Mercury Music Prize 2021

The nominees for this years Mercury Music Prize have been announced – here’s my thoughts on each album and who I think will walk away with the prize – and who I think actually deserves it!!

Arlo Parks – Collapsed In Sunbeams (2021)

Really assured and composed debut album from this singer songwriter, following up a tremendous run of singles in 2020. The album has a chilled out, relaxed vibe musically, with crisp live bass and drums, while lyrically it tackles real problems and situations that are universal to all and offers hope and advice to anyone experiencing any of the topics being discussed. There’s not a bad track on here, the best song being ‘Hurt’, which made the top half of my top 100 tracks of 2020 list. The only criticism is that it is a bit one dimensional in terms of pace but that’s a very minor slight on an otherwise very strong debut. This has a great shot at picking up the prize this year.

  • 1. Collapsed In Sunbeams – Intro
  • 2. Hurt – 9/10
  • 3. Too Good – 7.5/10
  • 4. Hope – 8/10
  • 5. Caroline – 8/10
  • 6. Black Dog – 8/10
  • 7. Green Eyes – 7.5/10
  • 8. Just Go – 7/10
  • 9. For Violet – 8/10
  • 10. Eugene – 8/10
  • 11. Bluish – 7.5/10
  • 12. Portra 400 – 7.5/10
  • Overall – 8/10

BERWYN – DEMOTAPE/VEGA (2020)

This is an interesting listen as it’s very much the early sketches of an artist that is only just beginning to take his first steps but it feels far more realised and accomplished than anything containing the word ‘demo’ has any right to. The sound is an amalgamation of hip hop, soul and blended with singer songwriter elements that give the songs a wounded sadness, whilst retaining the realness of rap, without the bragging and the one upmanship. This is someone sharing his experiences, what’s shaped him and giving you a taster of where he’s going next and what he wants to become. He began his career with two amazing singles, ‘Glory’ and ‘Trap Phone’, the two strongest songs on this album, especially the latter which is a thing of beauty and really hits you emotionally. The record does dip slightly in it’s second half but is a really strong listen overall and at 28 minutes, never outstays it’s welcome. I’m not sure it’s got a chance of winning but once his debut album proper drops we could be looking at next years champ.

  • 1. Mourning Preyers – Intro
  • 2. Ashtray – 8/10
  • 3. Skit01 (Of Gods And Men) – Interlude
  • 4. Trap Phone – 9/10
  • 5. Glory – 8.5/10
  • 6. Missing U – 8/10
  • 7. Heartache & Chest Pains – 7/10
  • 8. Crushed Velvet – 7.5/10
  • 9. 017 Freestyle – 7.5/10
  • 10. Farewell – 7.5/10
  • Overall – 8/10

Black Country, New Road – For The First Time (2021)

Towering post rock from this Cambridge seven piece. This is their debut album and for a band so young into their career they sound totally in control of their sound and direction. They have been compared to Slint, which is fair but they add their own flavours with use of violin and saxophone sitting beautifully on top of the often distorted, discordant guitars. There are instrumental passages, sung/spoken vocals, krautrock esque keyboards, instruments competing in a battle of who can squawk the noisiest and riffs, all adding up to an enthralling and engaging listen. Best listened to as a whole, this doesn’t strike me as having much chance of winning but is definitely one of my personal favourites from the list of twelve nominees.

  • 1. Instrumental – 8/10
  • 2. Athens, France – 8/10
  • 3. Science Fair – 8/10
  • 4. Sunglasses – 8/10
  • 5. Track X – 8/10
  • 6. Opus – 8.5/10
  • Overall – 8/10

Celeste – Not Your Muse (2021)

Sophisticated and classy debut album from this American born, Brighton based chanteuse. You can hear the influence of Adele and Amy Winehouse but also singers like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, giving her voice a smoky, almost old fashioned feel, completely controlled and powerful but never show-offy or over the top, fitting her sound perfectly. The record has some strong high points in it’s first half, ‘Stop This Flame’ being the most uptempo track on the album, giving a great feeling of 90s soul/dance and ‘Strange’ being the absolute highlight, two years on from it’s release it’s still a thing of beguiling, shimmering beauty that raises goosebumps. The second half of the album does get bogged down in slower, less direct material and does make the runtime feel like it starts to drag, nothing is bad but neither is it very memorable. An overall solid debut, even though it’s not personally one that I think should win I am sure it will be a lot of people’s tip to take the top spot.

  • 1. Ideal Woman – 7/10
  • 2. Strange – 9/10
  • 3. Tonight Tonight – 8/10
  • 4. Stop This Flame – 8.5/10
  • 5. Tell Me Something I Don’t Know – 8/10
  • 6. Not Your Muse – 7/10
  • 7. Beloved – 6.5/10
  • 8. Love Is Back – 8/10
  • 9. A Kiss – 6.5/10
  • 10. The Promise – 6.5/10
  • 11. A Little Love – 6.5/10
  • 12. Some Goodbyes Come With Hellos – 7/10
  • Overall – 7/10

Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra – Promises (2021)

Now this was a pleasant surprise!! I wasn’t sure what to expect from this record as I’d heard a few pieces by Floating Points before, which I liked, but knew this would have more of a jazz edge to it, which truth be told I have only begun to dip my little toe into. It’s actually a thing of beauty!! Split into nine movements, it’s essentially one 48 minute piece that starts delicately and peacefully and adds layers of orchestration, keyboards, synths and Pharoah Sanders superb sax playing and builds to an amazing release come albums end that just washes over you and fills you with joy. Put on a pair of headphones, close your eyes and just let the sounds and melodies float around your brain. It won’t be to everyone’s taste and I can’t see it scooping the top prize but it’s certainly an album I will be returning to time and again. I won’t rate the tracks individually as it’s not that kind of record, so –

  • Overall – 8.5/10

Ghetts – Conflict Of Interest (2021)

Brilliant third album from this UK hip hop veteran. It’s a record very much centered around the lyricism, which is a great move from Ghetts as that’s the area where he excels. Tracks like ‘Fine Wine’ and ‘Autobiography’ really give him a chance to tell his story, in particular the latter, which unwinds over nearly seven minutes and is the album’s highlight. There’s no bangers as such on this album but everything is excellently produced and fits the vibe of the record perfectly. Like so many hip hop albums it’s at least 20 minutes too long but the quality is so high that it’s hard to see where the running time could be cut down. I’m not convinced that this will be the winner on the night but I wouldn’t be adverse to this superb record walking away with the top prize.

  • 1. Fine Wine – 9/10
  • 2. Mozambique – 8.5/10
  • 3. Fire And Brimstone – 8/10
  • 4. Hop Out – 8/10
  • 5. IC3 – 7.5/10
  • 6. Autobiography – 9/10
  • 7. Good Hearts – 7.5/10
  • 8. Dead To Me – 7/10
  • 9. 10,000 Tears – 8.5/10
  • 10. Sonya – 6/10
  • 11. Proud Family – 7.5/10
  • 12. Skengman – 7/10
  • 13. No Mercy – 8/10
  • 14. Crud – 8/10
  • 15. Squeeze – 6/10
  • 16. Little Bo Peep – 8/10
  • Overall – 8/10

Hannah Peel – Fir Wave (2021)

Soothing, atmospheric electronica from this Northern Irish former folk artist. Now well versed in electronic music and providing tv and film soundtracks, as well as acting as a string arranger for other artists, she combines all those elements on this album to great effect. Best listened to through a pair of decent headphones late at night, the relaxed vibe and slow pace keep things chilled with the speed only picking up on the second track (‘Emergence In Nature’), the record’s highlight. Much like the Floating Points album this won’t be to everyone’s taste and I can’t see it winning but if the panel are in the mood to go a bit left field in their choice then you never know.

  • 1. Wind Shadow – 7/10
  • 2. Emergence In Nature – 8/10
  • 3. Patterned Formation – 7/10
  • 4. Carbon Cycle – 7/10
  • 5. Ecovocative – 7/10
  • 6. Fir Wave – 7/10
  • 7. Reaction Diffusion – 7/10
  • Overall – 7/10

Laura Mvula – Pink Noise (2021)

This album took a few listens to really resonate with me but the more it sank in, the more the quality began to shine. It has an 80s feel and sheen to the writing and production, especially on the best track on the album, ‘Got Me’, which is straight up Bad (1987) era Michael Jackson. It’s not quite as strong as other artists (Dua Lipa, Jessie Ware) who have embraced the 80s sound on their most recent releases, perhaps lacking in standout tracks like others possess, however, it works as an album and does make you want to revisit it after every listen. I think this could be a strong contender to win the prize but as good as it is it wouldn’t get my vote.

  • 1. Safe Passage – 7.5/10
  • 2. Conditional – 7.5/10
  • 3. Church Girl – 7.5/10
  • 4. Remedy – 7/10
  • 5. Magical – 7.5/10
  • 6. Pink Noise – 7.5/10
  • 7. Golden Ashes – 7.5/10
  • 8. What Matters – 7.5/10
  • 9. Got Me – 8.5/10
  • 10. Before The Dawn – 8/10
  • Overall – 7.5/10

Mogwai – As The Love Continues (2021)

The consistently great Mogwai have really brought together all the elements that have made them one of the top names in post rock for the past 25 years on this, their 10th studio album. It’s a glorious piece of work, containing the quiet/loud dynamics of their earlier material but layered with electronics and strings and with controlled builds that really make the often euphoric bursts of noise that end several of the tracks even more powerful. Only one track contains vocals this time around, that song being ‘Ritchie Sacramento’, the album’s high point. It’s a beautiful record, washed over with a sadness but never maudlin and is the closest they’ve ever got to 90s shoegaze. It didn’t grip me as a single but as part of a whole it’s utterly brilliant. This is definitely one of the best albums on the nominations list and I would be really happy if this got the nod but I don’t believe it will unfortunately.

  • 1. To The Bin My Friend, Tonight We Vacate Earth – 8.5/10
  • 2. Here We, Here We, Here We Go Forever – 8/10
  • 3. Dry Fantasy – 8/10
  • 4. Ritchie Sacramento – 9/10
  • 5. Drive The Nail – 7.5/10
  • 6. Fuck Off Money – 8/10
  • 7. Ceiling Granny – 7.5/10
  • 8. Midnight Fit – 8.5/10
  • 9. Pat Stains – 8/10
  • 10. Supposedly, We Were Nightmares – 8/10
  • 11. It’s What I Want To Do, Mum – 8/10
  • Overall – 8.5/10

Nubya Garcia – SOURCE (2020)

I am certainly not what you could describe as a jazz aficionado, it’s a genre that I have merely scratched the surface of (Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Kamasi Washington) but this is undoubtedly the jazz record that I have enjoyed the most so far. What sets this apart for me is the elements of dub, reggae and ska that can be heard throughout, in particular on the awesome title track. Nubya delivers some wonderful sax lines and solos over the top of these grooves and is backed by a trio of musicians who are incredible. The rhythm section is absolutely on point and I found myself focusing in on their work and being in awe of the sounds they are producing. Quite often it seems that the Mercury Prize nominations have a token jazz album included which has very little chance of winning but this is so good that although it still might be slim, this record has a decent chance.

  • 1. Pace – 8/10
  • 2. The Message Continues – 8.5/10
  • 3. Source – 8.5/10
  • 4. Together Is A Beautiful Place To Be – 7.5/10
  • 5. Stand With Each Other – 7.5/10
  • 6. Inner Game – 7.5/10
  • 7. La Cumbia Me Esta Llamando – 8/10
  • 8. Before Us: In Demerara & Caura – 8/10
  • 9. Boundless Beginnings – 7/10
  • Overall – 8/10

Sault – Untitled (Rise) (2020)

Containing elements of soul, funk, even disco, this is a cool sounding record laced with snippets of dialogue and beautiful string arrangements throughout. The record starts upbeat and full of instrumentation, including the sound of a marching band, before the second half slips into a more introspective mood. I found this to be an album that works best when listened to on headphones as then you can really soak in the lush sound of the bass and crisp drums. At 55 minutes, it is perhaps a touch too long and not varied enough to totally grasp your full attention but it is a solid piece of work, just one which I admired more than truly loved. In a pretty strong field of nominees, I’m not sure this has the strongest chance of collecting top honours.

  • 1. Strong – 8/10
  • 2. Fearless – 7.5/10
  • 3. Rise – Interlude
  • 4. I Just Want To Dance – 8/10
  • 5. Street Fighter – 7/10
  • 6. Son Shine – 7/10
  • 7. Rise Intently – Interlude
  • 8. The Beginning & The End – 7/10
  • 9. Free – 8.5/10
  • 10. You Know It Ain’t – 7/10
  • 11. Uncomfortable – 7.5/10
  • 12. No Black Violins In London – Interlude
  • 13. Scary Times – 7/10
  • 14. The Black & Gold – 7/10
  • 15. Little Boy – 7.5/10
  • Overall – 7/10

Wolf Alice – Blue Weekend (2021)

Now this is a great record!! Already a fan of their first two albums, I think this gives both of them a real run for their money as their best yet. There’s not a bad track on here and plenty of variety throughout, with lots of sumptuous vocal harmonies, skyscraping guitars and banks of synths and keyboards, all encased in production work that amplifies both the loud and quiet dynamics. From opener ‘The Beach’ to closing track ‘The Beach II’, everything on this record feels like it has an epic sheen to it with ‘The Last Man On Earth’ sounding almost Pink Floyd-like in it’s scope and spacious beauty. This and the Mogwai album would be my personal favourites to win but in reality, being recipients of the award in 2018, I can’t see Wolf Alice becoming two time winners, which is a real shame.

  • 1. The Beach – 8/10
  • 2. Delicious Things – 8/10
  • 3. Lipstick On The Glass – 8/10
  • 4. Smile – 8/10
  • 5. Safe From Heartbreak (If You Never Fall In Love) – 7.5/10
  • 6. How Can I Make It Ok? – 9/10
  • 7. Play The Greatest Hits – 8/10
  • 8. Feeling Myself – 8.5/10
  • 9. The Last Man On Earth – 8.5/10
  • 10. No Hard Feelings – 8/10
  • 11. The Beach II – 8.5/10
  • Overall – 8.5/10

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