In a year of risk-taking debut albums, why is the Mercury Prize shortlist so safe?

For an award that’s supposed to champion innovation and new talent, the omission of some of Britain’s best newcomers is criminal

Fire up the Hot Take 3000 – it’s Mercury Prize shortlist day. Twitter might already be ablaze with reactions to the 12 chosen ‘Albums Of The Year’, but even ignoring the 280-character slapbacks, it’s impossible to deny that there’s a glaring gulf between the albums chosen and the reality of new British music. In a 12-month period that’s seen game-changing, adored debuts from the likes of Shame, Goat Girl, Matt Maltese, Fekky, SOPHIE and more hit the streets, the Mercury Prize 2018 shortlist looks bafflingly blinkered, and blindsided by the kind of musical behemoths that are doing just fine without the extra attention.

In the Mercury’s defence, two of their first-timer choices – Novelist’s ‘Novelist Guy’ and Jorja Smith’s ‘Lost & Found’ – do a fair job of representing young, black British music’s new talent. Novelist’s long-awaited debut is a kaleidoscopic take on British grime’s ever-expanding pool of influences, while Jorja Smith’s somewhat lackadaisical first effort is both critical manna and essential R&B playlist fodder, and was a sure bet for Mercury nomination since she first entered the industry spotlight. Elsewhere, though, it’s a sorry sight.

The bookies’ early odds are pushing the likes of Florence + The Machine, Noel Gallagher and Arctic Monkeys to the top of the pile, while a huge pool of zeitgeist-capturing debuts are left by the wayside. It’s evidence of the ever-growing gulf between the Mercury’s back-patting industry hootenanny and the bubbling underground of new talent.

 

 

‘Songs Of Praise’, Shame’s debut album, captured the imaginations of thousands across the continent on its January release, their acerbic takes on post-Brexit Britain spurring on a once-disillusioned youth. It’s impossible to ignore how the band’s incessant global touring schedule has coincided with a more politically energised pool of British teenagers, who split their time between Shame’s churned-up mosh-pits and hitting the streets, placards in hand. Likewise, that same South London scene spat out Goat Girl’s self-titled debut this year, itself a document of youthful discontent and the fantastical imagination that’s borne out of such suburban boredom. Both are glaring omissions from the Mercury shortlist. Matt Maltese, and ‘Bad Contestant’‘s piano-led witticism, is another confusing South London absentee.

 

 

Fekky’s ‘El Clasico’ took grime’s mainstream explosion and polished it up for the pop crowd, and if it’s pop debuts you’re looking for, then the glistening deconstructionism of SOPHIE’s ‘Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides’ is surely the most inexplicable oversight – a future-facing take on pop that’s seen the one-time PC Music noisemaker evolve in stunning fashion. Other newcomers like Dream Wife, Leon Vynehall and Bicep were surely worthy of attention – each occupying vastly different realms, proving the eclecticism that new British music is operating on.

Few would deny that the majority of the albums nominated for this year’s Mercury Prize are worthy of attention – older and more established though their creators may be, there’s little denying their worth in the wider musical conversation. But for an award that claims its main objective is “to help introduce new albums from a range of music genres to a wider audience”, it’s inexcusable to overlook Britain’s fresher talents in favour of the Noels and Florences of the world – acts who’ve already earned themselves a place on the CD racks and coffee tables of nearly every household in the country. The Mercury – and the British music industry as a whole – needs to do better at supporting those newcomers.