Records, cassettes, discs, downloads and streaming. No matter its format, hours have been invested listening to musical bodies of work. We all have our staple classics, those faithful friends that transport us to a specific time in our lives. But we’re often exploring unchartered territory too, perhaps in the hope of finding something special to widen our taste.
The Mercury Music Prize has always acted as a platform for the more inventive offerings out there, exposing new and interesting artists that aren’t perhaps given the spotlight elsewhere. Without it we may never have discovered Gomez, Helicopter Girl or GoGo Penguin.
Sure, there are mutterings that the award ceremony is too pretentious, too image conscious, too favourable towards “credible musicians.” But in a world where tomorrow’s best-selling songs can be determined by what was butchered on yesterday’s TV talent shows, it’s also an important celebration of what is fast becoming a rarity; the album.
In the build-up to announcing its 2017 champion (our money’s on Sampha) we revisit the award’s back catalogue of winners to determine which ones the panel got right. Subjective? Sure. Pointless? Perhaps. A vehicle for creating stimulating conversation about innovative music? Here’s hoping…
Before the banks got involved, this newcomer of an award ceremony aimed to acknowledge albums based on musical merit alone. As if to hammer home the point, it began with nailing Screamadelica to the front door. But favouring an unclassifiable drug referencing album that fused baggy melodies and house beats with rock riffs and gospel choirs wasn’t a gimmick. Nothing else on the nomination list came close to its woozy musical adventure, or offered the same sense of belonging it gave ravers and indie kids alike. The panel got it right first time.
On reflection, Suede’s self-titled submission was an obvious choice for a Mercury Music Prize win. It had the hype of being the fastest selling debut of its time, echoed the brilliance of Bowie and The Smiths, and pretty much gave birth to Britpop. But there was still something rather daring about tipping one’s hat to a glam-inspired piece of music that explored sex, violence and drug abuse in a way that was claustrophobically English. Everyone was now paying attention.
With Britpop at its peak, the prize could have easily been given to Definitely Maybe or I Should CoCo. But it made sense that Dummy swiped it, a dark creation that stole from every musical genre going to construct something remarkably rare. Its jazz-mourn vocals, cinematically nightmarish soundscapes and can’t-help-but-blink-beats are still hard to categorise (the untroublesome term ‘trip hop’ doesn’t cut it). Beating one of Mercury’s strongest line ups, a victory for Portishead meant we could finally forgive – not forget – the panel’s decision to crown M People the previous year’s winner.
It’s not uncommon for the Mercury Prize to throw a curveball from time to time. And sometimes it’s welcome. There’s no questioning that OK Computer is one of the most inventive contenders of our time, or that Dig Your Own Hole remains an important blueprint for electronic dance music. Yet this was the year that the panel dug deeper, giving recognition to an underground act that took drum’n’bass to places it hadn’t been before. A great example of how winning the prize could transform an album’s status from a niche statement to a cult classic.
Perhaps it was knowing that musician Damon Gough not only wrote and produced all 18 tracks on this debut, but that he played most of the instruments on it too. Or it could have been that he represented a new type of authentic artist, one that had him labelled as the “bedroom-bound minstrel of melancholy.” Or maybe it was simply because his entire image was based on wearing a tea cosy on his head. Whatever the reason, it felt satisfyingly spot-on when Badly Drawn Boy was hailed the millennium’s first Mercury Prize winner.
Gorillaz may have withdrawn their nomination to avoid any risk of winning, but they didn’t really stand a chance against PJ Harvey’s magnum opus. More accessible than her earlier offerings (no terrifying commands to lick her legs here) her bold and beautiful ode to love was still just as captivating. The unstoppable urgency on Big Exit, the uncontrollable wailing at the end of The Whore’s Hustle and the Hustlers Whore, the calming undertones that dance beautifully with Thom York on This Mess We’re In… the whole album just screamed to be given a god damn prize. The panel, quite rightly, obeyed.
Grime may well be cemented in today’s urban music scene, but 15 years earlier it genuinely sounded like an exciting movement that the UK could call its own. Its poster boy was a young mischievous rapper who delivered a raw style that was both distinct and fearless. Captain Rascal would soon storm the mainstream by hooking up with Basement Jaxx, Calvin Harris and (ahem) Band Aid 20, but it’s this astonishing debut that he is most celebrated for.
When Franz Ferdinand won in 2004, many branded them as the saviours who helped drag rock groups out of the dreary lull they’d been stuck in since the days of Travis. A new swamp of upbeat laddish bands inevitably followed and many found themselves on the following year’s nomination list. Naturally, the panel backed an album exploring confused gender identity without so much as a whiff of a guitar riff on it. This fragile set of emotionally bruised torch songs, sung with a voice that recalls both Nina Simone and Kermit The Frog, remains a brave and beautiful album.
With more than half of its winning albums being debuts, the Mercury Music Prize has established a reputation for being a springboard for new acts hoping to land in the limelight. So, there was something heart-warmingly British about shunning what was expected and supporting a bunch of experienced hard grafters. It helped that Elbow’s fourth set of soaring songs was its most accomplished yet, the sound of a band coming together and simply enjoying what they do best. A well-deserved victory for the underdogs.
Released a whole year before being nominated for the award, XX had time to flourish and earn the love of critics and commoners alike. This meant they were clear favourites to win, which then meant they probably wouldn’t. One thing the Mercury Music Prize hates being is predictable. But when the topic of debate is a seductive airy take on R&B that refreshingly understands the art of sonic subtleness, the panel had to accept that (in this case) the obvious choice was also the best. This winning album has been shaping our musical landscape ever since.
Listen to highlights from our ten best Mercury Music Prize winners…