The Picky Bastards Mercury Prize Shortlist 2021

It’s July, Summer is (kind of) here and it’s our favourite/least favourite moment of the year; the Mercury Prize Shortlist. We complain, kick off, rave and scream about those brilliant albums that don’t make the list each year, nearly as much as we plead for those that do to win the eventual prize. We just really care about this silly award okay…

In what has become a yearly tradition (3 years in a row makes it a tradition surely?) here are our personal picks that should be making the list. We’ve followed the same criteria as the main prize, any album released by a British or Irish act between 18th July 2020 and 16th July 2021, but unlike the Mercury Judges we fully go off personal opinion here. Read on for what we consider to be the best records of the last 12 months:

James Spearing: Kelly Lee Owens – Inner Song

With no Kiwanuka and Marling this year, it feels like the competition for our the second best Album of the Year prize (after ours of course) is wide open. There’s surely going to be a strong post-punk showing in 2021, but it’s high time the judging panel paid attention to electronic music once again. And who could else would we look to this year but Kelly Lee Owens. The Grand High Witch of Welsh techno released easily the most listened to LP in my modest vinyl collection at the end of August last year. ‘Jeanette’ is not only the most touching banger of all time (written in honour of her nan who sadly passed away) it’s also my personal tune of the year for 2020. I’ve come close to tears listening to it myself on occasion. Inner Song is so much more than just techno though. There’s proper songs, Welsh language spoken word with former Velvet Underground member John Cale and instrumental Radiohead cover; it’s got everything. It’s not going to win and it will be a real shame. Take note judges.

Fran Slater: Anna B Savage – A Common Turn

Every year, at least one lesser known act sees themselves plucked for obscurity to find a place on the Mercury Prize shortlist. Every now and then, they even win it.

I’d love for that act to be Anna B Savage this year. A Common Turn is a set of magnificent songs which form one of the most exciting, inventive, and intriguing albums I’ve heard in years.

Fiercely feminist, often very funny, and always beguiling – Anna has been winning some huge admirers with this album from January 2021. She’s yet to really get the recognition she deserves, though. An album with so much honesty and so much power really does deserve to be considered for the biggest prize in British music. I’ll be keeping my fingers firmly crossed.

Tom Burrows: Dry Cleaning – New Long Leg

Dry Cleaning’s debut album has proved to be one of the most divisive releases this year among our editors. For that reason, I’m skeptical about its chances of taking home a prize which normally goes to someone more universally palatable (the Arlo Parks album seems tailor-made for the award). But that’s fine – the shortlist is more interesting than the actual winner. And those of us who like New Long Leg REALLY like it. The funny thing is, both the love and the hate come from the same place – the band’s style.

For me, it does a terrific job of inverting the tendencies of the oh-so-serious artists that often dominate the post-punk genre. The deadpan snippets of random passing thoughts, statements and lines of conversation are frequently hilarious, and perfectly illustrate the absurdity of our modern existence. Is it saying anything profound? Probably not. But I think that’s its strength. Florence Shaw’s vocals juxtaposed with the band’s tight instrumentation have created a perfect snapshot of our age. Good luck, band.

Matt Paul: Sault – Untitled (Rise)

My early pick for the Mercury has not been displaced (although Jorja Smith came close). I am talking about Sault with their album Untitled (Rise). This mysterious music collective tore it up last year, making not one, but two of the best albums of 2020. Together they perfectly encapsulated a moment in time, but remained distinct bodies of work. Untitled (Rise) is the more optimistic and upbeat album of the pair. Modern and fresh sounding, but wearing its influences on its sleeve as it meanders through disco, funk and soul. And it is a critic favourite, so this should be a shoo-in. 

The biggest issue I can see is whether this album has been submitted for inclusion. The previous album did not appear on the list, despite being widely praised. Maintaining the allure and mystery around Sault may mean sacrificing a well deserved nomination.

Will Collins: Sleaford Mods – Spare Ribs

Whilst it’s hard to argue that the Mercury Prize shortlists are full of bad albums, I’m often left with the feeling that the artists nominated are a bit too focus-grouped, a bit too safe; a bit too bland and inoffensive to be honest. Sleaford Mods are the antithesis of that – they offer a singular, uncompromising vision that doesn’t really sound like anything or anyone else. Spare Ribs is another brilliant record from the band. Jason Williamson’s trademark spoken delivery is married to propulsive, minimalist and increasingly varied electronica. The songs are variously funny, angry, and poignant, whilst somehow managing to be incredibly catchy. The album captures the state of the nation as it really is, in wry and uncompromising detail.

Sam Atkins: Wolf Alice – Blue Weekend

Given the mediocre response that we gave it on the Mercury Prize 2018 podcast, I was as surprised as anyone else to see Wolf Alice win the final prize for Visions of a Life. I’m just as surprised to be sat here 3 years later saying they deserve to win it again, but Blue Weekend is just that good.

No other British album in the last 12 months has captured my attention like this has, ‘Smile’, ‘How Can I Make It Ok?’, ‘Lipstick On The Glass’ these are some of the best records of the year and as an album this ties together everything that makes guitar music great. Maybe the fact that this appeals so much to a typical pop Indie fan like me is why everyone else on this website seems to be nonplussed, but for my money Blue Weekend more than deserves to get onto that shortlist. Whether Wolf Alice should become double winners is another question entirely.

Nick Parker: Sault – ANYTHING THEY’VE RELEASED

I’ll start with an admission: My very favourite music of the last 12 months has been from outside the UK. For I’m sure no particular reason, for me the UK music scene has felt a little flat recently, with just a few notable exceptions.

That said, easily atop the UK ‘best of’ list is Sault, who work very hard to be both prolific (5 albums since 2019) and mysterious (refusing much press, etc.). It feels like both those terms can get a bit distracting in the end though, because neither is as important as the simply exquisite, searing music they make in itself.

There’s been a good deal of talk among us PB’s editors about which of their two big releases of the last 12 months is the stronger (Black Is or Rise). Black Is edges it for me, but that could be just by dint of the perfect movement from drive to euphoria in the third track, “Hard Life”. I’d be very happy if any of their work was featured on the shortlist though, in the end, because Sault are, IMHO, clearly among the best collective of musicians in Britain today.

Fran Slater: Fontaines D.C. – A Hero’s Death

Fontaines DC were nominated for the 2019 Mercury Prize with the amazing Dogrel, and they had one of the many great albums on the list that lost to the little more than okay Psychodrama.

This year, they will surely get a second nomination with A Hero’s Death. This album took an already exciting band to a new level, mixing their cocksure early vibe with more depth in both their music and their words. It’s an album full of fun, aggression, and power.

I know the prize will probably be won by another mediocre album this year, but if Fontaines DC can claim it it will be a sign that The Mercury has gotten back to listening to the most exciting acts in the business. 

Tom Burrows: Róisín Murphy – Róisín Machine

Róisín Machine is a really great record. But of course it is. It’s the latest from an artist who has made a career of consistently high quality electronic music, and in many ways this feels like a crowning achievement. Róisín Murphy may not necessarily need the career boost that a Mercury win often instigates, but it’d be lovely if she was recognised with the gong. The album is absolutely made for those dancefloors that have been so vacant for the last year, but it’s so much more than a floor-filling record. I’ve seen her described as a dancefloor truth-teller, and this album does a terrific job of combining the grooves with lyrical depth – whether she’s interrogating the human concept of insatiable desire on ‘Something More’ or making the case to a partner that she’s not settling for a quiet life on the irresistible ‘Shellfish Mademoiselle’. It would be a deserved winner.

Sam Atkins: Ghetts – Conflict of Interest

I was torn between this and Arlo Parks as my second pick, I know none of us have mentioned Collapsed In Sunbeams here but that is surely a dead cert for the shortlist this year? I’ve opted to pick a Grime record instead as Conflict of Interest is most definitely the best of the eligible albums this year.

Ghetts has been ever present in the Grime scene, alongside Kano and Skepta he’s been consistently there, appearing on everyone else’s albums and records, but never quite becoming an ‘artist’ in his own right. Conflict Of Interest changes that for good, one of the strongest grime records of this scale and ambition. Yes, I’m saying that Ed Sheeran should appear on a Mercury nominated album for the second year in a row, but that misstep aside, bang for your buck this is the best Grime album of the year. 

Let us know which albums you think we missed above, and be sure to tune in to our annual Mercury Prize special podcast which will be out a few weeks before the final trophy is handed out.

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