumph last September.
This year’s shortlist is not without its faults. Plan B’s Ill Manors aside, it is slightly beige – and again, hard rock and metal are conspicuous by their absence. But it is not without gems.
Tipped for the top spot
Plan B – Ill Manors
A hip-hop soundtrack to his feature film of the same name, Ben Drew’s third album is a rawer, angrier record than his commercial breakthrough, The Defamation of Strickland Banks. But it’s won both critical and commercial acclaim, and its lyrical focus on poverty and the UK’s 2011 urban riots makes it feel very “now”.
Jessie Ware – Devotion
Much like Katie B, the Londoner Jessie Ware bridges the gap between UK club culture and soulful, chanteuse territory. It is tasteful stuff – comparisons have been made to Adele and Sade – but singles such as 100% are upbeat enough to appeal to the club kids, as well as their mums. You get the impression she might have some longevity, too.
Alt-J – An Awesome Wave
Probably the most interesting indie proposition on this year’s list, this Cambridge four-piece are purveyors of a brainy experimental pop not unlike sometime tourmates Wild Beasts. An Awesome Wave stalled at No 19 in the charts, but Radio 1 is on board and the bookies agree that they’re one of this year’s front-runners.
Richard Hawley – Standing at the Sky’s Edge
The Sheffield songwriter Hawley’s seventh solo album is angry, impassioned and maybe the best of his career. When Arctic Monkeys beat Hawley to the Mercury in 2005, Alex Turner accepted the award with the words: “Someone call 999, Richard Hawley’s been robbed!” Will this be his year?
In with a shot
– Home Again
Kiwanuka’s debut album coolly channels the soul greats Bill Withers and Otis Redding, but it’s a little cardigan-and-slippers.
– Given to the Wild
The indie favourites went widescreen and hit No 4 in the UK charts – although the suspicion lingers they’re not totally free of the indie landfill.
Lianne La Havas
– Is Your Love Big Enough?
La Havas’ debut blended pop, jazz, folk and electronics to occasionally bewitching effect, but leaves the sense she’s still finding her voice.
Field Music – Plumb
The Sunderland brothers David and Peter Brewis make quirkily progressive indie-pop, big on ambition and low on overheads. Plumb is the shortlist’s dark horse.
Making up the numbers
– Every Kingdom
Accomplished fingerpicked folk guitar, but this mid-20 Devonian isn’t breaking any ground.
Sam Lee – Ground of its Own
Interpretations of traditional and oral folk songs, many learnt from gypsy and traveller communities. Interesting, but of niche appeal.
Roller Trio – Roller Trio
This year’s token jazzers, formed from the ashes of punk-jazz mavericks Acoustic Ladyland. Rocking and unconventional. Won’t win, mind.
– Django Django
Tinpot invention from this Edinburgh group. Their single Default is a tune, but if “quirky indie types” comes up this year, Alt-J will probably take it.