First-time nominees dominate the 30th anniversary of the Mercury prize, which celebrates the best British and Irish albums of the year, making up 11 of the 12 shortlisted albums.
Little Simz is the only artist here with Mercury history: her third album, Grey Area, was nominated in 2019. Her second nod comes for its follow-up, Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, which reached No 4 in the UK albums chart and was widely considered one of the best British albums of 2021.
It placed at No 3 in the Guardian’s year-end list: “A narrative journey in the truest sense, Sometimes I Might Be Introvert is upfront about the sharp sense of self-doubt that so often chases the sweet intoxication of success,” wrote critic Jenessa Williams.
Simz leads a pack dominated by women, with seven of the 12 albums by female solo artists or mixed groups. The Isle of Wight indie-rock duo Wet Leg are among a handful of acts nominated for their debut album – one “far more nuanced and three-dimensional than the infuriatingly repetitive song that made their name”, wrote the Guardian’s Rachel Aroesti in reference to their debut single, Chaise Longue.
“We’ve seen so many bands that we admire get nominated for this award over the years,” Rhian Teasdale and Hester Chambers told the Guardian. “It’s just so surreal to now be one of the nominees. When we played our first gig just over a year ago at Latitude, we never expected anything like this to happen and we’re just so stoked we get to keep doing this every day.”
The London songwriter Joy Crookes is nominated for her long-awaited debut album Skin, released five years after her earliest singles. “By pulling at the threads of her identity – her Bangladeshi-Irish heritage; growing up in south London – and weaving them into wider sociopolitical themes, she has created a record that’s vibrant, urgent and brimming with life,” said the Observer’s Alim Kheraj.
Self Esteem (AKA Rebecca Lucy Taylor) receives her first nomination for her second album, Prioritise Pleasure, which topped the Guardian’s album of the year list in 2021. “In a pop landscape that often seems to be bottling it all up inside, Prioritise Pleasure marked a hugely relatable uncorking of not just the past 18 months’ worth of festering emotions, but a lifetime of them,” wrote the Guardian’s Michael Cragg.
Elsewhere, Welsh synth-pop artist Gwenno is up for her third album, Tresor, her second collection of Cornish-language songs; Jessie Buckley and Bernard Butler for their debut collaborative album, For All Our Days That Tear the Heart; and London rock duo Nova Twins for their second album, Supernova – one which assembled metal, EDM, horrorcore hip-hop, house music and R&B into a “completely coherent and authentically powerful style”, wrote Guardian pop critic Alexis Petridis.
Guitarist Amy Love told the Guardian they were glad to have been nominated for their second album, which they recorded during lockdown. “So much had happened in the world and in our personal lives that creating this album was really therapeutic: we allowed ourselves to be more vulnerable, experiment with more dynamics. We’re really proud of it.”
Nova Twins are the first Black rock act to be nominated for the prize. “It means everything to us,” said bassist Georgia South. “When you start you think, we’re two kids who wanna rock out and make music, but the more we went along and realised how much diversity is missing in the music scene and the heavy music scene. When we play shows, people say to us, ‘we felt so seen’ or ‘we’ve never seen so many people of colour at a show’. We’re proud to be opening doors for more bands that are diverse – women, non-binary, POC, from the LGBTQIA+ community – saying that everybody is welcome.”
After several years in which the Mercury shortlist reflected at least a little of the UK’s fertile jazz scene, it appears to have reverted to its infamous “token jazz album” years, with just one artist from the genre nominated: Scottish pianist Fergus McCreadie for his trio’s third album, Forest Floor. It was inspired by the Scottish landscape, in part thanks to spending lockdown living at his parents’ countryside home.
“It’s great to represent Scotland and Scottish jazz,” McCreadie told the Guardian. “I’m excited not just for me but what this could mean for opportunities for our scene. The Glasgow and Edinburgh jazz festivals gave me my start – both really amazing places.”
Forest Floor also reveals the inspiration of Scottish folk music – another genre historically short on love from the Mercury committee. “Jazz is what I trained in but it’s very hard to ignore where you’ve come from as a musician,” said McCreadie. “I grew up with a pipe band in my town, my parents listened to a lot of folk music – you can’t escape it in Scotland. I love the music so much and it’s nice to bring that out in a different way to how it’s been done before musically.”
The prize has faltered on representation compared with recent years. This year only 33% of the nominees are people of colour against a high of 64% last year. And 2020 remains the yardstick for gender diversity, with 66% female nominees compared with this year’s 58%.
London rapper Kojey Radical’s nominated debut album, Reason to Smile, was nearly a decade in the making. It’s an album reminiscent of previous Mercury winner Ms Dynamite’s A Little Deeper, wrote the Observer’s Kadish Morris, both “era-defining works that blend hip-hop with neo-soul and jazz, and storytelling that paints the Black British experience with the finest of brushes”.
Those who believe the Mercury should be the preserve of left-field music – as opposed to its mainstream equivalent, the Brit awards – may clutch their pearls at the presence of Harry Styles for his third album, Harry’s House, a record of “really well-crafted pop songs” that nod to yacht rock and the sounds of the mid-80s, wrote Petridis.
They’re joined by Leeds four-piece Yard Act, whose debut album The Overload runs on “skittery-but-muscular post-punk funk: punchy disco drums, stabbing guitar, the melodies driven by the bass”, wrote Petridis. “It all helps doesn’t it?” singer James Smith told the Guardian of their nomination. “You don’t expect it when you make an album so when it happens you feel grateful.”
The Overload had connected with listeners, he theorised, because it tells a “universal story of a man in their late 20s or early 30s who spent their entire life trying to live by a set of principles that they start to question and then give up on for the sake of an easier life – selling out, essentially.”
Accolades such as the Mercury prize “help artists in a continually shrinking financial landscape”, said Smith. “It shafts more of a spotlight – that you clearly need – on them. There will be acts on there who have had similar amounts of attention to Yard Act; acts on there who have had a lot more; and acts with none. To put that all in one television broadcast and give it a load of coverage is helpful.”
He added: “For what it’s worth, I don’t think we’re going to win”, tipping Little Simz for the prize.
The judging panel – which includes musicians Anna Calvi, Loyle Carner and Jamie Cullum – said in a statement: “Getting down to 12 albums this year was not easy, simply because there were so many remarkable ones to choose from. That serves as proof that British and Irish music thrives during unsettled periods in history, with the albums chosen covering everything from imaginative pop to pioneering rap to Cornish language folk-rock. We feel that these 12 amazing albums each have something to say artistically and socially, all in their own unique, enriching ways.”
The proportion of independent to major label albums has also dropped: with a ratio of five indies to seven majors this year, compared with eight indies and four majors last year.
This year’s Mercury prize ceremony is held on 8 September 2022 at the Eventim Hammersmith Apollo, with the winner taking home £25,000. Albums by British or Irish artists released between 17 July 2021 and 15 July 2022 were eligible for entry.
This year’s Mercury prize nominees
Jessie Buckley and Bernard Butler – For All Our Days That Tear the Heart
Joy Crookes – Skin
Sam Fender – Seventeen Going Under
Gwenno – Tresor
Kojey Radical – Reason to Smile
Little Simz – Sometimes I Might Be Introvert
Fergus McCreadie – Forest Floor
Nova Twins – Supernova
Self Esteem – Prioritise Pleasure
Harry Styles – Harry’s House
Wet Leg – Wet Leg
Yard Act – The Overload