here is no award as pilloried and maligned as the Mercury Music Prize. Check the UK Singles Jukebox: nary a week goes by without one of our panel castings mocking aspersions on a record by suggesting that it seems to be aiming for the Mercury judges. Check the lyrics to "Paintball's Coming Home," Half Man Half Biscuit's "j'accuse" of the British middle classes, containing a whole verse noting how they "treat the Mercury Music Prize with awe." And remember that 11 years ago, M People won it. The Brits, the Mobos, the Kerrang and NME awards... these all have brickbats thrown at them. But the Mercury? The critical establishment lobs half of the building site at it.
Musicians, you may have noticed, are a funny old thing. They don't treat the MMP with, say, contempt, disdain, or even detached amusement. Nope, they go fiending for it harder than they do for 16 year-old groupies. Rest assured, every musician lined up for the prize this year will have been politicking like Mandelson over the past few months, doing every single corporate gig they can get their hands on (the prize is this year sponsored by failing to arrange Direct Debits properly specialists Nationwide Building Society), and knowing that the Mercury does one thing above all others: elevate. Are you bubbling under? The Mercury can turn you into a genuine chart concern (Badly Drawn Boy, Roni Size). Are you already a genuine chart concern? The Mercury can turn you into superstars, and get you into Bob Geldof's speed-dial when he needs to save humanity with bad music (Franz Ferdinand, Ms. Dynamite).
Rumour has it that Roots Manuva's recent alleged mental breakdown was triggered by his failure to win the Mercury Music Prize. People care for this. And as well they should, do you think Dizzee Rascal could afford to buy all of those horrid jackets if he hadn't won this? Mans would be lucky to own a couple of New Era caps if it wasn't for the sales hike a Mercury can bring. Similarly, those days when Badly Drawn Boy was solely spotted midway through a festival line-up playing out of tune are long dead now he has the prize in his (otherwise empty) trophy cabinet. He's a star. The Mercury may make another star this year. Or we may have another Talvin Singh on our hands. Who knows?
First off, each year, there's a bunch of artists who are just there to make the numbers up, and to fulfil quota. So, we can say hello, wave goodbye to: Seth Lakeman, The Go! Team, and Polar Bear. Similarly, superstar bands never take home the prize, so Chris is going to have to make do with going home and poking Gwynnie after all this is well and done. As for the rest of them....
The Mercury specialise in being patronising. In ye olden days, it was noted how they went year to year from "indie" winner to "urban/dance" winner. The first point of note is how indie bands need to sell a lot lot lot more records to win the Mercury than urban acts do. Pulp and Suede both won the Mercury prize off of the back of #1 albums, and Franz Ferdinand's self titled had made it all the way to #3. Compare this to, say, Dizzee Rascal (one week at #39), or the aforementioned Talvin Singh (the only Mercury winner to never make the top 40). However, the Mercury likes to reward success, not public indifference, so MIA can probably take her failure to make the top 100 and wait for the next US rapper to pretend they want her on their label.
Considering how the Mercury loves the middle of the road, it's a surprise that Dido has never been nominated for either of her albums. They've certainly made up for that this time though, as Dido's dykier cousin, KT Tunstall, lines up to bat whilst oversinging each note. Other than that M People win though, the Mercury at least like to pretend there's some concession to challenging, so this "muscle relaxing" Radoxcore is also off the menu.
Similarly, the odds on anyone remember who Hard-Fi are in, oooh, seventeen minutes time are roughly the same ones you can get on Arkle to win the Grand National this year. That album got to #6 you know? To put that into some kind of context, whilst grunge was raging all around and you couldn't walk four steps without hearing the opening chords of "Smells Like Teen Spirit", Nevermind only made it to #7. Kids of today, I don't know...
So that leaves the remaining five: Antony and the Johnsons, Bloc Party, Kaiser Chiefs, Maximo Park, and the Magic Numbers. Bloc Party and the Kaiser Chiefs, as Stylus' own Nick Southall has pointed out in his reviews, are the UK's two new "Your New Favourite Bands." Kaiser Chiefs are the sixth formers, Bloc Party are the university freshmen. But they occupy the same role: they both have frontmen with a mouth that gets a lot more exercise than their brain seems to, they both dress like some sort of H&M;/charity shop chic hybrid and, annoyingly, both will probably still have a career after the haircut indie boon dies down (23rd August 2006: mark it in your diary). However, the Kaiser Chiefs probably blew their load by re-releasing the reactionary Littlejohncore of "I Predict A Riot" before the awards came out, so they've not got anything new to release for the traditional "We've won a Mercury" chart cash-in. Bloc Party have admirably not re-released any singles yet, but with seven tracks from the album already out in the public sphere... it's probably not going to be them either.
Antony and the Johnsons are an interesting one. The bookies put them third favourite to win (behind the aforementioned Kaiser Chiefs and Bloc Party), and Ant's definitely a guy with further to go in his career (the album still hasn't made the top 40). He's also a guy who could as easily appeal to both the Parkinson-set, and the hip kids. Perhaps he'd need to adopt an image other than "Make A Wish Foundation takes a kid to Studio 54", but that's bye the bye. The only thing that could keep him from winning this is the fact that everyone goes "What? He's English? Really?" Probably one for the shortlist, as Racing Post tipsters would say.
Maximo Park are just Warp realising they really do need to make some money if they want to keep putting out music, and they're already pushing Aphex Twin in terms of units shifter. But, again, Maximo Park really do seem "of the moment," and while a look down the list of previous nominees shows that people like The Electric Soft Parade and Apache Indian did get nominated for the prize, none of them came close to winning it.
And, finally, where the smart money is going. The indie kids like them. The Radio 2 listeners like them. Gregg's certainly like them, as they eat their way through £400 worth of steak bakes each day. It's roly-poly humourless Mamas and the Papas revivalists The Magic Numbers. They've got it all: the media controversy (Fat Melting Potgate, as thankfully nobody called it), more singles lined up to go (they've only released two on a major scale so far, both comfortably making the top 20), and they've got the bullshit story about how their success was an underground phenomenon propelled into the mass media by their loving fanbase. The Mercury loves the Middle of the Road, and Magic Numbers are middle of the road like cats eyes. Get on them to win now: we could be looking at the new M People.
Antony & The Johnsons – I Am A Bird Now
What It Is: That a flamboyantly trangressional New Yorker with gaudy face paint ended up on the Mercury Shortlist (a British award exclusively for British artists, lest we forget) seems rather incongruous until you read up a little on Anthony’s biography and realise that he was born in Cirencester. Antony’s probably too portly and too old to be a genuine pop star and this, plus the fact that his eligibility is essentially incidental, must count against him as far as his chances of actually winning go.
Why It Might Win: In his favour he does have an absolutely amazing larynx, deep and wide and expressive, and a set of songs on this, his sophomore album, which are ghostly, intense, emotive and characterful. I Am A Bird Now also features a host of collaborators, both expected and unexpected, including Boy George, Devendra Banhart, Lou Reed and Rufus Wainwright, which may add to Anthony’s likelihood of winning votes from the panel slightly.
Why It Won’t Win: Even so, it probably won’t overcome the fact that, basically, you can’t have an American of confusing gender identification who sings about wanting to be a baby or a bird or a girl over a tableau of pianos, violins and crotched tapestries of his own voice winning what has become in recent years an award for “contemporary” (or even “cutting edge”) British music. It’s fantastic to see him getting some publicity out of this, mind you.
Bloc Party – Silent Alarm
What It Is: The album that revived the phrase ��angular guitars’ for the latest wave of indie kids that came to seek out long fringes in 2004 and 2005. Silent Alarm, their debut, attempts to bottle up indie pop, post-punk and a dose of shoegaze into an easily digestible package promoted by earnest and reasonably attractive skinny young men.
Why It Might Win: It’s definitely one of the safe bets for this year’s prize. It’s inoffensive hook-laden guitar music that attempts to be both sensitive and punky that slides nicely into that special niche that appeals to the “kids” and the “critics.” Silent Alarm started barrelling along hype-wise when IPC announced to Middle Indie England that the band’s leader singer was black and then hit its stride when the attendant singles brainwashed / influenced people into thinking that it was part of a mature, thoughtful record that you can get lost in. In its defence they’ve certainly managed to stand out against a crowd of bands who prefer fun, beer, and dancing to wistful introspection and occasional shouting about nothing in particular.
Why It Won’t Win: The band are, to a man, indie bedwetters. The album might have a crystal clear top-notch production job but it lacks any points of sonic or lyrical interest or any real sensitivity. Even though the songs are skinny, it begins to sag fast about a third of the way in. It’s unlikely anyone will look back on this debut as anything other than an album that had one mixtape-ready song (“Pioneers”). And with any sort of foresight (sadly something the panel has traditionally lacked), the judging panel will concur.
Coldplay – X & Y
What It Is: Muscular mope-rock; sensitive and meaningful music created by a traditional line-up of bass, guitar, drums, and vocals; Radiohead-lite; reconnecting with the spirit and the soul in the face of increasing celebrity; Kraftwerk and Pogues-biting arena-rock; the most exciting record you may ever hear in your entire life.
Why It Might Win: Are Coldplay the Susan Lucci [insert British reference here] of the Mercury Prize? Chris Martin and co. have produced three ready-made Mercury Prize winning records and all three have been nominated for the prize. Why not now? Roundly regarded as their most dense and sonically experimental record yet, the judges could do worse than pay homage to a band that they obviously have a great deal of respect for. Crucially, the band has a single, “Fix You” being released on September 5th, you know, just in case.
Why It Won’t Win: The Mercury Prize has never been awarded to a band quite as big as Coldplay. Instead, it’s been used as a booster for smaller bands, trying to give the underdog a much-needed leg up. It would be ridiculous to award Coldplay the prize, even if they were the most deserving group, simply because they hardly need any more recognition than they already have. That, and let’s be honest, X & Y is the slightest album of the group’s career, revealing the paucity of ideas that Chris Martin had since A Rush of Blood…. When you’re getting married and having babies with Gwenyth, and trying to make the world safe for free trade, these things can be excused, one imagines.
Hard-Fi – Stars of CCTV
What It Is: A willfully diverse guitar-rock album that tries to take in all kinds of urban sounds at once, without losing the three-chord punk-DIY underpinning that overshadows it all. Done on a second-hand computer, the album sounds about as simple and as down-to-earth as that might imply, but its strength lies mainly in the moments that the group steps outside of those constraints to add dubby textures, house-y synth stabs, and skanking rhythms. Like the Clash for the 21st century. Except not nearly as good.
Why It Might Win: Good question.
Why It Won’t Win: All of the things that this band does are done by a different band on the list, except on a grander scale. The dance music is taken care of by the Go Team!, the gritty suburban punk is taken over by Maximo Park and the Kaiser Chiefs, and the attitude is usurped by the band that actually does what lead singer Richard Archer wants to (“be as big as Eminem”), Coldplay. So what does Hard-Fi have to offer at the end of the day? Maybe the most ebullient single in “Hard To Beat,” but not much more. This one’s a longshot.
The Kaiser Chiefs - Employment
What It Is: It’s that end of the pier cheekiness that the British public, whoever they are, love. It’s The Faces, but as strained through the dirty knickers of Chas & Dave or The Monks. It’s Blur, reconfigured with the passive-aggression of Robbie Williams; a gang of triumphalists smugly playing the underdog, cheerily having a pint with the common man before slagging him behind his back. Oh, I’ll just say it; it’s Brit pop.
Why It Might Win: Because everything that the Kaiser Chiefs does fits neatly into the Grand English Pop Narrative that’s been codified and set in stone following Brit Pop, a tradition that we are told runs from music hall to the beat boom and thence through psychedelia, punk, and baggy to its terminus in Brit pop. A tradition that leaves out whole musics (for example jungle or ��ardcore) and winnows down what it does include so that it’s acceptable to both the NME and to Q, to the tabloids and the broadsheets, and to both Radio One and Radio Two. And that isn’t a lot of room in which to manoeuvre but then the Mercurys have to appeal to every outlet.
Why It Won’t Win: Because Franz Ferdinand won it last year and this is too similar, too soon and, most importantly, nowhere near as good. It won’t win because the Judging Panel, and that’s their capitalisation not mine, won’t want to look like they’ve made too easy a choice. I’m hoping that it won’t win because the chair of the judges Simon Frith just about remembers that in 1985 he wrote, in his book Music for Pleasure, “…no one in the student union cares who the latest critical cult figures are. Students are the great, middle-class, middle-brow bastion of British rock and, after twenty years, their tastes aren't about to be shaken.” And surely the Mercury is there to shake peoples tastes (OK, I know that it’s really there to reinforce taste.) But it’s alright that the Kaiser Chiefs won’t win because I’m sure that if he ever needs to, Ricky Wilson can slip into a daytime TV presenting role just as easily as Charlotte Church eventually will.
KT Tunstall – Eye to the Telescope
What It Is: Eye to the Telescope sits rather firmly in the grassroots Scottish singer-songwriter arena. Her album has gone platinum in the UK on the back of singles “Other Side of the World,” “False Alarm,” “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree,” and the recently released “Suddenly I See.” While it’s unclear exactly how much the Scottish part plays into her songwriting except as reasons to namecheck Teenage Fanclub and The Beta Band in her bio, Tunstall’s debut album is a light, blues-tinged that depends heavily on her ability to turn a phrase, due to her unexciting musical choices.
Why It Might Win: Tunstall does have a way with words. And the Scottish angle is a helpful bit that spices up the biography. And she’s only one of two solo women in the field. This isn’t even convincing me very much, so I can’t imagine how this might be convincing you. “Heal You”’s a nice little tune, though, isn’t it?
Why It Won’t Win: The easy answer: because the prize has been awarded to PJ Harvey. It would almost be a blow to women’s lib to give the award to this easy-going feel-good pop album after Harvey took the award in 2001 with a gritty and uncompromising set of tunes. This might have a chance in the Shortlist Prize in America (see: Damien Rice), but not here.
Maximo Park – A Certain Trigger
What It Is: Maximo Park is a rare exception in the continuously growing and thriving genre of art rock, highly influenced by post-punk and new-wave. They actually manage to make each song stand out on its own, sounding different than any other on the album. And unlike fellow art rock nominees Bloc Party and Kaiser Chiefs, there is no significant drop in quality on A Certain Trigger. That's right—no fillers. Catchy songs with witty wordplay make Maximo Park's debut a desirable winner on all aspects.
Why It Might Win: If Franz Ferdinand won with it, why not Maximo Park? Coldplay didn't even win with a clearly stronger album than this year's nominated X&Y;. Polar Bear's jazz credentials are impressive, as is Seth Lakeman's raw and amazing violinist skill, but they obviously have no chance. So, again, why not Maximo Park?
Why It Won’t Win: Bloc Party seems to be the new poster boy of quality music this year, and their publicity machine is on par with last year's winner, Franz Ferdinand. And, if the past holds true, it almost seems preordained that we’ll have a radically different sound than last year’s winner. That leaves it open to nearly anyone to win: except the Kaiser Chiefs, Maximo, Hard-Fi, and Bloc Party.
M.I.A. - Arular
What It Is: Hyper-modern eclectic lo-fi edgy urban dance taking cues from hip hop and electro.
Why It Might Win: Given the Mercury’s recent penchant for giving the much-coveted (in certain circles) award to trendy urban acts (Ms. Dynamite! Dizzee Rascal! Franz Ferdi- oh…) many people are pimping M.I.A. as a serious proposition for winning this year.
Why It Won’t Win: These people are forgetting 2 important things. 1; Maya Arulpragasam (which is what M.I.A.’s mum calls her at the dinner table) is Sri Lankan, even if she is based in London, and thus probably not British enough (much the same as Anthony & The Johnsons), and 2; only half a dozen people actually care about Arular anyway and they’re all internet music journalists, which means that if you spend a lot of time reading and writing about music online M.I.A. seems like a phenomenon, but if you don’t… well you probably haven’t heard of her. Unfortunately, the Mercury’s increasingly fervent zeitgeist-chasing choices suggests that M.I.A.’s time has come and gone before she even managed to get an album out. Such is the nature of net-hype, I guess—Dizzee Rascal got in at just the right time to capitalise, but the current boon in popularity of British guitar bands suggests 2005 will not be M.I.A.’s Mercury year.
Polar Bear - Held on the Tips of Fingers
What It Is: It’s the token jazz pick, like Denys Baptiste or Courtney Pine or Stan Tracey (although jazz barely even gets picked for the Mercury Prize as a token; folk and classical are more regularly prominent.) Beyond that I can’t tell you much. I’d like to, but I haven’t been able to p2p a copy at all, Amazon doesn’t have any sound clips, the bands own website only features really short excerpts from the previous album and the user unfriendly, Flash based Mercury site has only a forty-five second clip and, if you give them your email address and set up a log-in, a video clip. I’ve heard good things about them, like Paul Morley comparing them to Keith Tippett’s group Centipede and Marcello Carlin saying that they’re like Ornette Coleman’s “acoustic quartet gone glitch” but for the purposes of this piece I’ve drawn a blank. Sorry.
Why It Might Win: It could only win if the band has extremely compromising pics of Simon Frith and the rest of the Judging Panel.
Why It Won’t Win: It doesn’t bode well that I’ve never seen a copy of the Polar Bear CD in real life. Admittedly I’ve never looked for it and I’m sure that if I went to the jazz section of any shop in my town it would be there, but the HMV, Virgin and Borders all have prominent Mercury Prize displays and none of them feature Polar Bear (or Seth Lakeman.) Instead, under the Mercury banner are multiple copies of the Kaiser Chiefs, Magic Numbers and Coldplay records as repromotion is seen as more cost effective than new promotion for obscure records, and most especially obscure jazz records.
Seth Lakeman – Kitty Jay
What It Is: Lakeman’s second album has been included as the folk representative this year. How well Kitty Jay compares to other British folk albums of the last 12 months I have no idea because it’s not something I know anything about, but Seth is a photogenic young man and as this is a concept album of sorts (all the songs are about places and characters from his native Dartmoor—there’s quite a high body-count and plenty of talk of angels, ghosts, and mysterious wooded copses) you can see the attraction for the panel who decided the shortlist.
Why It Might Win: Poor Seth. I’ve got a lot of time for the lad, as he’s from only just down the road from me in the wilds of South West England, specifically the bleakly rolling vistas of Dartmoor, and, frankly, Kitty Jay is a fantastic album.
Why It Won’t Win: But Mr. Lakeman probably shouldn’t waste his money buying a train ticket for London in order to attend the ceremony unless the lure of free Cava is too much for him to resist, because sadly he’s one of the Mercury’s annual tokenistic genre choices.
The Go! Team - Thunder, Lightning, Strike
What It Is: Thunder, Lightning, Strike is the Five-O chasing BMX-riding b-girls; it’s a lighthearted romp through the last 40 years of music, stomping its way through ��60s pop, indie dance, go-go, Sugarhill and Motown. It’s the album Bentley Rhythm Ace tried to make eight years ago and pretty close to the album the Avalanches made five years ago. The Brighton six-piece dovetail old-school hip-hop samples, melodies Bacharach would die for and overdriven drum breaks into a perfect mix. Check the melancholy sixties organ grinders (“Friendship Update”), flute grooving anthems (“Get It Together”), Kurtis Blow updates (“Bottle Rocket”) and even spy themes (“Junior Kickstart”). The tracks are short, exuberant and fast. Like the best DJ mixes, it’s irresistible from the first listen.
Why It Might Win: “The whole prize is about eclecticism, variation and music itself,” says Paul Smith from Maximo Park. Sounds like an award made just for the Go Team. They’re right on the Mercury tip: super-eclectic, accessible and uncontrived. The past few winners have been strictly indie bands or dance/hip hop acts, is an act that sits on the boundary the next logical choice?
Why It Won’t Win: It is a long time since the album was released; the buzz—all-important for Mercury success—has died down. More importantly, like even the best DJ mixes, the Go! Team’s funky fresh vibes don’t necessarily reward repeated listens. The rollercoaster of upbeat samples, catchy vocal hooks and packed-in sound only initially mask the album’s lack of depth. Like the Avalanches, a sophomore slump is unavoidable. What will the next album will sound like?
The Magic Numbers – The Magic Numbers
What It Is: 12 tracks of glorious, heartbreaking and often perfect pop songs. West London sibling double act the Magic Numbers are a soft ray of sunshine on a Saturday afternoon; never glary or burning, they are the light sunshower lifting your spirits. The influences are obvious—Dylan, the Mamas & the Papas, the Beach Boys—but there’s a bit of Teenage Fanclub, Lou Reed and Guns & Roses in there too. Romeo Stodart sings his earnest lullabies over twanging bluegrass guitar, turning his broken heart into Cohen & McCartney poetry, fantastically catchy, timeless and melancholy without being self-obsessed. Hearing Stodart’s sister Michele and Angela Gannon harmonising, ��I would die for you,’ or ��Looks like it’s happened again’ is enough to make the toughest heart melt. Although the quality dips at times—the band set muso challenges for each other in the studio like writing a song in the key of D or putting a strange bridge in a song—the Magic Numbers are heartfelt and devoid of pretence, offering their breezy, emotion-laden songs to break and lift your heart in an hour.
Why It Might Win: They rushed the album out to qualify for the Mercury and the mix of new hype and timeless bite-your-lip pop songs is perfectly timed for the prize. The Magic Numbers already have an indie fanbase, but that will pale in comparison to the baby boomer market when they break into Hits & Memories radio playlists. That kind of mainstream appeal may be the kind of change Mercury panelists, eager to capitalise on the arbiter-of-mainstream-success title they earnt following last year’s winner Franz Ferdinand. The band loves to perform and that’s where they really shine, after seeing them live it’s difficult to resist falling in love.
Why It Won’t Win: The Mercury Prize panel may swing away from last year’s indie winners to either hip-hop or electronic music. They often choose edgy winners and the Magic Numbers are no underground sound, their suburban-radio-bound singalongs are safe, adult-oriented pop.
By: Stylus Staff
Published on: 2005-09-05