The first thing to say about the Mercury Music Prize is that you have to assume it’s a hive of corruption and critical second-guessing. Take it in any other way and you’d be endorsing the possibility that a panel of judges genuinely do think that Coldplay and Doves have made two of the best British albums of the last twelve months. The intricacies of the shortlist selection process aren’t known to me, but after a decade of these things it’s possible to make a few educated guesses as to who is likely to actually win. Leaving aside, of course, all quality considerations – just like the judges will. So, from the top:

COLDPLAY – Parachutes: Current hot favourite, which means it won’t win – panel chief Simon Frith is a basically contrary soul and enjoys putting the indie boys in their place. It also only came out three weeks ago, which probably explains its top-of-mind placing at the bookies. Gomez were the last rock-based act to win, and despite some musical dissimilarity, that was recent enough to expect Coldplay – also debutantes, also sincere as fuck – won’t.

DEATH IN VEGAS – The Contino Sessions: A definite possiblity – if they give it to a name alternative release it’s much more likely to be DIV than Coldplay or Ashcroft, because of the panel’s quaint belief that mixing dance and rock is really ‘futuristic’.

THE DELGADOS – The Great Eastern: A canny outside bet. Indie is probably due a Mercury, but will the judges want to risk obscurantism? Belle And Sebastian would have been a shoo-in, and the judges’ unwillingness to pick it suggests to me that they’ve something else up their sleeves.

DOVES – Lost Souls: Lack of favourite status may well help them beat Coldplay, but as a band they’re neither young or interesting enough to get the column inches the Mercury requires. Too boring to actually be outsiders, though.

LEFTFIELD – Rhythm And Stealth: Won’t win, because a dance album did last year and in 1997, and because it’s been generally accepted that this follow-up isn’t a patch on Leftism (don’t ask me, I only like the singles off both). Giving it the prize would suggest a tacit acceptance that the judges missed the boat last time.

KATHRYN WILLIAMS – Little Black Numbers: Possibly worth a flutter. Will appeal to panel’s kingmaker urges (Williams is a complete unknown, though if she hits big she could be the JK Rowling of the singer-songwriter set) plus Williams’ Costelloid writing will frighten no horses, and it’d go down well with the papers.

HELICOPTER GIRL – How To Steal The World: God knows. The swiftness with which H Girl has filled a rack at Victoria Station Our Price (not a shop to flatter obscurities) suggests that she has big marketing money behind her. The right – or wrong – hit and she could be this year’s Babylon Zoo, but I think the Mercury’s unlikely.

MJ COLE – Sincere: The Mercury prize judges will be concerned not to make the award look too much like a coffee-table-dance award, else this would be a good bet. If the Craig David album had made it out in time that would have been in here, surely, but I expect MJ Cole to be the ‘hotly advocated’ runner-up this year.

RICHARD ASHCROFT – Alone With Everybody: In its favour, the judges probably don’t want to keep facing the accusation that they never give it to big indie albums. But! Ashcroft’s record has been very poorly received, and so this won’t be the year to break the duck. Kid A to win in 2001, whether it’s any good or not.

NITIN SAWNHEY – Beyond Skin: Assessment of this one rests on whether taste alone made Talvin Singh last year’s winner, or whether tokenism played a part. Either way Sawnhey’s unlikely to make it, but it might still make a good showing.

NICHOLAS MAW – Violin Concerto: Look at the rest of the list – a lot of obvious ‘important releases’ not chosen, a lot of first-timers….are they trying to soften up the field in advance of letting the blatantly token classical guy win for once? To justify the classical release being in the list, it has to happen sometime, and it’s bound to win press in an otherwise bland year. Nicholas Maw might well be right place, right time.

BADLY DRAWN BOY – The Hour Of Bewilderbeast: Oh fuck off, it’s Badly Drawn Boy. That said you never know with the Mercury.

To sum up, my top three picks would be Nicholas Maw, Death In Vegas and Kathryn Williams. British music will no doubt reel on whatever and they’ll find somebody to rant about it in the NME. What do you think?