Despite 2020 being a truly unprecedented year, we can always count on one thing for consistency: and that’s the annual controversy that the Hyundai Mercury Prize shortlist causes. The 12 nominees, announced in July, span the musical spectrums, and have got people having a right ol’ chinwag on Twitter. From chart-topping pop (Dua Lipa) and powerful, socially conscious hip-hop (Kano) to raucous indie reprobates (Sports Team) and euphoric dancefloor celebration (Georgia), this year’s shortlist is a total mixed bag.
But with all the nominees in, now it’s time to argue about who should win the Hyundai Mercury Prize. Is it Laura Marling, who’s sixth album ‘Song For Our Daughter’ has garnered her fourth nomination, or could it be Stormzy‘s ‘Heavy is the Head’, which transcended genre and soared up the UK charts?
Here 12 NME writers duke it out.
Giddy, relentless, nauseating good fun: no one is doing it like Anna Meredith. Every single song on her 11-track sophomore album ‘Fibs’ feels like it contains more dextrous and complicated instrumentation than most contemporary artists have the energy for across their whole career – and she hardly breaks a sweat. The accompanying statement initially described the eponymous dishonesties as “nice friendly little lies”. It is this sense of mischief, across kaleidoscopic sounds pleasantly sitting eight-bit electronica next to gargantuan classical compositions, that makes this the most robust, unpredictable and wildly exciting candidate for this year’s Mercury Prize.
Bookies’ odds: 25/1
‘how i’m feeling now’
What did you do during lockdown? Show off your freshly baked banana bread to your 87 Instagram followers? Pretend you were busy to avoid another virtual pub quiz? Well, if you’re Charli XCX, your quarantine project was creating an entire album from scratch in under six weeks. Her first Mercury nomination, ‘How I’m Feeling Now’, is something of a musical time capsule – a record that evokes the anxiety and confusion that so many of us felt during the months of self-isolation. An experimental collection that meshes wonky production, killer hooks and gut-punch lyrics, it’s a dizzy rush of euphoric avant-pop, and a Mercury gong is just what the hardest working woman in the music industry deserves.
Bookies’ odds: 7/1
During lockdown, Dua Lipa wasn’t sure she should even be talking about her new record, let alone releasing it. “Trying to think of it as something to celebrate was quite difficult for me,” she told NME in March. “Some days you wanna sit down and just cry.” Luckily for us, the chart-topping megastar stuck to her plan – and ‘Future Nostalgia’ arrived on time and in scintillating style. Stuffed with catchy hooks and soulful, disco-flavoured bangers, the album took inspiration from Dua’s childhood faves (Blondie, Gwen Stefani and Outkast) but gave them a 2020 reboot, ready to dominate a whole new era of dancefloors. In a time of social distancing, it was the perfect pop pick me up for a nation under the cosh. The Mercury Prize would be a great way to say thank you.
Bookies’ odds: 12/1
Where to start with the mighty ‘Seeking Thrills’? When Georgia’s second album arrived back in January, all mesmerising and full of life, the world was still very much in motion, and the dancefloors were still alive and glistening. Six months and a world-altering pandemic later, escapism feels increasingly urgent, and the London-based multi-instrumentalist’s 13-track collection of breathtakingly fun electro-pop bangers sounds more vital than ever. Set against an evolving kaleidoscope of colours, ‘Seeking Thrills’ evokes euphoric images of would-be raves and late, late nights and, above all else, is a fluorescent tribute to communal spirit. A Mercury Prize for Georgia would be a win for us all.
Bookies’ odds: 20/1
‘Hoodies All Summer’
A poignant musical exploration of contemporary Britain’s troubling social and racial inequalities, ‘Hoodies All Summer’ is a testament to Kano’s depth as an artist. Fraught with emotion and dominated by thoughtful, politically charged lyricism, the East Ham rapper’s sixth studio album (and second Mercury shortlist nod) is filled with a newfound maturity. Seamlessly blending soulful acoustic piano with the reverberant chimes of old-school Eskibeat, Kano structures a unique instrumental backdrop on which to rage against a broken society. Highlights include ‘Class of Deja’, an explosive, nostalgic nod to grime’s pirate radio roots, and ‘Trouble’, a powerful response to experiences of violence on London’s streets.
Bookies’ odds: 6/1
Lanterns on the Lake
‘Spook the Herd’
Shoegazers have spent plenty of time shimmering, now it’s their time to shine. Ever since releasing the weep-worthy ‘Ships In The Rain’ and ‘Keep On Trying’ from 2011 debut album ‘Gracious Tide, Take Me Home’, Newcastle’s Lanterns On The Lake have quietly crystalised the resurgent scene. As its reputation as an indulgent 1991 fad for home counties waifs with more effects pedals than tunes dissolved into the ether, they helped it re-materialise at the core of contemporary guitar music; a lost new generation, ripped to the tits on the ethereal, finally restore the ruins of the sonic cathedral. ‘Spook The Herd’ perfectly amalgamates LOTL’s misty-lagoon-at-midnight atmospheres with their artful crank-rock roots to shift the ‘gaze skyward. It’s worthy of the win, but don’t expect any acceptance speech mic drops.
Bookies’ odds: 25/1
‘Song for Our Daughter’
Laura Marling’s fourth – fourth! – Mercury shortlist nod makes her one of the most nominated artists in the prize’s 28 year history. Add to this the fact that the intoxicating, undulating and the all-round gorgeous ‘Song For Our Daughter’ might just be her finest album so far and surely it’s finally her time to pop up onto the podium and claim victory. Solo female Mercury prize winners have been few and far between since 1992, but if anyone deserves to be up there with PJ Harvey, Speech Debelle and Ms Dynamite, it’s Marling, who has seamlessly spent the past 12 years becoming one of the UK’s greatest living songwriters.
Bookies’ odds: 12/1
Late last year, upon the release of his extraordinary self-titled third record, the singer-songwriter Michael Kiwanuka told NME: “A lot of this album is about feeling confident in yourself and comfortable in your own skin.” The musician had previously struggled with self-doubt and, born to Ugandan parents who’d fled the Amin regime for affluent north London, wrestled with his sense of identity. Here, across 14 soulful songs, his vision bursts into dizzying Technicolor, from joyous self-affirmation (opener ‘You Ain’t The Problem’) to painful truths about police brutality (‘Hero’). The record crackles with confidence, the sense of release palpable. Wouldn’t it be sweet for the underdog story to end with a nice shiny gong?
Bookies’ odds: 9/4
For years, the ‘token-jazz’ nominee in the Mercury Prize shortlist been in for a rough ride. The tag – rightly or wrongly – highlighted the lack of representation and recognition for the scene’s contribution to British music over the last decade – but Moses Boyd’s debut solo album ‘Dark Matter’ might change that forever. Surely considered one of the frontrunners for this year’s gong, the London drummer, producer and beat maker’s debut is a marvellous fusion of his skills behind the drum kit and as a composer and songwriter. The glitchy, ravey groove of ‘2 Far Gone’ is proof that Boyd can – and should – take it all the way.
Bookies’ odds: 7/1
Take one look at Porridge Radio’s cover feature with NME earlier this year and you’ll soon realise that they’re probably taking a Mercury Prize nomination firmly in their stride. “We’ve always been like, ‘Yeah, obviously we’re really good and we know it’,” singer Dana Margolin told us. A bold claim, perhaps, but one that the band entirely fulfil on ‘Every Bad’. On their second album the Brighton group deliver the UK’s most vital indie rock record in a generation. It combines dizzying guitars with uncompromising lyrics to paint a unique picture of what it’s like to navigate your twenties in a world that’s getting more fucked up by the minute. It’s a huge step up from their 2016 debut, and a record that easily stands out as one of the year’s best.
Bookies’ odds: 18/1
‘Deep Down Happy’
Musical Marmite in its purest form, Sports Team’s rise has been sudden, intoxicating and inspired extreme reactions. For those on side, the band represent a return to the chaos, tribalism and intensity of indie music at its best. Debut album ‘Deep Down Happy’, one of only two debuts on this year’s Mercury Prize shortlist, distils everything that makes the band such a force to be reckoned with. From pure terrace anthems (‘Fishing’) to Tory-skewering political satire (‘Here’s The Thing’) and adding glamour and nostalgia to lives lived in dull British suburbia (‘Lander’), the album mixes the lyrical swagger of Britpop with the musical cues of US indie rock, plus a whole lotta passion.
Bookies’ odds: 7/1
‘Heavy is the Head’
The only clear winner here is ‘Heavy Is The Head’, Stormzy’s stellar, eclectic second album. Demonstrating his raw talent over drill, rap and even R&B, Big Mike shows all his cards. Come on: he even sang the Tracy Beaker theme tune, offering fuzzy nostalgia those of us who are still kids at heart. And tracks such as ‘Superheroes’ (“Young black king, don’t die on me… My young black queens, don’t quit now”) show Stormzy using his voice to uplift his peers and speak out against problems in the world. Every word holds weight on ‘Heavy Is The Head’, so surely this is a more than worthy contender for that shiny prize.
Bookies’ odds: 7/2
NB: odds taken from William Hill on 23 July 2020 correct at time of publishing