According to bookies, it's barely worth tuning in to learn who's going to win the 2012 Mercury Prize. Cambridge "folk-step" combo alt-J's An Awesome Wave is the runaway favourite to follow PJ Harvey's Let England Shake. But this week's announcement of the shortlist is sure to throw up surprises; here are my own suggestions of a dozen albums that deserve serious consideration.
50 Words For Snow
It's many a year since the Mercury went to an old-school legend, and none deserves it more than consistently the most innovative and experimental of British pop stars, and thus emblematic of the qualities supposedly rewarded by the Prize. This concept album pivots on the cusp of pop, jazz and classical, imbued with the swaddling warmth of a fur coat on snow-covered steppes.
Standing at the Sky's Edge
Richard Hawley has already been "robbed", according to eventual winners Arctic Monkeys, of a previous Mercury Prize, so there would be some justice in his winning with this magnificent creation. Eschewing for the most part his usual Orbison-like croon'n'twang, Hawley here investigates the point at which earthy folk myths meet soaring psychedelia.
Sweet Billy Pilgrim
Crown and Treaty
Previously nominated for 2009's Twice Born Men, Sweet Billy Pilgrim traffic in the kind of poised, literate art-pop reminiscent of such as Elbow and Radiohead, and traditionally beloved of the Mercury judges. Crown and Treaty features thoughtful reflections on birth and life, darkness and illumination, arranged for a sonic palette that incorporates glockenspiel, violin, harmonium and thumb-piano alongside the usual rock instrumentation.
The electronic music scene has continued to expand, ranging from the dancefloor-retro of returnees Orbital and VCMG to the electro-prog of Nero. But the most hauntingly memorable electronica was the stripped-back "eskibeat" dubstep of Zomby's Dedication: often involving no more than an electro stutter, a treated sample and a finger-click, these minimal pieces boast depth and elegance rare in the genre, the 16 tracks linked by a sense of loss and melancholy.
Life is People
If cult singer-songwriter Bill Fay were to win the Mercury, it would be the biggest shock in the prize's history, though not undeserved. The absurdly belated follow-up to two overlooked albums released four decades before, Life is People condenses the accumulated wisdom and compassion of a lifetime into a series of heartbreaking songs whose spiritual depth dwarfs the output (and outlook) of more celebrated bards. A true outsider, untainted by commercial compromise.
Black and White
Black and White was the year's outstanding UK rap release, beating the claims of such as Plan B and Example. The latter collaborates here on the hit "Unorthodox", but it's Wretch 32's vision of London ghetto life that gives the album its power, contrasting "the dark side of my life, where my heart weren't alive" with "the light side... where my dreams came to life".
It may be alt-J that are making the early running in the electro-crossover stakes so favoured by Mercury-watchers, but Grasscut's Unearth offers a more satisfying expansion of the electro-pop envelope through songs inspired by alliances of people, places and poetry, from Larkin to Tennyson and TS Eliot.
It has been several years since an R&B singer triumphed, so the law of averages suggests the balance must be redressed soon. I'd go for Rebecca Ferguson (below) over the competing claims of Jessie Ware, Rumer and the ubiquitous Emeli Sandé. There's a core of real lived experience running through Heaven, while her delivery avoids showboating vocal frippery.
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Ground of Its Own
Culled from his researches into gypsy and traveller communities, folk singer Sam Lee's debut is a slim portfolio of lust, betrayal and survival couched in allegory and rendered through trance-like settings prominently featuring the throbbing drones of shruti box, Jew's harp, hang drum and dulcimer.
Lazarus and the Plane Crash
This collaboration between Guillotines singer Joe Coles and Stephen Coates of The Real Tuesday Weld, has a courageous disregard for musical and lyrical propriety. Coates conjures up infectious grooves of stitched-together jazz samples, blues harp, squeezebox and scarified guitar, while Coles blurts spontaneous, off-the-cuff vocals in a snarling croak that recalls Tom Waits.
Bombay Bicycle Club
A Different Kind of Fix
Bombay Bicycle Club have a tendency to change direction with each release in a manner that confounds commercial expectations. On A Different Kind of Fix, they've alighted upon an indie-dance style that variously recalls elements of Talking Heads, Happy Mondays and Animal Collective, yet somehow manages to sound all of a piece, and infectious.
How About I Be Me (And You Be You)?
O'Connor operates at a pitch of emotional intensity fired on the one hand by anger at child-abuse in the Irish Catholic Church, and on the other by her then imminent marriage. The latter is particularly enjoyable, borne on joyful, exuberant grooves with African roots; while elsewhere there are moving songs about junkies, dead soldiers, single mothers and lonely geriatrics.
The Barclaycard Mercury Prize shortlist is announced on Wednesday
This story appears in tomorrow's print edition of The Independent's Radar: The Indispensable Guide to Arts & Culture.
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