The alternative 2015 Mercury prize shortlist

Our writers pick the 12 albums they think should feature on Friday’s shortlist – from a Geordie inspired by Tuvan throat-singing to an album that samples secondhand bullets

Laura Marling – Short Movie

By my reckoning, Marling is Britain’s most gifted songwriter, and this year’s Short Movie was shot through with the distinctive qualities of her work: the sense of exploration and strength, the steady gaze of her lyrics. But it showed real growth, too. The first album she has written on electric guitar, and the first she chose to self-produce, it explored themes of identity, isolation and intimacy, as well as the wonder of the American landscape. The result is a record that is muscular yet limber, and sung with a kind of steely tenderness; the sound of an artist gathering force. Laura Barton

Four Tet – Morning/Evening

It seems ludicrous that Kieran Hebden – respected by everyone from Thom Yorke to Skrillex, sells out Brixton Academy in three minutes, did that folktronica thing and then sacked it off to make club bangers – has not yet had a Mercury nomination. Even Stereo MCs have had a Mercury nomination. The electronic producer’s eighth album as Four Tet, Morning/Evening, is deserving for a number of reasons. One, it is unconventionally split into just two songs. The first weaves together a shuffling beat and a hypnotic Bollywood sample that builds so delicately you barely notice it’s a 20-minute track, and the more ambient second is as zen as a Japanese rock garden. Two, it’s very beautiful. And three, it was self-released without any marketing muscle behind it, which is why, unless Hebden enters himself, it won’t probably make the nominees list. And exactly why it should. Kate Hutchinson

Sleaford Mods – Key Markets

If the Mercury panel are going to pick an album that sums up the state of things in 2015 – something that will one day remind us of the dark days of #CameronsBritain – then the eighth album by Nottingham’s irate duo is a no-brainer. There are clear musical merits, too: Jason Williamson’s verbal ejections alongside Andrew Fearn’s sparse, bludgeoning bass make for an unsettling presence amid the Maccabees and Mumfords of modern rock. But would they actually put their LP forward for the prize? Especially considering the entire industry is up for assassination on this album, from other bands (“Spitting out fine cheese by that tool from Blur / Even the drummer’s a fucking MP”) to awards judges (“Radio edit, oh it’s so nice / Lauren Laverne keeps playing Tumbling Dice”)? For the sake of giving a voice to the dispossessed – and a potentially excruciating acceptance speech – I hope so. Harriet Gibsone

New Order – Music Complete

Had the Mercury prize existed during New Order’s 80s heyday, perhaps they’d have scooped it up for albums such as Power, Corruption and Lies or Technique. However, their best offering for (gulp) 26 years surely stakes a strong claim. Music Complete is as comprehensive as the title: a mix of dizzying electronics and emotions, carefully placed guitars and great, headrushing songwriting that races between melancholy and ecstasy. Although the Mercury’s “zeitgeist” box isn’t most obviously ticked by a veteran band, Music Complete sounds simultaneously fresh and of the moment yet somehow intangibly apart. Dave Simpson

Herbert – The Shakes

The rallying cries of UK protest marches. A piano played from inside Wormwood Scrubs prison. Samples of bullets purchased from eBay. Matthew Herbert’s The Shakes is likely to be more experimental than anything else that appears on this year’s list of Mercury nominees – the token jazz record made entirely out of kitchen spoons included. Yet, for a man who’s made music out of exploding bombs and Starbucks coffee, this constitutes a more back-to-basics approach. A pop sensibility was the thing foremost in his mind when recording it, and that shines through: Middle and Smart might rattle and ricochet with sonic invention, but they’re unable to hide their undercurrent of subtle euphoria. This is soulful, jazz-inflected house music that still finds time to deal with the big questions of the day, from rising inequality to the security of our children. If the Mercury isn’t celebrating albums like this, you really have to ask why not. Tim Jonze

Indiana – No Romeo

Indiana’s No Romeo was an album that felt commercially doomed before it even came out: its release was endlessly delayed by her record label, clearly spooked when her single Mess Around failed to match the chart success of its predecessor, the critically acclaimed top-20 hit Solo Dancing. Momentum was lost: No Romeo didn’t flop exactly, but it sold unremarkably, certainly for an artist who was clearly being aimed squarely at the mainstream. It warranted better than that: singer Lauren Henson and her main collaborator John Beck had come up with a selection of skewed pop songs that had more in common with leftfield Scandinavian artists Annie and Robyn than the stuff that currently gets on the Radio 1 playlist. The lyrics are intriguing and witty, the arrangements coolly minimal, the tunes indelible. It deserves the profile boost a Mercury nomination brings. Alexis Petridis

Blanck Mass – Dumb Flesh

Noise. Is there any genre more likely to send music fans running for the hills (electro swing excluded)? Its very name stands as a warning, like one of those grisly public information films from the 70s: “Keep away,” it says, “or you’re going to get hurt.” Yet that doesn’t have to be the case. Fuck Buttons, the pummelling electro duo best known for their music making an unlikely appearance at the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics, unquestionably fall under the heading of noise, but theirs is a joyful noise, as likely to make you move your feet as cover your ears. For reasons known only to the Mercury panel, the group themselves have never appeared on the award shortlist. That aberration could be made up for, in some small part, by a nomination for Dumb Flesh, the second album by Buttons member John Power’s solo project Blanck Mass. Like Power’s main gig, it finds euphoria and melody in unlikely sources – droning synths, shrieking samples, pummelling percussion – and proves a surprising amount of fun to listen to. Dumb Flesh is the kind of album that opens up a previously impenetrable genre to a wider audience. And if that’s not worth a place on the Mercury shortlist, I’m not sure what is. Gwilym Mumford

Young Fathers – White Men are Black Men Too

They won it last year, which may be grounds for exclusion from this year’s Mercury list. But then, Young Fathers have already won the “difficult second album” prize at the AiM awards in 2015, so maybe an exception should be made. Either way, White Men Are Black Men Too is better than 2013’s Dead. It has broader horizons, blending a series of genres from old time rock’n’roll and gospel alongside the more familiar hip-hop and industrial noise. Furthermore, it’s done within the confines of the three-minute pop song, which gives each track more potency. Singing has largely replaced rapping, and the Edinburgh trio put vocal harmonies to the fore. It creates a euphoric almost ecstatic sense at times, but the music is still muscular, provocative and without an iota of compromise. They could pursue their pop intentions further, but nobody makes music like Young Fathers. Paul MacInnes

Richard Dawson – Nothing Important

The fact that Nothing Important was hailed by publications keen on “difficult” music might put off casual listeners. As might its breadth of reference – although it’s one Geordie bloke with an acoustic guitar, it draws inspiration from Tuvan throat-singing, African music and metal, as well as from the north-eastern folk tradition (“It’s not folk music. I call it ritual community music, and I’m more interested in experimental music,” he told me last year). As might the fact that it’s not an album for casual listening. But Nothing Important rewards the listener willing to immerse themselves, and it proves to be rich in melody, which isn’t hidden so much as interpolated with the discordance. Two instrumentals bookend two extraordinary long narratives – impressionistic, fictionalised reveries about his childhood, in which the comic and the horrifying sit alongside each other. “I aim to be as accessible as possible,” he told me. “But it has to be what it has to be. I think about symmetry a lot, the notion of reflection – but a broken mirror making a slightly distorted reflection.” That’s what Nothing Important is: a slightly distorted reflection of one’s expectations of music. Michael Hann

Róisín Murphy – Hairless Toys

Róisín Murphy was surprised when her first two solo albums failed to make her a star, but by the time she recorded Hairless Toys – her first album in eight years – she must have known it was unlikely to be third time lucky. She made Hairless Toys into a fantastical dance album that duly missed the top 10, but confirmed her singularity of vision. It’s a glimmering, sensual affair that never raises its voice. Whether referencing 70s disco hedonism, 80s voguing, or the languid rhythms of deep house, it mesmerises rather than overwhelms. Ultimately, it demands close attention. This isn’t background music, but an album of layers that reveals more with each listen. Caroline Sullivan

East India Youth – Culture of Volume

Bournemouth’s William Doyle was nominated for the Mercury for his first album, Total Strife Forever, so there’s no reason why he shouldn’t get another nod for Culture of Volume, which is a significant stride forward. The magic of East India Youth lies in the way he unites extremely appealing (and beautifully sung) pop melodies with a spirit of avant garde electronic experimentation. Though he was born in 1991, in some ways Doyle evokes the spirit of the early 80s, when the likes of the Associates or the Human League, fiddling about with newfangled synthesisers, suddenly found themselves at both the top of the charts and at music’s cutting edge. A homogenised pop market means that there’s little chance of East India Youth doing the former, but songs as stratospheric as Carousel certainly deserve some recognition. Alex Needham

Squarepusher – Damogen Furies

For someone who has been putting out records for 20 years, Tom Jenkinson still retains an obvious passion for what he’s doing. Seeing him scream “Come on you fuckers!” at people who casually nodded while attending the New York launch party for Damogen Furies was one of my highlights so far this year. His annoyance was understandable: this album, like its predecessor Ufabulum, sees him turning up every aural element to create an almost overbearing sound. It’s another evolution for an artist who’s dodged definition his entire career with songs such as Do You Know Squarepusher? posing a question for which there seems no obvious answer. Lanre Bakare


Laura Barton, Kate Hutchinson, Harriet Gibsone, Dave Simpson, Tim Jonze, Alexis Petridis, Gwilym Mumford, Paul MacInnes, Michael Hann, Caroline Sullivan, Alex Needham and Lanre Bakare

The GuardianTramp

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