The shortlist for this year’s Mercury Prize has been announced, and as usual, it’s a very interesting selection of some of the best albums made by British and Irish artists over the past year. And it’s a fairly broad church, music-wise. There’s electronica, indie rock, art pop, art rap, dream-pop, folk pop, garage rock and various points between (see the full list below for examples).
The Mercury is a strange award in many ways, setting out its stall as a musical Booker prize, a true music lover’s list, albeit one named after an early sponsor, a long-since defunct communications company. It also acts like an award that nominally any album can win—providing the artist has paid to enter—and anyone on the shortlist can be relatively confident of a spike in attention and sales.
But that shortlist also feels curated. Popular wisdom says that there’s always a token jazz album, and a token folk album, and that these albums can’t ever win. Actually this year’s list doesn’t bear this claim out, but enough previous lists look that way to make the whole idea of 12 of the best seem faintly fiddled with. Mind you, folk and jazz albums do better than metal ones, as no metal album has ever been shortlisted in the award’s 23-year history.
Being a very credible (add your own airquotes) sort of award with a history of indie rock winners, real music buffs find it hard to accept when the final prize doesn’t go the way they expected. Some still carry a grudge that the faintly cheesy dance act M People won in 1995 instead of Blur or Oasis or The Prodigy, as if this still matters 20 years later (or, let’s face it, did at the time).
The other commonly discussed idea is that there’s a curse on the artists that have won the prize. It’s probably because the Mercury often goes to acts who have released their first album, and some artists struggle to follow it up with anything quite as exciting. So, while Speech Debelle, Ms. Dynamite, Gomez and Talvin Singh might not be household names anymore, their names on the roll call of winners are far outweighed by the likes of Primal Scream (they got so drunk they lost the £20,000 cheque and had to have another one printed the next day), Suede, Portishead, Pulp, PJ Harvey (she won twice!), Franz Ferdinand, and Arctic Monkeys—none of whose careers have suffered unduly from their win. In fact Elbow‘s win for The Seldom Seen Kid transformed them from perennial underdogs to stadium overcats, overnight.
Ultimately, the real value in the prize is in the shortlist. That’s what shines a equal light on charting and non-charting British music and sends interested fans off to their streaming services and record shops to see what all the fuss is about. And that’s ultimately how the Mercury Prize has avoided its own curse and remained a barometer of interest for musical endeavor. Unless you’re really into metal, of course.
Here’s the full list of this year’s shortlisted albums, with accompanying videos:
Aphex Twin – Syro
The magical missing genius of electronica drops a hard-drive full of tracks he’s been working on for years.
Wolf Alice – My Love Is Cool
Hotly tipped youthful indie rockers with a surprisingly melancholic edge to their grungy pop.
Róisín Murphy – Hairless Toys
The kind of smart, challenging and arty pop music that Lady Gaga should really be coming out with.
C Duncan – Architect
Blissful dream pop in a tweed jacket. By some distance the most stereotypically English album on the list.
Eska – Eska
Souly-folk or folky-soul with unexpected elbows. Both rich and strange.
Florence + the Machine – How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
You know about this one already, right?
Ghostpoet – Shedding Skin
A second nomination for this thoughtful rapper and his psychedelic soundscapes.
Benjamin Clementine – At Least For Now
Singular songwriting in the vein of Anthony and the Johnsons or Rufus Wainwright, but different.
Jamie xx – In Colour
Heavy, heavy bass music with club overtones for people who don’t necessarily like clubbing.
SOAK – Before We Forgot How To Dream
Bridie Monds-Watson is just 18 years old and already has years of solo gigging under her belt, the prodigious young missy.
Gaz Coombes – Matador
The former Supergrass frontman’s second solo album scratches that long-ignored Britpop itch.
Slaves – Are You Satisfied?
Shouty punk two-piece has a lot of fun giving the modern world what for.Read More