2020 is increasingly a trashfire amongst trashfires, the kind of year you once had a nightmare about before pushing it slowly to the back of your mind, where it pricks and pokes at your anxiety nodes during odd hours of the day and night.
Nobody told musicians that, however, and the past 12 months have brought some truly superlative releases.
It’s the job of the Hyundai Mercury Prize panel to whittle down the very best album releases that come their way into something approaching coherency, a 12 strong list of artists that somehow taps into the underlying zeitgeist.
This year’s shortlist of nominations is out, and it’s certainly a talking point – here’s five key takeaways…
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Women out-number men on the shortlist.
The list of nominated albums features some incredible female auteurs, moving from folk-leaning songwriting through to experimental electronics, while skirting on the fringes of pop.
More than a few Clash favourites are recognised: Charli XCX constructed ‘How I’m Feeling Now’ during lockdown, a kind of therapeutic mood mirror from a riveting talent. Georgia is simply amazing, and her ‘Seeking Thrills’ nomination will expose her work to countless more people. Anna Meredith, too, is an absolute champion, and the Mercury panel deserve credit for shining a light on her work. Meanwhile Laura Marling could well be a front-runner, with her marvellous, highly personal ‘Song For Our Daughter’ gaining a nod.
That said, only one woman of colour - Charli XCX, whose mother is a Gujurati Indian from Uganda - is represented, and some colossal records are overlooked. Rina Sawayama’s extraordinary debut album arguably should have been recognised, while FKA twigs has a right to feel overlooked given the impact that ‘Magdalene’ has made since its release.
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Guitars are back, it seems.
Renowned for its stylistic diversity, the Hyundai Mercury Prize 2020 shortlist has a penchant for indie.
South coast group Porridge Radio excel on ‘Every Bad’, an extraordinary record of real, lasting power. Lanterns On The Lake gain a nomination with their beautiful record ‘Spook The Herd’, a pleasing bout of recognition for a group who have trod their own path for a decade now.
It’s not all cutting edge, though. Regular readers will no doubt be aware we’re not exactly keen on Sports Team, and it’s undoubtedly surprising to see them in there – simply put, even leaving aside curious interview bluster it’s just not that good...
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J Hus is cruelly over-looked.
It’s funny, the Mercury has a history of spotlighting superb work, but it can also ignore some of the best artists in the country. Take Radiohead – not only have they spectacularly failed to win the prize for any of their superlative albums, but Thom Yorke’s own solo work hasn’t been recognised, either.
J Hus was rightly nominated for ‘Common Sense’ in 2017, a record that arguably redefined British music. Missing out to Sampha was no real injustice, but for the panel to overlook his phenomenal album ‘Big Conspiracy’ feels like a major omission.
A staggering record that touches on personal trauma, the soundscapes constructed by producers such as JAE5 rank among the final aural achievements 2019 could offer. Set against the pivotal rhymes of J Hus, ‘Big Conspiracy’ is little short of a masterpiece and deserved a chance to shine.
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Irish music isn’t represented on the list.
Irish music on both sides of the Border is enjoying something of a golden period for creativity right now, with countless artists making their mark on an international level. Much of the talk during the build up was which artist(s) would the panel go for.
Perhaps the emotional pull of the new Girl Band album? Lankum’s staggering intense re-working of traditional tropes into something devoutly modern? Or perhaps an outlier, one of the plethora of options from pop to electronic via hip-hop and R&B?
In the end, the panel didn’t go for a single Irish entry. It’s a real blind spot, something the Mercury hasn’t acted to correct.
This year, only one non-English artist gains a nod – Anna Meredith with the fantastic ‘FIBS’ - while, very sadly, the long wait for a Welsh winner must continue for another 12 months.
The Hyundai Mercury Prize shortlist is increasingly easy to predict.
The 2020 #HyundaiMercuryPrize Shortlist has been revealed! Let's take a deeper look at the 12 incredible albums that make up a snapshot in music over the past twelve months... pic.twitter.com/2xuP1WtMWG— Mercury Prize (@MercuryPrize) July 23, 2020
This year Clash set itself a challenge, attempting to guess which albums would gain a nod on the shortlist. In the end, we correctly guessed three quarters of the list, proving that our well-polished crystal ball can indeed see into the future.
It might also prove, though, that the Mercury itself is more and more focussed on A Certain Type Of Album – progressive but not actually left-field, political without being truly radical, a sort of coffee table group-think that never truly severs its relationship with the mainstream.
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