When the Mercury judging panel handed the 2016 prize to Skepta’s Konnichiwa, they offered the faintly patronising caveat that it was what David Bowie would have wanted, as if the panel felt guilty for not dutifully the award to his final album Blackstar. It didn’t need that kind of qualification: these are high times for UK rap in its various forms, something this year’s Mercury shortlist reflects. Stormzy’s deservedly chart-topping Gang Signs & Prayer sits alongside J Hus’s gritty fusion of road rap, bashment and afrobeat, and Loyle Carner’s idiosyncratic, melancholy and very British take on hip-hop.
Perhaps striving for balance, the shortlist seems keen to suggest that the kind of alt-rock that once made up the NME’s primary diet is in equally rude health. You might have expected to see the xx’s I See You and Alt-J’s Relaxer among the nominees, while Blossoms are successful enough that the road sign informing drivers they’ve arrived in Stockport now notes the town is the “HOME OF BLOSSOMS”: more surprising is the appearance of Glass Animals and amiable guitar group the Big Moon.
Elsewhere, the Mercury panel would doubtless argue that there’s no such thing as a typical Mercury winner, but anyone with any longstanding interest in the award knows that there patently is. It’s not meant as any reflection on the undoubted quality of Kate Tempest’s Let Them Eat Chaos – there’s something extremely potent about its melding of performance poetry, righteous political anger and post-dubstep soundscapes – to suggest that it seems to tick all the Mercury boxes: it presents urban music in such a way that BBC2 could broadcast it being performed in its entirety on a Saturday evening in between programmes about John Betjeman and the train journey between Euston and Glasgow; it’s the kind of thing that broadsheet Sunday supplement features are made of. If Tempest seems too obvious a winner, then Sampha’s unorthodox fusion of soul-bearing piano balladry and R&B might be worth a flutter.
At the other extreme, there’s something bold about nominating Ed Sheeran’s ÷, the absolute apotheosis of the kind of critically reviled but commercially huge album that the Mercury traditionally opts to overlook. Whether the judging panel feel Sheeran’s success is so immense and so era-defining that it can’t be ignored – even his loudest detractors would have their work cut out arguing that he hasn’t proved hugely influential, judging by the charts – or they genuinely feel his skill as an unashamedly populist songwriter deserves recognition, or there’s a degree of mischievous, knowingly controversial intent involved, is an intriguing question.
More intriguing still is what isn’t on the Mercury shortlist. A succession of big names that might reasonably have expected to be there aren’t: Laura Marling’s Semper Femina; Sleaford Mods’ English Tapas; Gorillaz’ Humans (although the latter probably queered their pitch by demanding to be removed from the shortlist in 2001). Even the Rolling Stones’ triumphant return to basics, Blue and Lonesome, could have been in with a shout.
It’s hard to escape the feeling that if you wanted to have guitar based alt-rock, the last 12 months has seen albums noticeably more exciting than some of the nominees in that field, not least Jane Weaver’s fantastic psychedelic exploration Modern Kosmology or the unconventional art-punk of Sacred Paws, while in the field of dance music, Actress’s AZD is arguably more adventurous and out-there than anything on the list.
As usual, there’s nothing from any part of the spectrum of hard rock (“[metal] is a niche genre that many people don’t listen to,” as Mercury prize chair Simon Frith explained some years ago, helpfully explaining why even its biggest names, from Iron Maiden to Black Sabbath to Bring Me the Horizon remain little-known cult figures, sadly unable to attract the kind of vast audience that performance poetry set to post-dubstep soundscapes invariably garners).
More unexpectedly, while the annual solitary jazz nomination is present and correct – trumpeter Laura Jurd’s electric-era Miles Davis-inspired quartet Dinosaur are doubtless grateful for the sudden burst of publicity outside of the jazz world, said burst of publicity being one of the few unequivocally positive things the Mercury Prize does – but there’s no music on the shortlist you could even broadly describe as folk, a curious state of affairs in a year that’s seen both Richard Dawson’s hugely ambitious and idiosyncratic song-cycle Peasant and the thrillingly uncompromising return of British folk’s grande dame Shirley Collins after a 38 year absence from recording.
There are some great albums present and correct, but at the very least, it’s hard not to feel that British music over the last 12 months has been noticeably more diverse than the Mercury shortlist suggests.
The full Mercury prize 2017 shortlist