Mercury prize 2012: the shortlist that might have been

This week's Mercury prize nominations were widely judged to be straight and safe. Here our critics suggest 12 records that should have made the list

Playin' Me Cooly G (Hyperdub)

Playin Me, Cooly G
Photograph: PR

It sells itself as qualitative judgment and always arrives wreathed in a lot of specious guff about how "the music on the album is the only thing that matters", but if the Mercury prize has any real purpose for existing, it should probably be to alert a wider audience to a great album they haven't heard, but might conceivably like. Cooly G's debut, offering her take on post-dubstep bass music, fits perfectly. It is simultaneously innovative and familiar: through the fog of her heady, hallucinatory sound you catch glimpses of Massive Attack and lover's rock, although the end result sounds only like Cooly G. Her voice is beautifully understated, sShe's ballsy enough to cover Coldplay and still come up smiling. She makes beautiful, tough, original pop music that could only have existed now – the question of what's not to like is a tough one. Alexis Petridis

Playin' Me

Bird Concerto with Pianosong Jonathan Harvey (NMC)

Bird Concerto with Pianosong, Jonathan Harvey
Photograph: PR

What's that? No contemporary classical album on the Mercury shortlist? Who'd have thunk it? ... Lord. Even the tokenism of Mercurys past, when you'd at least get a classical-album stalking horse on the list, was better than nothing. A disc that would have blazed brightly over this year's lineup is Jonathan Harvey's beguiling, radiant Bird Concerto with Pianosong. The Concerto turns a solo piano and ensemble into avian songsters as the musicians commune with samples of birdsong. Also on the disc is Other Presences for solo trumpet and electronics; music that's mythical, moving, and magical. Tom Service

Bird Concerto with Pianosong

Weather Systems Anathema (KScope)

Weather Systems, Anathema
Photograph: PR

Weather Systems, a beautiful, brave and subtly inventive rock album by a band that have been consistently and perversely overlooked by the mainstream for the past two decades, fits the Mercury bill perfectly. Although superficially the modern-day equivalent of Pink Floyd, Anathema are much more than that: masters of exquisite, heartbreaking melodies, spine-tingling pathos and invigorating bombast delivered with a sublime lightness of touch. The worlds of prog and metal routinely unite around the Liverpudlians' brilliance. It's about time everyone else did too. Dom Lawson

An Appointment With Mr Yeats The Waterboys (Proper Records )

An Appointment With Mr Yeats, the Waterboys
Photograph: PR

Mike Scott first adapted William Butler Yeats' poetry for The Stolen Child on 1988's Fisherman's Blues album, noting how the great Irish poet's words on love, politics and the mystic scanned like rock 'n' roll lyrics. Years in the making, this brilliant collection takes up that baton and runs with it. Scott risked pretension or embarrassment with a whole album of Yeats set to music, but was inspired to produce some of the finest songs of his career. Dave Simpson

An Appointment With Mr Yeats

Sticks + Stones Cher Lloyd (Syco)

Sticks and Stones Cher Lloyd
Photograph: PR

The sugar-rush melodies are addictive, but it's the sheer force of Lloyd's personality elbowing its way through the bubblegum pop of her debut album that makes it magnificent: snarling with bratty exuberance (the sarcastic contempt with which she enunciates "res-tau-rant" on US breakthrough hit Want U Back is a flawless pop moment in itself, let alone the nerve of making an angry grunt the song's hook), riding a Neneh Cherry sample with shameless verve. "We're gonna be the generation that makes everything explode," Lloyd even promises on the opening track! Alex Macpherson

Sticks + stones

Black is Beautiful Dean Blunt and Inga Copeland (Hyperdub)

Black Is Beautiful, Ebony
Photograph: PR

Partly because the prospect of the enigmatic Blunt and Copeland – otherwise known as Hype Williams – appearing at the Roundhouse in London on 1 November for the awards ceremony brings to mind the KLF and that business with a dead sheep at the Brits in 1992; partly because this record sounds like every British and Irish album of the past year gurgling slowly down a plughole. Caspar Llewellyn Smith

Black is Beautiful

Stand Upright In A Cool Place Dodgy (Strike Back)

Stand Upright In A Cool Place, Dodgy
Photograph: PR

Haunted by the messy end of Britpop and their once successful career, Dodgy's acrimonious split was harshly brought into perspective by the death of their former lighting man. Reuniting to bury the hatchet, the trio poured their grief and mixed emotions into songs they simply could not have written as younger pop stars. Long after their last hit, this nevertheless is the album of their career: beautiful songs dripping with heartbreak, melancholy, maturity and insight. Dave Simpson

Moxxy Troyka (Edition Records EDN 1033)

Moxxy, Troyka
Photograph: PR

Young improv and electronica trio Troyka (keyboardist Kit Downes, guitarist Chris Montague and drummer Joshua Blackmore) echo the raw attack and dance-beats of much earlier forms of fusion and jazz-rock, but join them to the switchback melodies and rhythm-warping of a cutting-edge contemporary jazz band, with plenty of rock guitar wailing and bleepy electronics thrown in. Hooks that sound morphed from Michael Jackson's Thriller join r&b licks, noise-music, and unflashily ingenious improv. It's even better than the eponymously-titled Troyka debut in 2009. John Fordham


Katang Zun Zun Egui (Bella Union)

Zun Zun Egui, Katang
Zun Zun Egui, Katang Photograph: PR

If British urban music is starting to celebrate Africa in the form of Afrobeats, Zun Zun Egui showed that indie can do the same – without it being a Vampire Weekendesque appropriation of individual sounds. These Bristolians' trick is to take African forms and turn them into art rock, rather than taking art rock and making it sound a bit African. Katang was a multilingual, polyrhythmic, insanely disparate album of breathless invention, a stylistic one-off that showed them to be the rarest of things in current UK guitar music: sui generis. Michael Hann

Zun Zun Equi

Mid-Air Paul Buchanan (Newsroom Records)

Mid-Air, Paul Buchanan
Photograph: PR

Muted midnight music for terminal romantics, the debut solo album from The Blue Nile singer was a gloriously hushed affair. The songs seemed to be built from little more than whispers: soft piano, ghostly atmospheric textures, and Buchanan's masterful voice, weary yet still open to wonder. These 14 tender sketches not only snared a lifetime of love, loss and regret, but also captured moments of fleeting euphoria, raising day-to-day reality into the realm of the sublime. Graeme Thomson


Mala in Cuba Mala (Brownswood Recordings)

Mala in Cuba Mala album cover
Photograph: PR

The result of a trip that dubstep pioneer Mala – aka Digital Mystikz – made to Cuba with Gilles Peterson last year. Back in London, stitching together sounds that he sampled including contributions from the likes of pianist Roberto Fonseca, he created an album of hypnotic beauty, rhythms and melodies echoing in the cavernous space carved out by the bass of south London. CLS

Mala in Cuba

Glass Swords Rustie (Warp)

rustie glass swords
Photograph: PR

When all around was grey or on fire, from Glasgow's evergreen club scene emerged an album that exploded with colour and sheer bloody-minded hedonism. Building on a number of acclaimed EPs, Russell "Rustie" Whyte rightly won the Guardian First Album Award for a collection of ecstatic dancefloor anthems that leave you still humming the multilayered choruses for days afterwards. There's a cheeky sense of humour to some of the groovy 80s references and basslines, but Glass Swords' triumph is just how serious it is about soundtracking the greatest party of your life. Dan Hancox

Glass Swords

The GuardianTramp

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