It’s that time of year again. The Mercury Music prize evokes a range of sentiment, from feverish speculation to casual dismissal to wild anger. Whatever your particular view, the prize has done and continues to do excellent work, particularly in raising the profile of under-represented genres and in promoting homegrown music. One of the key questions this year is whether what is too often described as the ‘token jazz’ nomination will return. Last year’s shortlist was felt by some to be a rather safe and mainstream collection (and the eventual winner, James Blake’s Overgrown, certainly felt like one of the strongest candidates). Will this year’s selection make any bolder choices?
Spotlight: Mercury Music Prize 2014
Well, the judges are not short of safe options this year (with a release window running from 13 September 2013 to 8 September 2014 inclusive). In the world of mainstream rock, Coldplay, Elbow and Manic Street Preachers all released albums with varying degrees of success. It is hard to believe all three of these could get through to the shortlist stage, but this year the Manics feel like a strong bet – Futurology is their best album in quite some time, and the band seem to have an aura of rejuvenation around them. If the prize judges really feel like reflecting public opinion, then they will probably nominate Ed Sheeran’s megahit X, although this would be a polarising, credibility-denting choice (as would Lily Allen’s Sheezus, another possibility, although perhaps less likely).
This year’s David Bowie-equivalent (an elder statesman of British music still pushing himself in new directions) could be Robert Plant, whose lullaby…& The Ceaseless Roar is released on the final eligible date. This is without doubt one of 2014’s greatest and bravest works and, whilst Plant hardly needs (and probably would not court) the money or the acclaim, it would be hard to dispute that this album merits inclusion. This is not least because Plant’s band employs a diverse range of world class British musical talent. The fact of Plant’s return to live in Britain might also be significant. Damon Albarn might not be quite so safe a bet, given that his work continues to polarise opinion, but Everyday Robots’ carefully sustained mood might find favour with the judges, as might Albarn’s refusal to repeat the past. Whilst his persistent self-sabotaging ranting may make us what to forget it, Morrissey also released World Peace Is None Of Your Business just last month, and, musically at least, it is one of his stronger statements. The collaborative project between Brian Eno and Karl Hyde (with two albums to choose from), might well be of some appeal to the judges too.
A number of previously nominated artists have returned with new albums and could earn repeat accolades. Wild Beasts returned with one of the most universally acclaimed albums of the year with the lush, meticulous Present Tense. Whilst it remains decidedly uncool to like Jake Bugg, enough people seem to do so, and Shangri-La at least shows some development from his derided debut. The prize previously did well in recognising the substantial and otherwise somewhat neglected contribution of Field Music to British guitar-based music. Old Fears, David Brewis’ second album as School Of Language arguably coheres more than Field Music’s Plumb, and certainly deserves a shot at winning. Here is an act who could genuinely benefit from what the prize has to offer. They could even do the most literal of repeat tricks by nominating Laura Mvula for her orchestral interpretations of songs from Sing To The Moon. This might seem too much, but Mvula is a genuine talent. It feels like the provocative power of MIA may have dissipated a bit now, but Matengi still has to be a possibility too.
Some speculators so far seem to have forgotten that, at least for now, Great Britain still includes Wales and Scotland. Surely Gruff Rhys is a solid bet for his hugely ambitious and largely successful American Interior project? Once nominated for his collaboration with Jon Hopkins, King Creosote might have a second chance with From Scotland, With Love, although it is certainly one of Kenny Anderson’s more conventional works. One act consistently ignored by the prize (perhaps they are just too uncommercial) is Mogwai – and Rave Tapes is as good as any of their other recent albums.
The prize tends to favour strong debuts from buzz acts, so it’s hard to see the outstanding LP1 from FKAtwigs being ignored. It would be hard to argue with the choice too, given that it’s an increasingly rare example of a pop record that is also bold and innovative. Another solid choice would probably be former Portico Quartet member Nick Mulvey’s solo debut First Mind. His brand of gentle acoustic songwriting is well within the established Mercury radar. Brighton hard rock duo Royal Blood have been making big waves during the festival season, and their debut must surely also be a solid contender. Further outside bets on significant debuts might also include the pristine sounds of SOHN, the insistent irritating/irresistible (delete as appropriate) electro pop of Chvrches, the radical alternative hip hop of Young Fathers (this might be a step too far for the judges), the atmospheric and dreamy excellent of East India Youth’s Total Strife Forever (this would be a pleasing choice), or the shiny, crisp indiepop of Glasgow’s Honeyblood. One work that others seemed to have skipped over is Kate Tempest’s Everybody Down. Perhaps this is because Tempest is better known for poetry than for music, but this acute analysis of modern urban life might be exactly the sort of thing to pique the interest of the judges, even if it does make for challenging listening at times.
The eligibility of Neneh Cherry’s Blank Project is certainly questionable, but there is perhaps a chance of it being this year’s Antony & The Johnsons. Cherry was born in Stockholm, and now lives there, but she has been a major player in the British music industry and the album itself is a collaboration with very British artists Rocketnumbernine and Kieran Hebden.
For outside bets, there have been a number of albums of genuine individuality and quality released during the window. There’s the wry, caustic indie pop of Withered Hand (on New Gods) or the surreal moodscapes of Hejira (excellent debut Prayer Before Birth). Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor released an excellent debut album but its unassuming, modest character has perhaps contributed to it being criminally underrated. There’s the dark world inhabited by The Bug on the dependably tense Angels & Devils or the exuberant, exciting world-dance fusion of Ibibio Sound Machine.
If a jazz nomination does return, there are quite a few options for the judges. There have been a number of bold, characterful jazz releases from the jazz-rock adventures of Let Spin, to the recontextualisation of New Orleans on Brass Mask’s excellent Spy Boy. Of course, it’s always difficult to know whether the independent labels that sustain the British jazz scene will invest in the entrance fees or not. Perhaps more likely are returning previous nominees Polar Bear, Gwilym Simcock and Led Bib. Simcock’s Instrumation also showcases his ‘classical’ composing and arranging skills and features the combined talents of the City of London Sinfonia, whilst Polar Bear’s In Each And Every One sees Sebastian Rochford develop a phobia of the ride cymbal and branch further out into electronica. A typically palatable choice would be singer Zara McFarlane’s If You Knew Her, released on Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood label. It’s an excellent showcase of both songwriting and interpretation, and McFarlane’s amiable, enthusiastic presence is infectious. A longstanding leading light of British jazz has been saxophonist Tim Garland, and his Songs To The North Sky double album is the kind of grand personal statement often recognised by judging panels. Sadly, one of the best albums of 2014, and a work that may do much to bring improvised music to a wider audience, Blue-Eyed Hawk’s Under The Moon, arrives a week too late on 15 September. Let’s hope the judges don’t forget about it by the time we get to the 2015 shortlist.
If the judges really want to make some unpredictable choices, they could recognise the fractured electronica of Rustie (although his second album Green Language is considerably less imbalanced and compelling than his debut), one of the humble but excellent comebacks from old school British acts (Kitchens Of Distinction, The Woodentops, Prefab Sprout, Roddy Frame), but any of these would be big surprises. We will have to see if there are any surprises at all on September 10th, when the shortlist will be revealed.
We’ll publish the list of the Mercury Prize 2014 nominations on the evening of 10 September 2014. More on the Mercury Prize can be found here.
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