Always an anticipated announcement on the music calendar, the Mercury Prize is one of the most prestigious awards that can be given to a British or Irish artist in their career. While the BRITs and Grammys carry that immediate shine of “I’ve made it” success, the Mercury has always celebrated acts a bit more left-field from the mainstream when it comes to songwriting and ingenuity.
Last year’s winner, Michael Kiwanuka, fended off chart heavyweights to claim the prize with Kiwanuka, his soul-searching third album that saw him explore themes of faith, civil rights and self-doubt. Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia and Stormzy’s Heavy is the Head, were left at the wayside despite their large commercial success, as was Charli XCX’s ambitious five-week-turnaround lockdown project How I’m Feeling Now and Laura Marling’s A Song For Our Daughter – her third nomination for the prize.
Dropping their final shortlist yesterday, the 2021 Mercury Prize is one of the most diverse yet. gal-dem favourite and BRIT Awards 2021 Breakthrough Artist and Album of the Year nominee Arlo Parks has been put forward for her stunning debut Collapsed in Sunbeams; other first-time nominees include jazz musician Nubya Garcia and soulful rapper-singer-producer Berwyn who – as a Trinidadian residing in Britain since the age of nine and not holding a British passport – is an artist who has benefitted from the recent change to the rules thanks to Rina Sawayama, whose campaigning prompted the decision.
The more alternative side of things are covered by proggy-outfit Black Country, New Road and experimental noisemakers Mogwai, who got their first ever UK number one album in their tenth collection, As the Love Continues. Indie rockers Wolf Alice won the Mercury in 2018 with Visions of a Life and make up a select group of artists to receive a trio of nominations for their albums, including Laura Mvula. Recently returning with third album Pink Noise, the Birmingham-born talent embraced her love of 80s music with a good groove as an audible departure to 2016’s The Dreaming Room and her debut, Sing to the Moon. Seasoned grime MC and rapper Ghetts also gets recognition for the deft and vulnerable Conflict of Interest, his highest charting album to date.
It is also heartening to see so many new artists being pushed forward this year, including Celeste, another who scooped both the BRIT Rising Star award and topped the BBC Sound of poll in the same year. Her album Not Your Muse reached number one in the UK charts, but at the other end of the spectrum are mysterious R&B two-piece Sault and ambient electronic artist Hannah Peel who, despite being critically lauded, have had little to no mainstream recognition.
When it comes to the Mercury Prize, it is always hard to say which way the judging panel will swing with the final decision, so in the meantime there’s plenty of time to get comfortable and acquainted with that stellar shortlist. Who is your winner?
Lil Nas X – ‘Industry Baby’ feat. Jack Harlow
He’s baaack! Honestly, who isn’t excited about Lil Nas X’s upcoming album MONTERO when the tracks shared so far have been so consistently good? Latest single ‘Industry Baby’ is his punchiest bit yet, with chunky bass notes, stomping beats and brassy undertones packing a punch; and if that all sounds familiar, it makes perfect sense once you realise it’s Kanye West on production duty.
The Linda Lindas – ‘Oh!’
Just featured on the trailer for Netflix’s The Chair, ‘Oh!’ is a relentlessly catchy outing from youthful Los Angeles four-piece The Linda Lindas. Energetic drums and propulsive bass accelerate the track along its frustrated sel-reflections and catchy choruses – think of the brattish bite of Le Tigre’s ‘Deceptacon’ and you’ll be right on the money. It’s potent punk fun!
Jenay Faith – ‘I’m Cool’
One of the most exciting artists to spring from London this year, Jenay Faith’s sound is a slinky ode to her Turkish and Jamaican roots. New single ‘I’m Cool’ is a perfect example of why, with its coercive tropical rhythms and smooth, luxurious guitar work. The sound belies a less playful sentiment, Jenay saying “It is a track about when things get tough in life, feeling stuck and not knowing who to trust, trying to stay positive and pushing through the struggles”.
Namasenda – ‘Demonic’ feat. La How
Signed to cult label PC Music, Stockholm’s Namasenda is right at home with her contemporaries with her experimental and boundary-pushing brand of hyperpop. This time around, she teams up with Madrid trap artist La How for abrasive new cut ‘Demonic’; produced by label head AG Cook, the track throbs, pulses and whirrs as the two artists go head to head on vocals.
Daisy World – ‘Sundown’
Recently featuring on ‘RISE!’ from Tyler, the Creator’s latest album Call Me If You Get Lost is a plumb gig for any artist, let alone one who was yet to release their debut single. Quickly following up on all the newfound attention, Daisy World’s ‘Sundown’ sees her soulful tone musing on a sour love once the distractions of the day have passed over lucid, lulling guitar work before hitting a trip-hop-meets-jazz climax.