Eyes on the prize: Let's hear it for the album as Mercury shortlist looms

Eyes on the prize: Let's hear it for the album as Mercury shortlist looms

“It’s going to be the best stuff I’ve ever done, I feel it’s going to be something special.”

Last summer, Dave took a break from writing for debut album to hang out in Fraser T Smith’s studio with Raye and his Rottweiler, Leo, for a Music Week cover shoot. We weren’t there to talk Psychodrama specifically, but inevitably the Streatham rapper’s record came up. It would go on to top the charts and his words get heavier with meaning with each passing week.

Here we are just over a year and 112,976 album sales later, and Dave is among the frontrunners for the Hyundai Mercury Prize. According to the latest odds from Ladbrokes, Psychodrama is in with a 3/1 shout. Olly Murs, whose record featured a collaboration with Snoop Dogg memorable if only for its sheer improbability, is furthest out at 100/1.

Every year, the Prize raises familiar questions surrounding whether we’re producing enough great albums and indeed whether the format still carries any value. Those questions are in sharper focus now, given the record that’s sitting at the top of the album charts as this year’s list is announced.

Every year, the Prize raises familiar questions surrounding whether we’re producing enough great albums

Ed Sheeran’s inclusion among the nominees in 2017 for ÷ split opinion, but at least there was no debate around its definition as an album. No.6 Collaborations Project, for all its starry names and the resultant orgy of humungous numbers, feels less like a cared for body of work and more like a contrived bid for streaming numbers. Just try and sit through it.

Sheeran surpassed Lewis Capaldi’s week one record on debut last week, and the Scottish joker could well reprise his predecessor’s inclusion as an unexpected pop pick on this year’s Mercury shortlist. So too, could Tom Walker.

Many will sniff with justification about blandness, but lots of people have bought those records (Capaldi’s has 288,283 sales so far, Walker’s 177,567), so what does that say about their Mercury credentials?

Major label big-sellers may not be as thought-provoking as, say, acts such as Ezra Collective and the crop of British jazz artists coming up around them, but does that make the fact that they’ve also made popular albums mean we should discredit them?  

When I spoke to Femi Koleoso, drummer and mouthpiece for Ezra earlier this year, his comments about the jazz boom stuck in the memory. “There won’t be the token jazz album in the Mercury Prize list, it will be four jazz records that made it because they were the best ones,” he said. We’ll see tomorrow just how on the money his words were, but the thrust of his point was excitement. Excitement at the other records his would compete with, at what his peers in this generation are capable of producing.

And that’s what the industry should remember when the Mercury shortlist is revealed: that we’ve enjoyed a year in which a glut of artists have made valuable records that have connected with an audience, whatever the scale. 

Little Simz, AJ TraceySlowthai, Black Midi, Jade Bird, Fontaines DC, Fat White Family… the list of possible nominees goes on, and that’s without mention of big guns such as The 1975, Foals and James Blake. Personally, I’d like to see Tirzah’s Devotion get the glory it deserves. Good luck to everyone who makes it, I’m off to stick a fiver on Olly Murs.

* You can follow the Mercury nominations as they happen on musicweek.com and our Twitter page.

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