1. PJ Harvey - Let England Shake
Early-betting front-runner PJ Harvey here muses upon a nation in thrall to military endeavour, hidebound by the ghosts of its imperial past. It may be her best album yet, with songs ranging across distant battlefields, from Gallipoli to the Somme, delivered in arrangements that reflect the broken, bloody condition of both men and land: weedy guitar, wheezing sax, exhausted beats, yet still marching gamely on. One of those rare records in which meaning resides as much in the music as the words.
2. Chase & Status - No More Idols
Fronted by the likes of Plan B, Dizzee Rascal and White Lies, the overloaded oscillators and crunching fuzz-guitar riffs employed by Chase & Status bring to mind the big-beat heyday of The Chemical Brothers and The Prodigy. Loud and infectious, the duo's belching synths and galloping grooves effectively telescope the last few decades of British dance music into an hour of feverish action.
3. King Creosote & Jon Hopkins - Diamond Mine
An evocation of life in a Scottish coastal village, the folksy Diamond Mine weaves King Creosote's gentle, revealing songs about fretful fishermen, car accidents and arguing brothers together with the ambient elements of Jon Hopkins' arrangements – traffic noise, birdsong, the tinkle of teacups on saucers – to create a quietly poignant but powerfully life-affirming song-cycle.
4. Tom Jones - Praise & Blame
On Praise & Blame, Tom Jones rustles up a bunch of raucous minimal blues riffs in the skeletal style of The White Stripes and The Black Keys, adds a few more subtly-textured arrangements, and applies them to a sturdy set of blues and gospel standards. The effect is transformative, the musical equivalent of giving up the hair-dye. Jones's re-connection with his roots provides him with one of the best albums of his career.
5. Sir John Tavener - Towards Silence
It's been a while since the Mercury panel has shortlisted a classical release, but this Vedanta-inspired composition from Sir John Tavener deserves to rectify that. Scored for four string quartets and Tibetan temple bowl, its four sections represent the soul's journey towards nothingness, the initial crowded layers of motifs gradually evaporating to leave just a hanging mist of chords, virtually a memory of music.
6. Tinie Tempah - Disc-overy
This debut album confirms that Tinie Tempah has spirit and charm in abundance, not to mention a shrewd grasp of his situation, now he's turned himself into "a product with a price-tag". Behind the familiar celebrations of his meteoric rise, and the playthings to which he now has access, lies a solid appreciation of his roots, reflected in several thoughtful reflections on youthful memories.
7. Wild Beasts - Smother
An extended meditation on the lures and snares of desire and sensuality, Smother finds Wild Beasts frontman Hayden Thorpe's tremulous tenor traversing sonic territory reminiscent of pop experimentalists like Radiohead, Talk Talk and Can. Pulsing bass betrays the quickening heart, exotic sounds are teased and coaxed into alluring shape, and they even manage to add a few intriguing new coinings to the overstuffed lexicon of love.
8. Gold Panda - Lucky Shiner
Gold Panda's minimal techno eschews thumping club anthems for more subtle, textured pieces. Built from treated sample fragments combined with glitchy beats, found sounds and simple keyboard motifs, his tracks develop into hypnotic grooves whose tones and timbres reveal the influence of Panda's time in the Orient. A true original who panders little to the demands of dancefloor pop.
9. Anna Calvi - Anna Calvi
Anna Calvi's distinctive guitar style and sensual delivery quickly won her an impressive following of high-profile fans such as Brian Eno and Nick Cave, and her debut album bears out the promise with its bluesy, flamenco-influenced trills and flurries, ebbing and flowing emotively beneath her smouldering expressions of erotic entanglement. She could be Polly Harvey's younger, sexier sister.
10. Noah & The Whale - Last Night On Earth
On Last Night On Earth, Noah & The Whale froth with a welcome re-engagement with life and art after the broody The First Days Of Spring. While retaining an affinity for feisty underdog charisma, their former folk-rock stylings have been substantially usurped by electro-pop synths and drum machines, and classic-rock flourishes recalling Springsteen and Petty – as if emerging from a chrysalis as a fully-fledged rock band.
11. Adele - 21
It's rare that the Mercury panel plumps for an album that's already a runaway commercial success, but so comprehensively has Adele touched the collective public nerve with 21 that it may be unavoidable to reflect that ubiquity. Her success confirms the appeal, in hard times, of the comforting warmth of emotions expressed simply and directly, while tracks like "Rolling in the Deep" and "Rumour Has It" reveal a more musically inquisitive side to her personality.
12. Yuck - Yuck
Rising from the ashes of Cajun Dance Party, lo-fi indie combo Yuck manage to square a most unusual circle on their debut album, finding joy and melodic grace within the usually drab terrain of grungey riffs and shoe-gazey guitar drones. The deceptive simplicity of their approach disguises an infallible way with a tune, and a steely command of the internal tension that keeps a song's appeal tightly wound.