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Mercury Prize 2021: All 12 albums ranked

The Mercury Prize takes place this Thursday. Which of the 12 artists will take away the coveted Best Album award?

We asked Now Then contributor Steve Hunting to review the 12 albums, 140 tracks, and 10 hours 32 minutes 3 seconds of the very best music and rank them. It's OK. He had nothing better to do.

But does he know his Arlo Parks from his Wolf Alice, his Sault from his Ghetts?

12. Laura Mvula – Pink Noise

Laura comes to the table with a deliberately eighties and nineties themed album, some five years after her last release, The Dreaming Room. Pink Noise is focused on fun, with production values doffing a proverbial cap to Sister Sledge, Eurythmics, Hall & Oates, Scritti Politti and Goldfrapp. In a nod to the 21st century, there's even a duet with Biffy Clyro's Simon Neil. Yes, you read that right. Simon Neil from Biffy Clyro.

Key tracks: ‘Golden Ashes’ (off-kilter sonics and a great arrangement, this track is a throwback to previous albums), ‘Got Me’ (channelling Michael Jackson and Beverly Hills Cop-era disco, this homage is expertly produced).

11. Hannah Peel – Fir Wave

The eighth solo album (all instrumentals) by this crossover composer explores and develops sounds from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Hannah has a tremendous breadth to her sonic palette so it's no surprise that she's stretched her musical muscles in an electronic, ambient format. There are blips, fizzes and gravelled white noise aplenty, interspersed and entwined with chord slashes, wig-outs, skittering beats and chanting. It's this vision and search for fallow musical ground that keeps the listener's interest going. Freshly different.

Key tracks: ‘Evocative’ (nice keys riff and a rare track with a definitive beat), ‘Fir Wave’ (the title track, and the longest, with heartbeat bass, slow chords and a nice piano coda).

10. Nubya Garcia – Source

Nubya is an English jazz musician from Camden, born to a Guyanese mother and Trinidadian father. Source, her second album on Concord Records, has a hazy feel to it. She's played with Sons of Kemet, 2020 Mercury nominee Moses Boyd and the ubiquitous Shabaka Hutchings, and she's a stunning tenor sax virtuoso. Of the nine tracks on offer here there’s a tendency to over-stretch some of the songs (the title track, for instance), whereas when restraint is applied (as on 'Together Is A Beautiful Place To Be’) the results are more sonically gratifying. But maybe that's the observation of an impatient reviewer who needs to stretch his own imagination.

Key tracks: ‘Stand With Each Other’ (great beat and the sax has a reggae feel to it), ‘The Message Continues’ (funky beat, less frenetic sax work, moody even, with a nice mid-song tempo change and keys solo).

9. Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders and the LSO – Promises

Pharoah Sanders (80-year-old jazz saxophonist who was a member of John Coltrane's bands in the mid sixties) has teamed up with Floating Points (the working moniker for producer Sam Shepherd) for this presentation of nine 'movements'. The results are reminiscent of Brian Eno, although not as immediate, coming across as more akin to musical meditation. As the LP progresses from an ethereal start through minimalism, melancholia in the sax breaks and the recurrence of the album’s core theme, there’s an ebb and flow. Deserving of further listening, there are clearly layers to unpeel and explore aplenty.

Key track: ‘Movement 6’ (containing violas, violins and cellos, every note has been selected carefully, while the sonics take a mesmerising melancholy turn at the mid-point).

8. Ghetts – Conflict Of Interest

Ghetts (aka Justin Clarke) is a British grime MC, rapper and songwriter from – as with Berwyn – east London. This is Ghetts' third album and the 15 tracks come in at a stonking 100 minutes, so there's heft a-plenty here. There are the inevitable guests, some of which work (Skepta, Stormzy, Emile Sande and Dave) and one specifically that doesn't (with Ed Sheeran – one question: why?). Highly literary, the extensive lyrics are more like short stories. It's a very earnest record and the orchestral arrangements have a subtle touch which complements the lyrics well.

Key tracks: ‘IC3’ featuring Skepta (nice lyric: “Look in the mirror / I see King / I see me / IC3”), ‘Proud Family’ (messages of danger, poverty, opportunity and temptation referencing values laid down by Ghett's parents and grandparents), ‘Squeeze’ featuring Miraa May (swirling vocoder intro with a doomy synth accompaniment and great Miraa May vocal).

7. Wolf Alice – Blue Weekend

The third album by this London-based five-piece band has echoes of Paramore with a dose of Fleetwood Mac’s harmonic overtones. As seems to be a theme with this year's nominations, lyrically the band are sassy smart. There are multiple subtly-handled lyrical references to the vulnerable and emotionally damaged. Ellie Roswell's vocals disguise the latent maturity that underpins this complex album.

Key tracks: ‘Lipstick On The Glass’ (nice scaled-back, restrained guitars and a shuffling beat drive a reflective, bittersweet lyric), ‘Smile’ (a full-on rock'n’roll song where no-messing sonics disguise a lyrical story of the need to respect sensitivity to minority groups).

6. Mogwai – As the Love Continues

This is the tenth studio album by the Scottish post-rock band and it certainly commands more in-depth listening to grasp the multiple sonic layers here. There's the usual Mogwai smorgasbord of melody, slow-quick dynamics and a smattering of ethereal harmonies in these 11 tracks. There's also only one track with vocals, 'Ritchie Sacramento' (the title comes from a mate's misunderstanding of how to say 'Ryuichi Sakamoto’), which has had plenty of radio airplay – it's a belter. The band move between ambient sonics and full-on cinematic guitar wig-outs seamlessly, but there's also a salmagundi (look it up) of clever and intricate twists and turns that lead the listener down many a satisfying rabbithole.

Key tracks: ‘Ritchie Sacramento’ (the song has a resonance of Idlewild's 'American English' about it), ‘Here We, Here We, Here We Go Forever’ (synth-heavy intro which has shades of Aphex Twin before it turns a bit (British) Sea Power mid-song).

5. Celeste – Not Your Muse

Celeste is certainly not short on ideas. This album comes in at a whopping 82 minutes on the deluxe version. There's little (if no) filler too in this debut. Celeste shares a similar vibe to Michael Kiwanuka, and maybe that's not a surprise as they share Polydor as their label. Celeste's vocal range places her in pole position for the next James Bond theme song – her aesthetic fits perfectly. Songwriting credits are shared with Jamie Hartman, who has form with Rag 'n Bone Man and Lewis Capaldi, and that experience adds a glossy finish to a lot of the productions on offer. What's clever is that the musical restraint is evident, leaving more than enough space for Celeste's incredible vocals to shine. Inevitable comparisons with Amy Winehouse will be made, but on a positive note, while we've lost Amy, we've found Celeste. A great album.

Key tracks: ‘Strange’ (atmospheric piano underpinning a melancholic lyric – hauntingly beautiful), ‘Love Is Back’ (an erstwhile James Bond theme tune, the vocal phrasing very much evokes the spirit of Winehouse).

4. Arlo Parks – Collapsed In Sunbeams

It's pretty much a given that you'd get a collection of catchy songs from Anais Oluwatoyin Estelle Marinho, or Arlo Parks as she’s better known, but let’s not forget that she's not just a singer-songwriter – she's a notable poet, citing Édith Piaf as an inspiration from her younger years. As such, it's no surprise that beyond the sonics there's an incredible lyrical depth and observational dexterity to this album. There's a vulnerability too that disguises the sense of aspiration that pervades the LP.

Key tracks: ‘Caroline’ (reflections through a friend's argument of her own falling-out situation against a great staccato beat), ‘Eugene’ (there's a smidge of Kae Tempest's influence in the chorus to a song about a friend meeting a boy, creating a friendship jealousy – but in a sweet way).

3. Berwyn—Demotape / Vega

Born in Trinidad, Berwyn Du Bois moved to Romford with his family aged nine. He attended the Royal Liberty School – this reviewer's alma mater – where he was inspired by his music teacher who used to take him to folk clubs. The album blends UK rap and smooth R&B, and details life struggles including the denial of a uni place, his mother's stint in jail, drug dealing and street violence. The somewhat ramshackle production synchronises perfectly with Berwyn's sonic ethos, which makes this album feel exceptionally real. Lyrically, the messaging is sassy smart and gives a genuine insight into Berwyn's 21st century world.

Key tracks: ‘Trap Phone’ (the smooth R&B intro belies smart lyrics that mix loving messages with harsh street violence. Oh, and a 'Trap Phone' is a slang term for a burner used for nefarious activity. So now you know. Oh, you already knew...), ‘Glory’ (a simple, jazzy piano intro underpins a lyric covering immigration, jail, bail and urban strife, yet has an aspirational message to tell).

2. Black Country, New Road – For The First Time

Hmm. It was a tough choice between BCNR and Sault, but make no mistake, the hype surrounding BCNR is fully justified. Epithets such as “Radiohead for the 21st century” and “the future of rock music” aren't mere hyperbole. BCNR is meant to suggest 'a good way out of a bad place' and if that's the driving force behind the bands' direction, they've got it spot on with this album. It's extraordinary in its depth and variation, with a real beauty to each track in terms of the extemporisation of both sonics and lyrics.

Key tracks: ‘Athens, France’ (Isaac Wood's tremulous voice adds a fragility to proceedings that portray a narrative with empathy and a dose of aggression), ‘Science Fair’ (white noise guitar scratches give way to troubling bass before the lyric kicks in – nice reference to Slint, a band BCNR are often compared to), ‘Track X’ (the tumbling foundation riff allows the band to layer disparate sounds that merge and spin in glorious harmony).

1. Sault – Untitled

An incredible album by this British R&B group. The band have consistently eschewed publicity, preferring to let the music talk for them – and it speaks volumes. On what is almost a concept album, the songs are interspersed by seven interludes, mainly spoken word. The songs themselves are a mix of light and darker tones, always set against the ever-prevalent messages of hope and aspiration. Whilst there will be inevitable comparisons to Soul II Soul in terms of style, the depth of lyrical expression and sonic dexterity sets this album apart. It's worthy of all the plaudits it's received so far.

Key tracks: ‘Wildfires’ (simple messaging, beautiful vocals), ‘Bow’ (featuring Michael Kiwanuka, a paean to African human rights), ‘Monsters’ (a sophisticated allegory for skin colour prejudice and a great tune).

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