Every year, it’s the same – the names come out, then the surgical gowns and scalpels. The annual unveiling of the Mercury Prize shortlist has begun to resemble something of a biopsy for British music these last few years. Critics and columnists crowd into the examination room to aggressively pick its bones, trying to work out what kind of health it’s in, like history’s shittest ever episode of Holby City. The think-pieces reacting to this year’s selection of best British albums, revealed earlier this evening, are no doubt already rolling in: “Polar Bear and GoGo Penguin both on the shortlist? This is the REAL chill wave! Start dressing like Christmas on the ice planet Hoth, because North Pole pop is the UK’s hippest new sound.” There are definite talking points 2014’s shortlist presents, though. Let’s have a look at some of them, shall we?
A win for Royal Blood would be a Mercury milestone moment for rock
Royal Blood are, alongside Damon Albarn, the bookies’ favourite for the prize. Problem is, history’s against them. Traditionally speaking, the Mercury panel treats heavy music like I’ve spent today treating the new U2 album: ignore it and hope, nay, PRAY it goes away. Since 1992, the closest thing to hard rock we’ve had on the nominees list is Biffy Clyro, closely followed by the Darkness in 2001. Neither of whom are exactly Napalm Death in the eardrum-brutalising guitar violence stakes. Royal Blood aren’t either, but a win for them would go some way towards making amends for all those years of neglect.
Is Damon Albarn going to withdraw again?
Like “carrying a dead albatross ‘round your neck for eternity” is how Gorillaz described the prospect of winning the 2001 Mercury Prize in their statement announcing their wish to be withdrawn from the shortlist. You can sort of understand Damon Albarn having the hump with Mercury organisers: he’d already been nominated (with Blur) and ultimately overlooked twice by the time the cartoon band made the shortlist in 2001. PJ Harvey ended up picking up the award on September 11 that year, so he probably didn’t miss too much of a party by shunning it. Will he similarly withdraw this time, or has the Blur man mellowed? His music certainly has: ‘Everyday Robots’ is an introspective winter’s sigh of an album, with just the right amount of electronic experimentalism for a panel who last year elected James Blake’s ‘Overgrown’ British album of the year. Should he choose to embrace the Mercurys again, don’t be too surprised if he ends up triumphant.
The Mercury panel have done a pretty decent job this year
It could have been so different. In previous years, the Mercury panel have often confused commercial success and chart impact for being not-bollocks, leading to nominations for the boring beige-pop likes of Emeli Sande and Corinne Bailey Rae. Not so in 2014. Instead of Ed Sheeran and Sam Smith, this list makes room for minimalist electronic troubadour East India Youth, street poet Kate Tempest and hip-hop innovators Youngfathers. Credit where it’s due. This all could have something to do with a recent change in operations for the Mercury organisers. Before, the prize was decided by a shadowy committee we knew nothing about - a bit like the Illuminati, except instead of controlling the world's free markets they mostly quibbled over the merits of Michael Kiwanuka. This year, they made the list of judges public. See? Everything's better when people are held accountable for things.
…but not that good a job
Where’s all the sneering punk, guys? It’s been a blockbuster year for grimy, middle finger-flaunting anti-heroes: Eagulls’ self-titled debut was a scowling, incendiary joy, while Sleaford Mods are the raging social shit-kickers recession-trodden Britain has been waiting for. I suppose when you’re sponsored by a credit card, you probably don’t want Fat White Family stinking up the building and scaring all the lovely suits in the corporate seats. In fairness to the Mercury panel though, if Fat Whites were nominated and won, I seriously shudder at the thought of what kind of debauchery they’d spend the £20,000 pay out on.
To those not versed in internet text talk, that’s ‘FKA for the win’ – ‘FKA’ being Gloucestershire-born Tahliah Debrett Barnett, better known as FKA Twigs. Her debut ‘LP1’ was a genre-fusing melee of slinking pop vocals, futurist R&B guitar licks and electronic influences, featuring production from the likes of Dev Hynes and Clams Casino. Just how British sounding the record is could be placed up for debate – the album’s major influences are almost exclusively American, with her songwriting cribbing heavily from ‘90s star Aaliyah – but as far as making giant musical statements go, no other album on the Mercury shortlist comes close. Will she win? We’ll find out on October 29…