The Mercury Prize shortlist, announced on the morning of 16 October, was terrifyingly close to being double its usual size. So The Guardian joked, anyway. This year’s shortlist includes seven debut albums, including the a host of expectedly unexpected inclusions. The winner will be announced at the Awards Show on Friday 20 November, hosted by Lauren Laverne, which will be streamed live on BBC4 and BBC Radio 6 Music. The Prize will be judged by a selection of musicians, critics and producers, including previous nominees Nick Mulvey and Anna Calvi, and will be chaired by Simon Frith, Professor of Music at Edinburgh University. But if their opinions aren’t enough, we’ve reviewed all the nominations below:
Slaves – Are You Satisfied
IT’S difficult not to be charmed by Slaves’ most recent effort ‘Are You Satisfied?’; this is, in every sense, a hate letter to the British populous. “You’re already dead and it’s not that bad”. This is not punk by numbers; it is not calling for some great revolution, nor does it strive to be revelatory to the miserable sods of London it so loudly laments for; their sole concern seems to be thrusting two crooked fingers at their foot tapping crowds whilst thumping the drums that so potently deliver their message. The level of diversity Slaves manage to attain with their simple instrumental setup is staggering; from the treble drizzled melodies of ‘Sugar Coated Bitter Truth’ to the grimy wop-doo-wopping of the titular track, this an album with a real idiosyncrasy to it. If this is the new face of British punk, then to Slaves I say: lead the way.
Gaz Coombes – Matador
THIS year’s Mercury Prize saw an unexpected nomination for ex-Supergrass front man Gaz Coombes, for his second solo effort Matador. This is not a nostalgic Britpop album, it is something far more progressive and mature from the cheeky, side burn touting Britpop survivor, more akin to Radiohead’s Thom Yorke than any of his other counterparts. Matador is an experimental album, blending indie guitars with eclectic electronic sounds and gospel choirs to great effect, making it sonically broader than anything he has previously released. It possesses a spacey quality, as seen in the acoustic, ‘Girl Who Fell to Earth’ and electronic tinged ‘Oscillate’. A further notable factor is Coombes’ lyrical honesty and maturity, which shines through on lead single, ‘20/20’, with the refrain of “it’s alright the end’s in sight, worry fades the soul away”. Whilst it may be a more obscure choice for the award, it is most certainly a well-crafted, technical effort, and just as worthy as the other albums it competes against.
Soak – Before We Forgot How To Dream
INDIE pop today is an incredibly saturated market, where you’ve got to have a little bit more than a pretty voice to succeed. Luckily, Before We Forgot How To Dream manages, throughout its 14 tracks, to delve into deep reflection without feeling laboured or, worse, boring. Melodies are sparse and pensive; melancholy in places but joyfully uplifting in others. Simple songcraft and fragile vocals characterise a very solid debut and the birth of a great songwriter. Standout track: ‘Sea Creatures’.
Lewis Norman, Science & Tech Editor
Jamie xx – In Colour
THE first solo outing for xx alumni Jamie xx, In Colour is littered with enough sonic minimalism to make Lorde look overblown. Evoking Jungle rhythms and trance soundscapes, Jamie xx is able to demonstrate his full range of talents in a 43-minute opus that doesn’t overstay its welcome. Whereas many albums feel compressed and packed to the point of bursting, In Colour feels more like a mobile celestial body without a solar system to call home. Whilst the planet is indeed littered with beautiful natural formations, what is truly striking is just how much room has been granted for it to manoeuvre within. The nature of tracks like See-Saw and Obvs are not contemplative ones, rather, they are mobile ones. Get up, use the space he has provided us with, fill it with your essence, and just simply dance to this record, because the chances of us getting a better album of danceable material in the next few years is very, very slim.
Theo Stone, Online Features Editor
Benjamin Clementine – At Least For Now
WANDERING the streets of Montmartre, this honey-voiced once-upon-a-time vagabond found his niche, lacing the poetry of his Parisian home with the emotional intensity of tragic heroine Edith Piaf. Several years of metro busking and homeless nights later, a raw troubadour emerges, delivering a haunting, impassioned performance of ‘Cornerstone’, barefoot at a grand piano on Jools Holland. It is by no means polished, but this is the appeal. Clementine’s occasional moments of apparent breathlessness punctuating his warm tenor are bewitching, earning him recognition as the Nina Simone of our time. But to reduce the artist’s melange of hope and melancholy to a mere incarnation of one before would be doing him disfavour. His style modernises elements of Debussy, Chopin and Satie, and is sharpened with slang. Clementine is a unique talent who might just surprise at this year’s awards.
Fiona Potigny, News Editor
Ghostpoet – Shedding Skin
FOLLOWING up his 2011 Mercury prize-nominated debut ‘Peanut Butter Blues and Melancholy Jam’ and 2013’s much lauded ‘Some Say I So I Say Light,’ Ghostpoet’s third LP ‘Shedding Skin’ has a lot to live up to. Its title seems doubly relevant; as well as hinting the capacity of music to help us shed our worries and fears, something Ghostpoet now masterfully exploits, it also points towards a change in his musical identity. Slithering out of his coil of dreary, minimal electric beats, ‘Shedding Skin’ sees Ghostpoet exploring alternative rock territory with a full band. His deadpan delivery, effortless flow, and quotidian lyrics about modern British urban life all remain: in the morose musical soundscapes he has opted for, though, they seem to have found their grey, anxious home.
Joe Stewart, Online Music Editor
Florence + the Machine – How Big How Blue How Beautiful
FROM the anthemic ‘Queen of Peace’ to the sass-packed ‘What Kind of Man’, Florence Welch’s third studio album is a masterful display of her machine. With poetic lyricism and much-adored acrobatic vocals, ‘How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful’ stuns in its complexity. The standout ‘Ship to Wreck’ howls with a gentle glory, delightful ‘Delilah’ simply makes you dance and ‘St Jude’ is serendipitously sleepy. With dark messages and rapturous rhythms, Florence’s harp has been tossed aside and the full fabulousness of brass backing is felt with an empowering vengeance. After an utterly deserved Glastonbury headline spot, the Mercury Prize can only be next.
Read the full review here.
Sarah Gough, Editor
Eska – Eska
THE debut self-titled release from Lewisham’s Eska is a lesson in patience and musical reverence. Having a pail awash with high-profile experience and collaboration – from a career performing as session singer with the likes of Tony Allen and Grace Jones – materialises with confident soul, filling the glorious spaces between Joanna Newsom and Monica Martin. The introductory track ‘This is How a Garden Grows’ winds fairytale-like lyrics of silverbells and cockleshells around strong production and extensive layering. The record was five years in the making, and every detail, from the stripped back electric rhyming of ‘Gatekeeper’ to the slightly off-beat 80s riff in ‘Shades of Blue’ akin to a happier Chris Isaak, feels considered and meaningful.
Tristan Gatward, Online Music Editor
C Duncan – Architect
THIS is the perfect album for going for a walk on a sunny winter’s day. The breathy, drawn out vocals and almost-Fleet-Foxes-y vibes transport you to a happy place you didn’t realise you needed to escape to. ‘Silence and Air’ treats you to very pretty and soft, meticulous drum beats, probably what would be playing as the soundtrack to Duncan’s dreams. We move on to ‘For’, which is all about the vocals. The interlacing choral voices are tinged with an Indian twist to the licks, creating imaginative rhythms followed by up-beat whistling. Cue montage of Duncan skipping happily through a field of sunshine and bright flowers. The album takes a slightly more melancholic tone towards the end with ‘Novices’, incorporating strings and a sense of anxiety. ‘As Sleeping Stones’ picks it up again with a faster pace and an echoey mood that sounds like it should be playing out in Topshop amongst the wannabe hipsters. The album ends with the lullaby of some French sounding minor 7th chords from a single acoustic guitar, joined by Duncan’s husky yet hymn-like vibrato. A suitable end for an album of lazy Sunday Winter walks.
Róisín Murphy – Hairless Toy
RÓISÍN Murphy’s third album Hairless Toys is the perfect “easy listening” chill out mix, however the lyrics often have a much more profound meaning than their soft lilting melodies would imply. ‘Gone Fishing’ for example is inspired by the film Paris is Burning, which explores the drag ball culture of the Gay, Latino, African-American and transgender communities of New York in the 1980s. Similarly, ‘Uninvited Guest’ is a personal vignette from Murphy’s own life, recalling the time when she was jobless and used to wander aimlessly around London thinking about – as she described in an interview – “the dreams for sale which don’t come true.” In many ways Murphy could be considered to be the Irish Kate Bush; she combines an idiosyncratic vocal style with lyrics which tell a story, and that is a skill which too many modern musicians have forgotten.
Wolf Alice – My Love Is Cool
PICTURE a meek teenage girl with converses and relationship issues. That’s Alice. Now picture her wielding a hatchet in one hand and her ex-boyfriend’s head in the other. That’s the Wolf part. Together, these two are Wolf Alice, and they are seen together in a strange harmony on their debut album My Love Is Cool. At times, it sounds like Snow Patrol covering Nirvana, or maybe the other way around? This album seems intended to confuse the listener but somehow it works. With the typical soft/ loud format of 90s grunge running throughout the record, it seems somewhat familiar. In fact, there probably isn’t a lot in this album that you haven’t heard before. The magic is found in the way these common ingredients are cooked up into something refreshing and generally satisfying.
Aphex Twin – Syro
IF Aphex Twin’s early nineties output is like being sponge-bathed in a wavy sea by a man with extremely gentle hands (Selected Ambient Works etc), then his late nineties output is like being continuously punched in the face by a boxer the size of a T-rex (Richard D. James Album and Come to Daddy). Syro is somewhere in between these experiences and this full-length from Aphex Twin is finally affording him the kind of mainstream attention that has so far alluded him. Syro is not quite danceable and not quite as ambient as his early work, but it is in itself a very streamlined and consistent piece of work. More beat-driven tracks are supplemented by a couple of piano ballads that surprise and perplex the listener. I’m glad he’s finally being recognized in a mainstream capacity like the Mercury prize. Perhaps finally he can come to the forefront of music, rather than just being a guiding force behind the sounds of popular modern musicians.
Read the full review here.
(Featured image: 2014’s winners, Young Fathers (Photo by Ross Gilmore/Redferns via Getty Images))