Music lovers, it’s that time of year again...when media hype and speculation drums up feverish anticipation of the Mercury Music Prize, celebrating its 21st year at the heart of the UK music awards calendar.
With the ceremony taking place on 1st November, there’s plenty of time for the punters and the talking heads to pick apart this year's Albums of the Year nominees.
The overall winner will receive £20,000 and, more importantly, priceless exposure and a doubtless increase in album sales.
Any music devotee worth their salt should care about these iconic awards, which makes me think about the impact this prize has had on shaping our new music preferences over the years.
Regardless of what is said by the panel of judges, by music critics, or even indicated by bookies' favourites, it’s us, the listeners, who define what the awards really mean.
Winners and losers
For me, despite the hoo-ha surrounding favourites, winners and losers, I believe it’s the central spirit of the award’s claim to help in ‘pushing music forward’ that matters most and holds true.
Led by a panel of receptive industry insiders, the prize helps start discussion and acts as a cultural barometer charting the musical zeitgeist over the years. The awards are fundamentally about the passion for discovering new music, something we all (hopefully) share. This is what makes the Mercury Prize important, no matter what arguments nominations and awards may provoke.
We all remember the thrill of discovering and falling in love with a new band or artist we now can’t imagine living without. Swapping and discussing music recommendations, arguing about the year’s winners and losers it doesn’t really matter how we discover new music. Mercury shows that the evolution of music is ongoing and we all play a part in it.
Yet it would be nothing without fresh talent. Looking over past nominee lists leads me back through the past couple of decades of my life, back to when I first started really getting into music.
My back pages
Back in 2000 the awards rocked my adolescent world by introducing me to that year’s winner, Badly Drawn Boy, whose album ‘The Hour of the Bewilderbeast’ became the soundtrack to my high school years.
As a massive Anthony and the Johnsons fan, I am so glad the Mercury Prize gave him the recognition he deserved in 2005. Even in the years I wasn’t particularly fussed about the awards, reading the lists now takes my back to forgotten music moments at house parties, gigs, bars, the mash-up of familiar mix CDs and car journeys.
Over the years the prize has been awarded to genre-spanning, lesser-known but deeply original artists who shift the boundaries and expectations of how good new popular music can be. Despite those who bemoan the death of the album charts in the new digital age, the prize does more than most to introduce today's generation to the joy of immersing oneself in a full album.
The Mercury Prize is also for music lovers who have grown up with a care-worn appreciation of their favourite albums, music that deserved to be listened in its entirety. Not all of the names may be remembered instantly but you may yet discover some wonderful new-old records in the Mercury back catalogue well worth a listen.
So what do this year's nominees say about music today?
Simon Frith, head of the panel, said: “This year’s Barclaycard Mercury Prize shortlist showcases a wonderful variety of musical voices, emotions and ambitions.
“The sheer range of music here celebrates the abiding ability of British musicians to find new ways to explore traditional themes of love and loss while making an exhilarating soundtrack for life in 2012.
"In terms of genres it might not seem so eclectic but I think in terms of the different personalities within the recording industry it really is. The aim is to draw attention to records people might not have heard but it gets a buzz and debate going even if you think the list is crap."
This year why don’t you be the judge? Post a comment below on who you think should win.
This year’s shortlist
Alt-J met at Leeds Uni in 2007 and spent 5 years constructing their highly original debut ‘An Awesome Wave’. Difficult to define for all the right reasons: it's a fresh, inventive offering, full of genre-defying, majestic soundscapes which pave the way for a newly transgressive ‘folk-step’ brand. A clever and percussively-driven style with surprising melodic twists, harmonies and dub-step beats.
Django Django met at art school in Edinburgh and spent 4 years making this debut album in drummer David Maclean’s East London bedroom. This is deceptively sophisticated pop which combines infectious soaring harmonies with pure psychedelic synth invention, taken to the next level by solid beat-driven momentum. Playful and adventurous yet underscored by blood-pumping dance beats.
Field Music are fronted by Sunderland brothers David and Peter Brewis, known for their art rocker aesthetic. 'Plumb’ has a complex sound, highly innovative and individual, yet recalling the melodic charm and quirky inventiveness of The Beatles, with violin and cello arrangements and even clock chime samples. More contemporary influences include Maximo Park and The Futureheads.
This is Richard Hawley’s 7th album, which the former member of Britpop band Pulp acknowledges is his angriest. This mostly guitar-driven album was made after the death of his friend and fellow Pulp bandmate Tim McCall, and deals beautifully with hard-hitting themes of love and loss.
Devon singer-songwriter Ben Howard's debut album was released in October 2011 on Island Records and is already a top 10 gold-selling album. His ‘modern troubadour’ style has led to comparisons with Damien Rice and John Martyn, but like all good acoustic artists his style is all his own. Melodic and thought-provoking folk songs for a new generation.
‘Home Again’ is singer-songwriter Michael Kiwanuka’s sublime soul-infused vocals played out over gentle guitar-led folk ballads. Produced by Paul Butler of the Bees, this is an album of rare presence and universal appeal, which won Michael the BBC Sound of 2012 award at the start of the year.
Former backing singer for Paloma Faith, London-born Lianne La Havas's debut was released this summer, reaching number four on the album charts. Her songs combine a seductively husky R&B vocal style with a 6-string acoustic guitar accompaniment, creating original music which winds soulfully through original jazz-tinged songs.
Sam Lee’s folk debut is the work of a purist who blends adventurous reinterpretation of traditional traveller folk songs from across the British Isles. Mercury judges praised his "unadorned singing" and "adventurous instrumentation" classing the album as one of “singular charm and beauty".
This is the indie band’s 3rd album and their 1st Mercury nomination. They were praised for their new-found lyrical maturity, with themes touching on growth and the loss of innocence. Mercury described the new style as: “Inventive, lyrical, epic. The Maccabees make their move onto the main stage of British guitar music.”
Rapper Ben Drew’s third album has been described by Mercury as: “A brilliantly visceral soundtrack to an angry, troubling and harsh picture of life on the underside of London in 2012.” Alongside an accompanying film, the album is an ardent statement of protest, with incisive lyrics and broad influences which reflect the complexity of the subject matter.
This modern jazz-rock trio were awarded the Peter Whittingham jazz award in 2011.Their self-titled debut blends funk-inspired grooves with electronic soundscapes, with dubstep undertones and plenty of epic improv thrown into the mix. If you liked Polar Bear this group is worth watching.
Jessie Ware’s down-tempo soul pop debut exudes understated charm. A voice which possesses calm resonance, enriched with electronic elements which lend the album a bluesy edge. Mercury describe it as: “An album of sensuous and emotive pop deeply imbued with the spirit of British club culture.”