Mercury Prize: All you need to know about this year's nominees

By Mark Savage
BBC Music Correspondent

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Harry StylesImage source, Getty Images
Image caption,
This is Harry Styles' first nomination for the Mercury Prize

Harry Styles, Sam Fender and Little Simz are among the artists competing for this year's Mercury Prize, arguably British music's most prestigious award.

Recognising the best British or Irish album of the last 12 months, the Mercury has previously gone to acts like Pulp, Skepta and PJ Harvey.

Ten of this year's shortlisted albums come from first-time nominees.

They include pop provocateur Self Esteem and folk singer Gwenno, whose album Tresor is sung mostly in Cornish.

Other first-timers include indie duo Wet Leg, post-metal girl band Nova Twins and jazz musician Fergus McCreadie.

McCreadie told BBC 6 Music: "It is great to be part of that for Scottish music, to have this recognition, hopefully it can embolden musicians in Scotland."

Nova Twins, nominated for their album Supernova, said they discovered they were on the list while in an antique shop in Hastings.

Bassist Georgia South told the PA news agency: "I am surprised we didn't break anything in the store."

Her bandmate Amy Love added: "And then we tried to continue to shop and it was like we couldn't concentrate so we went to a tequila bar had a little toast by the seaside. It was amazing."

Harry Styles' Harry's House is the most commercially-successful album on the list, spending six of the last nine weeks at number one.

A shimmering, fleet-footed pop record, it's unlikely to win (no pop artist has taken the prize since M People in 1994) but marks another step in the star's ascension to Britain's pop elite.

Sam Fender's Seventeen Going Under is another chart-topper, full of sax-soaked rock epics that tackle life, death, family trauma and the social deprivation in England's North East.

He told 6 Music: "Seventeen Going Under is a very personal and important record for me and the boys, and for it to be recognised is insane.

"It is an absolute honour and I am chuffed. Fingers crossed and we'll see what happens, but just to be nominated is an honour."

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
Little Simz picks up her second nomination at this year's prize

London rapper Little Simz is one of two returning nominees, having previously been shortlisted for her 2019 album Grey Area.

This year, she's recognised for Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, an orchestral hip-hop album in which she reckons with her public and personal demons, to stirring effect.

She told 6 Music: "I had some things to say and this was my way of expressing it and it's a blessing people have resonated with it.

"The list is so strong so to be amongst that is definitely an honour. I definitely will carry this energy throughout me today."

Guitarist Bernard Butler, who won the second ever Mercury Prize with Suede in 1993, also makes a return, this time for his collaboration with actress Jessie Buckley, better known for her roles in Chernobyl, Wild Rose and The Lost Daughter (for which she received an Oscar nomination).

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Jessie Buckley and Bernard Butler attended the Mercury Prize shortlist announcement on Tuesday, where all nominees receive trophies

The shortlist is completed by Leeds-based post-punk act Yard Act, south London soul singer Joy Crookes and rapper Kojey Radical.

Unlike the Brit Awards, which recognise commercial success, the Mercury Prize rewards artistic achievement. For that reason, Self Esteem said she had secretly craved a nomination.

"You're not meant to be like that about awards," she said. "You're not supposed to care, but I cared about this one. So I'm free because I'm on it and I've won!"

"I used to go into HMV and buy the Mercury-nominated albums and review them with my dad," said Joy Crookes, "so being nominated was kind of weird to digest.

"I had to go and spend some time by myself. It was a rush of emotions."

Media caption,

‘I’m overwhelmed,’ says Mercury nominee Joy Crookes

Albums that missed out on a spot included Adele's chart blockbuster 30, Charli XCX's pop masterclass Crash, Dave's We're All In This Together and Florence and the Machine's critically-acclaimed Dance Fever.

"'Getting down to 12 albums this year was not easy," said the judges in a statement, "simply because there were so many remarkable ones to choose from.

"Now comes the really hard part... choosing only one overall winner."

That winner will be chosen on 8 September, the night of the Mercury Prize ceremony.

Until then, here's all you need to know about this year's nominees.

Fergus McCreadie - Forest Floor

"The approach is jazz but the music is folk," says Scottish pianist Fergus McCreadie of his third album, Forest Floor. Like its predecessors Cairn (the Gaelic term for a stone mound) and Turas (pilgrimage), the record is rooted in the natural world, with tracks like Morning Moon and The Unfurrowed Field exploring how the changing seasons affect the ecosystem.

McCreadie, twice winner of the Young Scottish Jazz Musician Of The Year, is capable of incredible, intricate keyboard runs. But he mostly plays with lyrical restraint, drawing out beautiful, singable melodies that effortlessly evoke the beauty of the Caledonian forest.

The critics said: "His music may be rooted in the Scottish landscape but Fergus McCreadie is a world class act." [The Jazz Mann]

Listen to this: Law Hill

Gwenno - Tresor

Welsh singer-songwriter Gwenno Saunders has had a varied career - from starring in Michael Flatley's Lord of the Dance, to singing with retro girl group The Pippettes, before settling into a rewarding psych-folk groove as a solo artist.

Tresor, her third album, is sung almost entirely in Cornish, a language she learned as a child from her father, the poet Tim Saunders. It's dreamy, gentle songs are largely a celebration of motherhood, sketched in layered harmonies and languid instrumentals that recall the French pop wave of the 1960s

The critics said: "A thrilling psych-pop journey well worth the four-year wait." [The Skinny]

Listen to this: Anima

Harry Styles - Harry's House

A bright sunshiny collection of effortless pop, Harry Styles third album is also the first Harry Styles album where he sounds truly comfortable as a solo artist. The scat singing and synth horns on Music For A Sushi Restaurant capture his quirky charisma; while Boyfriends' critique of toxic masculinity is the song every girl wishes Harry would sing to her while he painted their toenails.

Unusually for a big pop album, Styles' voice is mellow and restrained, tapping into his love of Fleetwood Mac and Ram-era Paul McCartney for stylistic cues, instead of belting out the hooks, Adele-style. It makes the album less immediate than you might expect, but repeated listens pay off.

The critics said: "He's pulled off the neat trick of making his music at once elegant and more refined but also warmer and more intimate." [Rolling Stone]

Listen to this: As It Was

Jessie Buckley and Bernard Butler - For All Our Days That Tear The Heart

Two years ago, Oscar-nominated actress Jessie Buckley and former Suede guitarist Bernard Butler were strangers. But Buckley's manager had a hunch they'd get along, and orchestrated a meeting. The result is a mysterious, brooding album that embraces everything from Celtic folk to Americana, anchored by Buckley's bewitching vocals.

She can be smoky, intimate, yearning and quietly devastated, with a nuanced, elegant delivery that echoes Joni Mitchell and Laura Marling.

Highlights include the haunting Beautiful Regret and The Eagle and the Dove - a beautiful, flamenco-flavoured ballad whose lyrics reference the changing seasons, surging tides, wild beasts, love, faith and lust.

The critics said: "Buckley is certainly no luvvie on leave. This is, at times, a dazzling album." [Telegraph]

Joy Crookes - Skin

"It's a genuine reflection of being a human being," says Joy Crookes of her debut album, Skin, that laces coming-of-age stories with social commentary and old-school soul melodies.

It's a rich storybook of experience - honouring her Irish-Bengali heritage on 19th Floor; tackling anti-immigration sentiment on Kingdom; celebrating an ex-partner on When You Were Mine; and unravelling an experience of sexual assault on Unlearn You.

Crookes' smoky, jazz-tinged delivery has been compared to Amy Winehouse - and for once the comparison is earned. But her self-aware lyrics and experimental sonics mean she deserves to be treated as an artist in her own right.

The critics said: "If the point of a debut album is getting to know an artist, then Skin is a masterclass." [The Guardian]

Listen To This: When You Were Mine

Kojey Radical - Reason To Smile

The first voice you hear on Kojey Radical's debut album is his mother. Speaking in the Ghanian dialect Twi, she gives the east London rapper some advice on becoming a father: "Keep focused, do good, this is what your son will see. And it will guide him."

Fatherhood informs the entire album - as the 29-year-old looks at the people, situations and music that made him who he is; and the lessons he wants to pass on to his son, Zach. With assistance from Ella May, Wretch 32 and Kelis he cooks up a compelling celebration of blackness, family, love and hard work, set to an infectiously sunny blend of psychedelic funk and soul.

The critics said: "Not just an album, but a beaming victory lap." [DIY]

Listen to this: Silk

Little Simz - Sometimes I Might Be Introvert

Contrary to the title, Little Simz is bursting with confidence on her fourth album, which takes you on a journey through her family background and artistic struggles over a funky, orchestral brand of hip-hop.

On Little Q, she raps from the perspective of her cousin, who was stabbed in the chest in South London. The moving I Love You / I Hate You, meanwhile, is addressed to the father who abandoned her when she was 11. "Never thought my parent would give me my first heartbreak," she observes.

The star's laid-back delivery balances the sadness with empathy and understanding, and the music pulses with an unstoppable life force.

The critics said: "The kind of project that cements her status as one of the most talented artists of her generation." [Under The Radar]

Listen to this: Woman

Nova Twins - Supernova

The London-based duo of Amy Love and Georgia South once described their band as "two mixed race girls who shout through distorted mics and play gnarly bass riffs". In other words, expect noise... and lots of it.

Their second album is appropriately in-your-face, especially in the lyrics, which rip into the racist and sexist critics who've questioned their place in rock music. "Blacker than the leather that's holding our boots together," Amy raps on Cleopatra. "If you rock a different shade, we come under the same umbrella."

Puzzles is an electro-punk anthem to lust; while KMB tells a cartoonishly gory story of murdering a boyfriend. And when it all threatens to get too heavy, the band sweeten the pill with a series of sweetly addictive pop melodies.

The critics said: "Aptly titled, Supernova sees Nova Twins burning brighter than ever with their gloriously self-made sound." [Kerrang]

Listen to this: Cleopatra

Sam Fender - Seventeen Going Under

Like his hero, Bruce Springsteen, Sam Fender's sympathies lie with the working men and women who scrape a living in the face of what he calls neglect from an uncaring government.

On his second album, that means turning a spotlight on his hometown, North Shields, and the havoc that deprivation wreaks - from broken homes to drug deals via pub fights and political alienation.

And yet there's a thread of hope in his tenacious vocals and the insistent saxophone that punctuates the record's more anthemic moments. The end result is an album that's both socially compelling and primed for a stadium singalong.

The critics said: "A towering piece of work." [Line of Best Fit]

Listen to this: Seventeen Going Under

Self Esteem - Prioritise Pleasure

Unapologetically direct, Rebecca Lucy Taylor's second album as Self Esteem is a battle cry for fed-up women everywhere. She slams down sexism and celebrates femininity, confronts her own toxic behaviour and that of others, and refuses to succumb to other people's expectations of womanhood.

It's all delivered with a mixture of righteous anger and knowing humour. "When I'm buried in the ground I won't be able to make your birthday drinks but I will still feel guilty," she deadpans on the self-help anthem I Do This All The Time.

The music, meanwhile, is as big as her feelings: Drums pound, choirs scream, synthesizers explode. It's all hugely cathartic and intensely physical, as her sold out live shows have proved.

The critics said: "With its witty authenticity and propulsive rhythms, Prioritise Pleasure is a glorious stirring manifesto on female self-worth." [The Forty-Five]

Listen to this: I Do This All The Time

Wet Leg - Wet Leg

Hailing from the Isle Of Wight, Wet Leg were formed by musicians Rhian Teasdale and Hester Chambers after their respective solo careers failed to take off.

Almost immediately, they hit upon a rich vein of surreal-but-catchy indie rock. Their first single, an innuendo-laden ode to the Chaise Longue, became an immediate viral hit, racking up millions of streams in the middle of 2021.

It's the sort of song that rings the "one-hit-wonder" alarm bell, but Wet Leg proved everyone wrong on their debut album, which took that dry humour and injected it into a brisk and inventive collection of indie disco anthems.

The critics said: "Hooks for days, cheek for weeks." [Rolling Stone]

Listen to this: Chaise Longue

Yard Act - The Overload

Acerbic and mischievous, Yard Act's skittery post-punk anthems are peppered with wry observations on post-Brexit Britain.

Frontman James Smith populates his songs with white-collar crooks and red-faced racists who declare: "If you don't challenge me on anything, you'll find I'm actually very nice" - painting a picture of a country divided by wealth and suspicion.

But there's an undercurrent of empathy, especially on Tall Poppies, which tells the story of a handsome football prodigy who never pursued his dream. And by the closing track, 100% Endurance, Smith is observing "the key to peace lies within us". Perhaps things don't have to be so bleak, after all.

The critics said: "A hugely impressive debut bubbling with sardonic wit, wisdom, anger, and compassion." [Under The Radar]

Listen to this: The Overload

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