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Mercury Prize 2019 - The Key Questions

In the run up to this year's Mercury Prize, Alex Thompson breaks down the key questions and ones to watch

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The Mercury Prize nominees list is an absolute gold mine for music journalists. Like a pack of bloodthirsty hyenas in vintage band tees, they love nothing more than to gleefully tear apart the critics picks with their own ‘unique’ spins and opinions. A quick google will show the extent of this over saturation. It’s a blood bath of wannabee woke, as experimental projects are mocked for being pretentious nonsense, anything pop is almost immediately shunned and hip hop is treated with the same mentality of the ‘how do you do fellow kids?’ meme. You’ll be pleased to hear that this article is no different, so brace yourself for a whole lot of opinions and not a lot of substance as I run down this years nominees for Britain’s most prestigious music award.

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Image Credit: Partisan Records

What Is The Mercury Prize And Why Should I Care?

The Mercury Prize is one of the most coveted awards in the British music industry, focusing primarily on alternative and indie genres produced by UK artists of bands. Every year a shortlist of nominees is released to the press while a panel made up of music journalist and media members take several months to narrow it down to a single winner. For some reason it’s all sponsored by Hyundai. The winner takes home a glitzy trophy, £25k in prize money and the best publicity boost any artist could wish for. Previous winners include PJ Harvey, The Arctic Monkeys, Dizzee Rascal and The Xx.

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Image Credit: Neighbourhood Recordings/ Warner

Who Are The Nominees?

The 1975 - A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships
It’s no secret that I’m no fan of The 1975. Their trademark brand of radio friendly ‘indie’ pop comes across as a little saccharine and soulless, a tepid and mostly uninspired take on the genre. More often than not it’s just a bit repetitive and monotonous, sort of like watching a washing machine slowly spin round. It's indie pop for the Urban Outfitters generation.
Fight me.
That being said, their latest album wasn’t actual that bad. Not good enough to be on this list but not terrible. With a few interesting tracks and a more developed production and songwriting style, it's a definite step up from their debut.

Foals - Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost Pt 1
Foals pick up another nomination for their unfortunately underwhelming and fairly bland indie rock album. While the festival favourites manage to pull off a couple of bangers and thankfully ditch the sickly gloss of earlier albums, for the most part it’s track after track of fairly forgettable guitar pop. I don’t think I can name more than 2 of the songs off the top of my head. Again, it’s not by any means a bad album, it’s just not quite the calibre of the rest of nominees yet a thoroughly predictable addition to the list.

Anna Calvi - Hunter
With some clever lyricism and stunning guitar work, singer songwriter Anna Calvi’s Hunter is her third album to receive a Mercury nomination. The album itself is clever and complex instrumentally, managing to tackle themes of sexuality and gender as well as melancholy and isolation with sensitivity and urgency. It’s beautifully warm and intimate, easily her best work to date and with some absolute stand out choruses. Highlights include ‘Don’t Beat The Girl Out Of My Boy’, ‘Chain’ and the eponymous ‘Hunter’.

Cat Le Bon - Reward
Welsh singer songwriter Cat Le Bon brings together feelings of isolation with lush instrumentals and elegant arrangements. It’s calm and composed but there’s never a dull moment, effortlessly charming and poetic songwriting throughout. It's a brilliantly crafted and contemplative album that is unfortunately overshadowed by the more in-your-face nominations to make the list.

Idles - Joy As An Act Of Resistance
The utterly brilliant Joy As An Act Of Resistance from Bristol rockers Idles appears to be both a bookies and fans favourite to take home the prize. From the opening drones and drums of ‘Colossus’ to the chant-y sing along refrain of ‘Danny Nedelko’ and the buzzing lead guitars of ‘I’m Scum’, JAAAOR is a blistering ride from start to finish. Riff heavy, socially conscious and bursting with angst and energy, Idles pull no punches on a critically acclaimed second album, stringing together banger after banger in one of the year’s most consistently enjoyable projects. Punk isn’t dead and Idles are the proof.

Fontaines DC - Dogrel
Dubliners Fontaines DC also secure a spot on the list, their debut project Dogrel kicking off the year with bark, bite and a uniquely Irish snarl. Tracks like ‘Boys In The Better Land’, ‘Too Real’ and ‘Hurricane Laughter’ thunder along with raging guitars and twitchy drum grooves that brilliantly juxtapose more contemplative cuts such as ‘Dublin City Sky’. Blending ballads with bangers and satire with sentimentality, Fontaines DC are one of the year’s most promising break out acts. A fine addition to the rich history of Dublin rock, arguably Ireland's greatest export after Guinness, Jameson and Greg off of Love Island.

Black Midi - Schlagenheim
Black Midi also managed to snag a spot on the coveted list, their album Schlagenheim being easily the weirdest inclusion. It’s impossible to confine the band to a single genre - post punk, post rock, math rock, punk and jazz are all combined to create a bizarre but brilliant if somewhat pretentious blend. It’s an intoxicating listen - warbled vocals and guitar bite weave around stunning drum grooves and more awkward time signatures and tempo changes than I care to count make. Schlagenheim is a whirlwind of a listen, chaotic, disorientating and bordering on pretentious but undoubtedly impressive.

Seed Ensemble - Driftglass
This year’s jazz slot went to London based Seed Ensemble - no I hadn’t heard of them either. The group blends jazz, afro-beat and hip hop influences and contemporary sensibilities to create one of the most unique and impressive jazz albums I’ve heard in the past few years. Driftglass might have been a new album to me but it certainly made an impression - a thoroughly enjoyable listen, just don’t bet any money on it winning.

Nao - Saturn
London based songwriter Nao’s latest album Saturn also receives a mention. With funk and soul influences, Nao delivers a compelling alternative to the mainstream RnB of the likes of Jorja Smith and Kali Uchis and shows Nao finally finding her niche in the scene. In a saturated scene Nao stands out as one of the most exciting and dynamic acts and with undoubtedly more great stuff on the way. Saturn is beautifully performed, slickly produced and oh-so soulful.

Little Simz - Grey Area
Little Simz’s album Grey Area is a stunningly creative and brilliantly executed rap album, showing the rapper really find her voice and flourish. Gorgeously layered instrumentals and well polished production accompany some of the years best bars: dense in humour, wordplay and social conscious. Stand out moments include the fuzzy vocals of ‘Boss’, the unmistakable London bounce of ‘101FM’ and the mesmerising flows of ‘Venom’. Easily one of my favourite hip hop albums of the year, Grey Area is a perfect example of UK hip hop flourishing in 2019.

Slowthai - Nothing Great About Britain
If any album best summarises the turbulence of 2019, it would be Nothing Great About Britain. Spitting venom and fury over gritty and ballsy beats, MC Slowthai is one of the years fastest rising stars and it’s easy to see why. NGAB is quite unlike anything I’ve heard before, from the claustrophobic and rattling Mura Masa instrumental of ‘Doorman’ to the playful interchanging bar with Skepta on ‘Inglorious’ and calling the Queen a c*nt on the title track, there are so many stand out moments. A totally unique voice and personality with a blistering energy and unrivalled charisma, Slowthai’s fiercely individual style is an utterly captivating listen.

Dave - Psychodrama
Favourite of current MUSE editor Jonny Wellington, Dave’s Psychodrama is another promising entry on the list. Undoubtedly the most important album for UK hip hop and grime since Skepta’s KonnichiwaPsychodrama is a truly stunning album that is bursting at the seams with heart, charm and sincerity. With the masterful storytelling of ‘Lesley’, the powerful social conscious of ‘Black’ and the sing along refrains of ‘Streatham’, it’s an album diverse in tone and style and shows the rapper flexing his muscles as one of the UK’s best rappers. Dave has had an amazing year of tours, awards and glowing reviews, shame it had to peak by being overshadowed by a 16 year old in a PSG shirt and a bucket hat.

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Image Credit: AWAL Records

What’s the main takeaway from this years list?

At a glance the list may seem a little genre skewed however compared to previous years, it’s a pretty decent split. Punk and rock take up the majority of the nominees with most of the albums being of excellent quality so no issues there. Hip hop is also well represented with the highest number of nominations of any year and arguably, the best roster UK hip hop records of recent years. The usual jazz slot is filled by a talented and contemporary yet sort of predictable group. The main omission seems to be electronic and dance music but given this year has been pretty sparse on that front (fingers crossed for a new Burial record), it’s no surprise.

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Image Credit: Partisan Records

Quick Fire Questions

When Is The Winner Announced?
19th Spetmber 2019.
Who deserves to win?
Due to the unique brilliance of the album as well as his non-stop touring, off-the-wall personality and talent it really should be Slowthai.
Least likely to win?
Seed Ensemble. Unfortunately the jazz slot never wins.
Biggest Omission?
Loyle Carner’s Not Waving But Drowning is an office favourite and a brilliant second album. Thom Yorke's incredible Anima also deserves a mention.
Worst inclusion?
Foals. If money didn’t change hands I’d be very surprised.
**Who would I put my money on? **
The smart move is Dave as it seems to have undoubtedly made the biggest cultural impact although I wouldn’t rule out Slowthai or Idles for their sheer cult appeal and huge fan following.

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