The Hyundai Mercury Prize ‘Albums of the Year’ celebrate and promote the best of British and Irish music recognising artistic achievement across a range of contemporary music genres.
Last year’s winners were Wolf Alice with their album Visions of a Life which was definitely the soundtrack to my life in 2018. So as far as I’m concerned the judges got it right. But who is in the running this year? Here is the shortlist:
Anna Calvi Hunter
On her third album, Hunter, the goth-rock guitar virtuoso abandons her typically detached perspective to ruminate on gender, sexuality, and identity with newfound urgency. Calvi has spoken of the influence of the films of Gus Van Sant, Wong Kar-Wai and David Lynch on her music. She admires “people that make beautiful films where the cinematography tells the story”, and tries to do the same in her own work. On 12th July she played an intimate live show at the event David Lynch at HOME in Manchester. Calvi is one of the most powerful and captivating live performers around today.
Black Midi Schlagenheim
Black Midi’s debut album, Schlagenheim, was just released on June 19th, so it might be a hard task for them to win the prize, but what a story that would be! The London guitar band’s debut is twitchy, hair-raising, always on the move. They are all about 12 years old it seems, but wow! they can play some really great progressive and experimental music. The drummer (Morgan Simpson) is completely badass. The vocalist (Geordie Greep) sounds a bit like a frog or even perhaps Nina Simone on acid. Even if they don’t win, they are going to go places these boys, just for daring to.
Cate Le Bon Reward
On her fifth album, the Welsh musician is at her best. The more elaborate and eccentric her music becomes, the more she sounds like herself.
On Reward the arrangements are lush and warm and ornate, drawing on breezy synths and keyboards to build to crystalline momentum. Le Bon takes pleasure in blending horror and fairytale, elegance and absurdity, and her music can soothe and disorient in the same measure. This album is definitely gorgeous, but I feel she may miss out on the prize, purely because of the political momentum some of the other albums on the shortlist have. Any other year, it could have been hers. I could totally be eating my hat by tomorrow of course.
PSYCHODRAMA is the debut studio album by British rapper Dave, released on 8 March 2019. It follows his first two EPs, ‘Six Paths’ and ‘Game Over’. The concept album and has a three-act structure; act one is defined as “environment”, act two “relationships”, and act three “social compass”. The album addresses a number of issues, particularly focusing on Dave’s struggles with depression. The first track begins with Dave talking to a therapist—a constant throughout the album— primarily detailing the impact of his elder brothers’ prison convictions, along with his struggles with mental health, strained relationships, and the tough social conditions that confront black working-class youths. I think Dave has a very good chance of scooping the prize.
Foals Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost – Part 1
Foals need no introduction. From Antidotes to Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost Part 1, they’ve solidified themselves as the defining soundtrack of a generation, headlining festivals all over and accustomed to sold-out crowds. Foals became the rare UK act that managed to break America through perseverance and industry muscle.
Over the course of the ten tracks here, Foals tackle a need to escape and exit the world we’re currently besieged in, alongside a dash of nostalgia and signature Foals-esque charm in wild grooves and irregular beats.
Fontaines D.C. Dogrel
The steely Dublin post-punk band infuse the bitterness and rage of the Fall with punch-drunk romanticism. Over the past year, they’ve swiftly staked out an elevated perch alongside IDLES and Shame amongst a bunch of groups from Britain and Ireland who are embracing post-punk antagonism as a necessary response to modern-day chaos. And in Grian Chatten, they have a frontman blessed with Ian Curtis’ intense stare and Mark E. Smith’s megaphone mouth. I saw them live a few weeks ago, and they were superb. I don’t think they’ll win this time, but next time Gadget, next time.
IDLES Joy as an Act of Resistance
Anyone who knows me knows I’m rather fond of IDLES. For me they are the best thing that’s happened to music since Nirvana—in fact, the 14-year-old me is totally in love with, well, the whole band.
Joy as an Act of Resistance is a more measured, intuitive approach than the band took with their first album, Brutalism. There is no shortage of thunder or urgency—the telltale sign of a band swimming in relevance—but it seems that they have carefully plotted control over both the vocals and the instrumentation such that the message behind the songs—songs about the dangers of toxic masculinity and of post-Brexit isolationism—is always at the fore.
I really, really want this album to win. For me it is the soundtrack of life in Britain and Ireland right now, and these guys deserve it so much just for being such unbelievably brilliant musicians, always going that extra mile for their fans, and wearing their hearts on their sleeve—all with tongue firmly pressed in cheek—check out their fans page on Facebook (All is Love: IDLES Community) to see just how much of an impact these guys make on people, of all ages, and bring some hope of a better future. Unity!
Little Simz Grey Area
The third album from the 25-year-old UK spitfire is a wickedly assured, highly entertaining, coming-of-age wonder. At turns both acidic and spontaneous, GREY Area feels like the culmination of everything Simz has been puzzling out to this point. She’s a preternaturally gifted lyricist and MC, a prodigy who recorded her first raps at nine and released her earliest tapes in her teens; it simply took a while for her to apply that intellect to her songwriting. Every track is different but brilliant. No filler, all killer. My money is on Little Simz taking the trophy home.
On her second album, the London singer-songwriter examines personal growth, romantic upheaval, and the trials of young adulthood through an astrological lens.
Saturn draws from R&B, pop, and funk influences with aplomb. It also reveals a newfound precision in her production and the fine-tuned intimacy of her lyrics—all of which throw the album’s themes of personal growth and astrology into sharp, gorgeous relief. Between Nao’s lush voice and the album’s glossy production, it’s easy to get lost in Saturn. It’s not in my personal top 5 of the shortlist, but it could be a surprise winner.
SEED Ensemble Driftglass
SEED Ensemble are definitely the wildcard of the list. Formed in early 2016, alto saxophonist and composer Cassie Kinoshi leader of the group is big on improvisation and bigger still on weaving her politics into her work. An example of this socio-political connection is ‘Wake (for Grenfell)’, dedicated to the 72 victims that died in the Grenfell Tower fire. The West African and Caribbean influences reflect Kinoshi’s own heritage, whilst thematically, she both celebrates black British culture and tackles the oppression of it.
Driftglass is an impressive record with a whole host of great musicians reflecting the current London jazz scene. It likely won’t take home the prize as it is under the radar of most music fans outside of the jazz world, but it’s a very worthy nominee.
slowthai Nothing Great About Britain
With a cheeky, gold-plated grin, boundary-pushing stage antics and his self-appointed title of “Brexit Bandit”, slowthai has quickly established himself as a figurehead for a new chapter of Broken Britain. His debut album, the knowingly-titled Nothing Great About Britain, succinctly captures the mental state of that fractured nation and the fizzing energy of an exasperated youth.
Honestly, it is not my cup of tea, but he speaks to and for a whole generation, and with that in mind (and in the judge’s minds too, no doubt), Nothing Great About Britain is one of the most likely winners.
The 1975 A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships
I’m not going to lie, I really don’t get this adornment of love and praise that The 1975 get. I read a review in NME that said this album was the millennial version of Ok Computer. No, just no. On every front. They are a pop-rock band, apparently influenced by Talking Heads, My Bloody Valentine, and Michael Jackson. No comment. I imagine that lots of 13-year-old girls like them, and if they are a gateway band for youth to seek out actual (and much, much better) alternative music, then that’s just fine. But please don’t let this win.
The shortlist was chosen by an independent judging panel and was revealed at a Launch event, hosted by BBC Music’s Huw Stephens on 25 July 2019.
The judges said, ‘This year’s Hyundai Mercury Prize celebrates both the striking diversity of British and Irish music-makers and their shared purpose in exploring issues of identity and belonging at a time of division and disagreement. And all this is done with music of passion, wit, insight, ambition and heart-stirring optimism!’
The 2019 Hyundai Mercury Prize judges are:
Annie Mac – Broadcaster & DJ
Clara Amfo – Broadcaster & DJ
Danielle Perry – Broadcaster & Writer
Gaz Coombes – Musician & Songwriter
Jamie Cullum –Musician & Broadcaster
Jeff Smith — Head of Music, 6 Music & Radio 2
Jorja Smith – Musician & Songwriter
Mike Walsh — Head of Music, Radio X
Phil Alexander – Creative Director, Kerrang!/Contributing Editor, Mojo
Stormzy – Musician & Songwriter
Tshepo Mokoena – Editorial Director, VICE.com
Will Hodgkinson — Chief Rock & Pop Critic, The Times
The Chair of the judging panel is Jeff Smith.
The 2019 Awards Show will take place on Thursday 19th September at the Eventim Apollo, Hammersmith, London. Performances and the grand unveiling of the prize will be broadcast on BBC 4 at 9pm.
So, who do you think will win? My head says Little Simz or slowthai, but my heart wishes for IDLES.