Predicting Prestige: Our Mercury Shortlist

A not-so-dirty dozen…
Mercury Prize logo

On September 10th, the shortlist for the 2014 Mercury Prize will be announced – 12 albums considered to be the best that British and Irish artists have produced over the last 12 months. Any album commercially released, and that must be on physical formats, between September 10th 2013 and September 8th 2014 can be considered for the Prize, which as well as being the most prestigious of its kind in the UK, regularly providing considerable sales perks for nominated collections, also carries a handy £20,000 cheque for the winner. Nice.

I’ve been looking over the potential contenders and have come up with a list of 12, below, that might well be close to the actual shortlist – or, it could be woefully wide of the mark. You just never know with the Mercury, but I’m fairly confident that a good handful of these sets will be revealed on the 10th. And if not one of them is, well, I should probably quit.

The list is based on both what I think will feature, with my objective, industry-minded hat on, and albums that I’d love to see make an appearance because they’ve resonated with me, personally. See if you can tell which is which. After the Mercury Prize announces its shortlist for 2014, the ceremony proper comes on October 29th. Plenty of time for any of this lot to get their dry cleaning done.

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Manic Street Preachers – ‘Rewind The Film’ or ‘Futurology’

Those clever Manics have put two records out within the eligibility period for the 2014 Mercury, and with two previous nominations – for ‘Everything Must Go’ in 1996 and ‘This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours’ in 1999 – few would be foolish to rule out a third slot on a shortlist for a band hitting some real critical and commercial form. ‘Futurology’ peaked at two in the UK, and Clash wrote that its songs are “immediate and infectious”, and that it was the Manics “doing what they do best”.

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CHVRCHES – ‘The Bones Of What You Believe’

At the start of 2013, this Scottish trio was doing the hype rounds in fine fashion, making the top five of the BBC Sound Of. But unlike so many tipped contenders who fall by the wayside, they’ve consistently delivered, as their performances across the past two festival seasons have shown. ‘The Bones Of What You Believe’ came out on September 20th last year, so just about sneaks in – but it really doesn’t feel that old, does it? And even if it had only just hit stores, you sense that its mix of glorious pop hooks and icy synth work would still comprise a giant tick with the Mercury panel.

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East India Youth – ‘Total Strife Forever’

A total outsider, granted, but William Doyle’s debut as EIY is one of those sets that absolutely nobody can deny the quality of. It’s as pop as it comes for some of the time, but easily contorts into experimental patterns when the situation suits. It’s a wonderful showcase for a musician who clearly refuses to define himself by convenient pigeonholes – which makes for a sometimes awkward listen in a mainstream sense, but there can’t be too many music journalists who weren’t terrifically nourished by its wonderful tangents of titillating weirdness, and its analogue-y warm and colourful execution.

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Young Fathers – ‘Dead’

Already an award-winner, picking up the Scottish Album Of The Year in June, albeit for their ‘Tape Two’ extended-player rather than this debut album proper, Young Fathers are a revelation amongst an always burgeoning, forever fascinating domestic urban scene. A collision of global influences channelled through a Scottish perspective, and embracing the widest possible worldview through the most intimate murmurings, the trio’s physically stressful and intellectually stimulating material is unlike anything else currently calling these isles home. It’s rap, but not rap, hip-hop with the fashion turned down and the calls to arms raised like banners over a battlefield. You’re either with them or in their way, and I’m pretty sure the Mercury will bow to their tremendous talent.

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Ed Sheeran – ‘X’ (aka ‘Multiply’)

While the Mercury does what it can to represent the most critically celebrated albums of the year that’s been, it also tends to concede a spot or two to records that have Done Well For Themselves – and for the wider British music industry. Massive around the world, ‘X’ topped charts in the US, Norway, Canada, Germany, Switzerland, Australia and, perhaps most importantly, right here at home. It’s sold half a million, at least, in the States, and is approaching that figure in the UK (if it’s not already passed it – a Mercury nod would certainly push it past the 500k mark). Is it a great album? Of course it’s bloody not. It’s Ed Sheeran. You know how the most important man in British urban music goes about his business – safely and sensibly, dressing emotions in universal appeal and appealing to the widest-possible demographic, from eight-year-olds to octogenarians. Expect to see Ed get a pat on the back come this year’s nominations, but fall a way short of actually winning the thing (I mean, it’s not like he needs the cash or the exposure, so…).

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The Bug – ‘Angels & Devils’

‘Maxinquaye’ and ‘Dummy’ in 1995, ‘Mezzanine’ in 1998, ‘The Contino Sessions’ in 2000, ‘Untrue’ in 2008 – the Mercury doesn’t shy away from the darker corners of the British music scene, and that stands to benefit The Bug, whose five-years-in-the-making ‘Angels & Devils’ features some of the murkiest, most menacing sounds committed to compact disc in 2014. That it’s not incessantly oppressive plays to its favour, too – paralleling the ‘Mezzanine’ model, it has its own take on ‘Teardrop’-style songs, with the Liz Harris-featuring ‘Void’ a standout. But, of course, when it comes in hard there is none tougher: tracks like ‘The One’ and ‘Function’ are teeth-rattling romps that demand attentions… and blood.

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FKA twigs – ‘LP1’

Standing up to the hype and ultimately smashing expectations out of the park, the town, the county and right into next month, Tahliah Barnett has produced one of those magical debuts that just dazzles from the first play until the eighth, the ninth, the 101st. She’s a massively magnetic live performer, and that captivating presence is magnificently captured on a record that fearlessly navigates myriad modern pop tropes to take R&B, in the broad sense, into a new form of focus. ‘LP1’ menaces and meditates, relaxes and enrages – Barnett is like an antagonistic Aaliyah, only she’s from Gloucestershire and not, as some of the sounds here suggest, the other side of the known universe. It’s one of those, ‘Where did this come from?’ sets, and one that surely writes a new chapter in the ever-growing tome of pop traditions.

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Eagulls – ‘Eagulls’

There’s always a thorn amongst the roses – sometimes even a few. Savages contested the Mercury in 2013, and if the panel plumps for another (post-)punk crew for 2014, they could do worse than this lot from Leeds. Eagulls’ debut has been well received across the board, providing as it does a blast of refreshingly confrontational air to the country’s scrappier rock sounds. Original it certainly isn’t, but by positioning themselves somewhere between early Cure and more contemporary clangour, replete with plenty of polarising public opinions, Eagulls are outsider artists with a good shout of a shortlist slot.

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Paolo Nutini – ‘Caustic Love’

‘Sunny Side Up’ worked commercial wonders for the young Paisley songwriter, collecting a clutch of awards and nominations after its 2009 release. But the Meteors aren’t the Mercury, and nor are the Ivor Novellos to be honest, so to make the 2014 shortlist would be breaking new ground for Nutini. I can see it happening – a mixed reception to ‘Sunny Side Up’ didn’t slow its sales, and ‘Caustic Love’ is undoubtedly a more challenging collection. But, while it finds its maker exploring new territories, it’s still been a winner at the tills – it debuted at number one in the UK, shifting over 100,000 copies in its first week to become the fastest-selling album of the year so far, at the time (week commencing April 14th). The critics have been kinder this time, too – Clash called it “open to a bit of risk taking, without losing a sense of self”. 

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SOHN – ‘Tremors’

This year’s James Blake, maybe? And since the lanky Londoner won the Mercury last year, with his ‘Overgrown’ album, few would rule a shortlist place out for SOHN, whose downbeat electronica mines comparable seams of inspiration. ‘Tremors’ broke the UK top 40, which is one terrific achievement already – a Mercury acknowledgment would be another, and one that I can see happening. Vulnerable of soul but confident of style, the man born Christopher Taylor in the English capital (since a resident of Vienna) has an approachable sound that seems more ambitious than it perhaps really is, but is nonetheless a very likeable, comfortable experience.

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Damon Albarn – ‘Everyday Robots’

There’s often a stalwart in the ranks, a veteran coming good again. In 2014, it could be Robert Plant, whose ‘Lullaby And… The Ceaseless Roar’ comes out on the Mercury deadline day. But I think this year’s Bowie (2013, 2002) or Weller (2010 and 1994) will be Britpop survivor Albarn, whose first solo LP proper without his Blur bandmates is really quite wonderful. ‘Everyday Robots’ is a deeply personal production, worked up beside collaborators Richard Russell and Brian Eno, and says more about the man behind the microphone than any previous record has – not to mention any interviews he’s given over 25 years of being in bands. It isn’t the most immediate listen, but then Blur quickly enough moved on from their sugary pop phase – and ‘Everyday Robots’ can be taken as a valuable continuation of the areas Blur were exploring around 1999’s ‘13’ and their final LP, 2003’s ‘Think Tank’.

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La Roux – ‘Trouble In Paradise’

Clever-pop with sharp edges and sharper threads, La Roux’s return has been a celebrated one. Now operating solo, Elly Jackson expresses a new freedom on ‘Trouble In Paradise’ without jettisoning completely the qualities that made the first La Roux record, the 2009 Mercury-nominated eponymous set. It doesn’t wallow in rejection, languish in loss – rather, as its cover implies, ‘Trouble In Paradise’ is a bright rendering of complex emotions, candy-coloured of design but still featuring the odd bitter-tasting turn for the bruised. While it went top 10 on release in the UK, ‘Trouble In Paradise’ fell down the chart fairly quickly – right now it doesn’t feature in the top 100. So a little Mercury love would be well timed, and deserved given this is amongst the best domestic pop records of 2014 so far.

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What have we missed? Kate Tempest, perhaps? Jungle? Metronomy? Maybe Mogwai, Temples, or Wild Beasts? They all put out splendid records, no doubt. Let us know – we’re on Twitter here and would love your recommendations for albums that should feature on this year’s Mercury Prize shortlist. Perhaps you’ve even a tip as to who will actually win?

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