As much as the BRIT awards may try to convince us otherwise, the Mercury Prize (officially the Hyundai Mercury Prize these days) is widely regarded as the most important prize for new albums in the British and Irish music industries. It comes with a reputation for controversy and for provoking debate, with commendably brave choices at times (Skepta’s Konnichiwa over David Bowie’s Blackstar in 2016, Portishead’s Dummy over Oasis’ What’s the Story, Morning Glory? in 1995) as well as less wise ones at others (M People over Blur’s Parklife in 1994 and Roni Size/Reprazent over Radiohead’s OK Computer in 1997 both look particularly bad in hindsight).
Twelve spaces are up for grabs on this year’s shortlist, which will be announced on Thursday, 22 July 2021. You can find the complete eligibility criteria here, but the long and short of it is that any British or Irish album released between Saturday 18 July 2020 and Friday 16 July 2021 can make the shortlist (so long as their label is willing to submit them for consideration, pay the £210.00 entry fee, and “actively participate in the Mercury Prize promotional campaign”).
The 2021 Hyundai Mercury Prize Awards Show to announce the winner will be held in London on Thursday, 9 September 2021 subject to Government guidelines.
About the Article
The albums listed in this article are the twelve I would personally select if I had complete control over the Mercury Prize shortlist. As such, they are effectively my choices for the twelve best albums from the UK and Ireland released in the past year. History suggests that in most cases my seal of approval should be the kiss of death for the artists’ chances of inclusion in the actual list. But maybe this year will be different! For each entry I’ve tried to briefly explain why they merit inclusion in the shortlist, discuss whether they conform to any of the Mercury Prize’s historical selection trends, and also highlight some potential obstacles that ultimately could fairly or unfairly torpedo their chances.
Before starting, I’d like to make a quick disclaimer: I am wary that UK media coverage of British music awards ceremonies can very easily descend into arrogance and jingoism about the musical output of the UK (or often just England) in comparison to the rest of the world. This article is in no way intended to contribute to that noise, not least of all because the Mercury Prize is explicitly intended to reflect the very best music from Great Britain and Ireland (a point that often feels overlooked).
That being said, it became apparent whilst researching this article that the period of July 2020 – July 2021 has been an exceptionally fruitful year for new music both in Great Britain and in Ireland. When I started I had absolutely no idea just how many great albums I’d listened to from the two islands in the past twelve months, nor how much I would have to agonise over the final selection. Well done to every artist mentioned in this article (and its companion piece) for the fantastic music they have produced!
If you enjoy this article you can also find another one listing the other albums I consider to be ‘Worthy Picks’ and potential contenders here. If you want a taster of each album to listen to (in random order) you can find Spotify, YouTube, and Apple Music playlists below.
WARNING: All albums and their accompanying tracks/videos are completely uncensored. A number of them contain explicit language that is unsuitable for children, NSFW topics and images, and/or political commentary that may offend or disturb some.
Albums listed in alphabetical order.
1. Bicep – Isles (Dance/Electronic, Ninja Tune)
The case for inclusion: Isles came very close to winning this blog’s inaugural Album of the Month title way back in January, and it has only gotten better with each subsequent listen. It’s a gloomy and relatively subdued record by modern dance music standards, but its mix of ethereal vocal samples, plaintive synths, and captivating sense of lonely space gives it a similar feel to 2008 nominee Burial and 2013 winner James Blake. Finally, and in the first of a number of Mercury Prize “trends” that we’ll discuss here, it’s the duo’s second album. This is a significant advantage given, that out of the twenty-three albums that have won since 1997, only five weren’t a debut or second album (and two of those were by the same artist, PJ Harvey).
Why they could miss the cut: Dance and instrumental electronic music hasn’t always fared brilliantly in Mercury shortlists, especially by those artists from the genre who have a large commerical presence. But Islands‘ moody aesthetic, plus its narrative as a record born as a response to the conditions of the global pandemic, makes it feel like the kind of record the Mercury Prize would be very keen on.
Odds of being nominated: Strong, though maybe not a favourite to win it all.
Standout tracks: Sundial, Apricots
For fans of: Burial, Fatima Yamaha
2. Delmer Darion – Morning Pageants (Electronic/Indie, Practise Music)
The case for inclusion: If the Mercury Prize were awarded for the album with the most unique and impressive overarching concept, then we could award it to Morning Pageants right now and all go home. Painstakingly created over the course of five years, Morning Pageants is “a sprawling, industrial ten-track account of the death of the devil, inspired by a line in the Wallace Stevens poem Esthétique du Mal: ‘The death of Satan was a tragedy for the imagination.’” The accompanying music is just as imaginative, comprising a truly unique and emotive blend of sprawling synths, cryptic samples, and even the odd touch of acoustic indie-folk. Much like Bicep, Delmer Darion could also benefit from some of the Mercury Prize’s past preferences. Morning Pageants is their debut album. Furthermore, they are London based, and it is difficult to overstate the Mercury Prize’s preference for the city’s musical output. Each of the past six winners of the prize are acts based in London or predominantly associated with it (e.g. it’s where they spent most of their time in the UK if they have now emigrated). By my count, at least nine of the twelve nominations last year met the same criteria as did forty of the sixty nominations made over the past five years. Simply put, being from London or based in it is a huge advantage to making a Mercury Prize shortlist.
Why they could miss the cut: Looking at previous nominees and winners in particular, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the Mercury Prize judges have a preference for records that speak to “real-world” concerns. By comparison, as excellent as they are, Morning Pageants‘ considerations of Satan as a concept might suffer for being a bit, well, abstract.
Odds of being nominated: Slim.
Standout tracks: Brossier
For fans of: Bon Iver
3. Dry Cleaning – New Long Leg (Post-Punk, 4AD LTD)
The case for inclusion: If you’re a fan of new indie rock music and live in the UK, chances are that you’ve already heard of Dry Cleaning. The buzz surrounding the London four-piece has been almost inescapable in 2020 and 2021, and, in fairness, they’ve earned the attention with a near-perfect modern post-punk debut album. All but one of its ten tracks clock in at three or four minutes, and all are filled with an inordinate amount of instant hooks via their prickly guitars and and high-energy bass lines. On top of that, frontwoman Florence Shaw is a genuine unique selling point who sets Dry Cleaning apart from their peers. Her distinctive spoken-word delivery draws attention to her impressive lyrical prowess and winningly wry sense of humour.
Why they could miss the cut: As you read further and further down this list (and the ‘Other Worthy Picks’) you’ll no doubt notice that the indie/rock field is extremely crowded this year. Any single genre rarely gets more than a few nominations yearly, so there’s going to be very fierce competition between Dry Cleaning and the likes of Black Midi, Wolf Alice, Everything Everything, and Black Country, New Road (to name a few). I think Dry Cleaning are the most likley of those to get the nod, but it’s by no means a sure thing…
Odds of being nominated: Strong.
Standout tracks: Scratchcard Lanyard, Her Hippo
For fans of: Fontaines D.C., Do Nothing, Interpol
4. Everything Everything – RE-ANIMATOR (Indie Rock, Infinity Industries LLP)
The case for inclusion: In my eyes, Everything Everything are unquestionably the best British rock band of the past decade. Since 2010 they’ve released five albums of consistently high quality, characterised by a rare musical and lyrical inventiveness that so many of their contemporaries lack. RE-ANIMATOR is impeccably crafted, featuring some of the band’s strongest musical compositions, and frontman Jonathan Higgs’ thought-provoking, sometimes deranged, storytelling. Which other act here is capable of writing a doom-funk strut about a sentient fatberg? Also working in Everything Everything’s favour is the fact that they have already received two nomiations previously (for debut Man Alive in 2011 and A Fever Dream in 2018). Once an act gets on the Mercury Prize’s radar, they often find themselves selected again and again.
Why they could miss the cut: As strong as it is compositionally, RE-ANIMATOR is arguably Everything Everything’s least sonically innovative album. Strengths such as phenomenal songwriting are not really the kind of attention-grabbing qualities that the Mercury Prize often opts for. Moreover, it’s the band’s fifth album, and neither of their previous two nominations truly felt in the running to win their respective years. Still, last year’s winner, Michael Kiwanuka’s Kiwanuka, may offer some hope – it was his thrid album and third nomination for the Mercury Prize. So neither a nomination nor a win is impossible.
Odds of being nominated: Slim.
Standout tracks: Arch Enemy, In Birdsong
For fans of: Foals, Radiohead, Wild Beasts
5. Lord Apex – Smoke Sessions 3 (Alternative Rap, Lord Apex)
The case for inclusion: Lord Apex is a keen student of hip-hop history whose sound has more in common with US underground rap than the British grime scene that has tended to dominate Mercury nominations for rap albums. Musically Smoke Sessions 3 sounds both alluringly mellow yet completely futuristic, built around slower, spacious beats and tantalizing synth melodies. Lord Apex is a brilliant rapper, too, possessing a winning charisma and the talent to make his complex lyrics and rhyme schemes sound effortless. Smoke Sessions 3 is one of the best albums eligible for this year’s competition, and it sounds like little else in mainstream British rap right now. The Mercury Prize would be well-advised to recognise and represent the diversity in the genre.
Why they could miss the cut: Whilst Smoke Sessions 3‘s divergence from the well-trodden path really ought work in its favour, until they prove otherwise, we have to assume that the judging panel will stick to the trend of mining the grime scene for any rap nominations.
Odds of being nominated: Fair.
Standout tracks: I Need a Light (feat. Smoke DZA), Like You Know
For fans of: Earl Sweatshirt, MF DOOM, Madlib
6. NYX & Gazelle Twin – Deep England (Experimental, NYX Collective Records)
The case for inclusion: Winner of The Baying of Kazak’s Album of the Month award in March, Deep England is one of the most (if not the most) musically innovative and unique offerings up for consideration this year. Collaborators Gazelle Twin and “electronic drone choir” NYX create a truly dystopian “electronic-choral expansion” of the former’s 2018 classic Pastoral. The album fearlessly fuses that record’s claustrophobic, agitated electronics with unnerving “English pagan and sacred music” and “original compositions by NYX, Paul Giovanni and William Blake.” Deep England‘s lyrical evisceration of a post-Brexit United Kingdom also means that the Mercury Prize would be hard-pressed to find a more politically ‘relevant’ album, too.
Why they could miss the cut: Whilst Deep England is a sufficiently radical reworking of Pastoral (which did not make its respective shortlist in 2018) to merit inclusion, it is not entirely original material. Could that fact count against Deep England when the judging panel selects the shortlist? Moreover, looking back over previous Mercury shortlists, works this dark or experimental rarely get the recognition they deserve. It’s certainly difficult to imagine a live performance of Better in my Day or the title track in front of a canapé-nibbling audience on the evening of the award-ceremony itself, isn’t it?
Odds of being nominated: Slim.
Standout tracks: Better in My Day, Glory
For fans of: Holly Herndon, Fever Ray/The Knife
7. Pa Salieu – Send Them to Coventry (Grime/Rap, Warner Music UK Limited)
The case for inclusion: Does the Mercury Prize consider which album has the best title when selecting its shortlist? Send Them to Coventry must be in with a huge chance if so – it sounds and reads as instantly iconic. But there’s much more to this record than its name alone. Like many great rap albums, its words transport you to a world you’re (hopefully for your sake) unfamiliar with and leaves you understanding that world at least a bit better than you did at the start (“My name is Pa and I’m from Hillset, Bust gun, dodge slugs, got touched, skipped death… I’m an opp, opp boy, and I know that well, Will I die by the sword? Only time will tell“). There’s also a vibrancy to the music that sets it apart from its contemporaries, consolidating foundational elements from grime and drill but embellishing them with synths, keyboards, and guitar tones that we’re more used to hearing in yacht rock records than twenty-first-century UK rap. This is one of the year’s strongest grime/rap records both musically and lyrically, and could emerge as a strong favourite to win the whole competition if it makes the shortlist.
Why they could miss the cut: There’s every possibility that Send Them to Coventry won’t meet eligibility criteria for the award as a self-described ‘mixtape’ rather than an ‘album.’ As far as I can tell, however, none of the tracks included have previously been released as part of another record, and the whole thing plays as coherently as any album on this list. So what’s the difference really? Even if Send Them to Coventry is considered, it feels almost inevitable at this point that Ghetts’s excellent Conflict of Interest will make the shortlist. Rap, grime, and drill have also had a strong year, so Pa could find himself competing against the likes of Headie One, Digga D, AJ Tracey, and more for inclusion unless the panel give out an unprecedented number of nominations to these genres.
Odds of being nominated: Strong (if it meets the entry criteria).
Standout tracks: Energy, No Warnin’ (feat. Boy Boy)
For fans of: Headie One, J Hus
8. Róisín Murphy – Róisín Machine (Disco/Dance, Mickey Murphy’s Daughter Limited under exclusive licence to Loaded Records Limited, a BMG Company)
The case for inclusion: Since the breakup of Irish-English duo Moloko in 2004, Róisín Murphy has carved out a highly respected solo career that has already included one Mercury Prize nomination in 2015 (Hairless Toys). 2020’s Róisín Machine is a glorious career highlight, synthesising elements of disco, pop, dance, and electronic to produce an odyssey that will hopefully become her second nomination. Despite drawing so much from the dancefloor, Róisín Machine is not simply a collection of easy, crowd-pleasing wins. It is a sprawling and daring work, by turns gloomy, psychedelic, malevolent, confident, frustrated. But this emotional rollercoaster never loses its irresistable groove, and during moments like singles Murphy’s Law and Narcissus it ascends to dancefloor euphoria. In years as dark as 2020 and 2021, it’s worth celebrating an album that’s musically adventurous, sexy, and, above all, fun.
Why they could miss the cut: The two albums are by no means identical, but I get the feeling that if last year’s selection committee weren’t willing to nominate Jessie Ware’s equally-brilliant modern disco opus What’s Your Pleasure?, then chances are that Róisín Machine will be similarly overlooked. The album also ticks very few of the Mercury-pleasing boxes that we have highlighted above. Still, I reckon its singular artistic vision might be enough to overcome these hurdles.
Odds of being nominated: Fair
Standout tracks: Murphy’s Law, Narcissus
For fans of: Jessie Ware, Goldfrapp, Moloko, Robyn, Sophie Ellis-Bextor
9. Sault – Untitled (Rise) (Neo-Soul, Forever Living Originals)
The case for inclusion: The identity of those behind musical collective Sault remains a sought-after mystery. But over the past year and a month they have made some of the most arresting and evocative music chronicling the pain, fury, and frustration experienced by black people living in twenty-first-century Britain. Untitled (Rise) draws from soul, funk, Motown and more, giving it an immediately classic feel. From the marching band drums and funk groove of opener Strong onwards, the album pulses with a seemingly unstoppable energy. It’s the sound of defiant resistance, one which makes even decades-old influences feel utterly fresh today in 2021. Untitled (Rise) is an absolutely perfect balance between luxurious melodicism and harmony, irresistably danceable rhythm, and virtuous political fire.
Why they could miss the cut: Sault released not one but two excellent albums in 2020. The other record, Untitled (Black Is), was equally popular (if not more so) among reviewers and fans, yet it didn’t manage to make the shortist for last year’s prize. Maybe the Mercury judges prefer Untitled (Rise), like myself, and will right last year’s wrong. On the other hand, if they didn’t think Untitled (Black Is) was worthy of selection last year, will they come to the same conclusion for Untitled (Rise) this year? To make matters even more convoluted, Sault actually surprise-released their third album in just over a year, Nine, on 25th June. It is now also eligible for inclusion in this year’s shortlist and may distract the judges’ attention away from Untitled (Rise).
Odds of being nominated: Strong.
Standout tracks: Strong, Little Boy
For fans of: Moses Sumney, D’Angelo, Arlo Parks
10. Sons of Kemet – Black to the Future (Jazz, Impulse! Records)
The case for inclusion: Sons of Kemet’s follow up to 2018 nominee Your Queen is a Reptile is a searing record of highly melodic jazz that bristles with righteous political fury. In fact, the music conveys its authors’ restless frustration so well that listeners can almost hear the rage as clearly in the instrumental tracks as those with lyrics. Also potentially working in Black to the Future’s favour is the much-commented-on ritual for the Mercury Prize to include one jazz album in the shortlist each year, only for it to never actually win. Not that Black to the Future‘s inclusion would be in any way cheap or unmerited: it’s far stronger than any jazz album that’s been nominated in recent years and it absolutely matches up with the best British albums from any genre in the past year. We know from the 2018 nomination that Sons of Kemet are on the Mercury Prize’s radar. Their formation and residence in London should also stand them in good stead. If the Mercury Prize wants to prove that the yearly jazz entry does have a legitimate chance of winning the competition, Black to the Future is as good an opportunity as they’re ever likely to get.
Why they could miss the cut: Whilst personally I’m in no doubt that Black to the Future is the best British jazz album of the past year by a considerable margin, there were other enjoyable ones released. It’s certainly not inconceivable that the judges go with something like the excellent Freedom Fables by Nubiyan Twist. Should that happen, Sons of Kemet’s chances drop dramatically – rarely have two jazz albums made the same shortlist.
Odds of being nominated: Strong, but perhaps unlikely to win the prize itself.
Standout tracks: Pick Up Your Burning Cross (feat. Moor Mother & Angel Bat Dawid), To Never Forget the Source
For fans of: Shabaka And The Ancestors, The Comet is Coming, Ezra Collective
11. The Staves – Good Woman (Folk/Pop, Atlantic Records UK)
The case for inclusion: On their fourth album Good Woman, Watford’s sister trio The Staves continue to broaden the horizons of their much-loved harmonised folk style and develop their already impressive songwriting, deservedly winning February’s Album of the Month title in the process. Elements from Fleetwood Mac and HAIM’s Californian soft rock, harmony-heavy indie artists like Local Natives, Sharon Van Etten, and Bon Iver, and soaring piano pop are all refracted through the trio’s artistic vision to produce a record that is warm and immensely rewarding. Good Woman also features some of the richest songwriting of any of the albums listed here, too.
Why they could miss the cut: Much like Everything Everything’s RE-ANIMATOR, Good Woman‘s biggest strengths lie in the quality of its songwriting and the beauty of the arrangements found throughout. Again, these are qualities that are often unfairly overlooked by the selection panel for something with a bit more narrative buzz around it.
Odds of being nominated: Slim.
Standout tracks: Best Friend, Failure
For fans of: Laura Marling, First Aid Kit, Local Natives
12. Wolf Alice – Blue Weekend (Indie Rock, Dirty Hit)
The case for inclusion: As 2018 winners and 2015 nominees Wolf Alice have form at making the Mercury Prize shortlist. Blue Weekend, their first release since that improbable win, is something increasingly rare in 2021: a rock album that has the hooks and production values of a big-budget blockbuster whilst also effortlessly incorporating unexpected influences to spice things up (Lana Del Rey and trip-hop, anyone?). More than that, the confidence to allow the brilliance of quieter moments like Safe From Heartbreak, Last Man on Earth, and No Hard Feelings to shine without unnecessary clutter suggests that Wolf Alice know that they are operating at the peak of their powers. They’re well on the way to becoming the UK’s biggest current rock band, and deservedly so.
Why they could miss the cut: Two significant hurdles immediately suggest themselves with Blue Weekend. Firstly, only one act in Mercury Prize history (PJ Harvey) has won the prize more than once, and there was a decade-long gap between those two albums (2001 and 2011). It would be unprecedented for Wolf Alice to win the prize with back-to-back albums in the space of three years. In fact, the last time that an act even made the shortlist with the follow-up to a winner was 2007 (Arctic Monkeys with Favourite Worst Nightmare). That’s practically ancient history as far as music award ceremonies go. Secondly, having been released on June 4th, Blue Weekend has arrived about as late as possible in the eligibility window. Maybe recency bias could work in its favour, but equally it feels like other albums have had more time to seep into the judges’ memories…
Odds of being nominated: Good.
Standout tracks: Delicious Things, Smile
For fans of: PJ Harvey, The 1975, Daughter
So, what did you think? Did any of your favourites make this list? Or do you have any recommendations that you can’t believe weren’t featured? Please feel free to use the comment section below to let me know (or share any other thoughts you might have about this year’s impending Mercury Prize shortlist).
You can also find my list of other ‘Worthy Picks’ and potential contenders here.
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