The Mercury music prize has caused controversy before – over everything from representation to Slowthai appearing on stage brandishing an effigy of Boris Johnson’s severed head – but this year, it managed to cause at least a small storm before the nominations were even announced. Acclaimed singer-songwriter Nadine Shah, tipped off that she hadn’t been nominated and (incorrectly) informed that alt-rock band the 1975 had, took to Twitter to protest that the award should be “for the underdogs … to highlight artists that wouldn’t get nominated for Brits”, pointing out, not unreasonably, that both awards ceremonies are run by the same organisation, the BPI.
Her tweets were later removed – according to Shah, not by her, which does rather give credence to the view that the music industry is run by a shadowy committee – but, looking at this year’s nominations, she might have a point. There’s nothing wrong with the albums nominated. Critics of the Brits’ gender balance should be heartened by the sight of more female artists on the list than ever before. Michael Kiwanuka’s superb third album – a fantastic refinement of his socially-conscious soul and psychedelia – and Laura Marling’s seventh, Song for Our Daughter, are evidence of what can happen if record labels give artists time to develop. So is Hoodies All Summer, by Kano, who’s survived 15 years of UK rap’s vacillating fortunes. Porridge Radio’s uncompromising Every Bad suggests that the recent failure of indie bands to break through to mainstream success isn’t due to a lack of ideas, while Charli XCX’s Covid-19-inspired How I’m Feeling Now, written and recorded in a matter of weeks, is another demonstration of its author’s singular approach to pop. Meanwhile, if you’re going to pick a mainstream pop album, you could do worse than Dua Lipa’s fizzily exciting Future Nostalgia.
What it doesn’t offer is much in the way of surprises: it doesn’t unexpectedly drag anything from the fringes – an album that’s thus far escaped wider attention – into the spotlight. A Mercury list entirely comprised of albums hardly anyone’s heard of would be a bust – accused of wilful obscurity – but at least one nomination like that would be nice. Perhaps the Mercurys’ pay-to-play policy militates against that happening: finding the £200 entry fee is obviously harder for someone self-releasing stuff on Bandcamp than backed by a label.
As for what else isn’t there, it’s a long list, in which you might reasonably include J Hus’s Big Conspiracy, challenging singer-songwriter Richard Dawson’s 2020, or Rina Sawayama’s brilliantly inventive and futuristic Sawayama. Some of the absences are to be expected: the Mercury almost never nominates anything from the heavier end of rock and, in recent years, it seems to have given up on dance music and electronica, too. More surprising is its decision to stick with its time-honoured policy of one jazz album a year at a time, when the UK jazz scene is in the midst of a youthful and vibrant artistic renaissance. Perhaps this year’s nominee, Moses Boyd, will buck the trend and win: Dark Matter is precisely the kind of 21st-century British jazz album that, like the work of Kamasi Washington, could appeal to an audience far beyond the genre’s usual confines. But you wouldn’t bet on it.