Mercury Prize: Sault and Arlo Parks among favourites to win album award

By Mark Savage
BBC music reporter

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Image caption, Newcomer Arlo Parks is one of the bookies' favourites for the prize

A mysterious band who have never publicly revealed their identities are among the favourites to win the Mercury Prize for album of the year.

Sault, who blend psychedelic soul with righteous funk, are nominated for their politically-charged LP Untitled (Rise).

The other contenders include soul singer Arlo Parks, for her intimate debut Collapsed In Sunbeams, and Laura Mvula for Pink Noise.

The winner will be announced at a ceremony in London at 21:50 BST.

Parks and Mvula will perform at the event, alongside fellow nominees Wolf Alice, Ghetts, Celeste, Mogwai, Berwyn, Hannah Peel, Nubya Garcia and Black Country, New Road.

It will be broadcast live on BBC 6 Music from 20:00 BST and BBC Four from 21:00 BST.

If Sault take the prize, it will mark the second consecutive win for London-based producer Inflo, whose retro soul stylings formed a key part of Michael Kiwanuka's 2020 Mercury Prize-winner Kiwanuka.

Three other songwriters are credited on Sault's album but little else is known about the band, who released two albums last year reflecting the global Black Lives Matter protests.

Image source, BBC / Getty Images
Image caption, Wolf Alice, Celeste and Ghetts are all in the running for the £25,000 prize

The Mercury Prize, given to the best British or Irish album of the past 12 months, is known for rewarding artists outside the mainstream, as opposed to the more commercially-focused Brit Awards.

As such, this year's nominees include left-field records by Hannah Peel. whose Fir Wave is an album of complex, beautiful electronic music inspired by Earth's natural cycles; and jazz saxophonist Nubya Garcia, whose deeply melodic Source is a meditation on her family's heritage.

There is also space for chart-topping albums by Celeste, Mogwai and Wolf Alice - the latter of whom have now been nominated for each of their first three albums.

The rock band, who won the Mercury in 2018 for Visions Of A Life, have since become festival headliners and won the best reviews of their career for the euphoric, eclectic new record, Blue Weekend.

But they told the BBC they were wary of another victory. "I would start to hate a band if they won it twice, without any rationale," joked bassist Theo Ellis.

Whoever wins, the Mercury Prize remains a major way for lesser-known bands to gain new audiences.

Laura Mvula's Pink Noise has enjoyed a 50% sales increase since nominations were announced in July, while Hannah Peel and Sault have seen their sales soar by 40% and 24% respectively.

However, those albums had sold relatively few copies beforehand, with Wolf Alice receiving the biggest boost in absolute terms - selling an extra 10,000 copies of Blue Weekend since July (they have also been on tour during this period).

This year's judges, who include Jamie Cullum, Michael Kiwanuka, Annie Mac and Anna Calvi, will decide the most deserving winner of the £25,000 prize during Thursday's live TV broadcast.

In the meantime, here is a guide to each of the 12 nominated albums.

Berwyn - Demotape/Vega

Equipped with an old laptop and broken headphones, Berwyn wrote and recorded his debut mixtape in just two weeks in 2018.

He described the album as a "last-ditch" attempt to escape his surroundings. At the time, he was sleeping on a mattress on a bare floor, with an uncertain immigration status that left him unable to enrol in university, get a job or release music.

Unvarnished but heartfelt, the songs vividly sketch a life lived on the margins: "How come sleepin' in the car only filled me with drive?" he asks on Glory.

The critics said: "Starkly confessional and leaving nothing to question, Demotape/Vega is a striking outlook on the life that formed Berwyn's artistry." [97 Parade]

Listen to this: Trap Phone

Black Country, New Road - For The First Time

Seven-piece rock outfit Black Country, New Road have been called "Britain's most divisive new band" but their debut album united critics in praise.

The NME said For The First Time was "bursting with ideas", while Clash called it "a significant milestone in modern guitar music".

At first, it's a challenging listen. A collision of jazz, punk, noisecore, art-rock and the traditional Jewish music klezmer, its six songs warp and distort over nine-minute running times.

But perseverance reveals moments of tenderness, abrasive humour and wild invention, all part of the band's self-stated mission of "embedding weirdness within songwriting".

The critics said: "That none of their experiments feel gimmicky speaks to a diverse and inquisitive musicianship." [Pitchfork]

Listen to this: Sunglasses

Celeste - Not Your Muse

Born in LA but raised in Essex and Brighton, Celeste's career has been on an upward trajectory since she won the BBC Sound Of... poll at the start of 2020.

At that point, work on her debut album was already under way - but she put it on pause during the initial stages of lockdown.

"Being in solitude helped me to get back in touch with my thoughts and feelings," she told the BBC "I think in the process of doing that I found my true voice again and felt comfortable to let that be heard."

The result is a lush, soulful collection of songs that sent the artist straight to number one in February.

The critics said: "A classy debut, from a sophisticated talent who takes things at her own sweet pace." [The Telegraph]

Listen to this: Strange

Floating Points - Promises

The first recording by US jazz legend Pharoah Sanders in more than a decade, Promises is a long-form collaboration between the 80-year-old saxophonist and British electronic musician Sam "Floating Points" Shepherd.

They're backed by the London Symphony Orchestra, who recorded their parts individually during lockdown, using more than 100 microphones.

Although it is divided into nine "movements", it is essentially one continuous piece of music that unfolds over 46 minutes, like a slow motion video of a flower in bloom.

Sanders plays with watchful reflection throughout, as if holding a casual conversation with Shepherd's chiming harpsichords and airborne synth lines.

In a rare interview with the Los Angeles Times last year, he confirmed that had always been his approach: "Just let the music come, and spend as much time as you can listening."

The critics said: "It is a key work - a significant milestone - in the grand history of not only Sanders' career, but the whole free jazz style he helped pioneer." [Music OMH]

Listen to this: Promises (Movement 1)

Nubya Garcia - Source

Rooted in stories of family and community, the debut album by jazz musician Nubya Garcia celebrates the rich rhythms of the Afro-Caribbean diaspora.

"I was born in this country and grew up here, but my family isn't English," she told Paste Magazine. "So I wanted to incorporate more of my identity in terms of the fact that my family is from the Caribbean. Music is a huge representation of a country and its culture.

"Reggae, dub, calypso, soca - all these styles that come from the Caribbean - and I just wanted to sprinkle some of that joy on the record."

Over nine songs, she honours her ancestors (The Message Continues), stresses the importance of female solidarity (Stand With Each Other) and celebrates spiritual freedom (Boundless Beings).

Deeply melodic and passionately heartfelt, it saw Garcia named a "major voice" by The New York Times and earned her a solo concert at this year's BBC Proms.

The critics said: "The perfect encapsulation of British jazz in 2020." [The Times]

Listen to this: Source

Ghetts - Conflict Of Interest

Ghetts' third album, and his first major-label release, is a showcase for the rapper's versatility. It skips between familiar grime topics - police brutality, street violence, lyrical one-upmanship - and more unexpected musings on teenage heartache, his struggles with ADHD and fatherhood.

The key track is the seven-minute rags-to-riches story, Autobiography, which opens with Ghetts' mother reminiscing about his first ever stage performance, at the age of three, and ends with the star declaring himself the greatest of all time.

But Ghetts, who released his first mixtape 16 years ago, is also aware of his responsibility to the next generation: "Industry's full up of victims of mental health," he raps with evident concern. "Don't forget about yourself while you entertain the world."

There are guest appearances from Stormzy, Ed Sheeran, Shaybo, Dave and Skepta, but the real star is the 36-year-old's disarming candour.

The critics said: "A dazzling piece of storytelling." [The Guardian]

Listen to this: Good Hearts

Mogwai - As The Love Continues

Mogwai wanted to record their 10th album in the US last summer but thanks to Covid, they ended up in a converted church in Worcestershire, with producer David Friddman dialing in by Zoom.

But while the band were earth-bound, their music soared. "I think it's quite a warm record, and that might have come from writing the music while we were stuck inside during a plague," frontman Stuart Braithwaite told the NME. "It has a lot of positivity to it, which some of our records in the past haven't so much."

Largely instrumental, the songs have a cinematic sweep and scale - ascending from fragile grooves into thunderous, feedback-encircled climaxes.

Released in February, the album gave the Scottish band their first number one, an achievement Braithwaite described as "totally surreal" and "completely unexpected".

The critics said: "Yet another high water mark in Mogwai's irresistible ride." [Mojo magazine]

Listen to this: Ritchie Sacramento

Laura Mvula - Pink Noise

After releasing two Mercury-nominated albums - 2013's Sing To The Moon and 2016's The Dreaming Room - Laura Mvula was unceremoniously dumped by Sony Music, who informed her of their decision by forwarding an email that was just seven lines long.

She subsequently said it was "a hard thing to make sense of and to come back from" - but, earlier this year, she bounced back in style, with her triumphant, joyous, liberated third album, Pink Noise.

Marinated in the saw-tooth synths and chunky drum machines of the 1980s (Prince's Purple Rain gets a namecheck) its principle purpose is to get you on your feet.

"Ultimately, when it comes to dance music it's all about feeling," she told DIY Magazine. "It doesn't matter if I have the most killer sentiment in the song, or the most poetic lyric; if the song doesn't groove, it doesn't carry."

The critics said: "Pink Noise is a John Hughes soundtrack just waiting for its film to be written and it's a bold return from an artist with a point to prove." [The Skinny]

Listen to this: Got Me

Arlo Parks - Collapsed In Sunbeams

Soothing and tender, Arlo Parks' debut album is full of hope, even when she tackles subjects like depression, grief and alcoholism.

"Just know it won't hurt so much forever," she reassures a friend on the soulful R&B groove of Hurt. "I'll be there to kiss the damage," she tells a victim of domestic abuse on For Violet.

The 20-year-old says she wants her songs to help people in the same way Radiohead and Sufjan Stevens helped her as a teenager.

"In times of chaos, I've always reached for music as a kind of salve or a healing agent," she told the BBC earlier this year. "It makes you feel held and understood... no matter where you're from, or even what language you speak."

The critics said: "A quietly subversive pop record that, for all its deceptive softness, challenges old perceptions of sexuality and mental health." [NME]

Listen to this: Black Dog

Hannah Peel - Fir Wave

Inspired by the patterns created by fir trees on the side of a mountain, Hannah Peel's latest album is an expansive and life-affirming ode to the earth's natural cycles.

From the ethereal voices of the opening song, Wind Shadow, to the other-worldly textures of the closing track, Reaction Diffusion, the Northern Irish musician manages to create a sonic universe all of her own.

It's also a record that pays tribute to electronic music pioneer Delia Derbyshire - who famously arranged the original Doctor Who theme. Peel was given permission to reinterpret the musician's 1972 album Electrosonic, re-sampling her work to generate new digital instruments, and pay tribute to one of her inspirations.

"I just wish I could have had a conversation with her over a cup of tea at some point to find out what drove her," Peel told the Yorkshire Post. "It is that side of experimentation and willing to do something different, I think that's really gorgeous."

The critics said: "Wait until the right time of night, put it on your headphones, and it... becomes entirely transporting." [The Arts Desk]

Listen to this: Emergence In Nature

Sault - Untitled (Rise)

Shrouded in mystery, British music collective Sault have stealth-released a series of powerful, funky albums over the last three years. Their latest, Nine, only adds to their mystique: it's primed to self-destruct after 99 days.

They've never done any press, and their identities are a secret. The best the internet can guess is that the project is a collaboration between British producer InFlo (Michael Kiwanuka, Little Simz), singer Cleo Sol and Kanye West protégé Kid Sister.

The wilful anonymity works because it focuses your attention on the music - an intoxicating fusion of funk, soul, disco, house and R&B.

Their Mercury Prize nomination comes for their second album of 2020, which uses those dance-floor grooves as a Trojan Horse for hard-hitting lyrics about black lives. "Why do my people always die?" demands the vocalist on I Just Want to Dance. "Little boy, when you get older... I'll tell you the truth about the boys in blue," adds the seemingly serene closing track, Little Boy.

The critics said: "More than writing simple protest songs, they are creating what is arguably some of the most life-affirming and confrontational music released in recent years." [Beats Per Minute]

Listen to this: I Just Want To Dance

Wolf Alice - Blue Weekend

Proving that 2017's Mercury Prize-winner Visions Of A Life was no fluke, Wolf Alice sharpened their songwriting skills and delivered one of the best British rock albums of the last 10 years.

With chameleonic musical powers, they swerve confidently from moshpit anthems (Play The Greatest Hits) and dreamy indie pop (Safe From Heartbreak) to stadium-ready torch songs (The Last Man On Earth).

The connective tissue is frontwoman Ellie Rowsell, whose affecting vocals and whip-smart lyrics are always worth paying attention to, whether she's "feeling like Marilyn Monroe" on a trip to LA, or calling out misogynist rock critics on Smile

The critics said: "The sound of a band satisfying themselves rather than proving themselves, and completely filling the space they've carved out over the years." [The Forty-Five]

Listen to this: Last Man On Earth

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