The Neutron Music Prize 2018 shortlist

The Neutron Music Prize 2018 shortlist

The Mercury Music Prize shortlist for 2018 was announced yesterday and it’s fair to say it’s one of the safest, blandest most conservative lists they’ve produced. But worse than that its reliance on the same old names (Noel Gallagher?? Florence and the Machine??), and lack of genre spread(despite a few exceptions) and the dominance of major label artists is puzzling when Mercury once claimed to stand for ‘cutting edge music’ unlike, say, The Brits. Maybe the fact that it costs over £200 to enter makes it prohibitive for many independent artists, maybe Mercury has lost sight of what is as an award. Whatever the case, we have put together the third year of the Neutron Prize, an alternative shortlist of albums from UK artists from August this year to August last.

The Blood Tub Orchestra – The Seven Curses Of The Music Hall

If you’d told me, at the beginning of the year, that one of my absolute favourite records of 2018 would be an album full of songs from the Victorian era up to the period just following the First World War, I would probably have given you a straitjacket. If you’d then informed me that said album concludes with a track called ‘The Fine Old English Tory Times‘, I probably would have made you wear it. Tightly. From the opening gambit of “My goodness, you do seem a miserable lot” from the brilliant opener ‘Things Are Worse In Russia‘ strikes up, and there’s no let up throughout. The closest thing I can compare the latter track with in terms of exuberance is The Wedding Present‘s staggering sidestep Ukrainski vistupi v Johna Peela. But don’t be misled into thinking this is going to be all about hell-raising, for the outfit’s take on Charlotte Alington Barnard‘s 1868 tune ‘I Cannot Sing The Old Songs‘ sounds like The Psychedelic Furs doing Music Hall – Kitchens Of Distinction at a push – and is positively heart-wrenching. (Loz Etheridge)

Boy Azooga – 1, 2, Kung Fu

Formed 18 months ago of the imagination of all-around lovely fella Davey Newington, a well-known face of the Cardiff music scene having spent time as a drummer in various outfits (Houdini Dax, Charlotte Church’s Pop Dungeon) they craft a multicoloured, refreshing shot of shape-shifting sounds: a kaleidoscope of gleeful sun-dappled psych-pop, underpinned by rave-tinged, funky grooves that won’t fail to get your body moving, informed by one too many evenings spent drinking listening to Nigerian William Oneyabor, The Beastie Boys and Can records, welded with fizzy glam soaked riffs and threaded by addictive, unfussy chant-along vocals and entwined melodies all delivered with beaming grins written on their faces.  Boy Azooga stand quite apart from the clichéd, lad bands who often dominate the ‘indie’ landscape, their bountiful debut album is a refreshing, unabashed exhilarating surge of guitar pop laced with a collage of imaginative influences, they foster an excitement comparable with that of the early Coral, Supergrass, The Happy Mondays or the aforementioned Super Furry Animals. Boy Azooga arrive with the sound of the summer: imaginative, heady, refreshing, sometimes wistful and at others impossibly giddy, all aboard the Azooga train! (Bill Cummings)

The Common Cold – Shut Up! Yo Liberals!

The Common Cold are old-school. They don’t buy into the high-paced always-on digital age. “Stop the traffic, I can’t hear the radio!” they complain on frenetic opener ‘Stop the Traffic’. They’re paranoid about digital surveillance. “They’ve got drones with bugs, and bugs with drones…They know which way you vote, and which way you swing/They know they know EVERYTHING!” they warn on the fantastic ‘Tapped’, on top of a huge filthy guitar riff.  The Common Cold are willfully unfashionable. ‘The London Look’, the standout track here, is a hilarious tale of fashion cluelessness (“I thought a supermodel was an Airfix Spitfire, a supermodel was a Harrier Jump Jet…All the mags wanna know what I take/TO MAKE MYSELF LOOK SO OUT OF SHAPE”) set to an irresistible swampy groove straight off Happy Mondays’ masterpiece Bummed (to which this album is, in many ways, a successor). It also features the funniest lyric I’ve heard in years – “I turned heads – in an Exorcist way“. Many of their reference points will baffle younger listeners – ‘Pretty Julie’ for example, which is the first song since The Smiths’ ‘Frankly Mr Shankly’ to be inspired by John Schlesinger’s classic 1963 film adaptation of Billy Liar... (Tim Russell)

Dream Wife – Dream Wife (Lucky Number)

Formed in Brighton, the British / Icelandic band Dream Wife are the latest example of the power of three; a trio who sound as tightly knit as, by all accounts, they actually are in reality. Anyone who attended a live Dream Wife show and worried that it wouldn’t translate into the studio will have their fears quelled the second that opener ‘Let’s Make Out’ bludgeons its way out of the speakers/earphones/docking station/computer.  Lead singer Rakel Mjöll has a distinctive voice which is somewhere between Courtney Love and Emiliana Torrini, and the other two (the brilliantly-named Alice Go on guitar and Bella Popadec on drums) The opening salvo of ‘Let’s Make Out’, ‘Somebody’ and the brilliant ‘Fire’ set the bar extremely high. ‘Hey Heartbreaker’ comes in like a heavier version of The Go-Go’s, while ‘Love Without Reason’ starts delicately, but builds in momentum and stature around its repeated mantras of “I feel like I love you without reason” and “Let’s be kids and fall in love”, a sentiment which carries nicely into the next track, ‘Kids’, a riffing guitar building an intoxicating backdrop for Mjöll to garnish with her frantic vocals. The songs never outstay their welcome, it’s a giddy rush from one to the next and the whole thing is done within 35 minutes. (Andy Page)

GhostPoet –  Dark Days and Canapés

Ghostpoet’s foray into the realm of the cheerful with 2015’s Shedding Skin turned out to be a brief deviation from normal service. By the time Dark Days and Canapés loomed large in August 2017, this curious world of our was becoming more and more populated with ‘have-nots’, the privileged few reflected in the album’s title as aloof, imperial figures fiddling with finger food while Rome (or Grenfell) burns. Even those suffering the ‘dark days’ are guilty of pulling down the shutters on their own consciousness. The mind-forged manacles that we create allow us to find ever more accessible ways of mental diversion and regression, as shown in ‘Freakshow’. In ‘Immigrant Boogie’, the boogie is a dance with death, not a celebration of freedom. We’re asked to imagine a drowning family of four in an overcrowded boat. As with other Mercury-nominated works, Peanut Butter Blues and Melancholy Jam (2011) and Shedding Skin, nobody puts Ghostpoet in the corner. He remains wilfully genre-free, concerned with the creative freedom of following his instincts and inclinations, encouraging us to keep things together (minds, bodies, communities) while things that claim to be united (Kingdom/States) are anything but. (Jon Kean)

Gwenno – Le Kov (Heavenly)

Le Kov is a kaleidoscopic, psychedelic affair. In one respect, picking up exactly from where ‘Y Dydd Olaf’ left off (the final track on the album was sung in Cornish), ‘Le Kov’ (‘The Place of Memory‘) takes Gwenno into much more intricate, textural, musical territory. Saunders’ gorgeous, smoky voice is still centre stage, but the exceptional music draws astutely on a broad range of influences. ‘Tir Ha Mor’ is a transportative, Komsiche-inflected number, ‘Den Heb Taves’ combines a Gainsbourg inspired bassline with swirling pianos that sound practically neo-classical, beautiful electronic textures throughout the record recall Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada (Indeed, ‘Hi A Skoellyas Liv A Dhagrow’ is directly inspired by a song from ‘Druqks’). Gruff Rhys (who has a similarly healthy interest in exploring cultural heritage) adds his gorgeous, dulcet tones to ‘Daromres y’n Howl’. As a political statement, Le Kov is very astute. ‘Herdhya‘ (Pushing), a is song “about the feeling of isolation after the Brexit vote, and realising that you’re stuck on an island—Britain—with perhaps many people who are trying to push society back to a regressive idea of the middle ages that has never existed, and imposing that on everyone else,” says Gwenno. (Ben Lowes-Smith)

Hookworms -_Microshift_

Music is indeed not a competition, however, _Microshift_ feels particularly important and worthy as it is such a brave piece of music.  Since their humble beginnings in the Leeds DIY scene, Hookworms‘ status grew and grew from a phenomenal live act to the UK’s premier psychedelic rock act, which was confirmed over two excellent albums, 2013’s _Pearl Mystic_ and 2014’s _The Hum_.  _Microshift_ is far more advanced than any of their previous work. Not to dismiss their excellent first two albums, but they are quite genre-bound, whereas on Hookworms’ third the band have found ways to push their base Krautrock/psychedelic rock sound into an altogether more rewarding space, through the lens of DFA-style electronica. It is a thrilling addition and maturity to an already very exciting sound which, added with the heavy emotional resonance of the album, have rewarded us with Hookworms’ best record to date. While it is a shame they have not been selected for this year’s Mercury Prize, their critical (87 average score on Metacritic) and commercial (18th in UK Albums charts on release) has ensured that this brilliant piece of work is having its dues paid. If you haven’t heard it yet, drop everything and do it now, you will not regret it. (Adam Turner Heffer)

Insecure Men – Insecure Men

Insecure Men are a band led by the songwriter and musician Saul Adamczewski and his schoolmate and Childhood main-man, Ben Romans-Hopcraft. Serving up bubbling off-kilter sinister songs delivered with a mischievous grin and delving into subjects as diverse as Operation Yewtree and the awkwardness of dancing with a loved one. If you want to put a finger on what it sounds like well a lo-fi Roxy Music by way of Ian Dury may be near, but Insecure Men are idiosyncratic buggers so comparisons are largely useless. As Saul says it’s “pretty music with a dark underbelly to it”.  The subject matter is just as weird, surreal and dark as you would expect. Cliff Has Left The Building is about “Operation Yew Tree’s greatest urban myth”; ‘Whitney Houston & I’ (which features pre-teen pop singers the Honey Hahs) is about the similar ways in which the tragic mother and daughter, (Bobbi Christina Brown), died (“It is a provocative song but I genuinely found the story unbearably sad”); while unashamed banger ‘Mekong Glitter’ is about the now disgraced Gary Glitter (“I don’t think he should be let off the hook, I just want to ask why?” says Saul referring to the double standards applied to a lot of musicians who rose to fame and fortune during the 1970s.) Insecure Men are having a party and the hangover is worth it.  (Bill Cummings)

Let’s Eat Grandma – I’m All Ears (Transgressive)

The huge leap in quality between Let’s Eat Grandma‘s first album and their second, I’m All Ears is one of the most unexpected surprises of the year. They still create some of the same eerie atmospherics, but everything is more focused this time around with illuminating results. The layers of synths often give the songs a warmth and accessibility that wasn’t felt on their previous work. With the help of the brilliant, SOPHIE they make explosive electro-bangers such as ‘Hot Pink’ and ‘It’s Not Just Me’. They sit perfectly alongside the more ambient songs like ‘Cool & Collected’ which is a slow burning nine-minute song that has the hazy shoegaze feel as Slowdive‘s Pygmalion. Best of all is the stunning album closer, ‘Donnie Darko’, a moody after-hours epic. It takes six minutes to build into an exhilarating climax as guitars and synths crash around them as they passionately sing, “Donnie Darko’s at my windscreens, screaming, stop the car, stop the car, please, but I can’t, and I can’t”. I’m All Ears is the perfect example of how inventive and thrilling modern pop music can be. (Jonathan Wright)

SOPHIE – OIL OF EVERY PEARL’s UN-INSIDES

SOPHIE is having a great year, not content with helping produce parts of Let’s eat Grandma’s storming second album, working with Charlie XCX and basically becoming a super producer who Lady Gaga wants to work with. She unleashed her debut album OIL OF EVERY PEARL’s UN-INSIDES last month a playful, bewilderingly bold set of genre-bending pop songs that deal with identity, gender roles, trans rights, social media and existing in 2018. Incredible production that crunches up pop music and reassembles it into dynamic new patterns.  The awesome dappling synth pop euphoria of ‘Immaterial‘ is a fierce exploration of self-reassembly, ‘Pony Boy’ is a bonkers crunk joint and ‘Is It Cold In the Water’ flips EDM into a twisted place. These are bettered even by the brilliant cyborg pop madness of ‘Faceshopping‘ or the stomping synths and vocoder experiments final epic track ‘Whole New World‘ to the delicacy and RnB tinged of ‘It’s Okay To Cry’. With a multi dimensional voice and a pioneering artistic spirit, there isn’t a British artist quite like SOPHIE her world is reconstructing every preconception you’ve ever had, and it sounds utterly exhilarating. (Bill Cummings)

Tracey Thorn – Record

Tracey Thorn released 13 varied records, starting with Beach Party by Marine Girls in 1982 and ending with Everything But The Girl’s Temperamental in 1999. When Thorn bumped into Neil Tennant at a party in 2005, EBTG were on an indefinite hiatus. He asked, “What are you doing with that lovely voice” — an opinion many of us shared. She’s in possession of a voice that’s both rich and comforting (like Tennant himself). It’s essential to have her around.  She returns with the modestly titled Record, which finds her teaming up with Ewan Pearson again.  Thorn announces her return on ‘Queen’ singing, “here I go again, down that road again”. Her gorgeous deep voice is sympathetic as she ponders what might have been if she hadn’t met her long-time partner, Ben Watt. She taps into the same melancholic disco of ‘It’s All True’ and ‘Grand Canyon’ from Out Of The Woods. ‘Queen’ unfolds as a pulsing bass-line and inviting synths bubble underneath her reflective lyrics. Record as documenting her, “no f***s given stage in life”. That headstrong attitude is eloquently portrayed over this concise album. She remains relatable in the way she grows and communicates with her audience.  (Jonathan Wright)

Young Fathers – Cocoa Sugar

Cocoa Sugar is sharper, more lucid and generally less …bogged down than 2016’s still-mostly-great post-Mercury rebound White Men are Black Men Too. As always, it’s a physical experience; visceral grunts, shrieks, exclamations, flailing to the heavens; naked emotion as well as walloping catharsis encompass Cocoa Sugar. Stuff like ‘Wow‘, ‘Border Girl‘ and ‘Fee Fi‘ are angry parties; others are the best *ballads* they’ve released so far. This is typified none better in the outstanding ‘Lord‘. First released last year, it’s maybe the actual best Young Fathers song. With a clean, conventional piano line, gospel and boy-band verses giving way to brutal dark noise, redemption and emotional exorcism, it’s as good an introduction as you could have into the contrast of these boyos and their contrary world.  ‘In My View‘ is also an absolute doosher of a lead song; complete with the resplendent video of the guys posing for a natty portrait, lying in pools of blood and swishing daggers around, it’s a brilliant showcase of the passionate thrills Young Fathers provide. Finale ‘Picking You‘ is possibly the most beautiful of all. (Laura Prior)

We Three And The Death Rattle – Entrances And Exits

Bookended by two former Tracks Of The Day right here on God Is In The TV, We Three And The Death Rattle‘s second album was always likely to make an immediate impact, and sure as you like, Entrances And Exits is a right little belter.  ‘Stray Rounds‘ borrows a little of its melody from ‘Split Lips‘, one of the highlights of the band’s eponymously titled debut a few years back, but there’s enough of a difference to prevent it from being a mere rehash. ‘Stray Rounds‘, in fact, is altogether more explosive than its counterpart, telling of “storm warnings“, and advising us that we’d “better duck and cover.” The track fair fizzes along, whereas ‘Ex Lawman‘ is more fuzz than fizz.  Entrances And Exits is made up of crunchy, snarling guitars and often reaches the height of intensity, best showcased by the gnarly ‘I Am A Cell Of One‘. Anyone in search of one of the great modern songwriters need look no further than guitarist Jon Bennett, who composed all the tracks here and deserves the ultimate respect, for this is an album you’ll want to listen to all the way through every time you spin it. (Loz Etheridge)

2 thoughts on “The Neutron Music Prize 2018 shortlist

  1. Yep! I’ve been evangelising about that album ever since I first heard it. It’s spectacularly good. Album of the year by a million miles.

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