Though you should take care with the Google search, it’s worth finding out all you can about rising musical stars Jockstrap ahead of Thursday’s Mercury Prize – they are easily the most exciting act on the shortlist. And their debut album I Love You, Jennifer B – one of the best of 2022 – should win the entire thing.
While other mainstream music awards like The Brits often do a roaring trade in handing out gongs to pop’s biggest names, one of the best things about the Mercury Prize is the attention it brings to left-field and lesser-known acts.
As much as every year brings a fresh batch of jokes about how much it loves a wildcard – always keep a look out for the obligatory token jazz act! – on the shortlist, the Mercurys can be a genuinely huge moment for these more experimental acts. When the experimental jazz band Polar Bear was given a nod for their album In Each And Every One in 2014, their streams shot up by a staggering 1,618 per cent.
It’s a similar tale for Edinburgh art pop band Young Fathers, who actually won that year with their remarkable debut album Dead. Though it seems likely success would’ve come either way, their victory over the likes of Damon Albarn and Kae Tempest undoubtedly brought the group’s music to a far wider audience, and Dead ended up peaking at number 35 in the UK album charts. This year, they’re now nominated for a third time with Heavy Heavy.
I would love to see similar things happen for Jockstrap. The pair of Guildhall-trained oddballs who draw on their classical backgrounds to craft strange, unwieldy dance-pop, felt like one of the most talked-about bands at Glastonbury earlier this summer – the bizarre, blurred edges of I Love You, Jennifer B really coming to life on the Park Stage. Already one of the year’s best albums, an enormous crowd bellowing out the chorus to unlikely festival anthem Glasgow was a proper moment.
It’s worth saying there is plenty to love on this year’s shortlist including first-time nominations for Shygirl – and her gloriously filthy dance-pop debut Nymph – and Ezra Collective, with their boundary-pushing jazz of second album Where I’m Meant to Be. Jessie Ware’s disco-tinged That! Feels Good! is one of 2023’s most joyous releases, and it’s great to see pop being celebrated and taken seriously on one of music’s most prestigious shortlists. Still, my fiver is on Jockstrap.
It’s a bit of cliché to insist that a certain band or record sounds ‘unlike anything else’, but in their case that feels genuinely true. The group have described their sound as feeling similar to “switching between all of the open tabs of your computer”. Indeed, the songs on I Love You, Jennifer B shift from the huge, Fatboy Slim-style piano pounds of Greatest Hits and Concrete Water’s mangled bursts of Walt Disney strings, to the uneasy, spiky guitar interplay of Lancaster Court, which sounds a little like the Louisville post-rock band Slint playing Medieval folk. As I say, unlike anything else.
Rather than simply abandoning the strict rules and structures they mastered at Guildhall – Taylor Skye studied electronic production, while Georgia Ellery is a classically-trained violinist – the duo take their finely-tuned grasp of music’s inner workings, and the mathematical melodies that somehow make listeners feel magical things, and use all of these things to craft deeply experimental pure-pop instead.
Of course there’s also potential hilarity to be had around the Mercury Prize. When James Blake won it back in 2013, he was mistakenly referred to as ‘James Blunt’ on at least two occasions, and admirably navigated through an interview with BBC Newsnight in which Steve Smith asked whether his winning record Overgrown was “a howl of pain about England and the planet today… or is it more chillax?”.
The prospect of Breakfast presenters earnestly uttering the word Jockstrap again and again on day-time television feels just too delicious to miss out on – one good reason why I’m tipping them for victory. Mostly, though, I’m backing them for writing one of the weirdest and most wonderful debut albums in recent memory.