FEATURE: Boiling Point: The Mercury Prize 2019: The United State of British Music



Boiling Point: The Mercury Prize 2019


IN THIS PHOTO: Little Simz is nominated for a Mercury Prize for her album, GREY Area/PHOTO CREDIT: Andy Parsons 

The United State of British Music


ON Tuesday…

 IN THIS PHOTO: Rapper Dave scooped two awards at the AIM Independent Music Awards on 3rd September, 2019 (and is Mercury-nominated for his debut album, PSYCHODRAMA)/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

it was the AIM Independent Music Awards. Presented by Lauren Laverne, it was a chance to celebrate great independent music and some cutting-edge British acts. There were a lot of great artists on the bill but, as this reflection article reports, it was a healthy, diverse and magic night:

South London rapper Dave has scooped the two biggest prizes of the night at the AIM Independent Music Awards.

The grime artist, real name David Orobosa Omoregie, secured Best Independent Album for his debut Psychodrama and Best Independent Track for his number one hit, Funky Friday ft Fredo.

It follows a stand-out year for the 21-year-old, who won over a legion of fans at Glastonbury and is due to star in the third series of gritty crime drama Top Boy.

Political punk rockers Idles were also honoured with the Best (Difficult) Second Album prize for their sophomore record Joy As An Act of Resistance.

The Bristol band’s label, Partisan Records, took home the award for Best Independent Label thanks to the success of its roster, which includes Cigarettes After Sex and John Grant.

West London rapper AJ Tracey also performed during the ceremony.

The chief executive of AIM, Paul Pacifico, said: “The list of winners tonight reflects the boldness of the independent community – artists and labels who are unafraid to push the boundaries and take risks to produce some of the UK’s most cutting-edge cultural output.

“As we celebrate AIM’s twentieth year championing independence, it’s amazing to see that creative spirit celebrated in this way at a venue like the Roundhouse”.

On a great evening for British talent (and international artists such as Debbie Harry), it made me think about the approaching Mercury Prize ceremony and the fact that, over the past year or so, British music has really come to the fore! I know British music has always burned bright but, at a point in history when we are all rather worried and distracted by the machinations in political circles, our very finest have stepped up to provide us power, guidance and relief. The debate about this year’s Mercury Prize, luckily, isn’t about the pedigree of the nominees – past years have been derided for a lack of inclusiveness and poor quality. This year not only has a great range of artists included – although genres like Metal are, once more, missing -, but there is discussion as to who will win. Before I come to that, let’s look at the shortlist. What one notices, at first, is a relative lack of Scottish and Irish inclusions. This has been a problem before but, with Dublin’s Fontaines D.C. nominated for their debut, Dogrel, it is a positive step forward. In fact, there is a rare inclusion for a Welsh artist: Cate Le Bon’s Reward is a much-deserved inclusion. Both are strikingly different albums but it goes to show that the best of British is not exclusively reserved to London – past years have seen a major focus on South London acts.

This year, as you’d expect, reflects the rise and continued growth of Hip-Hop and Rap coming from the capital: Little Simz is nominated for GREY Area and Dave’s exceptional debut, PSYCHODRAMA, is included. Just look at those albums I have included and it shows what a strong field we have. I have always preferred Hip-Hop from the U.S. but, with Little Simz and Dave releasing albums that are as accessible as they are urgent, we are seeing a new breeds of Rap artists emerging that are able to compete with the best of America. Given the fact there are so many problems in Britain right now, I am not shocked we have seen such strong and resonant albums from two immense British talents. Not only is Dave’s explosive debut nominated but another debut is on the list: Slowthai’s Nothing Great About Britain is another political and socially-aware record that picked up huge reviews when it was released back in May. I think he is an outside shot and, whilst it is not one of my favourite albums of the year, it just goes to show British Rap is in rude and healthy state! I think there is a three-way split (regarding possible winners) between the Rap elite and the rest…oh, and IDLES! They have their own category because, not only did they win big at this year’s AIM Independent Music Awards but their album, Joy as an Act of Resistant is being tipped as a favourite.

I will predict my winner but, if you want an example of what British artists are producing right now, IDLES’ incredible sophomore release needs to be in your thoughts. This is how NME assessed the album:

Everything about ‘Joy As An Act Of Resistance’ is just so perfectly realised. The band began to write the album immediately after they finished work on ‘Brutalism’ – and it shows. The songs feel lived in, the record’s overarching message – that of the necessity of unity, positivity and loving yourself – so empowering that it almost amounts to an entire worldview. It’s even more powerful for the fact that Talbot worked on the album in the midst of massive personal trauma. This is a proper classic punk album, one that people will turn to in times of need, one whose authors are unembarrassed about still believing that art can manifest positive change. As Talbot roars on ‘I’m Scum’: “This snowflake’s an avalanche”.

I will end this feature by squaring the two artists I feel are the likeliest to win this year’s Mercury Prize: IDLES and Anna Calvi (for her third album – and third Mercury nod -, Hunter). Just look at the sheer variety of the remaining albums! Black Midi are a divisive band (I am not a fan but I can see why some like them) and Schlagenheim is one of the most indelible and original records I have heard! They are, as I say, divisive but the acclaim they have warranted reflects a desire for a band who not follow the normal; who are not boring and, importantly, have a unique voice.

IN THIS PHOTO: Black Midi/PHOTO CREDIT: Matilda Hill-Jenkins for Loud and Quiet

When speaking with Loud and Quiet recently, the writer highlighted how, even in conversation, the band are a special brand:

“…This, it turns out, is how they set about writing their complex, restless music, as Kelvin explains.

“We’ll record everything, then listen back to that for things we really like and take it from there. Latch onto a single bit at a time, then take other bits, and mash them together.”

“There’s a lot of scaling down,” says Simpson. “We’ll listen to the recordings individually, and different people will like different bits, which makes it kind of cool.”

Simpson expands. “It basically just came from one article. We never set out to be hard to find. I guess the whole mystery thing is the lack of activity on social media, but that’s not a lack of anything – we’re posting what people wanna see, just the information that’s needed.” It’s true: look at their social media presence, and it is fairly sparse, but they do share all their live dates and link to where their music is available online. They’re not hiding anything.

“But yeah, that NME article, saying we’re mysterious, was one of the first things that was written about us, so it set the tone for what followed,” says Simpson. “But it’s just made up.”

Picton laughs wearily. “That article was funny as well, cos they were like, ‘the band have no recorded music whatsoever, you can’t hear them anywhere’, and then at the bottom it linked to the NTS session, which then linked to three other tracks that you could’ve listened to at the time. They were all studio quality too – it was a live recording, but it was in a proper recording studio”.

Even though they are outside punts for the Mercury, one cannot exclude Foals, SEED Ensemble and Nao. Foals’ Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost – Part 1 is one of this year’s biggest Rock albums and, as I mused yesterday, at a time when Rock is not as potent and memorable as it was in the past, Foals are keeping the flame alive. I think they are going to be on the scene for many more years and, at a time when Rock and Alternative music is taking a back seat to other genres, we still have some great bands like Foals flying the flag. Every Mercury year has artists included considered ‘outsiders’ or, more offensively, ‘token’. Nao’s Saturn is a fantastic album and, in any other year, it would be higher up the bookies’ table regarding favourites. The album is a beautiful blend of Soul, R&B and other sounds sprinkled in. It is sweet and soulful; it is driving and raw at times. I think, even though it is unlikely to win, everyone should check it out as it is one of 2018 best albums (Saturn was released last year). SEED Ensemble’s Driftglass is another top album but, again, it is outsider. I have lauded British Rap and Post-Punk but, listen to all the great Jazz swirling around, and it is clear so many different genres are flourishing. I think, compared with the U.S., we are succeeding and innovating across so many different genres. American artist are great but I think we dig deeper, go broader and the results are bigger!

Whilst Pop – mainstream Pop at least – never usually makes the Mercury shortlist (the fact Ed Sheeran was nominated a couple of years back stirred up some controversy!), The 1975 blend Pop into their brew. Their acclaimed album, A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships, was released late last year and the band are preparing to release Notes on a Conditional Form next year. Mixing political and social commentary with accessible choruses and uplifting sounds, The 1975 are one of the hottest groups in the world right now. One cannot overlook them and I would not be shocked if they won the Mercury Prize. I think the race will be between the aforementioned IDLES and Anna Calvi. This is the third time Calvi has been nominated for a Mercury - and the fact she has had every one of her records nominated is pretty impressive! Hunter is a terrific album and is such a powerful listen! Calvi discusses sexism and gender; she is intoxicating and passionate throughout and has, I think, released her most rounded and complete album so far. In this review,The Line of Best Fit had their say:

Although she operates more than comfortably in rock (see "Indies or Paradise" for a brilliantly trashy update of Rid Of Me-era PJ Harvey), it’s in the subtler and more nuanced moments that Hunter really comes into its own. "Swimming Pool"'s mixture of sweeping strings and a rare moment of vulnerability from Calvi provides a captivating nod to The Wicker Man, whereas she strips everything back on "Away" to just guitar and synth, vocals close to the ear and cracking with resignation. It’s a moment of staggering simplicity which proves to be deeply affecting.

IN THIS PHOTO: Anna Calvi is nominated for her album, Hunter/PHOTO CREDIT: Eva Pentel for DIY

Three excellent albums in, Calvi has produced her most complex work to date. As "Chain" attests (“I’ll be the boy you’ll be the girl / I’ll be the girl you’ll be the boy I’ll be the girl”), she exists on the periphery of many things: indie, rock, art rock, cinematic pop, being a boy, being a girl. On Hunter she refuses to clarify anything, proving to be both all of these things, and none of them”.

It is, as I said at the start, a really strong year. One can have few complaints regarding the standard of nominated albums/artists and, despite some genres not being included, the best of British is in the pack. One can quibble there are notable omissions – Self Esteem’s Compliments Please would have been a popular choice - but the dozen selected artists show that British music is not only wonderfully rich and memorable but there are so many different sounds and shades. From the more angular and odder Black Midi to the more commercial The 1975; the frontrunners Anna Calvi and IDLES to the blaze of Dave and Little Simz. I feel Anna Calvi and IDLES will be the ones to beat – although, as past years have shown, one can never predict! -  and many are rooting for Calvi to (finally) scoop the prize. I do go back and forth regarding those two names…but I do think IDLES will win the prize. I think 2018-2019 has been such a fantastic period for British music and, whether it is bands like IDLES tearing it up in venues or artists like Anna Calvi and Dave making us come together and think about modern life/society, it is a golden time! On Thursday, 19th September, we will see who walks away with the 2019 Mercury Prize. Whether it is Foals, Fontaines D.C. or Cate Le Bon, we can agree that the music from Britain over the past year or so has been wonderful. In a sense, everyone who has been shortlisted for a Mercury Prize…

IS a winner!