Looking for the next hit international music performer? There’s no certain way to know, of course, but as good a place to look as any is the Mercury Prize. That award goes the best new album from a British or Irish artist.
Here’s the first half of our look at the 12 albums nominated for the Mercury Prize. Click on the corresponding album cover to listen to song samples.
If you are a yoga regular, or are drawn to new age music, then be prepared for Krishna Das to shoot towards the top of your list of favorite artists.
If you are the sort who can’t stand Enya and wouldn’t be caught dead in a yoga studio you still might be memorized by the more raucous tunes on Pilgrim Heart.
The songs on this album are all based on traditional Hindu devotionals, heavy on chanting and classical Indian instruments. To those are added some western pop music influences, though not so many that you would guess that Krishna Das is actually Long Island, New York native Jeffrey Kagel.
In his early adulthood Kagel, now Das, was a rock ‘n’ roll loving suburban school bus driver (picture Otto from The Simpsons). Then he had a chance New York City encounter with Indian guru Ram Das. That was the moment that changed Kagel’s life (and his name). He travel to India, studied Hindu philosophy and became enchanted with the songs of the mystics. The result of that spiritual transformation are for all to hear on Pilgrim Heart. For more upbeat tracks give a listen to Devi ‘Rave’ and Namah Shivaya.
Best tracks:Namah Shivaya (#1), Jaya Jagatambe (#9), Devi ‘Rave’ (#11)
Best tracks: Långt Härifrån (#4), Fråga Stjärnorn (#2), Vill Du Veta Vem Jag Ar (#7)
You don’t need to understand Swedish to appreciate the melodic folk-rock tunes by Scandinavian’s answer to Sarah McLachlan. Åkerström is a hugely talented musician, playing the flute, piano and guitar as well as providing vocals. Her voice is gorgeous and accessible — these are songs you can actively listen to or play as the background music for a low-key dinner party. En Bit På Väg (On the Road) is a compilation of her best songs from her first three albums. Since then she’s come out with five others, including this year’s excellent Visor Från Förr & Nu.
Best tracks: Empty House (#3), This Is My Life (#4), Big Storm (#12)
Wow! This album is a stunning musical achievement — except for track #5, Human Condition, which is so inexplicably horrible that we think it was included on the album and made the title track as the result of some sort of lost wager. With that one exception, all the tunes on this album are rich tapestry of global sounds. Lead singer Olga Helm (pictured above) is from France, but sings in English, sets her songs to Middle Eastern beats and makes heavy use of Celtic instruments. We didn’t like this album on the first listen mostly because we didn’t know what to make of it. Who in their right mind, we initially asked, puts bagpipes to Arabic riffs as Shai No Shai does in Big Storm? Countless listens later we still find our appreciation growing for this, one of our all-time favorite albums. Except for track #5.
Best tracks: Every Poet Wants To Murder Shakespeare (#1), A Mindless Pop Song (#11)
We have to think that this band never made it big in part because they are a bad example of what to name a band. The tracks on this album, though, are fabulous. Fun harmonies and catchy rhythms combine on tunes that build from a base. The songs’ hooks pull you in from the first cords, the lyrics then keep you listening. Who would have thought that a tune called A Mindless Pop Song could make a profound and ironic statement on the state of modern music? Sadly, none of The Bad Examples’ other albums match the music genius of Kisses 50 Cents. Even more sadly, The Bad Examples don’t tour much anymore (though lead singer Ralph Covert does). Absolutely go and see The Bad Examples if they do play a gig near you — they put on quite the lively show.
Genre: jazz and ska fusion Best tracks: More Whiskey (#4), Tilt-a-Whirl (#9)
If you are either a jazz or ska purist then give the New York Ska Jazz Ensemble a pass. If you like your music genre-bending (as Spot Cool Stuff does) then this is an alum for you. Background ska riffs frame jazzy trumpets and scorching piano solos to create a sound that’s more ska than jazz. Indeed, most of the ensemble members are from well known ska bands, including Rick Faulkner and Jonathan McCain (the Toasters), guitarist Devon James (the Skatalites) bassist Victor Rice and keyboardist Cary Brown (the Scofflaws).