‘The music here is funny and inspiring, smart and moving. Twelve amazing albums!’ – The Mercury Prize Judges, 2018
Ah, the Mercury Prize. The last bastion of musical integrity, recognising the diverse and innovative musical accomplishments of those from all over this United Kingdom (unless you’re unfortunate enough to come from Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, in which case you’re out of luck). It’s the usual calamitous shitshow of nominations, although this year the Mercury Prize has somehow excelled itself in opting for the most bland, safe and outdated albums from the year.
Is it time to just accept that the Mercury Prize doesn’t reward truly inventive and ground-breaking musical direction, instead sticking to an antiquated and formulaic blueprint that consists of a token jazz album, your yearly grime entry, an electronic indie album (usually from Everything Everything/ Alt-J), someone NME hasn’t shut up about for literal decades and a slightly leftfield stadium touring pop act? Probably, but it has to be noted that the Mercury Prize is supposedly about rewarding pioneering, exciting music from all genres, tasked with providing ‘a range of music genres to a wider audience’. Despite Arctic Monkeys, Noel Gallagher, Florence and the Machine and Lily Allen all being relatively unknown acts that could benefit from a wider audience, it’s always compelling to see how the Mercury Prize will manage to directly contradict the fundamental ethos that defines the Prize in new and invigorating ways.
So who’s responsible for this mess? The pleasure falls to an esteemed batch of ‘independent’ judges with absolutely no vested or commercial interest, a point made explicitly clear by the Mercury Prize (sponsored by Hyundai). There’s a few fascinating titbits on the Mercury Prize’s website that dispel any fears of such commercial interest, such as stating ‘the judges decisions are based solely on the quality of music’ twice in two sentences in a manner that could be described as pre-emptive denial.
This is before listing a number of judges who could potentially have a commercial interest in the success of an album, such as the head of a commercial radio station that specialises in indie music, the head of a commercial magazine that specialises in indie music and numerous broadcasters who host indie/pop festivals. That’s before we even delve into whether the numerous indie and pop representatives on the judging board are truly rounded enough to make an educated decision outside of their comfort zone or expertise. I’m sure aficionados of metal will be delighted to see that Marcus Mumford is representing their cherished genre, which makes it all the more perplexing as to why not one single album from the genre received a nomination this year. Baffling.
Which brings me to the obituaries of 2018. The bubbling cauldron of impressive and emerging voices in the UK jazz scene has been simmered down to just Sons of Kemet – sorry Kamaal Williams, Joe Armon Jones et al. Pop/Indie has a strong presence, but that doesn’t stop Charli XCX, Hookworms and my personal pick Let’s Eat Grandma from being omitted. Dance music? No such thing. The usual token entry is missing, so there’s no representation for Jon Hopkins, Bicep, Leon Vynehall, Blawan or Four Tet. Let’s not discuss Young Fathers, Pariah, Rolo Tomassi, Gruff Rhys, SOPHIE or Twitter’s pick, Shame.
Fortunately, I’ve listened to each of these albums so you don’t have to. To say it was an arduous task is an understatement. Whilst someone, somewhere will inevitably be disappointed with the shortlist regardless of nominations, this year’s Mercury Prize is intent with boring the ever-living shit out of you, which sort of figures with Marcus Mumford at the helm. Here it is, then. The best of British music. Presenting this year’s Brit awards – sorry, Mercury Prize nominations.
Arctic Monkeys – Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino
Who: Like you don’t know. Sheffield’s finest, Arctic Monkeys.
What: Sixth album from the NME adored band that substitutes any of the earlier crunching excitement with a drab 70’s theme. Did anyone actually like the 70’s? Apparently Alex Turner did, but much like the era, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is very, very beige. Although not their worst, this album is a slog to listen to in it’s entirety, so just listen to ‘Four Out Of Five’ and call it a day.
Best Song: ‘Four Out Of Five’ is pretty great when taken out of context.
Should It Be Nominated: No. There is absolutely no benefit to either the band or the British music scene with this nomination and they’ve already won for 2006’s masterpiece Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not. Plus, Tranquility is unfathomably boring.
Will It Win: No, although it’ll certainly garner Marcus Mumford’s vote. Invoice me for the mic.
Everything Everything – A Fever Dream
Who: Electro agitprop kings, Everything Everything.
What: A stand-in for the gap left by Glass Animals and quirklords Alt-J, A Fever Dream is the latest offering from Everything Everything that hits all the notes you’d expect from the quartet. Unlikely to bring in any new fans, A Fever Dream is the signature obscure electro-pop album from the group that sticks to a tried and tested formula but trims some of the fat of Get To Heaven. This is the band’s second nomination.
Best Song: ‘A Fever Dream’ does some pretty interesting things in terms of evolving song structure.
Should It Be Nominated: I don’t really see why not. Whilst it’s firmly near the bottom in my rankings of Everything Everything albums, they’ve got a uniquely defined sound that attempts socio-political discourse, which the Prize adores.
Will It Win: Despite being political and weirdly experimental within the confines of a safe genre, it’s unlikely the group will nab the top spot.
Everything Is Recorded – Everything Is Recorded
Who: Richard Russell, head honcho of the industry dominating force that is XL Records.
What: An ensemble debut effort from Everything Is Recorded, Russel’s chosen ‘solo’ moniker. A genre traversing experiment centred around a semi-soul aesthetic, Everything Is Recorded is bolstered by XL and Young Turk titans such as last year’s Mercury Prize winner Sampha, jazz mastermind Kamasi Washington and Ibeyi. Smooth and inoffensive, it’s fairly ironic that the boss of a record label designed to highlight innovative dance music has released such a subdued album.
Best Song: Probably ‘Show Love’ for the soft soul synergy that Syd and Sampha bring to the table.
Should It Be Nominated: I’ll allow it, despite being a safe and innocuous choice.
Will It Win: Possible, but only when you scrutinise the absurdly consistent success XL Records have had at the Mercury Prize, which includes 3 wins and 13 nominations… in the last 18 years. Hmm.
Florence + The Machine – High As Hope
Who: Vocal titan Florence Welch and her time-travelling companion, the machine.
What: Fourth LP from indie/alternative’s answer to Adele. Is it her best album? Certainly not. Is it her worst album? Arguably so. 10 songs of Flo singing about the detrimental effects of drugs hardly makes for enticing material, plus there’s a certain sense of ‘no shit’ that accompanies the subject matter. Full of ballooning orchestral swells that attempts a tribal sense of catharsis, High As Hope will appeal to fans of earlier albums and probably no one else.
Best Song: I’ve already written about the brooding merits of ‘Big God’, so it’s an easy win for the ominous existential anthem.
Should It Be Nominated: Nope. It’s certainly more of the same from Flo, and whilst that’s not necessarily a bad thing, the nomination should easily have gone to a pioneering young upstart that could fully benefit from winning the Prize.
Will It Win: It’s a no from me – too established and ‘safe’.
Jorja Smith – Lost & Found
Who: Neo-soul/R&B rising star Jorja Smith.
What: Lost & Found lost my interest exceedingly quickly and, sadly, never found it again. Jorja Smith’s debut effort demonstrates ample talent early in proceedings but lacks anything to truly capture interest or innovate within the genre. Warbles and soulful affectations are aplenty, but not even Jorja’s vocal prowess can save the never-ending expanse of distant keys and muted drum fills.
Best Song: They all sound the same except for 2016’s single ‘Blue Lights’, so that’ll be my vote.
Should It Be Nominated: Sure. It’s a debut effort from an emerging talent, so even though it fails to excite my tastes it’s always promising to see the Prize attempt to recognise debut albums, even if it is a rather harmless nomination.
Will It Win: When I first saw the nominations, Jorja Smith was my instant pick to win. Neo-soul/modern R&B is increasingly popular and at the fringe of mainstream culture, so Lost & Found remains a safe choice slightly outside of the ‘pop’ periphery. Plus, it wouldn’t be a Mercury Prize article without throwing the dreaded ‘urban’ word out there, and we all know The Mercury Prize loves to validate predominantly white opinions by giving the award to an artist deemed as ‘urban’ who still makes music so inoffensive that it’ll be enjoyed by all. If you combine young artist, debut album, universal appeal, radio sensibilities (remember: ‘no commercial benefit’) and the ‘urban’ word, you’ve basically got yourself a winner.
King Krule – The Ooz
Who: Raspy London ‘yute’, Archy Marshall. Also records as Zoo Kid.
What: The Ooz is a genre bending experiment that blends indie, jazz, hip-hop, post-punk and pretty much any other genre going. I’m going to say it now: I’ve never liked King Krule’s vastly lackadaisical delivery, much less the mopey spoken-word style that comes with the territory, so I’m probably not best suited to judge this one. Off-kilter jazz and drum tracks accompany despondent guitar twangs, so if that’s your thing you’ll probably love this nebulous marathon of nothingness. But, in the interest of fairness, a lot of people (and critics) adore this album, so I’ll try and remain restrained and leave this one for you to decide.
Best Song: As I previously stated I’m arguably one of King Krule’s most vocal detractors, so I’ve relied on a random number generator to pick this one for me. It chose ‘Midnight 01 (Deep Sea Diver)’, which sounds exactly like the other 18 tracks, so it’s as good a choice as any in my eyes.
Should It Be Nominated: Despite my enduring hatred, absolutely. Krule’s unique sonic style is truly innovative, and there’s more experimentation regarding structure and style in any one of the songs that feature on The Ooz than the majority of albums on this shortlist.
Will It Win: I would say it’s incredibly likely. Jorja Smith had my vote until I was unfortunate enough to actually listen to her album, so right now it’s a tie between King Krule and Jorja for the top spot. The Ooz is an edgy, innovative choice from an artist wildly respected in the music industry for his soulful, poetic take on songwriting. It would be remarkably easy to vote for Krule because he sounds artsy rather than out of enjoyment, so it’s the exact sort of pretentious option The Prize favours. Plus, Marshall was a truant from Peckham, so it fills the ‘urban’ quota – sort of. Oh, and it’s another album from the XL Records camp that makes the list.
Lily Allen – No Shame
Who: Former pop titan Lily Allen, last seen around the year 2009.
What: It takes an exceedingly special shortlist for Lily Allen’s album to be the first to pique my interests. Largely confessional, No Shame is an invitation into the introspective thought process of Lily Allen, who takes aim at the largely negative press see she receives through the assertation she has no shame, which isn’t exactly surprising from a woman who threatened to use a candid picture of her vagina as her album cover. Unfortunately, No Shame’s initial appeal dissipates into a mess of bastardised music genres, stepping through token grime verses, overpolished reggae and questionable dancehall beats, all of which reeks of label involvement to maximise radio play.
Best Song: Undoubtedly ‘Come On Then’, a blend of breakbeat pop and such honest anecdotes it’s impossible not to empathise with Allen. Think of that scene in 8 Mile where Eminem roasts himself, ‘cause Lily Allen pretty much does the same in retaliation to all the negative press she’s received.
Should It Be Nominated: Unfortunately not. It’s deeply personal storytelling from Allen who’s remained out the pop limelight for the best part of a decade, and there’s a mature and evolved sense of personality attached to No Shame, but the Prize would be better suited elsewhere.
Will It Win: It has an outside chance. Experimental and encompassing themes of femininity, motherhood and social media, the Mercury Prize might be favourable to an album from a fallen pop star.
Nadine Shah – Holiday Destination
Who: Nadine Shah, a wordsmith to socio-political issues who merges post-punk with jazz and more traditional indie.
What: Here’s the first album I actually enjoyed. Holiday Destination is sprawling in scope and deals with issues of identity, the refugee crisis, Islamophobia and the poverty stricken north of England. Musically adventurous, Nadine Shah manages to interweave moments of beautifully twinkling guitar riffs with the low hum of post-punk. It’s a lot to digest, but Shah’s third album is ambitious and rewarding.
Best Song: My money’s on ‘Out The Way’, although there’s so much to unpack on Holiday Destination that I’d recommend giving the whole album a whirl.
Should It Be Nominated: Yes. Largely unknown and doing vast amounts of interesting songwriting that instigates socio-political discourse, Nadine Shah is a voice that deserves prominence.
Will It Win: The more I think about it, the more Shah’s looking like a strong runner. Not dissimilar to PJ Harvey – the only musician to win the prize twice – Holiday Destination is rife with themes to unpack. Unfortunately, I think she’ll be edged out in favour of a ‘safer’ choice.
Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds – Who Built The Moon?
Who: Mancunian shitspewer and professional provocateur, Noel Gallagher. You might have heard of his brother, Liam, or his old band, Oasis, but they’re probably a little too eclectic for your tastes.
What: Yer da’s fave boyband member from the 90’s. Are middle aged Mancunians single-handedly keeping these bloated nihilists alive? Perhaps the most shocking nominee in a shortlist of bad decisions, Who Built The Moon? sounds exactly the same as anything the Gallagher brothers have ever made before. Featuring straightforward four chord progression, weak vocals, two-dimensional lyricism and melodies that are almost certainly plagiarised, Who Built The Moon? is the exact sort of vapid pseudo-philosophical question you’d expect an album as uninspiring and worn as this to ask.
Best Song: ‘End Credits (Wednesday Part Two)’ for several reasons: it’s an instrumental, it signifies the end of the album and it’s the second shortest song on Who Built The Moon?.
Should It Be Nominated: A resounding no. Who, or what, does this nomination stand for? Not only is this a landmark in mediocrity, it serves only to enhance the image of two siblings intent on conjuring media attention to satisfy egos and maintain ticket sales.
Will It Win: Hopefully not even Marcus Mumford is tasteless enough to vote for this one.
Novelist – Novelist Guy
Who: Novelist – Lewisham’s vocal grime guy.
What: After a string of phenomenal EP’s, including the esoteric 1 Sec EP with Mumdance, Novelist looked set to be the face of a new style of grime that combined more intricate and barebone rave aesthetics with traditional bars. Novelist Guy, his debut album, shows none of the spark or flair that set him apart from the crowd. It’s less traditional grime, granted, but it largely centres around production that fails to sound cohesive and rhymes that consist of eternal, mind numbing repetition.
Best Song: I’ve opted for another instrumental, this one being ‘The End – Don’t Lose Faith Riddim’. Those of you who’ve listened to the album – someone other than me must have – might recognise it as the beat from ‘Start’, but it’s good to see recycling gets an unintentional nod.
Should It Be Nominated: No. The Mercury Prize has played this token grime thing to death. That’s not to say no grime album should ever be nominated – quite the opposite – but let’s return to nominated albums of merit and not just shoehorning in the flavour of the month.
Will It Win: No.
Sons Of Kemet – Your Queen Is A Reptile
Who: Jazz group Sons Of Kemet, who share Shabaka Hutchings as a member along with The Comet Is Coming.
What: Anti-royalist Your Queen Is A Reptile predominantly examines black history, looking towards famous black women to give a new voice to a current generation of ethnic minorities. Is it this year’s token jazz entry? Right on the money. There’s a vibrant energy to Your Queen Is A Reptile, and whilst it can sometimes seem formulaic for a jazz record, Sons Of Kemet provide an empowering and richly detailed cultural tapestry to dive into.
Best Song: The distinct honour of my arbitrary opinions goes to the high-intensity ‘My Queen Is Harriet Tubman’.
Should It Be Nominated: Sure, but it would be great to see a larger jazz pool to drink from and it’s always a shame to view the yearly jazz entry as nothing more than tokenism.
Will It Win: It’d be great to finally see jazz make it, but unfortunately history is not on the side of Sons Of Kemet.
Wolf Alice – Visions of a Life
Who: Shoegazey, indie-pop drenched quartet Wolf Alice, who presumably have fans somewhere.
What: Couldn’t finish this one I’m afraid. Not quite heavy enough to possess any bite, Wolf Alice share the same bastardisation of a genre that Slaves trade in. Visions Of A Life shares shoegazey aesthetics, albeit without any of the emotional baggage that accompanies the founding fathers of the genre. It’s another safe recreation of a genre marketed towards ‘indie kids’ and because of that Visions Of A Life sounds like an obnoxious barrage of whispers, reverb soaked ‘thrash’ guitars and an attempt at vulnerability that portrays itself as pretentiousness.
Best Song: I’ve opted for ‘Sadboy’ because the lyrics ‘Who hurt you sadboy?’, ‘Who hurt you, fashionboy?’ and ‘I was just waiting for this not to hurt’ made me exhort an audible laugh. Who hurt you, Wolf Alice?
Should It Be Nominated: It’s the second nomination for the gang, but the answer is a no from me. It’s a broadly offensive gesture that shuns the under-represented ‘harder’ genres, twisting the styles of those genres into a commercial venture designed to capitalise on the mainstream pop market.
Will It Win: No, but I’m sure someone on Twitter will vehemently disagree with the ‘snub’.
Well that’s that then. A definitive and comprehensive rundown of this year’s Mercury Prize. 12 albums that represent the best we have to offer. Yikes.
Don’t forget to tune in to the Mercury Prize this year, which has slowly become an arena event with a ticket price of £40 and features performances from each of the artists. Maybe that’s why this year’s shortlist is such a barrage of safe, popular acts: after having become a ticketed event that showcases the artists nominated, it’s imperative that there’s a big name draw to the ‘show’ that was previously just an envelope opening ceremony behind closed doors. Not that there’s any commercial gain to be had here, though. The Mercury Prize makes that exceptionally clear.