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Last Updated: Tuesday, 4 September 2007, 16:21 GMT 17:21 UK
Mercury judges face tough choice
By Ian Youngs
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

Arctic Monkeys at Mercury Prize 2006
Can the Arctic Monkeys win the prize two years in a row?
The annual Nationwide Mercury Prize for the year's best album is to be handed out later, with the contenders ranging from the A-list Amy Winehouse to the little-known but hotly-tipped Bat For Lashes.

The judges have a reputation for being unpredictable and esoteric - so who will they pick?

Unlike the Brit Awards, the Mercury Prize is not about rewarding sales success - it's about the album as an artform.

The judges try to avoid the obvious, commercial option - unless they have no choice.

Instead, they look for the most innovative and credible releases, going for the most exciting and distinctive new voices.

Amy Winehouse
Amy Winehouse has the UK's best-selling album of the year

But only half of the albums on this year's 12-strong shortlist have any realistic claim on the album of the year crown. And just half of those (at a push) might seriously hope to be regarded as classics in years to come.

It has not been a vintage year.

Amy Winehouse's second album Back To Black will give the judges a big dilemma. Her unique style and strong pack of songs blend vintage soul and blues with modern R&B.

The result is timeless and contemporary in one go. When we look back at 2006 and '07, this album will stand out from the pack. It is perfect Mercury material.

But it is the UK's best-selling album of the year, and has earned her pole position at every other award ceremony going, from the Mobos to the Mojos.

MERCURY SHORTLIST
Arctic Monkeys - Favourite Worst Nightmare
Dizzee Rascal - Maths and English
The View - Hats Off to the Buskers
Maps - We Can Create
Bat For Lashes - Fur and Gold
Klaxons - Myths of the Near Future
Jamie T - Panic Prevention
The Young Knives - Voices of Animals and Men
Fionn Regan - The End of History
Basquiat Strings with Seb Rochford - Basquiat Strings
Amy Winehouse - Back to Black
New Young Pony Club - Fantastic Playroom
In other words, it is too obvious for the Mercury judges to pick, yet too obvious to ignore.

The Arctic Monkeys are the other big-name act on the shortlist.

The Mercury judges gave the prize to the Sheffield band's debut last year because it was head-and-shoulders above everything else.

The follow-up Favourite Worst Nightmare is, if anything, even better, showing off added musical maturity.

But no act has won the award twice, let alone in consecutive years, so the judges may decide it is somebody else's turn.

So who are the other exciting and distinctive new voices?

Fionn Regan
Fionn Regan is nominated for his debut The End of History
Bat For Lashes, the pseudonym of singer-songwriter Natasha Khan, is now the bookmakers' favourite.

Her debut Fur and Gold has some striking, atmospheric compositions that recall Kate Bush, Bjork and PJ Harvey.

But the album peters out pretty early on and is not as original as it would need to be to win. And besides, now it's favourite, it may also have become too obvious.

Jamie T may be in with a bigger shout. The south London singer's unpolished yelping makes him one of the most arresting voices on this year's list, and his debut Panic Prevention contains some gems.

Imagine The Streets being a bit less lairy and playing a guitar. The geezer factor gets a bit grating after a while, and the album is a little patchy, but the force of his personality may make up for that.

Also worth a punt are Klaxons. Their so-called new rave (euphoric pop done with grimy guitars and drums) also manages to sound original while retaining some sense of a good tune.

ALTERNATIVE SHORTLIST - 12 OTHER ELIGIBLE ALBUMS
Jarvis Cocker - Jarvis
The Enemy - We'll Live And Die In These Towns
The Fratellis - Costello Music
Calvin Harris - I Created Disco
Get Cape Wear Cape Fly - Chronicles Of A Bohemian Teenager
Just Jack - Overtones
Kaiser Chiefs - Yours Truly Angry Mob
Kasabian - Empire
Manic Street Preachers - Send Away The Tigers
Mika - Life In Cartoon Motion
Take That - Beautiful World
Patrick Wolf - The Magic Position
Maps (aka bedroom boffin James Chapman) has been tipped for his dreamy, synthy debut We Can Create. It is full of soft beats and breathy vocals - but it quickly becomes soporific.

The fabulously chic New Young Pony Club have an infectious sound combining late 1970s new wave and disco with modern electro-pop.

The songs are best heard at their effervescent live shows - and, unfortunately, the album is a two-dimensional, monochrome experience in comparison.

Scottish rabble rousers The View have some roof-raising indie disco anthems - but Hats Off to the Buskers struggles to keep up the quality throughout, and may be a bit similar to bands that have gone before.

The Young Knives represent geek rock, and top marks to any band with a bassist called The House of Lords.

They show glimpses of greatness in a few tracks, where clever songwriting lifts their post-punk style. But overall, Voices of Animals and Men is not far above being just another average indie album.

Fionn Regan is a singer-strummer-songwriter who would like to be the new Nick Drake. His entry The End of History has subtle charms, and is a grower. But the charms are so subtle that, after half a dozen listens, it is still only mediocre.

Dizzee Rascal is nominated again, five years after winning. His third album Maths + English is the best of what British hip-hop has to offer, but Dizzee is no longer the astonishing and exhilarating force he was when he first burst onto the scene.

Finally, jazz group Basquiat Strings are nominated for their self-titled album - and while a decent jazz album, it lacks the crossover appeal to be named album of the year.

So who will win? When talking about the album of the year, it's hard to look beyond Amy Winehouse. The judges might, so ultimately Jamie T or Klaxons could steal the glory.

But anything can happen - as the judges demonstrated two years ago when they picked Antony and the Johnsons over the Kaiser Chiefs, KT Tunstall, Hard-Fi and Coldplay.


Your comments on the Mercury Prize shortlist:

Jamie T gets my vote. Original and stylish, it's a goosebumps on the arms album, which improves with listening. And check out his amazing website - the best I've seen in a while.
Lucy, London

Back to Black is the one that will stand the test of time
Brian Capaloff, Falkirk, Scotland
I'm really enjoying Bats For Lashes at the moment and The Young Knives CD is succeeding very nicely in picking up the Gang of 4's mantle, but of all of those on the list this is one occasion when the general public has it spot on. Head and shoulders above the rest (barring the Arctic Monkeys, who won't win 2 years in a row) is Back to Black by Amy Winehouse.

Forget the fact that she's currently in the news for non-music related matters. That's irrelevant to this award and Back to Black is the one that will stand the test of time like no other here - a classic sound, amazing voice, and contemporary themes.
Brian Capaloff, Falkirk, Scotland

Unfortunately, I feel the above mentioned unpredictability and Mercury's apparent need to root for the underdog, has made these awards, at times, a little farcical. However, many good albums have won the award over the years, and let's hope this years choice will be one we'll remember fondly in five or ten years (i.e. Suede) and not a flash in the pan (Roni Size).
Rick, Toronto, Canada

I feel sorry for whoever gets picked - it's normally the sign of doom
Soumya Keshavan, Madras, India
There are a number of references to the artistes in these comments, as well as to the music they have produced. This award is about the music and the music alone. How many successful artistes of the past would be able to claim exemplary lives - The Beatles? Rolling Stones? Beach Boys? Johnny Cash? Elvis Presley? And so on... Taking the music and the music only into account there is only one album here that will be remembered in years to come and that is Back to Black.
Brian Capaloff, Falkirk, Scotland

Its hard to choose between The Arctic Monkeys and Amy, although Amy's album is more original, and has some classics, it is a bit "more of the same" after the fourth track. The Arctic's album has more variety, and much better lyrics, so I guess I'd go for that.
Soumya Keshavan, Madras, India

I feel sorry for whoever gets picked - it's normally the sign of doom for any artist or group. The biggest surprise is that the Arctic Monkeys are still together a year after winning...

Basquiat Strings should win, as they're the only thing in there that's outside of the mainstream. Not having crossover appeal is not a bad thing! After all, this isn't a popularity contest... is it?
Larry, Amsterdam/Liverpool

Maps - aka James Chapman - deserves to win! It is an astonishing, hypnotic debut album - so much talent. He has done Northampton proud!
Claire Bicknell, Northampton, UK

Back to Black is just outstanding
Anna, Edinburgh
What's so original about the Arctic Monkeys? In fact what's so original about any of this?
Bill, England

It may be the "obvious" choice but Back to Black is just outstanding... I never tire of hearing it and it is the only album as a whole that I think will be really remembered in a few years.
Anna, Edinburgh

No doubt in my mind that I'd give it to Bat For Lashes, my overall album of the year for 2006 and in my top 20 for the decade. Nothing wrong with Amy Winehouse but it's more of a dinner party album for people who don't like music they can't hear on commercial radio or daytime Radio 1 and 2
Mitchell Stirling, Reading, UK

Patrick Wolf should be on the shortlist. A true brit, great live, with an innovative album. He is perfect... for the Mercury music prize and deserves it. Just because he is far from the mainstream should not mean that he is pushed out of the running.
Josh Treacher, Battle, UK

Should be the Arctic Monkeys - the second album is better than the first. Maybe Amy Winehouse. But not New Young Pony Club, they are awful.
Pam,

"New Young Pony Club's songs are best heard at their effervescent live shows - and, unfortunately, the album is a two-dimensional, monochrome experience in comparison." No, no, no! They are dreadful live, which is a real shame, but having seen them three times this year I cannot agree with this. The album is superbly mastered and is an obvious candidate.
Matt

For me it has to be Bat for Lashes - a superb album, but still far enough away from the mainstream to suit the Mercury judge
Ray, Redditch, UK
Amy Winehouse's Back to Black is the most superbly constructed album of original material, that could easily have been recorded in the 60's. Ignoring her troubled life for a moment, this is utter class and she should be rewarded for it. Her vocal range, phrasing and general delivery is also amazing to see/hear live. I stood with my jaw on the floor when I saw her play earlier in the year. I was one of the lucky ones who saw her tipsy rather than completely drunk (Amy, that is!)
Ian W, London, England

Anyone but Winehouse, please!
Mike, Salisbury, UK

For me it has to be Bat for Lashes - a superb album, but still far enough away from the mainstream to suit the Mercury judges' reputation for not picking a "commercial" winner.
Ray, Redditch, UK

I think it's got to be Jamie T, he's the only one on that list who's done anything truly original and exciting this year. Superb vocals and sharp as glass lyrics.
John, Belfast

The Klaxons should WIN by a mile, they are the most deserved, the album is top notch, guitars, disco, with a great vocal performance, they are just brilliant, Klaxons all the way!!!
Christina, Leicester

Dizzee Rascal has always been a purveyor of relatively creative hip-hop
Ian Bolton, Manchester
I think that Amy Winehouse should win! She's simply the best artist at the moment... not only the lyrics are great but the rhythm and all that she brings to it when she sings. We listen to her songs and we believe in the lyrics. It's almost like you can relate something to, and it feels right! I love her music!!!
Rebeca Britto, Nurnberg - Germany

It's almost impossible to judge a competition such as this. Every year there are complaints as to who should have won it and who shouldn't. When Badly Drawn Boy won it, the media were first to criticise, but truthfully his album was fantastic and still is. I would be hard pushed to call it this year. Bat for Lashes' album is already boring me and can't say any of the other acts are doing anything earth shattering. Dizzee Rascal has always been a purveyor of relatively creative hip-hop. The Artic Monkeys are a good band, but they have nothing new worth shouting about.

It seems most bands are still scraping the barrels for innovation, or maybe we're just living in a society that is just too spoilt to even consider doing anything new. We can't keep riding our ego thinking the UK is the best place in the world for music. It seems arrogance and pretension is eating away at our once famously artistic country.
Ian Bolton, Manchester

Bat for Lashes - without a doubt. The album does NOT peter out - rather you have to listen closely to it and it gets progressively more subtle and darker. I have seen these guys live as well - and I can say that they sound as good live as they do on the CD.
Neil Hopkins, Worthing

Arctic Monkeys should win this hands down!
Stephen Smith, Belfast
Obviously it should be Amy Winehouse, but then again I'm being naive as I'm thinking purely on terms of musical merit. Of course, the Mercury is about anything but (hence Primal Scream winning it once) so it won't be her, but there is no-one else who comes close musically. The rest is just indie nonsense. She's the most talented nominee since Robert Wyatt, but of course as far as 99% of folk are concerned these days she's a celeb, not a musician.
Richard, Oxford, U.K.

I think that Amy Winehouse should win because her new album is unique and vibrant. She is a very good performer that has worked hard and overcome a lot. She definitely deserves it. Amy all the way!!!
Jon Gold, Leamington Spa, Warwickshire

Arctic Monkeys should win this hands down! It is easily the best album of the year and they are the best band for the last 10 years
Stephen Smith, Belfast

Dizzie Rascal. He is definitely the best out of the remaining bad bunch!
Sharon, London England

What an outrage it would be if Winehouse won. It's a decent pop album but that's it. She is a joke and a horrible example to young girls.

Klaxons get my vote. Not the greatest of singers but had anyone heard their style of music before them? Look what they have created!
Jay, Aberdeen, Scotland

So, once again the vast majority of candidates come from white male indie rock bands. It looks as if Radio 1 listeners have come up with the shortlist for crying out loud. Is this the best they could come up with?
James Payne, Taunton, Somerset




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