Mercury Prize 2012: Shortlist Predictions
The shortlist of the 12 albums that will contest this year's Mercury Prize (for Album of the Year) will be announced in roughly a month's time, on 12 September. For this year's prize, the eligibility period runs from 12 July 2011 to 10 September 2012 - which means last year's SBTRKT album can't make the cut, but this year's comeback by The xx might. The prize is open to all albums by British and Irish artists. The winner will be confirmed at the Awards Show on 1 November.
Just for fun, I picked through a selection of the best albums released during the aforementioned eligibility period, cutting an initial tranche of over 50 excellent LPs down to 12 that just might feature in the official shortlist when it's announced. What have I missed out? Who's your favourite to win on 1 November? Let me know in the comments section below.
Warp, released 10 October 2011
Young Scottish producer Rustie, born Russell Whyte, has been active on the domestic EDM scene for some time, having released his debut single in 2007. Glass Swords is his first album, and serves as a fantastic summarisation of his exploits to date while also throwing forwards to a potentially remarkable future. Awarding the album 8.0, Pitchfork's Jess Harvell called this collection an "up-to-the-minute rush... an instant hit of what electronic pop felt like in 2011", while BBC reviewer Rory Gibb called it a "coherent and involving listen". Glass Swords was ranked as the ninth best album of 2011 by The Guardian - could it be best in show come November?
On YouTube: Flash Back (audio only; external link)
Because Music, released 30 January 2012
Earning itself top marks from The Guardian, close-to-perfect scores at Q, NME and Mojo, and radio support from Tom Robinson and Lauren Laverne at 6 Music (where it was also an Album of the Day), Django Django's eponymous debut is one of the standout critical hits of the year so far. But unlike many a muso success, the London-based, Edinburgh-formed four-piece translated their in-print praise into commercial clout, with this set peaking at 33 on the UK albums chart. No mean feat for a group fusing African sounds with art-rock and neo-psychedelia, to pinch a pigeonhole or two from Wikipedia. The BBC's review began with a scenario-setting standfirst: "A proposition to confound expectations of what an 'indie' band should be." This is a special album from a special band.
On YouTube: Default (external link)
Topic Records, released 19 September 2011
Warwick-born folk artist June Tabor waited 21 years to rekindle her on-record relationship with The Oyster Band (here credited as Oysterband), but the end results were well worth the wait. The follow-up to 1990's Freedom and Rain mixed traditional songs with a spread of fine interpretations of more contemporary cuts - among them, Joy Division's Love Will Tear Us Apart and PJ Harvey's That Was My Veil. fRoots magazine had it top the pile of their best albums of 2011, and Ragged Kingdom also attracted considerable praise from The Guardian (five stars from five, thank you very much) and the BBC. Our reviewer, Colin Irwin, commented that "this is an album that constantly scores on almost every level". A folk album has never won the Mercury Prize - could 2012 be the year the genre chalks up its first success?
On YouTube: Love Will Tear Us Apart, live at London's Roundhouse (external link)
Polydor, released 19 March
One of the more divisive albums on this speculative shortlist of 12, the debut collection from Kindness (aka Adam Bainbridge) earned an exceptional reception at Uncut and The Fly, but got its marching orders straight to the do-not-press-play pile from NME and The Observer. The BBC review praised its invention, comparing its architect to such influential sorts as Kate Bush and Brian Wilson; but it also highlighted its shambolic moments, and the questionable cover of Anyone Can Fall in Love (yes, the EastEnders titles theme). So why is it here? Well, World... has grown on these ears substantially since its release, and its second half - its side B in old money - is amongst the strongest heard in pop since Purple Rain. If you dismissed it earlier this year, the time's right for reassessment.
On YouTube: House (external link)
Lex Records, released 20 August
Remember the controversy that surrounded Antony and the Johnson's victory with I Am a Bird Now in 2005? If JJ DOOM's debut set earns itself a shortlist place, expect a similar furore. But it's every bit as eligible as the other albums here, as rapper DOOM (aka Daniel Dumile) was born in London before relocating to New York. Hip hop's hardly a mainstay genre on the Mercury shortlists, but last year's nod for Ghostpoet was well deserved, and Key to the Kuffs is the sort of potential plaudit-magnet that could sneak into contention. Plus, two of its guests - Damon Albarn and Portishead's Beth Gibbons - are no strangers to the Mercury process. The BBC's reviewer Noel Gardner stated that this album may be producer Jneiro Jarel's finest work yet (and he's no slouch in the quality stakes), labelling the end product "terrific".
On YouTube: Guv'Nor (audio only; external link)
Ninja Tune, released 11 June
So often music serves as window into the soul of its maker, and The Invisible's second album is a collection that couldn't come from anywhere but the heart of frontman Dave Okumu. Touched by the pain of Okumu losing his mother, it's a set that takes sorrow as a driving force to create some truly sensational songs, which neither wallow nor mope but aim strictly for the stars, dazzling with exquisite musicianship. This is catharsis as both inspiration and execution, an exercise in articulating innermost feelings for universal audiences - and it's a tremendous success, head and shoulders above the achievements of the London band's eponymous debut, which earned a Mercury nomination in 2009. A winner in waiting? Perhaps. Certainly, there are few albums in the running that lay themselves so open as this one.
On YouTube: Wings (external link)
Fish People, released 21 November
Already amongst the bookies' favourites to win the 2012 Mercury, Kate Bush's sublime and ridiculous winter collection is her first set of wholly new material since 2005's Aerial. Worth the wait? The critics thought so: top marks from The Telegraph, The Independent and The Guardian placed it amongst last year's very best, and it ranked at 17 on BBC Music's own top 25 of 2011. Reviewing for the BBC, Jude Rogers wrote that 50 Words for Snow is "classic Kate", and that the album reflects a season that "brings out the profound and absurd in equal measure". The question remains, though: would the notoriously publicity shy Bush venture in front of the cameras to collect her prize if this proves to be 2012's Mercury Prize Album of the Year?
On YouTube: Eider Falls at Lake Tahoe (eternal link)
Naim Edge, released 21 May
Jazz releases are regularly seen as make-up-the-numbers entries in the Mercury shortlist, with no album from the domestic scene ever walking away triumphantly. But Leeds-based improv outfit TrioVD offer something that's never truly featured in a shortlisted jazz LP: an incredible energy that's nearly unmatched by any release, from any genre, in 2012. Its riffs are sharper than many found in the rock world; its dynamics shift with a blindsiding power that electronica only occasionally captures. Maze both defies convention and adheres to its own rules: in so much as it sets out none initially, and makes them up as it goes along. "One of the most inventive and transgressive albums of 2012," said BBC reviewer Sid Smith, while The Guardian's John Fordham called the group "fearlessly independent". If they win, it'll be with an album of unprecedented design.
On YouTube: Brick (external link)
PMR/Island, released 20 August
Just as previous Mercury Prize nominee Katy B went from guest vocalist of no little impressiveness on a series of dance cuts, so too has south London's Jessie Ware. After singing on tracks by Joker and SBTRKT, Ware's own solo material has been fantastically well received, this debut collection preceded by a spread of fine standalones. With support from Radio 1, 1Xtra and 6 Music, she's managing to cover several audiences and appeal to each with a rare effortlessness, her soulful, sophisticated pop evidently a cross-genre, perhaps cross-generational success. Vulnerable of spirit yet powerful of voice, Ware's a newcomer who already feels established - and the Mercury panel might well reward this rightly rising artist with their Album of the Year accolade.
On YouTube: Wildest Moments (external link)
Infectious Records, released 28 May
"A deeply exciting, original and inventive debut," is how the BBC's Jen Long described this introductory set from Leeds foursome Alt-J - and the band's riding high at the very top of the bookies' favourites, with odds of 6/4 at the time of writing. As last year's success for PJ Harvey proves, every so often the favourite for the Mercury does come away victorious - so perhaps the same fate awaits these purveyors of what's been widely labelled 'folk-step'. It's not quite Mumfords via Modeselektor, but the press-coined pigeonhole does convey a true-enough sense of what this lot is about: prickly beats atop strummed acoustics, semi-reminiscent of Bombay Bicycle Club fronting an instrumental from Four Tet at his most bucolic. Back to Jen for some closing words: "(this is the) perfect accompaniment to any mood, any moment, anywhere." Certainly sounds like a contender.
On YouTube: Tessellate (external link)
Parlophone, released 7 May
Another favourite with the bookies, and another amongst this dozen who's previously been nominated for the Mercury - Richard Hawley's fourth album, Coles Corner, was shortlisted in 20006. The Sheffield artist's seventh studio collection has soaked up its share of critical acclaim - The Guardian's Alexis Petridis awarded it five stars, while NME and the Evening Standard had plenty of positives to say - and also represents its maker's highest-charting album yet, peaking at three in the UK. BBC reviewer Wyndham Wallace praised Hawley's "guitar hero" contributions, but also noted that never does this musician slip into overindulgence. And it's this balance, between self-satisfying artistry and existing audience appreciation, that has made Standing at the Sky's Edge such a success.
On YouTube: Leave Your Body Behind You (audio only; external link)
Planet Mu, released 17 October
Should this exemplary solo set from Vex'd's Jamie Teasdale make the Mercury shortlist, expect there to be a spread of confused faces at the announcement of his name. For while there's no doubting the exceptional qualities of this at turns warmly analogue and sci-fi-suggestive slice of retro-futuristic electronica, it's not exactly on the radar of the masses. And, as such, it would be a remarkable surprise for inclusion amongst the final 12. However, personally it's right up there with the very best albums, regardless of genre, released during the Mercury's eligibility period, and having revisited the LP in the planning for this piece, a leftfield nod would be most welcomed. After all, who expected Burial's Untrue to be nominated in 2008, really? If the panel's feeling bold, and wanted to celebrate one of the UK's finest albums of its kind (of all time), now's the moment...
On YouTube: Truth Flood (audio only; external link)
Interested in the names that made up my original (massive) list of Mercury Prize contenders? Well, here they are - no doubt some of this lot will make the shortlist grade, while some of the above won't. In no particular order...
Paul Buchanan, Blood Orange, Toddla T, Bombay Bicycle Club, Laura Marling, Emika, Peggy Sue, Remember Remember, Luke Haines, The 2 Bears, The Maccabees, Portico Quartet, Gang Colours, Field Music, Errors, Pulled Apart By Horses, Paul Weller, Dry the River, Actress, Tindersticks, Beth Jeans Houghton, Orbital, Sweet Billy Pilgrim, Micachu and the Shapes, Hot Chip, Plan B, Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs, Dexys, Graham Coxon, Cooly G, Holy Other, Roller Trio, Bill Fay, Karine Polwart, The xx, Pet Shop Boys, Mala, Echo Lake, Two Door Cinema Club, Saint Etienne.
Quite the list, there. Any of them would be a worthy nominee. The shortlist will be announced 12 September.