I’ve previously written two Definitive Guides to the Mercury Prize, and at this point in time I feel I’ve lost the zeal to continue to insult the institution without covering well-trodden ground. So, to quickly summarise the 2019 shortlist: the token jazz album still exists, once again there’s no metal/heavy album representation, the Irish get a nod for what feels like the first time in an eternity, Marcus Mumford is out of the judging panel (rejoice), Skepta is in, the £200+ consideration fee is still ridiculous and the Mercury Prize still doesn’t know what the fuck it’s even meant to be. Insert your own zeitgeisty, witty zingers where appropriate.
As always, The Mercury Prize 2019 is a sample-slice of what industry leaders feel is representative of the last year in music. Luckily, this year sees the Hyundai Mercury Prize team up with another global conglomerate in the form of Amazon to prove that it really is all about the music. Look, let’s stop fucking around here: the Prize is about making money and selling records. Whatever will generate the most cash for the Prize, the music industry, and music streaming sponsor, Amazon, will probably win. Hence the need for an artist to win that can be bolstered by the prize, but not one too niche that people won’t care to listen to it. A flawless system that attempts to balance popularity with marketable appeal, with curious results that please seemingly no-one.
After the shitshow of Wolf Alice winning last year – something entirely emblematic of the Mercury Prize trying to hit that perfect balance and fucking it completely – I’m almost relieved to see a much stronger shortlist this year. But with a better shortlist comes inevitable disappointment, so let’s get to the albums and revel in the absurdity of it all once more.
Anna Calvi – Hunter
Who: Third time nomination for indie/alt rocker Anna Calvi, soon to be known for her work scoring the latest season of Peaky Blinders.
What: Hyper loose, openly sex/gender/sexuality positive third album from Calvi. A playfully dark, thunderous amalgamation of chamber rock and indie pop elements with trademark virtuosity. Confident and compelling.
Best Song: Special mention to ‘Chain’, but ‘Indies or Paradise’ takes the top spot.
Should It Be Nominated: No reason why not, Calvi has had a nod for each of her albums thus far and operates in her own little segment of the indie world that deserves a great deal more attention, even if it is nothing ground-breaking.
Will It Win: Unlikely, although ardent Radio 6 listeners will argue otherwise.
black midi – Schlagenheim
Who: The ‘it’ band of the moment, semi-experimental Londoners black midi.
What: Schlagenheim is an album that comes along every so often that practically re-invents the wheel, rehashing math-rock and dance-punk tropes of the late 00s to critical acclaim. Edgy enough for the dance kids, weird enough for the rock dads, black midi exists in a bubble of chugging riffs and dynamic post-punk, all whilst never really seeming like anything more than a sum of their influences. An album that you’ll probably want to love, but actually find emphatically deflating.
Best Song: Maybe ‘Of Schlagenheim’? I think that has the least vocals.
Should It Be Nominated: Under the (barely existent) rules of rewarding innovation and bringing something new to the scene, probably. There’s no one else really doing what they’re doing at the moment, but then we tend to forget there was a reason the style went out of vogue a decade ago.
Will It Win: Definite contender. Weird and formless enough to make people think it’s an intricate piece of art without having to discern what actually makes it ‘good’.
Cate Le Bon – Reward
Who: Representing the Welsh contingent, folky songwriter Cate Le Bon (no affiliation to Duran Duran lead singer Simon Le Bon).
What: Shimmering instruments, spacious arrangement and contemplative sorrow underpin an album that leans more towards Cate Le Bon’s indulgent side.
Best Song: Probably ‘Home To You’?
Should It Be Nominated: I’m game. Another rather inoffensive and pretty album, it’s great to see some Welsh representation – and not just for the sake of it. Reward is a good album, although it might not be urgent enough to win over detractors.
Will It Win: Extremely Unlikely. But check her out anyway.
Dave – Pyschodrama
Who: The ‘grime’ – not that Pyschodrama is ‘grime’ – album of the year comes from Dave, scourge of SEO and fresh off the recent virality of #AlexFromGlasto.
What: Concept album framed around psychotherapy that touches on race, inequality, mental health, violence, and pretty much everything else you can think of. Trappy and poetic, Psychodrama fits somewhere between introverted storytelling and necessary message.
Best Song: ‘Streatham’.
Should It Be Nominated: Yup. It’s good.
Will It Win: Very likely. Hits that Prize sweetspot – political, ‘urban’, leftfield, well-loved but not too mainstream and a lot of love from the fans. Plus, with Skeppy on the judges, I can’t see he’ll vouch for any other album.
Foals – Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost, Part 1
Who: Festival favourites Foals, who will presumably continue to be a headlining staple for the foreseeable future.
What: Nothing new or interesting here folks, but also nothing particularly bad. The egregiously titled Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost, Part 1 manages to infuriate me on a so many levels. The faux-intellectual ‘we are living in a world of technology’ spin has been mercilessly overdone (as demonstrated by The 1975’s inclusion in the list), as well as giving the indication that this might be one of the most self-righteous and indulgent albums ever. It is. Foals have long since given up the shimmering math rock shine they once championed in favour of indie-pop stadium rock, and this album refines the formula to get everyone and their dads enjoying ‘rock music’ again. Essentially, a greatest hits album.
Best Song: Whilst I’m a sucker for anything dance poppy (‘In Degrees’), ‘White Onions’ gives off that classic Foals vibe. Don’t @ me, new age Foals fans. ‘Two Steps Twice’ is unbeatable and you know it.
Should It Be Nominated: No. Is it decent? Sure. Does it do anything new? No. Do Foals, currently headlining multiple festivals week in week out, need the acclaim/money/boost in sales? I’ll leave you to decide.
Will It Win: In this shortlist, I very much doubt it.
Fontaines D.C. – Dogrel
Who: Scrappy, thrashing punk from Dublin’s Fontaines D.C., who refuse to stylise their band name in a manner that can be read easily.
What: Chugging and distinctly Irish, Dogrel is a remarkably accomplished debut album that tracks urban change with a small-venue ferocity. Special props to the bassist for delivering some deliciously deep grooves over the punk musings.
Best Song: ‘Too Real’.
Should It Be Nominated: Yup. Critically adored, commercially less so, it’s about time the Mercury Prize rewarded some well-crafted Irish talent. Dogrel certainly isn’t my favourite album on this list, but the place is deserved.
Will It Win: A slim chance.
Idles – Joy As An Act Of Resistance
Who: Idles. Another band recycling existing styles, adored by the irate youngsters who haven’t heard it before.
What: Setting the critical word alight, Joy As An Act Of Resistance is probably more noted for themes than for anything else. Angry? Yes. Uplifting? Maybe. Much like a lot of the rest of this shortlist, Idles seem to benefit from people having seemingly forgotten that these genres already exist. Punk never really died, and this certainly isn’t the best punk album of the moment. But they’re nice lads, so there’s always that.
Best Song: Err. I’m gonna go ‘Gram Rock’ to highlight some of the raved about lyricism, like ‘I’m sorry your mother’s dead’. Or: ‘I got new shoes, because I mean business’. I guess the critics were right: angry AND uplifting. ‘Ten points to Gryffindor.’
Should It Be Nominated: I’ll relent. Maybe. It would be nice to have some more albums that innovate entirely, rather than rehash for an audience whose attention span forgets anything that hasn’t been done in the last three years.
Will It Win: Definitely a very strong contender for the top spot, although maybe a bit too niche to topple the likes of Dave or Slowthai.
Little Simz – Grey Area
Who: Rapper/genre-bender Little Simz, who makes damn good music.
What: Hard bars, leftfield beats: it can only be Little Simz. A smorgasbord of funky basslines, Timbaland-esque drums and beautiful synth flourishes, Grey Area is an uncompromising joy that finds Little Simz hit her flow and revel in her art.
Best Song: ‘101FM’, although pretty much every beat in this album is exciting.
Should It Be Nominated: Yes.
Will It Win: Very possible. A potential dark horse in the proverbial race, Grey Area possesses all the features that the Mercury Prize cherishes so dearly. It certainly wouldn’t be an undeserving winner, and there’s an ever-growing part of me that thinks Little Simz could very well cause an upset here
Nao – Saturn
Who: Neo-soul is inescapable, and Nao is the British postergirl for it.
What: Neo-soul. Half decent neo-soul, but still neo-soul. There’s some stuff about a breakup in there. Probably great to drive to on a hot day, but I can’t drive, so I’m only guessing.
Best Song: Most neo-soul is characterless and I’m unable to differentiate one song from another, so I’m going to go with ‘Orbit’, because I like the name. Call it a critical failing of mine.
Should It Be Nominated: It’s hardly exciting, invigorating, daring or innovative, so it’s a no from me.
Will It Win: Not unless the judges have a real lapse in judgement – but this is the Mercury Prize, so lapses in judgement are basically a certainty. But alas, it’s still a no.
SEED Ensemble – Driftglass
Who: Token jazz entry this year comes from SEED Ensemble, a vibrant collective of nu-jazz wunderkinds partly responsible for the increasing resurgence of jazz in the UK.
What: The UK is relishing in a new energy at the forefront of the jazz scene, and SEED Ensemble are certainly a collective that highlights what exactly is so exciting about the ever-flourishing genre. Composer Cassie Kinoshi – who I had the pleasure of seeing play alto sax in Kokoroko at Glastonbury this year – leads the ensemble, and is joined by myriad talented musicians (including Joe Armon-Jones, Sarah Tandy, Chelsea Carmichael and Theon Cross, among others) on an album indebted to the R&B/boppy side of jazz. Exhilarating, political, youthful, and another stellar example of what the UK has to offer.
Best Song: ‘Afronaut (ft. Xana)’. I’m a sucker for a driving beat, but it’s exceptional in other ways, too.
Should It Be Nominated: Absolutely. Much has been written about UK jazz of late, and whilst it’s certainly seeing more attention than in prior years, so much talent goes by without recognition. If the Mercury Prize were truly to reward those at the pioneering forefront, the award would surely recognise more than one jazz act a year. Or maybe even award the Prize to one. Alas.
Will It Win: Time and time again, the Prize nominates a deserving jazz act as the ‘token’ entry. Time and time again, the Mercury Prize fails to reward that act, to the point it feels insulting. Unfortunately, that’s a pretty damning indicator that Driftglass will not be picking up the Prize. Sorry guys.
Slowthai – Nothing Great About Britain
Who: ‘Slow’ Tyron Frampton, aka Slowthai, the slurring Northampton local who never fails to cause a ruckus.
What: Nothing Great About Britain is a strange album in that it crosses over so many genres, all whilst maintaining a vigorous energy and defiance at the world at large. Grime, hip-hop, DIY, Punk and Bass genres all feature, with Slowthai doing things on his own boisterous terms. Big and bold – who else can call the queen a cunt in the opening track? – Slowthai’s personality is intrinsic to his visionary music.
Best Song: It may be an obvious choice, but the chopped-sample bliss of ‘Gorgeous’ never fails to make me enjoy life that little bit more.
Should It Be Nominated: Regardless of taste in music, Slowthai is an undeniable force in music right now. From his 99p tour (that is, quite frankly, an explosive riot) to his choice of Kwes Darko produced beats, Slowthai is brimming with energy. Chaotic and disruptive, Slowthai is an originator that comes off like a Jamie T on crack, pushing boundaries to the absolute limits whilst refusing to hold his tongue.
Will It Win: I’ll let you in on a little secret – after I first heard this album on release, I immediately stuck £10 on Slowthai to win the Prize. Nothing Great About Britain has all the makings of a Mercury Prize winner, and whilst I’m less sure now then I was back then (thanks to Dave, Idles & Little Simz), I’m confident that Slowthai is at the very least a frontrunner.
The 1975 – A Brief Enquiry Into Online Relationships
Who: One Direction for woke millenials who like guitars, The 1975. Fronted by Matt Healy – a man so cool he once smoked weed under the table at the 2017 Brit awards – the band recently dismissed their prior attempted ‘bad-boys’ and reinvented themselves as activists, or social commentators, or anti-establishment muses, or something equally as mind-numbingly insulting coming from the son of a rich and famous actress.
What: Did you know that one song on the album consists solely of newspaper headlines? I’m sure a 1975 fan has already told you how inspired this is. Let’s just call it what it is: lazy and insipid songwriting. A Brief Enquiry into yada yada is a bland and boring pop album loved by people who pretend they hate pop. Sprinkle in some ‘modernity is bad’, and the pseudo-intellectual front becomes unbearable. A sheep dressed in wolf’s clothing.
Best Song: They’re all equally as embarrassing, although I’ll run down some favourite song titles: ‘Be My Mistake’. ‘Sincerity Is Scary’. ‘I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes)’. ‘The Man Who Married A Robot’. I’ll probably stick with that one as it features narration from Siri, about a man who falls in love with the internet. Groundbreaking. If The 1975 have any real discourse to share, I’ve yet to find it behind surface-level generalisations.
Should It Be Nominated: You can probably already guess my answer, but no. The 1975 don’t need the fame/popularity injection, they’re essentially another manufactured boyband designed to target a different demographic to the usual 16 year old girls, and the music – whilst well-polished and produced – is nothing more than a fleeting commodity in an already oversaturated market.
Will It Win: It’s the fucking Mercury Prize, so probably. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.