I have always viewed the Mercury Prize with suspicion. The most salient reason for my suspicion is that M People won the award in 1994 with their soul-sapping soul album, Elegant Slumming. If that is what it takes to win the thing, it raises the question, what were the judges looking for? An album to make children realise there is no hope?
Fortunately, things couldn’t get that bad again. Even in 2007, when the frankly shocking Klaxons won, the British people could rest easy in the knowledge they weren’t as bad as M People.
This year’s nominees have been picked with a caution appropriate to an award sponsored by Barclaycard. (Note to Sleaford Mods: stop being so working-class, and so angry, and you might have a chance.) However, the list of nominees is rather exciting. Yes, there is a fair amount of turgid rubbish – but at least it is turgid rubbish we can hate with some vigour. And there are four or five albums which are very good, two outrageously so.
I have waded through Spotify listening to this stuff, and here is my summary of the runners and riders:
Damon Albarn – Everyday Robots
Listening to this album is like watching Ryan Giggs play football over the past few years.* Damon’s a bit slower than he used to be, but still better than most, and occasionally spectacular. Here, he has assimilated his work on soundtracks, world music and even opera to potent, if restrained, effect on this sumptuous, sighing, swooning album.
*NB: Not like Ryan Giggs’s private life. That would have been a WHOLE different album, probably by Chris Brown. And R Kelly. And Goldie Lookin’ Chain.
Jungle – Jungle
The people in this group have named their band and their album Jungle, yet they do not produce jungle music. That’s a devious, deceitful moniker they’ve adopted, like opening a public school and only letting in rich people. In any case, their bland, superficially cool “soul” music sounds like something Huw Edwards would listen to while taking his mistress for a drive in the drop-top on a Sunday.
Anna Calvi – One Breath
Music for people who like Fleetwood Mac, and want to take a bold step into the future.
Royal Blood – Royal Blood
Murky thud-rock, the sound of a growly fart endlessly shuddering through your bowels. (I’m a vegetarian. I know.)
Despite this, it appears the record industry has decided Royal Blood are the rock band of choice for the next 6-12 months. Therefore, there is every likelihood we will see this witless duo prowling through the UK’s larger live venues, acting with all the subtlety and bonhomie of an underfed, undersexed invading army. Talking of which, I reckon this music would be hugely popular with the Russian army (although, on second thoughts they’re all probably listening to the new one from U2. Or, more likely, Living on a Prayer).
FKA Twigs – LP1
I don’t know what she’s singing about, and I don’t care. FKA Twigs sounds filthy, and weird, like Bjork has gone up to heaven and done an album with Aaliyah. Marvellous.
Nick Mulvey – First Mind
The kind of hellish folk music that makes me want to start a riot in Waitrose and set the Cotswolds on fire. I tolerated track one. On track two he rhymed “sadness” with “gladness”, at which point I switched off, fearing further provocation.
East India Youth – Total Strife Forever
Brilliant minimalist electro-folk. I don’t have anything witty to say about this. Simply a very good album, with a lovely mix between vocal and instrumental tracks. A proper reviewer might call this an unalloyed joy.
Polar Bear – In Each and Every One
A work of genius from start to finish. The only album on this list I would declare a masterpiece. However, to give some context: that is an electro-jazz masterpiece. Which means, if you like Bitches Brew, Detroit techno, and a bit of freak-rock, then this is right down your alley. If you like tasteful middle-of-the-road rock such as Anna Calvi, this might make you run for the Anderson shelter (and if you haven’t got one, gawd help you!).
Bombay Bicycle Club – So Long, See You Tomorrow
Music I would be excited about if I hadn’t heard any other music.
Kate Tempest – Everybody Down
Kate Tempest picks up awards as regularly as I pick up houmous from Londis. That is, about three to five times a week. The woman, while being a poet and rapper with a rare gift for storytelling, has somehow been designated as having a higher purpose: to win awards. I tend to hear about awards because Kate Tempest has won them. I am therefore going to stick my neck out and say, as this is an award, and Kate Tempest has been nominated, she will win it.
There are good reasons for her winning. Her poetry feels urgent, visceral, and vaguely zeitgeisty. She has turned a marginal interest – poetry – into something which can be heard on Radio 1. This is good for everyone, including myself, in the spoken word scene.
Her show, Brand New Ancients, was the best thing I saw on stage last year. That said, I’m not quite such a big fan of this album. It is well above average, but the interplay between words and production is not as seamless as, say, Young Fathers (see below). Over here is the music. Over there is Kate. They are good, but separate. It is still a solid album, however, and, more than likely, an award-winning one.
Young Fathers – Dead
If OutKast were from Edinburgh they might sound like this. Young Fathers prove that the Scots are pound-for-pound the best songwriters on earth. This is dark, uncompromising rap music, yet always tuneful, musically fantastic, and often surprising. A welcome antidote to commercial UK rap. And only 34 minutes long.
GoGo Penguin – v2.0
Just jazz. As in Just Juice. It’s Just Jazz.