Each year when the organization responsible for handing out the U.K.’s annual Mercury Prize announces its nominees for the award, American observers examine the short list, nodding in recognition at the sight of international superstars and making mental notes to investigate the high- profile imports. The English equivalent of the Grammy for Album of the Year (except that cynical pop critics get a say in the voting process alongside washed-up musicians), the Mercury Prize “exists solely to champion U.K. music by promoting the 12 albums of the year by British or Irish artists,” according to its website. To that end, “All genres of music are eligible and all albums are treated equally.” (In this the judges appear to be telling the truth: Last Tuesday night the 2005 prize was unexpectedly awarded to I Am a Bird Now by Antony and the Johnsons, The New York Times Magazine–profiled avant-cabaret act fronted by Chichester-born, New York–based Antony Hegarty.)
In addition, it means that beyond the Coldplays and the Radioheads, Americans also wonder annually who in the hell a handful of the nominees are. Last year, when Franz Ferdinand won the award, most of us scratched our heads at mentions of Amy Winehouse, a young, Joss Stone–like crooner, and wondered how the r&b singer Jamelia scored a co-write with Coldplay’s Chris Martin on her album. By the time Dizzee Rascal was awarded 2003’s prize, his hype had long since reached U.S. shores, even if jazz saxophonist Soweto Kinch’s and folksinger Eliza Carthy’s hadn’t. A violin concerto by Nicholas Maw, a composer who currently teaches composition at the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins, was nominated in 2000, along with albums by Badly Drawn Boy and former Verve frontman Richard Ashcroft. The preceding sentence represents the totality of what I know about Mr. Maw.
This year’s roster of nominees was no exception. As they did in 2000 and 2003, Coldplay loomed large over the competition, though the kindly guitar-pop quartet did have a pair of young, ambitious rock bands nipping at their heels: the Kaiser Chiefs and Bloc Party, both part of what prize director Kevin Milburn likes to call “the renaissance of British music over the last couple of years.” From London, Milburn tells the Voice that worldwide “interest in what’s happening in music here has intensified recently,” a claim corroborated by a few of the short-listed acts’ stateside blog buzz: M.I.A.’s Arular, of course, has been pimped by every urbanite with a broadband connection. Rampant downloading of Thunder, Lightning, Strike by the Go! Team—a Brighton six-piece who accent hyper-cheerful indie pop with TV-theme samples and exhortations to jump up, jump up, and get down—caused Columbia to license an American version, out October 4. Maximo Park’s A Certain Trigger, electronica stronghold Warp’s unlikely horse in the slowing dance-rock race, has seduced die-hard hipsters not satisfied by the Futureheads’ superior debut. And I Am a Bird Now was custom designed for press coverage, if not chart action.
Yet still the no-names lurk. Hard-Fi and the Magic Numbers both have deals in place to release their albums in the U.S. soon: Hard-Fi’s Stars of CCTV is set to arrive via Atlantic in January or February, while the Numbers’ self-titled debut hits stores October 4 on Capitol. Hard-Fi, a stylish Middlesex outfit led by singer Richard Archer, could conceivably find an audience here. Their jumpy, dub-inflected rock is the closest thing I’ve heard to a live-band version of grime, but it sounds 467 times better than that reads. In witty, propulsive CCTV cuts like “Cash Machine” and “Middle Eastern Holiday” Archer and his mates cross Dizzee’s cartoon menace with the beatwise bonhomie of Big Audio Dynamite. On the other hand, Hard-Fi could sink without a trace à la the Dead 60s.
The Magic Numbers appear to be this year’s version of the Thrills, whose debut, So Much for the City, was nominated for the Mercury in 2003. Like those Dubliners, these four portly Londoners play tuneful, jangly guitar pop that sounds uncannily imported from the American West Coast. The band caused a mini-sensation in England last month when they stormed off the set of Top of the Pops after host Richard Bacon introduced them as “a big, fat melting pot of talent.” A record as forgettably likable as theirs might require more antics like that to gain a toehold with non-Anglophiles here. Conan, Dave, Carson: Beware.
That leaves the three records most Americans will never hear: Seth Lakeman’s violin-laced Kitty Jay, this year’s token roots-folk nominee; Held on the Tips of Fingers by Polar Bear, a jazz combo centered around wild-haired drummer Sebastian Rochford; and singer-songwriter K.T. Tunstall’s snoozy Eye to the Telescope, which could easily woo any number of Norah Jones fans with its limpid coffee-table ruminations. But with Jones herself still making records—and gifted eccentrics like Antony receiving increasing attention for their work—why should they bother?