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.
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.
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.
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
- Lily Allen: No Shame
- Arctic Monkeys: Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino
- Everything Everything: A Fever Dream
- Everything Is Recorded: Everything Is Recorded
- Florence + the Machine: High as Hope
- Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds: Who Built the Moon?
- King Krule: The Ooz
- Novelist: Novelist Guy
- Nadine Shah: Holiday Destination
- Jorja Smith: Lost and Found
- Sons of Kemet: Your Queen Is a Reptile
- Wolf Alice: Visions of a Life