Safe Mercury shortlist once again raises questions about prize's purpose

After grime was properly recognised at last year’s Mercury, the album prize is back to playing it safe, rewarding commercial success rather than creative innovation

The “token jazz album” has been part of the Mercury’s DNA since the prize’s inception in 1992. These brassy outliers – from that year’s Bheki Mseleku to Dinosaur in 2017 – never win, making their nominations seem like that Christmas card to a long-estranged acquaintance that you can’t quite bring yourself to stop sending. Once again, there is a jazz album on this year’s list – Sons of Kemet’s excellent Your Queen Is a Reptile – but for the first time in years, British jazz feels central to culture: vivid, youthful and relevant, intertwined with sweaty dancefloors rather than confined to rarefied enclaves.

Just as the Mercury gave grime its dues in 2016 and 2017 (this year limited to Novelist, for Novelist Guy), in 2018 we might have seen the token choice taken seriously, with – humour the thought – more than one jazz contender. Kamaal Williams’ The Return is oddly absent, and albums by Tenderlonious (The Shakedown featuring the 22archestra), Zara McFarlane (Arise) and Joe Armon-Jones (Starting Today) were similarly worthy of recognition.

Florence + the Machine performing in Bilbao, 12 July 2018.
Florence + the Machine performing in Bilbao, 12 July 2018. Photograph: Jordi Vidal/Redferns

As ever, it raises questions about the Mercury judges’ methodology: in jazz’s case, it seems unchangingly rigid, but then whims come and go elsewhere. If Ed Sheeran was nominated for the commercial colossus ÷ last year, then George Ezra must be feeling sore that Staying at Tamara’s didn’t fill that seat in 2018. For better or worse, this year’s list of nominees avoids the prize’s recent controversies (a lack of grime, swiftly rectified) by playing it safe.

If any genre gets an unusually strong showing, it’s pop. Lily Allen’s first Mercury nomination, for the intimate and exposing No Shame, is both overdue and welcome: if her 2014 album Sheezus felt like a misplaced attempt to pop a wheelie on the zeitgeist, her equally moving and acidic fourth record sounded like the work of an artist following her instincts and trusting that it would find its people.

But if the judges wanted to recognise real innovation in British pop, they would have chosen Charli XCX’s Pop 2 (technically a mixtape but still eligible), Sophie’s wipe-clean Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides or Rae Morris’s inventive (and chronically overlooked) Someone Out There over Florence + the Machine’s High as Hope – the best album of her career, though not one of the past 12 months’ – and Jorja Smith’s conservative R&B debut Lost and Found.

It is, however, a relief to see that women aren’t solely represented in a pop context: Nadine Shah’s Holiday Destination is a rattling, seething post-punk address of British xenophobia, while Wolf Alice’s Visions of a Life strikes a rare blow for British rock at the notoriously riff-phobic Mercury.

Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds performing in Edinburgh on 19 July.
Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds performing in Edinburgh on 19 July. Photograph: Brian Anderson/Rex/Shutterstock

After 2017’s list was oddly heavy on stodgy trad guitar music, the guitars recognised this year are at least all doing something interesting: nobody could ever accuse the frenzied Everything Everything of rehashing history with A Fever Dream, while King Krule’s The Ooz, while not quite the masterpiece American critics made it out to be, was rich, unsettling and light years ahead of all the south London indie bands he’s inspired (notable by absence here: Goat Girl, Shame). Even Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds’ Who Built the Moon? glittered up his usual beefy brew, and Arctic Monkeys mercifully abandoned their greaser era with the elegiac Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino.

The only aberration on the list is the self-titled album by Everything Is Recorded, an all-star assembly by XL Recordings’ founder Richard Russell that plays more like an indulgent jam session among past winners (Sampha, Damon Albarn) than a definitive statement in British music. It’s not as if the past 12 months has been short of them. Where are Let’s Eat Grandma, the teenage Norwich duo who released one of the best albums of 2018 in the visceral and uncanny I’m All Ears? Gwenno’s gorgeous Le Kov – safely the first ever Cornish-language synth-pop album to reimagine the south westerly county as a futurist metropolis – seemed made for Mercury recognition. Despite the interesting rock albums that made it, none here were as affecting as Hookworms’ Microshift.

Bicep performing at London’s Roundhouse, 28 April 2018.
Bicep performing at London’s Roundhouse, 28 April 2018. Photograph: Dan Medhurst/PR Image

If there’s anything approaching a scandal of omission, it’s the complete disregard for British dance music. Although it’s divided hardcore electronic fans, you would have thought Bicep’s breakout debut would have been in with a chance. Mount Kimbie, Powerdance, Nabihah Iqbal and Four Tet’s respective recent albums also had a place here – and it would be galling that Karen Gwyer’s Rembo came out on 21 July 2017, a day before the eligibility period began, if you thought there was actually any chance of it having been recognised. There’s a sharp drop-off in black British music too: Nines’ Crop Circle might have made the list, though again, Dizzee Rascal’s return to form Raskit was released a day too early to have been considered.

As ever, the Mercury’s unwillingness to define its terms is the most frustrating thing about it: what, exactly, is it meant to do? Recognise artistry or financial accomplishment? Thrilling newcomers or consolidated brands? There may be no Sheeran equivalent (Florence comes closest), but it still feels as though it’s siding more along commercial than creative lines. It’s a fresh crop of nominees but little has changed: after all, declaring the Mercury unfit for purpose is as much a part of the prize’s narrative as the token jazz album.

  • What would you like to have seen nominated? As well as Gwenno, Rae Morris, Sophie, Hookworms and Let’s Eat Grandma, I was sorry to see Baxter Dury’s deliciously malevolent Prince of Tears miss out. Let us know in the comments.

The full Mercury prize 2018 shortlist


Laura Snapes

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Mercury prize 2018: Noel Gallagher, Florence and Arctic Monkeys shortlisted
Other nominees for the prestigious album award include Lily Allen, Jorja Smith and Wolf Alice, jazz group Sons of Kemet, and experimental acts Nadine Shah, Everything Everything and King Krule

Laura Snapes

26, Jul, 2018 @10:09 AM

Article image
Mercury prize 2018: Wolf Alice win for Visions of a Life
Genre-hopping rockers claim £25,000 prize for an album the Guardian called ‘an exuberant jumble’

Laura Snapes

20, Sep, 2018 @9:20 PM

Article image
Mercury prize 2018: Wolf Alice win, plus the rest of the ceremony as it happened
Nadine Shah and Sons of Kemet were the hottest tips, but Wolf Alice ended up winning. Follow all the action from the red carpet and ceremony here

Ben Beaumont-Thomas

20, Sep, 2018 @9:29 PM

Article image
Mercury prize 2021: Arlo Parks wins for Collapsed in Sunbeams
21-year-old singer-songwriter adds to Brit award win earlier in the year

Ben Beaumont-Thomas

09, Sep, 2021 @9:13 PM

Article image
Brits 2019: who will – and should – win every award
Can Dua Lipa have a second successful Brits year in a row, or will George Ezra dominate the biggest categories? Ahead of tonight’s ceremony, we ponder the likely winners

Ben Beaumont-Thomas and Laura Snapes

20, Feb, 2019 @7:00 AM

Article image
Mercury prize 2021: first-time nominees dominate shortlist
No 1 albums by Wolf Alice, Mogwai and Celeste are joined by leftfield artists such as Hannah Peel and Nubya Garcia in race for prestigious music award

Ben Beaumont-Thomas

22, Jul, 2021 @10:16 AM

Article image
2017 Mercury shortlist fails to spotlight truly exciting British music
While there are strong artists among the latest Mercury nominees, including Stormzy, Kate Tempest, J Hus and Loyle Carner, the eagerness to support stodgy indie rock means visionary albums have been overlooked

Alexis Petridis

27, Jul, 2017 @11:04 AM

Article image
The best albums of 2017: the full list
St Vincent tops our countdown of this year’s most outstanding sounds, from complex rap to moody rock, alt-R&B, inventive grime and more

05, Dec, 2017 @6:00 AM

Article image
Mercury prize 2017: Sampha wins for Process – as it happened
Glass Animals may have been the bookies favourite, but the south London soul singer wins it. Follow the reaction here

Ben Beaumont-Thomas

14, Sep, 2017 @9:31 PM

Article image
Mercury prize 2015 : 'A shortlist that offers no sense of a prevalent trend in British music'
This year’s list is short on household names but long on critical darlings. But does it really capture the state of British music?

Alexis Petridis

16, Oct, 2015 @12:05 PM