FEATURE: A Move in the Right Direction: This Year’s Fantastic Mercury Prize Shortlist




A Move in the Right Direction

IN THIS PHOTO: Anna Calvi gains her third Mercury nomination for Hunter - she is proving to be a very popular shortlisted artist/PHOTO CREDIT: Eva Pentel 

This Year’s Fantastic Mercury Prize Shortlist


ALTHOUGH there has been criticism regarding…

 IN THIS PHOTO: slowthai has been shortlisted this year for his album, Nothing Great About Britain/PHOTO CREDIT: Phil Smithies

the Mercury Music Prize, it seems like the last couple of years have seen it move the right way. I think there has been a feeling that the ceremony does not award an album/artist that is the best; maybe they have been quite commercial and many have voiced their concerns. Whilst last-year’s shortlist pleased me and there was variation, there were some who felt that nothing had been learned: still leaning on the commercial and not taking any risks. In terms of the nominations, there were some excellent albums – Wolf Alice won with Visions of a Life – but there were some gaps, I guess. Writing in The Guardian, Laura Snapes reacted to the twelve nominated artists/albums (last year):

Just as the Mercury gave grime its dues in 2016 and 2017 (this year limited to Novelist, for Novelist Guy), in 2018 we might have seen the token choice taken seriously, with – humour the thought – more than one jazz contender. Kamaal Williams’ The Return is oddly absent, and albums by Tenderlonious(The Shakedown featuring the 22archestra), Zara McFarlane (Arise) and Joe Armon-Jones (Starting Today) were similarly worthy of recognition.

If any genre gets an unusually strong showing, it’s pop. Lily Allen’s first Mercury nomination, for the intimate and exposing No Shame, is both overdue and welcome: if her 2014 album Sheezus felt like a misplaced attempt to pop a wheelie on the zeitgeist, her equally moving and acidic fourth record sounded like the work of an artist following her instincts and trusting that it would find its people.

But if the judges wanted to recognise real innovation in British pop, they would have chosen Charli XCX’s Pop 2 (technically a mixtape but still eligible), Sophie’s wipe-clean Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides or Rae Morris’s inventive (and chronically overlooked) Someone Out There over Florence + the Machine’s High as Hope – the best album of her career, though not one of the past 12 months’ – and Jorja Smith’s conservative R&B debut Lost and Found.

If there’s anything approaching a scandal of omission, it’s the complete disregard for British dance music. Although it’s divided hardcore electronic fans, you would have thought Bicep’s breakout debut would have been in with a chance. Mount Kimbie, Powerdance, Nabihah Iqbal and Four Tet’s respective recent albums also had a place here – and it would be galling that Karen Gwyer’s Rembo came out on 21 July 2017, a day before the eligibility period began, if you thought there was actually any chance of it having been recognised. There’s a sharp drop-off in black British music too: Nines’ Crop Circle might have made the list, though again, Dizzee Rascal’s return to form Raskit was released a day too early to have been considered”.

Although the eventual winner was a quite popular choice, maybe some genres were excluded or not given fair representation. Many criticised a rather safe judging panel and, whilst there are some return judges this year (including Jamie Cullum), having Jorja Smith and Stormzy on the panel might have, you’d imagine, had an impact regarding this year’s list. Last year had some omissions – including Shame’s Songs of Praise – but I guess you can never really include everything when you are limited to a dozen albums!                 

I made my predictions recently and the shortlist has just been announced on BBC Radio 6 Music. Anna Calvi’s Hunter is in there; black midi are in the pack for Schlagenheim as are Cate Le Bon for Reward and Dave for PSYCHODRAMA. Also nominated are Foals for Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost – Part 1, Fontaines D.C. for Dogrel; IDLES for Joy as an Act of Resistance, Little Simz for GREY Area; Nao for Saturn, SEED Ensemble for Driftglass and slowthai for Nothing Great About Britain. Also in there is The 1975’s A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships and, when speaking with BBC Radio 6 Music, Anna Cavli was buzzing. I predicted most of the shortlist and it is good to see Calvi get a third nod. I hope she wins this time but, with IDLES and The 1975 alongside slowthai proving to be favourites, it will be a close year! Many are tipping The 1975 to take the award away and I like the fact that there is a nice blend of genres this year. There is no pure Pop like recent years – Ed Sheeran and Lily Allen – and there are still more men nominated than women. I knew Rap and Hip-Hop would be key and I think Little Simz’s GREY Area is one of the best albums of the year. It is a strong year where guitars are high in the mix. I was not expecting black midi to get a nomination but they have come through strong and proving to be one of the most exciting British bands.

 IN THIS PHOTO: IDLES are on the shortlist for their much-acclaimed album, Joy as an Act of Resistance/PHOTO CREDIT: Lindsay Melbourne

The meat and teeth of IDLES sits alongside Fontaines D.C. and, whilst there is no nod for Sleaford Mods (and Eton Alive), I am glad there is some fantastic Post-Punk in the list. Whereas Wolf Alice won last year, will we see a similar act win in 2019? I think it will be a close call between strong female artists Anna Calvi and Little Simz and the trio of IDLES, slowthai and The 1975. Inventiveness and originality are ahead of commercial sounds and safety this year. Gone are the shock entries and, whilst there was no nomination for The Comet Is Coming, Nao and SEED Ensemble are worthy entrants. I must admit I am not overly-familiar with SEED Ensemble but, having heard their music, they are definitely a lot more daring and rewarding than so many artists we have seen shortlisted for the Mercury before. I would love to see a female solo artist like Nao, Anna Calvi or Cate Le Bon walk away with the award in September - but I feel it will be one of the male acts. That is not an easy thing to say but I feel there is so much attention the way of acts like The 1975, IDLES and slowthai right now that it is impossible to feel it will go any other way. If I was hoping for an outsider to win then it would be Anna Calvi and the excellent Hunter. Little Simz is also a worthy winner and I do think the competition is as hot as it has been for years. Maybe there have been stronger line-ups since 1992 but, when it comes to quality, variation and value, I think this is the best shortlist for a very long time indeed!


 IN THIS PHOTO: Little Simz’s album, GREY Area, is Mercury shortlisted/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

I know a lot of people will call for an Anna Calvi win – few can argue against her and it would be a great move. Considering the political mood and what is happening right now, the sounds of slowthai, IDLES and Fontaines D.C. will be right there. Dave is also a hot contender so I do feel this year’s winner will have a slightly political and social edge. Anna Calvi explored feminism, toxic relationships and deep subjects on Hunter but I do think a political record/political-minded record will be the winner (she has been nominated twice and this would be a much-deserved win, were she to triumph). The quality factor was a big problem before and many were wondering whether the Mercury judges were backing certain labels and really embracing the spirit of the Mercurys. Maybe there has been a problem with chart acts and something pretty safe being in the pack but this year’s dozen looks a lot healthier and stronger. There is always going to be an issue with some missing the boats – there is only a dozen albums on the list so you cannot please everyone! I wanted to see James Blake make the cut for his Assume Form album and I am a bit surprised Self Esteem was not nominated for her album, Compliments Please. A lot of articles will come through and I am sure there will be some not too happy. I think it is a solid list and, as you can see from my Mercury Shortlist Playlist, this year’s nominations are…

 IN THIS PHOTO: Dave has been shortlisted for his album, PSCYHODRAMA/PHOTO CREDIT: Lily Bertrand-Webb

PRETTY damn solid.