Mercury prize 2021: first-time nominees dominate shortlist

Chart-topping albums by Wolf Alice, Celeste and Mogwai feature in nominations for the 2021 Mercury prize, one of the most prestigious music awards in the UK.

In a diverse list that ranges across jazz, soul, rap, electronic, contemporary classical and beyond – though with no folk or metal – other hit albums include those by veteran grime rapper Ghetts, indie-soul singer Arlo Parks, and proggy septet Black Country, New Road, all of whom reached the Top 5 in the UK albums chart in 2021.

But typically for the Mercury prize, which unlike the yearly Brit awards also champions artists from outside the mainstream, there are plenty of leftfield choices, en 10 van die 12 artists have albums nominated for the first time.

These artists include Hannah Peel for Fir Wave, an album of pulsating, heady electronic music; saxophonist Nubya Garcia, a core player in London’s resurgent jazz scene, en Berwyn, the rap/R&B artist who hasn’t yet hit the UK Top 100, but is amassing sizeable streaming numbers and was included in the BBC’s Sound of 2021 poll.

Born in Trinidad and living in the UK since he was nine, 25-year-old Berwyn Dubois – who does not yet hold a British passport – is a beneficiary of a recent rule change to the Mercury, that allows people who have been resident in the UK or Ireland for more than five years to be eligible. The change, also adopted by the Brit awards, was made after a 2020 protest by Japanese-British pop singer Rina Sawayama, whose debut album was deemed ineligible because she did not have a British passport.

“I just feel like my dream is continuing, this weird dream I’m gonna wake up from any minute now,” Berwyn said. He was nominated for his debut mixtape Demotape/Vega, which he made in “an absolute shithole, renting a room in a bedsit [in east London]. I had the bare minimum in terms of equipment, the worst you can find, I didn’t even have a pair of working headphones. It just came out of blood, sweat and tears; out of the overwhelming need to get out of the situation.”

He has since followed it with Tape2/Fomalhaut, released in June, described as “a sonically advanced version to its predecessor [met] the same amount of storytelling, honesty, humility and pain”.

Versatile indie-rockers Wolf Alice, who won the 2018 prys with Visions of a Life, are the only previous winners on the shortlist. All three of their albums have been nominated, beginning with My Love Is Cool in 2015.

All of Laura Mvula’s albums have also now been nominated for the prize, with 2021’s nod coming for Pink Noise, a superb showcase of funk, R&B and pop that harks back to the 1980s. The Birmingham-born singer’s previous nominations were for Sing to the Moon in 2013, and The Dreaming Room in 2016.

Pink Noise was released in the final fortnight of eligibility: albums by British or Irish artists released between 18 Julie 2020 en 16 Julie 2021 inclusive are eligible. The winner receives £25,000.

“This feels familiar, and yet it feels like I’ve lived nine lives since the last time,” said Mvula, who signed with a new record label for Pink Noise and made a stylistic shift from the sound of her first two albums. “It means everything and nothing at the same time. It’s always amazing to be acknowledged publicly. And yet I know what I search for within making music is something that goes far beyond wanting to feel accepted or championed. Music for me has always been a life source. Of course, right now I’m revelling in the excitement! But I know my favourite place is in the room where I make stuff – and eventually on the live stage.”

She said the embrace of 80s funk came from “this pent-up energy that came from having felt boxed in or labelled. The weird racial undertones of ‘Classically trained, educated Laura Mvula – she’s welcome.’ I would often get told: black people don’t really listen to Laura Mvula. I always knew that was an untruth, but the idea that I would be boxed in again: I didn’t want that for this body of work. I even made excuses for myself with that – it was really comfortable to stay in my own lane.

“So I made a point of reconnecting with the music that I was raised on.” She cites the Jacksons, James Brown, Sting, Peter Gabriel and Earth, Wind & Fire. “I wanted to make something for myself that I could dance to and feel sexy when I was dancing, and still be moved by it in the way I’m moved by [debut album] Sing to the Moon.”

Despite Mogwai’s substantial critical acclaim and a discography of 10 studio albums and seven film and TV scores, the Scottish post-rock band have never previously been recognised by the Mercury. Their nominated album As the Love Continues, released in February, became their first album to reach No 1 in the UK.

“I don’t think we really expected it,” the band’s Stuart Braithwaite said. “Sometimes you think you exist in a different sphere from that world, so it’s a nice surprise.”

As the Love Continues was written during the first pandemic lockdown, and recorded in summer 2020; their US producer and engineer directed the recordings via video call. “It became a kind of crusade just to get it finished,” says Braithwaite.

The album was then released during another lockdown in the UK. Braithwaite added: “I have taken a lot from music, and other art like literature and film [tydens die pandemie], so having an album that people could get lost in when we’re all in a really hard situation has maybe helped people connect with it a little bit.”

The judging panel includes last year’s winner Michael Kiwanuka, Hazel Wilde of 2020 nominees Lanterns on the Lake, jazz star Jamie Cullum and alt-popper Anna Calvi, as well as broadcasters, journalists and music industry figures.

One of the favourites for the prize could be London producer Floating Points, for his collaborative album with 80-year-old saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and the London Symphony Orchestra, Beloftes. Straddling jazz, classical and ambient music, it is one of the year’s most critically acclaimed albums. Sanders is the oldest-ever nominee, and is eligible as part of the predominantly British ensemble, despite his US citizenship.

Another likely favourite will be Sault, a mysterious neo-soul unit who have never fully revealed their identities, but which feature producer Inflo (who has worked with Kiwanuka and 2019 nominee Little Simz) and singer Cleo Sol. The Guardian’s chief rock and pop critic Alexis Petridis named their nominated album Untitled (Rise) the best of 2020. Sault have now released five albums in three years, with Nine – which will be deleted after 99 days – released earlier this month.

Acclaimed artists who missed a nomination include veterans such as Paul McCartney, Marianne Faithfull, Tom Jones and Shirley Collins; indie bands such as Dry Cleaning, Sleaford Mods, Squid, Idles, Shame, Goat Girl and Black Midi; rappers Headie One, Slowthai, Nines and Digga D; pop singers Beabadoobee, Declan McKenna, Roísín Murphy and Ellie Goulding; and heavier groups including Bring Me the Horizon, Architects and Svalbard.

Arlo Parks – Collapsed in Sunbeams
Berwyn – Demotape/Vega
Black Country, New Road – For the First Time
Celeste – Not Your Muse
Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders and the London Symphony Orchestra – Promises
Ghetts – Conflict of Interest
Hannah Peel – Fir Wave
Laura Mvula – Pink Noise
Mogwai – As the Love Continues
Nubya Garcia – Source
Sault – Untitled (Rise)
Wolf Alice – Blue Weekend

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