SoundProof's Mercury Prize Predictions

By: Adam Johnstone

<em>SoundProof</em>'s Mercury Prize Predictions
Photo: Nicole Kai Kobilansky
images coutesy of the bands

There are few events in the British musical calendar that generate more controversy than the Nationwide Mercury Prize. Following the announcement of this year’s nominations, the ill-informed rantings of the British press can barely be heard above the deafening roar of a million bloggers collectively soiling themselves in outrage.

As ever, the award attempts to assert British music as crucial and relevant in an international scene increasingly dominated by bedroom DJs, lucrative collaborations and the revival of dead genres born anew as stitched-together genre-zombies like Nu Rave. In an age where a few ne’er do wells with a guitar, a bass drum, a partially working keyboard and a fully-functioning MySpace page can sell more gig-tickets than the top-selling chart artists in the country, the idea that one album can be chosen as “the best” by the very group of people that profit from its sales, frames an interesting balance between rewarding creativity and an overblown PR exercise.

Y’see, the prize is awarded by a “select panel of music executives in the music industry in the UK and the Republic of Ireland.” Not by the public, not by other artists and certainly not by the critics, but by a group of people chosen by the British Phonographic Industry (the BPI) to inform the world of how progressive and forward-thinking the British music scene is. And they’re right, of course, and to some extent the list of nominations reflects this, but arguably for the wrong reasons.

That’s not to say the award is not prestigious or important — the winners (and the nominees) generally find a modicum of fame and fortune if they haven’t already. Past winners have included the likes of the Klaxons, Antony and the Johnsons, Franz Ferdinand and Dizzee Rascal. But generally, the nominations list reads like a box-ticking exercise encompassing eclecticism, popularity and credibility. Actually being any good can sometimes seem a happy coincidence.

I have included this long exposition, dear readers, because I realize that a good percentage of you reside in Canada and not the UK. Moreover, until about a week ago I was under the impression that Canada is a magical (possibly fictional) place where pixies live on rainbow mountains and the rivers run chocolate. But, apparently, it is a real place full of snow, free healthcare and discerning music lovers to whom it is my duty to inform of the awards’ context. (Seriously, not even one chocolate river?)

And so, without further ado, allow me to give you a rundown of the nominees, along with random conjecture on the reasons for nomination, wild speculation on chances of victory, and things Burial should spend the twenty Gs on.

19 by Adele

It’s tough to be a British soul/RnB singer if you’re not Amy Winehouse. It would be easy to describe Adele as “Amy Winehouse sans crack,” but she has managed to garner critical and commercial success with a mixture of soulful RnB and Lily Allen-flecked nuggets of pop. She’s played a shrewd game too, putting out smooth yet gutsy ballads like the ubiquitous “Chasing Pavements” whilst stuffing her album full of eccentric, jazzy numbers like “Right as Rain” or “Best for Last”.

Will she win? Nah. Her music, on the whole, is too “safe.” Mercury likes to promote inventiveness and “daring” music that pushes boundaries. Adele is a solid act treading a well-worn path — an end-product of techniques perfected by those before her — rather than blazing trails. She’s a polished and talented artist, but sadly she fails to challenge the listener on the same level as other artists on this list.

Do You Like Rock Music? by British Sea Power

British Sea Power are quite possibly the strangest band to make a top 40 album in this country in the last ten years, considering they’ve performed live accompanied by Bavarian wrestlers and done a gig on a ferry across the River Mersey. This eccentricity might make them a surprise winner this year, as might the strength of DYLRM?, which soothes and surprises in equal measures. Dumb name for a band, though.

Untrue by Burial

A “shock nomination” according to the British tabloid press and the most predictable nomination for anyone who has been anywhere near a computer with the Internet for the past year. As Beyoncé might say, allow me to “break it down:”

Emerging, British-based genre? Check. “Urban” background? Check. Critically acclaimed, but not very well known? Check. Cool gimmick, like being anonymous? Check. Critical darling? Check.

And of course, let’s not forget that Burial has crafted one of the most atmospheric and compelling albums released this year, resurrecting UK garage as a wraith and sending it through a wrecked city of back-alleys and desolate nightclubs to the door of a lost love. The record is perhaps the least accessible on the shortlist, but persevere and it becomes one of the most rewarding. Burial is currently the bookies’ favourite, although how an anonymous guy will collect the prize and perform at the ceremony is anyone’s guess. I hereby coin the phrase “The Banksy of Dubstep.” [Editor's Note: Apparently we weren't the only ones worried about the logistics; Burial has just revealed that he is, in fact, one Will Bevan from South London.]

The Seldom Seen Kid by Elbow

Elbow are one of Britain’s finest bands. There, I said it. Their commercial success has never matched their critical reception, although that’s not to say they are failures — but let’s just say it’s telling that despite the cosmetic similarities, Elbow are nominated for the Mercury while Coldplay, their closest contemporaries, have been overlooked.

The Seldom Seen Kid is another superb album from a band who have been churning out earnest, accessible rock music for over a decade. But they will not win this competition, just as they didn’t when they were nominated for the excellent Asleep in the Back in 2001. Why? Because as a marketable commodity, they are uninteresting. They don’t court controversy, they don’t adhere to trends and they certainly don’t fill column inches. Their nomination is simply a nod to continued excellence.

Shine by Estelle

The token “Big in America” nomination, due to her recent collaboration with po-faced rapper Kanye West. Estelle feels like Lauryn Hill lite, or Alicia Keys for people with no feelings. It’s disposable, flimsy RnB/pop and one can’t help but feel the nomination was designed to attract American attention towards the rest of the nominated acts. Her chance of winning this award are slim to none, but then again, the dreadful M People won in 1994, so who am I to judge?

Alas I Cannot Swim by Laura Marling

Laura Marling’s pop-tinged folk record is a deserving nominee for this year’s awards. In a period when female retro-soul singers are given awards simply for being, well, female retro-soul singers, it’s refreshing to see Marling rewarded for doing something fresh and exciting without following the current musical fashion. She’s in with a chance too, as she brings a combination of two crucial Mercury touchstones: Being “The Eccentric Outsider” and “Playing a Genre Not Many People Know About.”

Stainless Style by Neon Neon

Neon Neon is a collaboration between Gruff Rhys from cult psych-rockers Super Furry Animals and some other guy. It sounds like a mix between Chromeo and The Smiths. Whilst this may sound like it should be awesome, nothing really gels. Neon Neon wear their influences on their sleeve, but fail to create anything new, preferring instead to create a patchwork monster built of sounds from the ’80s.

Knee-Deep in the North Sea by Portico Quartet

Portico Quartet are a four-piece jazz outfit who, until about a year ago, were best known for being the resident buskers outside of The National Theatre on London’s Southbank. Now they are best known as the resident buskers outside of The National Theatre who have been nominated for the Mercury Prize. They are mercifully hook-based as opposed to freeform and are commonly referred to as “postjazz” — although the sound is more traditional than that would suggest. Given The Mercury’s penchant for eclecticism, I would give them a chance, but not a big one.

The Bairns by Rachel Unthank & The Winterset

Who? Exactly.

In Rainbows by Radiohead

They need no introduction and there’s certainly no need to describe what the album sounds like. What’s important to know is that Radiohead have been nominated four times for the Mercury and have never won. This is because there is no point — they don’t need the 20 grand, they don’t need the publicity and everyone in the English-speaking world knows who they are already. The point of the Mercury Prize is to anoint a kind of ambassador for British music, to show the world what the UK has to offer in terms of talent and diversity. Radiohead winning would be preaching to the choir.

If they did win, it would be a sort of consolation prize, a lifetime achievement award, a thank you for fifteen years of dedicated service. It could even be on merit, but it probably wouldn’t be worthwhile.

Raising Sand by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss

A British hard-rock legend and an American country singer/fiddle player do not make an obvious pairing, but against all odds this record struck a chord with thousands of fans, becoming one of the surprise hits of the year. Krauss’ saccharine vocals and Plant’s wailing histrionics combine to make something that in places is both haunting and compelling. At other times the collaboration feels limp, as if producer T-Bone Burnett doesn’t know what to do with the overspill of talent on display here. It’s this inconsistency that will count against Raising Sand in the end, as it has to compete against multiple albums that are devoid of filler.

The Age Of The Understatement by The Last Shadow Puppets

These guys are a side project of Miles Kane of The Rascals and Alex Turner. Turner has tasted victory here before in 2006 with the the Arctic Monkeys, and this year he’s giving it another try. The music is unashamedly pop, adorned with sweeping orchestral arrangements different from what you’d expect for a side project of two indie stalwarts. Highly entertaining but ultimately disposable music that may stand a chance due to Turner’s Arctic Monkeys credentials.

Final thought:

Why the hell weren’t Portishead nominated?

Predictions:

I strongly suspect that Burial will win. My 2nd favourite is a toss-up between Elbow and Radiohead and 3rd favourite is Laura Marling. If I’m wrong, I’ll eat my hat. Because it is made of chocolate. Which I panned from a Canadian river.

The 2008 Nationwide Mercury Prize winner will officially be announced on September 9th.

Video: House of Cards by Radiohead

"In Radiohead's new video for "House of Cards", no cameras or lights were used. Instead, 3D plotting technologies collected information about the shapes and relative distances of objects. The video was created entirely with visualizations of that data."

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