Rating the contenders for Britain's top music prize
Every year, a panel of judges selects 12 finalists for Great Britain's Mercury Music Prize, given to the year's best U.K. album. This year's shortlist -- announced July 22 (the winner is chosen in September) -- is a little disappointing, but it does include a few new bands that are worth checking out. You probably already know about Radiohead, Coldplay, and Floetry, all of whom got a nod, so here's a quick look at some of the more obscure nominees.
DIZZEE RASCAL ''Boy in da Corner''
If the Streets teamed up with OutKast, the results might sound like this. Combining U.K. garage beats and a distinctly British sensibility, Rascal spits out phrases with the energy and finesse of a championship boxer. It gets a little exhausting toward the end, but for the most part ''Corner'' is inventive and entertaining. B+
MARTINA TOPLEY-BIRD ''Quixotic''
Eight years after Tricky's ''Maxinquaye'' spotlighted her eerily scratchy vocals, Topley-Bird has finally made a solo CD. But ''Quixotic'' lacks the spooky atmosphere and layered polyrhythms that made her work with Tricky so magical. B-
THE DARKNESS ''Permission to Land''
The hippest new band in England sounds like an unholy blend of AC/DC, Canadian prog-metallers Triumph, and -- Lord help us -- Tiny Tim. The mullet-rock posturing is funny for a few minutes, but after a song or two the arena-rock stupidity and Justin Hawkins' banshee-shriek falsetto become simply unendurable. D
THE THRILLS ''So Much for the City''
These Dublin poseurs are a gloriously derivative bunch, channeling classic California rock with a shameless eye for detail (sample song titles: ''Santa Cruz...,'' ''Big Sur''). It's hard to take them too seriously, but their convincing tribute to Neil Young and the Byrds is still quite lovely. B+
ATHLETE ''Vehicles & Animals''
Specializing in low-key pop sing-alongs, this South London quartet packs its songs with modest pleasures. Joel Pott's buttery voice is charmingly marred by a thick cockney accent, and the band dresses up its simple tunes with playful touches: slapping on vintage synth sounds, borrowing a melody from Avril's ''Complicated,'' or shouting ''Chorus!'' just before launching into, yes, a chorus. B+
LEMON JELLY ''Lost Horizons''
A duo that makes electronic lite-psychedelia built on smiley-face samples. Charlton Heston's voice makes a cameo, as does some bloke singing giddily about ducks. But mostly, it's pleasant background music. B