FEATURE: The Soundboard’s Guide To The Mercury Prize 2016

The Mercury Prize – one of the most prestigious and hotly anticipated awards in the British music calendar. Ahead of tonight’s grand finale, deputy editor Georgia Jackson has gone through each of the twelve finalists with her verdict on each and predictions for the winner.

A lot of people see the Mercury Prize as the Oscars of British music, and seeing as they’re both often viewed as pretentious and fuelled by exclusivity, it might not be too much of a stretch. Speaking of a fan of rock and metal music, the tiny number of rock and metal inclusions in Mercury Prize shortlists (Muse, Biffy Clyro and Royal Blood are the only bands of their kind to have been nominated in the last ten years) are more than a good enough reason as to why fellow underrepresented fans put their fingers in their ears at a mere mention of the coveted award and dismiss nominated albums as ostentatious drivel. But I’m definitely not confined to those genres and honestly, I was wowed by the originality and emotiveness of Benjamin Clementine’s At Least For Now (which won the prize last year). It’s led to somewhat of a morbid fascination with the prize and its history, but more importantly, it’s led me to wonder “what other brilliant stuff are we missing out on by not paying attention to the Mercury Prize?” The winner is announced today (September 15th), and while there’s no That’s The Spirit in sight, I thought I’d listen to all twelve shortlisted albums and see if this is really the best British music has to offer.

Anohni – Hopelessness

Things don’t start off too badly with singer-songwriter Anohni’s debut full-length (although she’s already won the prize before with old band Antony And The Johnsons) – it’s certainly not something you’d hear every day, and the genre splicing here will be what has the diversity box ticked for Mercury Prize panellists. Orchestral instruments are combined with electronics and drum machines all the time, but not quite like this. This album is full of beautifully slow-burning songs with lush and unexpected instrumental textures, peaks and troughs, yet they are all still completely unpredictable at the same time. Hopelessness is a profound record, and it’s probably due to the stunning gospel-like voice of Anohni herself. Although it does take some getting used to, the vocal talent showcased here makes the singer sound wise beyond her years, especially coupled with the included lyrical themes. She tackles issues like global warming and the situation in North Korea head on, and such directness is a rare find in music today, especially presented this beautifully. While the lyrics are largely metaphorical and poetic, though, they can be hard to decipher semantically (she sings about wanting to see animals burn in a song about global warming) making them harder to agree with initially and easier to stick that ‘pretentious’ label on, especially for those who like their music and lyrical messages more straightforward. Some tracks just don’t work either (Obama’s cult chanting over ominous synths sound is more unsettling than anything else) so a portion of the record does fall slightly flat. But although this album might need a little more thought on the listener’s part than most, as far as Anohni’s main selling points go, Hopelessness is a lovely departure from the norm should you ever need one.

Likelihood of winning the Mercury Prize: 5/10 – it’s certainly a curveball (which previous panels have loved) and a deserving change from previous winners, but Anohni might be a bit too out of the box to take the title.

Bat For Lashes – The Bride

Bat For Lashes’ – aka Natasha Khan – concept album The Bride tells the narrative of a woman whose fiancé Joe dies in a tragic car accident on the way to their wedding. It explores her state of mind as she comes to terms with his death and goes on their honeymoon alone. Khan’s voice is simply gorgeous, flitting between higher octaves at her leisure and managing to harness every pang of emotion this Bride is feeling as if she’s telling her own life story. While it’s an amazing performance vocally, the songs themselves tend to blend into each other because of how gradually they build up. Apart from the more pop-oriented Sunday Love and spoken word Widow’s Peak, The Bride is made up of slow, emotional tracks which last a bit too long. The voice of Bat For Lashes herself is intended to be the main instrument here, playing the character of the Bride over sparse musical landscapes, and while it’s beautiful on the face of it, the ideas are so repetitive that they become slightly dreary. The idea of the story arc for this album is nothing short of commendable and Bat For Lashes’ talent for songwriting and translating emotion is undeniable, but a bit more variety in pace and style definitely would’ve made The Bride more enjoyable.

Likelihood of winning the Mercury Prize: 6/10 – the idea of a concept album will have surely been fawned over, and the talent is certainly there to make a win for Bat For Lashes possible.

David Bowie – Blackstar

Being David Bowie’s foray into art rock as well as the album that helped make his death itself an opus, it’s no surprise that Blackstar has a place on this year’s shortlist. It was released two days before he lost his secret battle with cancer, and tells the story of a man accepting his fate and pondering mortality itself. But while Bowie is one of, if not the most successful chameleon in music history, Blackstar really wouldn’t be an album he’d be remembered for if not for the bigger picture surrounding it. Fans weren’t aware of his illness until his death, and only discovered the depth of it when listening to this album. Even the title itself comes from black star lesion, a lesion that points to cancer. There’s so much to admire about the circumstances around the album, especially considering the material itself really isn’t the best. The title track and Lazarus are uncomfortable to listen to, livelier inclusions don’t really have much to them, and the fact that the album consists on seven songs but is just over forty minutes long says a lot. It feels horrible to say, but Blackstar doesn’t feel like a Mercury Prize nominee for the most part and it’s not hard to ask how big a role Bowie’s death itself played in this shortlisting. But then again, the thought and tragedy outside of the songs that made this album what it is more than likely swayed the panellists. After all, they’re suckers for sheer artistry.

Likelihood of winning the Mercury Prize: 3/10 – if Blackstar wins, it’ll more likely be a tribute to Bowie than a celebration of the album itself; the panel will probably favour newer talent.

Jamie Woon – Making Time

Another artist most people won’t have heard of despite millions of plays on Spotify, Jamie Woon is a master of the ambient, chilled track judging by second album Making Time. This is one of the most ear-pleasing albums on the shortlist due to Woon’s gorgeous, melted chocolate vocals and luxuriant, layered textures of acoustic guitars and ethereal synths that are all too easy to get lost in. It’s the epitome of coffee shop music – not necessarily a go-to listen but certainly something to stick on after a stressful day. But there’s a range of sounds on here too, from funky vocal sample hooks to brass stabs to glockenspiels and steel drums, which provide more depth and curiosity save this album from existing solely to blend into the background. Woon has clearly gone wherever his mind has told him to on this album, and both his creativity and skill in manifesting an idea make him a more than worthy nomination for the Mercury Prize. It’s not an album that’ll break any records, but it’s one that deserves any extra recognition it gets.

Likelihood of winning the Mercury Prize: 8/10Making Time is just different enough to be considered as a winner, and Jamie Woon’s under-the-radar status certainly won’t hurt his chances.

Kano – Made In The Manor

Considering the profound, artsy label most nominees of the Mercury Prize seem to fit, rap seems to stick out like a sore thumb when included. But it’d be stupid to ignore such a huge part of today’s music, and the likes of Dizzee Rascal, Tinie Tempah and Plan B have been shortlisted in the last few years. This year is no exception, and we have Kano’s fifth album Made In The Manor fighting in rap’s corner. And while not the most radio friendly, well-known rapper in the game, this album is a great representation, encompassing multiple types of songs found in the genre. There’s the synth led rave tune (New Banger), more melodic radio hit (This Is England) and brethren-featuring spitting verses song (3 Wheel-ups featuring Wiley and Giggs). But this album – especially towards the end – is deeply confessional, outlining the harsh realities of growing up in the East End of London as well as the difficulties of belonging to the music scene he does. With a lot of the more brutally honest lyrics delivered in a slower spoken word style than rap, it’s hard not to be whisked away by the words into the urban land he describes so vividly and emotionally – it’s clearly this imagery that has earned Kano his nomination. Of course not everything on Made In The Manor will appeal to non-rap fans – perhaps nothing will, musically at least. But it’s what can be found once genre is put aside that makes this album Mercury Prize worthy, and the difference in delivery and inspiration to the usual crop of shortlisted artists is surely something to appreciate.

Likelihood of winning the Mercury Prize: 6/10 – while a rap winner would certainly be refreshing (the last solely rap winner was Speech Debelle in 2009), it’s likely the panel will choose a more conventional (for the Prize) nominee.

Laura Mvula – The Dreaming Room

Arguably one of the more unique inclusions on this year’s shortlist, singer-songwriter Laura Mvula marries percussive motifs with lush, orchestral textures and her stunning voice. She can switch between sounding striking and commandeering to blending totally with the music to soaring and sassy at the drop of a hat, and while not everything on Prize-nominated second album The Dreaming Room is totally gripping, it’s certainly not hard to see why it’s earned so much acclaim. A lot of tracks on here ebb and flow beautifully while tugging at the corners of your mouth, i.e Let Me Fall, and it’s difficult not to completely lose yourself in the lavish instrumentals. Mvula herself shows her aforementioned musical versatility by the bucketload, of course, from dreamy, music-box fronted opener Who I Am, the funk-laced (thanks to a cameo from Nile Rodgers) gospel choir anthem Overcome, the world-questioning People (with featured artist Wretch 32’s contribution completely transforming the song into one of anger and harsh reality), and to closer Phenomenal Woman, a stomping ode to her grandma. Even those that take a little too long to reach their peak and become tiresome can only be described as objects of beauty. The Dreaming Room just shows how important Laura Mvula could be to music if given the right platform, and the Mercury Prize is as good as any, right?

Likelihood of winning the Mercury Prize: 8/10The Dreaming Room is a simply gorgeous piece of work, and could definitely fit into the Mercury Prize hall of fame looking at past winners.

Michael Kiwanika – Love & Hate

A brilliant thing about the Mercury Prize’s nomination criteria is that the amount of pre-existing prominence (or lack of it) doesn’t matter, and widely unknown artists can be on par with the greats. But although Michael Kiwanuka may be far from the most well-known singer-songwriter out there, he’s a lot more seasoned when it comes to the Mercury Prize than many other artists in this shortlist. His debut album Home Again was nominated in 2012, and he’s two-for-two with follow-up Love & Hate this year. It’s easy to see why – he’s soulful through and through with the odd injection of funk added to his mainly acoustic and orchestral instrumental textures. It’s not really high-octane stuff, but it’s perfectly pleasant and would be earmarked as background music in homes if not for the agonising honesty within the words he sings, especially when he heartbreakingly recounts fearing commitment in I’ll Never Love. The stumbling blocks of Love & Hate, though, are by far the lengthier tracks. There’s far too much empty space in the six, seven, and nine-minute-long tracks, so much so that any inclusion of funky guitar parts or brass stabs are complete and utter saving graces. That’s not to say that these are poor songs – far from it – but they just lack the sparkle to be truly, truly memorable. Kiwanuka himself though, is a great talent, and vocally he possesses the power to completely relax you as well as grip you and make you sit up and truly listen. We need more artists like him in today’s music.

Likelihood of winning the Mercury Prize: 7/10 – great songwriting and the talent of Kiwanuka himself are sure to go down well in final decision making, and the fact that he’s been nominated before is sure to help.

Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

Of course Radiohead are no strangers to the Mercury Prize, having been nominated a record five times since OK Computer’s nod in 1997. But in almost twenty years, they astoundingly still haven’t won the coveted title. New record A Moon Shaped Pool is full of beautiful, ambient tracks which surround you and linger long after the final note rings out. Burn The Witch is a particular standout, exhibiting Thom Yorke’s stunning vocal effortlessly soaring over an impeccably balanced ratio of electronics to a full orchestra. This album is a perfect menagerie of complementing instruments, and the wall of sound they join together to create can only be described as a thing of beauty, whether it be with Desert Island Disk’s carefully strummed acoustic guitar or True Love Wait’s desperately gloomy piano melodies. A Moon Shaped Pool is dreamy and gut-wrenchingly melancholy, and just an ear-pleasing record all round. If Radiohead win their first Mercury Prize with this album, it certainly wouldn’t be a surprise.

Likelihood of winning the Mercury Prize: 7/10 – they may be a big name, but having never won before, Radiohead could become the Leonardo DiCaprio of this year’s Mercury Prize, especially with an album this good.

Savages – Adore Life

Looking at this list, post-punk band Savages seem to be the closest to filling the rock / metal-shaped hole in this year’s Mercury Prize shortlist. And based on the chuggy, rolling riff of The Answer, opener of second album (also their second to be nominated) Adore Life, most fans of rock and metal would almost certainly choose to support Savages if forced to listen to the twelve selected records. Adore Life is spiky, fierce and noisy, and singer Jehnny Beth’s imperious vocal definitely helps Savages be the unique outfit they are. Her voice can be wild, borderline uncontrollable, but also completely haunting. There’s no sense of warmth there for the most part (not a bad thing in this case), and as a result this album is unquestionably one for the more negative side of the emotional spectrum. Anger, confusion and sadness are all here, and some songs like T.I.W.Y.G fly past in a flurry of anguish. But slow-burning Adore’s philosophical discussion and Mechanics’ whispered vocals scratch the surface at something more vulnerable, and these are the parts that are most memorable about Adore Life by far, no matter how well their more raucous sound is implemented. Considering that the ‘typical’ Mercury Prize nominee boasts quiet, dreamy material, Savages have completely flipped that on its head, proving there’s still hope for fans of the heavier side of things.

Likelihood of winning the Mercury Prize: 5/10 – like Michael Kiwanuka, Savages have been nominated before which could help their chances, but the panel will probably favour a less out-of-the-box album.

Skepta – Konnichiwa

Skepta has had a monumental year, and being hailed as one of the frontrunners in the grime scene plus a Mercury Prize nomination for Konnichiwa just shows the widespread appeal he has. Despite Shutdown and That’s Not Me have becoming mainstream club night staples and megastar Pharrell Williams spitting a verse on the record, Konnichiwa shows Skepta staying true to his roots and exhibits the less polished side of his music, with the majority of tracks acting as a complete wall of sound. Skepta is undoubtedly one of the best rappers out there at the moment in terms of skill, speed and lyrics, and even though it’s not going to earn awards for the most ear-pleasing sound in the world, it is an entertaining listen for the vast majority. Instrumentally the songs are scarce, allowing the wordsmith himself to take centre stage, but the gloriously dirty synth bassline of Crime Riddim, Ladies Hit Squad’s backing music which sounds like Muzak with a hip-hop twist, and Man’s Queens Of The Stone Age sample (yes, really) provide some added flavour. While not everybody’s cup of tea, it’s definitely well-deserved for Skepta, who’s clearly talented at what he does. And regardless of the outcome, seeing an album boasting choruses like “hear me on the radio, wa’gwan / see me on the TV, hi mum” nominated for the Mercury Prize is refreshing, to say the least.

Likelihood of winning the Mercury Prize: 6/10 – like for Kano, a hip-hop win might not be a dead cert, but it’s definitely feasible.

The 1975 – I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it

Looking at it, it’s completely unsurprising that The 1975’s second album earned a nod from the Mercury Prize panel; hotly-tipped young indie band ditch their more straightforward, pop-tinged sound for something more artsy and, well, Mercury Prize-ish? We all should have placed bets. But considering The 1975 are often ridiculed and dismissed for their huge throng of fans, I like it when you sleep… should be the album them to help them leave those snap judgements behind. Yes, there are duds on here, and the fact that the band themselves openly acknowledge their pretentiousness is a little cringeworthy, but there’s a lot to credit. Singer Matty Healy makes some insightful observations on fame and the like in Love Me, and that sharp lyricism is sure to have contributed to their shortlisting, as has the quartet’s collective ear for music – take the gorgeous instrumental title track, for instance. The overwhelming ratio of minimalist, dreamy slow-to-mid-tempo inclusions to indie-pop is surely an indicator of growth too, even though the formula does get stale and tedious after a while. But The 1975 have shown their skill at composing the latter track with this record even though its execution isn’t always totally stellar. If that skill is harnessed to become even better further into their career, then expect all of their albums to be Mercury Prize nominated.

Likelihood of winning the Mercury Prize: 6/10 – this record has more than a few similarities with the stereotypical Mercury Prize Nominee, but the fact The 1975 have already enjoyed colossal success of late means they may favour newer talent.

The Comet Is Coming – Channel The Spirits

It’s doubtful you’ve heard of The Comet Is Coming prior to their Mercury Prize nomination considering they’re an instrumental jazz trio who only released their first EP last year. And on the (very strange) face of it, their format sounds unbelievably enticing – a saxophone, keyboard and drums lineup and members called Betamax Killer, King Shabaka and Danalogue the Conqueror describing their nominated debut full-length “a prophetic document” and “the soundtrack to Planet Earth’s doom”. It’s too bonkers a package not to pique your curiosity. But actually getting into Channel The Spirits, it’s a bit disappointing. The album’s plagued with incessant bleeping noises and space effects, clearly trying to keep a narrative alive when the only aspect successful in doing so is the actual song titles. Musically, there isn’t a singular part taking the lead throughout – all of the instruments are united and heard as one. This would normally be a good thing but it limits The Comet Is Coming and it’s hard to not want to hear more saxophone seeing as it’s reduced to contributing minimal brass stabs across the album. It takes a sort of lead in the album’s most colourful (meaning least forgettable) track Space Carnival, but even then the same riff is continuous and it gets stale. It’s frustrating as the whole premise of the band and concept album being tied into a neat little bow promised such compelling things – it’s just a shame that eccentricity didn’t translate to record, because this really could have been brilliant.

Likelihood of winning the Mercury Prize: 6/10 – while the idea might be a bit too out there considering previous Mercury Prize winners, the music certainly isn’t, so the possibility of a win is still there.

Regardless of what anyone says about the Mercury Prize, it cannot be denied that they consistently praise ridiculously eclectic bunches – grime, punk, instrumental jazz, soul and indie competing alongside each other would be unheard of in any other competition. It’s a great platform for lesser-known artists, too. There’s seemingly been bias against any nominations that go slightly against the grain in previous years – Melvin Benn has previously called metal “niche” despite including more obscure artists – but the Prize organisers seem to be doing their best to combat this, drafting in a range of musicians to be on this year’s panel, including Jarvis Cocker, Annie Mac, Jamie Cullum, Kate Tempest, Naughty Boy and Wolf Alice’s Ellie Rowsell. In terms of this year’s shortlisted artists and taking previous winners into account, I’d put money on Jamie Woon or Laura Mvula taking the title. But the thing about the Mercury Prize is that it’s so unpredictable and anyone could win, especially this year with the calibre of some of the nominated albums. The panel could completely shake things up and choose a less traditional option. Of course no one’s going to love absolutely every album on this year’s shortlist, but if you’re open to it, give them a go and you might just find a musical hidden gem or two that you wouldn’t usually even consider listening to. Considering that the only band on the list I actively listen to is The 1975, I don’t feel that the list is totally inclusive of every single type of music. That’s, of course, difficult to do, but the list’s overall diversity has to be praised. As for who’s going to win, we’ll just have to wait for the official announcement tonight.

Words by Georgia Jackson

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