Mercury Prize 2018
Albums of the year
Another year, another list of the UK's best albums that is sure to get chins wagging among critics, fans and artists alike. From Arctic Monkeys through to Wolf Alice, via acts as varied as young grime MC Novelist, jazz group Sons of Kemet, browse the nominees below. Beyond the prestigious Mercury shortlist, take a look at the albums that we reckon were tipped but didn't make the cut, as well a list of previous winners. We'll update with the winner come September.
“That rock’n’roll, eh? That rock’n’roll, it just won’t go away.” So went Alex Turner’s infamous (and bizarre) speech at the BRIT Awards back in 2014, when Arctic Monkeys won big for their last album, AM. Oddly, he had a point: while the trends and forecasts might overlook it, the Sheffield band’s longevity is testament to the enduring power of rock’n’roll. This is their sixth album, and it finds lush songs inflected with Serge Gainsbourg-esque jazz rigour, contemplating technology and our willingness to distract from tragedy with pop cultural escapism. Often as searingly vulnerable as it is softly grandiose, Tranquillity Base Hotel & Casino ultimately lives up to that wild speech: for anyone still questioning the relevance of rock’n’roll, this is Alex Turner’s mic drop.
Two years on from Everything Everything’s nightmarish state of the nation address Get To Heaven, things haven’t exactly calmed down in terms of current affairs. But where that record found singer Jonathan Higgs tackling rolling news culture, terrorism and the sinister influence of technology, this aptly-titled follow-up is more abstract in its lyrical approach. A Fever Dream is a snapshot of our turbulent times, physical rather than cerebral, and every bit as kinetic in its musical approach. Hearing the Manchester quartet successfully synthesising influences as disparate as Aphex Twin and Nirvana only reinforces the fact that Everything Everything are still one of the UK’s most fascinating alternative-rock bands.
If there’s something a little bit self-congratulatory about the founder of a record label releasing an album full of him and his roster of artists having a jam session, you can just about forgive it of Richard Russell and the XL team. With many a production accolade under his belt, and with artists like Sampha, Ibeyi, Wiki, Giggs, Kamasi Washington and more at his disposal, it really is one of those “well, why not?” collaborations. And teeming with a rich, poetic warmth, dazzling melodies and a light, meticulous craftsmanship, this is a lush listen.
There’s something kind of spellbinding about Florence Welch - with all the floaty floral aesthetics and those disarmingly powerful vocals, she’s had the world entranced with her gospel-tinged pop for over ten years now. This is Welch and her band’s fourth album, and true to form it swells with rich orchestral ornamentation and commanding vocals. This time around things are more vulnerable than ever, seemingly following from How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful in tackling jaded world-weariness and quiet insecurities (“I thought I was flying, but maybe I’m dying”, she refrains on soaring ‘Sky Full Of Song’) over delicate instrumentation that echoes around her. It’s a tender little album, but - as with all things Florence - High As Hope looks set to be huge.
It’s fair to say there’s been just a bit of hype surrounding Jorja Smith, be it Drake giving her the co-sign of a lifetime on his More Life project, her featuring on Kendrick’s incredible Black Panther soundtrack, or her winning a little something called the BRITs Critics’ Choice Award (FYI: former awardees have included Florence + The Machine and Adele). Thankfully, the Walsall-native’s debut is very much worthy of the acclaim - this is an album of soft-focus R&B-meets-soul-meets-UK dance, confronting teenage romance and even some social justice. All yearning, shining production and delicately fluid vocals, Lost & Found is an impressive first album poised to cement Jorja Smith's stardom.
Breezy, woozy, slightly left-field guitar sounds are a signature of Archy Marshall - aka. King Krule - and his third studio album sits effortlessly, timelessly in his oeuvre. It’s a whimsical record that, in its relaxed nature, feels the most quietly assured of his releases to date. The title presumably alludes to two of his former monikers - his band DIK OOZ (we know, we know) which in turn referenced via anagram his first musical iteration as Zoo Kid - but also more literally represents all the bodily fluids that we don’t really think about in a meaningful way, apparently. Thankfully it’s not as revolting as that sounds - in fact it’s the opposite: rich and immersive lo-fi that’s yearningly romantic.
Following her last album Sheezus, the sound of which she has since said was shaped under pressure from her label, London popstar Lily Allen’s fourth album finds her embracing what she wants to do. The result is a sweet and honest release, full of insights into a past full of the hedonistic excesses of fame, jarring candour about her divorce, and a stirring ballad from the imagined point of view of her children trying to cope with an absent, touring mother - “Please don’t go, stay here with me / it’s not my fault, I’m only three”. If Allen’s identity felt a bit lost on her last album, No Shame finds her more confidently vulnerable and assured in herself than ever.
On her third album, post-punk artist Nadine Shah has raised the game with a deft look at the Refugee Crisis, Trump, and - in general - the bleaker side of contemporary politics and life as an immigrant (she’s a British Muslim, with Pakistani and Norwegian heritage). But in spite of that grim subject-area that can make most of us jaded, there’s a clever propulsiveness and lithe, low-key melody to Holiday Destination. Her voice is low and unfaltering as she delivers lines with a strikingly commanding nature: “Where would you have me go? I’m second generation don’t you know,” she says pointedly on ‘Out The Way’. Refined, defiant, and brilliantly thought-provoking, this is an album that interrogates fear and spits it back out.
Before 2017, Noel Gallagher enjoyed a good six or so years of uninterrupted attention from Oasis fans. But now former-frontman Liam’s riding high with As You Were, Noel’s suddenly got competition, not to mention a ubiquitous and particularly vocal critic in his estranged younger brother. It has to be said, Noel doesn’t sound especially bothered on this, his third High Flying Birds album. Produced by David Holmes, packed with lush arrangements and drenched in reverb, Who Built The Moon is Noel’s most cinematic, ambitious and energetic solo set yet, moving from Kanye-inspired psych-rock (‘Fort Knox’) to spacey, Krautrock (‘She Taught Me To Fly’) via horn-driven, Vaccines-ish romps (‘Holy Mountain’).
As a teenager, South London MC and producer Novelist seemed to be riding that same next generation grime wave as Stormzy. It was back in 2014 that Nov was nominated for Best British Breakthrough Artist at the BRITs, and his first big releases came out on legendary label XL in 2015 – so it feels jarring in our fast-paced world that it took the MC so long from hyped recognition to putting out this full-length. But taking things in his own time has been no bad thing: a slew of excellent releases in the past few years alongside Nov being an active voice in political campaigning have allowed him the time to present a considered debut. Pointed tracks like ‘Stop Killing the Mandem’ find an articulate and assured young rapper filled with a quietly confident raw energy.
London’s jazz scene is one of the city’s richest galvanising forces of late, and one of its key players is a saxophonist and bandleader by the name of Shabaka Hutchings. Sons of Kemet is one of his bands, and their third album is a relentless, breathtakingly furious look at the reality of being black and British, and living under the rule of a royal family that in no way represents those people. Instead of the bloodborn monarchy, then, the band highlight extraordinary black women who blazed the way of historical change. Their use of far-ranging sonics to convey this message is particularly impressive - Sons of Kemet push convention, and play with soca, afrobeat and even grime. Ambitious, mesmerising and vital, whatever stance you end up with regarding royalty, it feels fair to anoint Sons of Kemet as British jazz kings.
Wolf Alice are the rarest of propositions: a young, British rock band who’ve actually lived up to the insane hype that could quite easily have engulfed them. And yet, despite scoring BRIT, Grammy, Ivor Novello and Mercury Prize nominations for their debut album, the Camden quartet aren’t resting on their laurels just yet. Somewhere in the midst of two years of flat-out touring, Ellie Rowsell and friends have found time to pen a follow-up that pushes their mercurial sound even further. Whether careering between abrasive, punk fury (‘Yuk Foo’), doe-eyed indie-pop (‘Don’t Delete The Kisses’), or epic shoegaze (‘Heavenward’) Wolf Alice remain as captivating as ever.