For the first time in its 29-year history, female artists and female-fronted bands have outnumbered men on the shortlist for the Mercury Prize.
Among the nominees for album of the year are Charli XCX’s lockdown project How I’m Feeling Now and Dua Lipa’s pop opus Future Nostalgia.
“I never really thought this would ever happen to me,” said Lipa. “Maybe I just didn’t think I was cool enough.”
The nominees were announced live on Lauren Laverne’s 6 Music show.
A total of seven female or female-fronted acts made the 2020 shortlist. The previous highest total was five.
In contrast to last year’s list, which highlighted political lyrics and post-Brexit punk, this year’s selection champions pop – a genre the Prize has tended to ignore since the 1990s, when acts like Take That and the Spice GIrls received nominations.
Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia and Georgia’s Seeking Thrills are both exuberant hymns to hedonism, while Charli XCX brings cutting-edge production techniques to her pop melodies, on an album recorded in six weeks at the start of the lockdown.
- Dua Lipa interview: The history of Future Nostalgia
- Charli XCX on her lockdown album: ‘Why didn’t I do this before?’
“This album was like therapy to me,” the singer told BBC 6 Music. “It was a real emotional release. I decided once quarantine began that I could not really sit still, and I had to create something for my own piece of mind.
“I feel honoured to have my little corner of experimental pop music be recognised.”
If Charli, Dua or Georgia win, it would be the first time a pop record has earned the £25,000 prize since M People’s Elegant Slumming in 1994.
UK rap continues to have a strong presence on the list, with returning nominees Stormzy and Kano hoping to replicate the success of last year’s winner, Dave.
Their albums both address the experiences and prejudices facing young Black Britons, a topic which also informs Moses Boyd’s freewheeling jazz record, Dark Matter.
And a few Mercury favourites also make an appearance: Laura Marling racks up her fourth nomination for the elegant, melodic Song For Our Daughter; while Michael Kiwanuka becomes part of an elite group who’ve been nominated for each of their first three albums – the others being Coldplay and Anna Calvi.
A few lesser-known acts also appear on the list, including Newcastle indie band Lanterns On The Lake, whose singer Hazel Wilde is currently holding down a part-time job at Newcastle University because she makes so little money from music.
Wilde told the BBC “it never crossed my mind” that she could have received a nomination. “When I told the rest of the band, the next morning we were all texting each other, checking it wasn’t a dream.”
She said she hoped the profile boost from the Mercury Prize would enable the group to make music “full time and make a living from it”.
This shortlist eschews some notable British albums from the past 12 months, with records by The 1975, Harry Styles pop newcomer Rina Sawayama and FKA Twigs all having been tipped as possible nominees.
The winner will be announced at on Thursday, 24 September, with organisers still hoping to stage an award ceremony at London’s Hammersmith Apollo, depending on coronavirus guidelines.
Read about all 12 of this year’s nominees below.
Anna Meredith – Fibs
Scottish composer Anna Meredith has been a composer-in-residence with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, made music for park benches in Hong Kong, opened the first night of the Proms with a piece commemorating the end of World War 1, and created orchestral arrangements for Laura Marling and Sigur Ros.
The songs on her second solo album, Fibs, are in perpetual motion, skipping deftly between moods and sounds, whether she’s layering up arpeggiated synths, thrashing a hair metal guitar, or making “bangery pop pop” on the elegaic Inhale Exhale.
The critics say: “It’s a frankly overwhelming listen first time around, with everything tearing along at 100 miles an hour, but it’s all fizzing and crackling so exhilaratingly that you’re happy to let her sweep you along.” [DIY Magazine]
Listen to this: Inhale Exhale
Charli XCX – How I’m Feeling Now
“Staying positive goes hand in hand with being creative,” said Charli XCX, announcing that she intended to write and record an album from scratch during the Covid-19 lockdown.
Six weeks later, How I’m Feeling Now emerged, fusing her pop melodies with fidgety electronic production. Understandably, it simmers with anxiety and stress – but also finds space to celebrate the relationship that sustained Charli through self-isolation.
“I don’t know why I haven’t made an album like this before’,” she told the BBC. “It’s so fun and nice to work like this.”
The critics said: “While not life-altering, How I’m Feeling Now is fun, fast and thoroughly listenable. It’s absorbing as a document from a strange period, and its diaristic, vloggy aspects provide an intriguing peek into artistry under pressure.” [The Quietus]
Listen to this: Claws
Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia
“I’ve time-travelled quite a lot on this record,” said Dua Lipa of her second album, which draws on 70s disco, 80s workout-pop and 90s club jams.
The retro-futuristic sound was a deliberate step away from her debut album, as Lipa resisted the pressure to make a “New Rules Pt. II” and revisited the music that inspired her, growing up in London and Kosovo.
The result is almost defiantly happy – a sweat-glistened hymn to the dancefloor that cements her position as Britain’s top pop star.
The critics said: “A breathtakingly fun, cohesive and ambitious attempt to find a place for disco in 2020.” [Rolling Stone]
Listen to this: Don’t Start Now
Georgia – Seeking Thrills
Growing up, Georgia Barnes’ bedroom doubled as a recording studio for dance mavericks and two-time Mercury nominees Leftfield. “It was keyboards, drum machines, wires, bits of percussion, microphones,” said the singer, whose father was the band’s producer Neil Barnes.
She started playing one of those drum machines when she was five, and her love of rhythm permeates her propulsive second album, Seeking Thrills.
Like Dua Lipa’s record, Seeking Thrills is a euphoric tribute to dancefloor deliverance. Or, to use Georgia’s own words, “ultrasound light, consumed by night”.
The critics said: “It’s a spectacularly physical and restless album… The embodiment of what it means to come alive on the dancefloor.” [Popmatters]
Listen to this: Never Let You Go
Kano – Hoodies All Summer
One of the legends of grime’s first wave, Kano’s fifth album, Made In The Manor, landed him a Mercury nomination in 2017.
His sixth record is, if anything, sharper and more focused – a lean, 10-track survey of social and racial injustice, that addresses everything from knife crime and Windrush to gentrification and, crucially, the importance of good times.
“I feel like we’re resilient people and there’s always room for a smile and to celebrate the small wins and the big wins,” he told Apple Music.
The critics said: “This is the album grime has been crying out for.” [The Telegraph]
Listen to this: Can’t Hold We Down
Lanterns On The Lake – Spook The Herd
On their atmospheric fourth album, Newcastle’s Lanterns On The Lake sing about environmental crisis, internet extremism, social media addiction and bereavement.
“Don’t look now,” sings Hazel Wilde on the opening track, “Here come the baddies/ On a wave of hate.”
The topics are urgent and frequently upsetting, but Wilde infuses her lyrics with empathy, exploring how compassion could deliver us from disaster.
The music is a balm, too, with shimmering guitars and dreamy soundscapes that draw you deeper with every listen.
The critics said: “A spectacular, rich and luscious album that many listeners will have etched into their minds and hearts forever.” [Music OMH]
Listen to this: Every Atom
Laura Marling – Song For Our Daughter
Laura Marling’s seventh album was inspired by Maya Angelou’s book, Letter to My Daughter – a series of essays to a younger generation of women, full of wisdom and lessons in compassion and fortitude.
Marling is also passing down some hard-won wisdom. “Stay alone, be brave,” she sings on Strange Girl. Later, on For You, she advises: “Love is not the answer / But the line that marks the start.”
For an artist who’s frequently hidden behind characters and metaphor, it’s her most straightforward record yet, full of rich string arrangements and melodic Laurel Canyon harmonies, and earning the singer her fourth Mercury nomination.
The critics said: “Marling’s seventh solo LP has the clarity, mastery and quiet strength of a folk-rock classic.” [Q Magazine]
Listen to this: Strange Girl
Michael Kiwanuka – Kiwanuka
Michael Kiwanuka joins rarefied company, as only the third artist to receive a Mercury nomination for each of their first three albums (the others being Coldplay and Anna Calvi).
Despite that track record, his latest album emerged from a period of crippling self-doubt. “I’ve always had imposter syndrome,” he told the BBC last year. “I was always waiting for someone to find me out and go, ‘You’re not actually that good and it’s all going to crumble’.”
After conquering his demons, Kiwanuka re-emerged with a record that bears his name as a badge of pride and self-belief.
Across 13 interwoven tracks, it showcases his talents as a melodicist and arranger, steering effortlessly through gospel-rock, melancholy soul and trippy psychedelia – while never losing sight of his grace and humanity.
The critics said: “Kiwanuka is loaded with memorable songs, but the best way to experience them is by listening to the album from start to finish.” [Uncut]
Listen to this: Hero
Moses Boyd – Dark Matter
Moses Boyd made his name as a drummer, winning two Mobo Awards as part of the free-jazz duo Binker and Moses.
His solo debut is a foundation-shaking collision of West African and Caribbean rhythms, incorporating elements of UK garage and experimental electronica for good measure.
Aimed squarely at the dancefloor, it’s also a subtly political album, written as a reaction to Windrush, Grenfell and Brexit.
“I didn’t sit down to write political songs,” he told All About Jazz, “but I was turning on my TV and seeing tower blocks burning and people being deported [so] I was responding to what was around me. There’s a lot of darkness.”
The critics said: “Cool, relevant, and vital in pulling together the threads of London’s often disparate musical communities.” [Allmusic]
Listen to this: Stranger Than Fiction
Porridge Radio – Every Bad
“I’m bored to death / Let’s argue,” sings Porridge Radio’s singer, songwriter and guitarist Dana Margolin in the opening seconds of the band’s second album.
Those feelings of frustration and uncertainty appear across the whole album, as Margolin attempts to figure out her place in a world that doesn’t allow space for self-reflection.
The chaos is reflected in the itchy guitar lines and agitated drums, helping the Brighton-based band burn off some of that nervous energy.
The critics said: “Porridge Radio have not only written the album of their careers but possibly of the year too.” [Clash]
Listen to this: Circling
Sports Team – Deep Down Happy
Last month, Sports Team achieved the highest first-week sales for a debut album by a British band in four years, narrowly missing out on the number one slot after a week-long showdown with Lady Gaga.
It’s easy to see why: Deep Down Happy is a compact, playful blast of indie-rock, combining the spirit of Britpop with the scuzzed-up swagger of post-punk.
Frontman Alex Rice’s lyrics, meanwhile, take a sardonic look at middle England – “I wanna be a lawyer, or someone who hunts foxes,” he sneers on Lander – placing them alongside previous Mercury-winners Pulp and Arctic Monkeys, albeit with the added privilege of a Cambridge education.
The critics said: “This is the sound of a band who are done being the underdogs.” [NME]
Listen to this: Here’s The Thing
Stormzy – Heavy Is The Head
Stormzy’s debut won multiple Brit awards, landed him a headline slot at Glastonbury and established the 26-year-old as one of Britain’s most compelling new voices.
The pressure on the follow-up was immense – hence the title – but the rapper kept a level head and focused on the music.
The result is an eclectic album that caters both to his mainstream audience and the grime scene that built him, without feeling like he’s pandering to either.
Indeed, the intended target appears to be Stormzy himself. Throughout the album, he questions how to use his fame – to crush the competition, or elevate his community? He usually errs towards the latter, seeking humility and forgiveness (particularly from his ex, Maya Jama) while turning to God for guidance.
The critics said: “Not only is it a drastic step up from his impressive debut, but it shows an artist keen to test himself emotionally, as well as artistically.”
Listen to this: Crown