FEATURE: Ain’t That a Shame? The Mercury Music Prize Nominations 2018: The New, the Omissions and the Artists Defining the Best of Modern British Music




Ain’t That a Shame?


ALL PHOTOS/IMAGES (unless credited otherwise): Getty Images 

The Mercury Music Prize Nominations 2018: The New, the Omissions and the Artists Defining the Best of Modern British Music


IT is true you can never please everyone


and the freshly-announced shortlist (technically, it’s a longlist until the twelve nominees are whittled down…) has been announced. The usual split has occurred: those who are pleased with the diversity, in terms of genre and gender, and those who bemoan the utility and purpose of the Mercury Music Prize. The judges this year – including some big names from the media and music – have thrown in the odd curveball to keep people chatting! There is, of course, those artists some deem as ‘token’ and a bit rank-and-file. The fact Sons of Kemet have been nominated – a Jazz band; making them a bit outsider – is designed to put into the fore a name/album people might not have heard. Your Queen Is a Reptile got a smattering of great reviews when it was released but is not leading the bookies’ charge of favourites. Novelist’s album, Novelist Guy, is a bold and brilliant effort by the skilled M.C. – might be worth punting some money on the record making it all the way! Last year was synonymous with grittier, street-addressing artists. Kate Tempest and Loyle Carner were among those tipped to win last year; in previous years, we have had the likes of Skepta and Stormzy battling it out and putting British Grime/Rap in the limelight. This year is more synonymous with Pop and Alternative sounds.

Many did not see Lily Allen’s No Shame coming: they were not of the opinion it would make the Mercury Music Prize list and I am not surprised. There is a snobbishness regarding Pop artists like Allen and their credentials. She is among the sharpest lyricists in the game and an enduring artist whose career has had its dips – she is back on form and producing amazing material. No Shame is a personal and hit-filled album that possessed few weak moments and is a deserved nomination. King Krule and the genre-hopping album, The OOZ, has divided the public but it is another one of those albums designed to raise a profile and raise awareness. There is that contrast this time of year when you get lesser-heard albums included alongside big names that, instantly, bookies mark as the sure-fire winners. Past years have thrown up surprises but we have not seen too many unexpected/minor acts walk away with the award for a few years. All the newspapers and online music sites are providing their reaction. It is another year where there has been contentment and contention; notable omissions and albums we are getting excited about. The Independent has provided their analysis:

Where last year’s shortlist felt strong because it heralded the young artists leading the future of British music – from Loyle Carner to Stormzy, Glass Animals, Sampha and J Hus – this year, half the acts have previously appeared on a Mercury Prize shortlist in some shape or form, and many of the choices feel like safe, commercial picks, rather than bold or innovative works.


...Arctic Monkeys appear on the shortlist for a fourth time, for their divisive album Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, while Florence & The Machine score a third nod for their album High As Hope. Pleasant surprises come in the shape of 21-year-old rapper Novelist, who scored a spot on the shortlist for his fantastic, self-produced debut album Novelist Guy, as did Nadine Shah, who made a powerful statement with her third album Holiday Destination, which was inspired by witnessing the xenophobia of holidaymakers on the Greek island of Kos”.

The problem comes with only having twelve names: maybe twenty is a bit much but I feel it would help please more people and strike that balance between recognising reliable and well-reviewed albums and those that are riskier and a bit alien. Last year’s nominations included Ed Sheeran (for %) and alt-J. IDLES were left out of the running for their album, Brutralism, and it felt like there was a London-centric vibe to the nominations. This year keeps London firmly in the mind – no less with Florence + the Machine, Wolf Alice and Lily Allen among the longlist – but there have been some risks taken. I have mentioned a few albums that are worth a tip but might not get the prize. Lily Allen and Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds have proved the most anger-inducing and divisive. Who Built the Moon? Did well in terms of sales and reviews but for Gallagher, a one-time Oasis hero-turned Dad Rock leader; does his nomination signal the Mercury panel taking a wider approach in terms of age and genre?!

There is no denying the album is great and celebrated – I wonder whether it is better than albums that missed out this year (more on that later). One of the troubles is South London taking too much focus. It is a great area of the country but last year saw a heavy focus on that part of the capital – Sampha’s win confirmed eyes and minds were lodged in the capital. This year, there is another big focus on South London and one of the clear favourites, Florence Welch, wears the area on her sleeve. If, music-wise, the award is moving in new directions; that reliance on London and the music coming from here is still too strong. Nominated-before artists like Wolf Alice and Arctic Monkeys (who are now the joint-most-nominated artists ever) have made some question whether their inclusions are worthy. I was worried about the criticism levied at Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino and how it was more Alex Turner and less Arctic Monkeys – fans have got behind the album and I am glad it makes the cut on this year’s prestigious list. Wolf Alice are a solid and incredible band who deserve to be there. In a year where there are few guitar-based acts – in terms of showing teeth and changing the game – it is good to see Wolf Alice riding high and in with a shot. Everything Everything’s A Fever Dream took me by surprise – I hadn’t even considered it but, again, that is the beauty of the Mercury Music Prize.


IN THIS PHOTO: Let's Eat Grandma (many expected them to be among the nominees for their album, I'm All Ears)

Some have queried that making the list of twelve but music is a subjective thing – someone, somewhere will take umbrage at certain albums making the cut! Everything Is Recorded by Everything Is Recorded is one of those records that took the breath (and still does) and, again, is designed to put a work out to the public that might have been missed the first time around. I felt Shame and Let’s Eat Grandma, for sure, would have made the list – they were the two standout favourites before nominations were read – and it seems like they are the biggest losses. The former, for I’m All Ears, created one of the best albums of the year: a kaleidoscope of colours, sounds and noises that deserved to be recognised. Shame are, in essence, this year’s IDLES: a Punk/Post-Punk gem that gets overlooked because…I’m not sure. I do wonder why the Mercury panel omitted an album that defines what the award is about: something that has captured the majority vote and seems to represent where the nation is in 2018. A lot of the gripes, in terms of journalistic opinion, relates to risk: the lack of risk taken regarding new artists and fresh talent. NME gave their opinions:

‘Songs Of Praise’, Shame’s debut album, captured the imaginations of thousands across the continent on its January release, their acerbic takes on post-Brexit Britain spurring on a once-disillusioned youth. It’s impossible to ignore how the band’s incessant global touring schedule has coincided with a more politically energised pool of British teenagers, who split their time between Shame’s churned-up mosh-pits and hitting the streets, placards in hand. Likewise, that same South London scene spat out Goat Girl’s self-titled debut this year, itself a document of youthful discontent and the fantastical imagination that’s borne out of such suburban boredom. Both are glaring omissions from the Mercury shortlist. Matt Maltese, and ‘Bad Contestant’‘s piano-led witticism, is another confusing South London absentee… Few would deny that the majority of the albums nominated for this year’s Mercury Prize are worthy of attention – older and more established though their creators may be, there’s little denying their worth in the wider musical conversation. But for an award that claims its main objective is “to help introduce new albums from a range of music genres to a wider audience”, it’s inexcusable to overlook Britain’s fresher talents in favour of the Noels and Florences of the world – acts who’ve already earned themselves a place on the CD racks and coffee tables of nearly every household in the country. The Mercury – and the British music industry as a whole – needs to do better at supporting those newcomers”.

It seems there is the conscious tussle to recognise the albums that have earnt big critical praise – and, thus, are the best as defined by vote and feedback – and taking a shot on artists who are on the swing. There are so many artists unsigned and coming through who could be included on the list; bands like Hookworms missing (who many hoped would be nominated). No matter what way you go, you are always going to take a risk and piss off some people. I feel there are a few mistakes regarding omissions and I hope London does not win the award this year – even though I love the music coming from there right now! The best revelation from this year’s nominated dozen is the representation of female music. Past years – most, in fact – have been a bit slack putting female artists in the mix. There are still more male artists on the list (seven-to-five; Wolf Alice are female-fronted) but there is a definite closing of the gap.


IN THIS PHOTO: Lily Allen/PHOTO CREDIT: Katie McCurdy for GQ 

The fact so few bands are on the short/longlist – there are only four, in the traditional sense – makes me wonder whether the solo artist is starting to take over. In any case; the fact many female artists are on the list makes me happy. Lily Allen has, as we are seeing, drawn some raised eyebrows – she is an artist who has been around for a while and many wonder whether her latest album is her very best. It would have been nice to have Goat Girl – who amazed and bowled critics with their eponymous debut – alongside the female nominated. I am pleased Florence + the Machine has been nominated for High As Hope. Many might say, because she has been on the scene a while, other acts should have a chance. Few can deny she has hit creativity and personal maturity on her fourth album. It is amazing to think, nine years ago, she launched onto the scene with her unique and powerful (titanic) voice. High As Hope is a fantastic album and one that deserves its place – it is battling with Noel Gallagher as the favourite thus far.


Wolf Alice’s Visions of a Life is a bold, brilliant and varied album that stakes their claims as one of the nation’s best bands. Whilst there are some familiar names on there; I am glad there is that mix of commercial/popular artists and those coming through. The list is safe, in places, but has plenty of choice and diversity. Jorja Smith’s Lost & Found is an album that, again, represents what the Mercury Music Prize is all about. It is a complete and sumptuous debut from someone who has just turned twenty-one. When I heard her interviewed by Mary Anne Hobbs on BBC Radio 6 Music earlier – Hobbs announced the list at 11 A.M. – she came across as genuinely humble and stunned. A little shy and quiet; you can tell how much it means to the Midlands songwriter. The award has been missing female R&B-cum-Pop mixtures and it is good Smith has been recognised. Her June-released album – one of the freshest cuts of the twelve – marks her as a talent to watch closely. I would not be shocked if Smith went away with the gong on 20th September. This all leads to the album many are tipping to win: Holiday Destination by Nadine Shah.

Although I felt Let’s Eat Grandma should be among the runners; I have been extolling the virtues of Shah for years. She is one of those artists who never get the pomp and ceremony as your Noel Gallaghers and Arctic Monkeys types. She is a songwriter who has not dropped a beat and, on her latest return, talks about subjects such as immigration and entitlement.  She spoke with Mary Anne Hobbs earlier and spoke about the album’s title. Immigrants were winding up on Greek beaches and, rather than come and help and show concern; holidaymakers were moaning that their holiday was being ruined! Holiday Destination, according to Pitchfork, covered a lot of ground:

Nadine Shah's third album surveys the refugee crisis, Syrian families, gentrification, “a fascist in the White House,” Islamophobia, and politicians’ demonization of the north of England. She does a lot of work in ten songs, but it rarely feels like it. On her first two albums, her theatrical voice oozed blood through fairly traditional guitar-band arrangements. But on Holiday Destination, the setting is brittle, brooding post-punk, her singing lowered to a glowering monotone that makes more subtle use of her vocal power. It sustains an unsettling mood rather than a series of bold-type headlines”.

The Line of Best Fit seemed to nail the album perfectly:

While Holiday Destination is arguably Shah's most open LP to date, with all of her cards laid bare on the table for listeners to analyse and evaluate, it is by no means vulnerable or naive. This is a well thought-out record and is clearly something that has taken several years to coalesce and construct. Though the political edge can sometimes distract from the beauty of the instrumentation, articulation and overall composition, it never gets boring, with little twists and turns that get better upon every listen”.

Shah is my frontrunner and someone, I feel, wants the award more than anyone. That is not desperation: she has worked hard and sweated blood putting it together! When speaking with Mary Anne Hobbs; she endlessly toiled to make it sound how she wanted – a record that has anger and political themes but is accessible and packed full of memorable moments. I would like to see her win – or another great female artist like Jorja Smith or Florence Welch – but I feel Holiday Destination is the album this country has been crying out for. By that, it is more meaningful, potent and inspiring than anything being said by our Government. It is the apex of a career that has been getting better and better; a northern star who will topple the London hegemony and has crafted something truly timeless.


IN THIS PHOTO: Shame (who many expected to be on the list for this year's Mercury Music Prize for their album, Songs of Praise)/PHOTO CREDIT: Dan Kendall for Loud and Quiet Magazine.

Shah, herself, wished the album was relevant and prescient. The fact Greek homeowners are being blamed for the horrific fires happening there – where there have been multiple deaths and massive destruction – relates to them blocking paths to the sea. That seems, to be, the residents halting migrants getting to their property; blocking them from getting near their residence – the sort of thing Holiday Destination was built on! I am reading al the social media comments – the usual mix of gripes and kudos – and the websites publishing their pieces. There seems to be a consensus: most of the nominations are worthy and great but where is that risk?! I think there are one or two ‘surprise’ inclusions among the predicted stable. If you narrow it down to twelve, you can only do so much – I wonder whether even extending to fifteen would alleviate obvious criticism and allow for more width? I am pleased Arctic Monkeys' divisive album is on the list and there are great female artists; mainstays like Noel Gallagher are on the twelve (nominated). I am glad there is a great northern talent like Shah flying the flag and a move from Hip-Hop/Rap/Soul – it seems a more unpredictable year and it could be a tough one to call! Even though I am in Shah’s camp; you cannot bet against any of the dozen – Welch, Gallagher and Smith are ALL pretty tasty! There will always be grumbles regarding a shortlist and who makes the grade but that is the frustrating thing about the Mercury Music Prize. I am excited to see which way the judges go and, to all those nominated, I wish them…


THE very best of luck!