The Picky Bastards Mercury Prize Shortlist 2020

We Picky Bastards have repeatedly made it clear that Mercury Prize season is one of our favourite seasons. There are a few reasons for this. One is that we are huge fans of music, and almost every list will introduce us to something we haven’t heard of and that we will later fall in love with. Another is that it is the main prize that champions the British album. But probably chief among them is that we love a good moan, and the Mercury Prize provides us with ample opportunities to do so. Often we are moaning about the eventual winner, or when the likes of Radiohead, Kate Tempest, and Nadine Shah lose to something that seems to be, in all honesty, the safe and middle of the road option. But then we also recognise that every album which makes it onto this shortlist gets a huge boost, and that can only be a good thing.

That said, there is another thing we can almost guarantee we’ll be moaning about when the shortlist is announced on Thursday July 23rd. The albums that are missing from the list. We’ll be furious, I can promise you. To preempt this anger, here are the albums we want to see when that announcement is made:

Tom Burrows: FKA twigs – Magdalene – The Mercury Prize functions to bring our attention to excellent British music that we’d possibly otherwise overlook. That’s how I see it. I found 2019 underwhelming in a musical sense so I’m hoping this year’s list shows that I was just looking in the wrong places. I’m going for a rather obvious selection this year, folks. Magdalene is certain to be nominated because it fits all of the criteria. It was near-universally acclaimed, FKA twigs is highly respected, and it’s experimental but melodically palatable for most people. I don’t think she’ll win, as she doesn’t need the exposure (obligatory mention for the absence of Radiohead from the list of past Mercury winners), but Magdalene is a very accomplished album. It has more flaws than her previous work, but plenty of exceptional highs (the incredible ‘Daybed’ is still my favourite song on it). If she does take the trophy, there can surely be very little to complain about – the woman is a genius.

James Spearing: Låpsley – Through Water – I had my own little shortlist drawn up, but this was the only album that the PBs hadn’t written about. I thought it was about time to put that right.

This is Låpsley’s second album and her songwriting has leapt ahead. It’s more mature and consistent, as you might expect with age. It’s full of her own personal struggles and experiences as a young womxn.

It’s all the more impressive when you learn she’s still producing all her own music too, as she has done since the start. Techniques like tuning down and layering her own vocals help create her unique sound.

Don’t be fooled into thinking she’s got bogged down in the details of deep lyrics and knob-twiddling though – she still knows who to write a top tune, and she’s also created the best under the radar British pop album of the last year. It fully deserves a place on that list of Mercury nominees.

Fran Slater: The Murder Capital – When I Have Fears – We covered this album on the podcast back in October 2019, and I was immediately drawn to it’s jagged, aggressive sound. I found myself enjoying it even more as I delved into the dark and honest stories that James McGovern was telling in his songs.

My love for this album reached a whole new level, though, once I saw the band live. They were mesmerising. I can think of only a few gigs that match that level of performance, musicianship, and passion. The Murder Capital are a force.

While I didn’t pick it as my favourite album of 2019 initially, time has proven that there wasn’t a more substantial and powerful LP in the last twelve months. While some may say it doesn’t break any new ground, that it treads a line that started with Joy Division and has taken in the likes of Interpol and others ever since, I would say that I don’t think that matters. When an album sounds as good as When I Have Fears it deserves to be considered only on its own merits. And it deserves a Mercury nod.

Sam Atkins: Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia – First thing to say here is that both of my initial picks were nabbed earlier by Tom and Will who have eloquently described why their choices are more than worthy here.

Instead, I’m here to say that a dance pop record deserves the Mercury Prize for the first time in 26 years. Not since M People’s Elegant Slumming has a straight up danceable pop record won this trophy and Future Nostalgia is the album that can do it again. Disco, funk, 80s Pop, and modern EDM fuse on this front to back masterclass in pop. Dua Lipa’s rise to become the UK’s biggest international star in years had glimpses of the quality on display here, but on Future Nostalgia everything is ramped up a gear. ‘Break Your Heart’, ‘Don’t Start Now’ and ‘Levitating’ are joyous and hooky, while ‘Physical’ and ‘Hallucinating’ are absolute bangers in every sense. Dua Lipa is the UK’s biggest and best popstar right now and a Mercury nomination is all but certain.

Nick Parker: Ghostpoet – I Grow Tired But Dare Not Fall Asleep – Even more than his last two Mercury nominations, the new Ghostpoet album is just unbelievably “cool”. I realise this is not a very technical description, but it is an accurate one this time around – I Grow Tired But Dare Not Fall Asleep is so effortlessly stylish that on second track ‘Concrete Pony’ the band manage to play cowbell and make it sound sinister.

To be a little more technical, this is also the most immaculately recorded album I’ve heard in a long time. Even the most delicate, dry drum strikes on tracks like ‘This Train Wreck of the Life’ are so close and present that they hit you in the face, in the nicest possible way. Bass tone too, sounds incredibly nuanced.

This closeness is only really apparent because of the song writing though. It’s a masterclass in restraint throughout, from ‘Nowhere to Hide Now’ to ‘Humana Second Hand’ – always less and less music to let that which remains exhale gently into the smoke-filled club, at a whisper.

Where Ghostpoet has missed the Mercury before, this time he’s more deserving than ever.

Will Collins: Michael Kiwanuka – KIWANUKA – When he first emerged, topping the BBC’s ‘Sound of 2012’ poll, I was guilty of writing Michael Kiwanuku off, incorrectly and unfairly, as just another bland bloke with a guitar.

Each of his subsequent album releases has worked to make a mockery of that initial assessment. Kiwanuka is his best record yet. No dull strumming here. It’s a beast of a record, incorporating elements of soul, gospel, and lush 60s pop into its rich sound.

He changes tempo and volume effortlessly over the course of the album, equally at home fronting full band workouts on songs like ‘You Ain’t the Problem’ as when accompanied by a solitary piano on ‘Solid Ground’.

It all sounds beautiful – the record has a warm analogue feel that makes it sound, without venturing into pastiche territory, like it was made in the 70s instead of last year.

This is also an album in the old sense of the word: a cohesive body of work that has been dreamed up in its entirety, rather than just a collection of songs packaged together for sale. Listening to it from start to finish is such a rewarding experience. It’s an album to get lost in.

Kim Fernley: Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs – Viscerals – I mean, they’re called Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs. Isn’t that enough? Pigs turned it up a few more notches for their latest album, Viscerals, which was released in April 2020. It’s absolutely merciless and exhausting. There’s no let up. And that feels cathartic. They’re a band who wear their influences on their sleeves, but they’re unafraid to stand out from the typical recipe of today’s alternative music. Viscerals is refreshingly deafening and furious. In all honesty, I’m not expecting them to win the prize, but they definitely deserve to be shortlisted, if only so more people get to enjoy their experimental, metal chaos. They’ve built a solid reputation for their live performances (thank you Corona for ruining my plans) and I’d quite like to see them show the judges how it’s done. Mercury Prize or not, they’re destined for great, loud things.

Lisa Whiteman: Baxter Dury – The Night Chancers – My Mercury Prize Nominee (pfft, winner) and probable AOTY 2020 is Baxter Dury – The Night Chancers.  Opening with the line ‘I’m not your fucking friend’ in his thick, deep, father’s-son drawl, this record takes you on a smoky, sleazy-feeling half hour trip around Dury’s world. It is a beautiful, slinky record immersed in late night Parisian-bar esque sex music. Filthy. I love it.  Highlights: ‘I’m Not Your Dog’, ‘Slumlord’, ‘Samurai’, ‘Carla’s Got A Boyfriend’, and ‘Say Nothing’.

Quincey May Brown: Lankum – The Livelong Day – The song ‘The Wild Rover’ has had a hard run in recent times, from being bastardised in the Clover advert to the jaunty ditty often heard belted out by stag and hen parties across Ireland’s touristy corners. Lankum open their third album with a 10 minute complete overhaul of the song, reclaiming the original darker sentiment behind it. This is just the beginning of a powerful, uncompromising, apocalyptic triumph of an album. The drone led instrumental tracks of ‘Ode to Lullaby’ and ‘Pride of Petravore’ are amongst the most achingly beautiful tracks I’ve heard in the last year. Folk music has been something of an outlier in the Mercury Prize, but I’d love to see Lankum get the recognition they deserve for their talents in turning folk standards on their heads.

Fat Roland: 808 State – Transmission Suite – 808 State’s first album for 17 years wasn’t just a triumph in techno: it was a brilliantly realised celebration of old electronics. They could have approached analogue technology with a fuzzy nostalgia, producing a tapestry of neon Tron tributes so often seen in 80s-influenced dance music. Instead the band took as its cue the darker side of the 1980s: atomic-age existentialism; covert communications; a Cold War paranoia as chilling as having Khrushchev himself dribbling down your back. Therefore it’s a deliciously uneasy listen, with awkward synth lines bound with tension, and vocal samples seemingly lifted from long-suppressed recordings (“I was wrong!”). Even ‘Skylon’s nod to their muzak-infused Bjork period sounds like it’s remembering those days under the bright glare of an interrogation lamp. The tense acid of ‘Tokyo Tokyo’ and the nervously skittering drums of ‘The Ludwig Question’ are a perfect counterpoint to the album’s artwork, a gallery of faded broadcast gear from their recording location: a decrepit Granada Studios. You know the headphone bloke wiretapping from an attic in ‘The Lives Of Others’? This is what he was listening to. Mercury Prize judges take note: this is an album project so well realised, I suspect Russian interference.

Matt Paul: Anna Meredith – FIBSFIBS is unrestrained and huge. It’s a massively emotive album full of anxiety and relief, merging genres with Meredith’s spectacular arrangements. This is music that always feels purposeful.

As soon as I heard the lead single ‘Paramour’, I was hooked. The song transforms from a small and quiet start, to a chaotic and cathartic release. That was my song of 2019 and this was almost my album of 2019.

Simply put, this album is a collection of some of the most interesting and rewarding soundscapes that I have heard in years.



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