Mercury Prize 2017
Albums of the year
On September 14th, at the Eventim Apollo in Hammersmith, Sampha Sissay’s debut was named the best British and Irish album of 2017. You can check out the soulful sounds of Process below, alongside the rest of this year’s Mercury Prize shortlist, plus a round-up of all the previous winners and records that could easily have made the cut.
Though tipped by the BBC, NME and Billboard back in 2014, Sampha Sisay has been in no hurry to capitalise on the hype, opting to embellish the work of stars like Kanye, Drake, Frank Ocean and Solange rather than seize the spotlight. Now, almost four years on from his last EP, the South London soul man finally steps out of the shadows to unveil his first full-length release. Process is all the stronger for its protracted gestation period, providing a perfect match of intimate songwriting and sensitive production, and showcasing the spellbinding power of Sampha’s emotive tones. Surely a strong contender for this year’s Mercury Prize.
Three albums in and it’s business as usual for former Mercury Prize-winners Alt-J, by which we mean they’re as intriguingly indefinable as ever. Contrary to its laid-back title, Relaxer is the product of a range of labour-intensive creative processes including recording battalions of classical guitarists plucking the same melody simultaneously, and sourcing homemade field recordings capturing the crackle of campfires. Musically, it feels like a more adventurous set than This Is All Yours, exploring twisted surf-rock on ‘Hit Me Like That Snare’ and unleashing cacophonous hip hop beats during ‘Deadcrush’. But for all its variety, it’s Relaxer’s more subdued moments that really shine, be that the folky simplicity of ‘Last Year’ or the serene, string-embellished ‘Adeline’.
Though not quite a podium placing, finishing fourth in the BBC’s Sound of 2016 poll gave Stockport-band Blossoms an important platform on which to build, and they’ve certainly seized the opportunity so far. Thanks to near-constant touring, plus support slots with Jake Bugg in Australia and The Stone Roses in Manchester, there’s now a fair bit of anticipation surrounding their debut. Does it deliver? Well, if jaunty indie-pop with a mildly psychedelic edge sounds like your thing, you should find plenty to get stuck into here. Imagine a radio-friendly mix of Arctic Monkeys and Tame Impala, but fronted by Lee Mavers of The La's.
Proving that supergroups needn’t be synonymous with rock dinosaurs topping up their pension pots, Dinosaur’s sole reason for being appears to be pushing their genre forward. Led by BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist and award-winning trumpeter Laura Jurd, and featuring keyboardist Eliot Galvin, bassist Connor Chaplin, and drummer Corrie Dick, their collaborative debut is being breathlessly spoken of as one of 2016’s finest jazz records, eliciting gushing comparisons to artists as diverse as Miles Davis and Mahavishnu Orchestra-era Jan Hammer. Don’t take everyone else’s word for it – dive in.
When you’ve scored the bestselling album of 2014, sold out the 90,000-capacity Wembley Stadium three consecutive nights, and written chart smashes for the likes of Justin Bieber and Major Lazer, what do you do next? Well, in Ed Sheeran’s case, the answer is a brief break and then straight back into the studio to attempt the seemingly insurmountable task of following up the insanely successful x. Ironically, ÷ looks set to unite hardcore fans, not to mention most of your relations, in their adoration of the loop pedal overlord. From Coldplay-esque epic ‘Castle on the Hill’ and dancehall-referencing ‘Shape Of You’ to wedding-staple-in-waiting ‘Perfect’, Sheeran seems destined to remain ubiquitous for a long time yet.
The only real problem with bands achieving success from the get-go is that the change in lifestyle often results in a second album tackling the tedious woes of touring. Mindful of avoiding clichés, Oxford’s Glass Animals have cunningly bypassed the issue by writing from the perspectives of characters encountered on their travels. Even better, these intriguing pen portraits provide a platform for the quartet to fully explore their off-kilter musical vision, which remains rooted in R&B influences and powered by tribal rhythms, but benefits from lusher production and bigger pop hooks. The result is a record as rich in idiosyncrasies as ZABA, but that boasts much more depth.
Rich and saturated bursts of afrobeats, grime, and bashment topped with distinctly British flow, J Hus’ debut is the hazy spirit of Notting Hill carnival in sonic form. Indeed, no other album this year has so successfully blended the sounds of London in 2017 - the truth of the multicultural city’s urban summer sounds. With guests including Mo Stack, MIST, Tiggs da Author and Nigerian superstar Burna Boy, and as many verses about chirpsing girls and money as there are about introspection and his criminal past, Common Sense is a fascinatingly varied album that finds a fresh young artist confident at the forefront of his game.
Barely six months since her debut novel, poet, playwright and perennial overachiever Kate Tempest returns with a second album that surpasses the high standard she set with her Mercury-nominated debut. Like Everybody Down, Let Them Eat Chaos is overseen by producer Dan Carey, and his eerie electronics add a haunting potency to Tempest’s brand of gritty realism. Set at 4:18am, in the midst of a storm in South-East London, Tempest raps from the perspectives of seven different characters, while interweaving ideas as far-reaching as gentrification and environmental concerns, love and war. Unsurprisingly, a record this ambitious requires some unpicking, but if you dedicate time to repeated listening the rewards are rich indeed.
Listening to Loyle Carner’s world-weary tones dart over these sun-dappled, often jazz-influenced melodies, it’s difficult to believe the South Londoner is still only 21. Purposely rejecting the braggadocio that often characterises the work of his contemporaries, Carner comes across as an old soul, using his masterful flow and poetic lyricism to pioneer a soulful strain of hip hop centred on domestic narratives. Distinctly British and unapologetically intimate, Yesterday’s Gone is an impactful and thought-provoking debut from a unique emerging talent.
More than two years since the BBC tipped him as the future of British music – and almost two-and-a-half years since his first MOBO win – Michael “Stormzy” Omari finally unveils his full-length debut. Thrillingly, the South London MC uses Gang Signs & Prayer to showcase his impressive range, which extends way beyond grime to take in everything from soulful balladry (‘Blinded By Your Grace, Pt.1’) and breezy R&B duets (‘Cigarettes and Cush’ featuring Kehlani) to epic, Purple Rain-inspired gospel (‘Blinded By Your Grace, Pt. 2). Of course, it’s the quick-witted aggression of ‘Big For Your Boots’, ‘Mr Skeng’ and ‘Return Of The Rucksack’ that long-time fans will flock to first, but Gang Signs & Prayers is proof that Omari is unafraid to publically explore his emotional depths.
Shaking up the testosterone-fuelled lads club that is NME-endorsed indie-rock, this London-based quartet exploded onto the circuit in 2015 with the careering, fuzz-flecked indie-punk of ‘Eureka Moment’. A year and a half later they’re out to justify the early hype with their hotly-anticipated debut. From the insouciant alt-rock grooves of ‘Sucker’ and ‘The Road’, to the wild dynamics of ‘Cupid’, The Big Moon might just have pulled it off too. Balancing wit and wistfulness, melody and muscle, Love in the 4th Dimension is a joyous listen from start to finish and boasts bags of crossover potential. Expect to hear a lot more from this four in the future.
If you were to have predicted the first member of The xx to have a successful solo career, you’d probably have picked from vocalists Romy Madley-Croft and Oliver Sim, rather than singling out their notoriously shy and retiring beat-maker. Regardless, it was Jamie Smith who was thrust into the mainstream in 2015, earning a Mercury-nomination for his debut, In Colour. It’s understandable, then, that on The xx’s third album, Smith’s influence is now more prominent than ever. From the synthetic horns and garage beats of bass-heavy opener ‘Dangerous’ to the Hall & Oates-sampling ‘On Hold’, I See You is the trio’s most extroverted collection to date, all the while retaining the crepuscular feel for which they were first famed.
“There’s no band that’s bigger than Glastonbury, and you can’t say that about any other festivals. It’s always exciting to play there.”
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“I was scared; I didn’t want people to be able to see into my soul.”