Since its inception in 1992, the Mercury Prize has served as a valuable alternative to album award nods at the Brits, offering mainstream exposure and a fairly hefty cheque to its winners, almost all of whom have gone on to bigger and better things. And where artists have subsequently stalled, one can look to their triumphant collections - Ms Dynamite's A Little Deeper in 2002, Talvin Singh's OK three years' earlier - as career high points, rightly selected by the prize's judging panel as worthy victors.
However, with each passing year competition becomes fiercer - now, the Mercury is every bit as important to a band's enduring success as substantial radio play, sold-out shows and high-charting singles, and increasingly acts as a springboard for such visible accomplishments. This year's winner, Speech Debelle, is sure to reap the rewards of not only triumphing, but doing so from one of the strongest shortlists in years.
But enough about this year - such is the industry's insatiable appetite for the Next that it's already time to look to the Mercury Prize of 2010 (for the next few minutes, anyway), and the acts already lining up to play their part at its 19th awards ceremony.
Speech Debelle, winner of the 2009 Mercury Prize
Firstly, a band whose failure to make the 2009 shortlist left more than a few critics flabbergast: Late of the Pier. The Castle Donington band's 2008 debut effort Fantasy Black Channel drew upon influences from the 80s - ahead of the rise of La Roux, natch - and mashed Numan echoes into visions of a future where multi-coloured cacophonies are part and parcel of any top ten countdown. Accessible yet bristling with a crazed enthusiasm for advancement through opposites-attracting arrangements, Fantasy Black Channel really should be in the running this year - but as it's not, attentions must turn to follow-up LP Blueberry Pie, pencilled in for a release in the next few months and certain to further the four-piece's already flowering reputation for expectation-eschewing sonic frivolity.
Late of the Pier: Future favourites?
Already released are contenders from The xx
- fresh-faced gloom merchants channelling old-school 4AD
celestial swirl and squeezing alluring, affecting pop from the spectre of Joy Division
- and Noah and the Whale
, whose new The First Days of Spring
record is a confident collection of genteel folk-inflected arrangements bound together by a captured-on-film (if you get the deluxe edition) narrative. The Big Pink
stand some chance of recognition, too, when their A Brief History of Love debut is released - if you're as-yet unfamiliar, think Kasabian
with better electronics and less of the braggadocio. Simian Mobile Disco
and Arctic Monkeys
comprise a high-profile pair with standouts aplenty on their respective records, Temporary Pleasure
, but whether either has made a critical impression deep enough to feature in the judging panel's thoughts some months from now remains to be seen.
Better big-league bets are Muse - who picked up a nomination for their last album, Black Holes & Revelations, in 2006 - and Radiohead, who quite staggeringly have never won the Mercury before, despite releasing two generation-defining records with OK Computer in 1997 and In Rainbows a decade later. The former band's new LP, The Resistance, has been attracting positive reviews enough to plaster half of the North Circular's billboard array in stand-alone quotes, while the much-celebrated (but rather lacking in shiny statuettes) Radiohead are surely preparing a new album, with recently released track These Are My Twisted Words showcasing an intriguingly ominous direction.
Beats-and-pieces collections coming in the next couple of months are led by a trio of boundary-pushing, wheel-reinventing acts: F*** Buttons, Hudson Mohawke and King Cannibal. Bristol-formed pair Andrew Hung and Benjamin Power are the censorship-necessary sorts guiding second album Tarot Sport to completion alongside producer Andrew Weatherall, and lead single Surf Solar is evidence enough of their amazing progression since debut affair Street Horrrsing (do listen to it on their MySpace page - it's a beastly beauty). And wouldn't it be a treat to hear Jools announce them as winners to a live television and radio audience?
Hudson Mohawke, aka Ross Birchard, ostensibly fronts the Glasgow's LuckyMe collective alongside another purveyor of wonderfully wonky dubstep-gone-awry beats, Rustie. Butter, his debut album, is out in October in Warp, and stands a decent chance of attracting considerable press attention following tips from the likes of Mary Anne Hobbs - the kind of attention that, really, should have come labelmate Chris Clark's way with his phenomenal Totem's Flare album of this summer (which missed the 2009 cut, to this writer's disappointment). King Cannibal, meanwhile, is a London-based gentleman by the name of Dylan Richards. His forthcoming album for Ninja Tune, Let the Night Roar, is the sound of (another worthy nominee that never was) The Bug's Kevin Martin losing his way in a Streatham alleyway and coming out the other side, eventually, sweating like he's trapped in a Stephen King nightmare. It's peculiarly haunting, for very much the right reasons; that you can also tap a foot fairly frantically to it is but a bonus.
Rather more polite offerings from Fanfarlo and Mumford & Sons are worth investigation from anyone partial to contemporary domestic takes on folk, albeit of a variety equally indebted to Arcade Fire and their ilk; Sian Alice Group's sublime Troubled, Shaken Etc is an album that keeps giving with each play through, delicate yet deceptively catchy of percussion; and both Kill It Kid and The Twilight Sad comprise decent shouts from the anthemic end of the indie spectrum - the latter act will blow your eardrums, if not your mind, at any one of their gigs. Then there's past nominees Jamie T and Basement Jaxx - their latest wares are both patchy affairs, but popularity based on previous form could carry them through.
Sian Alice Group
But, honestly, only one band truly shines in the UK right now, as an act genuinely continuing down a path entirely of their own making: Wild Beasts. The Kendall-formed foursome's second album, Two Dancers, is several lengths ahead of any of the aforementioned to these ears, its assortment of uniquely idiosyncratic pop arrangements, jaw-dropping (and heart-stopping) switches in tone and texture, and singularly raunchy lyricism - it's smut at times, for sure, but defiantly archaic of expression and subsequently surprisingly tender and romantic - comprising the kind of long-player that only comes around once in a lifetime.
Well, once a year at least, making the Mercury Prize of 2010 theirs for the taking. Unless the token jazz pick proves to be quite the addictive listen, of course.
Mercury Prize 2009 - full coverage, with videos and photos from the ceremony
Mike Diver is the reviews editor at bbc.co.uk/music