In the year that Adele has achieved both global fame and breathtaking sales figures, it's two other female British singer-songwriters whose very different but equally striking visions of their country burn brightest. Tonight, along with Adele, either PJ Harvey or Katy B could be walking away with a not inconsiderable £20,000 (Dh118,500), the sum awarded to the winner of the annual Mercury Music Prize. Since 1992, the best British or Irish album of the year has been picked by a committee of industry figures, and has become the major accolade in the UK music calendar - but the so-called "Booker Prize of the music industry" has often attracted controversy.
The award always provokes debate about what constitutes a "great" album, not least because it's never really clear what its criteria are - or rather, they seem to shift unpredictably from one year to the next. In several years the committee has awarded the prize to edgy, musically adventurous new styles: in particular cutting-edge electronic genres like trip-hop in 1995 (Portishead - Dummy), drum 'n' bass in 1997 (Roni Size/Reprazent - New Forms), or grime in 2003 (Dizzee Rascal - Boy In Da Corner). Other years, in choosing albums by the likes of Franz Ferdinand or the Arctic Monkeys, they have instead awarded the prize to the most high-profile indie-rock album of the year, in a bout of uncomplicated populism. Some picks, such as 2009's Speech Therapy, a little-known, somewhat mediocre debut album by Speech Debelle, have baffled music fans of all kinds.
As ever, there are 12 albums on the list this year, of greatly contrasting styles - but the two most exciting inclusions are by bold, idiosyncratic female solo artists from very different backgrounds. PJ Harvey's Let England Shake, released in February, has been festooned with critical garlands - and understandably so, for it's a truly exceptional piece of musical storytelling, lyrical and evocative and heart-rending. Over the course of her eight studio albums, Harvey has not so much defied convention in an attention-seeking kind of way, as declined to have a relationship with it to begin with. Let England Shake is as close as one might get to a "history album". Based on extensive reading, and research into the Gallipoli campaign during the First World War, her lyrics and singing style position her as a kind of naturalistic narrator from the trenches, rather than her own voice: "Death hung in the smoke and clung - to 400 acres of useless beachfront."
Her intriguing, idiosyncratic voice, positioned over jangly guitars, unsettling rhythms and wailing backing vocals, is haunting when evoking the horrors of war, but also the soldier's weary sentiments for home, the "withered vine reaching from the country I love". This is expanded on The Last Living Rose with memories of "beautiful England, and the grey, damp filthiness of ages, and battered books / fog rolling down behind the mountains / on the graveyards of dead sea captains". It's as evocative and ambitious an attempt to sketch Britain in a few lines as George Orwell's description of pre-war industrial England as a "smudge of smoke and misery hidden by the curve of the Earth's surface".
Let England Shake is the favourite to win the Mercury, and its perfect foil is Katy B's On a Mission, an album featuring a very different description of England. Kathleen Brien, as Katy B, is 20 years PJ Harvey's junior and a rapidly rising pop star. Her debut album hit the number two slot earlier this year, and has produced three top 10 singles. After the haunting historical onslaught of Let England Shake, On a Mission might seem trivial, as it's really "only" about being young and going out dancing; but in a less sombre way it tells an equally important story about England, reflecting the country's 21st-century club music in all its multicultural, forward-thinking glory.
She tells stories of attending London clubs as a teenager, being young and ambitious in the big city, even writing her degree dissertation about "UK funky" (a local permutation of house music): these clubs are the singular passion of her young life. The music tells its own story of a proudly mongrel nation: it's a hybridised pop-dance album, with production mixing up influences from across the world all fed through London, a collage that holds a mirror up to the London dance scene, a heady collision of genre names: R&B, drum 'n' bass, grime, dubstep, UK funky, house. In her pop-friendly hands it's a culture at once intimate and familial, but still welcoming to newcomers: the album ends with B giving shout-outs to "all the friends I've been raving with" - and you feel that could be anyone listening.
Harvey and B both describe Britain vividly and uniquely - and together they cover so many different aspects of their homeland: rural and urban, optimistic and weary, the way society once was compared with the way it is now, and the vastly different folk music traditions they come from. "People, they stagnate with time" laments Harvey on the bleak ballad England - fortunately, music does not.
The shortlist in full is:
Metronomy: The English Riviera
Everything Everything: Man Alive
Ghostpoet: Peanut Butter Blues and Melancholy Jam
Anna Calvi: Anna Calvi
Tinie Tempah: Disc-Overy
Elbow: Build a Rocket, Boys!
Gwilym Simcock: Good Days at Schloss Elmau
James Blake: James Blake
PJ Harvey: Let England Shake
Katy B: On a Mission
King Creosote & Jon Hopkins: Diamond Mine