Since its inception in 1992, there’s been an air of dissatisfaction that’s hung over the Mercury Prize. It’s only grown more so in recent times, and it’s not hard to see why. The shortlist is often too safe and predictable, with commercial big-hitters regularly nabbing spots ahead of rising stars and underground sensations, and the exclusivity of the event (its £228 entry fee, the carefully selected panel of industry-based judges) whiffs of elitism. With that said, this year’s nominees make the strongest case for the prize’s existence in some time.
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Of course, there are a myriad of notable omissions. As is the
norm, metal is unfairly disregarded, despite terrific albums from Architects (2018’s Holy Hell) and Employed To Serve (this year’s Eternal Forward Motion).
There’s no electronic albums up for the prize either, with Thom Yorke’s Anima and
Ross from Friends’ Family Portrait both
missing out. Meanwhile, Nilüfer Yanya and The Japanese House established
themselves as two of Britain’s best singer-songwriters with their debut albums,
yet didn’t make the cut, and previous Mercury winners James Blake and Skepta
were also left out of the final 12, having brilliantly refined their respective
crafts on Assume
Form and Ignorance Is Bliss.
Although there are a host of absentees that were unfortunate
not to have been nominated, this year’s shortlist is a surprisingly fine
portrait of where British music is at right now. Yes, each album here is
musically innovative, but they all seem to reflect the anxiety of modern times
in one way or another. By acknowledging records that primarily focused upon
social and political issues, the Mercury Prize feels more relevant than they
have done in years.
Without further ado, here’s our rundown of the 12 nominees,
and their chances of taking home the gong.
Anna Calvi – Hunter
Clearly a favourite with the Mercury judges, Anna Calvi’s third successive nomination is no less justified than those for her self-titled debut and 2013’s One Breath. Produced by frequent Nick Cave collaborator Nick Launay, Hunter was a wonderful evolution of Calvi’s sweeping, cinematic goth-rock, switching between glacial ballads and rugged, primal stompers in a way she only knows how. Underneath the sublime guitar work and flamboyant vocals are Calvi’s most personal lyrics yet, which delve deep into themes of gender and sexual identity.
Will she win? –
Unfortunately, it’s highly likely that Anna Calvi will come up short once
again. As critically acclaimed as Hunter was,
it’s still not as exciting as some of the other albums up for the award.
Nonetheless, it would still be a worthy, albeit very surprising winner.
Black Midi – Schlagenheim
South London’s Black
Midi are perhaps the most unique proposition on the list. Their debut album
– which, aptly, means “to hit home” in German -was an awe-inspiring exercise in experimentation, full of wonky
structures, jarring tempo shifts and mathy, off-kilter guitars. There’s a nervy
energy that permeates the record, which is only heightened by the discontented
lyrics and Geordie Greep’s unsettling vocals.
Will they win? – One
of this year’s dark horses for sure. The judges often lean towards artists with
a degree of commercial success, but they aren’t averse to throwing a curveball
from time to time (see Benjamin Clementine in 2015). They might not be a
massive name, but Black Midi’s sound is bold and creative enough to make them
Cate Le Bon – Reward
Despite an impressive back-catalogue, Reward
marks Welsh singer-songwriter Cate
Le Bon’s long overdue first Mercury
nomination. Written at her home in the Lake District, it’s strung with a
palpable sense of isolation, but it doesn’t compromise the lush, airy
instrumentation. Melodic yet full of the idiosyncrasies that have defined Le
Bon’s work thus far, Reward is the
work of an artist at the top of her game.
Will she win? – It’s
safe to say Cate Le Bon isn’t one of the favourites going in, but it would be a
pleasing surprise to see her pick up the award. Just don’t hold your breath.
Dave – Psychodrama
British rap has been in rude health since Skepta’s 2016 Mercury Prize win, something further demonstrated by Dave’s remarkable ascendancy. After scoring a number 1 single with ‘Funky Friday’ towards the end of last year, he then released his debut album Psychodrama. A semi-concept album based upon his brother’s therapy sessions in prison, it effortlessly dissected heavy themes such as race, depression, and domestic abuse over a chilly, sparse backdrop, and cemented its creator as one of the most thought-provoking and compelling storytellers around. A true masterpiece.
Will he win? – He
faces stiff competition, but Dave is clearly one of this year’s frontrunners. He’s
still one of the bookies’ favourites, and it’s nigh on impossible to argue that
he doesn’t deserve to win.
Foals – Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost: Part 1
gradually evolved from abstract dance-punks to bona fide festival
headliners. Their latest effort, Everything
Not Saved Will Be Lost: Part 1 reaffirmed their status as one of
Britain’s elite rock bands, and tantalisingly set up Part 2 (which will arrive in October). Sonically, it was an
amalgamation of each of their past albums, delivering ferocious riffs and propulsive
grooves with typical aplomb. Meanwhile, Yannis Philippakis’ lyrics were more
socially conscious, turning his gaze towards climate change, mental health
issues and the current political chaos.
Will they win? – As Wolf Alice took home last year’s Mercury Prize, it’s unlikely the judges will go for another major rock band this time around. Foals wouldn’t exactly be the most inspiring choice either; Everything Not Saved was one of the best of their career, but there are other records that captured the zeitgeist just a little bit better.
Fontaines D.C. – Dogrel
They are still young, but Fontaines D.C.’sDogrel
sounded like the work of a band well beyond their years. It was a collection of
raw, rumbling post-punk aesthetically similar to the likes of Shame and IDLES,
but with frontman Grian Chatten’s unique delivery and songs that chronicled
life in working class Ireland, they offered something a little different to
Will they win? – Another
one of the surprise packages for sure. They might not have the same level of
mainstream exposure as other artists here, but Fontaines D.C.’s poetic yet
effervescent sound captured the hearts and minds of critics, so don’t be too
surprised to see them snatch this year’s award from one of the big guns.
IDLES – Joy As An Act Of Resistance
By turning punk completely on its head, IDLES gave us one of the most vital records in recent memory. On the surface, Joy As An Act Of Resistance was snarling and uncompromising, but underpinning each song was a defiant feeling of positivity. Singer Joe Talbot handled toxic masculinity, immigration, and nationalism with unparalleled joie-de-vivre and acerbic wit, while also laying bare his vulnerability. A rip-roaring, life-affirming testament to self-empowerment and the importance of unity in troubling times.
Will they win? – It’s been a whirlwind couple of years for IDLES, who have also enhanced their reputation with their live shows and a legendary appearance on Jools Holland’s ‘Later…’. Winning the Mercury Prize would propel their momentum even further, and would be a fitting reward for one the most important bands Britain has to offer.
Little Simz – Grey Area
Little Simz reminded
everyone how talented she is with her mesmerising third album Grey
Area. Introspective yet bolshy and confident, it showed how much the
London rapper has evolved since her early mixtapes, and contained some cracking
instrumentals courtesy of British hip-hop producer Inflo. A watershed moment
for an MC who’s flown somewhat under the radar until now.
Will she win? – The
Mercury Prize hasn’t been won by a woman since PJ Harvey was crowned for the
second time in her career in 2011, but the long wait for a female victor could
very well end this year. An intelligent, energetic and emotionally compelling
performer, it’s no shock that Little Simz is also going in as one of the
Nao – Saturn
Nottingham singer Naofollowed up her impressive 2016
breakthrough For All We Know with an
even better sequel. Saturn once again showcased
her extraordinary vocals, which even at their most soothing and honeyed, were
totally commanding. The album’s production was wonderfully varied too, ranging
from wobbly funk to cool, sunny afrobeat. Despite the constant stylistic
shifts, Saturn felt like a focused,
singular vision from an increasingly adventurous and dynamic musician.
Will she win? –
One of the only albums here not transfixed on politics, it’s tough to see Nao
walking away as the winner.
SEED Ensemble – Driftglass
We’ve finally reached the annual “token jazz album” that’s on every Mercury Prize list, but it would be unfair to assume that SEED Ensemble aren’t here on merit. A 10-piece collective, they are one of the faces of the UK’s exciting jazz revival, warping classic sounds by incorporating African and Caribbean sounds as well as spoken-word poetry and hip-hop, as Driftglass demonstrates.
Will they win? – Absolutely
no chance, sadly.
Slowthai – Nothing Great About Britain
Slowthai’s Nothing Great About Britain has been out since May, yet its impact hasn’t waned in the slightest. Even on repeated listens, it packs the same devastating punch; it’s impossible not to be captivated by Slowthai’s manic, blistering flow, the claustrophobic production, and the witty yet brutal commentary on a Britain that’s edging towards the brink of collapse. A near-flawless debut from a one-of-a-kind rapper.
Will he win? – Like
Dave and Little Simz, Slowthai’s politically-motivated bars have earned him his
fair share of plaudits, but his punky demeanour sets him apart. His crossover
appeal could be the factor that tips the balance in his favour.
The 1975 – A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships
The 1975 remain a
divisive force, but there’s so much to admire about their post-modern approach
to pop music. Sprawling and eclectic, A
Brief Enquiry Into Online Relationships was Matt Healy’s most ambitious
product of his vision thus far, hopping between genres with limitless abandon. The
vast array of styles compliments Healy’s attempts to make sense of modern life,
whether he’s focusing on relationships, addiction, or our over-reliance on
technology. It’s pretentious and fragmented, but it’s also utter genius.
Will they win? –
It would elicit some groans if they were to win, but no band as popular and
successful as The 1975 are making music as challenging as this. Definitely a
Tags: 2019, Anna Calvi, Black Midi, Foals, IDLES, Mercury Prize, preview, Seed Ensemble, The 1975
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