Awards. Do we really need or want them? Aren’t they just a publicity stunt designed by big labels in order to further their own nests and provide a jolly back slapping night out for the industry? Well, yes and no. The Mercury awards are a little bit different, you see. There is a considerable amount of credibility attached to them. It is, crucially, all about critical responses, rather than sales.
Conceived in 1992, the Mercury Prize is awarded to the best album from Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The shortlist is chosen by an independent panel of musicians, music presenters, music producers, music journalists, festival organisers and other figures in the industry and covers all genres known to man (although metal and all its sub-genres has strangely been missing from all shortlists.). Just to be nominated will almost invariably give a boost to someone’s career, although one must capitalise on such things to make that work. Speech Debelle, Gomez and Talvin Singh, anyone? There have been many worthy winners over the years, including such heavyweights as Primal Scream, Suede, Pulp, Portishead, Arctic Monkeys and PJ Harvey. While last year’s winner, Skepta, demonstrated the deep vision of the award which has fully embraced urban music over the years.
As always, the winner is impossible to predict. So, here are the runners and riders for this year’s prize. If you fancy a flutter, the odds range from about 3-1 for Kate Tempest, to 25-1 for Blossoms.
alt-J are one of two previous winners this year, the other being The xx. Only PJ Harvey has ever won the award more than once, so the chances aren’t great in that respect. In 2012 they beat off such competition as Jessie Ware, Plan B, Richard Hawley and Field Music to seal the prize with their An Awesome Wave album. This just five years after forming whilst still at Leeds University. The spearhead of the so-called ‘boffin rock’ movement, their complex lattice of styles has been a triumph of the sophisticated over the ordinary. It is no surprise that interest in the band has been sustained thanks to a combination of hard work and creative talent. This year’s Relaxer is a continuation of the progressive and exploratory ethos of the band. At times meditative, folksy even and at other times packing a meaty punch. All eight tracks are innovative, unpredictable and yet fluid.
Barring perhaps Mr. Sheeran, Blossoms are the most pop-friendly act on the shortlist, for an award not known for it’s overarching pop concerns. Their debut album was released over a year ago now, a work that contained melodies aplenty via their synth-heavy hooks, as well as hints of white-boy funk within an 80s anthemic powerplay. Not everyone was bowled over. Jason Williamson of Sleaford Mods, called them “catalogue band bollocks” and a “wank mess”. But less abrasive souls think they have sown the seeds for longevity. However, for the moment, the bookies give their chances as slim to next-to-none.
At the far end of the spectrum in terms of sales, you can be damn sure – in the sense that pigs will fly – that this won’t win. Not because it isn’t any good, but because it is ‘jazz’. Jazz has never won the Mercury before, albeit what would be termed ‘electric-jazz’. Yet Dinosaur are an exceptional instrumental band led by young trumpeter Laura Jurd and, which features a trio of keys, bass and drums. Their nominated album Together, As One is a seamless whirlpool of styles; from world folk, to Miles Davis jazz; and from Latin beats and hooks, to sombre gothic. It alternatively veers from swing to ambient textures and, all points in-between, a truly entrancing piece of work that saw them bowl over a Brighton Festival audience earlier this year. They may not win, but just the fact they have been nominated should give them a healthy leg up.
From Dinosaur to Ed, the biggest act in the world, bar none. Could this be the year when he not only makes a mockery of the charts (16 songs in the Top 20, at one point) but also of the Mercury? Surely, if this prize is mostly to do with what is judged to be the best (not the biggest), then Divide won’t win. It’s all in the eyes and ears of the beholder, of course. There’s no doubting he’s got talent, as well as a stunning amount of drive, ambition and networking nous. The problem is he is so goddamned huge the critics are having a hell of a time in listening to the music without all the other noise, thereby seriously impacting their ability to be objective. For sure, there is a strong sense of Sheeran re-imagining himself into a populist everyman – lots of stuff about everyday love and desire, as well as continuing to point out he has no university education. In other words, he’s flesh and bones like the rest of us. We could get him when he was still the underdog, when his songs struck at the heart of teenagers. His humungous popularity renders much of that null and void, his previous honesty having given way to some kind of patronising and unenlightening wisdom. Does he deserve to be successful? Yes. Does he deserve to win this damn thing? No.
Proof indeed that indie-pop can still be fun, inventive and plain uplifting. As How To Be A Human Being attempts to detail the spirit of humans (including its propensity for idleness), via its 11 tracks, each one identified with a character on its cover, which came about after an Amercian road trip by Dave Bayley (he and bandmate Drew MacFarlane were both USA-born before moving to the Oxford area as children).
How To Be A Human Being is a giant leap forward from their debut album. Whereas previously they were claustrophobic and, a little unconfident, now they are positively beaming with sunshine. At one with their abilities, mashing up r’n’b smarts, with leftfield indieness, with plenty of intricate detail within the overall neo-soul lushness.
Could J Hus (Momodou Jallow) make it two years running for black urban music? Could songs about having to deal with a new found lavish lifestyle (and the doubters) sway the judging panel? Unlikely. The British-Gambian freestyler is certainly a talented and interesting dude. After spending two stretches in prison he’s been infiltrating the underground with such songs as ‘Dem Boy Paigon’ and ‘Lean & Bop’, which earned him a MOBO nomination.
“I’m an ugly man making sexy money,” he sings over a combination of Afrobeat, funkly disco, rap and bashment. There’s plenty of playful braggadocio within his debut album Common Sense, as well as introspective moments that truly capture the 2017 zeitgeist. The hot money seems to be winging its way towards him.
This South London lyricist, writer and rapper has been in the forefront of many a Brightonian mind of late, as she was the inspired choice for Guest Artistic Director for the Brighton Festival this May just gone. Not only did she bring a fantastic array of hip-hop, performance poetry and grassroots spoken word to the normally high art confines of the festival, she also brought her considerable talents to bear in her own right throughout. This on the back of her second album, Let Them Eat Chaos, the follow up to her Mercury-nominated debut of 2014, Everybody Down. Once again made in collaboration with producer-cum-electronic beats maker Dan Carey. This was an even darker, more dystopic affair, but still with a mighty beating heart of hope and optimism within, as Tempest displayed her stunning verbal talents as both a writer and a performer, imploring her fictional characters to be strong and fight the good fight.
UK hip-hop is in rude health, thanks to the likes of the aforementioned Tempest, UK lable High Focus and relative newcomer Loyle Carner. It has subtly broken out of the confines of what is an increasingly stale template of dark and moody ganga-infused gangster posturing, as can be heard via this outstanding debut album, Yesterday’s Gone. But while Tempest’s angry optimism is broadly based and generalised from the particular, Carner’s world view is more personal, confessional and rather beaten down. This hasn’t stopped him from being on the cusp of really big things, thanks to an uber-catchy lyrical delivery of gospel, rock, jazz, trip hop and more. Influenced by the likes of Common, Nas, Jehest and Skinnyman, Benjamin Coyle-Larner has just performed the Reading and Leeds Festival.
He came fourth in the BBC Sound of 2014 poll, but it took the album Process, released earlier this year, to finally seal the deal for this pianist of Sierra Leonian descent. A long delay necessitated by the terminal cancer that eventually caused the death of his mother, a figure who now looms large in his work. Sampha Sisay also works electronica and r’n’b into his elegant, soulful and intimate piano-based compositions. Kwes was an early influence and motivator and this led Sampha to collaborate with the likes of Jessie Ware, Drake, Katy B, Frank Ocean and Solange, artists who have sought his mournful, Antony and the Johnsons-esque vocals. Since 2009 he has also produced and remixed the likes of The xx, Lil Silva, SBTRKT (with whom Sampha often performs with) and FKA Twigs.
From branding the NME a “bunch of sly, foul paigons”, to taking to Twitter again recently in critiscising the Met for their ostentatious pre-Notting Hill Carnival drug busts, the south London MC’s lyrical wit and penchant for minor controversy was showcased to the max on debut album Gang Signs & Prayer. Yet another artist to openly speak positively and emotionally about their parents, he lays bare his vulnerability in a way many others from the grime scene will not or cannot. Michael Omari was a hip-hopper and freestyler, before migrating to grime, winning Best Grime Act at the MOBOs.
The Big Moon
You thought indie was all landfill these days and that all the good songs had been written? A big wrong, as the all-girl band delivered a classic, another debut album, Love In The 4th Dimension, in a list of relative newcomers. In singer, guitarist and songwriter Juliette Jackson, we have a found a gem, a true talent when it comes to the craft of writing songs. Songs that grab you, grow all around you and simply intoxify with their joyful optimism. Jackson had been in loads of bands before, but one day simply decided she wanted to front her own band and write the songs. This she did, including recruiting Brighton’s Soph Nathan (who also plays with Our Girl) and together they have learnt and, now mastered their craft, in the studio and on stage. There is a lot of love for them, it seems. To the extent that Marika Hackman persuaded the whole band to be the backing musicians on her recent album, I’m Not Your Man, an album that could easily have made the Mercury shortlist too.
Winners in 2010 with their debut album, the band have been literally going through the commercial roof since then, largely through the talents of Jamie Smith, producer and beats maker extraordinaire. Along with Romy Madley Croft (guitar, vocals, keyboards) and Oliver Sim (bass, vocals) I See You is the trio’s third album, released in January 2017 on Young Turks. Whilst still generally being of an indie-electronica flavour, it’s a more expansive affair, developing on from Smith’s solo album In Colour. Whilst previously there were strong meditative qualities within their work, now the palette is richer, deeper and bolder.
Of course, there are always those albums that could have made it on to the shortlist but didn’t. New music fans will gladly debate this all night and, certainly a case could have been made for the likes of Richard Dawson (Peasant), Laura Marling (Semper Femina), Sleaford Mods (English Tapas), Actress (AZD), The Divine Comedy (Foreverland) and Royal Blood (How Did We Get So Dark?), to name but a few. It’s part of the beauty of the Mercury. It’s not only a celebration of new music but an opportunity to be truly passionate about it, too!