Since its inception in 1992, the Mercury Prize has established itself as the contemporary tastemaker of British award ceremonies. You can keep your watered down Brit Awards and the gag-inducing kitsch fest that is the MTV European Music Awards, this is the real McCoy. With this year’s Mercury Prize to be announced next week (November 20th), I sifted through the 12 albums with a fine-tooth comb to give you a condensed account of who’s who and why they should all be on your headphones this week.
Aphex Twin: Syro
No, you’ve not been transported back to a warehouse rave in 1996, unfortunately, but this is Richard D. James’ first album in 13 years and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t worth the wait. After proving himself with a portfolio of experimental electronica that soars between air-chilling ambience and heavy-listening hardcore, the Irish-born producer is back with another fabulous project. With an indecipherable track list to match the alien production, this wouldn’t do well at your little brother’s birthday party but if you’re playing the cosmonaut at 4am then it might just float your boat.
Gaz Coombes: Matador
The former Supergrass frontman’s second solo album is a cosy blend of melting guitar and soaring vocals. All traces of his Britpop background have been expelled as the Englishman approaches his 40th birthday with a reflective album of introspective and restless songs. Daring in its composition and insightful in its lyrical content, this is a confessional album of epic proportions.
Benjamin Clementine: At Least For Now
The debut album from the Ghanaian-Brit is a smoky and soulful collection of analogical anthems. The lyrics are relatable and touching as we are taken on Clementine’s journey; from busking on the Metro in Paris and moving to London under a strict Catholic upbringing. Clementine’s warm voice sees him draw instant comparisons to Nina Simone and the piano instrumental that flows throughout the LP accentuates his vocal prowess. A bold and beautiful debut from an exciting new talent.
C. Duncan: Architect
It seems Royal Conservatoire of Scotland graduate Christopher Duncan has put his classical training to good use with Architect – an exceptional craft of choral experimentation and drifting melodies. You can hear the influence of his formal training, particularly in the choral parts, but there’s more to this album than a one dimensional concept. The meticulous and enchanting production carries an ethereal essence that stays with you long after the record has stopped playing. A psychedelic breeze flows through the whole album alongside a sleepy summer vibe that holds your hand through each song. The Glaswegian must have been buzzing when he fell asleep on a bed of genres and woke up with this beauty.
Zimbabwean-born Eska Mtungwazi is known for her session vocals for the likes of Grace Jones and Matthew Herbert, but her debut solo release is the true showcase of her vocal vitality. Encompassing soul, blues and jazz into one record and still leaving room for some folk influenced gems shows the capacity of the Lewisham-based artist. Five years in the making the album shows every day of its production in the brief 36 minutes. Guaranteed to take away those winter blues, Eska is a keeper.
Florence and the Machine: How Big How Blue How Beautiful
The third album from Florence Welch, once the poster-girl of the British indie establishment, brings things back to ground after a few years of identity crisis. On the new record thumping drums and classic rock guitar take precedence alongside Welch’s rich diva vocals. Producer Markus Dravs (Arcade Fire, Bjork) seems to be hitting all the right buttons as the record moves from song to song with a drive that was missing from her previous release. If, like me, you are a cynical fan who yearns for the days of “Kiss With a Fist” and “Dog Days Are Over”, then this is the closest so far.
Ghostpoet: Shedding Skin
Recorded with a live band, Shedding Skin, delves into new territory for rapper Obaro Ejimiwe. It’s his second Mercury Prize nomination after 2011’s Peanut Butter Blues & Melancholy Jam, and in my opinion the recognition is not enough for one of Britain’s most prized talents. In a move that may divide his faithful audience, the new record adds alt-rock to the medley with devastatingly good results – he may lose listeners but for every one lost, there’s sure to be ten more hopping on the train.
Jamie xx: In Colour
For me, In Colour is the perfect expression of an electronic album. Every track is a mesmerizing exploration of the subconscious; a reflection on the world after the sun goes down illustrated through an exquisite juxtaposition of deep frequencies and subtle melodies. It’s a Hackney rooftop at 2 am and it’s the subdued after party that flows into the wee hours. A respected musician from his time in The xx, Jamie Smith has redefined himself as a DJ and producer extraordinaire. Call me biased, but for me, 2015 is the year of In Colour.
Roisin Murphy: Hairless Toys
Roisin Murphy, formerly one-half of the electronic music duo Moloko, has embraced solo life with three solid albums to date. Hairless Toys, her third offering, is an expansive LP of experimental dance pop. Multi-layered with disco guitar and pulsing synths throughout, the instrumental aspect of the album provides easy listening – the lyrics paint a different picture. The main theme revolves around the feeling of being an outsider, something that Murphy says herself: “I didn’t become a pop star, and nobody knows exactly why.” In her own eyes Murphy may not have “made it,” but Hairless Toys radiates pop stardom and it’s infectious.
Slaves: Are You Satisfied?
Slaves have been turning heads for a while now. Tipped to be the next-big-thing, the Tunbridge Wells duo’s debut album exceeds the hype. Built on a solid foundation of heavy guitar riffs and crashing drums, Are You Satisfied? is an ode to the punk of old days. Think Royal Blood mixed with the gritty garage band who play down your local bar. The duo are known for their legendary live shows and this album is a reflection of that energy. I wouldn’t play it at your gran’s house, but Are You Satisfied? is the perfect get-up-and-go soundtrack to the long winter months that lie ahead.
Soak: Before We Forgot How To Dream
SOAK, a.k.a 19-year-old Irish singer-songwriter Bridie Monds-Watson, is something of a contradiction: covered in tattoos and clad in leather jackets, it would be easy to mistake her for the lead singer of an emo band. On the contrary, Monds-Watson makes the kind of stripped back folk music reminiscent of Laura Marling. On Dream she creates an airy soundscape populated by her echoing croon and an acoustic guitar as we are taken on a journey through her life so far. Touching on themes of isolation and the recklessness of being young, it’s poignant and polished composition, but the album’s subtext is what draws you in.
Wolf Alice: My Love is Cool
After four years of production, London quartet Wolf Alice’s debut album is finally here. Toying with the inspiration of grunge and nineties guitar, the album plays to the band’s strengths with lead singer Ellie Roswell the powerhouse driving the music forward. Her lyrics instantly capture your attention: the album is a mosaic of teenage moments all painted in thick brush strokes on your bedroom wall. There’s an essence of HAIM and Camera Obscura in the combination of components, but more than anything the album is a testament to the band itself. It’s not normal for young musicians to have their feet firmly on the ground, but Wolf Alice are stuck so steady you know they’re here to stay.
This year’s competition is exceptional, there’s something here for everyone and the diversity on show is a promising prospect. But when it comes down to it my two picks have to be C Duncan’s Architect and Jamie XX’s In Colour. Duncan recorded the whole album solo in his Glasgow bedroom and it’s genuinely a sound I’ve never experienced before in my life. In Colour invokes such a rich atmosphere with such a unique blend of sounds that it cannot be forgotten. My suggestion: step outside your comfort zone and give them all a listen.