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Mercury Prize 2023: Arctic Monkeys, Jessie Ware and Fred Again lead shortlist

Jun 7,2020 4:56 pm

By Mark SavageBBC Music Correspondent

Arctic Monkeys, Young Fathers and J Hus are all nominated for the 2023 Mercury Prize, which celebrates the best British and Irish albums of the year.

The Arctics make the shortlist for the fifth time with The Car, tying them with Radiohead as the most-nominated act in the award's 32-year history.

The Sheffield band previously won in 2006 for their debut, Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not.

Their rivals this year include Jessie Ware and breakout dance act Fred Again.

Ware returns to the shortlist after an 11-year gap, thanks to the irresistible disco shimmy of her fifth album, That! Feels Good! while Fred Again is recognised for the speaker-popping anthems of Actual Life 3.

Rappers Loyle Carner and J Hus both receive their second nomination, for albums that tackle perceptions of masculinity and the cycle of violence on London's streets.

All of them are returning nominees, but there's also space for several newcomers.

Among them are Olivia Dean and Shygirl, who take wildly different approaches to pop music - one steeped in traditional songcraft, the other on the bleeding edge of modern production.

And chart star Raye makes the cut with her long-awaited debut, My 21st Century Blues, which was released this February after a protracted fight with her record label.

The majority of this year's acts hail from London - three quarters in total - raising questions about the music industry's lack of diversity,

Each of the last eight Mercury Prize winners has hailed from the capital and, while they've spanned a huge rang of genres - grime, R& B, indie rock and pop - the diminished voice of other towns and cities is stark.

The last winner to come from outside London was Scottish group Young Fathers who, coincidentally, are up for the prize again this year for their compelling fourth album Heavy, Heavy.

Speaking to the BBC, the band recalled feeling like outsiders even after their victory in 2014.

" There's an etiquette at these award shows and because we never came with cap in hand we got a wee bit of backlash. People said, 'Oh, they weren't smiling,' as if we were being ungrateful, " said singer Alloysious Massaquoi.

" I didn't think it was fair. We were three working class Scottish guys who'd won this prestigious award and we were overwhelmed. "

" If we were four white guys with guitars, no-one would have asked them why they weren't smiling, " added his bandmate Graham Hastings.

The shortlist is completed by Irish doom-folk group Lankum, pop experimentalists Jockstrap, and buzz-worthy jazz outfit Ezra Collective.

The winner will be announced at London's Hammersmith Apollo on Thursday, 7 September 2023.

Until then, here's a guide to each of the nominated albums.

Arctic Monkeys - The Car

Returning to the cinematic, jazzy universe they discovered on Tranquillity Base Casino & Hotel, the Arctic Monkeys' seventh album firmly rejects fans' hopes that they'd re-discover their indie rock roots. But it's a sumptuously alluring record, full of doomed romance and rueful goodbyes.

Alex Turner says the lyrics have " a through-line of a production going on in the background". Not a film, necessarily (although there are references to Cinemascope and spy movies) but something artificial, where external forces are pulling the strings of his life.

That allows him to offer a meta-commentary on the band's career - " Puncturing your bubble of relatability / With your horrible new sound" - with Turner cast as a faded film star struggling to come to terms with their diminished status.

Ironically, however, the album finds the band with a renewed sense of purpose; stretching their sound even further into the realms of space rock.

The critics said: " Turner's observations and the way he relishes a smart turn of phrase bring these vignettes to life in a way that's almost frighteningly vivid, even when his circuitous melodies don't always land. " -

Loyle Carner - Hugo

Like all good arguments, Loyle Carner's third album starts with blinding fury and ends with acceptance and forgiveness.

The South Londoner has always let real life inform his lyrics and this record is the real-time story of how becoming a father prompted him to examine his relationship with his own father, who'd been absent for most of his life.

The pair eventually reconnected through a series of driving lessons in his dad's car, nicknamed Hugo.

" To cut a long story short, we founded our relationship in that car. It became my safe space for conversation and shouting and apologising and crying, " Carner told the BBC.

The overarching story allows him to investigate race, identity and belonging over a series of supple, emotionally-compelling hip-hop beats.

The critics said: " Hugo is the album many have been waiting and expecting Loyle Carner to create, it has an ambitious scope and doesn't disappoint. " -

Olivia Dean - Messy

This might be her debut album, but Olivia Dean has been building towards it since she was an eight-year-old listening to Carole King and Aretha Franklin and Lauryn Hill.

After a stint at the Brit School, she briefly sang with Rudimental before releasing a series of emotionally candid solo EPs that attracted millions of streams.

The album's title, Messy, refers to the tumultuous process of growing up and discovering yourself - but the music is anything but chaotic.

Instead, Dean draws on her inspirations to craft a series of effortlessly uplifting soul songs. The video for The Hardest Part even sees her recreate The Supremes' dance routines that she used to practise with her mum and auntie at home.

Highlights include the Motown-influenced Dive; and UFO, a delicate ballad inspired by a line in a valentine's card: " You're the best version of love I've ever seen. "

The critics said: " Throughout the album, the songwriting stays old-school: straightforward melodies and lyrics, clear structures, no jump-cut transitions, not even a guest rapper. It reaffirms what she's been doing right; it also claims new possibilities. " -

Ezra Collective - Where I'm Meant To Be

Spearheading London's burgeoning and boundary-breaking jazz scene, Ezra Collective released their debut album, You Can't Steal My Joy, in 2019.

Bursting with life, it combined elements of Afrobeat, jazz, reggae, salsa, hip-hop and grime. But before they could take it on tour, the pandemic hit.

Where I'm Meant To Be was written and recorded in lockdown, inspired by a conversation about imposter syndrome with film director Sir Steve McQueen (12 Years A Slave, Small Axe).

Rather than reflect the isolation of the Covid era, the album is a joyous celebration of camaraderie and friendship - assisted by singers like Jorja Smith and Emeli Sande; and rappers including Kojey Radical and Sampa The Great.

Soulful and rhythmically propulsive, it's guaranteed to make you move.

The critics said: " An exceptional album that centres joy and community, radiates positivity and youthful abandon, and could well be the one to cross over to the big league. " -

Fred Again - Actual Life 3

Fred Gibson rose to fame as the producer behind Ed Sheeran's I Don't Care and George Ezra's Shotgun, becoming the youngest ever person to win the Brit Award for best producer in 2020.

By that point, he'd already started his Actual Life project - a sort of audio diary where he turned spontaneous field recordings, Instagram clips and voice messages from his friends into a tender, intimate variant of house music.

The third volume was released last October, and documented the musician's tentative emergence from lockdown. Much of the album was recorded on the move, on tube journeys, in airport lounges or simply sitting on London's South Bank.

" It affects the music in every way, having people around, " he told the BBC. " That's the main thing to me. Like a conveyor belt of people that consciously and unconsciously inspire you. "

The critics said: " Actual Life 3 [is] like an aural version of scrolling through someone's social media posts… but no matter where you dig in, there's memorable music to be found. " -

J Hus - Beautiful And Brutal Yard

J Hus put his stamp on British music with 2017's Common Sense, blending the diasporic influences of his London upbringing - Afroswing, grime, R& B - into something fresh and new.

It earned him a Mercury Prize nomination and a co-sign from rap superstar Drake - but, if anything, his 2020 follow-up, Big Conspiracy, was an even bigger success.

Then he disappeared, cancelling shows and sequestering himself in the studio, without the support of his longtime producer JAE5.

When he re-emerged in May, there was a harder edge to his sound, especially on the provocative comeback single It's Crazy, where he talks about the seductive power of violence and wonders if he's possessed by the devil.

That bloodthirst is recurring theme on his third album, across tracks like Cream, Killy and the battle anthem Bim Bim. But there's a spiritual side to J Hus, too, singing about the joys of dancing on Who Told You - a duet with Drake - and falling in love on My Baby.

Throughout, he's asking questions of himself, probing the darkness, working out what sort of man he wants to be as he approaches 30. He never alights on an answer, but the search has prompted some of his best music to date.

The critics said: " As a generation of UK rappers comes of age, Hus still leads the pack with his pitless charisma, linguistic inventiveness, and musical curiosity. " -

Jockstrap - I Love You Jennifer B

Neon, the first track on Jockstrap's debut album, lulls you into a false sense of security - opening with 90 seconds of pastoral British folk music before singer Georgia Ellery's voice disintegrates and a distorted drum loop pierces the idyll.

That approach - of combining orchestral 60s pop with unhinged electronica - underpins the whole record. It's perplexing and beautiful, often at the same time.

Greatest Hits is a love letter to 80s pop, referencing Madonna's Like A Virgin over a dreamy St Etienne piano groove; and Concrete Over Water is stunning six-minute ballad where a simple heartbreak gets magnified into a colossal, operatic melodrama. We've all been there.

It might not come as a surprise that the band were formed at the Guildhall School of Music, when Ellery, who was studying jazz, met Taylor Skye and was struck by the fact he was " wearing tartan pyjamas on his way to do laundry".

" It's exciting for us when we're making music to hear something that we possibly haven't heard before, " " There's a gap in the market in our brains and we're trying to fill it. "

The critics said: " A record emblazoned with such pristine, disorienting, unsettling originality that at first, you don't quite know what to do with it. " -

Lankum - False Lankum

Radical folk band Lankum worked on their fourth album in County Wexford while living in a Martello Tower - one of more than 100 artillery forts built in the 19th Century as a defence against Napoleon's invading forces.

The oppressive atmosphere of crashing seas and storm-battered coastlines fed into the music, which largely features unsettling arrangements of long-standing traditional pieces.

Opening track Go Dig My Grave, for example, is based on The Butcher Boy - an ancient folk tale about a girl who takes her life after being abandoned by her partner.

It's been sung by Peggy Seeger, Joan Baez and Sinead O'Connor. But nothing will prepare you for the unnerving treatment Lankum give it, as the opening track to their fourth album.

A dark cloud hangs over the whole enterprise, with the perils of the sea and forbidden love illustrated by long, discordant drones and dismembered sounds. But there are moments of light, such as the beautifully-harmonised Netta Perseus, that stop it becoming too bleak.

The traditional songs are unified by three " Fugues" - abstract, semi-improvised instrumentals that have earned the album a reputation as " Folk music's OK Computer".

The critics said: " If you want comfortable, safe Irish folk music, you're not going to find it here. Lankum have outdone themselves. " -

Raye - My 21st Century Blues

A lot has been written about Raye's journey to releasing her debut album. Signed to a major label in her teens, she was constantly thwarted in her attempts to forge a career, under the insistence she should be a well-behaved pop girl.

As soon as she extricated herself, Raye proved how misguided their advice was. Escapism - a brutally honest account of about abusing alcohol to get over a break-up - went to number one in January.

She followed it up with My 21st Century Blues, a wildly eclectic set of pop songs that showcased her ear for a melody.

Oscar Winning Tears is a soaring big band ballad; Black Mascara simmers and roils over a filtered house beat; Flip A Switch is dark, foreboding trap-pop.

Lyrically, she doesn't flinch from the darkness, addressing body dysmorphia, drug addiction, anxiety and, on the devastating Ice Cream Man, a life-changing experience of sexual assault.

You can see why her old label flinched. The album is too visceral for mainstream pop, but Raye's writing is too good to ignore.

The critics said: " You can feel the adrenalin rush of anger, joy and freedom pulsing through every one of the record's 13 invigorating tracks. " -

Shygirl - Nymph

The long-awaited debut by London producer Shygirl - aka Blane Muise - is a distinctive and restless exploration of vulnerability and sexual liberation.

It's probably the most TikTok-ified record on the Mercury shortlist, full of vibey, impressionistic songs that drip with addictive hooks and never outstay their welcome.

Like Billie Eilish, Muise's voice is whisper-soft in a way that makes you lean in and pay attention. The intimacy sets the scene for her lyrics, which explore the architecture of desire with upfront candour.

Highlights include Coochie (A Bedtime Story), whose sugar-sweet melody becomes a playful celebration of the female form, and the flickering beats of Firefly, where she craves the physical touch of her ex.

In her early EPs, Muise's sex-positive messages were presented with a sense of bravado, but here she peels back the layers, addressing a lover's betrayal and stressing the importance of self-care.

It's a distinctive and hypnotic listen, that only just begins to hint at the depths of Shygirl's talent.

The critics said: " Confidence has never been something Shygirl has wanted for, but it oozes from every pore of her debut full-length. " -

Jessie Ware - That! Feels Good!

The exclamation marks are deliberate. Jessie Ware's fifth album is a big old celebration of sensual pleasure and escapism, set to a thumping disco beat.

It builds on the groundwork of 2020's What's Your Pleasure, a dancefloor-focused album that acted as a reset button on Ware's career. This time round, she adds a soulful, brassy bounce to the four-on-floor beats, with the help of the eight-piece band Kokoroko.

Highlights include Free Yourself, a giddy anthem to sexual autonomy. " Why don't you please yourself? If it feels so good then don't you stop! " sings Ware in full diva mode.

Shake The Bottle is a flirtatious invitation to " make my bottle pop". On These Lips she whispers coyly, " These two lips could do so much more. " The title of Freak Me Now is self-explanatory.

" Weirdly, considering I'm quite prudish, I've found it really fun tapping into this world, " she told the BBC.

" It gives me freedom musically. Hopefully it's slightly classy, with a bit of innuendo. "

Mission accomplished.

The critics said: " It's an album that confirms the sound of an artist continuing to push forward, a unified expression of joy that is never anything but bold, playful and fun. " -

Young Fathers - Heavy, Heavy

For their fourth album, Edinburgh trio Young Fathers locked themselves in a windowless studio and went back to basics - writing and recording with no outside help, just like they had as teenagers making music in their bedrooms.

Spontaneity and improvisation were prioritised. The studio was ready to record as soon as they walked in the door. Mistakes were incorporated into the songs. Friends who dropped in were invited to contribute.

The result is the band's most freeing and uplifting music to date, emphasising the connection between childhood friends Alloysious 'Ally' Massaquoi, Kayus Bankole and Graham 'G' Hastings.

Musically, they're uncategorisable: The furious battle-cry of I Saw swoops and dives over a glam rock shuffle; Tell Me is an angelic plea for friends to share their problems that builds to a glorious orchestral climax; Drum's phased bassline and tribal percussion find the band urging listeners to " feel the beat of the drums and have fun".

" We don't fit into any particular genre, which ends up being a strength, " Massaquoi told the BBC. " But we want to make music that people have never heard before… that we've never heard before… and we do it because we love it. "

The critics said: " Heavy Heavy is a stubborn challenge to have fun to despite everything around us; a resolute dance through gritted teeth, an acknowledgement that while the world crumbles, we can stand firm, still love, still dance, still sweat, and still be good to each other. " -

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Source of news: bbc.com

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