The 2013 Mercury Prize shortlist is revealed this evening, firing the starting pistol on the 20,000 arguments that will take place before the £20,000 cheque is awarded to the winning album at the end of next month.
Judging on artistic merit rather than the sales success criterion of the Brit Awards, the Mercury always prompts music fan uproar because there is no right answer. As 2005’s winner Antony Hegarty memorably described it, it’s “a contest between an orange, a spaceship, a potted plant and a spoon”. Giants face jazzers – household names and hopeless cases are all among the 12 nominees.
But there is method in the madness. The judges (around a dozen journalists, DJs, radio programmers and musicians) are looking for albums that best represent the sound of Britain right now – an honourable goal, albeit one that often leaves past winners sounding badly dated. They also seem keen on albums that come pre-loaded with critical garlands and healthy but unspectacular sales figures, the readiest to benefit from the Mercury’s boost to reach the next level of success.
It’s an easy thing to moan about. My personal gripe is the dominance of albums you can grudgingly admire rather than simply enjoy. I hope in vain for appearances by Rudimental,Rizzle Kicks and the party jazz/world music of Melt Yourself Down today, but accept that we may be more likely to see gruelling endurance tests by Savages and These New Puritansamid the dozen.
There have been plenty of great British albums on which we can agree over the past 12 months, however. Laura Mvula’s Sing to the Moon ticks every box, coming from a classically-trained singer-songwriter who sounds accessible to Adele fans while doing something remarkably different with a soul template. She layers her voice to create beautiful washes of sound in what she calls “a choir of myself”, adding chimes, harp, strings and piano to a guitar-free mix. It’s remarkably accomplished for a debut album, which explains all the Nina Simone comparisons, but in 2013, she stands alone.
Along with the rest of the world, I’d also like to see David Bowie’s The Next Day in the mix, though the need for every act to play live at the ceremony might just throw a spanner in the works – he hasn’t performed a show in London for a decade.
Even so, despite rumours of ill health, on the album he sounds full of beans, getting back to glam riffing on (You Will) Set the World on Fire and singing over frenetic jazz on If You Can See Me. He’s lyrically vivid, stylistically rampant, and more than worthy of those obvious claims of a return to form.
There’s bound to be a decent helping of electronic music on the list. At the artier end of the spectrum, this year I fell for Immunity by Jon Hopkins, the producer who was nominated two years ago for his ambient-folk collaboration with King Creosote, Diamond Mine. Unlike that album, Immunity has plenty of raw, thrilling moments as it attempts to soundtrack a night out followed by a second-half comedown. The 10-minute title track at the close, a shimmering, barely-there thing featuring Creosote, is probably the most beautiful song I’ve heard all year.
On the commercial side of dance, sibling duo Disclosure’s number one album Settle is also a winner away from the clubs. Guy and Howard Lawrence have a soulful take on house music, a crisp, clean sound that also acts as a fine primer for the scene as a whole with its guest appearances from Sam Smith, AlunaGeorge, Jessie Ware and London Grammar.
London Grammar have been getting much love for their own debut, If You Wait, despite it only coming out this week. Bookmaker Paddy Power, who correctly picked Alt-J as last year’s winner before the judges had even met, has been offering them at an enthusiastic 9-4 for weeks. I can see why – it’s a beautiful record, a classy showcase for Hannah Reid’s rich voice, if a little too indebted to the minimal palette of past winners The xx.
Among the past winners, it’s hard to argue against Arctic Monkeys getting yet another shot with their funky fifth, AM, but the band I’d really like to see getting another chance is Foals. The Oxford band’s third, Holy Fire, shows a huge rise in quality from past work and ought to send them towards arena-filler status. The power of the Mercury might be just the push they need, and deserve.
Barclaycard Mercury Prize Awards Show is at the Roundhouse, NW1 on Oct 30 (mercuryprize.com).