Slaves – Are You Satisfied?
A year ago, Slaves were a small time band playing supporting gigs until their first big label album charged onto the music scene in June. What followed was a string of festival gigs and sell-out tour dates, crowned with this, a Mercury Prize nomination. But how have this duo achieved so much in such a short space of time? The answer surely lies in the intense collection of songs that is Are You Satisfied?
When the rusty, primitive guitar riff of The Hunter kicks in it sets the mood for an album which is, quite simply, unlike anything else out there. Standing in stark contrast to the endless innoxious and inoffensive albums that pack the charts, this assortment demands your attention, refuses to be background noise. Although the mix of exasperation and shattering beats might not be to everyone’s taste, none could fail to notice it. And isn’t that what great music is all about? Slaves break out of the mundane mould that so many bands seem to fall into in order to create something new and innovative. I, for one, only hope that the judges recognise this and award Slaves a prize they are truly deserving of and that would inevitably catapult them to new and unimaginable heights.
Wolf Alice – My Love Is Cool
To be shortlisted for the Mercury Prize for their debut album is something every artist dreams about, and I don’t think it could go to a more deserving band. Wolf Alice’s heady mix of rock and ethereal indie, all brought together by angry, defiant lyrics, makes for a brilliant album.
Frontwoman Ellie Rowsell has a versatile voice, managing to be almost mystical in songs such as Bros, yet also packing a punch in You’re A Germ, emanating youthful frustration. Originating in Camden, this band project a feeling of teen-angst and rebellion through music, one that is proving very popular with their ever-growing fan base. Yet their rage doesn’t hit you in the face, but more subtly creeps through in their bold lyrics and the crescendo of guitar riffs and layering of vocals. They tackle everything from an ambivalent yet affectionate relationship with their hometown of London in Giant Peach, to depression and mental health issues in Silk. Wolf Alice have found a very distinct voice in the heavily saturated indie rock scene, and to win the Mercury Prize would be a very well-deserved accolade.
Florence + The Machine – How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
Florence + The Machine was a favourite to win the Mercury Prize back in 2009 with her gorgeous and widely acclaimed debut, Lungs. Since then Florence and company have gone on to produce two more sublimely dark and theatrical records, including this year’s chart-topping, Mercury-nominated How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful. This record and its success, combined with her riotous (if unexpected) Glastonbury headlining performance, has made 2015 a pretty massive year for Florence – one that would feel complete, I’m sure, with her at last winning this much-deserved award.
This album offers a maturity and self-awareness that is hinted at in her previous albums. Although still bursting with the emotion and melodrama fans have come to associate her with, “How Big” features some starkly toned down pieces, such as Various Storms & Saints or single St Jude, which, through their more stripped-back production reveal a beautiful vulnerability. That’s not to say that the days of wild howling are gone for Florence, as What Kind Of Man and Ship To Wreck are manic anthems to rival What The Water Gave Me or Dog Days. More mature and musically cohesive than Lungs or Ceremonials, perhaps How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful finally marks the time for Florence + The Machine to claim a rightful place atop the Mercury throne.
C Duncan – Architect
When C Duncan’s Architect was announced as one of this year’s Mercury Prize nominees, it was hard to ignore the collective “Sorry, who?” of fans and critics alike. Throwing a couple of little-known albums into the shortlist has become a bit of a Mercury staple – it’s like they enjoy watching us all run around frantically pretending we’ve known about these people for as long as they have – and, sure enough, C Duncan released his debut album to relative cool this July.
But one listen to Architect proves that this is an album that deserves to be taken seriously. The son of two classical musicians, 26-year-old Duncan created the entire record tucked away in his Glasgow bedroom, slowly and meticulously layering different instruments (and oh, there are a lot of them) on top of each other. The hypnotising choral harmonies are all sung by him, the whistling is him, the drum, bass, and guitar is all him; Duncan even painted the exquisite artwork of the album’s front cover. The “architect” of the album’s title, then, is Duncan himself – he has poured his soul into this record, and the end product is an ethereal, dream-pop spectacular.
C Duncan’s sound makes for an astonishing debut, unlike anything else this year – and isn’t that what the Mercury Prize is all about? Sure, there are bigger musical profiles on the Mercury Shortlist than his, but relatively unknown debut albums have triumphed before, and the quiet majesty of Architect ensures that this is still anyone’s game.
Aphex Twin – Syro
Whenever I think of Aphex Twin I think of a “What’s In My Bag?” interview with experimental producer/sweetheart Grimes. The video was shot at a trendster’s Mecca: Amoeba Music Shop in Hollywood, California. Grimes was explaining each of her purchases and had the difficult job of justifying Justin Bieber’s Never Say Never biopic and a live performance of Blink-182 on DVD, in an environment where most interviewees have picks so edgy they couldn’t be sold to minors. “[Blink-182] is kind of like punk…it paved the way to, like… Aphex Twin” she burbles, clearly and rightfully ashamed.
This ridiculously tenuous link perfectly sums up Aphex Twin’s reputation; cheeky Grimes knew it was the only namedrop that could save her integrity. Throughout the 90’s Richard D. James’ cutting-edge electronic expulsions set the groundwork for “Intelligent Dance Music” and still sounds fantastic despite how dynamic the electronic scene is. Regardless of Syro’s content, James deserves a nod for his legendary status, but the album delivers spectacularly even considering the hype, with a fourteen-year drought since his last Aphex Twin LP. The album is more confident in its sound than any other Aphex album, with a focus on a solid momentum for each track and more than ever the soundscapes are free and organic and mutate and warp meticulously. It’s astounding that music literally produced in grids could sound so amorphous and beautiful. Syro definitely deserves the Mercury and not just so people like Grimes can keep buying shite and get away with it.
Soak – Before We Forget How To Dream
When it comes to this year’s Mercury Prize, Irish singer-songwriter Soak’s debut album, Before We Forget How To Dream, should surely win. Having been described as “a vivid portrait of teenage deep-thinking,” Soak’s lyrics are deep and dreamy, such as on single, B a nobody:
“The teenage heart is an unguarded dart
We’re trying hard to make something of what we are
Dying trapped between the main blanket and new sheet
We’ll never amount to anything”
All of her tracks are equally captivating, grabbing the attention of the listener with her Derry-twanged voice. Soak’s ability to create a musical voyage in each individual track on Before We Forget How To Dream has clearly not been lost on the Mercury Prize’s judging panel. Even though Soak’s music only contains four or five different chord progressions, the magnitude of the lyrical layers make this self-proclaimed “Irish Leprechaun” shine. Soak’s seemingly fragile voice does not need to scream to convey her moody, smart and sometimes even comical messages to the audience. This is best displayed on Reckless Behaviour, which is simply magical.
Benjamin Clementine – At Least For Now
For me it’s the story behind Benjamin Clementine that makes his debut album so powerful. He grew up in North London, but at 19 moved to Paris – homeless – spending years busking, playing bars and sleeping on the street before eventually living in a hostel. He gained a fierce underground following, before eventually a label was set-up specifically to record him. He was invited to play the North Sea Jazz Festival in 2013 but failed to show up. He had been kicked off the train having assumed the location was much closer than it was, and spent the next ten hours unsuccessfully flagging down cars before arriving with bloodied bare feet. The organizers have apparently forgiven him, as he was invited to play again two years later. At a gig in Paris, he cut a finger open but would not stop playing until an audience member threw tissues at him – he claimed he would die for his music. His career really took off after his appearance on Later With Jools Holland, now widely agreed as one of the best performances and discoveries on the show to date, and earlier this year released his debut, At Least For Now. It is with the weight of these endless stories that Clementine’s fantastic album is considered for the Mercury Prize.
Jamie xx – In Colour
Hey, remember The xx? Not that long ago they were everywhere, and even won this very same prize in 2010 for their self-titled album. So it was of little surprise to me when Jamie xx popped up on the shortlist for this year. A pivotal member of the band himself, he is also a truly groundbreaking electronic artist, having remixed the likes of Adele and Florence + The Machine, as well as the true legend Gil Scott Heron (their collaborative album is not to be missed).
In Colour is his first solo full album, and it is filled to the brim with beautiful textures and samples. His use of pace and sound is truly awesome, as he perfectly blends instrumental, synthesised samples, rapping and the gorgeous singing of one of his xx band mates, into one harmonious album which spans so many genres and so much of music history.
I truly believe that almost anyone will find a track on this album that they love, and for that reason this innovation deserves to be recognised for its beauty.
Want to make up your own mind? For the full list of nominees, click here or have a listen to our PearShaped Playlist for the Mercury Prize 2015 below.