This has been the year of Adele Adkins. Her album “21” has won critical raves and sold eight million copies, more than Lady Gaga. So it’s the frontrunner for tonight’s 2011 Barclaycard Mercury Prize, right?
Wrong. The judges of Britain’s top music award have a history of picking obscure artists. Adele knows that one of the finest albums of the last decade, “Back to Black” by Amy Winehouse, lost out in 2007 to “Myths of the Near Future” by the little-known Klaxons.
The Mercury is supposed to focus on CD quality, not sales, media profile or live shows. That doesn’t square with reality, where commercial artists often lose out to the cutting edge.
Adele’s album is as retro as Winehouse’s on tracks such as “Rolling in the Deep” with its Aretha Franklin-style gospel.
Blur and Pulp were beaten by the so-hip-it-hurts M People in 1994, Robbie Williams by too-cool-for-school Gomez in 1998. Both victors faltered after. The mercurial award is often seen as an albatross that also finished off Roni Size & Reprazent, Speech Debelle and Talvin Singh.
The prize is 20,000 pounds ($32,210), although the initial boost from album sales can be worth much more. It’s true that Adele, 23, doesn’t exactly need the money or fame. That might also apply to another star on the shortlist, Tinie Tempah, whose pop profile has already been helped by his success at the Brits and Ivor Novello awards.
Trying to predict a winner from the 12 hopefuls isn’t easy. There’s a long history of surprises. The betting frontrunner is P.J. Harvey’s “Let England Shake,” a fiery state-of-the-nation sketch, braver than Adele’s recording.
Only problem is that Harvey has been nominated four times and won in 2001: previous winners are often sidelined. That’s also likely to count against Elbow, whose workmanlike “Build a Rocket Boys!” is on a par with its 2008 winner.
Anna Calvi’s eponymous debut would be a more likely choice: a lesser-known talent, praised by Brian Eno and with intense songs such as “Rider to the Sea” (though the equally impressive Bat for Lashes and Florence & the Machine were beaten by Debelle in a 2009 miscarriage of justice).
Katy B’s “On a Mission” features dance music by someone who actually likes dancing. Everything Everything and Metronomy are two groups making crafted music. All of these have a chance.
The James Blake CD is a little too downbeat, though anything is possible after the xx won last year -- a worthy choice for a change.
The veteran King Creosote & Jon Hopkins, songwriter Ghostpoet and jazz-classical crossover Gwilym Simcock look like the token-choice outsiders. So they probably will win.
It’s fine that the Mercury champions lesser-known musicians, though more openness would be welcome about the judging (the panel is made up of musicians, executives and some writers whose names aren’t disclosed), selection process and involvement of record companies: The prize was first established by the British Phonographic Industry.
Especially when some of the best music doesn’t even get onto the July shortlist, which is limited to British or Irish artists’ releases in the previous 12 months. Where are Robert Plant & Band of Joy, Radiohead, Vaccines, Streets, Arctic Monkeys, British Sea Power? They won’t be on the winners’ podium either and they probably all should be.
Shortlist (with betting odds from William Hill Plc): Adele -- “21” (XL Records) 6/1 Anna Calvi -- “Anna Calvi” (Domino) 7/1 Elbow -- “Build a Rocket Boys!” (Fiction Records) 33/1 Everything Everything -- “Man Alive” (Geffen) 10/1 Ghostpoet -- “Peanut Butter Blues and Melancholy Jam” (Brownswood) 8/1 Gwilym Simcock -- “Good Days at Schloss Elmau” (Act Records) 50/1 James Blake -- “James Blake” (A&M Atlas) 5/1 Katy B -- “On a Mission” (Sony) 20/1 King Creosote & Jon Hopkins -- “Diamond Mine” (Domino Records) 10/1 Metronomy -- “The English Riviera” (Because Records) 7/1 P.J. Harvey -- “Let England Shake” (Universal) 6/4 Tinie Tempah -- “Disc-Overy” (Parlophone) 40/1
(Mark Beech writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)