Since its foundation in 1992, the Mercury Music Prize - currently going by the name of the Barclaycard Mercury Prize - has come to fill a special place in the Great British music calendar. Conceived by Jon Webster, former MD of Virgin Records, as "the Booker Prize of the music industry", the annual prize, which is judged by a selected panel of musicians, music executives, journalists and other industry figures, aims to rain plaudits, plus the respectable sum of £20,000 (Dh93,000), on the best British or Irish album of the year.
This being a value judgment about music, something that is necessarily subjective, the Mercury shortlist typically prompts to a whole load of griping and bickering of the "How dare they omit album x!" variety. For a while, more cynical pundits whispered about "the Mercury Curse", intimating that the Mercury was more likely to kill a career in music, rather than kick one off (and it's true that past winners such as Talvin Singh or Gomez failed to really find their place in the nation's affections). But the prize, which in more recent years has also been awarded to the likes of Klaxons, Arctic Monkeys and Dizzee Rascal, has always grabbed headlines, in part thanks to its September announcement coming in the thick of the British media's traditionally fallow so-called "silly season". Nearly two decades on from its inception, it remains a flashpoint for impassioned discussion and embittered argument.
"It's a powerful thing, the Mercury," agrees Hayden Thorpe, vocalist/guitarist for Wild Beasts, a young band from Kendal in te English Lake District whose second album for Domino Records, Two Dancers, has made the 2010 shortlist. "It's become a big national debate. What role should it play? For me it should represent integrity and vision. It should say this is where Britain is at. It should be at the front line of where we are creatively."
For a band like Wild Beasts - critically acclaimed, but a little too unusual to garner much in the way of daytime radio play or column inches in the gossip press even - a nomination for the Mercury is a valuable profile boost. "For Dizzee Rascal to win, it would just be another accolade for him; he's had a Mercury victory and four number ones. But for us it would be life-changing," says Thorpe. But he concedes that the prize needs to acknowledge mainstream artists to remain relevant. "If it was a load of obscure leftfielders, then no one would really pay attention. It's that David-Goliath scenario that makes it so enticing."
Certainly, Two Dancers would be a worthy winner, being one of the more uniquely imaginative albums to spring from the British Isles in the last couple of years. On one hand, Wild Beasts are steeped in an indie-pop tradition that stretches back to The Smiths and The Associates, a blend of high-strung passions, romping rhythms and ornate, jangling guitar. But the songs themselves surely hail from their own singular world. Thorpe's vocals come in a high, whinnying falsetto, and his choice of language is often turn-of-the-century archaic, albeit sometimes broaching topics far from respectable. On Hooting & Howling, Wild Beasts play young rascals, "brutes bored in our bovver boots", tossing threats at rivals who'll "be left thumb-sucking in terror/And bereft of all coffin bearers".
Wild Beasts' songs boast an evocative Englishness that has its own precedents - Thorpe admits to being a keen reader of poets such as Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes - but far from making them unintelligible to an overseas audience, a recent US tour led Thorpe to believe his band's cultural idiosyncrasies give them an edge. "I think we can seem quite exotic to American sensibilities," he explains. "When we go out there, we're not selling Americans back a sort of American-sounding music. When I was growing up in a small town in the lakes, a band from New York sounds like the most wonderful, out-there thing. Los Angeles and the Lake District are as separate as you can imagine, but that separation can create a sense of romanticism."
As for Wild Beasts' chances on the night of the Mercury, it's hard to say. Some years, the favourites scoop it - see 2006, when Arctic Monkeys walked it with their second album Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not, which went on to go quadruple-platinum. Other years, an underdog scores a shock victory - see last year, when SpeechTherapy, the debut from London rapper Speech Debelle, beat the likes of Florence And The Machine and Kasabian to the prize money.
Thorpe acknowledges the strong competition from his friends The xx, whose downbeat self-titled LP has been a sleeper hit in the UK and currently stands as the favourite; as well as Corinne Bailey Rae, whose album The Sea deals with the sadness of bereavement. "And an out-there choice would be Villagers - this guy writes great, moving songs, and nothing more needs to be said," says Thorpe. "But you know, it's almost like the FA Cup syndrome. Everyone wants to see a giant killer - but you still expect the giant to take it home."
The Barclaycard Mercury Prize will be announced on September 7.
Biffy Clyro Only Revolutions Grungy Scottish rockers, now exploring more progressive realms. Their hard-core fan army won't necessarily help them scoop the Mercury, though. Corinne Bailey Rae The Sea The judges may respond well to the genuine emotions displayed on The Sea, mostly written following the accidental death of Bailey-Rae's husband in 2008. Dizzee Rascal Tongue N'Cheek London grime wunderkind turned chart heavyweight, Dizzee won the Mercury in 2003 with his debut album Boy in Da Corner - can lightning strike twice? Foals Total Life Forever Intricate math-rock from Oxford indie troupe. Total Life Forever sees them branching out from the initial formula, but perhaps the zeitgeist has passed them by. I Am Kloot Sky At Night Acoustic rock, from Manchester. No spring chickens, but production from Guy Garvey and Craig Potter from 2008 winners Elbow, suggests you shouldn't rule them out. Kit Downes Trio Golden New trio led by the British pianist who won the Rising Star award at 2008's BBC Jazz Awards. No jazz player has ever scooped the Mercury, but the profile can't hurt. Laura Marling I Speak Because I Can Bewitching folk from this 20-year-old from Hampshire. It's her second time on the shortlist - debut LP Alas I Cannot Swim was listed in 2008 - making her a definite contender. Mumford & Sons Sigh No More Uplifting folk-rock Londoners, fond of accordion, banjo and mandolin. A hit at this year's Glastonbury, and they've picked up some buzz in the US, but will that be enough? Paul Weller Wake Up The Nation The mod veteran and former leader of The Jam has made his best album for years. Not everyone's cup of tea, but the closest the list has to a national treasure. Villagers Becoming a Jackal Dublin's Conor O'Brien pens expansive, well-crafted songs inspired by Rufus Wainwright, Robert Wyatt and Jens Lekman. An outside chance, but the album's a slow burner. Wild Beasts Two Dancers Songs of love, lust and fisticuffs from four young men from the Lake District. Original, idiosyncratic and very English, it's easy to see the judges unite around this? The xx xx ?unless of course they go for the self-titled debut from The xx. Three friends from a London comprehensive school, they play spindly, intimate Brit soul that's already won a huge audience.