The Mercury Prize is the holy grail of British music, and there are very few accolades more prestigious within the industry. Success can transform an artist from an unknown quantity, who still creates music as a part-time source of escapism, and turn them into a full-time profession with endless possibilities. However, the judges don’t always make the correct call.
Young Fathers are an example of the power of The Mercury Prize. The group formed in Edinburgh back in 2008 and spent years on the local circuit before releasing their debut in 2014. Their name seemed like a surprise addition on the list of nominees that year but the band ended up beating off stiff competition from the likes of Damon Albarn, Jungle, and Anna Calvi to the jackpot.
Immediately following their victory, Young Fathers ended up riding the wave of acclaim as their album, Dead, make a dent into the UK Top 40, and overnight, their destiny changed thanks to the priceless critical acclaim thrown their way.
This kind of story is the beauty of what The Mercury Prize can afford an artist. However, as mentioned, those at the helm don’t have a 100% strike rate at providing a platform to the best album, and not every act that goes on to win ends up with a glittering career akin to Young Fathers. Occasionally, established artists miss out in favour of lesser-known musicians in an attempt to shine a light on a rising star, ignorring the worthy winner in the process.
The Mercury Prize, more often than not, make the right decision, but below are five occasions that time has proved them wrong.
Five artists who should have won The Mercury Prize:
Radiohead – OK Computer (1997)
Radiohead had already released Pablo Honey and The Bends before OK Computer, but their third record confirmed that the Oxfordshire group were a seminal act. The album, which spawned classic tracks including ‘Paranoid Android’, ‘Karma Police’, and ‘No Surprises’, proved to be the perfect tonic for fading Britpop scene and the burgeoning Ibiza rave culture.
In 1997, dance music was the en-vogue genre, and Radiohead found themselves overlooked in favour of the drum ‘n’ bass act Roni Size & Reprazent, who received the rub of the green from The Mercury Prize. Almost 25 years on, this decision seems like a grave error, but Thom Yorke and the band managed to get by adequately in the end.
The Verve – Urban Hymns (1998)
Going into the Mercury Prize in 1998, it looked as though it would be a toss-up between The Verve’s spectacular Urban Hymns and Massive Attack’s mightily impressive Mezzanine for the esteemed award. However, surprisingly, Gomez were handed the trophy and prize money.
Urban Hymns was born out of turmoil after The Verve split following tensions, and their first two albums not receiving the attention the band deserved. After solving their differences, they created their magnum opus before calling it a day once again in 1999.
The Streets – Original Pirate Material (2002)
It was a watershed moment in 2002 when Mike Skinner made his unexpected arrival under the moniker of The Streets with the zeitgeisty Original Pirate Material. Yet, it wasn’t seen as groundbreaking enough to pip Ms. Dynamite’s Dig A Little Deeper to the Mercury Prize.
Skinner’s unique approach to music remains the main appeal, and he changed lyricism forever. The magnetic way in which he discussed the trials and tribulations of everyday life. Skinner’s way of focusing on the minutiae of life was invigorating and refreshing.
While the album sees Skinner celebrate more trivial things like rave culture on ‘Weak Become Heroes’, he also delves deeply into the young British man’s psyche in a matter of fact way, especially on the emotional closer, ‘Stay Positive’.
Laura Marling – Alas I Cannot Swim (2008)
Laure Marling was somehow only 18 when she shared the ethereal album, Alas, I Cannot Swim, and it remains staggering how somebody so young could create something this radiant.
In 2008, winklepicker clad indie bands dominated, and Marling’s emergence was utterly against the grain. In the end, she lost out to Elbow, who were a surprise win considering it was their fourth album, and while they used that leg up to fuel their career, it’s no Alas I Cannot Swim.
Despite being nominated on a further two occasions, the Mercury Prize continues to evade Marling, but one suspects that she’s hardly losing any sleep over the issue.
Wolf Alice – My Love Is Cool (2015)
Benjamin Clementine was a surprise winner in 2015 for his debut album, At Least For Now, but revisiting the record all these years later, now that the hype train has left the station, Wolf Alice’s debut My Love Is Cool was the victim of a robbery.
There were all the signs on the Wolf Alice debut that hinted at the glowing future they’d go on to endure and in the process, becoming the most vital group to emerge over the last decade in Britain. Perhaps the Mercury Prize realised their previous error when they deservedly gave them the award in 2018 for their sophomore effort, Visions of A Life.
Better late than never, eh.