Stormzy, Dua Lipa, Laura Marling and Michael Kiwanuka are among the artists competing for 2020’s Mercury prize, arguably the most prestigious award in British pop.

More female artists are nominated for the £25,000 prize than in any other previous year, with five solo women and three bands featuring women across the 12 nominees – a contrast to this year’s Brit awards, where there was only one British woman across 25 nominees in mixed gender categories.

Two highly respected heavyweights of contemporary British songwriting are likely to become frontrunners with the bookies: folk singer Laura Marling and soul artist Michael Kiwanuka. Marling has now been nominated four times, equal to Arctic Monkeys and PJ Harvey, with only Radiohead having received five nominations. Kiwanuka has now been nominated three times, adding to nods in 2012 and 2016.

Kiwanuka told the Guardian that “it still feels just as amazing as the first” time he was nominated. “The Mercury is a place you can celebrate artistic merit – one of the few places that upholds that in the mainstream. It supports music as an art form, more than just a form of entertainment and commercial gain. For me that’s super important.” He heralded Marling’s album Song for Our Daughter, her seventh, saying: “I really love it – I’ve been a fan since I started trying to write songs. She’s younger than me, but it feels like she’s already a veteran in the game.”

Georgia, nominated for Seeking Thrills.
Georgia, nominated for Seeking Thrills. Photograph: Burak Çıngı/Redferns

As well as Lipa, nominated for her critically acclaimed No 1 album Future Nostalgia, there are other upbeat pop choices – fairly unusually for the Mercury – in Charli XCX, nominated for her album How I’m Feeling Now, and Georgia for Seeking Thrills. How I’m Feeling Now, recorded during the coronavirus lockdown, was one of two eligible Charli XCX albums this year, the other being September 2019’s Charli (the eligibility period runs from 20 July 2019 to 17 July 2020).

Following on from Dave’s win last year for Psychodrama, British rap continues its artistic and commercial success with nominations for Kano’s Hoodies All Summer and Stormzy’s Heavy is the Head – though perhaps the biggest snub was for east London rapper J Hus and his widely admired No 1 album Big Conspiracy. Kano and Stormzy have both been nominated once before.

Indie-rock is represented by the youthful Sports Team, who reached No 2 with their debut album in June; Brighton-formed quartet Porridge Radio; and a relatively unexpected choice in Newcastle band Lanterns on the Lake, nominated 12 years and four albums into their career for Spook the Herd.

Porridge Radio’s frontwoman Dana Margolin told the Guardian: “This is the first time we’ve felt acknowledged by the wider music industry. It feels like a really big step up – it does feel quite validating.” She said she was encouraged by the number of women on the shortlist. “In indie and rock, it’s very white and very male, and those things do need to change. Part of it is about having more role models, and the other part is having opportunities for young women to learn how to play instruments, and have confidence at things they’re not necessarily good at yet … without feeling like they’re failures if they’re not good enough.”

Porridge Radio, with Dana Margolin second left.
Porridge Radio, with Dana Margolin second left. Photograph: El Hardwick

There is the traditional single jazz nominee in Moses Boyd, the drummer who has underpinned London’s youthfully vibrant and globally respected jazz scene in recent years, while another choice from the fringes is composer Anna Meredith, nominated for the maximalist, high-speed pop oddities on her album Fibs.

With the caveat that they may not have been submitted for the prize – and Mercury organisers wouldn’t reveal who was – critically acclaimed artists denied a spot include Harry Styles and his hugely successful psychedelic soft rock opus Fine Line; Jessie Ware and her disco album What’s Your Pleasure?; outsider folk singer Richard Dawson; pop visionary FKA twigs; chart-topping pop-rockers in Sam Fender, the 1975, Gerry Cinnamon, Liam Gallagher, and three-time nominees Foals and Coldplay; and celebrated Irish groups Girl Band and the Murder Capital, as well as Irish balladeer Dermot Kennedy. Irish, Scottish and Welsh artists are all eligible, but only one of the nominees is non-English: Scotland’s Anna Meredith.

Rock and electronic music are often overlooked for the Mercury shortlist, and so it proves here, with acclaimed albums by artists including Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs, Loathe, Beatrice Dillon and Squarepusher also not nominated.

Geoff Taylor, head of the British Phonographic Institute which organises the prize, said the nominees were a reminder that “the creative brilliance of our artists is a constant, even when the world is turned upside down”. The coronavirus pandemic means that a traditional live awards ceremony is unlikely, though it has not yet been cancelled. Either way, the prize will be awarded on 24 September, with the ceremony broadcast on the BBC and, for the first time, for global audiences via YouTube.

‘Music has become more vital’: Michael Kiwanuka.
‘Music has become more vital’: Michael Kiwanuka. Photograph: Harry Herd/Redferns

The judging panel of musicians, journalists, industry figures and radio presenters features two new names this year, in three-time nominee Anna Calvi and DJ Gemma Cairney. Other famous faces include soul and R&B singer Jorja Smith, Supergrass frontman Gaz Coombes, and jazz singer Jamie Cullum. The judges heralded all the nominated artists as having “an irresistible urgency, a belief that their music matters more than ever”.

The Mercury prize began in 1992, but Kiwanuka said he has noticed huge changes in popular music even since his first nomination in 2012. “Back then was more about getting the biggest song, where now people are trying to express themselves fully and make statements with their music. The album is the best format to do that.

“People are more aware and in tune with the state of the world now – it’s quite a heavy feeling at the moment. The global pandemic, the events in America with George Floyd, global warming; there’s also more of an awareness of race and gender equality. All these things have a magnifying glass to them now, and musicians are using their platform to express themselves. As a result, albums have become more important again. Music has become more vital, in a lot of ways.”

Mercury prize nominees 2020

Anna Meredith – Fibs
Charli XCX – How I’m Feeling Now
Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia
Georgia – Seeking Thrills
Kano – Hoodies All Summer
Lanterns on the Lake – Spook the Herd
Laura Marling – Song for Our Daughter
Michael Kiwanuka – Kiwanuka
Moses Boyd – Dark Matter
Porridge Radio – Every Bad
Sports Team – Deep Down Happy
Stormzy – Heavy is the Head


Ben Beaumont-Thomas

The GuardianTramp

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