The Mercury prize: what our shortlist would be

 Mercury winner … PJ Harvey picks up the prize for the second time, in 2011. Photograph: Luke MacGregor/Reuters
The Mercury shortlist is unveiled on Wednesday night. Ahead of that, our critics pick the 12 albums they want to see named by the judges.

In the 22 years since it was established – by the BPI and the trade body of record shops, lest we forget – the Mercury prize has come in for its share of criticism. It’s too safe, too worthy, too willing to reward a narrow view of British music. Where’s the metal? Why do jazz and folk albums get nominated but never win? Then there’s the fact that bands and labels have to pay to enter, meaning some worthy records are not considered because even the small fee is too much for many indies.

Nevertheless, the Mercury is still regarded as the prize to reward music, rather than sales figures. And while every Mercury shortlist is criticised and picked over, every one has also brought to wider attention albums that might otherwise have escaped notice. That said, we know what we’d want to see announced on Wednesday – so here’s our list for 2014.

Everybody Down is one of those albums you can imagine making the Mercury list as much for its flaws as its strengths. On the one hand, Tempest’s literary hip-hop is a unique, genre-defying affair that showcases its author’s deft storytelling without ever resorting to showboating. On the other, its origins in poetry slams (not to mention her experience as a young playwright) lend it a slightly naff sense of worthiness that the Mercury judges never seem to find as off-putting as the rest of the population. Everybody Down might grate with some hip-hop fans, but lyrically it can be dazzling, an evocative London record that interweaves a cast of characters through its multiple plotlines (drug deals, prostitution, wage inequality and good old-fashioned scenester-baiting are all on the menu). Comparisons can be drawn with Roots Manuva and the Streets, and it should be noted that both those records lost out in 2002 to the inferior – but arguably worthier – debut album by Ms Dynamite. Tim Jonze

How can you not warm to an album that coins an insult all of its own? If “you fucking tit rifle” hasn’t quite swept the nation’s playgrounds, it’s proof of Jason Williamson’s fabulous way with language, particularly invective. Divide and Exit – Sleaford Mods’ seventh album, though the first that’s finally attracted any sort of mainstream attention – has been described as some sort of portrait of Britain under the iron fist of Tory austerity. I don’t think that’s right: if the songs are rooted in reality, they’re not the sound of realism, and there’s certainly no hint of earnestness in Williamson’s ranting over Andrew Fearn’s spartan instrumental backing. What Divide and Exit really sounds like is the thoughts we all have but never voice: the contempt, the spite, the hatred, the self-loathing. All the things we keep bottled up because if didn’t, the next stop would be standing on the streets shouting at the sky. But it’s never depressing: it’s funny, in an awful sort of a way. That said, it’s hard to imagine something so scabrous winning the approval of the Mercury judges, whose vision of music that represents Britain appears to be based on viewing Britain as a place where people drink designer beers in chic bars, not cans of lager on sagging sofas. Michael Hann

Self-produced and self-released, Adult Jazz’s debut feels like the sort of singular work the Mercury panel used to reward handsomely, reflecting indie’s prevalent trends – the deft orchestration of These New Puritans, the syncopated rhythms of Dirty Projectors, the calculated frigidity of Wild Beasts – while at the same time meandering off down its own distinct garden path. Largely that’s as a result of vocalist Harry Burgess, whose vocal lines veer from languid tenor croon to something resembling a wasp bobbing about on a string, though he’s matched step-for-step by skittering, spindly guitar lines and a restless rhythm section. Make no mistake, this is unabashedly clever pop music, and if there’s one criticism you might level at the Leeds-based four-piece, it’s that they’re a little too keen to show off their smarts, flitting through ideas at a rate that’s sometimes hard to keep pace with. Ultimately though, a surfeit of creativity is surely preferable to a lack of it, and there’s a fair chance you’ll still be unearthing Gist Is’s many secrets long after

Adams is exactly the sort of under-the-radar major talent the Mercury music prize should recognise. The singer-songwriter has made umpteen hugely acclaimed but commensurately small-selling albums with his former groups – the Broken Family Band and the Singing Adams – and this solo debut is as glorious as any of them. With guitars, pianos and the odd horn, the tunes are gloriously breezy, heartfelt affairs but pack a crafty left hook in a velvet glove. The zeitgeisty wallop comes in the words, which derive from a modern musician’s insecurities but say so much about our brittle and uncertain times. With the £20,000 award money, he could even give up the day job. Dave Simpson

There’s probably only one nomination earmarked for a scuzz-psych band this year, and it’s got Royal Blood’s name on it. A pity, because the debut by fellow Brightonians the Wytches explores psych-rock’s grottiest corners. According to singer Kristian Bell, Annabel Dream Reader is “a shameless breakup album”, though the lyrics are often too drenched in reverb and Bell’s Cobainesque howl to be decipherable. Not that it matters: his desolation seeps into every pore of the record, and the mood is cemented by the music’s bad-trip doominess. The trio are influenced by surf-rock, early rock’n’roll and the wayward end of goth, but the roiling murkiness is their own. Caroline Sullivan

Like many classic debuts, Tahliah Barnett’s extraordinary LP1 charts an idiosyncratic new musical and emotional landscape with such unwavering confidence that the initial signposts (R&B, 4AD, James Blake, Kate Bush, Björk) melt away by the third listen. Repeat plays also unpack the range of this remarkably consistent record: the slow-blooming majesty of Two Weeks, the haunted hymnal Closer, the molten slow jam Hours, each one distinct yet speaking the same clandestine night-time language. Barnett plays with extremes: her shape-shifting vocals, sometimes multi-tracked to heavenly effect, enable her to seem as strong as a statue or as fragile as glass within the space of a single song as she explores lust, obsession, loneliness and tormented self-examination with unnerving precision. Like Portishead’s Dummy or the xx’s debut, LP1 is easy to love but complex and emotionally devastating beneath its exquisite surface: it yields its secrets slowly. Like those albums, it deserves to win the Mercury. Dorian Lynskey

Who knows if Mogwai’s next album could even be eligible for the Mercury – the Scottish referendum might see to that – but including Rave Tapes wouldn’t be some desperate No campaign gimmick. Nine albums in, it feels as if the Scottish post-rockers are operating at the peak of their powers. Rave Tapes comes after the band’s subtle and haunting soundtrack to Channel 4’s atmospheric supernatural French drama, Les Revenants, and carries on their move toward slightly softer, glacial guitar-driven instrumentation. There are hat tips to other horror-score masters here, with Remurdered using John Carpenteresque synths, while Deesh has hints of Goblin’s scary pulsating psych. Going for something slightly softer hasn’t diminished the band’s impact: No Medicine For Regret builds and builds in a way every bit as epic as Mogwai staples such as Auto Rock. Call it a lifetime achievement award if you want, it’d be well deserved. Lanre Bakare

This is what happens when you’re in an indie band going nowhere, you sack off your bandmates and start to make electronic beats alone in a bleak and industrial riverside location, inspired by the minimal classicism of Brian Eno, Philip Glass and Sufjan Stevens. The album came out in mid-January, which means it could have been easily overlooked. But it shouldn’t be: East India Youth’s debut is the rain-soaked flyover between modern ambient and visceral techno, banging producer and mournful songwriter, frustration and elation, with driving kraut-pop songs that burst into glassy, brightly-lit instrumentals. It’s computer music with a proper heart. Kate Hutchinson

The Mercury music prize promotes “the best” of British music. It also exists to “encourage debate and discussion” and “help introduce” new albums in different genres. The music of Darren J Cunningham fulfils all those criteria and then some. Under the nom de guerre of Actress, Cunningham makes what seems, on the surface, to be fragmentary, abrasive techno music. The loops are short and simple, overlaid with textures that growl and grind. Listening to his fourth album, Ghettoville, can feel as if you’re in a dystopia, about to be crushed into pulp by a Terminator. But you don’t have to listen for long to become aware of the craft at work. Each track doubles up both music and sound sculpture, the note contributing to the song, the tone to a texture. And when melody and sweeter notes do break out, it’s like seeing a butterfly emerge from a dust storm. Cunningham makes deeply emotional music and does so in his own vernacular. He’s a distinctive British voice and should be recognised on this year’s shortlist. Paul MacInnes

It may not have triggered a tectonic shift in the musical landscape, but the elusive singer-songwriter’s instrumental album should be a strong Mercury contender. Finding special resonance in these autumnal months, his clipped classical compositions are heavy with anticipation of winter’s wrath and a mournful sense of summer past. Its story’s prize-approved too, featuring triumph over adversity (he’s unable to read or write music), exemplary influences (he takes inspiration from Arvo Pärt, Philip Glass, Gorecki and Edward Elgar) and DIY ethics (he calls the style “bedroom classical” and used found objects and charity-shop instruments). But Romantic Works deserves a nomination for beauty alone: in year of ice-cool R&B and rock bombast, Henson’s album brought calm, exquisite elegance to 2014. Harriet Gibsone

Dan Michaelson’s songs are characterised by the subdued beauty of their lyrics and the silt-deep voice that sings them, but this year’s Distance also brought a musical fluidity to that spareness, creating the richest and most cohesive record of his career. A mere 30 minutes long, it maps the breakdown of a relationship, but rather than stewing in despondent aftermath there is a keenness to Michaelson’s storytelling, there in the sharp cut of his lyrics, the humour, the precision of his vocabulary, that lifts these woebegone tales from the gloom. It’s a wit that carries through to the musical arrangements, too. Working with musicians including Johnny Flynn and Romeo Stodart of the Magic Numbers, Distance was recorded live and barely rehearsed – an approach that works well, a pleasing tension lying between these songs about a dead relationship and the spontaneous feel of their playing. Five albums into his solo career, it feels as if Michaelson is entering an exciting stage in his songwriting, a development that I feel deserves encouragement and recognition. Laura Barton

I’ve spent years pondering what the point and purpose of the Mercury prize is and come to the conclusion that the best argument for its continued existence is that it brings the kind of album that more people would like if only they heard it to wider attention. That’s a description that fits Daniel Avery’s debut Drone Logic perfectly. What it most obviously recalls are the blockbusting techno albums of the mid-90s that transcended the clubs and raves and became huge crossover hits: that’s partly because you can occasionally detect a hint of the Chemical Brothers or Underworld about his sound, but mostly because, like Dig Your Own Hole or dubnobasswithmyheadman, Drone Logic hits the perfect balance between inventive and accessible. It’s big-room dance music with a keen melodic sensibility that never resorts to cheap tricks, big drops or pop choruses. On Water Jump or These Nights Never End it perfectly evokes how it feels to be lost on the dancefloor at 3am, but it’s creative and imaginative enough to sound perfect on headphones long after that small-hours moment’s passed. Best of all, Avery’s brand of techno seems utterly unbothered and unencumbered by current trends in dance music, the sound of an artist marching only to his own, hugely appealing tune. Alexis Petridis


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