The Hyundai Mercury Prize ‘Albums of the Year’ proudly set out to ‘celebrate and promote the best of British music, recognising artistic achievement across a range of contemporary music genres.’ These are noble intentions though no doubt the sponsor also wishes to flog a few cars. This year’s shortlist of 12 top albums, chosen by a judging panel which was probably as good as it gets in terms of representing both creatives and critics, was revealed on Lauren Laverne’s show on BBC Radio 6 Music yesterday morning. The winner will be announced on 24 September.
I have an endless dilemma about the merits of ranking music. Some time ago I decided that articles ranking, say, the albums of Pink Floyd from best to worst were a waste of opinionated space. Conversely competitions that encourage emerging or leftfield artistes to become better known are a great thing. The Mercury Prize sits somewhere between the two; worthy and fair-minded but ultimately spinning an impossible judgement. To list two of the 2020 finalists, how do you square a Charli XCX with a Laura Marling?
Music, in common with all art, is ultimately subjective. There may be a certain objective measure that can be applied but it’s not going to force you to enjoy listening to, say, Kendrick Lamarr and to declare him a genius. You’ll either love it or you don’t. With my personal sorting hat on, I was delighted to see Laura Marling, Michael Kiwanuka, Porridge Radio and Sports Team on the Mercury list but, most pleasing of all those to get into a metaphorical Gryffindor, was the splendid Lanterns on the Lake with Spook the Herd. The band’s vocalist and lyricist, Hazel Wilde, described the nomination as ‘a beautiful plot twist’ after tours were cancelled and everything got put on hold. Here is a little snippet; a live studio version of the magnificent “When It All Comes True”.
If not for Mercury consideration quite yet, some records just seem to arrive right on time. Out today, Hopefuls by Leeds band, The Harriets, is one of them; contemporary, even topical though these songs were written well before anyone had heard of Covid-19. As song titles, “Have Fun in your Workplace”, “Rules for Travelling” and “Come Home” sound like they might have come off a Zoom live stream conveyer. Scratch below the surface and any resemblance to lockdown scenarios is coincidental. Rather, these songs and their companions on Hopefuls are beautifully realised vignettes; like nine short films or stories in themselves that knit together to create a circle in time and space.
There’s a pure energy to The Harriets live that should be impossible to bottle so the band should be complimented for capturing a fair dose of its live essence on this record. I truly believe that The Harriets’ songwriting partnership of Daniel Parker-Smith and Ben Schrodel will be recognised one day alongside the likes of Ray Davies, Difford & Tilbrook, Stuart Murdoch and, dare I even say it, Lennon & McCartney. The talent and drive are there and in the nine songs on Hopefuls, we have the evidence of greatness.
Right now, the chances of the Mercury judges coming across a self-released album like Hopefuls is of course remote. The reason I write chiefly about independent/emerging artistes is that they rarely have the safe harbour of a record deal, a marketing budget or the ear of those who can unlock the right doors. I’m hardly able to balance the other side of the seesaw but if I can just introduce some new people to the artistes I feature, then job done in part.
Each week I hear great songs from acts new to me, and probably unfamiliar to many. Three artistes that caught my ear in particular this week were all female and individually quite different.
Currently Bristol-based, Kit Bennett works under the stage name, Miss Kitty; a moniker that goes back to her childhood when the boy next door would try to belittle her with that name whenever she rightly called him out as a bully. Revenge was sweet when Kit broke the guy’s glasses with a powerful left-footer, though this led to her being banned from playing football with him and the other lads on the estate. So, the name represents standing up to bullies but importantly, she professes, it signifies remaining proudly unmarried and childless. The only downside to the name is Google might send a wrestler or a domme your way when you search for her.
“Flowers” is the first single from Kiss & Tell, a DIY album project due to drop in late October, recorded, mixed and mastered at home by Miss Kitty and James Ashbury. Released just after Easter, the song rolls along nicely powered by a rollicking piano progression and eager harmonies. The protagonist in the song gets called out for lying to his friends about his imagined sexual conquests with the same bar staff serving his drinks and Miss K makes it clear that flowers are no apology; that, and I wouldn’t advise he meets her on the football field either.
And now for something completely different. In contrast to Miss Kitty’s modest DIY ethos, feisty pop powerhouse Aistè has released her new single, “MOJO”, alongside a music video that is quite the production number. With the singer channelling a blend of Killing Eve’s Villanelle with Trinity from The Matrix, the short film is almost an extension of The Matrix franchise. Aistè choreographed all the fight scenes herself along with directing the film, plus writing and producing the song itself. On top of all that she has produced a MOJO themed website and a comic book to explore the ideas behind the track and explain the backstory of the main characters. Busy lady.
Growing up in Eastern Europe and latterly Bergen, Norway, Aistè is now based in East London, working fully independently to write, produce and release her own music. “MOJO” is a compelling attempt to break away from ties, however complex and interwoven, and start over. It works best in tandem with the video imagery, suggesting that theatrical live shows may be a future avenue for the artiste once such things are allowed again.
To complete the today’s trio of female individuality, Hannah Trigwell has built some powerful metrics since starting out busking on the streets of her hometown of Leeds when just 17. Her YouTube channel has some scary view numbers for a series of exquisitely-rendered covers of major pop songs that seem to have gone down particularly well in the Far East. However, it is her original songs that deserve more of their time in the sun. Following a debut album, Red, in 2018, Hannah has added a set of brand endorsements to a successful online presence and gained an international following, both live and on record. The secret is in the intimacy she conveys in her performances.
Her new single “Dreams” is a pop song with an irresistible chorus at the high-quality end of commerciality, delivered with assured tones that straddle softness and strength. Hannah wrote it in her bedroom on a rainy winter’s night which she confesses is ‘classic me.’ It flits from being able to sleep with things on your mind to guilty feelings about obsession, underscored by the sense that any get-out clause is a shallow one. In sleep, you can’t control what you dream about but you can rein in your waking thoughts. Maybe you simply choose not to.
Photo of Lanterns on the Lake by Ian West