From Arctic Monkeys to Young Fathers, we rank all 26 previous Mercury Prize winners from worst to best.
The Mercury Prize has enjoyed a somewhat chequered reputation over its 26-year existence. Set up in 1992 by the British Phonographic Industry and British Association of Record Dealers as an alternative to the populism of the BRIT Awards, the Mercury Prize is open to British and Irish artists dealing in any genre from pop and rock to rap and jazz (except metal, controversially). 12 albums are nominated from hundreds of eligible records put forward by their labels (for a free, a problem for independents in the age of streaming and razor-thin profits), and a panel of judges selects the winner from that shortlist.
Nobody can ever tell what the massive panel of judges will come up with, or what will inform their eventual choice. More so in the past than now, the Mercury Prize could have a star-making effect, genuinely launching an artist to national prominence and chart stardom. When it’s at its best, the Mercury Prize acts as a public service – providing a platform for previously underground or word-of-mouth artists and bringing them to the attention of the country at large.
Sometimes, the judges go for the screamingly obvious choice, the populist frontrunner, such as Suede in 1993, Franz Ferdinand in 2004 or Arctic Monkeys in 2006. However, they’re equally as likely to go for the ‘excuse me, what?’ choice way out of leftfield – such as Talvin Singh in 1999 or Speech Debelle in 2009. Oh, and there’s always a token jazz nomination every year, which never wins.
The 2018 shortlist has attracted some of the most vociferous criticism in recent memory, with established big names from major labels like Florence + The Machine, Lily Allen and even Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds dominating a list that’s terribly short on independent records and debuts. Within hours of its announcement in late July, social media users had come up with entirely different and vastly superior lists of artists who had been overlooked – Gwenno, Let’s Eat Grandma, Hookworms, Goat Girl and Sophie, to name just a few.
The 2018 winner will be revealed on the evening of Thursday September 20th, with an awards ceremony at the London Roundhouse. For this article, however, we look back at the history of the Mercury Prize, ranking all 26 albums that have won from 1992 to 2017 from worst to best. Each individual album’s quality is the primary factor, but also we tried to judge how much each winner deserved their prize.
26. Badly Drawn Boy – The Hour Of Bewilderbeast (2000)
Mancunian tea cosy wearer Damon Gough comes bottom of this list for his eye-wateringly boring debut album, which surprisingly won the first Mercury Prize of the new millennium, edging out the commercially successful likes of Leftfield and Coldplay and acclaimed records from The Delgados and Nitin Sawhney, and kicked off a long and uninteresting career of similarly insipid albums that continues to this day.
25. M People – Elegant Slumming (1994)
A classic example of a completely inexplicable decision from the Mercury judges, M People’s victory in 1994 over Blur, Pulp and The Prodigy gets even more confusing as the years go by and it recedes into the past. Perhaps an early symptom that’s occasionally afflicted the Mercury Prize regarding its identity and purpose, some reckon the judges hadn’t figured out what it should be for yet. Spearheaded by the maddeningly infectious single ‘Moving On Up’ and Heather Small’s admittedly captivating voice, Elegant Slumming took diverse elements of funk, house, soul and pop and processed them all into a coffee-table record of inoffensive, white-bread, drive-time mundanity.
24. Klaxons – Myths Of The Near Future (2007)
Hoxton heroes (or hipster chancers, depending on your p.o.v.) Klaxons rode the crest of a completely confected wave of NME-generated media hype concerning ‘nu-rave’ to one of the most ludicrous Mercury panel decisions in history, as their neon-splattered genre-riot Myths Of The Near Future beat out Amy Winehouse’s heavily-tipped Back To Black in 2007. It was memorable only for frontman James Righton’s heroically drunken acceptance speech as they celebrated a victory even they couldn’t believe they had earned.
23. Speech Debelle – Speech Therapy (2009)
One of the rare instances in which the judges go for the rank outsider, virtually nobody predicted Corynne Elliot would take home the prize in 2009, especially in a field containing an emergent Florence + The Machine, heavily-tipped indie saviours Glasvegas and a majestic second album from Bat For Lashes. Although it was an album full of insightful and personal lyrics, Speech Therapy didn’t have much going for it in the way of musical innovation, and Speech Debelle was quickly forgotten about in the aftermath of the win.
22. James Blake – Overgrown (2013)
He may now be one of the most sought-after collaborators in the world of pop, but James Blake’s profile was somewhat more obscure back in 2013. Practically nobody expected him to prevail with his second album Overgrown, as most critics noted that it hadn’t broken any new territory from his beloved self-titled debut, which had been nominated in 2011. If he couldn’t win for that, nobody saw Blake getting the nod this time. And yet, here we are. Overgrown certainly isn’t a bad album by any stretch of the imagination, but Blake himself has done much better work before and since.
21. Gomez – Bring It On (1998)
The post-Britpop years were a bit of a wilderness for the British music industry, with a vacuum left in the wake of the sudden decline in guitar music’s fashionability and the absence of anything to replace it. 1998’s winners were the unassuming Southport-based quintet Gomez, with a collection of subtly diverse and occasionally sparkling indie-blues and psychedelic folk.
20. Talvin Singh – Ok (1999)
Another one of the occasions where the judging panel opts for the complete outsider, there were some serious eyebrows raised when British-Asian tabla player, producer and soundtrack composer Talvin Singh edged out rock heavyweights like Manic Street Preachers, Blur and Stereophonics, as well as big-beat dance favourites Chemical Brothers and Underworld, to scoop the 1999 Mercury Prize. Cinematic and brooding in mood, Ok was often engrossing, if hard work to listen to in one go. While it got no higher than no.41 in the charts, it slowly attained Silver certification status and it has aged remarkably well.
19. Ms. Dynamite – A Little Deeper (2002)
Widely derided and dismissed at the time, Ms. Dynamite’s 2002 win for her debut LP looks more and more like an early blow struck for female British rappers, still a pretty rare occurrence in the industry even 16 years later. Mixing up the demands of hip-hop with jazz instrumentation and soulful acoustic suites, A Little Deeper sounds a little dated in 2018, but it retains its charm. Dy-Na-Mi-Tee herself has long since disappeared, but we’ll always have that brilliant single…
18. Franz Ferdinand – Franz Ferdinand (2004)
The judging panel went for a pretty conservative and obvious choice in 2004, plumping for Scottish art-rockers Franz Ferdinand and their highly popular self-titled debut in a comparatively weak field of nominees, featuring the likes of Snow Patrol, Keane, Joss Stone and The Zutons. With visually striking artwork influenced by the Russian Constructivists, and containing similarly angular post-punk and new-wave styled gems, not to mention some massive hit singles, their Mercury win capped a highly eventful and successful 12 months for Franz Ferdinand.
17. Benjamin Clementine – At Least For Now (2015)
Born in London but moving to Paris as a teen, at one point enduring a period of homelessness and busking on the city’s Metro system, Benjamin Clementine’s story arc is like something from Kerouac. His eclectic and scholarly debut album At Least For Now seemed to draw down on the some of the stardust mythology of that pre-rock’n’roll era, and it was enough for the judges to award him the 2015 Mercury Prize, in the emotional aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the streets of Clementine’s adopted home city.
16. Skepta – Konnichiwa (2016)
One of the many points on the graph that signified grime’s official arrival into the British pop mainstream was Skepta’s unexpected triumph at the 25th Mercury Prize, a year in which it was overwhelmingly expected that the late David Bowie would be honoured for his final album Blackstar. But the Mercury Prize is not, and has never been, about honouring dead rock stars, however legendary they might be, and the judging panel remembered its raison d’etre, stood firm and rightly opted for modernity and youth.
15. Roni Size/Reprazent – New Forms (1997)
Bristol-based drum’n’bass DJ Roni Size’s victory in 1997 surely ranks as the greatest shock in Mercury history. With Radiohead’s critically adored OK Computer, and the globally popular likes of the Spice Girls and The Prodigy in the field, absolutely nobody expected the judges to opt for New Forms, representing a then-still firmly underground genre. Even Size himself looked genuinely surprised as he and his crew walked up to the stage. But this is exactly what the Mercury Prize does best – acting as a public service, shining a light on great records that have gone underneath the radar of the mainstream.
14. Alt-J – An Awesome Wave (2012)
Formed in 2007 at the University of Leeds by English and Fine Art students, the bookish and nerdy aesthetic of Alt-J made them pretty unlikely candidates for chart stars. However, their ‘folktronica’ musical hybridisation of illogical genre partners made them one of the indie sensations of the 2010s, an ascendency epitomised by their debut album An Awesome Wave, which triumphed at the 2012 Mercurys. Their victory was a great example of the Mercury Prize in its occasional ‘star-making’ role, bringing the band to national attention after they had proved themselves through hard work on the nation’s small venue circuit.
13. Elbow – The Seldom Seen Kid (2008)
Having lost out in 2001 for their brooding but beautiful debut Asleep In The Back, Elbow were outsiders once again for their fourth album The Seldom Seen Kid. 2008 was an incredibly strong field, putting Elbow up against an emergent Adele, a successful Estelle and mainstream heavyweights like Radiohead and Alex Turner’s Last Shadow Puppets, not to mention dubstep producer Burial’s red-hot favourite Untrue. Packed with big-hearted sing-along anthems of great intelligence and humanity, The Seldom Seen Kid was, at long last, a moment of proper recognition for Guy Garvey and co., who had never really gotten the respect or rewards they had deserved in a long career of overlooked greatness and setbacks.
12. Suede – Suede (1993)
Sometimes, the Mercury judges simply have to go for the outstandingly obvious choice and speak with the record-buying public, when faced with a bona-fide commercial sensation. The first such choice to befall the judging panel came in just the second year of the award’s existence in 1993, when the grimy glam-rock of Suede provided a much-needed shot in the arm to a degraded British guitar music scene. While it’s not their best album, it was a cultural watershed, and contained four absolutely magnificent singles and a handful of beautifully poised and expressive show-stoppers, Suede couldn’t possibly be ignored.
11. Sampha – Process (2017)
Sampha Sisay had been marked out as a promising up-and-coming artist for over half a decade, having emerged as one of the prominent guest vocalists on SBTRKT’s debut album way back in 2011, before being approached for collaborations and samples by commercial heavyweights like Drake, Beyonce and Frank Ocean subsequently. A very, very long wait for his first full-length statement was totally worth it, deservedly taking the 2017 Mercury Prize for a collection of moving piano-based modern soul.
10. Young Fathers – DEAD (2014)
Another great example of the Mercury Prize doing what it ought to do, providing exposure to new artists, there were long odds on Young Fathers for the 2014 award, with other nominees including big beasts like Damon Albarn and Bombay Bicycle Club, and a host of exciting debuts from FKA twigs, Kate Tempest and Royal Blood, all of which would have deserved to win. With its innovative use of tape loops, rudimentary instrumentation and spectacular lyrics of struggle and glamour, DEAD was an alluring and credible collision of independent, DIY aesthetics and hip-hop style.
9. Antony & The Johnsons – I Am A Bird Now (2005)
Antony Hegarty, the artist now known as ANOHNI, caused a bit of controversy when she was nominated for the 2005 Mercury Prize. Fellow nominees Kaiser Chiefs, heavily tipped for their successful debut Employment, alleged she shouldn’t have been eligible, raised almost entirely in New York City but having been born in Chichester. What nobody could dispute, however, was the quality of the record itself. I Am A Bird Now was a collection of heart-rending songs exploring gender, identity, loneliness and general affairs of the heart. The public agreed, with the album rocketing 119 places in the UK Albums Chart to no.16 in the week after its victory, the single biggest sales increase in Mercury history.
8. Arctic Monkeys – Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not (2006)
Some Mercury Prizes are just nailed on from the word go. Faced with the debut album by the last genuinely revolutionary band in British guitar music, and bona-fide instant classic that is still the fastest-selling debut by a band in chart history, the Mercury judges really didn’t have any other choice in 2006 than to fall in line with popular opinion and award the prize to Arctic Monkeys. In fact, pretty much the only person who didn’t seem to think that they would win was the band’s lead singer. Accepting the award, a sheepish and ridiculously youthful-looking Alex Turner memorably quipped in his broad Sheffield accent (remember that, before his American twang?) “someone dial 999, Richard Hawley’s been robbed” – referring to his fellow Sheffielder’s excellent album Coles Corner, also in the field that year.
7. PJ Harvey – Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea (2001)
We arrive at the first of two appearances for the incomparable Polly Jean Harvey on this list. Having been nominated twice in the Nineties for Rid of Me (in 1993) and To Bring You My Love (in 1995), it was third time lucky for PJ with the 2001 prize. Not that the evening brought any kind of celebration, as the singer memorably accepted the award over the phone from the other side of the Atlantic, where she and her band were confined to their Washington D.C. hotel room on September 11th after the country went into lock-down. Indeed, the whole ceremony was a muted affair, and many saw PJ as an appropriate and respectful choice of winner because of the album’s New York-inspired lyrics, particularly the Thom Yorke duet ‘This Mess We’re In’. But Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea was a graceful and worthy winner on musical terms in any event, scanning as one of Harvey’s career highlights even now.
6. Portishead – Dummy (1995)
Unquestionably one of the most tasteful albums of the Nineties, and one that’s aged significantly better than most from that decade, Dummy helped to make trip-hop a highly popular trend when it prevailed in the 1995 Mercury Prize, with its creators Portishead putting Bristol and the South-West on the musical map. Constructed from spy soundtrack atmospherics, tasteful samples and immaculate drum loops, Dummy found a home with every switched-on music fan. A year after the M People fiasco, 1995 was arguably the year in which the Mercury Prize properly established its identity and raison d’etre, plumping for something that deserved exposure over the populist choices represented by Britpop big-hitters Oasis, Elastica and Supergrass.
5. The xx – xx (2010)
Thankfully, the Mercury judges had the good sense to resist the temptation to go for what would have been the populist choice of Mumford & Sons in 2010, instead putting their public-service hats on and awarding it to The xx. A steady slow-burner since its low-key release on tiny independent Young Turks 12 months before in August 2009, xx went from an underground, word-of-mouth success to mainstream stars pretty much overnight, continuing to sell strongly and gaining an international profile. An album of quiet economy and huge emotional clout, constructed from Jamie Smith’s minimalist soundscapes and an almost diary-like level of intimacy from co-singers Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim, xx has informed a subsequent decade of tastemakers and chart stars alike. Arguably, this was the last time when the Mercury Prize actually achieved its real purpose – giving a huge boost of publicity and attention to a band that truly deserved it, but who might not have received it otherwise.
4. Dizzee Rascal – Boy In Da Corner (2003)
With black British musicians usually unfairly derided by the music press (think So Solid Crew, Ms. Dynamite etc.) for years and years, the Mercury Prize gave a huge boost of credibility to the nascent grime scene in 2003 when it propelled a then-19 year old Dylan Mills, aka Dizzee Rascal, to proper mainstream attention and helped him become Britain’s first international rap superstar. An obvious choice of winner in a beige field of contestants like Athlete, Coldplay and The Darkness, this was yet another example of the Mercurys in its star-making capacity. A skeletal concoction of rib-shaking bass, concrete-hard beats and queasy synths from DJ Semtex perfectly complemented Dizzee’s flows which ranged from goofy to righteously angry, Boy In Da Corner was a true game-changer, and will continue to influence younger generations.
3. Pulp – Different Class (1996)
Having existed since 1979 (yes, really!), Pulp deservedly came off the sidelines to earn buckets of critical kudos and no small amount of success with their 1994 album His ‘N’ Hers, but that was nothing compared to what was about to happen to them over the following two years. Having been roped in at the 11th hour to fill in for The Stone Roses and headline Glastonbury in 1995, they then scored a no.2 hit with ‘Common People’ – one of Britpop’s defining anthems – and sold over a million copies of Different Class, the album that remains their finest hour. Half state-of-the-nation address and half personal valedictory statement from Jarvis Cocker, it was the kind of album that even the best artists only produce once in their careers. Its success was everything that Britpop could and should have been about - a storming of the music industry’s gilded gates by society’s outsiders. Cocker poured a lifetime of social and sexual frustrations into a collection of listenable radio hits and gritty, paranoid psychodramas.
2. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake (2011)
Coming exactly a decade after her first triumph, PJ Harvey became the first and, to date, only artist to have ever won the Mercury Prize twice when she prevailed in 2011 for her riveting collection of contemporary anti-war folk songs on Let England Shake, impressively edging out similarly lauded debut albums from Anna Calvi, James Blake, Everything Everything, Tinie Tempah and Katy B, not to mention the commercial juggernaut of Adele’s 21. Researched in great detail, Harvey’s lyrics, taken from articulations of soldiers’ experiences in Iraq to diaries from Tommys in the trenches of World War I, had an almost three-dimensional sense of vividness and heart-swallowing urgency. Set to a minimalist backdrop of zinging tunes and strummed auto-harps, Let England Shake was an instant, modern masterpiece. As one reviewer put it, Hemingway had the war novel, Francis Ford Coppola had the war movie, and now PJ Harvey had made the war album.
1. Primal Scream – Screamadelica (1992)
Perhaps it’s not the greatest of indicators of the Mercury Prize’s current health that the best album ever to win was the winner of the inaugural prize in 1992 and hasn’t been topped in over a quarter of a century, but actually it’s just a historical anomaly. Screamadelica, the album that helped cement the popularity of indie-dance’s crossover to the mainstream as well as revitalise its creators’ fortunes, would top most lists of any genre if you were forced to consider it at all. Only Saint Etienne’s Foxbase Alpha stood any realistic chance of running it close for the first ever Mercury Prize.
Before Screamadelica, Primal Scream dealt in the kind of faithful Byrds and Stooges-indebted retro influences that would most kindly be described as ‘record collection’ rock. After they had discovered house music, ecstasy and the talents of remixer Andrew Weatherall (brought on board as co-producer alongside the likes of The Orb and sometime Stones producer Jimmy Miller), their image had been totally transformed.
The album itself is a kaleidoscope of influences, ranging from woozy, cavernous dub to gospel rock, and airy synthetic dreamscapes to aching, fragile torch ballads. Tracks like ‘Loaded’, ‘Movin’ On Up’ and ‘Come Together’ are both era-defining party starters and yet absolutely transcend their time and place. Primal Scream are still in rude health today despite enduring their peaks and troughs, and were nominated subsequently in 1994 and 1997, but Screamadelica is still by far and away their crowning achievement.
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