My Mercury Mission: 12 new albums

In a bid to shorten my ever-lengthening monthly posts listing all the new things I’ve done, I’ve decided to give the more meaty items their own articles. This first one is all about my decision to listen to 12 new albums in a day.

Twenty years ago, I knew EVERYTHING about current music, and now I don’t know much at all. I don’t know exactly when this happened. I haven’t got on very well with the transition from my beloved cassettes and CDs, and I don’t have children which I think helps you stay in touch with what’s going on. But it’s mainly lack of effort on my part – when time is tight, I hate the thought of wasting it on a band that isn’t for me, so I’ll flit from one thing to another but often fall back on old favourites and occasional recommendations from people who know what I like.

When I realised, without too much surprise, that I hadn’t listened to any of the albums in the 2016 Hyundai Mercury Prize shortlist, I decided that I would spend the day listening to them all. Not only would this be 12 new albums for my ‘new thing a day’ venture, it would be several new artists and simply an exercise I had never tried to do before, for any type of nominations list. 

I’ll confess now that as I didn’t have this brainwave until 1 p.m. and ended up going to bed early, two albums got shunted into the following day, but this was in their interests as I was pretty zombified by that point anyway.

Things I should mention:

  • I’m not really a lyrics person. They are the least important thing to me. I’ll look up lyrics so I can sing along in the kitchen, and if I notice the lyrics are unpleasant I’ll go off an otherwise good song, but generally if the music (whether melody, rhythm, harmonies, bassline, even a good voice, whatever) grabs me, the lyrics could be gibberish as far as I’m concerned (think Cocteau Twins) – and the lyrics could be poetry but if the music is uninspired, I’m not interested. Clearly this isn’t going to be the case with Mercury-shortlisted albums but I was going to have to work harder at appreciating some of them than others.
  • My taste is otherwise quite broad and I think I’m quite open-minded when it comes to music. Apart from Oasis.
  • I already knew and loved two tracks – Blackstar by David Bowie, and Celebration by Jamie Woon. I had been on the cusp of listening to Bowie’s album when he died, and then couldn’t bring myself to do so. I had tried Making Time by Jamie Woon and when it didn’t grab me instantly, in the way Celebration had, I got annoyed and gave up on it. Very unreasonable of me on both counts. As I worked my way through, it turned out I knew some of the other artists’ tracks but not many.

The Albums

I’m not going to attempt full-blown reviews: what do I know? Here are some incoherent thoughts.

Michael Kiwanuka: Love and Hate

This was uplifting in its timelessness and a good choice to start with. Hoiked me out of the doldrums, anyway.

Bat for Lashes: The Bride

I was already a fan so not sure why I hadn’t listened to this already. Sadly she seems to be moving more away from the snappier tracks that I prefer but her unmistakable warm and imperfect voice is still one of my favourites around.

David Bowie: Blackstar

I’m afraid I bristle whenever I see the ‘explicit’ label – don’t get me wrong, you’ll hear all sorts from me at times, but when it comes to music I’ve never heard a song and thought ‘Oh, if only they’d added some obscenities, it would be much better’, so I can’t see why leaving them out would detract – BUT my favourite track here was the most explicit, and for once the language was actually relevant. Anyway, a dying man can sing what he wants, and this album is simply a gift. Each song is very different but the final track, I Can’t Give Everything Away, is pure Bowie (and made me snivel a bit).

Skepta: Konnichiwa

This was the album I had to work hardest at, being so different to what I normally listen to. But then I was knocked off balance by the last track which is really quite sweet – perhaps I was getting the hang of listening to lyrics by then. I can see why it won. And when I got round to watching the ceremony, his mum really did steal the show which made me smile.

Jamie Woon: Making Time

I don’t think I know anyone else who is drawn to ‘this sort of music’ (not quite sure what I mean by that – the more soulful end of R&B?) – in fact I know a lot of people who really dislike it – but I do have a soft spot for it and I’m glad I gave this the attention it deserved this time round, as there were a few more gems in there after all.

Savages: Adore Life

Noisy AND tuneful – I was bound to like it.

The 1975: I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it

I felt a bit too old for this one and was left a little confused about what sort of music they’re aiming for. But with seventeen tracks, you get your money’s worth.

Laura Mvula: The Dreaming Room

I loved this instantly. And it turns out I have (almost) the same range as her, so good kitchen-singing-along material.

Anohni: Hopelessness

That voice and the drama will do me nicely, thank you.

Radiohead: A Moon Shaped Pool

I love Radiohead but am a bit out of touch with them and was putting off listening to this one because I knew it would require more than one listen to do it justice. Thom Yorke’s voice has changed slightly, I think.

Kano: Made in the Manor

A lesson in Grime for me today. I enjoyed the fierce nostalgia and energy of this and even had a bit of trouble picking my favourite track.

The Comet is Coming: Channel the Spirits

Nice to have something instrumental, but a bit too backgroundy for me – they might have fared better as the first album I listened to, rather than the last, and I think it might make more sense live. It probably deserves another listen at some point.

Well. I was going to pick my OWN winner but I can’t – I don’t know how they do it! 

Multi-tasking

I had too much to do to spend the day just listening to music, and I didn’t really want to do most of it, but this turned out to be a really nice way of getting chores done in a non-grumpy fashion. I had to pick them carefully – nothing noisy or too complicated, if I was going to give the music enough attention.

  • Ironing
  • Washing, handwashing, hanging up washing and putting washing away
  • Changing bedding
  • Tidying
  • Researching kitchen worktops
  • Making Yorkshire puddings
  • Preparing a blog post – not writing but downloading photos and so on
  • Washing up
  • Cleaning the shelves out of my oven (properly – new thing for this oven, shamefully).

Thoughts

This was a really surreal day(-and-a-bit)! It was a total contrast to the short, sharp bursts of music we get bombarded with now – the culture of quick decision-making and limited attention spans. With a few of the albums I would have normally run a mile after a minute, especially at the moment when I’ve only just started to relearn how to see a book through to the end or sit and watch a film without being distracted. But the perseverance was worth it, on many levels. The effort that goes into crafting a complete album is easy to forget until you step back and set an hour aside to listen; you’d do it for episode 1 of a brand new drama series you know nothing about so why not a new album? I’m feeling a ‘new album a week’ routine coming on.

Spending the day listening to back-to-back albums seemed like a bit of a relentlessly unsociable thing to do, something I might not have attempted if I hadn’t been living on my own, but actually it needn’t be. If you live with people who are willing to give it a go, you’d probably get even more out of a shared day with a musical plan than I did inside my own head.

I purposely didn’t watch the awards ceremony or look up information about any of the unfamiliar artists in advance but it concerned me how strong the urge was to do this when I wasn’t sure whether I was – or should be – enjoying something or not. I knew I wasn’t really the target audience in some cases – but realistically I doubt I’m anyone’s target audience, so why do I need the context and why don’t I trust my own taste?

I’d definitely do this again – I’d just start earlier in the day and make sure I had a better stocked fridge (not that I’m complaining about the random Yorkshire-pudding-fest). I feel weirdly affectionate towards all of these albums now.

My playlist

I can guarantee that I will be going back to all of the following songs. Give it a go if you fancy a mini-version of my day – although I am certain you would’ve picked different songs if you’d done the same thing! And remember to keep your mind open – you never know what will surprise you. 

  • Michael Kiwanuka: One More Night
  • Bat for Lashes: I Will Love Again
  • David Bowie: Girl Loves Me
  • Skepta: Text Me Back
  • Jamie Woon: Dedication
  • Savages: The Answer
  • The 1975: Lostmyhead
  • Laura Mvula: Angel
  • Anohni: 4 Degrees
  • Radiohead: Identikit
  • Kano: Seashells in the East
  • The Comet is Coming: Journey Through the Asteroid Belt
  • David Bowie: Blackstar
  • Jamie Woon: Celebration

 

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4 thoughts on “My Mercury Mission: 12 new albums

  1. What a great idea for a blog but what a lot of music in one day! I’m a big lyrics fan and think we have some wonderful music coming out if the UK scene. If finding new music is a bit tricky for you I’d suggest getting down to Relevant Records or The Portland pub when they have bands on. Sometimes its great sometimes a bit naff but either way, an evening listening to music of almost any genre is a evening well spent!

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    1. Thanks! I’ve never been to Relevant Records. Back in the day, I was in a band and played at the Pirtland a fair bit, and I definitely absorbed a lot of knowledge from all the musical people around, so that’s something I’ve lost. I agree that listening to live music in particular is very rarely a waste of time!

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