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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 July, 2004, 16:09 GMT 17:09 UK
UK shows the way with Mercurys
By Chris Heard
BBC News Online entertainment staff

Joss Stone
Joss Stone is among the Mercury's eclectic artists
The 2004 Mercury shortlist has been unveiled with Franz Ferdinand and Joss Stone among the nominees. But what does the list say about UK music?

The unveiling of this year's Mercury shortlist is a clarion call from these shores to the world - beat this if you can.

Our sporting heroes may be faltering and our athletes tipped for mediocrity in Athens, but show us a couple of guitars or a turntable and we'll take on all comers.

The UK and Irish artists that made it to the last 12 act as a shorthand for the breadth and diversity of home-grown music.

Franz Ferdinand
Franz Ferdinand are joint favourites to take the prize
From the sassy jazz phrasing of Amy Winehouse to Franz Ferdinand's arthouse take on agit-funk, the shortlist is nothing if not eclectic.

Along the way it encompasses authentic US-style R&B (Jamelia), elegiac stadium rock (Keane), credible underground hip-hop (Ty) and garage "geezer-poetry" (The Streets).

The personalities range from a 17-year-old white girl from Devon who some say can sing like Aretha Franklin (Joss Stone), to a 59-year-old psych-rock pioneer composing avant-jazz from his wheelchair in rural Lincolnshire (Robert Wyatt).

Throw in the coy bedsit pop of Belle & Sebastian and Basement Jaxx's life-affirming party jams, and you have a digital-age UK music sampler that is both imaginative and ambitious in its reach.

Proudly asserting itself as a snapshot of all that is good about creative, energetic, multicultural Britain, it rebuts the critics who accuse the Mercurys of being tokenist or arcane.

The Streets
The Streets' Mike Skinner demonstrates the breadth of talent
Unlike its bigger, brasher cousin the Brits, it enjoys the luxury of relative freedom from industry self-interest, and takes care to seek out artistic merit across different genres without purely commercial motives.

If it were only about the Mercury's own prestige and exposure, then you can bet the platinum-selling Jamie Cullum would have been selected ahead of five unknowns from Liverpool called The Zutons, or the still-emerging Snow Patrol.

That said, the 20-something piano prodigy's absence could be considered one of the more surprising omissions this year, alongside the re-invigorated Morrissey and a frantically agreeable record from guitar newcomers Razorlight.

No place, either, for UK garage princess Shystie, Scots DIY dance prodigy Mylo or Dublin's favoured songwriting talent, Damien Dempsey.

None of this really matters, though, because surely the brilliant Franz Ferdinand will win it...won't they?

Along with Keane and The Streets, you can get odds of 3/1 on the Glasgow rockers to lift the prize in September. But beware - because the only thing certain with the Mercurys is uncertainty.

Remember, this is the prize that has chosen to neglect such mighty rock acts as U2, Radiohead and Oasis - as well as huge-sellers like Robbie Williams and Dido, often in favour of the underdog.

I may take that outside bet on Robert Wyatt after all.




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