In many ways, judging the Mercury Prize must be a bit of a thankless task. When the Sisyphean chore of listening to every single album entered to the competition is over, the public then get to slate your picks – as someone once put it, you can’t please all of the people all of the time.
The continued discussion surrounding the Mercury Prize, however, emphasises its importance. In an increasingly fragmented, disparate landscape it remains a focal point of conversation, it’s relatively simple format – pin-pointing the best album released in Britain and Ireland over the past 12 months – opening out into a discourse on the state of music itself.
Last year’s winner Arlo Parks was propelled to further heights by her achievement, a further signal of the impact that the Mercury Prize can have on an artist’s career. Missing out, though, can feel cruel – just ask Damon Albarn, who famously once withdrew his work from being entered. Or Radiohead, who have never, ever won the bleedin’ thing.
We look at this year’s 12 strong shortlist, and pick out five key talking points.
Adele hasn’t made the cut.
The Mercury Prize has a tendency towards platforming left-field artists, and can sometimes overlook those in the mainstream. That’s not always the case, but as a general truism it holds true – that’s why Speech Debelle has won it, for example, while Little Mix have never been nominated.
This year’s glaring omission is Adele. 2021’s fast-selling album, she’s our biggest export, and arguably the defining vocalist of her generation. ‘30’ was a gripping, revelatory statement, an emotional, completely open project – she even included voice notes from her own son. Matching huge songwriting names to input from UK maverick Inflo (the mysterious producer behind Sault), ‘30’ felt like a work of astonishing creativity.
That said, it hasn’t proven to be enough to charm the Mercury judges. Has the initial hype dissipated? Or is she simply too big for a Mercury nomination? Either way, 2022 won’t be her year.
Joy Crookes’ ascent is unstoppable.
There is little to argue against Joy Crookes, one of the fastest trajectories UK music has seen across lockdowns and the easing into a post-pandemic world. It is crystal clear that contemporary jazz and soul has been quietly working away, acquiring a scene built on sheer talent and innovation. ’Skin’ is an album that does just that, proving itself as a refreshing exploration of growing up in London, shifting into adulthood through the lens of relationships and culture.
At just 23 years of age, Crookes pens a tracklist that executes what feels larger than life, celebrating the epic anthems of ‘19th Floor,’ ‘Feet Don’t Fail Me Now’ and ‘When You Were Mine.’ In 2019, Crookes found herself nestled in local festivals and COLORS sessions – now she’s simply an expected headliner.
It’s only right to give credit where it’s due, and suited in shining armour on her album cover, the powerful songwriter takes onboard one more nomination with absolute ease – even within a genre that has classically felt pushed aside.
Gwenno is already making history.
A curious fact about the Mercury Prize: no Welsh artist has won it. It’s strange, given the continued strength of Welsh music across multiple genres, but there you have it.
Gwenno’s magical ‘Tresor’ has made the shortlist cut this year, which is a wonderful opportunity for a wider audience to sample her work. The Welsh artist also has Cornish roots, making this spectral, psych-infused experience the first Cornish language work to land a spot on the Mercury shortlist.
It’s a richly deserved nomination. Gwenno’s work contains incredible depth, with her debut ‘Y Dydd Olag’ and 2018’s ‘Le Kov’ also well worth seeking out.
Finally, there’s an argument to be had that the Welsh Music Prize and the Scottish Album of The Year Award should be linked to the Mercury. While that’s slightly unpractical, Gwenno’s nomination displays the potent talent that exists outside the London bubble.
Kojey Radical’s nomination honours a People’s Champ.
Kojey Radical’s ‘Reason To Smile’ landing itself a Mercury Prize nomination feels like a well-earned acknowledgement to the music’s greatness.
At release, it felt like the album stood in the shadows of its success, which ultimately felt like a hindrance to its reception. Ambitious enough to enter chart conversations yet missing the the Top 10 mark by one place, all ears seemed distracted from the music. Nevertheless, cruising through the spring into the peaks of July, the 15-track project has finally settled and left it’s mark on the more soulful selection of rap, reaching for themes that point towards Kojey’s growth both as an individual and an artist.
Within that same breadth, this year’s nominations have seemingly breezed over the more hard-hitting areas of rap, previously leaning towards the more underground areas of grime with Skepta, Novelist and Kano. Now choosing Simz and Radical as their rap representatives, there is room for something more bold or adventurous to showcase the genre’s range.
It feels like a guitar-focussed shortlist.
In recent times the Mercury Prize hasn’t been a happy hunting ground for guitar bands – in the last 10 years, for instance, it’s only really alt-J (in 2012) and Wolf Alice (in 2018) who have made their mark as winners.
Looking at the shortlist in 2022, however, and there are no shortage of guitar bands. From the indie sphere, Isle of Wight duo Wet Leg have snatched a spot on the shortlist, with their No. 1 charting debut album. Currently smashing their way through high profile festival slots, the pair are tipped by many to go all the way at the September 8th ceremony.
Elsewhere, Yard Act’s post-punk laden debut ‘The Overload’ is nominated, North East songwriter Sam Fender undoubtedly comes from that indie sphere, while Self Esteem also has deep roots in that world. Former Suede guitarist Bernard Butler makes a surprising – if deserved – appearance, for his full-length collaboration with vocalist Jessie Buckley.
Finally, righteous alt-punk duo Nova Twins blasted their way into the shortlist, with the panel honouring aptly-titled debut ‘Supernova’. There’s an age-old argument that heavy music isn’t represented fully at the Mercury Prize, but the youthful duo seem keen to up-end old tropes. Could they swipe the prize itself? Stay tuned in September.