'm trying to think of some use for the Mercury Music Prize other than serving as a betting medium. Raising the blood pressure of those kids out on the message boards? Helping clear Talvin Singh's student debts? That fantastic picture of Ricky Wilson with a face liked a smacked arse after the Kaiser Chiefs failed to win last year's prize? Maybe. But I think it exists basically to put money into the pockets of two people: William Hill and Seth Lakeman. The 2005 Stylus Mercury feature saw me drop the opinion that the only thing that could keep Antony and the Johnsons from winning this is the fact that everyone goes "What? He's English? Really?"” And who won last year? I do believe it was the roly-poly gender-bender, followed by two weeks of newspapers going “Foreign scum come over here and take our arts prizes.” So let's return to the true odds of the Mercury. Let's talk turf with the 2006 nominees.
Get the no-hopers out of the way first: Zoe Rahman probably still hasn't recovered from her loss of the WBC Heavyweight Championship to Oleg Maskaev last month, and I heard her “I am a token jazz entry who you will never hear of again after today” t-shirt hasn't arrived in the post yet, so she won't be attending. Lou Rhodes' nomination strikes of someone who gave a lot of trainee journalists their first interview during her Lamb days, and has spent the past six months wandering into the newsrooms of the mainstream press that they now occupy, making the internationally recognised hand gesture for “You scratch my back...” Belle & Sebastian only got nominated for the Mercury after Stewie M dropped Isobel C like a bad habit, so Ballad of the Broken Seas is only on the list to even the score. You know what it's like when two people you're friends with break up: gotta invite them to the same number of parties, but never at the same time...
Then you move onto the three favourites. Hey Hey We're The Arctic Monkeys are a best priced 5/4 (with Ladbrokes), followed up by the utterly useless Guillemots at 3/1, and Richard Hawley at 5/1. The next shortest price is on Hot Chip, all the way out there at 12/1. Now, the Arctic Monkees will not win. Period. The biggest selling album of the year in the Mercury shortlist is just like Tony McCoy in the Grand National: lots of huffing and puffing about “Well, maybe this year is their year, they have to do it once” before falling spectacularly arse over tit at the seventh fence. AM backers may wanna take some solace in the fact that last year's alleged runners-up (full placings are never released, just the winners) was Hard-Fi, so maybe this is the year indie oiks move from silver to gold.
Anyway, who's the Mercury aimed at? Why, music critics suffering from a mid-life crisis who are desperate to prove that they're still down with the kids by talking far too much about various bands. And no band is more suited to a 31 year-old with blonde-highlights crying into the dashboard of their Mondeo with the realization how badly their life has messed up than the Guillemots. Sandi Thom could have taken this slot, but she sadly wasn't nominated. Anyway, this sorry lot have got a chance, because the Mercury is all about “elevating” bands to the next plateau of success, and the Guillemots’ career arc certainly won't peak with a #23 single in July that I've already forgotten. 3/1 is a fair price and sensible bookmakers would have actually installed them as favourites.
And then there's Richard Hawley, who can obviously thank Stylus' fawning over Coles Corner for his nomination here and nothing else. Richard Hawley fun facts: tricky Dicky played guitar on the All Saints cover version of “Under the Bridge.” Singer-songwriter types are as much a Mercury institution as Roots Manuva having a nervous breakdown because he didn't win, but two in a row isn't going to happen. Save your money on this one.
Then there's the mid-table of the ballot. Scritti Politti's return to pop was reminiscent of the video to Ma$e's awesome single “Welcome Back,” except with Mr. Bertha replaced by Green Gartside, and assorted Brooklyn hood kids replaced by a bunch of guys in their late 30s who still keep blogs. Hot Chip have less chance of winning the Mercury Prize than Firebreaker Chip. Considering Radiohead have been nominated and lost three times, a win for Thomas Yorke's The Eraser would be an act of moderate Greenwood-dissing humour, but it doesn't fit any standard Mercury prize narrative other than the PJ Harvey-style “Oh, just have the fucking award then, I'm sick of the sight of you now.” The Editors fun fact: The Editors were due to be on the cover of the NME earlier this year with the (bylined) story of how “they made it without hype or PR.” They were dropped off the cover to make way for reality TV's Samuel Preston. The irony. I assume they didn't get invites to the wedding.
And then there's the two value bets. First, Muse at 14/1. Now, traditionally, the Mercury doesn't touch rock bands with a shitty, yet tokenistic, stick. Seriously, the loudest band nominated up until this point were probably Primal Scream a mere 14 years ago. So they're on the list for some reason at least. And if they're not going to give the prize to the AMs, they're probably going to have to give it to someone who's sold in big figures already to prevent some of that “lol elitist” backlash that the mainstream press like to throw at them on occasions. Muse are also “very big” in Russia, and how better to welcome in the era of Russians controlling our entire football league than by letting them take over our music as well?
And finally... so maybe this is my heart talking, but 25/1 on Sway is ridiculous. Sway fun fact: Stylus tried to get an interview with Sway for around 14 months, only to have it arranged for the day after the MOBOs 2005. Surprisingly enough, it got cancelled. But, yeah, the Mercury's need their token rap entry, and he got the nod over the (much more fancied) Plan B, so why not? There's more singles available on This Is My Demo (specifically a re-released version of “Flo Fashion,” which has “#17 with a bullet” written all over it), an indie act has won it two years running so the panel are probably gonna want to be “inclusive,” and (this is the saddest thing) in order to appeal to the yoof the MMP panel are gonna want to give the prize to someone who promoted themselves via MySpace. Genesis/Alcazar were right: this is the world we live in. Anyway, a Sway win can only lead to one thing: a Charlie-Boy Achampong sitcom. And that's a cause we can all get behind.
Arctic Monkeys - Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not
What It Is: If you haven't heard this band yet, then you should really know that the rock needs to be tilted slightly upward in order to allow light in. Simply the most hyped Brit band to emerge in ages, behind the fastest-selling UK debut record ever, MySpace, NME cumshot, etc. etc. The fact that it's nothing more or less than a raw, enjoyable indie-rock record made by some lads who'd need a parent to buy them drinks in the states seems to have eluded the majority of critics and listeners. They're either the greatest or worst thing ever to those who feel the need to trumpet their opinions like they were Miles Davis with a fucking blog.
Why It Was Nominated: Honestly, given the numbers, it couldn't not be. Plus the Mercury panel display nothing more than an endearing need to be perceived as hip.
Chances of Winning: Not bloody likely—given the history of the award and the fact that the past two years have been indie-riffic, one would expect the Mercury to go to "something with beats" this year. May I recommend Hot Chip?
Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan - Ballad of the Broken Seas
What It Is: Slightly creepy and unlikely collaboration between the ex-Belle & Sebastian chanteuse and the former frontman of Screaming Trees.
Why It Was Nominated: Despite the fact that between the two of them, Campbell and Lanegan have a combined vocal range that barely approaches six notes, there is a bewitching magic at work here that makes this downbeat collection a most unexpected treat. Spare, cinematic arrangements channel the dusky duets of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood into a dark collection of sea shanties, lost and damaged love, and just a hint of a ghost story. On paper, this really shouldn’t work, but clearly Campbell and Lanegan have read Beauty & The Beast and know that real heat comes from forbidden and unexpected love rather than humping booty calls. In other words, at least some of the members of the nominating committee must be over 40.
Chances of Winning: Not good. A decidedly untrendy recording further sunk by low sales and a lack of publicity. Worthy, but firmly in the “happy to just be nominated” camp.
Editors - The Back Room
Why It Was Nominated: The dourness and rigidity of the performances whether frantic (“Bullets”) or languorous (“Camera”) connect with the kind of overly serious boys who do not dance and (still) spend too much money on music as Serious, Important Stuff. Editors are closer to the Chameleons or Echo and the Bunnymen than Interpol, but that doesn't prevent The Back Room from being this year's designated gloom rock heir; that kind of deadly praise doesn't look for fine distinctions. As with Turn on the Bright Lights there's an element in The Back Room's favor despite its fanbase being composed mostly of people who hate puppies and sunshine: It's actually quite good.
Chances of Winning: Virtually none; their audience are probably pulling for Thom Yorke or Richard Hawley (or, if they're really feeling their oats, possibly Muse), and anyone else who might enjoy the likes of “Lights” and “Open Your Arms” are probably old enough they'll spend their time complaining that Editors aren't actually Joy Division and NOT LISTENING. Everyone else, noting that the type of young man who “really identifies” with Editors' music tends to lack social skills, will steer well clear and vote for something hipper and cheerier. Like the Arctic Monkeys.
Guillemots - Through the Windowpane
What It Is: Hour long, piano driven debut album by jazz influenced multinational oddballs. It ranges from grandiose romanticism to bare balladry and the giddy, celebratory pop of irresistible singles “Trainsto Brazil” and “Made Up Love Song #43.” Or, in 12-minute closer “São Paulo,” all three in one go.
Why It Was Nominated: They’ve been critical favourites for about a year now, and Through the Windowpane shows why. It’s beautiful, ambitious and brimming with ideas. But while Guillemots succeed in creating a unique musical vision to an extent rare among their peers, it’s a completely inclusive one. In the best possible way, there is nothing at all to alienate your average Q reader.
Chances of Winning: Rather good, for the same reasons as a nomination was so assured. On the other hand, it will count against them that they’re the most similar nominee to 2005’s winner, right down to Britishness questions and having Joan Johnson/Wasser/Policewoman along for the ride. More costly still will be the creeping perception that they’re too eccentric or even (God help us) wacky, surely a cardinal sin in the eyes of many a judge. If they don’t win, then, it will be as much down to having names like Fyfe Dangerfield and MC Lord Magrao as anything having to do with the actual music.
Richard Hawley - Coles Corner
What It Is: Hawley used to be the guitarist in the Longpigs, as well as doing session work in various other places, ably disguising a heartbroken, crag-ridden crooning voice. Coles Corner is his third solo album, but it’s his first to really get a serious amount of attention; an album riddled with lonely nights in rainy towns, both wrecked and invigorated by the hopeless search for love.
Why It Was Nominated: Coles Corner has been winning over the fifty-quid-man audience like no other in the past year, with plaudits from all the sensibly-shoed music magazines. Word magazine were sufficiently moved to describe Roy Orbison as “his generation’s Richard Hawley,” but then they’re the kind of people who put Jack Johnson on their cover, so fuck them.
Chances of Winning: Given that it’s never breached the charts, Coles Corner’s position as third favourite at odds of around 4/1 would suggest that it might be where the alleged ��smart money’ is going. Certainly, the hard-bitten session musician-done-good is probably the most appealing angle for journalists, and it’s a wonderful record too. However, given that last year’s winner was a mournful male solo singer who came from out of left-field to snatch it from under the noses of the year’s big student-rockin’ success story, expect the reverse to happen this year, with our Richard getting edged out by the Monkeys or the Guillemots.
[William B. Swygart]
Hot Chip - The Warning
What It Is: Warm, oddly moving, indie stutter-pop that marks the moment a bunch of bedroom smart-asses stopped blazing Yo La Tengo-ay from their Peugeot-ay and devoted themselves to creating music that kids with sweaters and scarves can dance and cry to.
Why It Was Nominated: Owning this record is like carrying around a Kafka novel your freshman year—just having it in your possession makes you look smart. Hot Chip spreads sufficient lyrical eccentricity through its chopped-up beats and carefully cultured blips to prevent this cut-and-paste-stravaganza from descending into laptop-geek bullshit. Also, yes, the melodies are unforgettable and the hooks veer on heartbreaking.
Chances of Winning: Pretty good. The band mashes diverse source material into a charmingly cohesive whole, smoothing out the edges so that nothing becomes too off-putting. Being the UK’s answer to the Postal Service could provide a handy shortcut to Mercury glory, and, like the Gibbard-Tamborello Connection, Hot Chip has all bases covered. The DFA link sews up the hipster niche, the pretty songs keep the traditionalists satisfied, and the programming will make the dance kids happy, even if this rocks bedsits rather than clubs. However, in a year in which the Prize is loaded with hype-heavy acts, the boys from school could find that they try, but do not belong.
Muse - Black Holes And Revelations
What It Is: Radiohead go disco? Their political record? A solid and unremarkable entry into their solid but unremarkable catalogue? The Wikipedia entry says “Public acceptance,” so we’ll go with that.
Why It Was Nominated: Muse’s bid towards Rock With Purpose is exactly the type of thing that the nominating committee can get behind. It’s accessible, it’s a progression from past efforts, and Matthew Bellamy is exactly the sort of personality you could hang this sort of award on. Er, well…two out of three ain’t bad. In any case, The Mercury has never shied away from giving nods to albums with big hooks: Coldplay, Snow Patrol, Coldplay, Doves, Elbow, Coldplay—so it seems in line with the past.
Chances of Winning: While the nominating committee has seen fit to make nods towards big hooks, they’ve never actually given them the award. This one is a long-shot at best, although the odds-makers will tell you different.
Zoe Rahman - Melting Pot
What It Is: Slinky, kinda Middle Eastern piano, bass, and drums trio jazz. Nicely recorded, swinging and with a decent handle on group vibe. As you might guess from a record dumb enough to call itself Melting Pot it’s the music that you might find played along with Seu Jorge and Ali Farka Toure at that notional middle class dinner party that always gets used as a straw man. Truth be told, if you were there hearing it you’d probably enjoy it, as it’s accessible and hard to dislike, but it’s a minor item even compared to other minor jazz items from the past year; pleasantly fluffy but without much emotional range.
Why It Was Nominated: Should I even attempt to not use the word token? Nah. Rahman is the Token Jazz album. The Token Folk album is taking a year off, and quite rightly after last year’s chance blew any accumulated cultural capital by touring with The Levellers. Way to make folk even less cool, feller. As they don’t ever bother with Token Classical any more, the pressure’s on Zoe to represent all non-pop musics this year.
Chances of Winning: Not one. I’m sure that even Zoe’s mum has her tenner on Hot Chip rather than her daughter’s record.
Lou Rhodes - Beloved One
What It Is: / Why It Was Nominated: / Chances of Winning: See photo above.
Scritti Politti - White Bread, Black Beer
What It Is: The fifth proper album by Green Gartside, everyone’s favorite meringue-voiced semiotician.
Why It Was Nominated: Cupid & Psyche ’85 has had 20 years to accrue classic status; those not around the first time get the chance to reward a mysterious Welch pop aesthete who’s taller and cuter than anyone on the voting committee, and did more with Marcuse and Derrida than ten thousand other graduate school hopefuls; let’s applaud the triumph of a logothete who recorded a spare, silvery comeback that gelds its spare, silvery lyrics in delectable wisps of melody. Also: voters have read Rip It Up and Start Again, in which colleague Simon Reynolds posits himself as New Pop’s Robert Palmer (the critic, not the sophisti-sleazo creator of “Addicted to Love,” although why not).
Chances of Winning: Green Gartside’s found a hermaneutic of success: silence and exile, punctuated by unexpected sightings in pubs drinking local ale, followed by the release and promotion of clever-sweet pop songs that charm everyone except an audience. As his outreach diminishes, so does his chance of the large scale validation a Mercury Prize brings.
Sway - This Is My Demo
What It Is: London rapper’s debut proper, which has a more reflective mood than the two mixtapes preceding it. This means you don’t quite get a full sense of his glorious ability to rip the piss out of any potential target and still come across like an endearing scamp, but fortunately amongst the melancholy 90s R&B; inflected atmosphere the trademark wit is still evident, covering financial irresponsibility, the ethics of filesharing, and his Ghanian alter-ego Charlie Boy’s plans to release a song called “Why Does the Birds Always Shitting On Me?”
Why It Was Nominated: Sway is one of those “rappers”, and as such his nomination usefully provides the illusion of the nominees constituting a mind-fuckingly eclectic selection of the year’s best British music, as opposed to a load of moderately quirky indie bands that Qhave given four stars to at some point. He is your Token Urban Selection for 2006, and in keeping with this has had the requisite top-40-but-not-by-much single in “Little Derek”.
Chances of Winning: Actually pretty high. A sensitive, wobbly-voiced American singer won it last year, so a lurch in the direction of a sensitive-but-mocking deep voiced Brit rapper might make sense. Unless they go for Hawley because he’s a sensitive Brit guy who sounds like a deep voiced American. Ideal scenario: Sway wins and puts a song about how stupid the Mercury Prize is on his Myspace within eleven minutes.
Thom Yorke - The Eraser
What It Is: The Eraser came out July 10th. July 18th, the remarkably deft ears at Nationwide Mercury Music Prize decided it was one of the best records of the year. Even with internet leaks and promos, it seemed a case of presumption aided by the surprise of its existence, so well-concealed. Yorke’s always had an ear for the pop of musique conrete; The Eraser is no exception—it’s strategically oblique and obligingly stratospheric. He’s alone finally, naturally, the way he’s always sounded, even when doused in the band’s garbage-fire guitar wall. Pixelated by slow bleats of dotted sound, drum machines, and plenty of synth and piano, you can hear the paranoia in Yorke’s grief, like he’s tired of muttering these complaints and can’t be sure you’re listening anymore.
Why It Was Nominated: Collectively, it nods to every great Radiohead b-side issued since the century’s turn, especially the disintegrating pastiche of cuts like “Fog,” “Cuttooth,” or “Amazing Sounds of Orgy.” That takes care of the shadier side of the 'why'; as for the real matter, Radiohead's record was pushed back again, and this came in its stead.
Chances of Winning: Given the Mercury's love of late for the dark horse, next to null and void. Early odds placed both The Eraser and the Arctic Monkeys in the lead at 5:1, but it still seems like far too obvious a selection for them of late (despite the nod to Franz a few years back).
By: Stylus Staff
Published on: 2006-09-05