Twelve acts, one prize: the Mercury shortlist

Andy Gill reviews the albums nominated for the music prize
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The Independent Culture

Laura Marling I Speak Because I Can

The most abundantly gifted of the current crop of nu-folkies, Laura Marling writes with a precocious maturity that seems to tap directly into an age-old vein of traditional ballad imagery, without abandoning her grasp of contemporary matters. A modern-day cross between Anne Briggs and Joni Mitchell.

Crucial track "Goodbye England"

Odds 6/1

Kit Downes Trio Golden

A welcome return for the Token Jazz Album, this one featuring the pianist Kit Downes, who's previously played with Empirical and Acoustic Ladyland. Heavily influenced by Keith Jarrett – no bad thing – his trio's work here ranges from the reflective blues of "Skip James" to the more vibrant momentum of "Jump Minzi Jump".

Crucial track "Jump Minzi Jump"

Odds 10/1

I Am Kloot Sky at Night

As usual with I Am Kloot's songwriter, John Bramwell, the prevailing tone is of brooding regret and romantic resignation, with the pain of isolation cauterised by the bitter consolation of alcohol. The crepuscular, melancholy mood is well evoked in Guy Garvey's string-shrouded production, but it sounds like the kind of record included to give the shortlist serious weight, rather than a serious contender. This year's Richard Hawley.

Crucial track "Northern Skies"

Odds 10/1

Mumford & Sons Sigh No More

Though derided by some as overly mannered and inauthentic in their appropriation of both Anglicana and Americana – those Fleet Foxes harmonies, that faux-hoedown jollity – Mumford & Sons are nevertheless the most popular exponents of the current nu-folk boom.

Crucial track "Sigh No More"

Odds 6/1

Corinne Bailey Rae The Sea

Written in the aftermath of her partner's methadone death, this is an unflinching and emotionally involving work infused with the disparate influences of Marvin Gaye, Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro: it may sound smooth but there's turmoil beneath the surface.

Crucial track "I'd Do It All Again"

Odds 6/1

Villagers Becoming a Jackal

Villagers is the nom-de-disque of Conor J. O'Brien, a young Irish songwriter who's been compared to everyone from Neil Young and Leonard Cohen to Scott Walker and Robert Wyatt – tough company, but O'Brien's literate songcraft, quietly intense delivery and ear for an understated epic arrangement can withstand the comparisons. I'd say he was closer to Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst.

Crucial track "Ship Of Promises"

Odds 10/1

Foals Total Life Forever

The guitars may still intertwine like angry worms, but the mood on Total Life Forever is less claustrophobic than the solipsistic math-rock of Foals' debut, the more spacious approach of their African-style guitar lines giving them a sound akin to the English equivalent of Vampire Weekend or even German innovators Can.

Crucial track "Blue Blood"

Odds 8/1

The xx xx

Most people's tip to win – which presumably rules them out of contention – this black-clad South London indie trio deal in a fastidious, undemonstrative style of indie-rock which recalls both the usual suspects The Cure and New Order, and less obvious influences like Young Marble Giants. Its major fault is the lack of variety in both its emotional and musical topography.

Crucial track "Islands"

Odds 4/1

Biffy Clyro Only Revolutions

Big, looming metaphors (God, Satan, mountains, oceans), bruisingly violent imagery and baffling non-sequiturs abound on the Ayrshire prog-metal band's fifth album, but it's hard to view them as more than a minor-league Muse. Kudos points may be awarded for their diligent development of a substantial homegrown fanbase.

Crucial track "Bubbles"

Odds 8/1

Paul Weller Wake Up The Nation

The best album of The Modfather's entire career, which might count for something. Few other albums on the shortlist are anywhere near as diverse or, sad to say, as interesting as this quinqagenarian's effort, a turbulent gumbo of R&B, psychedelia, jazz, prog and blues.

Crucial track "Moonshine"

Odds 6/1

Dizzee Rascal Tongue 'n' Cheek

The album that cemented the ascension of Mr Rascal from marginal cult act to youthful national treasure was his best so far, with his outsider appeal tempered by a reflective charm bordering on the mature. Almost: Dizzee's still interested in "money money money, girls girls, cash cash", but he's more concerned about "decency and tact" on the streets.

Crucial track "Bonkers"

Odds 4/1

Wild Beasts Two Dancers

The deal-breaker with Lake District indie-rockers Wild Beasts is singer Hayden Thorpe's counter-tenor voice, which imposes such a singular character upon the band's baroque-pop stylings that one's critical cream can easily curdle. But those who love it, love it to death.

Crucial track "Hooting And Howling"

Odds 8/1