Mercury Prize 2016: The Contenders

Mercury Prize 2016: The Contenders

The winner of this year’s Mercury Prize is announced tomorrow evening, so we thought we’d give you a run down of the full shortlisted artists and albums that are contending for the award…

ANOHNI – Hopelessness

Under her Antony and the Johnsons moniker, Hegarty has already won a mercury award back in 2005 for the magisterial I am a Bird Now. Re-emerging this year as AHOHNI alongside co-producer Oneohtrix Point Never and Hudson Mohawke, they crated the debut album Hopelessness, a forward-thinking record laced with immense vocal power. She calls it “an electronic record with some sharp teeth.”

The extraordinary thundering percussion, horns and creeping keyboards of ‘4 Degrees’ inhabits a dissection of the self. As she puts it: “‘4 Degrees’ is kind of a brutal attempt to hold myself accountable, not just valorize my intentions but also reflect on the true impact of my behaviors.” Meanwhile ‘Drone Bomb Me’ with its cavalcade of synths and ‘Obama’ fuses the personal and political disappointment with startling emotiveness. Hopelessness is quite an extraordinary collaboration. Prescient, daring and at times mind blowing. At the time of writing, Hopelessness is second favourite to scoop this year’s award. If it wins, there is probably no other more deserving album on the shortlist.

(Bill Cummings)

Bat For Lashes – The Bride

On her return to Bat For Lashes after a four-year absence, Natasha Khan absorbs another skin that was just as powerful and grief-stricken. The titular The Bride (no relation to the Tarantino character) is a love-struck individual whose groom is killed in a car accident on the journey to their wedding. Although it’s a fictional tragedy, it confronts Natasha Khan’s own fears and indecisiveness about marriage as she enters the latter half of her thirties. Therefore, this personality is closer to her heart than her other alter egos such as Pearl (Two Suns) and Prescilla (Fur & Gold). With less quirks and a simplistic, spacious production to the tracks – many tracks feature only delicately strummed guitars, flutters of angelic autoharp, tiny portions of electronica, ghostly post-rock echoes swimming behind the vocals – Natasha Khan wanted us to hear her words equally to the atmospheric mood.

Narrated in chronological order, mapping pre-catastrophe, the moment of woe, mourning and post-bereavement, it’s comparable to Björk‘s 2015 album Vulnicura. To be appreciated for their artistic merit and true impact, they both have to heard in their timeline of grief and acceptance. Especially as their ominous storytelling is so effective this way. Plus Khan intended this to be digested like a movie, as suggested by the cinematically-lit, David Lynch mise-en-scene engrossing music videos and sound effects (car crashes, rain). (Matt Hobbs)

David Bowie – Blackstar

Released just before his sad death at the start of the year, as if as Tony Visconti put it his death was a work of art itself, his parting gift Blackstar is David Bowie experimenting again, as he did throughout much of his career, forging new paths, sometimes so ahead of himself that the public had been scared to follow.

A little over a year ago, Bowie released a career-spanning compilation Nothing Has Changed; the token new track on that album was ‘Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)’ and its B-side ‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore.’ Both songs appear here – but in radically different form. Sure, there’s a still a undertone of jazz about the proceedings (in a good way), but any concerns that Bowie might have unleashed an album of jazz-rock monstrosities on the world should be discounted. Whilst there was much pontificating on the internet about what this album would consist of, it’s clear that whilst Bowie has been taking in Kendrick Lamar (particularly on ‘Girl Loves Me‘), he’s still managed to make a record that sounds like David Bowie. The voice is as strong as it has ever been, the lyrics slightly impenetrable – or should that be probably based on the Burroughsian cut-up techniques that he has used for many years.

Lazarus,’ the second single to be released from the album, is probably a case in why this album is worthy of your attention. It hangs together as a stand-alone song, and yet explores so many ideas with its Berlin trilogy atmosphere meeting Faith-era Cure before smoothly blending into Portishead meets Bernard Hermann. ‘look up here I’m in heaven/I’ve got scars that can’t be seen.’ If the judging panel chose to reward Bowie’s swansong with the gong, it may be a little predictable, and may not be in keeping with Mercury’s quest for promoting the emerging, but that doesn’t mean to say it wouldn’t be fully deserved tribute. (Ed Jupp)

Jamie Woon – Making Time

The most striking thing about Making Time is how nimble Jamie Woon is as a performer. His presence is never more than a whisper, soft yet poised and graceful, with a lightness that feels intimate. It’s the perfect match to the warm, spacious production: a mix of airy ambience and live-sounding drums, threaded together with loose funk and warm bass. At its best, such as lead single ‘Sharpness,’ it’s a fusion of the sophistication of Sade and the disco extravagance of Stevie Wonder. But too often it falls into the traditional trappings of home-grown soul: the ersatz harmonies and jazz leanings feel tasteful to the point of beige, the ghosts of Jools Holland and Jamiroquai lingering heavily. It takes skill to dart around such slight atmospheres with presence, and even more skill to do as Woon does to be captivating yet unobtrusive on such safe music, but it’s easy to imagine his voice as a star turn on better material. Woon is a far better singer than Making Time suggests, and the fact that his talent is only hinted at makes it a frustrating listen. (Scott Ramage)

Kano – Made in the Manor

How brilliant is the fifth album from Kano, his first album for six years? Pretty bloody amazingly brilliant, that’s what.

This year has seen grime’s profile rise once more, and (deservedly) Skepta is another shortlisted artist. This album has so many excellent tracks, it’s a sign of how strong this is that songs like ‘This Is England’ and ‘T-Shirt Weather in the Manor’ haven’t been released as singles. An anthem about what it means to live in Britain in 2016, and one of the best tracks of the year. “All this gangster shit – who wants to sleep with the fishes?!” he raps despairingly, encapsulating much of what this album is about.

Defiantly British, it’s an album that’s effortlessly 2016, whilst lyrically and musically aware of the history of British urban music, and knowing his role amongst the pioneers, an album that says the UK grime stars don’t need to be compared to US hip-hop.

Yes, there’s an impressive list of collaborators, both from the grime scene (Wiley, Giggs and JME) but also Damon Albarn, who features on ‘Deep Blues.’ An album that’s simultaneously for the head, the heart and the feet, and one I keep coming back to. (Ed Jupp)

Laura Mvula – The Dreaming Room

If The Dreaming Room is a product of imagination, then Laura Mvula’s must be working overtime. An ambitious edifice, its scale of vision and originality feel unparalleled in British pop and soul – it’s probably the only time The London Symphony Orchestra, Nile Rodgers and grime star Wretch 32 will cross paths, at least. The epic ballad ‘Show Me Love’ might be the album’s centrepiece, a stunning burst of joy that owes as much to musical theatre as it does Beyonce, but it’s album closer ‘Phenomenal Woman’ that makes the greatest impression as a celebration of feminism and empowerment. The Dreaming Room is a mix of triumphs and struggles, from the personal to the structural – tracks like ‘People’ lean in on race relations and roles. But if it all sounds a bit serious, the minute-long skit ‘Nan’ describes it best: an imagining of a conversation between two generations, with Mvula’s grandmother looking for a song to “lift me spirits.” The Dreaming Room is sometimes a little too beholden to its own scope, but when it succeeds, it’s a celebration of grandness – in sound, in soul and in personality. (Scott Ramage)

Michael Kiwanuka – Love and Hate

Four years on from his debut, Michael Kiwanuka‘s second album is here, and it’s clear that the time has been well spent. It is not exaggerating to say that this is the same kind of leap forward for a second album as the likes of Blur, Foals or Radiohead made. The album’s first single ‘Black Man In A White World’ – is there a more painfully pertinent song title for 2016? – has (accurately) been described as being like a slave chant from the fields.

Much of the album was produced by Danger Mouse, who has worked with artists like Gorillaz and Black Keys, as well as being one half of Gnarls Barkley. What strengthens this album is not just the songs, but the delivery and arrangements. The album opens with the ten minute ‘Cold Little Heart‘ which is free of vocals for the first half. In the hands of many this could have fallen flat on its face – and yet it sets the bar high for the whole album. (Ed Jupp)

Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

Radiohead‘s ninth album A Moon Shaped Pool is a balance of welcoming familiarity and measured surprise tactics.  Apart from Thom Yorke‘s lamenting vocal presence being a guarantee, thought-provoking mood-setting soundscapes being very likely and themes of paranoia, alienation and cautious suspicion about society being a given, the album features an array of songs that die-hard fans will already be accustomed to.

Desert Island Disk’ was performed at a conference in early December, ‘Present Tense’ debuted at 2009’s Latitude Festival, the title ‘Burn The Witch’ appeared on the CD sleeve of 2002’s Hail To The Thief and was spawned from there, whilst ‘Ful Stop’ and ‘Identikit’ were previewed on a tour in 2012.  However, the oldest inclusion is the delicate ballad ‘True Love Waits.’  Originally born in 1995 and becoming a fan favourite during their shows, it takes on a whole new meaning 20 years later, due to Thom Yorke’s break-up with his long-term partner at the end of last year, the singer ending the song – and album – with a desperate plea of “don’t leave.”

Although art rockers Radiohead are championed for their use of electronic sound (like ‘Tinker Tailor’s sandbag hitting and their time signature shuffling on ‘Ful Stop’) and inventive use of stereo space such as on ‘Decks Dark,’ one of the most standout attributes of A Moon Shaped Pool is the stringed orchestration provided by the London Contemporary Orchestra and its trajectory of fluttering and soaring, and how it continues on from the grandiose sound of Radiohead’s ignored Spectre theme.  Like with that, there was a mix of familiarity and surprise, a technique that they can call their own. (Matt Hobbs)

Savages – Adore Life

During the construction stage of their songwriting for their second release Adore Life, Savages performed test dummies to crowds in North America, valuing their opinion with such respect that if fans didn’t feel energised or motivated by their compositions they re-wrote songs partially or completely. This could be seen as a slightly surprising round-table considering the stubborn self-made manifesto that the band so carefully created, but if their fans are on the same wavelength it can’t hurt.

The tragedy that occurred at the Bataclan Theatre in Paris in November 2015 infuriated rock musicians – due to its association with the genre – and add in the French connection with frontwoman Jehnny Beth and Savages strong will for preserving self-identity, they were always going to respond. How did they react? First, they covered Eagles of Death Metal‘s ‘I Love You All The Time’ at a gig in Paris in December whilst also speaking to the press about showing bravery for performing artists; their second move was to unleash an album that embraces “love” as a symbol for hope and applaud the dedication of gig-attendees. “Love is the answer,” Beth exclaims in single ‘The Answer’ sounding like the eureka solution to the conundrum of modern life whilst the promo couldn’t be deeper in the live environment taking on the visual perspective of Savages’ members. Their skill for drastic evocative distortion is still the most impressive, sounding like bombs destroying a war zone at the beginning of ‘Slowing Down The World.’

Savages may have a new manifesto but from the evidence of the clenched fist image on their album sleeve (rather than listing their beliefs), they will now let actions do the talking in their pursuit of a revolution. (Matt Hobbs)

Skepta – Konnichiwa

A truly global album with a Japanese flavour underscoring Skepta‘s brash spitting delivery, Konnichiwa takes the streets and pushes the MC’s sound further sonically. It’s devised like a movie, with an eye on the US market. Months before Frank Ocean launched his album with a full live performance, Konichiwa launched with a party in Tokyo and streamed globally on the Boiler Room.

Skepta told BBC 1Xtra: “I’m out for revenge, fam, I come into this ting pure-hearted and loving music, and people take me for an idiot, you get what I’m saying? So when I spit now people are gonna hear a madman, they’re gonna hear a monster, they’re gonna hear someone who’s out for revenge – and I’m out for revenge.” This revenge comes in a barrage of tracks that reassert his position as the architect of grime. “I used to wear Gucci/I put it all in the bin” he skits on ‘That’s Not Me’ amid a confrontational rhythm. Meanwhile, ‘Shut Down’ is a powerful eulogy to keeping it real with a fearsome vocals, backed by skittering beats and a Drake sample. ‘Man’ turns his unrelenting stream of consciousness from the streets and gangs to black lives matter, and fame itself. If 2015 was the year grime crash-landed into the charts, with the likes of Skepta, Kano and Stormzy, then 2016 might just be the year it scoops the mainstream awards too. (Bill Cummings)

The 1975 – I Like It When You Sleep…

In the three years since The 1975’s debut, their reputation has grown rapidly. The slow-burning success of their singles resulted in a hit album, but it’s their outspoken frontman, Matt Healy, who has made The 1975 one of the most debated mainstream groups, loved and derided in equal measure. Their first album successfully bridged the gap between pop and rock with R&B tinges. I Like It When You Sleep… continues that theme, as well as adding atmospheric leftfield pop that appeared on their early EPs. It will be a surprise to people who wrote them off the first time round.

The 1975 challenged people with this album — it’s 75 minutes long and almost gets away with it, falling at the last hurdle. ‘Nana’ and ‘She Lays Down’ are acoustic ballads that feel like bonus tracks rather than part of the overall narrative. These two songs stopped this album from being a complete triumph. The preceding song, ‘Paris,’ would have made a perfect closer with its delicate Fleetwood Mac synths and Avalon-era Roxy Music guitars.

I Like It When You Sleep shares the same aesthetics as the latest records by Carly Rae Jepsen, Haim and Paramore successfully using 80’s influences whilst remaining contemporary. The 1975 are not defined by their numerous influences. They have style, and the substance to back it up. This is an exhausting and compelling record that’s so fully realised it’s hard to imagine where they’d go from here. Now that it’s already made number one in the UK and America, it will be remembered as one of the most challenging and best records to do so. (Jonathan Wright)

The Comet Is Coming – Channel the Spirits

You know the rules. The Mercury Prize needs a token jazz album to be nominated every year because that’s the way it’s always been. Channel The Spirits by The Comet Is Coming isn’t really a token jazz album though. It’s a boiling hot brew of electronics, bass and yes, saxophone, but sax is totally fine again nowadays. There’s no jazz odyssey moment, this is heads-down, groove-led stuff. Nothing is more important than the forward momentum, each element, from the twinkling, flickering circuit board synths the record is coated in to the circular drum patterns that drive everything on is completely focussed on creating their own distinct universe of sound. No one element is more important than the next, everything is so tightly wound that the album blurs into one swirling, pulsating mass of fizz and throb. Eastern scales are played on video game keys, nostalgic melodies are tangled up with futuristic soundscapes. It’s like Holy Fuck in a cloud of sweet-smelling smoke, or J Dilla‘s Donuts as seen through a kaleidoscope. (Andy Vine)

Who should win? And who did they miss out? Here’s our Neutron Prize for our alternatives.

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