The London rock band Xx won the Barclaycard Mercury Prize for best British or Irish album last night, beating better-known names such as Paul Weller, Dizzee Rascal and Corinne Bailey Rae.
The trio’s debut “xx,” with its understated indie rock, layered guitar and songs such as “Basic Space,” was the favorite to win, according to bookmaker William Hill.
“I don’t know what we were expecting but we weren’t expecting this,” front man Oliver Sim said at the ceremony in London’s Grosvenor House hotel. “We’ve had the most incredible year.”
The Mercury Prize has been awarded annually since 1992. It is now sponsored by Barclaycard, which has taken over from the Nationwide Building Society. The award has often been given to new or non-commercial acts and pits different genres against one another, ranging from folk and jazz to hard rock. The winner receives 20,000 pounds ($30,710), although the boost from album sales can be worth much more.
The prize focuses on musical quality. It doesn’t take into account media profile or live performances, according to a statement by the judges, a mixture of critics and music industry figures.
Veteran songwriter Weller was briefly the favorite, after several large bets on his CD last weekend, though the Xx overtook him shortly before the ceremony. The trio, friends from childhood, have only been making music for five years. Weller is 52 and has been performing since the mid 1970s.
This is the first year when the award has gone to script after many surprises, most of them derided by critics.
Last year’s winner was Speech Debelle -- whose subsequent poor performances led to some listeners calling her Speech Debacle. Elbow’s “The Seldom Seen Kid” (Fiction Records) was victorious the year before. The Klaxons won in 2007 with “Myths of the Near Future” (Polydor) and struggled to record a follow-up. The new Klaxons release only came last month after initial sessions were rejected by the band’s record label.
Previous hit albums that failed to win include Robbie Williams’s “Life Thru a Lens” in 1998, when the award went to “Bring It On” by Gomez, and “OK Computer” by Radiohead in 1997, beaten by Roni Size/Reprazent’s “New Forms.”
In recent years many of the finest albums have been passed over by Mercury judges, including Weller’s “22 Dreams,” Florence & the Machine’s “Lungs” and others by Gorillaz and Amy Winehouse.
Among acts boosted by a Mercury Prize were rapper Dizzee Rascal (real name: Dylan Mills), who won in 2003 for “Boy in Da Corner,” and Badly Drawn Boy (a.k.a. Damon Gough), the 2000 winner for “The Hour of Bewilderbeast,” both on the independent XL Recordings label.
Dizzee Rascal was seen as a long shot this year, because he had won before and also because of the commercial success of his album, with its hit single “Bonkers.” Bailey Rae’s soulful record, recorded after the death of her husband, also produced positive reviews and strong sales: the Mercury has often gone to music that has not achieved such recognition.
Shortlist (with final odds from Bookmaker William Hill): The Xx, “xx.” Evens (favorite, final winner) Paul Weller, “Wake Up the Nation.” 6/4 Wild Beasts, “Two Dancers.” 6/1 Foals, “Total Life Forever.” 7/1 Laura Marling, “I Speak Because I Can.” 8/1 Mumford & Sons, “Sigh No More.” 12/1 Villagers, “Becoming A Jackal.” 16/1 I Am Kloot, “Sky at Night.” 16/1 Biffy Clyro, “Only Revolutions.” 25/1 Corinne Bailey Rae, “The Sea.” 40/1 Kit Downes Trio, “Golden.” 50/1 Dizzee Rascal, “Tongue n’ Cheek.” 50/1
(Mark Beech writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)