The Mercury Prize has the ability to catapult its winner to fame and glory. It’s likely they will have already achieved critical success but the publicity of the award can lead to massive increases in record sales and thousands of new listeners, and as the judges have a habit of crowning the underdog, the Mercury Prize can transform a musician’s career. In 2010 The xx competed with the likes of Paul Weller, Biffy Clyro, Dizzee Rascal and Mumford and Sons and won, and their album went platinum shortly after. This is my take on the twelve albums in the running for the music industry’s most prestigious award, the 2011 Mercury Prize.
Probably the favourite to win, Adele’s second album 21 looks to be almost unbeatable. Unless you don’t own a TV, radio or computer you will have heard ‘Rolling in the Deep’ and ‘Someone Like You’, number 1 singles which have made Adele incredibly popular on both sides of the Atlantic and shown that she has real talent. 21 is undoubtedly a great album and full of melodic, emotive, lyrically intelligent tracks. If her Mercury Prize performance matches the mesmerising one at the Brit Awards it’ll be impressive.
This is Elbow’s third Mercury nomination after the brilliant – and worth a listen – Asleep in the Back in 2001 and their win with The Seldom Seen Kid in 2008. Build a Rocket Boys! is another outstanding effort from the soulful Northern rockers, with charm, complexity and musicianship, not to mention the band’s greatest asset, Guy Garvey’s voice. Have a listen to the epic, Prog-influenced ‘The Birds’ and the quietly sentimental and uplifting ‘With Love’ and ‘Dear Friends’. Despite its excellence Elbow are unlikely to become the first act to win the Prize more than once; if they hadn’t previously won I’d be backing it to go all the way.
Anna Calvi is a singer who you’ll either love or hate. Almost the definition of anti-Pop; her sound is strange but a massive hit with many critics. Her eponymous album is a bold début, firmly disregarding mainstream styles. Its melodramatic nature, in ‘No More Words’ for example, may be off-putting to many, myself included, but might be favoured by the judges. An artist to whom Calvi has been compared to is fellow nominee PJ Harvey. Also nominated in 1993, 1995 and winning in 2001, she is a Mercury Prize favourite and in my opinion Let England Shake is a stronger album than Calvi’s, and slightly less weird.
Ghostpoet’s début demonstrates his unique sound; often slow and drowsy with lyrics like “I love you like chicken soups and biscuits and lemonade” resting on hypnotic, trippy layers, Peanut Butter Blues and Melancholy Jam is an inventive, understated rap album. Listen to the sleepy ‘Us Against Whatever Ever’, latest single ‘Cash and Carry Me Home’ and my favourite track ‘Survive It’. This has a decent chance of taking the Prize. Fellow rapper Tinie Tempah has been nominated for Disc-Overy, an album which boasts club favourites ‘Pass Out’ and ‘Frisky’ with their now instantly recognisable bass and beats, and earned him Brit, Ivor Novello and MOBO awards. Given that his most famous song gives our beloved Southampton a mention (albeit in the same phrase as Scunthorpe) I’m pleased that Tinie has been nominated, and though his more Pop/Hip-Hop sound probably won’t make him the judge’s favourite, it’s a good thing that rap acts are following in Dizzee Rascal’s footsteps and being recognised for their talent.
Katy B and James Blake are further proof of the judging panel’s continued wish to include acts of the newest genres of music as well as the singer/songwriters and rock bands. Blake has mastered creating soulful melodies blended with interesting electronic/dubstep sounds. The many layers of his own vocals are a feature of his self-titled album, a technique borrowed from the likes of Bon Iver perhaps, though the similarities end there; a lack of flowing melody and lightness of touch make Blake’s work a lot less likeable. On a Mission by Katy B is more accessible, more radio friendly and therefore likely to be much more familiar, in particular club hit ‘Katy On a Mission’ which typifies her R’n’B/dubstep/garage mix. It’s perhaps her success in lifting this kind of music to almost Pop status that won the admiration of the judges, and her nomination.
Alternative rockers Everything Everything are nominated for their début Man Alive. Highlights include the energetic ‘Qwerty Finger’, the smoother, hazily layered ‘Final Form’ and final track ‘Weights’, both of which show off the vocal range and talent of singer Jonathan Higgs. Metronomy’s electropop sound is a result of over a decade of changing line ups, with founding member Joseph Mount being the constant presence. The English Riviera is their third album and the sound of seagulls and waves drifting above the first minute or so of the album is an obvious nod to their source of inspiration – Mount‘s Devonshire home. Nice hooks, well-written lyrics and clever use of synth and sampling on some tracks such as ‘The Bay’ make this in places an enjoyable listen, but some of The English Riviera is a little dull and drawn out.
Welsh pianist Gwilym Simcock’s Good Days at Schloss Elmau is the only Classical/Jazz nominee. An incredibly skilled performer, Simcock is a true virtuoso and has an impressive list of accomplishments for a 30 year old, including premièring his own piano concerto at the BBC Proms. This is his first entirely solo album. It’s pleasant, elegant and at times quite affecting; Simcock soars up and down scalic and arpeggiated passages- technically flawless but perhaps lacking warmth.
King Creosote and Jon Hopkins have collaborated to create the evocative Diamond Mine. The result has a stillness and an acoustic nature that is so refreshing amongst the overwhelming reliance on electronics of most of these nominees. There are some stunning moments: ‘Your Own Spell’ showcases Scottish Kenny Anderson‘s beautiful, creakily tender vocals; Hopkin’s electro touches are thankfully light throughout as heard in the simply melodic and thoughtfully harmonised ‘Bubble’; guitar, accordion and subtle vocal harmonies lend a timeless, unadulterated clarity – a rare quality in music nowadays. Wistful lyrics, such as the repeated “it’s your young voice that’s keeping me holding on, to my dull life”, are reflected perfectly in the instrumentation and folkish tunes. This is my favourite of all the albums, and why I appreciate the importance of the Mercury Prize – I may never have discovered this gem otherwise; I hope it wins.