Albums addressing race, immigration, Brexit and class division populate the shortlist for the 2019 Mercury Prize.
Among the front-runners is Idles’ Joy As An Act Of Resistance, a pro-immigration punk record that champions vulnerability and community.
Punk energy also underpins slowthai’s debut, Nothing Great About Britain; and London rapper Dave tackles the tough social conditions that confront black working class youths on Psychodrama.
The winner is announced in September.
More than 200 albums were submitted for consideration, with judges including former nominees Stormzy, Gaz Coombes and Jorja Smith, DJs Annie Mac and Clara Amfo and other figures from the music industry.
They’ve championed several guitar bands on a strong, urgent shortlist – from Dublin punk newcomers Fontaines DC to festival headliners Foals; while British rap is represented by Little Simz, Dave and BBC Sound of 2019 runner-up slowthai.
Meanwhile singer-songwriter Anna Calvi, whose album Hunter interrogates the constrictions of gender stereotypes, has now been shortlisted for each of her first three albums, equalling a record set by Coldplay.
And The 1975 could become the first band since Arctic Monkeys in 2007 to win the Mercury Prize and be named best album at the Brit Awards.
However, there was nothing in the nominations for Lewis Capaldi’s Divinely Uninspired To A Hellish Extent, the best-selling British album of 2019; while captivating, adventurous records by Nilüfer Yanya, AJ Tracey, James Blake and Lucy Rose were also overlooked.
Read about all 12 of this year’s nominees below.
The 1975 – A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships
Smart phones, information overload, confirmation bias and attention deficit… The 1975’s third album wrings humour and pathos out of our content-saturated world.
Frontman Matty Healy wrote the album in a flurry of creativity after kicking heroin, and the whirlwind of musical styles can be dizzying – but his compassion and humanity ultimately shine through.
The critics say: “A tone of urgent honesty pulses through the album, a visceral need to connect that shatters the production’s glittering surfaces.” [The Telegraph]
Mercury Prize judges say: “Thrilling and thoughtful, eccentric and electric.”
Listen to this: Love It If We Made It [explicit language]
Anna Calvi – Hunter
Anna Calvi described Hunter as her “queer, feminist” album – a bolder, freer record than her first two albums (both of which were also nominated for the Mercury Prize).
Written as a reaction against the way women are “depicted as being hunted by men”, it sees her rejecting gender conventions (As A Man) and pursuing “pleasure in all possible ways, free from shame” (Hunter).
A gutsy, predatory album that highlights Calvi’s prowess as a guitar player, it’s her most accomplished work to date.
The critics say: “A soaring, feverish conflagration of sense and sensuality.” [Mojo magazine]
Mercury Prize judges say: “A wildly adventurous musical exploration of sexual identities and desires.”
Listen to this: As A Man
Black Midi – Schlagenheim
The debut album by experimental rock band Black Midi has a made-up word for a title. “It’s absolutely meaningless,” bassist Cameron Picton told All Things Loud.
“It carries the vessel of those songs, which is why we think it’s such a strong title. The only meaning that it could have in the world is being the album title, grouping those songs together.”
The songs are equally difficult to define – being slippery, unpredictable indie-jazz-math-rock concoctions that will either intrigue or repel you.
The critics say: “There’s so much going on here that nothing ever gets bogged down enough to feel indulgent.” [Rolling Stone]
Mercury Prize judges say: “Black Midi are so wilfully resistant to following any obvious musical path that it is impossible not to enjoy the ride”.
Listen to this: Ducter
Cate Le Bon – Reward
Cate Le Bon spent a year “sequestered in the Cumbrian mountainside” while recording her fifth album, living in a rented cottage where she built her own furniture and played piano late into the night.
“I felt like I may have lost my mind a little at times,” she said – and while Reward has moments of quiet contemplation, there’s an undertow of loss and pain that suggests solitude gave her permission to wallow in her feelings.
But Le Bon’s restless musicality, all honking saxophones and rubber-band basslines, constantly hints at the allure of returning to the real world.
The critics say: “Spacious and remarkably constructed, with hidden compartments built for secret sounds that seem to unlock with repeated listenings.” [Allmusic]
Mercury Prize judges say: “Elegant, urgent and shimmeringly romantic.”
Listen to this: Home To You
Dave – Psychodrama
Framed as excerpts from a year-long course of therapy, Dave’s debut album grapples with grief, pain, racial identity, domestic abuse and depression (“I think I’m going mad again,” he raps on Psycho, “It’s like I’m happy for a second, then I’m sad again“.)
The music is as thoughtful and introspective as the 21-year-old’s lyrics, dusted with melancholy piano chords and textured beats that set it apart from the grime scene he rose up through.
“It’s meant to be innovative, risky, divisive in how it’s heard,” he recently told the Standard, describing the record as a “time capsule” people can open in “10 years and think: ‘This is what it was like to be black in south London in 2019′”.
The critics say: “The boldest and best British rap album in a generation.” [The Guardian]
Mercury Prize judges say: “A powerful and astutely crafted memoir of Dave’s life and our times.”
Listen to this: Black [Explicit language]
Foals – Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost
“The ultimate Foals album,” declared one critic upon hearing Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost – the first of two albums due from Foals this year.
Recorded after the departure of founding member and bass player Walter Gervers, the record fuses the band’s early, inscrutable math-rock with the pulverising riffs of 2015’s What Went Down and the hyperspace rhythms of Holy Fire, while adding a few new flavours for good measure.
The title comes from a video game screen warning players to save their progress, which frontman Yannis Philippakis applies here to the combined effects of political and environmental chaos.
The critics say: “This is Foals at their best, and we’re only seeing half of the picture.” [Drowned In Sound]
Mercury Prize judges say: “A musical soundtrack to the drama of climate change.”
Listen to this: Exits
Fontaines DC – Dogrel
A year ago, Fontaines DC were playing in pubs – but the break-neck buzz of singles like Liberty Belle and Hurricane Laughter quickly saw them outgrow those stages.
Both are present on the Dublin band’s debut album, a scrappy riff on their record collection (The Stooges, The Strokes, Joy Division) fused with the caustic romanticism of Shane MacGowan.
“We looked around at Dublin, saw what was happening on the streets, opened our ears, and turned it into some music,” said bassist Conor Deegan.
The critics say: “A fiery album which grabs you by the scruff of your neck from the start.” [The 405]
Mercury Prize judges say: “Smartly written, impatiently driven. Irresistible reflections on urban change and loss.”
Listen to this: Boys In The Better Land
Idles – Joy As An Act Of Resistance
Anti-Brexit, pro-immigration and determined to topple toxic masculinity, Idles’ second album pulls off the tricky feat of being compassionate and angry at the same time.
Over thundering riffs and bovver-boy drum beats, singer Joe Talbot tears into Britain’s societal ills, while never losing his sense of humour. “You look like a walking thyroid,” he cajoles an assailant on Never Fight a Man With a Perm. “You’re not a man you’re a gland.”
The critics say: “This is the jarring sound of sensitivity in a new age of chaos.” [The Line Of Best Fit]
Mercury Prize judges say: “Everything the title promises. A bruising, uplifting guitar-charged defiance of austerity and hatred.”
Listen to this: Danny Nedelko
Little Simz – Grey Area
“I’m Jay-Z on a bad day, Shakespeare on my worst days,” raps Little Simz on Offence, the strutting funk workout that opens her third album.
It’s tongue-in-cheek, but there’s a sliver of truth: 25-year-old Simbi Ajikawo has emerged as one of the UK’s most agile wordsmiths and she reaches new heights here by confronting the demons that lurk below that self-belief.
Unusually for a British rap record, it’s recorded with a live band, taking in everything from jazz and soul to punk and chiptune.
The critics say: “A wickedly assured, highly entertaining, coming-of-age marvel.” [Pitchfork]
Mercury Prize judges say: “Rap as self-reflection, vulnerability as power. Poignant and implacable.”
Listen to this: Offence [Explicit language]
Nao – Saturn
In astrology, Saturn’s Return is the theory that you undergo life-changing events every 29 years, when Saturn returns to the same position it occupied when you were born.
For London singer-songwriter Nao, those changes involved a “complete shedding of skin” as she endured a painful break-up and questioned her career choices.
Thankfully, she chose to stick with music – escaping sorrow’s gravitational pull with an other-worldly album of neo-soul.
The critics say: “Saturn’s sonic palette and millennial anxieties are both strikingly modern, a testament to Nao’s perceptiveness as a songwriter.” [Loud and Quiet]
Mercury Prize judges say: “Beautifully crafted songs and buoyant vocals. An impeccable soul album.”
Listen to this: Make It Out Alive
Seed Ensemble – Driftglass
Formed in 2016, Seed Ensemble is a 10-piece project led by saxophonist Cassie Kinoshi, who mix old and new beats with spiritual, Afro-centric jazz.
But it’s a London album through and through. On the rootsy Afronaut, poetess Xana evokes London tower blocks and “growing up on Desmonds”; while WAKE is an acid-tongued tribute to the 72 victims of the Grenfell fire, opening with the lyrics: “Tell all my mourners to mourn in red, ’cause there ain’t no sense in my bein’ dead“.
The critics say: “A powerfully coherent document of an important strand of UK contemporary jazz that’s also a lot of fun to listen to.” [Jazz Views]
Mercury Prize judges say: “Rousing and inspiring.”
Listen to this:Afronaut
slowthai – Nothing Great About Britain
Nothing Great About Britain may not be an easy listen, but it is a compelling one – giving a voice to disillusioned provincial Britain, while firing shots at the monarchy, the police and the far right.
It’s all the work of 24-year-old Tyron Frampton (slowthai was a school nickname), whose music is rooted in the sounds of grime and the attitude of punk.
But while the title track and the Skepta-featuring Inglorious paint a bleak picture of modern Britain, Frampton retains a reassuring faith in the communal power of music.
“I feel like as long as I bring people together, and we all have a love for life and a love for ourselves, I feel like that’s what it’s all about,” he recently told Billboard.
The critics say: “A measured yet viciously ribald meditation on the contradictions at the heart of Britishness in 2019.” [The Quietus]
Mercury Prize judges say: “Absorbing, vivid stories of lives lived at the cultural margins, told with tenderness, rage and humour.”
Listen to this: Inglorious [Explicit language]