Earlier this morning, the shortlist of nominees was announced for the 2019 Mercury Prize, a prestigious award going to the best album by a British or Irish artist. But this is no Best Album at the Grammys—the Mercury Prize, complete with £25,000 in winnings, typically goes to one of the most critically-acclaimed records of the year, a release that truly pushes the envelope and redefines whatever genre it comes from. Past winners like Arctic Monkeys, the xx, Wolf Alice, Skepta, James Blake and more were all worthy of the honor, despite never having a chance alongside the Taylor Swifts and Bruno Mars-es of the world in stateside awards ceremonies.
But the Mercury Prize has had its fair share of surprising, WTF moments as well. Radiohead has never taken home the prize despite being nominated five times, but Gomez, Speech Debelle, Ms. Dynamite, Talvin Singh, Roni Size & Reprazent and M People all have, beating out much more influential and lasting artists. That unpredictability is what makes the Mercury Prize such an intriguing award, one that typically gets its shortlist about right, but has the ability to become a chaotic mess on awards night.
Below, we give you a primer on each of this year’s nominees (albums released between July 21, 2018 and July 19, 2019), make our case for a few more albums that didn’t make the cut and finally offer up our predictions on one of the most unpredictable awards around.
1. Anna Calvi: Hunter
Who she is: Art-pop singer/songwriter and killer guitarist. Anna Calvi is no stranger to the Mercury Prize as she’s now three for three with album nominations (now only trailing Radiohead, PJ Harvey, and Arctic Monkeys in total nods), and her self-titled debut album earned her a nomination for British Breakthrough Act at the 2012 Brits.
What she sounds like: Left-field pop and edgy art rock, underpinned by Calvi’s near operatic vocals and theatrical artistic vision.
Betting odds (via Coral): 16-1
Who they are: Young, virtuoso noise-rock quartet. With a mind-numbing, one-of-a-kind live show, unbelievable musical abilities and little to no social media presence, black midi spread like fire this past year, impressing at SXSW and making critics foam at the mouth over their debut album, which shockingly came from a band of 19 and 20-year-olds.
What they sound like: A blend of noise rock, krautrock, post-punk, funk, post-hardcore. Basically everything and nothing you’ve ever heard before.
Betting odds: 10-1
3. Cate Le Bon: Reward
Who she is: Welsh singer/songwriter and producer. Cate Le Bon has released five solo albums, produced albums for Deerhunter, Tim Presley and H. Hawkline and sang on albums by Manic Street Preachers, The Chemical Brothers and Kevin Morby.
What she sounds like: Dreamy psych-folk and lush art-pop with Le Bon’s breathy vocals carrying a floaty elegance.
Betting odds: 16-1
Who he is: British rapper/grime artist. After his 2016 Six Tracks EP and 2017 Game Over EP, Dave dropped the single “Funky Friday” in 2018, which shot to number on the U.K. charts, followed by his 2019 debut album Psychodrama which also topped the charts and drew critical acclaim.
What he sounds like: Meticulously-delivered rap with bold beats and socially conscious lyrics with an us-against-the-world mantra.
Betting odds: 3-1
Who they are: British indie rock veterans. Now with the “math rock” label fully in the rear view mirror, Yannis Philippakis and co. return with perhaps their biggest-sounding record yet, one that features, at different points, fuzzed out guitars, dance-y drumbeats and ambient keyboards to create one of the more intriguing and ambitious stadium rock records in recent memory.
What they sound like: The band you’ve always loved reaching festival headliner status.
Betting odds: 16-1
6. Fontaines D.C.: Dogrel
Who they are: Young Irish rock quintet. Along with black midi, Fontaines D.C. were the other buzzy young act from British Isles that drew attention at SXSW, and their debut album Dogrel cemented their hype and rightful place among other recent post-punk upstarts.
What they sound like: Guitars ranging from surf, classic rock and post-punk and low speak-sing vocals, decrying the modern downfall of life in the city.
Betting odds: 8-1
Who they are: Britain’s most lovable punk band. Hailing from Bristol, the Joe Talbot-led post-punk act became stars with Joy as an Act of Resistance, a record about the tragic death of his daughter in heartbreak, set to a backdrop of Brexit and the rising conservative movement in the U.K. and abroad.
What they sound like: Frenetic punk rock with heavy walls of guitars and Talbot’s hoarse screams.
Betting odds: 6-1
Who she is: One of the U.K.’s most gifted rappers. Little Simz (born Simbiatu Abisola Abiola Ajikawo) mixes truly unique—sometimes jazzy, sometimes punky, sometimes soulful—backing beats (performed by a live band!) with her incredible lyricism to a brilliant effect.
What she sounds like: Noname with more attitude and edge; a true “boss in a fucking dress” and “Jay-Z on a bad day, Shakespeare on [her] worst days.”
Betting odds: 10-1
Who she is: Electronic-tinged soulful pop artist. The East London songwriter and producer turned heads last year with Saturn, a record that shatters what we can expect from a modern R&B album. Chock full of slick synths and beautiful fucked up string flourishes, Neo Jessica Joshua looks to North American pop-soul a la Drake and Frank Ocean and comes up with a sound that’s distinctly her own.
What she sounds like: An uber-talented pop act making her grand statement.
Betting odds: 10-1
Who they are: 10-piece jazz band led by alto saxophonist and composer Cassie Kinoshi. Driftglass, the debut album from SEED Ensemble, features original compositions and arrangements, and it took home an Ivors Academy Award for the track “Afronaut” (feat. XANA) in the Jazz Composition for Large Ensemble category.
What they sound like: Transcendent, improvisational jazz with African, British and Caribbean influences and occasional guest vocals and spoken-word poetry.
Betting odds: 25-1
Who he is: Grime’s ascendant superstar. With the U.K.’s racist far right fully in his crosshairs, slowthai (AKA Tyron Frampton) takes on the current political moment with everything he’s got, pushing the grime genre farther than it has ever been pushed before. Endlessly creative and politically aware, slowthai hits the ball out of the park on his debut record, expanding on the sound of his previous two EPs and handful of singles.
What he sounds like: The new leader of Britain’s disillusioned youth, writing out his political platform one angry grime bar at a time.
Betting odds: 5-1
Who they are: Britain’s biggest band at the moment. Packed with self-important-sounding lyrics about the role of technology in our lives, the synth-pop act, led by the divisive Matty Healy, won over critics across the world with their 2018 record, one that launched them into arena stardom in America. Their third number one album in the U.K., A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships won the Brit Award for British Album of the Year in February.
What they sound like: An ‘80s-indebted pop band with wordy lyrics trying to make sense of the fucked up moment we’re in.
Betting odds: 12-1
1. Thom Yorke: ANIMA
ANIMA, Thom Yorke’s third solo release, is likely his best one yet. From the chaotic dance grooves of “Traffic” to the devastatingly gorgeous “Dawn Chorus,” it’s a near masterpiece, one that somehow becomes even more impressive upon multiple listens. But the Mercury Prize judges have long denied him the honor; he’s accrued six nominations since the award was debuted in 1992—five with Radiohead and one on his own—yet he’s still never gone home with the trophy. Somehow Roni Size & Reprazent beat out the world-altering OK Computer in 1997, perhaps the biggest head-scratcher of them all.
While Assume Form likely isn’t his best album, it’s still surprising the 2013 winner was denied even a nomination here. Blake’s star has grown considerably over the past couple of years as he’s become rap’s go-to collaborator, featuring on Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN and Black Panther soundtrack, Beyoncé’s Lemonade, Jay-Z’s 4:44, Frank Ocean’s Endless and Travis Scott’s ASTROWORLD, just to name a few. So it’s a bit of a shock not to see Britain’s most influential artist of the moment not even getting a nod, even if the record itself might not deserve it.
Skepta has been hailed as the face of U.K. grime for a few years now alongside MCs like Stormzy and Jme. With his 2016 album Konnichiwa, Skepta helped further elevate grime into the mainstream at home and abroad by taking home the Mercury Prize, just one of very few grime albums to win the coveted award. On his fifth studio album and 2019 follow-up Ignorance is Bliss, Skepta brought in a host of collaborators like B Live, Boy Better Know, J Hus and WizKid to put out another fiery, glitchy record. Though not as overtly political as some of his contemporaries, Skepta’s confident flow and chest-puffing lyrics are just as gritty and uplifting.
Miss Universe the debut album from London-based singer/songwriter Nilüfer Yanya arrived at just the right time—a post-genre world with anxiety falling like an ACME anchor on top of nearly every twenty-something. After dropping two EPs—2016’s Small Crimes/Keep on Calling and 2017’s Plant Feed, Yanya has remained in the spotlight, especially with impressive support slots for the likes of Sharon Van Etten and Interpol. Her critically-acclaimed 2019 debut LP proved her early buzz wasn’t a fluke—her sassy, moody vocals perfectly depict the personal insecurities that exponentially inflate in our minds. With eccentricities like sparkling synths and spoken word interludes from a fictional, dystopian medical company, Yanya seamlessly glides between indie rock, pop, soul and jazz.
Only one act has ever won both the Mercury Prize and the Best British Album Award at the Brits (Arctic Monkeys’ Whatever People Say I Am That’s What I’m Not), but we wouldn’t be surprised if The 1975 achieve that feat, riding a wave of popularity and critical acclaim towards their most prestigious award yet. That being said, it seems likely that the award is going to go to some sort of a political album, one that attempts to make sense of the bizarre moment we’re in right now. That leaves The 1975, Dave, slowthai, Little Simz, and IDLES. Of the group, we’d love to see IDLES, but The 1975’s rabid fanbase or the growing influence of British grime will likely skew towards other acts. Dave currently has the best odds, but look towards slowthai’s Nothing Great About Britain to be the night’s big winner in what would be a defining moment both in British hip-hop and political-leaning music as a whole.
But the Mercury Prize is rarely ever predictable, occasionally handing the award to the most out of left-field nominees possible (remember when Speech Debelle beat Florence & The Machine in 2009?). While SEED Ensemble is this year’s most random act on the shortlist, black midi, with their unclassifiable and batshit crazy Schlagenheim, could surprise everyone and be the shocker of the night.
Let’s go with slowthai taking home the big prize and yelling “FUCK BORIS JOHNSON” in his acceptance speech.
The Mercury Prize winner will be announced on Sept. 19