The Mercury Prize celebrates the best albums of 2021
Posted on 9 August 2021
Every year the Hyundai Mercury Prize recognises a must-hear collection of outstanding new British and Irish music. After listening to over 200 albums, the judges whittle it down to twelve genre-spanning recordings that unfailingly provide an insight into what is great about music in Britain and Ireland. It’s not about sales, it’s not about singles, it’s not even about the artists: all that matters here is the album.
This celebration of long-form creativity is music to our ears. Yes, we love a great single, and we are more than happy to curate a playlist or two, but an artist’s ability to create close to an hour’s worth of high-quality music with the ebb-and-flow and light-and-shade required to hold a listener’s interest is a talent that deserves to be celebrated.
As 2021 Mercury Prize shortlisted artist Nubya Garcia told us, “I grew up listening to full albums. It’s so important to listen to a body of work as it was made by the person who made it. I like to hear what was desired by the person who made it.”
Bowers & Wilkins became Official Audio Partner of the Mercury Prize because we have a shared passion for music and the album format as a body of work, and wanted to celebrate the exceptional craft and creativity that goes into each and every one of these albums. And to ensure that the judges had the ability to hear each of the albums as the artist intended, we supported them with PX7 headphones, enabling them to experience every detail of the albums.
Another shortlisted artist, Hannah Peel, might have said it best: “The album format is saying something. You have the chance to explore, to create concepts, and really tell a story. You can create that journey for people to go with you on and give you a chance to say something that you just can’t do in a one-song format.”
Ghetts was even more vocal in his championing of the album format, arguing that the drive to create singles to be put on playlists was “ruining the art of making music. It’s about balance,” he said. “It’s about those album tracks that connect to people on a deeper level.”
The twelve-album shortlist selected by the judges certainly has the potential to connect to people on that deeper level. As well as being a powerful statement of the diversity of talent in the British and Irish music scenes now, it also promises a great future for the album as a medium, with its youthful cohort of artists and five debut albums in contention for the main prize.
By now you know we love albums and that we think they are the most powerful expression of an artist’s creativity. But just before we delve into the Mercury Prize Albums of the Year, we want to give the last word on the subject to first-time shortlisted artist, BERWYN, who sums it up perfectly: “Some of the best experiences I’ve had on Earth have been while listening to a 45-minute album. Some of the most educational, informative and inspiring.”
We really couldn’t put it any better.
The 2021 Hyundai Mercury Prize ‘Albums of the Year’ Shortlist
Album commentary from Bowers & Wilkins.
Collapsed in Sunbeams
There is a real freshness to this album from Arlo Parks, but without any of the naivety that can be apparent in a debut outing. That’s possibly down to the lyrics the poet turned songwriter delivers with a sense of confidence and worldliness. A talent that really makes this album stand out from the crowd. This is an outstanding debut album, listening to it in its entirety from start to finish is a must.
Black Country, New Road
For The First Time
Even in a youthful shortlist, Black Country, New Road stand out for having seven members in their very early twenties. An engaging blend of alt-rock, post rock, jazz and anything else that sparks their musical curiosity, For The First Time is a vivid, multi-coloured snapshot of a band’s first creative flourish, and one that promises wonderful things to come.
As the name suggests, BERWYN’s debut album started life as a demo tape he created as he attempted to break through in the music industry. Thankfully for all of us, that call for attention was heard, because this is a sensational album from a special talent. There is something brutally honest in the way the album is recorded, shorn as it is of any of the over-the-top production tricks that can blunt the edges of an album. The result is some beautifully soulful singing, a few darker rap tracks, and a coherent whole that tells a story of life in today’s East London.
Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The LSO
Promises inhabits a fertile musical landscape where jazz meets classical meets electronica meets beings from an alternative astral plane. A myriad of influences, borrowings, innovations and moods come together to create 46-spellbinding minutes of breath-taking artistry. Promises is so mesmerising and engaging, that at its close you find yourself revaluating your jaded perception of how quickly time passes. This work must be heard as a complete album, as one each track blends into the next in the way a classical symphony does, creating a spellbinding whole.
As The Love Continues
A new Mogwai album is always a cause for celebration among the Scottish post-rockers’ dedicated followers, and As The Love Continues is proof, should, anyone have asked for it, that the band still have a lot to offer as they hit the stately age of 25 years in the wall of distorted sound business. Their first number one and a Mercury Prize shortlisted album is no less than this sensational, mainly instrumental album deserves. Noise, power and subtlety combine in equal measures, although as with all Mogwai albums, you really should play it loud to get the best from it.
Nubya Garcia is one of the brightest lights of the burgeoning London jazz scene. She has guested on recordings with the likes of Sons of Kemet and Moses Boyd, as well as part of the collective Nérija. SOURCE provides Garcia with the platform her talent deserves to set free her creativity and her passions for a wide range of musical styles beyond the standard limitations of jazz. Most apparent among the influences here are soul, African rhythms and dub, which combine to create an album that is as much a statement of London’s current music scene as it is a wonderfully enjoyable listening experience.
As previous winners of the Mercury Prize, Wolf Alice have been here before. But if anything, Blue Weekend is bigger, more eclectic and cinematic than 2017’s winner Visions of a Life. This is the creation of a band in full control of their creativity, taking chances and going off on tangents, all with the assured knowledge that the end result will be something very special. There are some great individual songs on here, but it’s as an album that Blue Weekend really comes into its own.
It seems odd to say it, but Laura Mvula is the one of the more experienced artists in this young Mercury Prize shortlist. Pink Noise is her third album and garners her a third Mercury Prize shortlisted album. And justifiably so, because Pink Noise is 40 fantastic minutes of sensational pop music of the highest order; a confident, classy collection of songs that harks back to the superstar world of the 1980s. Soulful, exciting and eminently danceable, it’s pop music for people who don’t like pop music… and for those who love it!
It will be interesting if SAULT wins the Mercury Prize, if only because nobody really knows who they are. What we do know is that this largely anonymous collective is incredibly prolific – Untitled (Rise) was released only 12-weeks after their previous album. It is also powerfully timely, addressing events arising from the murder of George Floyd and the swelling of support for the BLM movement that came after it. Danceable, committed, consciousness-raising music – we honestly can’t think of anything not to like.
Not Your Muse
With the attention Celeste generated through winning both BBC Music’s ‘Sound of 2020’ and the Rising Star Award at the BRITs, it seems like she has been around for much longer than she has. But Not Your Muse is her debut studio album after over a dozen singles and EPs, and she has more than lived up to the expectations placed upon her. This soulful album pushes Celeste’s incredible vocal talent to the fore, with a mixture of laid black, smoky jazz and poppy bangers that come together to create a portrait of an artist in the flush of youth.
Conflict of Interest
Ghetts is well aware of the value of the album, and he wants listeners to experience Conflict of Interest as a journey; so no skipping, pay attention! With a host of cameos – including Skepta, Stormzy and Ed Sheeran – that is no chore at all, even though it clocks in at over 70 minutes. This is Grime at its most powerful, and while it is only his third album his performance is testament to the time Ghetts spent as a key member of two seminal crews, and he delivers his rhymes and raps with a confident flourish that speaks of a lifetime’s worth of experience, both good and bad.
Hannah Peel is an incredibly prolific artist, with four studio albums to her name, plus appearances with The Magnetic North and a host of scores for film, TV and the theatre. Fir Wave is a heady mix of modern electronic sounds and sourced analogue samples from the KPM music library, to which she was granted privileged access. The real magic happens when the classically-trained Peel combines those elements into a breathtakingly seamless soundscape, and she manages to transport the listener from danceable beats to captivating moments of ambient majesty with seemingly little effort.