The night of the unknowns: The Mercury Music Prize
Forget Amy Winehouse and the Arctic Monkeys, some contenders for tonight's Mercury music prize are virtually unknown.
Tonight's Nationwide Mercury Prize could see the Arctic Monkeys win the award for the second year running – a first in the Mercury's 16-year history – but newcomer Bat for Lashes is more likely to pick up the £20,000 prize money. The odds are quite close, however, with Jamie T and Amy Winehouse also tipped to win, but – as the 2005 Mercury winner Antony and the Johnsons proved – the bookies don't, traditionally, do very well out of this contest.
Although the 10 judges choose the winner on the basis of only one album, the Mercury Prize has always been associated with new British talent. And two-thirds of this year's short-listed album are debuts.
The director of the Nationwide Mercury Prize, Kevin Milburn, says: "There are more new names on the list. Last year we had Thom Yorke, Scritti Politti and Richard Hawley. This year, Maps, Fionn Regan and Bat for Lashes are all artists just starting out. Dizzee Rascal seems a veteran by comparison."
He continues: "It's quite an intriguing list, spread between urban and rural sounds – there's a contrast between what's going on in London with the Klaxons, New Young Pony Club, Dizzee Rascal and Jamie T, and the different sounds being produced in Ireland with Fionn Regan and in Dundee with The View."
Londoner Jamie T, at 21 years old one of the youngest artists to receive a nomination this year for his debut Panic Prevention, has already beaten off Jarvis Cocker and Yorke to win the Best Solo Artist prize at this year's NME Awards. Signed to Virgin, all four of his singles have been Top 25 chart hits.
A win for Winehouse, who has been dominating headlines for alleged drug and alcohol misuse and gig cancellations, would probably do more for the Mercury Prize than for her as an artist. It would certainly contradict her in-laws' pleas for fans to boycott her music to help discourage the 23-year-old from taking drugs. Nominated for Back to Black, which has been in the charts for 44 weeks and is currently riding high at No 2, Winehouse was also nominated for her debut album Frank in 2004. On whether Winehouse would be attending the awards this evening, Milburn says: "We're hoping she's going to attend. Watch this space."
For Bat for Lashes, however, the nomination is the icing on the cake of a great year. The creation of 27-year-old singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Natasha Khan, Bat for Lashes released their debut album Furs and Gold last September, and have since been signed to Parlophone, appeared on the BBC's The Culture Show, and been shot by fashion photographer Nick Knight for Vogue, alongside Cat Power and Beth Ditto.
This summer, Bat for Lashes played the Latitude and Field Day festivals, as well as Glastonbury. Her haunting, eccentric and dramatic music has gained celebrity fans including Yorke, Devendra Banhart, the Klaxons, CSS and Björk, who personally invited her to support her at Rock En Seine in Paris in August. She could well steal this year's prize.
Bat for Lashes is not the only exciting rising star up for this year's prestigious award. Only this week, Natasha Khan, Regan and Maps jointly recorded "Higher Than the Sun" – from Primal Scream's Screamadelica, the 1992 Mercury Prize winner – for a special Mercury-themed edition of Radio 1's In the Company Of.
Regan may be an outsider in the awards but he is far from being the token folk artist. The troubadour grew up in Bray, near Dublin, and has been compared to Bob Dylan and Nick Drake. He was recently signed to US label Lost Highway, which places him in the highest echelon of folk and country singer-songwriters, alongside Johnny Cash and Lucinda Williams. The intricate folk and engaging poetic storytelling of his debut album The End of History, released in February on Bella Union, was a critical hit, and the Mercury judges described his "moving songs beautifully played and sung".
Maps is another outsider who could surprise the bookies. James Chapman wrote and recorded his We Can Create electronica-indie album – inspired by a period of depression – in his Northampton bedroom on a 16-track recorder. It is both beautiful and atmospheric, in the shoegazing vein of My Bloody Valentine and Spiritualized.
This year's 12-strong list is not a token nod to musical genres; rather, it is a representation of the current trends in music, from the surge in new rave and dance music – represented by Klaxons' debut Myths of the Near Future and New Young Pony Club's Fantastic Playroom – to guitar bands The View and Arctic Monkeys. Last year's award seemingly put an end to the "curse of the Mercury" as the Arctic Monkeys rose to even greater heights and are now nominated for their second album Favourite Worst Nightmare. They are the first band to be nominated two years consecutively.
On whether we should such successful artists should be up for the award, Milburn says: "It's tricky, because we say don't take sales into account, but you can't have that not work both ways and therefore focus on bands not selling as much. That would be inverted snobbery if we only chose records that sold less than a certain number."
Jazz, meanwhile, is represented by Basquiat Strings' Seb Rochford, the drummer from previously nominated band Polar Bear. Lastly, Dizzee Rascal flies the flag for hip-hop.
The Nationwide Mercury Music Prize will be broadcast tonight from 7pm on Radio 1 and from 9pm on BBC4
Mercury short-list: the odds
Bat for Lashes
'Fur and Gold' (7-4)
Natasha Khan's music, occupying a position between folk and the avant-garde, offers countless fascinating musical diversions, such as zither, harpsichord and vibes. Fur And Gold inhabits the crossover market niche where elfin folk overlaps into goth.
'Back to Black' (2-1)
For her follow-up to Frank, Winehouse has shifted her emphasis from jazz to soulful R&B. But for all its musical purchase on the past, what sets Winehouse's album apart from those of her peers is its rejection of genre clichés.
'Panic Prevention' (3-1)
While Jamie T is an occasionally nimble wordsmith, there's little depth to Panic Prevention, which offers drearily repetitive rounds of booze, birds, backbiting and beatings, rattled out in Estuary English, over cramped backings fatally restricted by his chosen instrument.
'We Can Create' (8-1)
Maps' lush, exotic and luminous textures sprawl somewhere between the sonic freefall of My Bloody Valentine, Four Tet's folktronica, Sigur Ros's soundscapes and a hymnal, Spiritualized-ish quality, but always with an eye on melody and subtlety.
'The End of History' (12-1)
This folkish singer-songwriter from Dublin ranges boldly in mood, musicality and matter, with his briskly plucked laments and images of urban decline or rustic simplicity, sitting smartly alongside literary references, poetic asides and brightly witty storytelling.
'Myths of the Near Future' (12-1)
The full-on siren sample-groove of "Atlantis to Interzone" recalls The Prodigy and Chemical Brothers. But the band's seemingly incongruent elements of techno, indie guitar rock and catchy close-harmony vocal chants combine with enough appeal to carry the Klaxons beyond any dubious comparisons.
'Favourite Worst Nightmare' (20-1)
They're stretching tentacles into other musical areas, not least the disco-funk-rock groove of "Old Yellow Bricks", the organ-fattened, stop-start "Fluorescent Adolescent", and particularly the ruminative approach of the sole slow number, "Only Ones Who Know".
'Hats Off to the Buskers' (20-1)
The hotly tipped Dundee combo, on the strength of this debut album, are just another group traipsing along meekly in the wake of The Libertines, their only apparent innovation being the cartoonishly over-rolled Scots Rs applied by singer Kyle Falconer to the title hook of "Superstar Tradesman".
New Young Pony Club
'Fantastic Playroom' (40-1)
With spindly new-wave and electro-pop stylings, and unashamedly candid sexual come-ons, NYPC resemble an enticing cross between Talking Heads, New Order and CSS.
The Young Knives
'Voices of Animals and Men' (40-1)
Despite their preference for tweed and brogues, The Young Knives are just another exponent of brittle British new-wave guitar pop with attitude. There are a million ways to combine guitar, bass and drums, but The Young Knives don't seem interested in discovering them.
'Basquiat Strings with Seb Rochford' (40-1)
This debut by cellist Ben Davis's impressive new string quintet is augmented by guest Seb Rochford on drums. When Davis really swings there's rich intensity.
'Maths + English' (50-1)
"Bubbles", Dizzee's appreciation of his £110 Nike trainers, and "Where's Da G's" are OK, but that "wall of enlightenment" he's seeking to climb seems steeper than anticipated.