The Mercury Music Prize is possibly the most illustrious award a musician can receive on these tiny islands that we call Britain and Ireland. Intended as a prize by musicians and for musicians, understandably its name is a weighty one. It has been awarded to some of the most-changing albums this collection of rocks has ever seen, and also some more forgettable ones.
Always wanting to move with the times, the Mercury Prize prides itself in being a modern, forward-thinking institution, that of course, has been pulled in by the spirits du jour. That is why over the prize’s 29 years of existence, we have seen a wide variety of artists being bestowed with it, some whose work is timeless, and others who are well, less so.
Open to all genres of music, and people from all walks of life, the Mercury is regarded as a good example of how to properly run a music award. Rightfully a glitzy event, it is saved from the majority of ITV nonsense that engulfs the Brit Awards on a yearly basis, and expertly dodges the hollow pretence of the Grammys.
Although it is generally well-respected, in 2001, Gorillaz made headlines in requesting that their eponymous debut album be withdrawn from the shortlist. Cartoon bassist of the band, Murdoc Niccals even provided a statement that likened winning the award to “carrying a dead albatross round your neck for eternity”.
Regardless, The Mercury Prize also has a reputation for being awarded to outside chances rather than the favourites, owing to its legacy. We touched on this point earlier, but we have seen many of the country’s biggest acts lose out to newcomers, or even prior to unknown acts. In 1994, the album that won was Elegant Slumming by dance/pop act M People. Exactly. This sparked furious debate as the shortlist included Paul Weller, Blur, Pulp and the Prodigy. We’ll leave it up to you to make a decision on if that decision still holds up.
There have been other criticisms levelled at the award, like the fact that it always seems to overlook metal releases. In 2013 Kevin Shields, the mastermind of shoegaze legends My Bloody Valentine argued that the Mercury Prize organisers had banned the group’s self-released album m b v from nominations, in respect of the nomination criteria, which he said perceived the album as “virtually illegal”.
Regardless, if you were to win the Mercury Prize, it is almost certain you’d be pretty happy with yourself. As it is coming up that time of year again, we decided to rank all of the winners from worst to best. Music is subjective, so this is just our opinion. However, it should be taken as a starting point for a bit of good old healthy debate. The years included are the years the album won.
Mercury Prize winners: From worst to best
29. M People – Elegant Slumming (1994)
Where better to start off than with one of the most controversial winners of the Mercury? The album is so ’90s. Listening back it doesn’t hold up too well.
There are some good beats, but the overblown vocals and cheesy use of saxophones and strings are very of its day. The hits ‘Moving on Up’ and ‘One Night in Heaven’ are highlights, but that’s about the extent of it. Even they start to grate after the first chorus.
28. Gomez – Bring It On (1998)
Another controversial entry, Bring It On, pipped the Verve’s iconic Urban Hymns and Massive Attack’s Mezzanine. An awful pastiche of roots-rock heroes like Creedence Clearwater Revival and Lynyrd Skynard, it’s crazy to think this album actually beat the two mentioned above to the top spot.
This swamp-like style is made even more embarrassing when you note that the band hailed from well, Southport. Even the standouts, ‘Bring It On’ and ‘Love Is Better Than a Warm Trombone’ are pretty poor.
27. Elbow – The Seldom Seen Kid (2008)
One would argue that this is a highly overrated album. Sorry to the geography teachers and flip-flop wearing, home cider brewers out there. ‘Grounds for Divorce’ is a decent song, but when it kicks in with that iconic riff, it’s just too much.
Single ‘One Day Like This’ is one of the album’s redeeming tracks, but even that loses its emotive effect after the first minute. Maybe it’s due to overplay? ‘Mirrorball’ and ‘The Fix’, which features Richard Hawley, are other standouts.
26. Talvin Singh – OK (1999)
Maybe a tad dated, OK, is the most exciting entry so far. Blending electronic, exotica and Indian classical, it is a wondrous sonic journey that is akin to being on an LSD trip. If one was to liken it to a visual experience, it could quite easily have soundtracked Danny Boyle’s visceral yet overrated film, The Beach. We’re thinking particularly of that weird scene where Leonardo Di Caprio’s character is running around like a feral madman.
Fittingly, it sounds as if you’re at a beach party somewhere in Asia, and is electrifying yet emotional in equal parts, as an LSD trip usually it. It also features cameos from legends such as Jon Klein, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Guy Sigsworth.
25. Wolf Alice – Visions Of A Life (2018)
Wolf Alice’s second LP, Visions of a Life, is a solid record from start to finish. The band built on the alternative foundations of their debut, 2015’s My Love is Cool, and gave us some of their best pieces of work to date.
Sonically, the album is a representation of the band taking one step further on their journey to become massive. Highlights include the ethereal beauty of ‘Don’t Delete the Kisses’, the defiant ‘Space and Time’ and ‘Heavenward’.
24. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake (2011)
The eighth album by Dorset’s favourite daughter, Polly Jean Harvey, Let England Shake was actually her second win of the prize. This made her the most successful artist in terms of the number of times winning the Mercury.
A folk-rock classic, it was a departure from its predecessor, 2007’s White Chalk. Hauntingly beautiful, Harvey confirmed what we always knew, she’s a genius.
23. James Blake – Overgrown (2013)
Blake’s second album, Overgrown is his most successful in terms of the charts to date. Featuring appearances from legends such as Brian Eno and RZA, the album marked Blake out as one of the most unique and captivating artists Britain has to offer.
Covering R&B, electronic, soul and dance, there is an ice-cool beauty inherent to Overgrown. A trippy journey with many twists and turns, the production on it is incredible. It’s always worth a revisit.
22. Benjamin Clementine – At Least For Now (2015)
Who’s Benjamin Clementine, you may ask? He is a London based singer and poet. Somehow At Least For Now, has been forgotten by the collective consciousness. An emotional journey encompassing rock opera, spoken word, classical, chamber pop and art pop, this entry is one of the most complete and deserving winners of the prize.
Clementine’s lyrics are incredible, as is his voice. Over its 50 minute duration, you are taken on an odyssey of the soul. The production masterfully holds up the album that is full of juxtaposed thoughts and feelings. If you haven’t heard it, you definitely should.
21. Speech Debelle – Speech Therapy (2009)
Another underrated entry, Speech Debelle’s 2009 album, Speech Therapy, is an uplifting piece of alternative hip-hop. Full of earworms, it has that optimistic noughties feel, but a gritty undercurrent. The chorus of lead single ‘Spinnin’, “The world keeps spinning changing the lives or people in it/ Nobody knows where it will take us/ But if hope it gets better better better” is as pertinent as ever.
Other perceptive moments include ‘The Key’ and ‘Go Then, Bye’. An overlooked gem, treat yourself to Debelle’s masterful lyricism.
20. Sampha – Process (2017)
Process is another album that was hailed as a game-changer when it dropped but has since been somewhat forgotten. Featuring Sampha’s unmistakable vocals, incredible production and haunting compositions, the album touches on every single emotion.
An ethereal, all-consuming experience, it’s as languid as it is intense. A unique body of work, it’s always worth a revisit. Additionally, it’s about time Sampha released another record.
19. The xx – xx (2010)
The brilliant debut by the xx, was the first time we met the now-iconic indie/electronic trio. Amazingly, the teenage Jamie XX produced the album himself on his laptop. This was the earliest sign we got of his genius, and now he is one of the best-beloved producers out there.
Haunting and minimalist, this is the xx at their most gothic, and features themes of love, intimacy, loss and desire. Taking cues from Portishead, Mazzy Star and Cocteau Twins, this sleeper hit often gets overlooked but is brimming with unforgettable moments.
18. Badly Drawn Boy – The Hour of the Bewilderbeaast (2000)
Often lumped into the cursed category of the soppy turn of the millennium British guitar music, The Hour of the Bewilderbeaast was so much more than that. Lyrically dense, and featuring rich musicianship and production, Badly Drawn Boy’s debut album is nothing short of a classic.
Featuring elements of Elliot Smith and Nick Drake, it’s an autumnal album in every sense. It also contains classics such as ‘Once Around the Block’ and ‘Pissing in the Wind’. One would also argue that Badly Drawn Boy is a highly underrated guitarist, which is something that needs readdressing.
17. Klaxons – Myths of the Near Future (2007)
Ah yes, new rave. Klaxons‘ debut was so much more than that though, and it still holds up. Whilst, it is certainly a product of its time. Featuring bold vocals, compositions and production, this is one of the most unique debut albums in British alternative history.
Every track is a classic and it features some of the trio’s best-loved hits including ‘Golden Skans’, ‘Atlantis to Interzone’ and ‘Magick’. It also features the underrated cover of Grace’s dance classic, ‘It’s Not Over Yet’. Foam party anyone?
16. Ms. Dynamite – A Little Deeper (2002)
Very much rated at the time, Ms. Dynamite’s debut has long since been forgotten. This needs to change. A concept album of sorts, each track connects seamlessly into the next one.
Featuring classics such as ‘Dy-Na-Mi-Tee’ and ‘It Takes More’, listening back you’re instantly reminded of Ms. Dynamite’s fantastic voice, she sounds like a British Alicia Keys at points. Featuring warm production and perceptive lyrics, A Little Deeper is a thrill from start to finish. It’s about time Ms. Dynamite made a comeback.
15. Roni Size/Reprazent – New Forms (1997)
A classic. The debut album from Roni Size and Reprazent is a drum and bass staple. New Forms is hailed as their magnum opus and is certified platinum in the UK.
Mastering the breakbeat and making use of interesting electronics and samples, right from the inception, New Forms has you on your feet. It is a unique spin on drum and bass, and features great use of bass and reverb. Very ’90s, it shows how far electronic music’s production has come.
14. Franz Ferdinand – Franz Ferdinand (2004)
Scottish indie heroes, Franz Ferdinand’s eponymous debut is legendary from start to finish, and contains no end of iconic riffs. Released to universal acclaim, it cemented Ferdinand as one of the saviours of British guitar music.
It features classics such as ‘Jacqueline’, ‘Take Me Out’, ‘Michael’ and ‘This Fire’. Post-punk, funk and garage unified in one arty package, as soon as the album kicks in you’re reminded of why this album is so revered.
13. Antony and the Johnsons – I Am a Bird Now (2005)
A classic in baroque pop, I Am a Bird Now, is a moving body of work. Featuring Anohni’s distinct, yearning vocals, the album is one of the most unique ever put to wax.
Sparse and minimal, it is a timeless journey of the soul. There’s not much else to say; just have your tissues at the ready.
12. Michael Kiwanuka – Kiwanuka (2020)
By the time Michael Kiwanuka released Kiwanuka, it was about time he got the praise he deserved. Through glorious production, he blends folk and indie into a mesmerising sonic journey. His warm, powerful vocals carry the listener through its 51-minute run time.
Featuring elements of the concept album, Kiwanuka straddles culturally relevant autobiographical themes and ties them into a contemporary yet retro feeling sound. There are many similarities with Marvin Gaye’s magnum opus, What’s Going On, and it is a magnificent successor.
11. Young Fathers – Dead (2014)
The debut album by Scottish trio, Young Fathers, Dead is a brilliant effort situated in the realms of avant-pop, and all things electronic. A punishing album, you’re definitely not the same after. It’s a captivating experience that “bombards the senses”.
The production takes as much from lo-fi hip-hop as it does from the more oppressive edge of Massive Attack, and is an intense body of work from start to finish. For a debut album, Dead made a breathtaking statement.
10. Primal Scream – Screamadelica (1992)
The third studio album by Scottish heroes, Primal Scream, 1991’s Screamadelica is one of the most iconic albums of all time. Expertly meshing guitar music with acid house, it is an MDMA and LSD soaked journey that gets you moving. It was the deserved winner of the inaugural Mercury Prize. Giving it its trademark hallucinogenic vibe, the late acid house DJ Andrew Weatherall and had a critical effect in establishing the album’s unmistakable sound.
Screamadelica features some of Primal Scream’s best moments such as ‘Loaded’, ‘Movin’ On Up’, ‘Come Together and ‘Slip Inside This House’. It is a ride from start to finish, and is nothing short of timeless.
9. Skepta – Konnichiwa (2016)
The fourth studio album by Skepta, Konnichiwa is what truly broke him into the mainstream. Since the ’00s Skepta has been hailed as a pioneer of grime, however, Konnichiwa sent him into a stratospheric realm with the real superstars. Produced by Skepta, it features some of grime’s biggest names including, Jme, Boy Better Know, D Double E, Novelist, Wiley, Chip.
It doesn’t end there though. The iconic Pharrell Williams even makes an appearance. It spawned classics such as ‘That’s Not Me’, ‘Shutdown’ and ‘Man’. Konnichiwa represented grime arriving like a true cultural phenomenon and a market force not to be reckoned with. It beat David Bowie and Radiohead to the prize, let that sink in.
8. PJ Harvey – Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea (2001)
The second commercial hit from her career, 2000’s Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, is one of PJ‘s most refined works. Featuring regular Harvey contributors Rob Ellis and Mick Harvey, the legendary Victor Van Vugt helmed the production.
It even boasts Radiohead’s Thom Yorke on ‘This Mess We’re In’. Some of Harvey’s most iconic tunes are on this triumphant outing. ‘Good Fortune’, ‘This Is Love’ and ‘This Mess We’re In’ are all highlights of an album where it is hard to pick the worst track.
7. Alt-J – An Awesome Wave (2012)
A staple of the overly emotional and edgy Tumblr days, An Awesome Wave is still incredible. Drenched in melody, it marks Alt-J out as somewhat of the Generation Z answer to Radiohead. Stylish and arty, Joe Newman’s vocals are unmistakable.
From start to finish, it is an emotional journey that hits you right in the feels. It contains iconic riffs, brilliant pieces of electronica and haunting vocals that are a stark reflection of Alt-J’s eclectic and unique style.
6. Suede – Suede (1993)
Suede were the best British guitar band of the ’90s, and are still one of its leading lights. Their rawest album, it features the original lineup, and is covered in the iconic riff’s of Johnny Marr’s natural successor for the ’90s, Bernard Butler. Encompassing britpop and glam rock, Suede is nothing short of fantastic.
Big hitters like ‘Animal Nitrate’ and ‘Metal Mickey’ carry that classic snotty, British sound that also mark frontman Brett Anderson out as a natural successor to the early era Bowie. ‘The Drowners’ is without a doubt the standout, showing the group’s penchant for penning a rock track that manages to be gritty, yet hit you in the heart at the same time.
5. Dave – Psychodrama (2019)
Dave’s debut album is nothing short of a masterpiece. Produced by both Dave and Fraser T. Smith, it was an instant classic upon release. A concept album following the narrative of a therapy session, the lyrical content perfectly matches the title. It forensically explores the impact of Dave’s elder brothers’ prison convictions, along with mental health struggles, relationships and unfair social conditions that working-class black youths face on a daily basis.
The wide range of instrumentation and the clarity of the production add to the album’s stature. It features piano, strings, bass, harps and electronics such as samplers and synthesisers. It is certain we will be talking about Psychodrama for years to come.
4. Portishead – Dummy (1995)
The ultimate trip-hop album. Portishead’s 1994 debut, still holds up as a bonafide classic. Making use of hip-hop production techniques such as sampling, scratching, and loop-making, Dummy is a radical musical landscape all of Portishead’s own creation.
Many people have tried and failed to imitate their iconic sound. Frontwoman Beth Gibbons’s voice is so haunting it cuts right through you. Listening to her voice is like being led by a siren. It wouldn’t be wrong to label Dummy a gothic hip-hop outing. Either way, it is one of the defining albums of the ’90s.
3. Dizzee Rascal – Boy in Da Corner (2003)
The debut album by grime progenitor Dizzee Rascal gave the mainstream its first taste of what was then just a small, underground movement. Without Boy in Da Corner, all that followed in grime would likely not exist, including Skepta’s Konnichiwa. Banger after banger, there is no surprise why Rascal became the UK’s first rapper to become truly a superstar.
British to a tee, and featuring Rascal’s perceptive and humourous lyrics, Boy in Da Corner is rightfully hailed as one of the defining British records of the 21st century. So many current rappers cite it as an influence and its not hard to see why.
2. Arctic Monkeys – Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not (2006)
Just like with Boy in Da Corner, Arctic Monkeys’ debut Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not captured a point in British life that has long since ceased to exist. The internet was in its infancy, New Labour were in power, and everyone had burner mobile phones. Considering the band were still teenagers when they penned this generation-defining classic, it is genuinely mind-blowing.
It was our first taste of Alex Turner and Co., and the first of many iconic albums. From start to finish there are classic riffs, perceptive lyrics and no end of sing-a-longs. Always worth a revisit, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not needs no introduction.
1. Pulp – Different Class (1996)
Just like their Sheffield peers, Arctic Monkeys, would do ten years later, Pulp‘s fifth album Different Class, is a marvellous depiction of ’90s Britain. Widely hailed as one of the greatest albums of all time, Different Class cemented Pulp’s place as national treasures. ‘Common People’, ‘Mis-Shapes’ and ‘Disco 2000’ are just three of the many highlights. ‘Common People’ is one of those rare songs that perfectly captures the zeitgeist.
This has made it a mainstay at discos, weddings and festivals up and down the country. Jarvis Cocker’s sharp commentary on the everyday aspects of British life is what defines this album, there’s nothing quite like it.
A timeless classic that makes you yearn for better days, there can be no surprise Different Class takes the top spot.