The Neutron Prize returns, our annual alternative Mercury Prize shortlist, it highlights artists and records we feel deserve recognition too. Previous winners include Kathryn Joseph and Dream Wife. This prize celebrates excellence in British albums released between July 2019 and July 2020.
FKA Twigs – MAGDALENE
FKA Twigs returned with MAGDALENE at the tail end of last year and it was very special indeed. Her second album produced with Jeff Kleinman and Michael Uzowurul, processing fame, ill health and her breakup in the spotlight in dramatic and futuristic fashion.
On the startling first single ‘Cellophane’ FKA Twigs gives an extraordinary vocal performance that cradles you and rocks you into a trance, with distant echoes of Kate Bush or Sia her shivering high register swoops, piercing the subtly shifting contours of ‘Cellophane‘ that wrestles heart stoppingly with identity, heartbreak in the spotlight and performance. The haunting ‘home with you‘ ripples with multi dimensional glitch pop and soul: a layered self exploration woven with literary references. The hip hop mash up of ‘Holy Terrain’ featuring ‘Future‘ and the exquisite heart stopping slow motion synths of ‘Mirrored Heart‘ are fantastic.
Inventive, genre blurring and thrillingly modernistic, a stunningly perceptive excavation of self identity and femininity.(Bill Cummings)
Islet – Eyelet (Fire records)
Powys trio Islet‘s superlative third record Eyelet is coursing with perpetual motion and meditative depth of the undercurrents of water that flow through the Welsh hills of their home, elemental, hypnotic and spiritual, the cycle of life from birth to death.
Islet have often ventured forth into the frontiers of sound on record or on stage since they were hailed as the pioneers of nowave in 2009. Yet the suspicion remained that they hadn’t quite distilled that energy – that body moving, heart-swelling, boundless imagination and unexpected experimentation of their live shows – down into a record, that is until now.
Eschewing the art noise of their debut album Illuminated People, instead it depicts their growth as a unit building upon the psyche textures of 2016’s Liquid Half Moon EP and experimentation of Mark’s solo project Farm Hand. It pushes further than they have before, its crisp electronic sweeps, its bubbling percussive beats, its evocative vocals from Emma, with hints of the work of Arthur Russell, Brian Eno, Kate Bush, Jenny Hval and Animal Collective reaching the place where pop music meets experimentation and is patched together again. Eyelet embraces avant-pop with a vivid clarity as glistening as a diamond on the bed of the ocean. (Bill Cummings)
GoGo Penguin – GoGo Penguin
GoGo Penguin are known for their glamorous, hooky Nu Jazz; addictive piano runs; off-kilter, forensically accurate drums and double bass which drills into the depths of your soul. On this self-titled record the song ‘Totem’ particularly stands out. The bass and drums get tied up in themselves, every note is precise, but it is difficult to determine where one bar starts and the next ends – the musical equivalent of an M.C. Escher painting.(Richard Wiggins)
Jemma Freeman and the Cosmic Something – Oh Really, What’s that?
Jemma Freeman And The Cosmic Something further entice us by thundering in with reckless abandon on the feisty ‘Helen Is A Reptile‘ with shades of Elastica and a suitcase full of attitude. But this is anything but a 90s Britpop throwback, as there is truly an abundance of fabulous artists from whom Jemma has clearly learnt their craft. And what’s more, they’ve only taken the very best bits, and created a quite dazzling album as a result.
Take ‘Keytar (I Was Busy)‘ as a case in point. Part Eurythmics, equal parts Marina and Tango In The Night era Fleetwood Mac. In fact, it’s a lot of fun trying to establish the reference points in each track, and there must be a good fifty of them every time. It also maintains a commercial bent that is impossible not to become smitten with.
This is a great, great record which only improves with each listen.(Loz Etheridge)
Jessie Ware – What’s your pleasure?
Ware has created a stylish album that successfully celebrates so much of what makes dance music so gripping. From 70s/early 80s disco giants (Chic, Evelyn “Champagne” King and Taana Gardner), to the those classic 90s dance singles released on Deconstruction, to Pet Shop Boys at their most stirring and the disco chasing side of George Michael. She transcends her influences because the songwriting and her performances are so sharp. There’s poise and command in her delivery as she swoons around this luxurious and sophisticated album. The grooves are captivating and everything is well-balanced and tied together with immaculate precision, with an additional boost from the glow of her infectious optimism.
When Ware asks the question ‘what’s your pleasure?’, there’s a knowing wink and confidence that she may well have the answer. She isn’t wrong. She’s never sounded this bold and carefree before, and it’s a revelation. All these factors make What’s Your Pleasure an exceptional and life-affirming album that could keep company with 21st century disco pop classics such as Discovery, Fever, Overpowered, Honey, Hercules & Love Affair and Anniemal. (Jonathan Wright)
Lapsley – Through Water
Holly Lapsley Fletcher first came to my attention during my halcyon days around Manchester, when I found myself discovering new music almost obsessively, trawling through soundcloud until the early hours night after night. I wasn’t the only one listening…there was a magic in those early recordings that made her stand out from the crowd, and after much persuasion she signed with XL recordings shortly after finishing her A-Levels.
You might think this sounds like an ideal situation, but I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been for her moving to London alone, just 18 years old, trying to navigate the murky waters of the music industry. It’s no surprise to me that her debut album got an underwhelming reception from critics, especially when you consider all the expectations placed on her during this time period. The music press seemed determined to make lazy comparisons to Adele, based entirely on gender and the fact they shared a label. That being said, Long Way Home contained some beautiful and accomplished moments, but I’m happy to see her hard work and resilience starting to pay off.
Through Water is a more self-assured collection of work, not a giant leap away from what made me fall in love with her, but it’s clear she’s happier developing at her own pace, rather than being shoved into the spotlight. ‘My Love Was Like The Rain’ and ‘Womxn‘ are written with more clarity and confidence. Elegant instrumental Leeds Liverpool Canal is a meditative dream sequence that showcases her refined and inventive production.
There’s more emotional depth to be found here too, which comes with life experience, and in understanding your own motivations for making music. ‘Ligne 3‘ hits the hardest personally, but the truth is, I’ve found real solace in these songs; in a year that saw me diagnosed with a brain tumour, become a father for the first time… and now like everyone else coming to terms with a global pandemic.. this is a collection of work that I keep returning to. In a world where life is more often than not, out of your control, Lapsley’s music has the ability to transport me away from my everyday worries but still feel reassuringly close to close to home. (Phil Daker)
Modern Nature – Annual(Bella Union)
Jack Cooper’s post-Ultimate Painting project Modern Nature has taken us on an impressive journey since introductory EP Nature. Last summer’s debut album How To Live, a personal safe harbour when the world turned dark and wrong, was a remarkable release, the sensitivities of Cooper’s melancholic romance overseeing free jazz, krautrock and folk through collaboration with Sunwatchers’ Jeff Tobias, BEAK>’s Will Young and Woods’ Aaron Neveu.
Annual, the mini album from early summer this year is barely over 20 minutes in length but no less powerful than its predecessor. Charting twelve months from one year’s winter through to the next, bandleader Cooper’s ambitions are empowered as the project’s fluid lineup shifts as easily and logically as the seasons’ natural flow. Tobias’ sax is an authoritative constant here and Cooper’s murmured, whispered vocals mixed low a concerted attempt to explore the power of space and quiet within the Modern Nature experience. ‘I felt the most satisfying part of How To Live and our live set were the moments where there was the most space and most economy as far as what was going on. That was the idea to keep pushing in that direction,’ Cooper says. Less is more?
‘I feel like it’s more complicated than that…Sometimes it’s difficult to explain a particular musical perspective or outlook and that is really one of the main reasons people have a compulsion or drive to make music is that not a thing can be explained verbally. The music itself is an explanation of that outlook.’
On a superficial level Annual maybe serves to make us fall in love a little with the hilarious complexities of the British weather, and our traditions tied in, the weirdness and beauties of both. But also appreciate and reflect on the reality and value and essential goodness of time passing, free of any rose-tinted fuzz of nostalgia or mawkishness. (Cath Holland)
MXLX – Burden
From the offset ‘Burden’ possess the same jarring quality his live set does, expect this time you can hear everything a bit clearer. The music is acrid, mordant with hints of redemption. Throughout this set he combined dubby soundscapes, swelling organs, broken techno. This is evident on ‘Do Not Slow Your Rope’. Live it was a bubbling monster, but here it’s more contained. Not tamer, but still on the leash. At its core this is just Bristol industrial Dub. Think a more pissed off Young Echo and you’re on the right tracks. Here the vocals are monosyllabic gutter slams. Their actual meaning doesn’t matter, its more about the tone MXLX evokes. That tone is lairy and narked off about, pretty much, everything. As the basslines thunder, the beats become more skittish. This gives everything an off-kilter vibe that is, pretty much, an absolute joy. ‘How Many More Crimes is too Many’ sees MXLX crooning, drenched in reverb. Lyrically it feels like stream of consciousness just spewing from MXLX, but instead the usual of dull poetic diatribes, it is full of spikey wisdom. The final third is glorious with shimmering synths and a hard-repetitive beat.(Nick Roseblade)
The Murder Capital – When I Have Fears (HUMAN SEASONS RECORDS)
The Murder Capital’s debut album is named When I Have Fears as a self-conscious nod to a John Keats poem about dying young. So you wouldn’t be in the least surprised to find that it was inspired by bereavement and that it reeks of mortality. Imagine a Sgt Pepper’s¬-style image of all the musicians that left us before their time and you could easily imagine that image as James McGovern’s audience as he sings, “I am a blissless star, corroded to the core,” and “I am the underworld,/ The one you want to leave,” on ‘For Everything’.
The most sober existential poetry and the thudding portent of guitar, bass and drums form the fundament of the album. The Murder Capital feel unashamedly and joyously literary. The album exemplifies how The Murder Capital can serve up hypnotic, breakneck heartache with high-speed shoutalong choruses reminiscent of IDLES or Fontaines DC on tracks such as ‘More Is Less’ and ‘Feeling Fades’.
As much as words like ‘savage’, ‘deadly’ and ‘murder’ can remind you that life is nasty, brutish and short, if you put them into Irish slang, then you could easily ‘murder’ a pint or use the first two adjectives to sum up just how bloody good something is. This album manages to capture both such inferences. (Jon Kean)
Rina Sawayama – SAWAYAMA
I had only briefly heard of Rina Sawayama before tuning in to her debut album SAWAYAMA and went into it with no expectations. I did not expect to discover a brilliant slice of pop excellence and to come out of the other side as a glorified stan. But here we are. Rina Sawayama has a unique point of view, and she’s here to let us know. She’s not afraid to reference with hints of many genres but overall has her own unique sound carved into the pop pie.
The album opens with the glorious ‘Dynasty’, a sweeping dreamscape of floaty synths and soft vocals which grows into an epic rock-orchestra moment as Sawayama belts over an electric guitar. As we move into track two, ‘XS’, she immediately changes gear. It’s a stunning noughties R’n’B throwback with hints of rock mixed in for extra measure, think Jojo’s ‘Leave’ (Get Out) with more attitude and a middle finger thrown up at consumerist culture, it’s my personal favourite on the album.SAWAYAMA is a fantastic album with very high highs that make the other tracks seem dimmer in comparison. There are no bad tracks on this album and it’s a lot of fun to listen to from start to finish. (Lloyd Best)
Riz Ahmed – The Long Goodbye (MONGREL RECORDS)
As a phrase, ‘Broken Britain’ has been bandied about with increasing frequency since the late noughties. Whoever started it didn’t foresee just how much more smashed the state would become in ten more years. From within our fragile capital – Wembley if you’re asking him where he’s from (NB – don’t be that guy who asks where he’s from) comes Riz Ahmed and The Long Goodbye, his ‘breaking up with Britannia’ hip-hop concept album.
Track one, ‘The Breakup (Shikwa)’, might have you believing that your narrator is the bruised victim. Britain has dumped him, but the more the relationship is unpicked, the more we understand that Britain suffers. In terms of fault and flaw, the old excuse “It’s not you, it’s me” really does apply. Ahmed underlines the fundamental role that British Asians play and have played in the UK in lines like “My protein made your DNA” and “My people built the West. We even gave the skinheads Swastikas.”
Having broken off the relationship, Britain unravels further, referred to as his ‘ex’ hanging shabbily around the local mall and looking rough. ‘Where You From’ and ‘Fast Lava’ play an integral role in the short film released as part of the album, which has to be seen to be believed. And the thing is, you might just start to believe it.(Jon Kean)
Sorry – 925 (Domino)
North London gadabouts Sorry have created the perfect soundtrack to the lockdown by creating a collage of alternative, grunge, pop, ballroom, indie, country croon and lip curling cynicism, innocent love songs and dry humorous stories.
The seedy underbelly of city life, the characters and cartoonish caricatures that inhabit the pubs, clubs, side streets and minds. Asha and Louis paint a garish, Kubrick storyboard, a Royston Vasey in North London. The washed-up rock n roll star, the wannabee film star girl at the bar, the lovesick admirer from afar, Rosie, Heather, the obsessed fan, stalker even.(Jim Auton)