In its chequered nineteen-year history the Mercury Prize has repeatedly come under fire for being too populist, too major-label focused, too male, too unrepresentative of what’s really going on in British music, and in recent years a few alternative lists have been cropping up among various UK music websites.
In keeping with the planetary theme, the obvious choice for a Wears The Trousers shortlist was good old Venus, what with all women allegedly being beamed from the arid second rock from the Sun. “I’m a little dyslexic and Venus Prize reads as Penis Prize to me!! Eeeek!” protested one of our dear readers, and so, in 2010, the Venus/No-Penis Music Prize* was born. A major cock-up involving accidental deletion of the poll results (ahem!) meant that all of last year’s votes were lost (argh!), so consider this the very first. Time to have a bit of fun.
We’ve selected a dozen of our favourite female-fronted British albums released between July 1, 2010 and July 11, 2011. Unlike last year, we decided to include artists who are already nominated for this year’s Mercury Prize, so PJ Harvey, Anna Calvi and Katy B can breathe easy.
The winner, chosen by YOU, will be announced on September 6. It’s the same day as the Mercury Prize is awarded, but alas the Trousers piggybank won’t stretch to match their £20,000 prize. Instead we’ll donate a whopping fifty quid to a charity of the winner’s choice. Exert your influence below! Update: We’re still waiting for a few interviews to come in so we’re extending the voting until Friday (September 9).
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Self-assured and tender second album from 21-year old Londoner.
Alessi Laurent-Marke’s move to Bella Union from her uneasy home at Virgin Records gave her the freedom to make this second album to her own specifications, a fact not lost upon the listener as she leads us through her transition from adolescence into adulthood with a noticeably strengthened confidence. The inescapable fact that relationships of all kinds change as we get older lies at the heart of Time Travel‘s dozen songs, and Laurent-Marke reconciles herself with this truth in various beautiful ways, from the acoustic, tender resignation of ‘Wire’ to the shimmering document of heartbreak, ‘On The Plain’. [Alan Pedder; original review by Odhran O'Donoghue]
A work of soul-tingling beauty and subtle simplicity.
There’s a sense of yearning and elegant candour to much of Andreya Triana’s debut album that elevates her work above so much of the Brit-soul churned out each year. Her use of live instrumentation and light orchestration, as well as her refusal to kowtow wholesale to American chart-pop conventions, gives Lost Where I Belong an authenticity and charm that stands out from the crowd. There’s a delicate sadness to much of the material, but Triana never edges into excessive contemplation, always ready with an instrumental flourish or a vocal nuance to enrich the spirit. [Alan Pedder; original review by Charlotte Richardson Andrews]
Artfully fractured paeans to dark and glorious passions.
In the machismo world of guitar rock, snarling riffs and attention-grabbing solos are king. But on her searing, self-titled debut album, guitar wizard Anna Calvi eschews these conventions, choosing instead to explore the more melodic side of the six-string. Over the course of ten songs, Calvi wields her instrument to creative shifting, atmospheric textures while exploring the darker sides of romance and lust with her throaty, passionate vocals. As much Debussy as it is Hendrix, Anna Calvi is a guitar rock album, certainly, but one that steers this hackneyed terrain to new and startling places. [Odhran O'Donoghue; original review by Charlotte Richardson Andrews]
Makes a compelling case for Anita Blay’s progression into pop’s major leagues.
We weren’t sure an album would ever materialise from Hackney-based artist Anita Blay after she became disillusioned with the industry and took a break, followed by some applause-worthy shit-calling in which she challenged the press over racist stereotying (black girls can only make grime, etc.) and fat-phobic beauty standards. Thankfully it did, and Adulthood is a wonderfully polished debut full of elegant, witty pop and upbeat confessionals, drawing in splashes of electro, chunky guitars and plinking pianos. Blay’s wide-ranging love of pop is put to excellent, creative effect, with hints of everything from ABBA and N*E*R*D to Duane Eddy and TLC. [Charlotte Richardson Andrews; original review by Jude Clarke]
A record dealing in harsh blows struck softly.
A response to the break-up of her engagement three weeks before her wedding, due to her then-fiancé’s decision to become a Christian missionary, Emma-Lee Moss’s second album cuts right to her core as a songwriter. Virtue sees her coming to terms with her experiences through a mix of character pieces and personal confessions, united by a sense of honesty, loss and wonderfully self-aware wit. Musically, the album represents a significant step forward, expanding on the pared-back, simple sound of her debut First Love with the help of longtime collaborator Euan Hinshelwood. Thoughtfully employed string arrangements and occasional flirtations with simple electronics complement Moss’s rich lyrical imagery throughout, resulting in a vividly cinematic opus of grief, beauty and, ultimately, hope. [Odhran O'Donoghue; original review by Rhian Jones]
A forebodingly creepy listen, mandatory for the midnight hour.
Brooding, atmospheric and sepulchral, Esben & The Witch’s debut album is a near-masterpiece of melodrama. On Violet Cries, the Brighton trio exploit layered-guitars, scintillatingly minimalist electronics and bone-rattling percussion to construct a gothic netherworld of portentous doom. Steering the band’s dark tales are the commanding vocals of Rachel Davies, which transform from demure cooing to incendiary caterwauling in an instant, adding a sense of spontaneity and vigour to their ominous, carefully-crafted compositions. Starkly cohesive and wonderfully executed, Violet Cries is a stunning collection whose impact builds with repeated listens, much as the din slowly augments in their songs. [Odhran O'Donoghue; original review by Mark Bullock]
A surprisingly fluid and complex debut.
Only just squeaking in to this year’s eligible entrants with a digital release on the Mercury cut-off date, Elizabeth Walling as Gazelle Twin nevertheless deserves her place among this year’s hopefuls. Inspired by the surrealist painter Max Ernst, The Entire City is an intense and brooding macrocosm of cinematic orchestration, layered electronics and treated vocals that chills the blood and beguiles the mind. What impresses most about the album is Walling’s instinctual use of dynamics and fluctuations in mood to convey a range of emotions without sounding disjointed or forced, the result being one of the year’s most immersive and unsettling listens. [Alan Pedder; original review by Tomas Slaninka]
The best British urban pop album in years.
Initially coinciding release dates with fellow Brit songstress Jessie J threw up some rather ill-fitting comparisons, but Katy B’s On A Mission was largely seen as surpassing her so-called rival’s overbaked debut. The album bubbles with homegrown dance rhythms, bridging old-school garage, dubstep and UK funky with impossibly lovely, R&B styled vocal melodies, but the real crux of the record is Katy B’s ability to give dance music’s traditionally impersonal genre a personable, friendly face. This is authentic dance music for good-time party goers, with Katy very much center stage and expressing a sweet, girl-next-door ebullience. [Charlotte Richardson Andrews; original review by Odhran O'Donoghue]
Polly tones down the personal and turns up the political.
PJ Harvey’s eighth album is a sweeping, powerful and historically savvy survey of the human costs of war, and England’s ambiguous role in historical combat. Let England Shake brims with muted guitars, electric piano and brass, tipping its hat to other music through intelligent samples and song quotations. Harvey’s voice veers between high drama and an unsettlingly cool composure, her lyrics content to bear witness to the horrors of war rather than stridently opposing them. The album also brilliantly captures an England that’s grey, washed-up and worn-out, existing with a glum persistence in the shadow of its former imperial glory. [Rhian Jones; original review by Alan Pedder]
A rare album that appeals to the avant-garde without surrendering melody.
Five years on from her impressive debut Have It All, Berlin-via-Bolton artist Janie Rostron exceeded already high expectations with the ambiguously titled W. From the fizzing opening soundclash of ‘Doorway’ right through to the emotional finale, it’s a record laced with high drama and dance-friendly grooves, where classical strings rub against elegantly gritty, propulsive synths. Rostron’s unconventional image and androgynous vocals are part of the queer aesthetic that makes her work so intriguing, adding an additional layer of appeal to an album that already brims with atmosphere, romance and self-aware humour. [Charlotte Richardson Andrews; original review by Jude Clarke]
An accomplished foray into socially conscious art-pop from one of our true greats.
Generation Indigo provided a suitably surprising swansong for one of punk’s most intriguing and significant voices. Only returning in part to the eye-opening brassy punk squall with which she made her name, on her final album Poly Styrene also took in disco, dub, reggae, electro and bubblegum pop. Her voice sounds as vibrant and vivid as in her X-Ray Spex heyday, and her jagged-edged lyrics run the gauntlet of love, war, terrorism and consumerism at which she always excelled. A powerfully produced and unexpectedly commercial collection, Generation Indigo blends sharply lacerating punk fundamentalism with a fresh and positive engagement with some of modern music’s shiniest hooks. [Rhian Jones; original review by Mark Bullock]
Spiky and playfully creepy, but with moments of sweetness.
There’s no change in quality on this fourth album from Northumbria’s finest; Last exhibits The Unthanks’ continuing employment of decorously spare production and unyielding melancholy, from which they weave a determinedly doleful tapestry. The album features imaginatively minimalist covers of Tom Waits and King Crimson alongside dug-up traditional folk tales of poverty, war and disaster. The unforgiving and often chilling subject matter, shading from autumn to winter with little hint of sun, is wrapped up more warmly than on previous albums in lush vocals and string-heavy arrangements, but still sends a beautiful shiver down the spine. [Rhian Jones; original review by Odhran O'Donoghue]
* with apologies to Daniel and Thomas of Esben & The Witch, and Adrian and Chris of The Unthanks.
Tagged alessi's ark, andreya triana, anna calvi, cocknbullkid, emmy the great, esben and the witch, gazelle twin, katy b, on a mission, pj harvey, planningtorock, poly styrene, the entire city, the unthanks, violet cries, virtue