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FEATURE: Mercury Prize 2016 – Preview

by Ollie Rankine

Now having sunk into the depths of September, music fanatics across Britain are once again engulfed by the dreary beginnings of the autumn months. Although summer is at an end with the festival season having now drawn its final breath, we are somewhat comforted by the arrival of one of Britain’s most distinguished annual music awards, the Mercury Prize. Ignoring any notion of album sales or material statistics, the Mercury Prize seeks to objectively (or at least tries to) identify and crown the UK and Ireland’s ‘Album of the Year’. Now in its 25th edition, the existing format has been jigged around a bit.

This week, on Thursday 15th September, the already-announced dozen nominees will for the first time be whittled down to six in what will be a new ‘finalists phase’ of the competition. The first of the six is to be decided by an online public poll whilst this year’s new panel of judges will decide the remaining five.

The Mercury Prize has long been subject to accusations from music fans of inscrutability or a lack of representation, a feeling that the judging panel is a bit disconnected. Metal is literally never represented in the nomination selection, jazz and folk records are often felt to be tokenistic inclusions, and some selections and notable omissions have been very mysterious in the past. It certainly doesn’t help that the ceremony isn’t publicly televised live, with Channel 4 seeming to get a half-hour of broadcasting rights that only cover the announcement of the winner and a handful of uninteresting interviews. This doesn’t allow for the correct sense of build-up and anticipation that such a prize probably would like to generate among the public.

Indeed, the effect that winning the Prize has on an artist has been surprisingly unpredictable in the past. While many flourish, their victory providing a launch pad for a talented but obscure artist to vault into the mainstream (Portishead in 1995, Elbow in 2008, The xx in 2010), others suffer from the subsequent weight of expectations (Gomez in 1998, Klaxons in 2007) while more still seem to vanish from the radar altogether (Ms Dynamite in 2002, Speech Debelle in 2009).

It’s also very difficult to predict what the judges will opt for on the night. Sometimes they seek to shine a light on a worthy outsider (Roni Size in 1997); sometimes they simply can’t ignore the popularity of an album (Franz Ferdinand in 2004, Arctic Monkeys in 2006); and very occasionally they go totally off-grid for the rank outsider (Talvin Singh in 1999). However, any decisions they make have to be unanimous and are the result of often heated argument, according to those who’ve served on the panel before, and the concept of the ‘Mercury upset’ – in which massive, heavily-tipped artists like Radiohead or Adele are entertainingly overlooked in favour of Roni Size or Alt-J – is still alive and well.

However, it is worth remembering that, despite it being an alternative to the pure popularity contest of the BRITs, the Mercury Prize is still an industry award – it’s just that the representatives come from a different part of the industry than just the major labels. Sitting on this year’s panel is former Mercury Prize winner Jarvis Cocker along with fellow musicians Kate Tempest, Jessie Ware, Jamie Cullum and Wolf Alice’s Ellie Rowsell. 6Music and Radio 2’s Jeff Smith, and Radio 1’s Annie Mac also get to have their say whilst many more of music’s most influential figures also make up an impressive scrutiny panel.

With judgement day looming, this year’s twelve nominees certainly illustrate a diverse, yet artistically strong year for music, despite some notable omissions in the form of two-time winner PJ Harvey and multi-million-selling machine Adele. Although the bookmakers may have already had their say, we’re going to have a quick look at each artist and try to decipher which album might come out on top.

Anohni – Hopelessness

anohni_hopelessnessFormerly known as Antony Hegarty, Anohni not only flies the transgender flag amongst the twelve Mercury nominees but is also enjoying her second endeavour within the Mercury Prize shortlist. Despite her album Hopelessness being a debut, she previously fronted band, Anthony and the Johnsons who actually won the Mercury Prize in 2005 for their sophomore record, I Am A Bird Now. Now having developed her sound through a use of dance beats and elements of electronica, could we witness a second victory for a fresh face to the competition? (LISTEN)

Chances? – A definite contender

Bat For Lashes – The Bride

bat_for_lashes_the_brideNatasha Khan returns to the Mercury Prize shortlist with her third nomination for her most outgoing and personal work to date. The Bride titles 2016’s most stimulating concept album and takes the listener on a journey through wedding day bereavement and inner personal discovery. Although having never won in the past, Khan’s dissonant fourth album is certainly something to behold. (LISTEN)

Chances? – Unlikely, but don’t rule it out

David Bowie – Blackstar

david_bowie_blackstarNow we reach the big guns. It’s safe to say I think everyone expected a posthumous nomination for the late and great David Bowie. However although it might be easy to instantly crown Bowie’s genius artistic representation of his own death as an indisputable victor, the Mercury Prize has always tended to champion the not yet established musicians due to their need of artist exposure. That being said, Bowie is yet to taste a Mercury victory and the chance that his final, 25th album could potentially win the 25th Mercury Prize seems just a little too poetic to ignore. (LISTEN)

Chances? – Red hot favourite

Skepta – Konnichiwa

skepta_konnichiwaAnother likely winning album lies within the hands of the king of grime himself. If the judges are looking for an album that epitomises the sound of 2016 than who better to give it to than London hip hop artist, Skepta. His fourth album, Konnichiwa has not only taken Britain by the scruff of the neck but also made grime accessible to a totally new audience landscape. Love him or hate him, if he doesn’t make it into at least the final six, it’ll be an absolute travesty. (LISTEN)

Chances? – A very good bet

Jamie Woon – Making Time

jamie_woon_making_timePerhaps a slightly unexpected addition to the 2016 nominees, Jamie Woon returns after a five-year break with his second album, Making Time. Although his debut, Mirror Writing generally charted higher across the board, Making Time created a more distinct sound through a far more minimal approach. Despite the surprise, Woon’s presence is far from undeserved. (LISTEN)

Chances? – Can’t see it happening

Kano – Made In The Manor

kano_made_in_the_manorAnother British hip-hop artist to have coloured the grime scene throughout its primary years is long-time rapper, Kano. Other than a BRIT Award nomination, his four previous albums received little reputable praise. His recent record, Made In The Manor marks Kano’s new territory breaking the Top Ten in the UK album charts and hones grime’s ascent by adding a somewhat more mature sound to indulge upon. (LISTEN)

Chances? – Can’t see it happening

Laura Mvula – The Dreaming Room

laura_mvula_the_dreaming_roomLaura Mvula restores her position amongst the twelve Mercury Prize nominees with her second album in as many releases, The Dreaming Room following her debut Sing To The Moon’s defeat in 2013. Though her audience has never been vast, her serpentine melodies have managed to ensnare a range of listeners spanning from young to old and from nearly all walks of life. Although the debut didn’t bring home the goods, Mvula’s style could still yet convince a freshly assembled judging panel. (LISTEN)

Chances? – A dark horse contender

Michael Kiwanuka – Love & Hate

michael_kiwanuka_love_and_hateWith all the deeply unfortunate stories surfacing this year on the subject of racial hate and abuse, it would be criminal in its own right not to have included Michael Kiwanuka’s second album, Love & Hate. Previously missing out on a Mercury Prize victory following his debut album, Home Again being defeated by Alt-J in 2012, Kiwanuka’s racially charged second reveals a more matured and hard-hitting approach. (LISTEN)

Chances? – A definite contender

Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

radiohead_a_moon_shaped_poolNow somewhat begrudgingly holding the title of the most nominated artist in the history of the Mercury Awards, Radiohead return to the shortlist for a whopping fifth instalment in the hope of a first Mercury win – six if you include Thom Yorke’s solo album The Eraser in 2006. Their ninth album, A Moon Shaped Pool may not be the strongest to have featured amongst a collection of twelve Mercury nominations, however this should not rule them out. Receiving unanimous praise from critics and fans alike, Radiohead’s quest for a Mercury award continues by pushing their sound into more unthinkable realms of sonic space. (LISTEN)

Chances? – Probably too big a name

Savages – Adore Life

savages_adore_lifeReturning to the Mercury nominations list are four piece, female fuelled punk outfit, Savages. Although their abrasive 2013 debut Silence Yourself missed out on a Mercury victory, Jehnny Beth and her band of raucous renegades have returned totally rearmed with a more accomplished and mature sound that received critical acclaim pretty much across the board. It might not be an obvious pick but leaving an impression is what they do best. (LISTEN)

Chances? – Unlikely, but don’t rule it out

The 1975 – I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It

the_1975_i_like_it_when_you_sleepAlthough many will continue to stubbornly ignore his existence, Matt Healy is creating an impact in nearly all across the world. Now having expanded their reach to the U.S., The 1975’s sprawling second album, probably forever doomed to be known as ‘the one with the ridiculous title’, has taken the band to new undeniable levels of fame and accomplishment. Fusing the qualities of a natural frontman and teenage heartthrob, Healy continues his defiant world conquest whilst creating an equally as big stream of opposition in his wake. (LISTEN)

Chances? – Probably too big a name

The Comet Is Coming – Channel The Spirits

the_comet_is_coming_channel_the_spiritsThe last Mercury nominee comes with welcome surprise. Although marketed as a competition where all genres of music are eligible, the Mercury Prize is often criticised for its indirect neglect of jazz, folk and classical inspired albums. The Comet Is Coming’s debut Channel The Spirits introduces a slightly bizarre electro-jazz persona to the shortlist and gives the 12 nominees a suitable degree of diversity or ‘wild card’ aspect. Although Channel The Spirits is extremely unlikely to win, the artist exposure will, I’m sure, prove to be to their advantage. (LISTEN)

Chances? – The rank outsider

Enjoy our playlist of all 24 previous Mercury Prize winners here via Spotify! Who do you think will win the 2016 edition?

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