At a glance: the Mercury shortlist

Profiles: Guillemots to Lou Rhodes, via Thom Yorke and Scritti Politti.

Guillemots: Through the Window Pane (Polydor, July 2006)

Four-piece Guillemots released their debut album just two weeks ago. The band is based in Birmingham although their lineup features members from England, Scotland, Brazil and Canada. The group, centred around Fyfe Dangerfield's songwriting, first came to attention with well-received independent singles.

The judges said: "A superbly adventurous exploration of mood and melody - ambitious and imaginative."

We said: "A microcosm of a debut that, frustratingly, juggles promise and excess."

Richard Hawley: Coles Corner (Mute, September 2005)

Coles Corner is the third album by Sheffield's Richard Hawley - the title refers to a lovers' meeting place, taking its name from a now-demolished department store in the city. A stalwart of the city's music scene throughout the 90s, Hawley embarked on his solo career in 2001.

The judges said: "Richard Hawley is a wonderfully unapologetic romantic. This is a collection of instantly classic ballads."

We said: "Hawley's old-fashioned, lovelorn, immaculately produced songs call to mind everything that was wonderful about Frank Sinatra."

Arctic Monkeys: Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not (Domino, January 2006)

Sheffield's Arctic Monkeys made music history when their first album became the UK's fastest-ever selling debut on its release in January 2006. This success came as a consequence of the four-piece band's already burgeoning reputation, built through live shows and online even before signing to Domino in June 2005.

The judges said: "Great songs astonishingly performed. Essential."

We said: "You could argue that, musically, there's nothing genuinely new here. But you'd be hard-pushed to convince anyone that Whatever People Say ... is not possessed of a unique character."

Hot Chip: The Warning (EMI, May 2006)

The Warning is the London-based five-piece's second album, essentially a home recording highlighting the contrasting vocal styles of Alexis Taylor and Joe Goddard overlayed with synth wizardry. The album features the singles Over and Over and Boy from School.

The judges said: "Irresistible DIY electropop - brilliantly realised."

We said: "Despite looking like five trainee chemistry teachers, Hot Chip have managed to deliver a second album that gives bleak electronica some much-needed heart and soul."

Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan: Ballad of the Broken Seas (V2, January 2006)

Ballad of the Broken Seas is a collaboration between Scottish singer Isobel Campbell, formerly with Glasgow's acclaimed Belle & Sebastian, and vocalist Mark Laneghan, who made his reputation with Screaming Trees and Queens of the Stone Age. The album was initiated, produced and primarily written by Campbell.

The judges said: "Eerie and sensual, sweet and sinister, evocative and remarkable."

We said: "Where Campbell sprinkles lashings of sugar, Lanegan throws handfuls of sawdust. When their voices meet, there's an intense intimacy that defies the chasm of conflicting styles."

Editors: The Back Room (Kitchenware Records, July 2005)

Four-piece Editors were founded at Staffordshire University and are now based in Birmingham. Signed by Newcastle's lauded Kitchenware label, Editors came to prominence with the single Bullets at the start of 2005. It was followed by their first Top 20 single, Blood, and debut album The Back Room in July 2005. The album reached number two in the UK chart at the start of 2006.

The judges said: "Edgy, forceful and compelling - a hugely impressive debut."

We said: "Editors, a four-piece from Birmingham currently suffering from slow-burning hype, don't so much jog memories of Joy Division as channel the ripe but fashionable spirit of Ian Curtis and co."

Thom Yorke: The Eraser (XL Recordings, July 2006)

Recorded separate from Yorke's main work with Radiohead, The Eraser is a collection of tracks built around beats and electronics alongside Yorke's vocals. The album was produced and arranged by Nigel Godrich.

The judges said: "A compelling new setting for Thom Yorke's unique voice and lyrical vision."

We said: "The Eraser is no more experimental than the average Radiohead album. In fact, it sounds exactly like you would expect a Thom Yorke solo album to sound."

Zoe Rahman: Melting Pot

Jazz pianist Zoe Rahman was born in Chichester and studied music at Oxford University and America's prestigious Berklee College of Music before becoming one of the most acclaimed artists on the UK jazz scene. Melting Pot, recorded with Rahman's acoustic trio, was released on her own Manushi label in November 2005

The judges said: "One of the UK's most distinctive jazz talents, pianist Zoe Rahman draws the listener into her own absorbing world."

We said: "Rahman's wayward and mobile left-hand patterns swerve under crisp postbop swingers, soft meditations with repeating low themes emerging under treble trills."

Muse: Black Holes and Revelations (Helium 3/Warners, July 2006)

Formed in Devon in 1997, Muse - Matt Bellamy, Dominic Howard and Chris Wolstenholme - have released four albums with Absolution in 2003 selling over 2m copies. Black Holes & Revelations went straight to number one in the UK chart on the album's release in July 2006 and features the hit single Supermassive Black Hole.

The judges said: "Bold, brave and bright - Muse going stratospheric."

We said: "Matt Bellamy continues his campaign to be the most ludicrous man in rock. The fourth Muse album finds him fretting about alien invasions, prophesising that superstars will be eaten up by a universe-sized hole and proclaiming "We're invincible!" a la Queen's We Are the Champions."

Scritti Politti: White Bread Black Beer (Rough Trade, May 2006)

Behind Scritti Politti is Green Gartside, one of the most original and compelling British artists since the late 70s, whose talents have been recognised in the past by such collaborators as Miles Davis, Robert Wyatt and Mos Def. White Bread Black Beer is Gartside's first album in seven years and reunites him with his original label.

The judges said: "An album of sublime and uplifting pop that showcases one of Britain's unique musical voices."

We said: "Gartside is right to describe this as 'an album of me playing round with myself in the back room' but for all the merits of his studio confection, one wonders what might have been had he got out more."

Sway: This is My Demo (Dcypha, February 2006)

Sway - 22-year-old Sway DaSafo from Haringey in north London - puts together a uniquely British combination of hip-hop and grime, showcasing his distinctive delivery and rhymes. This Is My Demo, Sway's eagerly anticipated debut album, was released on his own label, Dycpha.

The judges said: "Witty and mesmerising observations of everyday life in urban Britain, delivered with panache and passion."

We said: "Last year he beat 50 Cent to the Mobo award for best hip-hop act on the strength of his witty, engaging home-made mixtapes, and the title of his official debut advertises its DIY origins the way other rappers flaunt criminal records."

Lou Rhodes: Beloved One (Bloom, January 2006)

Lou Rhodes originally came to attention as one half of Lamb, the acclaimed duo she formed with Andrew Barlow in the mid-90s. Beloved One was recorded at a small Surrey commune which has become Rhodes' home.

The judges said: "A deeply personal acoustic album of elegant and affecting songs."

We said: "Backed by sighing cellos and strings and finely picked acoustic guitar, Rhodes plays with the traditional female singer-songwriter mould as if it's made of jelly."

The GuardianTramp

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