Mercury Prize 2015
Probably the UK’s most coveted musical accolade, the Mercury Prize honours the best British album of the previous twelve months. This year’s winner was Benjamin Clementine, with his debut album, At Least For Now. Delve into the rest of the shortlist below.
Fans of Antony Hegarty and Nina Simone take note: we might well have found your new favourite artist. Born and raised in London, Benjamin Clementine left England for the streets of Paris at the age of 16, making ends meet by busking and playing piano, all the while sleeping rough. This hauntingly-beautiful debut set offers an unflinching look at the 26-year-old’s troubled adolescence and strictly religious upbringing, and yet simultaneously offers a strong message of hope. Head for the Cinematic Orchestra-esque beauty of ‘Cornerstone’ first, and prepare to fall hard.
Writ in the skies, buried in the deep web, the announcement of Richard D James’ return was more than clever marketing: it served as a metaphor for the career of an artist who has consistently reached further – and whose influence on contemporary music runs deeper – than any other electronic musician. Arriving over a decade on from Drukqs, Syro suggests James is still happiest operating without boundaries, offering up skewed, arrhythmic takes on techno, jungle and funk in the same breath as an ‘Avril 14th’-esque piano piece. Predictably, it makes for a thrillingly unpredictable listen.
In our 2014 interview at SXSW, Wolf Alice revealed that their biggest fear was getting “trapped in a tundra of hype.” While that buzz has only intensified over the past 15 months, their long-awaited debut reveals zero signs of struggle. Rather than succumbing to the grunge-rock pigeonholing certain corners of the music press have insisted upon, the North London quartet continue to show their flexibility, ricocheting between twinkling lullabies (‘Soapy Water’) and punk thrashes (‘You’re A Germ’), euphoric indie-pop (‘Bros’) and swaggering rock (‘Giant Peach’). For every fuzzy riff you’ll find a hugely melodic hook, and driving it all is Ellie Rowsell’s versatile voice, variously angelic and Valkyrie-like in its ferocity. Tundra or no tundra, it’s probably time to believe the hype.
From 1995’s Do You Like My Tight Sweater? right up to 2007’s Overpowered, Róisín Murphy has always displayed a unique talent for pairing leftfield ideas with huge pop hooks. Happily, the recent eight-year hiatus seems to have done little to sate the singer-songwriter’s interest in the avant-garde. Arguably Murphy’s most adventurous outing yet, this third LP finds the former Moloko frontwoman swapping the sleek disco of Overpowered for a sparkling mix of twitching electro and downtempo funk. An irresistible, idiosyncratic listen.
It’s often said that we all grow up only to become our parents, so perhaps it was written that Chris Duncan would train at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, considering his mother and father are both classically trained musicians. This education is put to good use on his full-length debut, as complex arrangements are navigated without becoming oppressively ornate. In fact, it's quickly apparent that Architect is an apt title; much like the cover art (which he designed himself) Duncan’s dreamy hybrid of psych-folk and baroque-pop is intricate and precise in its beauty.
In contrast to the demure side glances depicted in the artwork for both Lungs and Ceremonials, the cover for How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful features Florence Welch staring squarely into the camera lens. “So what?!” you might balk, except the design concept is demonstrative of Welch’s creative approach for this third album. Eschewing hypothetical scenarios for real life experiences, and florid sonic detail for clean, open-hearted melodies, How Big... feels more unguarded and instinctive than its predecessors. It’s also all the more engaging for it.
Where Obaro Ejimiwe’s first two albums dealt in fractured beats and glitchy electronics, this third long-player finds the former-Mercury Prize nominee making his first foray into recording with a live band. An eerie mix of twitching percussion, plaintive piano chords, brooding bass and chiming guitars, Shedding Skin feels no less atmospheric than Peanut Butter Blues & Melancholy Jam or Some Say I So I Say Light. In fact, we’d argue that the use of organic sounds actually increases the potency of Ejimiwe’s elliptical poetry, imbuing songs with an extra energy that offsets his brilliantly-drowsy diction.
As full-time beat-maker in The xx, Jamie Smith has long been content to lurk in the shadows behind his band-mates, while quietly pursuing personal production projects on the side. This solo debut-proper marks the moment that his musical hobby becomes a genuine limelight-stealer. Boasting both emotional depth and an impressively progressive sonic scope, In Colour seamlessly weaves a broad spectrum of styles, moods, samples and types of instrumentation into one brilliantly cohesive electronic album. From the Popcaan and Young Thug-starring ‘I Know There’s Gonna Be Good Times’ to Romy Madley-Croft co-write ‘Loud Places’, this is the soundtrack to the summer and beyond.
Though only 16 when she released her debut EP in 2014, Bridie Monds-Watson had been a firm fixture on the Derry gig circuit since the age of 14. Now a nationally-recognised talent, the Northern Irish singer-songwriter is releasing her beautifully-understated debut through Rough Trade Records. Exhibiting her multi-instrumentalist talents, the wistfully-named Before How We Forgot How To Dream sees Soak interspersing her delicate strain of indie-folk with string-laden instrumentals, laced between poignant lyrics. Long-time fans, look out for the revamped version of 'Sea Creatures', her heartfelt ode to a troubled friend.
Two decades on from seminal Britpop album I Should Coco, Gaz Coombes’ ear for melody shows no signs of deserting him anytime soon. Matador is a significantly stronger record than its 2012 predecessor, Here Come The Bombs, and that’s thanks both to a broader musical vision and lyrics that give a much deeper insight into the former-Supergrass frontman’s psyche. Krautrock emerges as a key influence – via the motorik rhythms of ‘The English Ruse’ and in the digital shimmer of ‘20/20’ – and throughout Coombes’ displays a near-perfect strike rate in terms of killer songcraft.
The concept of “Tunbridge Wells punks” might sound like an oxymoron, but Laurie Vincent and Isaac Holman have built a pretty decent following so far by railing against suburban malaise. Listening to Are You Satisfied?, it isn’t difficult to see why so many have been swept along: the duo have definitely got some tunes (sinister single ‘The Hunter’ is an instant standout), along with a skill for creating eminently holler-able soundbites. Drill down into the lyrics, however, and you’re destined to be a disappointed by all the empty sloganeering. Best enjoyed for what it is: a throwaway pop-punk romp.