In an slightly delayed attempt to keep this blog in touch with current happenings, I note that the Mercury Prize, or whatever it's called these days, happened last week. I've always approved of this award. Yes, it firmly occupies the middlebrow, Guardian-reader territory of music criticism, but by and large it's highlighted quality instead of big-label money and pop loudmouthery. And it gets people talking about what matters - good music. Like any award, don't take it too seriously. The winner is arbitrary and doesn't mean much - for every M People or Gomez there's been a Portishead and a Pulp, and you can take the shortlist as a reasonable cross-section of the good stuff that appeared in a particular year. It gets some stick for its token inclusion of jazz, folk and classical nominees, but this is probably a necessary evil. While apples can't be compared to oranges, it's worth knowing the best apples and the best oranges, and people sometimes need to be nudged towards diversity.
I've huge respect for this year's winners Elbow. For once the judges (perhaps being predictably unpredictable) have chosen seasoned songcrafters over trendy scenesters. I wrote briefly about the winning album here, and, though it doesn't deeply affect me, I do admire it. Below are reviews of the other albums from the shortlist I own - I'm fairly certain my pick would have been Radiohead (the Martin Scorsese of the Mercury prize). I also have and enjoy the Portico Quartet album. Understated, tuneful jazz. They play an unusual instrument called a hang which is like a little steel drum - they use it like similar combos might use a vibraphone. I would write more, but I have a mental block about reviewing jazz, and it would have taken this entry behond the de-facto three-review limit.
Very casual impressions of the rest of the shortlist? I do like the jazzier moments of Adele's 19 but her poppier songs are too wallpapery. Laura Marling does nice singer-songwritery stuff, pleasant but hard to grasp anything to really draw me in on first listen, maybe it needs time. Similarly with Estelle, decent hip-hop, but I'd rather M. I. A.'s Kala was on the list. Robert Plant and Alison Krauss? Has its moments, but a bit on the trad-country side for me. More immediately interesting is the colourfully-arranged Geordie folk of Rachel Unthank and the Winterset. Two more slots are taken by intriguing singer/producer collaborations. Neon Neon's Stainless Style is a concept album in a lovingly authentic 80s style, with the guy from Super Furry Animals - sounds great though I've had a fair amount of this style already this year from M83. The Last Shadow Puppets feature the chap from Arctic Monkeys doing Scott Walker style orchestral pop - I can certainly live with that.
Radiohead - In Rainbows (2007)
Sometimes I get asked "what sort of music do you like then?" I usually pull a face and mumble some vague cliché about having diverse taste or liking "anything that's good". But I'm seriously considering preparing a stock answer which casually mentions Radiohead. Because I can think of no better example of a contemporary band who practically everyone has heard of, and embody so many of the things I like in music. ...Read more
Burial - Untrue (2007)
I'm a city-dweller at heart. I do moan about noise, pollution and overcrowding, but it takes great music to really make me appreciate the beauty of those peculiar human colonies. In-ear headphones on a tube train might isolate me in a world of my own, but music such as London producer Burial's first two albums still makes me feel like I belong among the lights and bustle. ...Read more
British Sea Power - Do You Like Rock Music? (2008)
The Mercury judges' pick of the best straight-ahead indie rock from the past year was the third album by British Sea Power, who burst onto the scene a few years ago with the exciting "Decline of British Sea Power". Here they've puffed up their sound, with mixed success. ...Read more