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Wednesday, August 31, 2011 

The state of music in 2011 and the Mercury.

Music it seems goes in cycles. Back in the late 90s, with Britpop (a term which now conjures up only sniggers) dying out and indie in general flat-lining, it was claimed that decks were selling in higher numbers than guitars. How accurate that story was is difficult to ascertain now, but for a time it did seem as though dance music had taken over: clubs like Gatecrasher and Cream had become brands in their own right, a purpose built superclub called Home was about to open, superstar DJs could demand fees raising from the high tens of thousands up to the hundreds for New Year's Eve appearances, and trance and UK garage were dominating the charts and the airwaves.

Predictably, the bubble collapsed. Gatecrasher just about reinvented itself, while Cream now only holds occasional events and the yearly branded festival; Home was shut down almost as soon as it opened; trance became stale and cheesy very quickly indeed, while UK garage, which became associated in the mainstream media both rightly and wrongly with the excesses of certain members of the So Solid Crew and others, collapsed under its own contradictions and diversified. From the ashes of garage grime and dubstep have emerged, the latter of which is now experiencing its own, most likely fleeting commercial success and (fairly) mass popularity, while grime, once prompting articles asking why it was that certain MCs were failing to receive cross-over success has spawned a whole host of stars, even if the music they're making now has very little in common with that played by the genre's specialists either on Kiss or Rinse FM.

The puncturing of indie is reflected in this year's nominations for the Mercury music prize. It was already apparent late last year that a crash was in evidence, with labels being unprepared to sign up bands or artists whose chances of success were anything other than relatively certain, yet in last year's list you could point to a definite four with such pretensions, possibly even six if you were being slightly looser in your definition. This year there's Elbow, PJ Harvey and Everything Everything alongside King Creosote and Jon Hopkins if you're being charitable. Looking through the albums I've bought over the past year, it seems the only debut record I've bought from a UK indie band is Hunger by Frankie and the Heartstrings, which is decent rather than outstanding. It could be as much a sign of my changing taste as it is a dearth of decent up and comers, as well as the sad decline of the album as a format, and it's worth noting that Arctic Monkeys' fourth album went straight to number one, something certainly not assured, yet the lull is still worrying.

Like with last year then, this year's Mercury line-up is fairly weak. Then there were three nominees who would have been worthy winners; this year there are two, although to be fair the others on the list are of a higher overall quality than last year's bunch. PJ Harvey's album is deserving of all the plaudits its received; it's one of those rare works that genuinely sounds like nothing else out at the same time, a little like These New Puritans' Hidden from last year which was mystifyingly overlooked. Having predicted last year that the XX wouldn't win as they were the favourites and the obvious choice, I'm not going to make the same mistake this year and so am going to assume Harvey already has it sown up. James Blake's self-titled debut would though also be a fine choice, and describing it as coffee-table dubstep as the Guardian derisively does is both patronising and deeply unfair, not least because the vast majority of the album is as far removed from most of the genre and Blake's earlier work as it's possible to imagine. The manipulation of his voice is there, as is the often cavernous sub-bass, yet it's the subtlety and minimalism of the beats combined with the space he leaves between the vocals and the music which marks this out as something truly special: at times it resembles post-rock just as much as it does "post-dubstep".

The rest of the field is a decidedly mixed bag. Elbow seem to have made the list again purely on the basis that everyone now loves them, as Build a Rocket Boys! is merely a decent album rather than in the top 10 of the year. Tinie Tempah seems to have been similarly included on the basis that there has to be one out and out pop record on the list, or at least one hopes, while Gwilym Simcock also takes his place as the token jazz entry, something which must be a curse as much as a blessing. Anna Calvi I pledge to investigate further, as all the critics seem to agree on how good she is, while King Creosote and Jon Hopkins definitely deserve recognition if nothing else for their past work. Ghostpoet hopefully won't be the next Speeche Debelle, despite his album being far better than hers was: he only seems likely to improve. Also an odd choice is Metronomy, whose first two albums were far superior to their nominated The English Riveria; more accessible is not synonymous with better.

Which leaves us with Everything Everything, Adele and Katy B. Adele's seeming stranglehold over the radio, the charts and everything else is easy to explain: her music is dull as dishwater, and in a country which prizes the bland as being just as good as brilliance it fills a hole. Someone Like You is a classic of the form: just a piano and her voice, similar in execution to Ellie Goulding's ubiquitous cover of Your Song last Christmas, just with her earnestness in place of Taupin's subtlety. If 21 wins then there really doesn't seem to be any point whatsoever to the Mercury. Everything Everything are not quite that bad, but seem to have missed the boat somewhat on the spiky indie front, nor are they a patch on their far superior competitors, whether they be the Futureheads or Young Knives. Having tore into Katy B somewhat in the most disappointing music of last year, it's heartening to report that her debut album is a vast improvement over the vocals she supplied for the two Magnetic Man tracks, mainly down to how most of the production for On a Mission was supplied by Rinse's Geeneus, with Zinc helping out. Her voice still isn't the strongest, although that's arguably an asset when everyone else is currently belting it out, and her lyrics could use more than a little work (Easy Please Me is at times cringe-inducing) but she's by far the most credible crossover pop success from dubstep/current bass music, down to how Geeneus and Zinc's production looks back to the 90s as much as it does to now.

Doubtless in a couple of years' time when the likes of Skrillex and Nero have thankfully disappeared and we're back to suffering from an overload of indie bands who all sound the same and all have the same attitude we'll be reporting on the demise of the DJ yet again. For now though we're stuck with it; the least the judges on the Mercury could do is recognise James Blake's album as a summation of the year's best music.

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