Mercury Music Prize 2011: Overview and first three Albums
A piece on this year's Mercury Prize to determine the Mercury Prize Album of 2011 from the best of British and Irish Musicians. An overview of the prize, the full shortlist and reviews of the first three nominees: Elbow, Gwilym Simcock and King Creosote & Jon Hopkins.
- The Prize
- The Shortlist
- The Nominees
- Gwilym Simcock- Good Days at Schloss Elmau and King Creosote & Jon Hopkins- Diamond Mine
- Elbow- 'Build A Rocket Boys!'
The Mercury Prize is a competition that champions British music of all genres and every year they announce a shortlist of ‘albums of the year’, from which they select a winner, the Mercury Prize Album of the Year. The competition began in 1992 and over the nineteen years of competition, previous winners include classic albums such as the first awardee, Primal Scream’s Screamadelica and the debuts from Dizzee Rascal and The Arctic Monkeys, ‘Boy In Da Corner’ and ‘Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not’ respectively. The prize is often considered to favour outside choices rather than the favourites and there are several instances where outstanding nominees have not been winners such as Radiohead’s ‘OK Computer’ or ‘Original Pirate Material’ by The Streets. However this cannot be said of last year’s prize where the favourites, the xx, won, deservedly so, with their self-titled debut.
As for this year’s prize, the shortlist of twelve ‘albums of the year’ was announced on July 19th and I would say it will be hard for anyone to label the winner as ‘the favourite’ or ‘an outsider’ as I can’t see a favourite.
The shortlist, taken from all albums by artists from the UK and Ireland, between the dates of the 2010 and 2011 shortlist announcements (20th July 2010- 19th July 2011) are as follows:
Anna Calvi- Anna Calvi
Elbow- Build A Rocket Boys!
Everything Everything- Man Alive
Ghostpoet- Peanut Butter Blues & Melancholy-Jam
Gwilym Simcock- Good Days At Schloss Elmau
James Blake- James Blake
Katy B- On A Mission
King Creosote & Jon Hopkins- Diamond Mine
Metronomy- The English Riviera
PJ Harvey- Let England Shake
Tine Tempah- Disc-Overy
Taking the list as a whole then, firstly there are the standard selections; the jazz album (Gwilym Simcock); the folk album (King Creosote & Jon Hopkins); the popular choices(Adele, Tinie Tempah) and the previous winners(Elbow, PJ Harvey). Secondly, the selection bodes well for the future of British music as half the list are debut albums. However, as I said above there are no clear winners. Many would say that the absolute dominance of Adele on the 2011 album chart makes this year’s prize merely a ceremony, but as I stated before, the judges do tend to shy from favourites and the most popular, (especially when it isn’t even that great). So this year’s list remains an intriguing one and the competition remains very open.
On the other hand, there are several howling omissions. Many will be surprised at the absence of Radiohead’s ‘King of Limbs’ and Wild Beasts' ‘Smother’, both previous nominees and acclaimed artists, although I can’t vouch for these as I have listened to nothing more than their singles. For me though I am surprised another previous nominee and winner was not included, namely the Arctic Monkeys with their brilliant album ‘Suck It and See’ (an album I will probably review in the near future if you would like to hear exactly why I think they have been robbed in this situation).
Also, 2010 has to be labelled the year of dubstep, shown in the shortlist with nominations for the genres pop pioneers, James Blake and Katy B. With this in mind, I find it very surprising that the eponymous debut from the creators of the genre, Magnetic Man was not included. These two are my most shocking omissions but there are many others that wouldn’t be out of place on the list as well such as Jamie Woon’s debut ‘Mirrowwriting’, previous nominees, Friendly Fires’ second album ‘Pala’ or the fifth and final album from one of the best British rap artists ever, ‘Computers & Blues’ by The Streets.
Putting these aside, I will endeavour, over the course of four articles, to review each of the twelve nominees and declare who I think will win, beginning with the outside bets of Gwilym Simcock, King Creosote & Jon Hopkins and the hugely disappointing Elbow album.
Gwilym Simcock- Good Days at Schloss Elmau and King Creosote & Jon Hopkins- Diamond Mine
Neither King Creosote & Jon Hopkins nor Gwilym Simcock will win this year’s prize, but for completely different reasons. They represent fairly obscure corners of the room of musical genres and are the least heard of artists, but putting this aside and concentrating merely on the music, both albums have their flaws.
Gwilym Simcock’s music is a mixture of jazz and classical music and this is the flaw. Where you would hope that he had merged the two, taking jazz scales or rhythms and slowing them to classical pace or vice versa, he has simply added them together. Some tracks are pleasant, such as ‘Plain Song’, but elsewhere he has seemingly written two pieces of music, one jazz, one classical and recorded them over the top of each other; and the result is a bit of a mess. On tracks such as ‘Gripper’ or ‘Wake Up Call’ , the music dramatically shifts from a slow paced classical chord signature to a jazz rhythm, back to a fierce classical section and so on and it jars your ears. It is uncomfortable to say the least so it is definitely not in the running for the Mercury Prize.
This contrasts with ‘Diamond Mine’ which is blissful; calming piano and acoustic guitar twin with the crooning of King Creosote and Enya–esq backing vocals to create a soothing piece of music. Jon Hopkins, principally an electronic artist himself lends himself to the production and comes to the forefront slightly more on ‘Bubble’ with a backing track of electronic clicks and brushes. It is highly enjoyable but the reason this album will not win is it is far too short. It took them seven years in the making but there are only seven tracks. Also when you factor in that the opening track, ‘First Watch’ is principly a sample of a female shop assistant with some piano and the final track ‘Your Young Voice’ is an outro consisting of one lyric, it really is a very short piece. A blissful slice of folk music, but it is merely a slice, so it will not win the prize; still worth a listen though.
Elbow- 'Build A Rocket Boys!'
This then brings me to Elbow with their fifth studio album ‘Build a Rocket Boys!’. The first thing I should say about Elbow is that I am a fan. I count the Mercury Prize winning ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’ as one of the best albums made. But as a result of this, my reaction to ‘Build a Rocket Boys!’ is deep disappointment.
This album has two ironies and they both centre on expectation. Firstly the lyrics are brilliant, as always, and it is that ‘as always’ that matters. I would never declare an album to be good based solely on its lyrics (they are songs, not poems) so the quality of this album’s lyrics have no effect on my opinion of it.
The second irony is that my disappointment is exaggerated by the brilliance of the opening tracks ‘The Birds’ and ‘Lippy Kids’ & the last track ‘Dear Friends’. ‘Lippy Kids’ is perfect in its simplicity: piano metronome, simple base riff and Guy Garvey’s astonishing voice. But it is the other two tracks I highlighted that aggrieve me, because they are nothing like ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’. I can’t really say much about ‘Dear Friends’ save that is a perfect slow song and the only reason I can listen to this album all the way through, for this reprieve.
Taking the opening track therefore, it is an epic, eight minute, rock song and Elbow are in no rush to reach its pinnacle (coming at 5 minutes in). They manage to include the opposing sides of Elbow in this track, the grungey bass line and later an almost electronic guitar riff, both akin to ‘Grounds For Divorce’, with the slowed pace and Guy Garvey’s lullaby melody from ‘Weather to Fly’. This melds into crescendo and then the euphoric finish where they show off their malleability by singing the same tune and lyrics as the opening three minutes, an octave higher and Garvey belts it out with a chorus equal to ‘One Day Like This’: incredible.
This quality of blending is sadly not seen again in the album. The rest of the album is lacklustre. Each track lacks its peak, its focus, like if ‘The Birds’ had finished at five minutes. In amongst the tepid tracks there are also the failed attempts to recreating the blending of ‘The Birds’, most prominently ‘Open Arms’ and ‘Neat Little Rows’. The latter is like splicing ‘Grounds for Divorce’ and ‘One Day Like This’ together and each section being ruined by the other. The piano ruins the rocky beginning, the percussion ruins the string led chorus. This point is also true of ‘Open Arms’ which is also ruined by the drumming. It is incessant and emphasises the slow pace of the melody, making it drag.
‘Build a Rocket Boys!’ has three gems but as an album it drags; your yearning for crescendo increasing every track until you reach the end, with the ‘Reprise’ coming one song later than the tracklisting indicates, with ‘Dear Friends’. Lyrically beautiful, sonically lukewarm; they have a shot at the Ivor Novellos, but the Mercury Prize, I’m afraid not.
In the next piece, I will review another three nominees and narrow down who I think will win the Mercury Prize 2011.