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Musical Space

Discover Music Through the Mercury Prize


Music awards like the Grammys and the VMAs don’t really interest me, except for one. It’s the Barclaycard Mercury Prize for British album of the year. The Mercury Prize is chosen by a panel of critics rather than industry insiders, so it’s more about the quality of the music than how much money it makes for a record company. This year’s prize was awarded Nov. 20. As always, the field of nominees was full of great entries. The Mercury Prize short list has become my favorite music discovery service.

Some of the 12 nominees need no introduction, like pop-chart heavyweight Florence + The Machine and electronic icon Aphex Twin. Former Supergrass frontman Gaz Coombes also gets a deserving nomination. But there are also many newcomer albums that didn't even chart. C. Duncan’s dreamy opus Architect was recorded completely by himself in his bedroom. Ghostpoet manages to create an entire rap album without using a single cliché. Other thoughtful and compelling music represents genres not always known for being thoughtful and compelling, like the EDM from Jason XX, indie rock from Wolf Alice, and punk from the band Slaves.

This year’s first prize went to another uncharted album, At Least for Now, by singer and pianist Benjamin Clementine. His style is deeply emotional and idiosyncratic, reminding me of Nina Simone more than anyone else.

The best find for me this year is the debut by Eska, a Zimbabwean singer known mostly for her back-up work. Her incredible voice carries the whole album. The song “Rock of Ages” has only the barest accompaniment, allowing the raw honesty and virtuosity of her voice to shine. Eska has a lot to say and says it with eloquence, and that’s what the Mercury Prize is all about.