A Sweet Guide to the Most Coveted Prize in Music

Announced on Friday, November 20th, this is one of the most prestigious awards in music, if one of the most peripheral. Here, we break down the short list and, over the course of the week—starting today—we'll introduce three of the most exciting artists up for the prize this year.

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While it may never compete with the Grammys and the Brits for international prestige, the U.K.'s Mercury Music Prize is nevertheless one of the most respectable awards a musician can hope to win. Voted for by industry insiders and journalists—so, notionally, "experts"—it's open to artists with a British or Irish background, and its annual shortlist is often winningly idiosyncratic.

Founded 23 years ago, the Mercury shortlist always includes an obscure, chin-stroking entrant (or five) few have heard of before. Although previous winners include Franz Ferdinand, Arctic Monkeys, PJ Harvey, and Elbow, others—Talvin Singh, Speech Debelle, Young Fathers—remained every bit as cult after their victory as they had been before. This year's shortlist, as ever, reassures in its eclecticism.

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Aphex Twin, Syro

More abrasive, avant-garde weirdness courtesy of Richard David James, the 44-year-old British electronic musician whose music has bewitched, and bemused, for over two decades now.

Gaz Coombes, Matador

Formerly the frontman with Britpop stars Supergrass, Coombes mines a more furrowed brow with this, his second album. Woozy, Krautrock-influenced songs deal with darker topics—among them the drug-induced paranoia—to winning effect.

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C Duncan, Architect

Glaswegian Christopher Duncan is a composer and musician with a degree in composition from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. He has written music for TV and for choirs. His debut album is a spectral, desolate affair.

ESKA, ESKA

A favourite of the British jazz artists Jamie Cullum and Laura Mvula, Eska is Eska Mtungwazi, a Zimbabwean Brit and multi-instrumentalist who has been compared to everyone from Prince to Joni Mitchell. She was formerly a teacher.

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Florence and the Machine, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful

This was Florence Welch's first U.S. number one album when it was released this summer. 2015 has proven the British singer to be somewhat accident prone: At Coachella she broke her foot; more recently, she fell on stage while performing in Melbourne.

Ghostpoet, Shedding Skin

The south-west London artist whose spoken-word delivery, over moody, slightly depressive beats, is poetry by any other name, has been nominated for a Mercury before, in 2011. Shedding Skin features collaborations with artists including singer Nadine Shah, and Paul Smith from British indie act Maxïmo Park. For a video interview with Ghostpoet, recorded last week, swipe right.

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Roísín Murphy, Hairless Toys

Formally the determinedly eccentric singer with British dance act Moloko, Murphy's solo album is similarly bonkers, from its title down. The 42-year-old has two children, and now makes music with her partner, the Italian DJ/producer Sebastiano Properzi.

Slaves, Are You Satisfied?

A two-piece punk-influenced act from Tunbridge Wells, Kent, Slaves sound like the kind of men who like to start fights in pubs. The twentysomethings Isaac Holman and Laurie Vincent have been hailed as the most exciting new band in Britain.

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SOAK, Before We Forget How to Dream

A 19-year-old from Northern Ireland by the name of Bridie Monds-Watson, SOAK's music is tender and winsome, but shot through with lyrical steel. She struggled at school due to dyslexia, but found her voice through songwriting.

Wolf Alice, My Love Is Cool

Fronted by 23-year-old Ellie Rowsell, Wolf Alice are an indie rock outfit who ditched their early folk beginnings for more muscle when they swelled, in 2010, from a duo to a quartet. Rowsell frequently speaks out about the lack of female-fronted bands in a male-dominated industry.

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