Love it or hate it, the Hyundai Mercury Prize never fails to start a conversation. It’s cooler than the Brits and more relevant than the Grammys. And it’s never without controversy. Remember the outrage last year when Slowthai waved an effigy of Boris Johnson’s head? Or the shock when OK Computer lost out to Roni Size.
This year the hullabaloo has started early, with the spurned Nadine Shah tweeting that the shortlist was more suited to the Brits than the Mercury. We at Louder Than War are impressed by the number of female-dominated nominations this year, outnumbering the males by 7:5.
So, let’s get the chatter started. We asked twelve Louder Than War contributors who should win this year’s award and why.
Audrey J. Golden kicks off the conversation by telling no lies about Anna Meredith’s Fibs.
Anna Meredith created an album that does what Walter Benjamin intimated was nearly impossible for “a work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction.” Fibs compresses time through instrumentation, bringing the past into the present through a collection of songs that are, at their heart, a visual narrative for a great work of cinema yet to be made.
The first song on the album, Sawbones, meets us on our own terms. It’s as if Meredith has conceived a soundtrack for twenty-first century modernity. The franticness of the rhythm reflects our own anxieties about the rapidity and artifice with which technology pushes our lives forward, and the impeding political and environmental catastrophes on the horizon. Indeed, the pacing of Sawbones and other songs like Calion develop an aural pacing much like film edits, offering a score to the frenzied lives we live. Yet the album also draws on the listener’s longing for nostalgia, bringing in analog sounds and vintage synthesizer resonances that recall Kraftwerk, New Order, and Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark. The start of Inhale Exhale pays homage to the warm electronic notes that punctuate the start of OMD’s Of All The Things We Made, a trope that returns later in Ribbons, when Meredith softly sings of “all the plans we made.” The songs are also smart in their reflexivity, drawing our attention to the artifice of electronic music while wooing us with its beauty.
By the end of the album, the pace has slowed immeasurably, and Meredith’s voice has grown soft and dispersed. It’s as if she finds a kind of tranquility by the last song Unfurl, letting go despite the enveloping chaos.
Fibs ultimately feels as though it couldn’t possibly have been created in any other moment. In its intertwining of past and present, it offers a unique sound and vision of modern music.
Astonishing fact – Charli XCX’s very first live review was written by John Robb for Louder Than War. Jaw dropping, huh? So, it was pretty obvious who John was going to champion when we asked him.
LTW have a long history with Charli XCX. We wrote her first ever live review and on the same night we introduced her to her first proper manager. Even at that gig upstairs in a Camden pub to about 15 people you could see she had the talent and pop onus that combined modern pop with its command electronic rhythms, impatient melodic pile ons, bubblegum cheek and waves of emotion inside the pulsating tracks. How I’m feeling Now is almost a return to that period. A home-made DIY album written and recorded in the early days of lockdown, it captures the claustrophobia and the mood swings of being locked in during the Pandemic. The steam of sex, frustration, love and a suddenly reduced world infect its grooves, and the music underlines her songwriting talent that has seen huge hits in the USA and the young UK singer recognised as being one of the most forward thinking pop acts of the period. Her combination of modern pop and the possibilities of hi tech recording and its frontier breaking drum patterns and heavily affected vocals, combined with her love of old post punk records and their spirit of genre smashing, can be felt all the way through her record. Oldies may scorn but pop was never for the parent, Charli XCX’s self-written songs are an inspirational force and capture the moment perfectly.
Staying on that perfect pop theme, Paul Clarke goes all in for Dua Lipa.
No-one in their right mind would sneer at the perfection of Motown’s stable of female singers and Dua Lipa’s second album follows in the pop footsteps of those giants. It would have been easy for Dua to merely replicate her massive debut album, but instead she has taken a creative leap forward offering a smart disco/synth pop hybrid on banging club tracks like US Billboard hit Don’t Start Now, or potential festival anthem Hallucinate. Not many artists would namecheck American modernist architect John Lautner on an opening track, and lyrically Dua is always connecting with her audience as she reflects on life as a successful modern woman. If some sensitive acoustic singer/songwriter had written a feminist anthem like Boys Will Be Boys music snobs would be wetting themselves, but Dua chooses to challenge misogyny, and talk about the need for women walking after dark to “press your keys between your knuckles when there’s boys around”, to a subtle retro beat. Certain hoary rock dinosaurs have taken exception to Dua’s inclusion. but anyone with an open mind who has listened to this smart pop record full of inventive production, or seen her belting it out live, knows she is a worthy nominee.
Continuing the veritable pop-fest, John Scott is simply thrilled, honey by Georgia’s dancefloor filler.
Georgia completed her transition from session drummer to pop star with her smart second album thoroughly deserving her nomination by proving dance albums can tell stories as well as make you groove. It has the feel of a trancey travelogue of the ‘highs’ and lows of a big clubbing night out, so the upbeat Started Off has all the excitement of getting ready before her big hit About The Dancefloor offers a sense of what it is to be completely free as the music envelopes you. All big nights are full of peaks and troughs, so Mellow takes it down a notch, with echoes of Peaches to it, and Till I Own It is full of her beloved drum machines. I Can’t Wait takes the tempo back up with Georgia in particularly fine voice, and the dense Feel It is another banger. The dreamy Ultimate Sailor is a high-quality power ballad as Georgia dials the vocals down and Ray Gun is plain bonkers, and perhaps the only misstep on this confident record. The keening Honey Dripping Sky feels like Georgia heading home with her shoes in her hands after the perfect night out.
The Mercury has always championed dance in its many forms, and while Seeking Thrills probably won’t win, it should.
Naomi Dryden-Smith roots for the boy in the hoodie
Head to head with Stormzy in the grime corner, but much venerated by him, is Kano and his Hoodies In The Summer. Kano’s poetry is direct, hard-hitting and passionate, and his lyrical prowess as an MC has long been highly regarded. The scene is set with the opening lines of Free Years Later, “Glass half empty, waking from dreams, chasing my fears
I ain’t never cried so much tears in all these years”, and what follows is a confrontational critique of the state of the nation from an intensely personal perspective. Kano deserves to win the Mercury simply because he is head-on tackling critical social issues, like knife crime, that are ripping a generation apart. The message of the album is more powerful than any other on the shortlist and it needs to be heard by a wider audience.
Michael Kiwanuka is Wayne Carey’s hero. “It’s a proper album”, says Wayne. Plus, it has the best chance of stopping Seymour Yesterday’s favourite winning.
Three albums in and Michael Kiwanuka has polished and honed his skills to create one of the albums of 2019. Working again with Danger Mouse and London hip hop producer Inflo, this is a masterpiece in psych soul. You can melt in the sounds coming from this guy straight from the start with You Ain’t The Problem regarding immigration issues, and the 70’s flecked Hero with its amazing Hendrix-like vibes that bring back memories of Vietnam war films, yet tackles the similarities of black murders going right back to 60s activist Fred Hampton. There are the trip hop beats, laid back piano restrains, all wrapped up in the spirit of Marvin Gaye and Bill Withers. The strong closing track Light just bursts with positivity leaving you with a grin on your face. His voice is that fuckin good. There’s not a bad track on this album, and album it is. You need to listen from start to finish to appreciate the greatness of it. Today’s generation treat music as throwaway these days and it saddens me. This is an album made for people who unwrap their vinyl, pull it out of the sleeve, place it on the deck, put the needle to the groove, then chill. It flows with songs like I’ve Been Dazed going all gospel, plus the touching Hard To Say Goodbye. And if it stops fuckin Sports Team winning it (sorry Seymour Yesterday) I’ll be fuckin made!
Holding a candle for Lanterns On The Lake, Paul Evangelista makes a strong case for the underdog coming good.
Lanterns On The Lake have been on our radar for a few years now, but have perhaps been damned by faint praise and seen as a lite version of shoegazey bands such as Lush or Slowdive. But on Spook the Herd, everything finally clicked for them and they stepped out of the shadows and into the main arena. This is an album that deserves your love and even your obsession.
On Spook the Herd, Lanterns on the Lake have got everything right. All those hints of something special have come true and blossomed into something truly beautiful. Opening track When It All Comes True is instantly epic, with haunting piano and synthesised strings, before vocalist Hazel Wilde sums up the situation by singing “Stick around when it all turns real and my bets come rolling in”. Lanterns on the Lake are a band whose time has arrived.
The music walks the line between delicate and powerful, fragile and epic. This is a difficult balancing act and many bands have fallen off to either side, but Lanterns pull this off superbly. They also do all of this without resorting to cliché, with their music having an edge that keeps it out of the mainstream.
The Mercury Music prize does have a habit to lean towards the mainstream, but Spook the Heard could well be a case of the underdog coming good. They deserve it, and furthermore, success would suit their music. Lanterns on the Lake would seem to be one lucky break away from the success they deserve. Keep your fingers crossed that this is it.
Laura Marling’s latest nomination has Julia Grantham swooning.
Laura Marling has been nominated for the Mercury Prize several times. Her albums have been revered, celebrated and enjoyed since her debut Alas, I cannot Swim in 2008. If 2020 needs an escape and the promise of a better tomorrow, perhaps Marling’s latest album A Song For Our Daughter could crown her this year’s winner for its familial and touching title alone? An apt nod to the future generation, her seventh release sees her demonstrate beautifully-woven poignant numbers such as Alexandra and the wonderfully seductive Strange Girl. The lyrics may be brooding, but she showcases that rare ability of imaginative story-telling with a catchy, gentle guitar sound and a delicate voice. Is 2020 finally her year to get the recognition she deserves?
In the jazz corner, Gordon Rutherford comes out fighting for Moses Boyd.
If there is any justice in the world – any justice at all – Moses Boyd will walk off stage on the night of Thursday 24th September 2020 with that prestigious Mercury award firmly tucked under his arm. Need convincing? Here are three compelling, irrefutable reasons why Dark Matter is album of the year:
1. The Mercury has paid lip service to jazz over the years. It’s almost tokenism to have a jazz album in there. This isn’t entirely jazz (see point 2), but it’s close enough. It’s jazz’s turn.
2. Dark Matter is a veritable fusion of hip-hop, jazz and electronica. Nothing else on the shortlist comes close in terms of sheer diversity and innovation. One track (2 Far Gone) sounds like Thelonius Monk collaborating with Burial. That’s worthy of the Mercury itself.
3. Quite simply, it’s an album with zero filler. It’s fifty minutes long but every second counts and that is the ultimate criteria for a brilliant album.
So, come on judges. You know what’s right. Vote Moses.
Keith Goldhanger makes a compelling case for the boys most likely to get the bus home.
Why should Porridge Radio win the Mercury prize? Does anyone care? – Well I do a bit.
So why Porridge Radio then? Well for a start it’s more likely the band would host a celebratory show at The Green Door Store or The Shacklewell Arms (let’s just brush Coronavirus to one side for a moment and use our imagination if that’s OK). It’s more likely that the twenty-five grand on offer will probably be more appreciated if put into the hands of this band than many of the other acts participating and oh yeah… Every Bad’s got some bloody great songs on it that a lot of people will love who may not have heard the band before.
Porridge Radio are 33-1 rank outsiders according to one of the high street bookmakers, however music shouldn’t be a competition. Music shows should be hosted on the telly for their merit. We, the audience should be the judges on who takes part as it’s us that spend our money on going to the pubs and clubs that depend on our attendance to stay alive. If the TV companies insist on a music show being a competition then we, the audience, should be the ones that vote for the winners – on a postcard or on the back of a sealed-down envelope just like our grandparents used to (don’t forget, the clapometer is only for fun). Vote Porridge Radio please whoever decides these things because they’ll be getting the bus there (again, I’m still in the mindset of a 2019 gig-goer who has spent the last few decades taking these things for granted) and may need a couple of quid to get back home at the end of the evening. They’re the most punk rock act on the list, they’re they type of band that will tempt teenagers to buy guitars and form bands and a Porridge Radio win will set the Mercury awards apart from The Brits. One or two of us believe they should win, even if it’s simply to get one over on the bookies.
Sports Team have earned their stripes the hard way. Now it’s time for their reward, argues Seymour Yesterday.
If Deep Down Happy had been released 25 years ago it would have still fitted into our record collection like a well-measured suit. The amount of varied music available to us all literally at our fingertips in 2020 does not make Sports Team any better or worse for this, which means there are plenty of ears that still may not have heard this band yet but will jump for joy along with the rest of us once the opportunity arises. There can’t be too many bands around at the moment who have succeeded in releasing a debut album containing twelve great potential singles fronted by a man you simply couldn’t imagine being anything other than a hyped-up overactive singer of a rock & roll band.
Sports Team are the sound of Thursday night happy hour in student union bars across the UK. The Blur/Pigeon Detectives/Wombats/Pavement/Elastica of the current decade, a band that will grow old with their audience and keep those of us with beer bellies, receding hair, paid-up mortgages and loose teeth content on Friday nights instead of going out to overcrowded venues full of folk who’ve been drinking since clocking off for the weekend.
The band have done the ground work, have visited most of our small venues around the country, built up an audience as mad as their frontman and have embedded their existence into the minds of many people that will still be listening once they too will be sending their own children out to universities in a couple of decades’ time.
Sports Team are the sound of indie music in 2020 – this debut is fabulous and needs hearing, you can smell the sweat dripping down the walls in every song.
And finally, Andy Duke dons the Union Jack Kevlar and plants his flag for Stormzy.
Ambitious, slick and genre-skipping – Stormzy’s Heavy Is The Head is an infectious and decidedly modern musical snapshot of urban Britain. Released a few weeks before 2020 reared its cruel head, this 16-track album’s subject matter runs the gamut from tough to tender with tracks exploring everything from race to love via career achievement bragging and the inevitable addressing of detractors. The breadth of the material is far reaching and, surprisingly, a dry sense of humour on display when he decides to target those who are critical of his deservedly expanding empire. Likeability and fierceness are difficult to balance, particularly in anything hip hop adjacent, but Michael Omari manages to create his own world where these seemingly disparate qualities work in easy harmony with each other.This talented South Londoner’s second album deserves to receive a Mercury Prize for successfully managing to create an uncompromisingly homegrown opus that still oozes international appeal. Rather than being overshadowed by his North American contemporaries, Heavy Is The Head is an intelligent and uniquely British signpost for artists on both sides of the pond to follow. Both intelligent and irreverent, Stormzy is here for the long haul and is proudly Pro-Black without being Anti-White.
So, that’s time, folks. You’ve heard strong cases for every contender for this year’s Hyundai Mercury Prize. Why not let us know what YOU think. The final thing to say is a disclaimer. Anyone placing a losing bet on the outcome on the basis of the above will NOT be entitled to any form of compensation. Nor should you be.
And the winner is…
Compiled by Gordon Rutherford. More writing by Gordon can be found in his archive.