Making Memorable Music
Culture28 August 2019
Every year, the Hyundai Mercury Prize celebrates the best of British and Irish music. The 2019 shortlist for the coveted title of Album of the Year was revealed in July.
“The 2019 Hyundai Mercury Prize celebrates both the striking diversity of British and Irish music makers, and their shared purpose in exploring issues of identity and belonging at a time of division and disagreement,” said the judges. “And all this is done with music of passion, wit, insight, ambition and heart-stirring optimism!”
No matter what your musical tastes, it feels good to blast out a tune we love because music pushes pleasure centres in our brain. So why not give your ears a treat and spend some time with the 12 Hyundai Mercury Prize shortlisted albums? Nick Moore has had a listen to give you an idea of what to expect…
Might it be third time lucky for brilliant London singer-songwriter Anna Calvi? Both her eponymous debut album and second record One Breath made it onto previous shortlists, but Hunter is arguably her best work yet. The classically-trained Anna has crafted a set of rich, thoughtful, sweeping pop songs, which brilliantly profile her operatic vocals and aggressive but intricate guitar playing. Add in thought-provoking lyrics about lust and gender, and it makes for a fascinating, powerful musical journey.
Schlagenheim is a deeply experimental record, full of musical improvisation that shifts between explosive swathes of noise and hypnotic grooves. Black Midi rose to popularity on the London scene by being deliberately obtuse – refusing to put any music online – but irresistible live performances, propelled by the extraordinary drumming of Morgan Simpson, have made them underground favourites.
CATE LE BON
Carmarthenshire singer-songwriter Le Bon emerged from the rich Welsh language music scene a decade ago, collaborating with, and winning plaudits from, the likes of the Super Furry Animals and Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci. Her five solo albums, always high on imagination, have gone from strength to strength, arguably peaking with Reward. Written while living alone in Cumbria – and apparently learning to carve furniture – the record isn’t quite the sort of brooding affair you might expect. It’s packed with lush, melodic, harmonic pop songs – but Le Bon’s unique arrangements, cerebral instrumentation, and smart lyrics about love and life transform them into something magical.
David Orobosa Omoregie, to give him his full name, might just have produced the best British hip-hop record of a generation. The 21 year old from Streatham, also an accomplished pianist and producer, won huge acclaim for his first two EPs, Six Paths and Game Over, but Psychodrama is on another level. Over stripped-down beats and haunting, minimalist piano, he has got a bleakly brilliant story to tell: about race, South London, paranoia, friends and family. In fact, there’s no topic he’s afraid to dissect with wit and candour. This is a game changer.
Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost
Foals are from Oxford, like the other critically acclaimed band, Radiohead. Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost is the group’s fifth album (their third to be shortlisted for the Mercury Prize) and probably their finest statement yet. Foals share with their city-mates a twitchy musicianship, a willingness to experiment and a political edge: subjects like environmental meltdown, widespread political crisis, and mass mental illness are all addressed to a thunderous, angular, yet melodic soundtrack. And this is only the start; ‘Part 2’ of this double album arrives later in the year.
Most listeners outside Dublin might not know about the thriving Irish punk scene, but Fontaines D.C.’s Mercury shortlisting should help to change that. If you think their slick, funny lyrics are a cut above, there’s a good reason: the five members met whilst at the British and Irish Modern Music Institute in Liberties, and initially formed a collective of poets, releasing two volumes of verse before deciding to get musical. The title Dogrel is a reference to their homeland’s oral tradition: backed up with snarling riffs and Grian Chatten’s broad-accented vocal delivery, they’re a welcome addition to the British Isles’ punk resurgence led by the likes of IDLES and Shame.
Joy as an Act of Resistance
All music is a product of its time, but sometimes a group matches a political situation with unavoidable perfection. IDLES and Brexit Britain were made for each other, as superbly irked, viciously insightful, and often hilarious vocalist Joe Talbot traverses topics ranging from the referendum to austerity, violence on the high street to grief, with a tightly-wound intensity. There’s no avoiding the P word: Talbot claims IDLES aren’t a punk band, perhaps hinting that they possess more musical and lyrical intelligence than the tag suggests. But punk or not, this record is a hardcore statement of intent that will surely stand in the future as evidence of a furious few years in the UK.
The Islington MC seems to have been on the verge of something big for a while, releasing numerous EPs and two acclaimed albums, and winning over an army of celebrity fans, including Kendrick Lamar, Drake and Stormzy, over the last few years. An experimental and diversely talented performer – Simz has worked as an actress as well as collaborating with artists like Kano and Ms Dynamite – it seems like Grey Area might have done the job. The album expertly twins American soul, jazz, big beats and strings to euphoric effect, as Simz raps about gender, isolation, and relationships with humour and insight.
The musical sophistication of Saturn has earned Nao a first shortlisting for the Hyundai Mercury Prize. The vocalist from East London introduced her combination of funk, R&B, jazz and electronica – she sometimes calls it ‘wonky funk’ – with her 2016 debut, For All We Know. With Saturn, she has taken her groove to another level, as Nao examines heartbreak, hardship, recovery, love and loss through an astrological eye and some truly soaring vocals.
SEED Ensemble only came together two years ago, but the assembling of some of London’s sharpest young jazz musicians meant they were ready to excel right from the start. Led by the sublimely gifted alto saxophonist Cassie Kinoshi, there are some other stellar brass players in the mix too, including Theon Cross, who has previously been nominated for the Mercury Prize with Sons of Kemet. A playful creativity runs through Driftglass, which combines Afro-Caribbean grooves with improv and everything in between – and is helping lead the way in the revitalisation of the British jazz scene.
Nothing Great About Britain
Slowthai’s shortlisted album, Nothing Great About Britain, is a very British record, and very much an album about our times. Despite guest appearances from Skepta and Jaykae, he’s a rapper apart from the laudable but London-centric UK hip-hop explosion. Based in Northampton, Tyrone Frampton – who has billed himself as the ‘Brexit Bandit’ – is a confident and carefree chronicler. Nothing much is off limits in his rhymes, including railing against the far right, and he does it over an enjoyably broad musical palette, which somehow incorporates grime, punk and hip-hop.
A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships
This is The 1975’s third long player, and the second to have been shortlisted for the Hyundai Mercury Prize. The Cheshire four-piece became hugely successful thanks to their second release, I Like It When You Sleep For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It. The dazzling diversity of their latest offering certainly makes it an interesting proposition. There’s a set of lyrics performed by a well-known smartphone virtual assistant, brutal tales about frontman Matty Healy’s past, and music that traverses post-punk, Joy Division-esque gloom through to uplifting smooth pop.
The 2019 Hyundai Mercury Prize Awards Show will take place on Thursday 19 September at the Eventim Apollo, Hammersmith and will be broadcast live from 9pm on BBC Four. The event will feature live performances from many of the shortlisted artists and will culminate in the announcement of the winner of the 2019 Hyundai Mercury Prize for ‘Album of the Year’. Visit www.mercuryprize.com for tickets and more.