The Mercury Prize - Louder Than war

From Arlo to Alice: LTW’s Ultimate Guide To The MercurysIt’s back again. Love it or hate it, the Mercury Prize never fails to stimulate a bit of debate.

I don’t know if lockdown generated a massively powerful burst of creative energy or something, but this year’s batch of Mercury Prize nominees is as strong as it’s ever been. These things always cause a stir over here at Louder Than War Towers, so I should’ve known the answer wouldn’t be straightforward when I asked some of my fellow Warrierz who they thought should lift the glittering trophy this year.

First up was Ron Saunders to explain why Collapsed In Sunbeams From Arlo to Alice: LTW’s Ultimate Guide To The Mercurysby Arlo Parks should win.

They say write about what you know, so former public schoolgirl Arlo Parks has created a smart, soulful debut album articulating the fears and dreams of her fellow millennials who have seen their dreams go up in smoke during the pandemic. The delicate spoken words on the title track set out her ambition from the off, but this is a confident record full of subtle bittersweet pop gems like Hope where she casually puts down a stalkery bloke. But there is also a real edge to Green Eyes, as a young woman explores her sexuality in the face of prejudice, or Black Dog talking about depression as she observes ‘it’s so cruel what your disease can do for no reason’, which will resonate with many of her growing group of fans. Park cites Joni Mitchell as an influence, which comes out on the brutally honest Bluish, or in the woozy, acoustic storytelling of Caroline. It all ends with the positive Portra 400, including a short rap, as Park suggests that despite all the millennial’s recent traumas, they could still end up ‘making rainbows out of something painful.’ Arlo Parks might not have set out to be the voice of her generation, but if the Mercury judges want to reach out to a new audience comfortable with being emotionally intelligent then they must vote for Collapsed In Sunbeams.

Now, the guv’nor, John Robb, really knows his stuff. When he speaks, you listen From Arlo to Alice: LTW’s Ultimate Guide To The Mercurysand he was adamant that Berwyn’s brilliant DEMOTAPE/VEGA should win.

The Mercurys are an odd beast, getting a big media spotlight to put the full beam on what a random panel believe to be the defining moment in UK music. As ever with most mainstream media it’s very rock-lite, but at least it’s an opportunity to open up other genres of music. One of the glorious things about the UK is the sheer wealth of music wafting out of car windows, flats and headphones, and it is this diversity and mix-match of styles that we love here at LTW. Berwyn is a great example of this. The Trinidad-born singer now living in East London spent his youth in folk clubs, and his sparse and melodically rich and emotional RnB has an added potency with this flux. He has a rich and evocative voice and a mainstream charisma that could, and should, be springboarded by winning a Mercury.

I knew who Elliott Simpson would back. Having written a blinding review of Black From Arlo to Alice: LTW’s Ultimate Guide To The MercurysCountry, New Road’s debut, For The First Time, it was evident where he was pinning his colours.

Black Country, New Road’s first album was one of 2021’s most anticipated albums for a lot of people, and it more than delivered on the hype. Growing out of the same scene that gave us many of the most exciting new UK groups from the past few years – such as Black Midi and Squid – the seven-piece band have developed a sound that is wholly their own.

For the First Time’s six tracks show off the band’s range incredibly well. The bulk of the album is made up of long, sprawling songs that twist and change shape frequently, such as the fantastic Sunglasses, which barrels along with a menacing sense of energy, or the Balkan-tinged closer Opus, which slowly dissolves into a sad waltz. Many of the album’s best songs draw their power from the balance between Isaac Woods’ fidgety vocals and the chaotic instrumentals surrounding them. Often, it feels as though he’s having a conversation with the saxophones, guitars, violins and keyboards playing alongside him.

It all makes for a unique listen and it’s hard to think of anything else from this year that sounds quite like it. For the First Time is a burst of fresh, bright chaotic energy that more than deserves to win the Mercury Prize.

Paul Clarke is a sucker for that sweet soul music. And why not? So, he was solidly From Arlo to Alice: LTW’s Ultimate Guide To The Mercurysbacking Not Your Muse by Celeste.

It’s been a busy time for this American-British singer and songwriter winning the Rising Star award at the Brits; scoring an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song, offering A Little Love as the first original song to go with the high-profile John Lewis Xmas ad, and her debut album making number one. It’s been a long time coming, but Not Your Muse is well worth the wait as Celeste offers an entertaining mix of total bangers and more reflective numbers fusing soul, urban and jazz. Ideal Woman has a touch of the Macy Gray about it as she makes it clear she’s not taking any shit from insecure feckless men. Strange is a simply gorgeous jazz-tinged ballad that is designed to become a standard, and a perennial Radio 2 favourite, before Tonight Tonight takes the tempo up in a way one trick pony Adele could usefully learn from. The standout track is massive banger Stop This Flame, as Celeste really shows off her range, guaranteeing it will fill dance floors the world over. Beloved muses on whether a lover is really worth the effort, and Celeste adds some brass to the more optimistic Love is Back. It’s been a vintage year for British soul, but Celeste’s sheer ambition and songwriting chops make her the pick of the bunch so she has to be a serious contender for the big prize.

Editor, Wayne Carey, isn’t a guy you want to mess with. His middle name is AF for From Arlo to Alice: LTW’s Ultimate Guide To The Mercurysa reason. So when he says that Promises by Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra is the one, you better listen.

I think Floating Points should win the Mercury for the fact that it’s all that jazz but not as we know it. It’s a beautiful piece of chilled out music that comes across like a classical piece of art that has the smooth sax of Pharoah Sanders flowing throughout the whole piece, which comprises nine parts called Movement. Mancunian Sam Shepherd certainly knows his stuff on this masterpiece of electronica that is brought to life by The London Symphony Orchestra. It shimmers, shines and floats along like a dream and you can submerge yourself into the different sounds that fill your head, especially with headphones on. It chills your brain with fantastic sounds that you pick out at every listen. There are harpsichords, wave-washed synths, and a repetitive refrain that flows throughout the whole piece which holds the whole experience together. The strings are uplifting as they go up and down in volume. It’s shivers up the spine stuff and you can hear all sorts of mad sounds like creaking floorboards, whispered syllables from Sanders, emotional lifts and a euphoric soundtrack-like feel that hits your heart. The middle piece of Movement 6 is uplifting with a classical feel of skillful dramatics that could stop any hardcore punk in their steps and bring a tear to their eyes. It’s a solid work of art and Sanders excels every time his lips hit that sax. You have to remember that this guy is 80 years old and played with greats like Coltrane so you get the picture of how this major force in jazz bends that sax like a close brother. Shepherd has created a classical masterpiece flecked with electronica that is far away from any of the entries picked this year by a mile. A crossover piece of mellow madness that covers psychedelia, jazz, classical and ambient. He’s clearly got a few Orb and Banco De Gaia albums in his collection let me tell you!

There’s no conflict for Jackson Longridge. For him, Conflict Of Interest From Arlo to Alice: LTW’s Ultimate Guide To The Mercurysby Ghetts is a shoo-in. 

Well into the second decade of your career, you could easily be forgiven for slowing down and running short on ideas. Even as a leading light in your genre, there are always going to be young upstarts taking influence from you and stealing the limelight. Not Ghetts, though. Conflict Of Interest shows him on peak form.

“You take the fire of the young, the power of now, the wisdom of the old / Combine all three and that’s a recipe for winning,” he tells us on Mozambique. It may as well be the album’s mission statement. Conflict Of Interest is a triumph of storytelling, taking complex life experience and weaving it into compelling stories about difficult relationships, ADHD or fatherhood.

The richness of sound makes Conflict Of Interest an indulgent listen. It’s a grime album you could crank up on your headphones for some intensive listening, as much as something you could have playing warmly in your home as life goes on around you (unless you have curious small children who tend to ask awkward questions about what the man on the stereo just said…).

There’s a rich bed of sounds beneath many of the vocal lines, with piano, bass, strings and horns giving the album an extra feeling of layered depth. ‘Cinematic’ is a label that has often been used since its release. It’s easy to see why. Yet on tracks like car theft memoir, Hop Out you just get unfiltered Ghetts, his voice, his words and a backbeat. Stark or stylised, there’s no conflict – this album resonates.

Kean by name, keen by nature. Jon Kean was mustard for Hannah Peel’s Fir From Arlo to Alice: LTW’s Ultimate Guide To The MercurysWave.

Often melding nature and electronic music is the preserve of yoga meditation soundtracks and background musak in crystal shops. Each to their own, but the meeting of the natural and the synthesised has frequently fallen short of bringing out a realistic, rounded feeling of how powerful and challenging the great outdoors can really be.

Fir Wave by Hannah Peel has all the jagged, mercurial qualities that evoke unpredictable elements and untamed landscapes. There’s wind and wuthering, geology, forestry, the ocean. You’re always seeing the horizon and breathing the air as tracks progress from one movement to the next. You can imagine being in a Geography lesson, without the need for any words to convey what you need to know. You don’t even need to do any colouring in – Hannah Peel’s compositions arrive in technicolour.

For many reasons, it feels like an adventure. Released when life was very much dormant in early 2021 and when our experiences were mightily limited, the transformative quality of Fir Wave could take us to places we’d never been and we’ll probably never visit. Sometimes it even feels like we’ve ventured back in time to when vast swathes of the continents we know now were being formed.

Peel raids the rich radiophonic history of Delia Derbyshire’s sound archive and breathes new life into those found sounds in true homage to the pioneering spirit of such a trailblazer. Ambient-classical-electronica got its foot in the Mercury Prize door last year with Anna Meredith: one small step. It’s time for the Mercury judges to take the next giant leap.

Great to see so many fantastic female artists nominated this year. Iain Key’s From Arlo to Alice: LTW’s Ultimate Guide To The Mercurysfavourite is one of those. Read why he believes Laura Mvula’s Pink Noise deserves to triumph.

This should be third time is a charm for Laura. Her third album, three years in its creation and third Mercury nomination.

Pink Noise is a stunning return for the artist after she was inexplicably dropped by RCA following her Ivor Novello winning 2nd album, The Dreaming Room. Released on Atlantic Records, it’s steeped in mid 1980s, post-disco electro and ‘sophisticated pop’, the likes of which have rarely been heard since the likes of Jam and Lewis were producing Janet Jackson.

Laura Mvula isn’t my usual ‘thing’ but of all this year’s nominees I found hers to be the most interesting and refreshing. For those of us old enough, you will be transported back to a time of shoulder pads and wine bars (although for the record I never wore the former or frequented the latter) whilst offering Generations Y and Z an introduction to a more fun and musically innovative time.

Whilst the 80s may have been the decade that style forgot, the classically trained Mvula does her part in promoting the era’s music, channelling the spirits of Prince, Whitney and Jackson throughout whilst mixing in current influences as well, for example Kayne on Conditional and Eilish on Got Me.

At a time when there is so much darkness and gloom Laura Mvula has delivered an uplifting album that will make you smile and make things seem a little brighter.

Audrey Golden is championing Mogwai’s As The Love Continues. That kind of From Arlo to Alice: LTW’s Ultimate Guide To The Mercurysamuses me as Audrey is our resident NYC correspondent, whilst Mogwai are near neighbours of yours truly. I’m easily amused.

It’s about time Mogwai was nominated for the Mercury Prize. The band’s tenth album, As The Love Continues (reviewed by LTW here), carries its listeners across otherworldly spaces illuminated by the ravages of pandemic time and marred by environmental ruin. Yet collectively the songs still reveal a glimmer of hope in the form of electric sound. The first song—To The Bin My Friend, Tonight We Vacate Earth—sets the tone for the record, echoing back to much of Mogwai’s earlier music. Alternating between excitement and fear, agitation and repose, the track is at once an enveloping soundscape that delivers a brief reprieve from the disquiet of modern life while reminding us of the impossibility of feeling fully at home anywhere. Unease is only natural these days. Yet the grace in the orchestral-like sounds of Fuck Off Money illumine the paradoxical quality of the album. In this song, the intensity builds and threatens to overwhelm by its end but nonetheless hits enchanting melodic notes. We are in another world, indeed. The force and pressure that come to a head at the close of the track are met with another shift in time and place as Ceiling Granny begins.

Across the album, ever-so-slightly cacophonous tones punctuate the warmth of the fuzzy sounds that recall analogue time. I can’t help but think, listening to As The Love Continues, that the record speaks softly to the curious sadness and tension at work in The Beach Boys’ Feel Flows. To be sure, the sonic environment Mogwai creates feels strangely “mirage like, soft blue like lanterns below.” It’s of the past and the future, and I wouldn’t mind so much if these were the last sounds we heard on our decaying yet beautiful earth.

Our new boy from Berlin, Franz Biberkopf, is passionate about Nubya Garcia’s From Arlo to Alice: LTW’s Ultimate Guide To The MercurysSource. I’ve heard he has bet an arm and a leg on it winning. God knows what he’ll do if it doesn’t win.

Winters are freezing here in Berlin and last winter was the worst. Try being a one-armed man in a locked down, icy metropolis, when you don’t have a fixed abode or even a pair of boots that aren’t riddled with holes. One thing got me through – the music of the wonderful Nubya Garcia.

What a force of nature. I gather there is something of a revolution going on in British jazz right now and that she is at the forefront. Last year saw the release of her debut, Source. What a collection! I’m just a humble newspaper vendor, no expert, but I suppose Source is a jazz album. Yet, at the same time, it’s so much more. It crosses dimensions, into reggae, Latin and Afro. There are no boundaries – no constricting rules – in Garcia’s world. How liberating.

I could write an entire book about my love for this album. I adore how Garcia’s saxophone soars on the wings of an angel on the frenetic opener, Pace. The soulful and sublime The Message Continues is the finest melody I’ve heard this year. Boundless Beings, featuring the voice of Akenya, is like being wrapped in a velvet blanket. However, the pièce de résistance, possibly the best twelve minutes of music of 2020, is the colossal title track. This, more than anything, captures the essence and the utter brilliance of Nubya Garcia. From its dubby opening, it builds dramatically through a sumptuous choir of voices and Garcia’s incendiary tenor, until it is hotter than an Alexanderplatz sauna.

I was going to end by saying that it’s jazz’s turn to finally win the Mercury, but that’s too patronising. Source by Nubya Garcia should win the prize because it’s the best album. It’s what kept me going last winter.

Gordon Rutherford reviewed both SAULT releases of 2020 for Louder Than War. From Arlo to Alice: LTW’s Ultimate Guide To The MercurysSo, it was obvious who he was backing.

Here’s a strange one. There is no doubt that SAULT should win this year’s Mercury Prize. It has never been so cut-and-dried. However, the album I champion here is, quite bizarrely, not the best album that SAULT released last year. I count myself lucky to have reviewed both of SAULT’s releases in 2020 – the seminal Untitled (Black Is) and Untitled (Rise). The former was my album of the year but, for some reason, it’s not nominated. No matter. Whilst Untitled (Rise) was merely the second-best album released by SAULT last year, it’s still the stand-out in this year’s Mercury shortlist.

Of course, there is the mystique. Despite the critical acclaim, very little is known of this entity. They completely shun publicity. Their album artwork doesn’t carry the name ‘SAULT’ or the album title anywhere. But being enigmatic isn’t enough to justify winning a Mercury. No, it’s all about the music. Incredibly, Untitled (Rise) was their fourth new album within sixteen months. All glorious. Since its release last October, they have dropped another stone cold classic (Nine). They are prodigious.

They are also the zeitgeist. Both Untitled (Black Is) and Untitled (Rise) addressed centuries of racial prejudice like no-one else, thanks to a collection of hard-hitting, thought-provoking protest songs that force us all to question why black lives don’t always matter to some people.

Untitled (Rise) is a veritable fiesta compared to the dark and portentous Untitled (Black Is). It’s intelligent and beautiful. It makes you want to dance whilst forcing you to think. The Mercury judges relish throwing us curveballs with their decision. Not this year, guys. This is SAULT’s year. Nothing else comes close.

Editor, Naomi Dryden-Smith, loves an anthemic tune. I guess that’s why she’s inFrom Arlo to Alice: LTW’s Ultimate Guide To The Mercurys charge of festivals at LTW Towers. So, who else was Naomi going to champion if not Wolf Alice.

Wolf Alice will be extremely hard to beat.  They’ve pulled out all the stops with their critically acclaimed, number one album Blue Weekend (previewed by us here) without a doubt their best album so far. Taking indie shoegaze to a new level, chucking in some pretty flawless production, it’s a stunning album with a soaring, cinematic feel.  Each song explores a different emotion and sound, dealing with themes of low self-esteem, industrial misogyny and relationships, whether with partners, friends or just yourself.

From the very outset, Wolf Alice forcibly transport you into stories and scenarios which either thrill, comfort or leave you an emotional wreck.  Delicious Things, considered by some to be Wolf Alice’s best song to date, has surely propelled them over the parapet straight into the heart of the USA – we’ll see how they fare on their forthcoming North America tour.  Personally, I can’t believe that anyone who saw The Last Man On Earth premiered on Later…with Jools Holland didn’t come to a complete standstill – it’s nothing if not exhausting and exhilarating in equal measure and, for me, the strongest song on the album – possibly deserves the award all on its own.

Far from being the Ellie Rowsell show, the album successfully showcases the entire band’s talents as a cohesive unit, from drummer Joel Amey’s a capella harmonies to the impressive musicianship of both Joff Oddie (guitar), whether with immersive walls of sound or quieter fingerpicking, and Theo Ellis with his ever intense basslines.

A second Mercury win would see Wolf Alice equalling PJ Harvey’s track record, the only other artist to achieve two. For me, it’s a well-deserved done deal.

So, there you have it. Twelve writers, twelve different views. Now why not let us know what YOU think. And whilst you are doing that, I will pick up the teeth from the canteen floor and wipe the bloodstains from the vending machine. I knew I shouldn’t have disagreed with Wayne Carey.

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Author of Midnight at the Old Aces. Part time bassist, guitarist and synth noodler. Enthusiastic photographer.

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