For us speculative music-obsessive types, the announcement of the Barclaycard Mercury Prize nominees was met with equal amounts glee and caution. Bringing together everything those British tabloids love about music (Anglocentrism, the album format, gambling), the nominations are often used as a gauge for what artists and scenes define Great Britain in this day and age. While past winners have included undeniably great albums by artists such as PJ Harvey, The xx, The Arctic Monkeys, Dizzee Rascal and Pulp, there have been notable missteps (a band by the name of M People won over surefire classics by groups such as Blur and The Prodigy). It’s a fussy little event that invites significant amounts of betting. Here, I give a breakdown of some of this year’s most intriguing nominees, along with their odds of winning, as gleaned from British betting website PaddyPower. Take it as an opportunity to grab some cool new music to put on your next mixtape for your girlfriend. People still make mixtapes, right?
Album: Plumb by Field Music
Breakdown: A product of the two Brewis brothers, Peter and David, Plumb takes the tuneful ADD of Guided By Voices’ Robert Pollard and filters it through the heady time signatures and synthesizer orchestras of ’70s progressive rock, all while discussing politics, suburban disaffection and life in an English industrial town. A distinctly British record along the lines of Parklife or Village Green Preservation Society, it boasts triumphant melodies (“(I Keep Thinking About) A New Thing”) and brainy arrangements (“Choosing Sides”) aplenty.
Odds: 16-1. It’s too absurd a conceit (Baroque-pop pastiche? A Yes tribute record with Minor Threat running times?) to win the award, but it’s worth a listen by those who feel that Orange Juice are far too underappreciated.
Album: Devotion by Jessie Ware
Breakdown: Every year there is some R&B chanteuse nominated for the sake of diversity. Fortunately for us, Jessie Ware is this year’s model. Slickly produced and vetted by post-dubstep favorites such as Joker and SBTRKT, Devotion at times serves as a electronic take on the coolly produced slow jams from the ’70s late-night radio format Quiet Storm. Earning comparisons to both Adele and Sade, her record has been extremely well received on both sides of the pond, and with good reason: Jessie Ware brings emotional heft and a stellar voice to otherworldly productions like “Running” while simultaneously being able to deftly navigate a dance pop number (“110%”) that recalls Beyonce’s 4.
Odds: 5-1. The Adele comparisons won’t win her any votes, as these committees like to pick left-field favorites, but her involvement with the UK garage and dubstep scenes could very well make her a dark horse in this race.
Album: Ill Manors by Plan B
Breakdown: A lot of British hip-hop following Dizzee Rascal’s Boy In Da Corner has faded into obscurity; it doesn’t help that most popular British hip-hop is highly localized and riddled with Cockney accents, hard-to-navigate slang and working class concerns. While Plan B embodies these characteristics, he does it very well. From the furious strings and drum-and-bass samples of the self-titled opening track through to “Falling Down’s” solemn confessional, he consistently delivers satisfying hooks while veering into unique detours (“The Runaway’s” loping organ loops, for instance) often enough to keep things interesting.
Odds: 9-1. It’s not my particular favorite, but Ill Manors was composed as a soundtrack to an accompanying film that deals with the 2011 London Riots; “Ill Manors” was praised for its spirit of protest. The Mercury Prize may very well award Plan B’s social conscience.
Album: Django Django by Django Django
Breakdown: This Edinburgh quartet plays with an affinity for open 4th vocal harmonies, jittery dance-pop rhythms and quirky electronics. At once recalling Talking Heads and Franz Ferdinand, they sound equally convincing launching into a barbershop stomp (“Firewater”) or ripping through a psychedelic garage rock homage (“Storm”). Django Django (and especially “Default”) serves as a reminder to us that, yes, dance-rock is a thing and, dang, remember how much you liked it?
Odds: 6-1. Great debut, but not a probable winner. The next guys are why.
Album: An Awesome Wave by Alt-J
Breakdown: Some call it folk-step, but that would be diminutive. An Awesome Wave is an artfully composed debut; recorded in five years, it is a starkly unique beast. Captivatingly oblique lyrics indicate not pretension but a sense of humor, and its rhythmic phrases build tension amid languid guitar lines. “Tesselate” feels surprisingly sinister, “Matilda” heartfelt and “Breezeblocks” all-encompassing. At no moment do they ever seem settled with their sound; at one second they are reciting a lilted jig like a boys’ choir and at the next they sound like they are delving into stadium-filling pop. All together, An Awesome Wave is a beast of a record to digest, surprising at every turn.