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Mercury Prize 2020: The Editors' Picks

Who should get the gong, who will actually get it, and who was snubbed? The music editors give you their takes.

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Image Credit: Mercury Prize

Sam Campbell

**The album I want to win: Moses Boyd -**Dark Matter
While the Mercury Prize is criticised (often quite rightly) for being too narrow, or too safe in the scope of its shortlists, it is still the case that the prize is usually a good gauge of the best popular music. Looking back at previous recipients, the selection of nominees as well as the winners are usually pretty on the money. In 1995, for example, the award proved its capability of finding a balance between quality, alternative music and the mainstream when it awarded Portishead’s Dummy ahead of Oasis’ Definitely Maybe.

More recently there have been cases where the award has failed to keep its finger on the pulse, clinging onto the early noughties guitar boom a little too desperately by choosing to decorate Wolf Alice over Jorja Smith, King Krule and Novelist in 2018—and let’s not talk about The 1975 getting a nomination last year. This year seems to demonstrate some movement in the right direction. The album I was most pleasantly surprised to see on the list, with it having been one of my favourite albums of the year anyway, is Moses Boyd’s Dark Matter.

This album should win because it represents the most cutting edge and interesting section of UK music at the minute: the burgeoning jazz fusion scene. Alongside other artists such as Ezra Collective, KOKOROKO and Oscar Jerome, Moses Boyd is making music which is inventive, innovative and reflective of modern life in Britain. Boyd winning the prize would be as important as Dizzee Rascal winning in 2003, Dave in 2019, or Skepta in 2016. Dark Matter is as gritty as a grime album, as virtuosic as any jazz record you’re likely to hear and as immediate as a good pop album. These are the reasons it deserves to win above the other nominations.

The album I think will win: Laura Marling - Song For Our Daughter
Laura Marling is probably one of the best British pop songwriters of the twenty-first century, and this isn’t the first time she has been nominated for a Mercury Prize. But I think that this is likely to be her year because of the timing of this album. Not to say that this isn’t an impressive piece of work in itself, because it is a good album. However I think that in 2020, things have fallen strangely into place for Marling.

Song For Our Daughter was released in April of this year, during the height of the pandemic and the lockdown in the UK. Having initially been given an August release date, Marling announced the album’s release on Instagram, almost on a whim. A single came the same night and the album was released digitally five days later.

This spontaneity brought about by hard times is characteristic of how most people have felt this year, and I think this will work to Marling’s benefit when it comes to the judges’ selection. Her single ‘Strange Girl’ has barely left the airwaves of 6 Music during lockdown, and its refrain, ‘Stay low, keep brave’, could be a mantra for the pandemic era.

The album I wish was on the list: Floating Points - Crush
I wrote about this album in Nouse earlier this year, and it is still probably my favourite album of the year as well as being easily one of the most forward thinking electronic records of recent years. Floating Points (Sam Shepherd) is a craftsman, who has created a piece of art which combines extensive knowledge of music technology with a sharp sense of artistry and an ear for what will make people dance.

Crush exemplifies and coalesces his expertise as a DJ and a composer, with tracks that are texturally rich—sometimes ambient and sometimes straight up bops. It is a record that can be appreciated by ravers, geeks and casual listeners alike. Given that a dance album hasn’t won the Mercury Prize since Roni Size in the 90s, it seems overdue for an artist like Floating Points to receive some props for his contribution to British music culture.

Fenella Johnson

**The album I want to win: Charli XCX - *how i’m feeling now ***I’m a big Charli fan, but I can understand the reservations around her music. Her song writing is usually catchy and simple rather than subtle, often relying on cornier wider sentiments over personal, specific ones. Charli, having blown her voice to bits through ten years of constant touring and partying, over-relies on autotune. Her last album was bloated by too many features. For every futuristic, innovative mixtape such as Pop 2 she releases, there’s a tired Rita Ora fixture or a chart-aping single.

However, all of these quirks work in her favour on how i’m feeling now. Her songwriting gives voice to the conflicting emotions of the last couple months in simplistic, moving ways. It’s slogan pop for apocalyptic times. She even sells the more cornier moments : the ‘together’ / ‘forever’ rhyme of forever is groan-worthy, but also poignant when cast in the light of longing to see your family and friends again. Autotune is mostly abandoned, and Charli’s vocals are rough and emotive. And at a taut forty minutes, it doesn’t outstay its welcome.

The album captures a want for normality in a time of uncomfortable strangeness, a want to touch, a want for - as the chorus of the bratty anthems details in a long  shriek of desire  - ‘my friends / late nights’. The production is futuristic, rough, often alienating - pop music turned up to one hundred, a natural escalation of the PC music sound that Charli has been reinventing since Vroom Vroom. And the production gives the album a feverish, claustrophobic feeling that fits the lyrical material inspired by Charli’s life in lockdown.

how i’m feeling now is a clever and effervescent pop album filled with joyous love songs and wistful club bangers. I don’t think it will win, and it’s not like Charli needs the win, but it should win.

**The album I think will win: Laura Marling - *Song for Our Daughter * **
This is a straightforward, mostly safe shortlist that will likely result in a straightforward, safe winner. Step forward, Laura Marling. Song for Our Daughter doesn’t reinvent the wheel. It doesn’t even really step outside Marling’s own wheelhouse, and there’s no outrider or break-out hit to be seen.

Instead, Song for Our Daughter is the accumulation of more than a decade’s work, a realisation of a steady unfaltering vision. It’s a record of economy and directness, the sound of an assured artist creating direct, elegant songs. What Marling has created is a sparse, neat folk record gleaming with moments of clear, uncomplicated beauty. And there’s loads to enjoy : the wisdom of the title song, the clear acceptance of the break-up ballads, the soaring sadness of her voice. There’s nothing inoffensive, nothing too divisive. It’s just a good album that will probably win an award.

**The album I wish was on the list: Jessie Ware - *What’s Your Pleasure ***
A couple of huge albums were missed out from this year’s shortlist, most notably the glaring omission of FKA Twigs and J Hus. But, for me, Jessie Ware’s What’s Your Pleasure is the obvious snub. It’s a rare thing - a disco-inspired album that manages to feel cool. It also sounds so joyous, the sound of an artist having so much fun and flexing their creative muscles. Ware’s voice is fantastic, alternating between cooing love songs and purring dancefloor fillers. It’s inventive, sultry, and interesting, and really unexpected.

Kristina Wemyss

**The album I want to win: Georgia - *Seeking Thrills ***
This album perfectly embodies its title- it conjures up ideas of sweaty dancefloors, vibrant lights and youthful exuberance. In her own words, Seeking Thrills is “ultrasound light, consumed by night”. This album could easily have been another club-pop throwaway, but its sincerity and complex instrumentation allows it to stand apart from the rest. It feels like bedroom pop on steroids- growing up, Georgia did do the majority of her recording in her bedroom. The mish-mash chaos of keyboards, synths and drum machines seems to hark back to these times and gives the album a sense of youthful optimism. The carefree sound of Seeking Thrills doesn’t come from a place of teenage raves though, instead the album sights Georgia’s newfound sobriety and clear head.

With her second album, Georgia has become far more experimental, choosing not to follow any set mould. Aside from the obvious techno influences, she borrows an unlikely combination of instruments and sounds; for example, she uses shimmering Gamelan style motifs in ‘Ray Gun’, and a variety of samples in a way that makes her comparable to artists like Kate Bush. Georgia’s background as a professional drummer shines through in *Seeking Thrills *- it is underpinned by a perpetual sense of motion. The relentless rhythms that rush through her songs evoke ideas of urgency and euphoria, which makes the album the perfect soundtrack to 2020. As all of our worlds have been turned upside down, Seeking Thrills allows us to find some escapism during these unusual times.

**The album I think will win: Stormzy - *Heavy Is The Head ***
Stormzy’s second album is definitely a strong candidate for the award in my opinion. Heavy Is The Head is the perfect follow-up to his debut and it showcases the skills of an artist who is now more assured in himself. Despite his dizzying rise to international fame, he has managed to keep his South London voice- an important aspect of the music and persona which has captivated his many fans. This album demonstrates his familiar tactics of wittiness and hyper-confidence with more force than ever before, particularly in ‘Vossi Bop’ and ‘Wiley Flow’, tracks which have helped him to stay atop his throne on the grime scene. However, the album is also punctuated with more reflective songs like ‘Lessons’ and ‘Crown’ which are more concerned with his own conscience.

The album I wish was on the list: Sam Fender - Hypersonic Missiles
Sam Fender, the working class hero, has not only risen to fame for his cheeky persona and catchy tunes, but because he has brought a plethora of current issues to the forefront of musical conversation. His debut album, Hypersonic Missiles is unapologetically political; immediately, he launches into the title track which reflects on the suffering of children in war-torn regions like Gaza. Later, he goes on to draw attention to the tragic issue of male suicide and how “nobody ever could explain all the dead boys in [his] home town”. ‘Dead Boys’ was born out of Fender’s own experiences with losing friends to suicide. Aside from his lyrics, the music which he sets them to gives hope for the future of British rock. It might not be groundbreaking, but his guitar-dominated music is refreshingly unpretentious. With catchy riffs, thundering drums, the occasional jazzy saxophone solo and Fender’s powerful vocals, he creates music to dance to, despite the heavy topics which his lyrics are concerned with. It’s this contrast that I think he deserves to receive more attention for.

Alex Thompson

The album I want To win - Kano Hoodies All Summer
It might not be the most complex, challenging or unique album on this list but there’s something about Kano’s Hoodies All Summer that I can’t help but love. The instrumentals and production are so crisp yet so dark and brooding, the vocals so punchy and potent yet restrained. It’s a brilliantly written and powerfully performed grime album that packs a punch with its brutal and uncompromising vignettes of a divided London. Knife crime, drugs and gangs take centre stage but, rather than being glorified, are brilliantly dissected and turned on their head. Narratives are inverted and stereotypes dismantled across this absolute triumph of a hip hop album. There’s a warmth to the whole thing that comes with the emotive side Kano brings, personality and character being the defining feature of this album as he delivers some of his most emotionally potent, and often optimistic, lyrics to date. A strong selection of features act as the supporting cast to Kano’s strong presence, which acts as a through line across the album - the voice of a rapper who’s grown up and casts a mature perspective on the scene he grew up in, a clever and well written dissection of grime and black british culture through the prism of maturity.

The album I think will win: Stormzy - Heavy Is The Head**
After one of the most memorable Glastonbury performances to date and a string of punchy, politically conscious singles, Heavy Is The Head is an album that feels perfectly crafted for the current climate. It’s poppy enough to get radio-play, yet still true to Stormzy’s roots, feeling like a natural extension of his 2016 project Gang Signs And Prayer with its dark and brooding portraits of black Britain. Singles like ‘Crown’ and ‘Vossi Bop’ captured the public consciousness, with their heady blend of potent politics and well written verses, culminating in some of the best British hip hop of the past decade. Don’t be deceived by the huge choruses and slick production, Heavy Is The Head is an album with a true social conscience. Issues such as race, class, the Tory government and poverty all find themselves woven into tracks and Stormzy manages to bring a fresh and distinct take on each. With the current focus on these issues, as well as the enormous pop appeal, Stormzy feels like a safe bet to take home this year’s prize.

Fuck the government and fuck Boris.

The album I wish was on the list: Jme - Grime MC
Grime MC does exactly what it says on the tin. It’s vibrant, bright and fizzing with energy, beats that sound timeless and bars that never fail to make me laugh. Again, it’s not exactly high brow but I don’t care - it’s just a lot of fun. Jme once again proves himself as one of grime’s greatest lyricists and beatmakers, ducking and weaving around booming kicks and cascading synths while providing punchlines upon punchlines, assisted by a squadron of some of the genre’s biggest names, who provide some brilliant features. On previous projects, Jme proved he had what it takes to stand among grime heavyweights, with this album it feels like he’s truly earned his place as one of the greats. Grime MC is an ode to the OGs of the genre without feeling dated, an album that is always moving forwards while managing to revel in, and celebrate, pure grime nostalgia.

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