Features

A History Of The Mercury Prize

This evening, one of this year’s nominees- featuring the likes of Arctic Monkeys, Wolf Alice and Jorja Smith- will go home with The Mercury Prize, a celebration in British musical excellence from the past year, and perhaps the most prestigious honour a UK artist could hope to receive. Tonight marks the 27th annual ceremony for the award, so we’ve taken a look at the winners of each year, and cast our opinions on whether or not their victory was warranted.

2017: Sampha – Process

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Last year’s winner came in the form of Sampha, the South London born singer/songwriter and producer whose debut album Process captivated the imaginations of millions through the use of heavy piano ballads and experimental production. He fought off competition from the likes of Stormzy, Loyle Carner and Ed Sheeran to claim the Prize.

Deserved: YES

2016: Skepta – Konnichiwa

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2016 could well have been the most competitive year in the Prize’s history, with David Bowie’s swansong album on the shortlist alongside The 1975’s daring sophomore release, Anohni’s wonderful Hopelessness album and Radiohead’s mystical soundscape A Moon Shaped Pool. The prize would in fact go to Skepta for his groundbreaking grime release Konnichiwa. He became the first MC since Dizzee Rascal to win the award and it was a real moment of rejoice when his name was announced.

Deserved: YES

2015: Benjamin Clementine – At Least For Now

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The 2015 Mercury Prize was an interesting one. There was a real mix of styles on offer for the judges and in the end somewhat of a surprise took the gold. Benjamin Clementine’s At Least For Now was announced as the winner, an ethereal project full of beauty intertwined with anguish. It beat some wonderful releases from Foals, Wolf Alice, Jamie xx and Aphex Twin on it’s way to victory and it was without doubt the defining moment in Ben Clem’s career.

Deserved: 50/50 (Jamie xx)

2014: Young Fathers – Dead

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Edinburgh based band Young Fathers shocked the world with their critically acclaimed debut album Dead in 2014; and it would go on to become the 23rd winner of the Mercury Prize too. The competition was steep, with eponymous debut albums from Jungle and Royal Blood amongst the favourites, as well as the staggeringly elegant LP1 by FKA Twigs and Damon Albarn’s cryptic solo effort Everyday Robots. It was to be Young Fathers’ Massive Attack-inspired whirlwind that won, however and it elevated their careers hugely.

Deserved: NO (FKA Twigs, obviously)

2013: James Blake – Overgrown

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Once the shortlist for the 2013 Mercury was announced, there was only ever going to be one winner. Despite stiff competition from Disclosure’s wonderful debut effort Settle and Foals’ exceptional third album Holy Fire; nothing could really get close to the masterful genius of James Blake’s Overgrown. Inspired by underground bassline and electro-synth, the album is a raw and revealing glance into Blake’s mantra; using incredible production and chilling vocal melody to create a career-defining album. James Blake is very introverted, as was seen when he left the award on the podium after his speech, but his music speaks volumes.

Deserved: YES

2012: Alt-J – An Awesome Wave

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In a year that celebrated solo stars such as Ben Howard and Michael Kiwanuka, it was to be Alt-J and their magnificent debut album An Awesome Wave that claimed the 2012 Mercury Prize. The blend of haunting and scenic sonic imagery through both the vocals and instrumentals made this album a truly quintessential listen of it’s time, much like The xx did two years earlier. Django Django’s self-titled album and Plan B’s ill Manors were also nominated, but it was always going to be Alt-J’s year.

Deserved: YES

2011: PJ Harvey – Let England Shake

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What a funny old year this was. Nominees included Katy B’s club-infused On a Mission album, Adele’s record-breaking 21 album and Tinie Tempah’s commercial debut smash Disc-Overy. It was neither of these that would claim victory, however, it would instead be PJ Harvey with her dazzling eighth studio album Let England Shake. With this victory she became a two time winner of the Mercury, the only person in history to hold such an honour.

Deserved: YES

2010: The xx – xx

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2010 seemed like somewhat of a two-horse race really, with both The xx and Biffy Clyro blowing the competition away with their respective releases xx and Only Revolutions. It would be The xx who take the prize thanks to their unique elegance and emo-styled lo-fi indie tracks, all mixed into a wonderfully crafted and cohesive project. Dizzee Rascal claimed a nomination for his pop-rap album Tongue n’ Cheek but it wasn’t enough for the judges to consider it a victor.

Deserved: YES

2009: Speech Debelle – Speech Therapy

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While it may have seemed that Kasabian would win with their odd but phenomenal West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum album, or maybe Florence & The Machine with her debut album Lungs; it was in fact London-based rapper Speech Debelle’s politically charged Speech Therapy that gained the plaudits. Fighting off the likes of La Roux, Friendly Fires and the aforementioned two favourites was no mean feat, but became a staple moment in British rap music, implying its longevity was far greater than first suspected.

Deserved: 50/50 (Kasabian)

2008: Elbow – The Seldom Seen Kid

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2008 saw the nomination of one of my favourite albums ever from one of my favourite bands of all time, so naturally I am quite bitter about the fact it didn’t win. Elbow’s The Seldom Seen Kid was a good album don’t get me wrong, but it is best known for their one big hit One Day Like This; as a cohesive piece of work there is no way it can brush shoulders with Radiohead’s In Rainbows; the band’s best release since 2000’s Kid A. There was also The Last Shadow Puppets’ debut release The Age of the Understatement up for nomination but that too fell short.

Deserved: NO (Radiohead)

2007: Klaxons – Myths of the Near Future

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It was a hotly-contested year for the Prize in 2007, with Arctic Monkeys follow-up release Favourite Worst Nightmare seemingly becoming a front-runner after their success the year before; but they were up against the likes of Jamie T’s Panic Prevention, Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black and the surprise winner of the award, Klaxons’ Myths of the Near Future. The album was a stellar release and was a great crossover of indie rock with heavy synthesisers, but was it really better than Back to Black?

Deserved: NO (Amy Winehouse)

2006: Arctic Monkeys – Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not

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Yes, the list was stacked with great albums in 2006, but was there really going to be any other outcome than a victory for Arctic Monkeys’ sensational debut album? Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not is the archetypal British indie-rock album of this generation and so no matter the rival, nothing would stand in its way; not Editors, not Muse, not Hot Chip; not anyone.

Deserved: YES

2005: Anthony and the Johnsons – I Am a Bird Now

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This was peak British indie time, with a fair percentage of the nominees consisting of emerging bands creating music for this new wave of trendy sounds. Anthony and the Johnsons claimed the prize for their album I Am a Bird Now, and you may know Anthony better these days as Anohni, fun fact for you. Although the album was very impactful and essential to its time, I feel like there were more obvious winners in the fom of Hard-Fi’s Stars of CCTV or Coldplay’s X&Y; but let’s not kid ourselves, it is obvious that Bloc Party’s Silent Alarm was the best album that year.

Deserved: NO (Bloc Party)

2004: Franz Ferdinand -Franz Ferdinand

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Scottish rock band Franz Ferdinand dominated the year 2004 with their eponymous album; so it will come as no surprise to hear it scooped the Mercury Prize that year. The album boasts some of the biggest anthems of the 00s and felt so fresh at the time, but it wasn’t short of competition that year; particularly from The Streets’ A Grand Don’t Come for Free and Belle & Sebastian’s Dear Catastrophe Witness. Snow Patrol, Keane and The Zutons being nominated was a real sign of the times moment but they didn’t really strike people as justifiable winners of the illustrious prize.

Deserved: 50/50 (The Streets)

2003: Dizzee Rascal – Boy in da Corner

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In what was perhaps the most iconic moment in Mercury Prize history, Dizzee Rascal became the first ever grime artist to win the award with his era-defining debut album Boy in da Corner. It was this very moment that became the flag-bearing point in time that all other grime artists could aspire to; and it has led to an influx of hugely successful British grime artists gaining universal acclaim. Defeating bands like Coldplay and Radiohead to the Prize, trust me; this moment could never be ignored.

Deserved: YES

2002: Ms. Dynamite – A Little Deeper

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Garage and slightly laid back indie tunes were on the agenda for the 2002 Mercury Prize nominations, and it was now infamous UK singer/rapper Ms. Dynamite who claimed the award with her debut album A Little Deeper. It was a very solid release and was very well commercially received, but was it better than The Streets’ classic release Original Pirate Material? As well as The Streets there was also strong showings from The Coral and The Doves, bands who were very much the in-thing at that point but nevertheless it was the coup of a lifetime for Ms. Dynamite.

Deserved: NO (The Streets)

2001: PJ Harvey – Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea

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The 10th annual Mercury Prize went to PJ Harvey for her wonderous seminal album Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea and it reigned supreme over some pretty stellar opponents. Radiohead’s Kid A follow up, Amnesiac was an unlucky loser, as was Rings Around the World by Super Furry Animals and The Optimist LP by Turin Brakes. The biggest talking point from this year’s awards was the requested withdrawal by Gorillaz themselves of their debut self-titled album, one that perhaps would’ve been a front-runner for the trophy.

Deserved: YES (but only just)

2000: Badly Drawn Boy – The Hour of Bewilderbeast

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The turn of the millennium was a huge one for Badly Drawn Boy, who claimed the first Mercury Prize of the 21st century with their brilliantly titled album The Hour of Bewilderbeast. Coldplay’s debut album Parachutes was perhaps a somewhat surprise loser on the night given the incredible reception it garnered, but I need to address the real issue. KID A WASN’T EVEN NOMINATED. How can such a daring and important album be snubbed completely? I feel that if this list was to be revisited, the same mistake wouldn’t have been made twice…

Deserved: NO (Coldplay but if nominated, Radiohead)

1999: Talvin Singh – Ok

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Ah, 1999. I was a mere two years old at this point, Britpop was on it’s last legs and progressive dance music was beginning to cause a real stir in the mainstream music scene. Faithless and The Chemical Brothers gained deserved nominations, as did Blur with 13 and Manic Street Preachers with This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours; but the winner of the Mercury Prize came in the form of Talvin Singh, with his album Ok. The album fused Indian classical music with drum and bass to create a bizarre but inspired listening experience. With that being said, I feel as though there were more worthy winners given the times.

Deserved: NO (The Chemical Brothers, Manic Street Preachers)

1998: Gomez – Bring It On

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Southport based indie-rock group Gomez shocked many punters when their album Bring It On beat The Verve’s Urban Hymns to the 1998 Mercury Prize. The Verve broke infamous records with Urban Hymns and it still remains one of the most poignant and compelling Britpop albums of all time, so it comes as a big surprise even to this day that it didn’t win. As well as that there was Massive Attack’s Mezzanine, a trip-hop electronica journey of an album that would have been a worthy winner.

Deserved: NO (The Verve, Massive Attack)

1997: Roni Size/Reprazent – New Forms

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Now I’m not here to completely slate the Prize and say that everything is wrong because it isn’t. But this is a bordering on disgrace. For my money, OK Computer is the best album of the 90s, hands down. It is an out-of-body experience with every listen and for me to read that it didn’t win the 1997 Mercury? Well that’s an absolute farce. I’ve never listened to New Forms by Roni Size/Reprazent I’ll be honest, I’m sure it is great; but is it OK Computer?

Deserved: NO (Radiohead)

1996: Pulp – Different Class

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Pulp’s 1996 Mercury Prize victory for their brilliant album Different Class was a real war of the Britpop bands as they went toe-to-toe with Oasis and their second album (What’s The Story) Morning Glory. It was Jarvis Cocker and co. who claimed victory over the much-loved Manchester band and I feel it was richly deserved given the importance of the album at the time of release. Oasis had the numbers, but Pulp had something utterly unique about them, a style that couldn’t be topped.

Deserved: YES

1995: Portishead – Dummy

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This was an interesting choice, Portishead are a well-renowned band and Dummy was an excellent album, but it was up against two of the biggest albums in Britpop history in the form of I Should Coco by Supergrass and Definitely Maybe by Oasis. In my opinion Oasis’ debut outshines all competitors for the 1995 award, it had a brash energy and was full of attitude, offering something that none of its rivals could. Still, the choice could have been far worse as the winner was the best of a great band’s discography.

Deserved: NO (Oasis)

1994: M People – Elegant Slumming

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Competing against Blur, Pulp, Primal Scream and Paul Weller in the same year was never going to be easy; particularly in 1994 when all of them were so poignant in British music. Despite this, M People claimed the Mercury that year for their dance album Elegant Slumming. It sold immensely well and was a crowd pleaser from start to finish, but looking back at it now it seems a strange selection when up against fellow dance group The Prodigy’s Music For The Jilted Generation, a stalwart album of the era and genre.

Deserved: NO (The Prodigy)

1993: Suede – Suede

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Suede’s elusive debut album caused plenty of discussion for it’s album cover but the music stood tall as the very best of the year. PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me was a worthy adversary for Suede, as was New Order’s Republic but in the end Britpop won through and this can probably be seen as a big moment in the development of one of the 90s most hyped genres. Shout out to East 17 getting a nomination, too, god the 90s were bizarre.

Deserved: 50/50 (PJ Harvey)

1992: Primal Scream – Screamadelica

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The very first Mercury Prize came around in 1992 and it was a real moment of intrigue to see who would gain the honour of being the first ever winner of this award. The winner came in the form of Scottish band Primal Scream and their utterly captivating album Screamadelica. It truly is an album for the ages, from the sampling to the elongated instrumentals and that iconic album cover, there could never be a more fitting inaugural winner. The Jesus and Mary Chain and U2 were amongst the other candidates but it was a no brainer really.

Deserved: YES

 

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