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A bluffer's guide to who's hot in pop

Think Little Boots are toddlers' shoes? With the Mercury Prize shortlist for best album out on Tuesday, Katy Guest leads the more mature reader through the minefield of modern music


7/1 to win

Considered too nice to be bona fide rock stars, Doves don't suffer from the usual tensions of most bands. As they hail from Manchester and have a tendency to brood, you might think there would be a touch of Morrissey to them.

But they say they're perfectly happy, thank you very much. Their latest album, Kingdom of Rust, elevated them to a new plateau. "We've pinched ourselves a few times," they say of their success despite being in the game for 20 years. "It's crackers."

Florence and the Machine


Described in this paper as "a 21st-century Kate Bush, with a degree in anatomical biology from the University of Psychoville", 22-year-old south Londoner Florence Welch is one of the few pop stars brave enough to climb the Glastonbury rigging in stilettos and appear on Woman's Hour to defend her lyric "a kiss with a fist is better than none" to a stern but bewitched Jane Garvey. The debut album, Lungs, was kept off the top spot by Michael Jackson's death.

Little Boots


If Neil Tennant married Kylie Minogue and together they gave birth to a sparkly, blonde pop-by-numbers instruction manual, 25-year-old Blackpool turn Victoria Hesketh might be the result. With rhymes as adventurous as "mixed-up girls" and "mixed-up worlds", or "go out tonight" and "feel all right", the Stylophone-wielding Ms Boots is no Joni Mitchell, but that doesn't seem to put anyone off. She won the influential BBC Sound of 2009 in January and launched her debut album, Hands, in June. This newspaper's reviewer has christened her output "future pop".

Friendly Fires


The hottest thing to come out of St Albans since Francis Bacon, Ed Macfarlane and co started when they were 14. They claim the German techno act Kompakt to be among their biggest influences, but are much more bearable than that makes them sound – despite appearing at an "experimental" gig in June at which the audience sat in darkness while the band belted out their hits from behind a curtain. Last year's single "Jump in the Pool" was a festival smash.

Speech Debelle


Talking about the time she spent living in a hostel in Richmond, south-west London, the 26-year-old rapper Speech Debelle said that the only good thing was the free M&S sandwiches. Her debut album, Speech Therapy, sung in her raw, sweet and heartbreakingly young-sounding voice, was a reaction to and a way out of that life. She describes herself as a "hip-hop Tracy Chapman" and founded her own label at 17. Her first single, "Searching", begins: "2am in my hostel bed, my eyes them red, my belly ain't fed..."

La Roux


Looking like the bastard offspring of Annie Lennox and Tin Tin, 21-year-old Elly Jackson is Brixton's answer to Lady Gaga, but with more clothes on. Her single "In for the Kill" (co-written with shadowy bandmate Ben Langmaid) has been the third biggest-selling of the year – this is what your kids are talking about when they say "electro pop". Think Erasure, if Erasure had higher opinions of themselves and dressed as robots. The debut album, La Roux, has already won two best-newcomer awards.



Their sound has been described as "like a 50s, happy-go-lucky doo-wop band whose mum dies" by Dirty Pretty Things' Carl Barat. It must be a winning formula, as this Glaswegian four-piece has been up for many prizes since signing up to Columbia only last year. Before that they were the biggest unknown band it was cool to have heard of, winning over countless suburban teenagers with their intelligent ballads.

Lily Allen


For those of a certain age, 24-year-old Lily will always be the loud-mouthed daughter of the evil tooth-fairy man in the Listerine adverts; for others, she's the cheeky minx who dated Jay Jopling. But a flurry of bets has seen her soar from 50/1 in Ladbrokes' Mercury odds to 9/2, and she could still end up as favourite. In spite of her off-putting lyrics about lying in wet spots, the most infuriating thing about Allen is that she can actually sing. "The Fear", from her second album It's Not Me, It's You, was the undisputed song of spring 2009.

Bat for Lashes


Not a band but the stage name for Natasha Khan, the Anglo-Pakistani songstress who says the name came off the top of her head. Frequently compared with Kate Bush and Björk for producing kooky but beautiful music, she thinks pop bands are far too samey these days. The critics love her – this isn't her first major prize nomination – and followers include Thom Yorke, who oddly likens her to Grimm fairy tales. Her dad was a professional squash player and practising Muslim who inspired her as a child with stories of genies and magic carpets. Her second album features her alter ego Pearl – Khan in a blond wig.

And, the outsider...

Gary Go


With his library pallor, nice tie and geeky specs, 24-year-old songwriter Gary Baker looks like someone you'd be more likely to find mending your computer than supporting Take That. But ever since his 2007 debut EP "So So", Gary has been hot. As a child growing up near Wembley stadium, he would leave his window open to hear the bands. Now he is playing there. And at V Festival, T in the Park, Latitude ... He's a rank outsider – but it would be just like the Mercury Music Prize if the long shot won.