Editor's Letter

Editor’s Letter: Mercury Prize Contenders

By | Published on Wednesday 12 September 2012

Mercury Prize

This afternoon at about 5.30pm, Lauren Laverne will begin reading out this year’s Mercury Prize shortlist, at which point you will officially be allowed to start complaining about it. Though as it will end up clashing with the iPhone 5 launch, you might have to decide which you complain about first.

As usual, the group of people charged with officially deciding which twelve British albums were definitely the best in the last year (or fourteen months this time, due to the award shifting back by two months) will fail to come up with the list you would have written if given the opportunity. Instead they’ll probably just put through the albums the majority of the panel think are the most deserving. The idiots.

Anyway, to prepare you for what’s about to come, I’ve pulled together some of the big (and not so big) contenders for this year’s shortlist. Obviously these are the acts I think stand a chance of getting shortlisted, not those I’d choose myself, otherwise Emika and Dan Le Sac would be on there for starters. I’ve also assumed that electronic music’s continued dominance in pop and its infiltration of indie will ensure that artists operating within more ‘pure’ electronic genres will also be missing. Though now I think about it, Orbital are probably in with a chance. Well anyway, forget that, here are the 20 most likely to succeed.

Alt-J – An Awesome Wave
This seems like the safest bet of the bunch, praise for this album has been far-reaching and they have become one of the new band success stories of the year. And if any band deserve a nomination, it’s probably them. Alt-J have gone to some lengths to develop a sound that sounds like no one else, pulling in influences from a huge range of sources from folk to dubstep, without making an absolute mess of it.

Django Django – Django Django
Another shoo-in for a nomination, surely. Django Django have been another 2012 new band success story, though with one much more obvious reference point in The Beta Band (and drummer Dave Mclean being the younger brother of that band’s keyboard player John Mclean can’t be the sole reason for this). Since their debut album was released in January, single release ‘Default’ has become one of those songs you hear bloody everywhere. It’s good though, so I don’t mind.

The Maccabees – Given To The Wild
When this album came out in January it looked certain for a place on the shortlist, but I think the appearance of Alt-J and Django Django might just edge it out. I could be wrong though.

The xx – Coexist
Everyone seems pretty certain that The xx’s second album is going to be on the list, and its 10 Sep release date just puts it inside the eligibility period. I’m not so sure it’ll be there – it’s possibly a little too similar to their debut to warrant a place in the final shortlist. That said, experience has taught me that ignoring the most obvious choices is usually foolish when trying to predict this list.

Kasabian – Veloceraptor!
There’s just a grim inevitability to this one, isn’t there?

Plan B – Ill Manors
Plan B’s ‘The Defamation Of Strickland Banks’ album wasn’t nominated for the 2010 Mercury Prize, which automatically gives this the guilt vote in that regard (not that ‘Ill Manors’ isn’t good, but it worked for Elbow, didn’t it?). Also, it’s gritty, attempts give voice to London’s disaffected youth and has John Cooper Clarke on it, all things which will likely appeal to the judges.

Kate Bush – 50 Words For Snow
Well, come on, how often is the opportunity to nominate Kate Bush for a Mercury likely to arise? She only releases a new album once every 60 or 70 years. And, hey, if they nominated her she might come to the ceremony! She almost certainly wouldn’t, but, you know, she still might.

Jessie Ware – Devotion
Everyone loves Jessie Ware. That’s what Twitter has led me to believe, anyway. The devotion (see what I did there?) to her from both music critics and her fans suggests that there might be some sort of mob/pitchfork situation if she is overlooked. Which she won’t be because everybody loves her.

Emeli Sandé – Our Version Of Events
If this summer taught us anything, it’s that if there’s a ceremony of some sort going on, Emeli Sandé will probably sing at it at least once. This may be her debut album, but Sandé already has a long list of guest appearances and songwriting credits with other pop artists (including adding vocals to ‘Let’s Go’ from Tinie Tempah’s Mercury nominated debut album). She’s saved her more mature songwriting for herself though, which could stand her in good stead for a Mercury nomination.

Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds – Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds
Beady Eye were obviously robbed when it came to last year’s nominations, but does ‘that guy out of Oasis’ stand a better chance than ‘those guys out of Oasis’? Well, yes, of course he does – he’s the one with all the songs – but that doesn’t mean he’ll make it onto the list.

Richard Hawley – Standing At The Sky’s Edge
No one is going to thank me for saying this, but Richard Hawley is probably Noel Gallagher’s closest competition. His album is rockier and leans more into psychedelia than Noel’s, but they aren’t a million miles from one another. Hawley was last nominated in 2006, since which he has further established himself as British musical royalty, but it couldn’t hurt to make a few more people aware of this status.

Rizzle Kicks – Stereo Typical
It’s an outside chance that Rizzle Kicks will make it to the shortlist, but it’s a chance nonetheless. ‘Stereo Typical’ does, as I’m sure you’re aware, have a few very catchy singles on it and as an album it holds up fairly well (even if it is overly long).

Coldplay – Mylo Xyloto
Coldplay’s first three albums were all nominated for the Mercury, only 2008’s ‘Viva La Vida’ has failed to make the grade so far. Does that mean they’ve fallen out of favour with the judging panel? Not necessarily. As they showed on Sunday at the Paralympics closing ceremony, they’re very much a band able to write songs that work in stadiums, with hundreds of dancers, elaborate staging and Rihanna and Jay-Z as guests. You might not like them, but imagine if it had been The Killers closing the Paralympics. Imagine! Puts it in perspective, does it?

Lianne La Havas – Is Your Love Big Enough?
Ah, lovely Lianna La Havas. Doesn’t she have a lovely voice? And such pretty songs. I guess she does, yes. They’re nice enough, I suppose. Guaranteed a nomination.

Michael Kiwanuka – Home Again
I’ve written about why I don’t get Michael Kiwanuka before, so I’ll not rant on too much now. I just don’t understand why anyone would go to such effort to make an album sound exactly like it was made in the 60s. Being influenced by 60s songwriting and production, fine. But painstakingly recreating both to make your album unrecognisable as a modern release? Why? Guaranteed a nomination.

The Invisible – Rispah
I’ve tried to avoid putting lesser known artists in just because they were nominated once before (it didn’t work for Portico Quartet last year and it probably won’t for Sweet Billy Pilgrim this year), but if The Invisible’s debut can be nominated then the follow-up, ‘Rispah’, certainly should be too. The band’s frontman Dave Okumu also co-wrote and produced Jessie Ware’s debut, so he’ll likely be at the ceremony anyway. Cost effective.

Laura Marling – Creature I Don’t Know
Both of Laura Marling’s previous albums have made it onto the Mercury shortlist, and her third also proved very popular amongst critics. Commercially it hasn’t yet faired quite as well, but that’s because she hasn’t had her traditional Mercury boost. Despite this, I think her position on the shortlist faces competition from Admiral Fallow. She’ll probably pip it though.

Sam Lee – Ground Of Its Own or June Tabor & Oysterband – Ragged Kingdom
There may only be room for one trad folk album on the shortlist (but there will be one), but these two both hold strong claims to being it. Tabor and Oysterband recorded their first album together, ‘Freedom And Rain’, in 1990, and the follow-up 21 years later proved very popular (in folk terms). It’s a nice story, but it has to contend with the equally nice story of Sam Lee’s ‘Ground Of Its Own’.

Lee’s (relatively short at just eight tracks) album is folk music in a very true sense – it’s a record made up of traditional songs he learned by travelling the country, including spending time with various gypsy and traveller communities, and asking people to teach him to play them. The songs are therefore in many cases version specific to certain families (all of whom are credited in the liner notes). Although it can be a bit inconsistent production-wise, Lee is occasionally quite inventive with his instrumentation. I’m veering towards picking him for the shortlist for that reason, but it could go either way.

TrioVD – Maze or Empirical – Elements Of Truth
As with the folk choice, there can be but one jazz album (but there will definitely be one). I’m 80% on the side of TrioVD’s ‘Maze’ for this one, applying thrash metal song structures and riffs to jazz in a way that somehow doesn’t come across as the worst thing ever. In fact, it’s very good indeed. However, the Mercury judging panel is notoriously down on metal and it’s not an easy listen much of the time. Therefore, I’m going to hedge my bets again and stick in Empirical’s ‘Elements Of Truth’ too, which is a bit more traditional in its sound.

Radiohead – The Kings Of Limbs
Radiohead are (jointly with PJ Harvey) the most nominated act throughout the history of the Mercury Prize. A nomination this year would mean that more than half of their albums had been up for the award (the three that weren’t are ‘Pablo Honey’, ‘The Bends’ and ‘Kid A’). If nominated, it’s very unlikely they’d win, but would that be enough to put judges off?

Other possible contenders who I wrote down on an envelope, but who I ultimately decided were less likely to succeed, were Rustie, The Vaccines, Ed Sheeran, Bright Light Bright Light, Trokya, Actress, Bombay Bicycle Club, Dry The River, Kuedo, Ben Howard, JJ DOOM (now that would be an Antony & The Johnsons-style upset), Holy Other, Fixers, Professor Green, Kindness, Florence And The Machine, St Etienne, Zomby, Bill Fay, Wretch 32, McCormack & Yarde Duo, MJ Hibbett, Islet, Cool Runnings, and Die Hard.

Those last three of those almost certainly didn’t enter, but whatever, they’re good and you should listen to them and MJ Hibbett, while sadly likely to be overlooked for his ‘Dinosaur Planet’ concept album did at least go to the trouble of putting himself forward, so is worthy of a mention. And as his label is called Artists Against Success, you could argue that it’s a win either way.

Andy Malt
Editor, CMU