Yep, it’s that time again. It feel concurrently like 2011’s Mercury Prize ceremony occurred both just yesterday and aeons ago, but it’s been a year since PJ Harvey picked up the prize for Let England Shake, becoming the first artist to win the prize twice. That album was the expected winner from pre-nomination hype to the second before the envelope opened, but this year there doesn’t seem to be much of a clear-cut front runner. We’ll take a look at who could and should get nominated… (as a reminder, only British and Irish albums released between 12th July 2011 and 11th September 2012 qualify for nomination)
The Mercury panel rather like their token selections, resulting in the handful of jazz, classical and fringe nominations every year (hello there Gwilym Simcock). They also love to throw a massive seller or two in the mix as well (hello there Adele’s 21), so you can expect Florence + The Machine's Ceremonials and Ed Sheeran's + on the final list, and with her ubiquitousness at both Olympic ceremonies this summer, it’s highly likely Emeli Sande's name will pop up somewhere. Kate Bush’s Fifty Names For Snow fills the veteran and comeback criteria, so would be a decent bet for nomination if not victory, if there are any gamblers out there. Its connection with its parent film of the same name, as well as its prescience could earn Plan B's iLL Manors a nod; selecting a socially-concious “state of the nation” record would certainly give the Mercury a dollop of relevance.
It’ll certainly be a crime to see Laura Marling left off this year’s shortlist. Her third album A Creature I Don’t Know was one of the highlights of 2011 and Marling’s strongest album to date. The same could be said of both Los Campesinos!’s Hello Sadness and Johnny Foreigner Vs Everything by (unsurprisingly) Johnny Foreigner; both were hailed as the bands’ best albums so far by fans and critics alike (apart from one notorious downmarket magazine) and are certainly deserving of nomination. However it’s unlikely either will appear on the final list, purely because it’s rare to see an album of this breed of indie rock nominated by Mercury. More straightforward indie albums like The Cribs’ In The Belly Of The Brazen Bull, The Maccabees' Given To The Wild, The Vaccines' Come Of Age or The Futureheads' Rant! are far more likely to pop up on the shortlist, though whether they’re deserving is another question (The Cribs and The Maccabees probably don’t, The Vaccines’ album has only been out a week, so it’s hard to tell, The Futureheads might get a nod for the bravery and quirk of releasing an acapella album).
Judged on early hype, Alt-J seem to be most people’s choice for An Awesome Wave, although that may just be through sparsity of a top-tier, clear-cut winner. The Cambridge quartet do seem like standard Mercury fare, like Everything Everything last year, but it’s hard to see them winning the whole shebang. The same goes for a fair few potential nominees released in 2012; Django Django, The Twilight Sad, Islet, Bloc Party, 2:54, Pulled Apart By Horses, Richard Hawley, Hot Chip, Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs. Seeing any of those names amongst the nominees would be expected (although choosing Bloc Party for Four would be baffling), but it’s hard to see how they’d win.
When it comes to choosing a winner, only two albums stick out for us. Jessie Ware's debut album Devotion has received near-universal praise from all quarters, finally giving us a British popstar who’s not boring as all hell who also has several bucketloads of talent. To be quite honest, she deserves nominating for "110%" alone. Our other pick would have to be The xx's sublime Coexist. Following up their Mercury-winning self-titled debut was always going to be a challenge, but they seem to have pulled it off with aplomb. Eleven perfect songs that retain the band’s style but advances their sound, Coexist is very likely a contender for album of the year and only just sneaks into the list of possible nominations, being released on the last eligible day. Should Coexist win the prize, the London three-piece will be the first group to win the Mercury twice; an astonishing feat considering this is only their second album, where as Radiohead are still waiting for their first win, after 15 years and six nominations.
So there you have it, a brief guide to what to expect when the official nominations are released next Wednesday. Who do you think deserves to win?
Soundtrack albums are a difficult thing. Soundtracks are even more difficult when attached to critically lauded films. Who can forget the excitement-turned-indifference of the Tron soundtrack by the legendary Daft Punk. Hell, soundtracks to less well-loved films still cause musical giants to stumble as Massive Attack found out after releasing the thoroughly forgettable Danny The Dog (Unchained to most audiences) OST. So history is set against Ben Drew, better known as Plan B, from the start, but the director/writer of recent film Ill Manors and also the producer of its soundtrack manages to create not just a companion to a work of art, but a standalone work in its own right.
Ill Manors is primarily a grimy hip-hop record with a heavy soul influence, likely left over from B’s previous album The Defamation Of Strickland Banks. Tracks are based around tense claustrophobic string and horn samples over heavy breaks and bass paired with hard-hitting lyrics telling stories of tragedy and crime, along with sound clips from the film. The soundscapes crafted by Drew do a fine job of evoking the oppressive paranoia that comes with being a low-class criminal in recession-era police-state London and the productions by-and-large could stand on their own as instrumental works. Plan B being an MC though, and a fine one at that, the lyrics and flow are top-notch and paint a clear picture of the stories told through the music. The contemplative strings over the tense, dark piano line of “Pity The Plight” (featuring an appearance from the legendary punk poet John Cooper Clarke) underscoring a scene from the film of a character vomiting after committing a murder and being congratulated with “ya done good! Ya done good! You’re a badman now!” captures the hauntingly dark mood in a very stark manner.
The album does an amazing job of packing an emotional and poltical punch without ever treading too deeply in introspection or heavy-handedness. It’s not an album that subscribes to any left-rightism but rather a “fuck him, he’s got mine!” attitude (whether it’s that of the characters of the film or Drew himself is up for debate). The album explores the cycle of crime and police oppression but never portrays its subjects as martyrs or officers as demons. It makes the creak and groan of a shrinking middle class and widening gap between wealthy and poor putting a society on the brink into the forefront. The lithe flow of Plan B and the guest MC’s mean the music is matched at all times by equally fine rhymes and flows.
As a standalone album in any other rappers discography, Ill Manors would be a masterpiece of a hip-hop concept album. There’s rarely a moment where the various layers of a track don’t “work” either in a technical sense or from a songwriting perspective. It’s a tight 11-track album that tells the stories of urban youths with urban music that doesn’t sound tired and downtrodden like its protagonists but rather furious and scratching at the walls of whichever cage it’s been put in. It’s an album that covers a lot of ground in only 40 minutes and gets heavier and more tense as the tracks give way to eachother before finishing with the near-placid chillout groove (compared to the preceding material) of “Falling Down”, wherein Drew muses about the vicious cycle of brief criminal success into deeper poverty and the shackles of the system that gives way to a rapid breakbeat, bringing the concept full-circle within the context of the album. There hasn’t been an album sounding this fresh and inspired in a long time.