The great to the forgotten albums of the Mercury Prize
Will Butler

12:17 9th July 2015

With news of the Mercury Prize returning to the BBC, it's as good a time as ever to reflect on the past winners. The Mercury has represented the best of British and Irish alternative music since 1992. Every year reminds us of how many amazing artists we have produced and continue to produce over the years.

Unfortunately, some great artists have since faded into obscurity since these moments of glory only to end up on a 'worst to best' list a number of years later. For the luckier few, the Mercury has awarded veteran artists a new lease of life and catalysed numerous success stories. 

From Arctic Monkeys to Ms.Dynamite, Suede to Young Fathers, here is the worst to best of every Mercury Prize winning album.

  • 23) Ms.Dynamite - A Little Deeper (2002): It's not that A Little Deeper is bad, it's just not the standout record of that year. For many, Ms.Dynamite represents childhood and cruising in your mum's Ford Galaxy on the school run. As far as this record's legacy goes, we cannot deny the influence singles like 'Dy-Na-Mi-Tee' or 'It Takes Me' had on the pop world. However, when put toe-to-toe with the likes of Original Pirate Material or The Coral's debut, the best album of the lot? Surely not.

  • 22) Roni Size/Reprazent - New Form (1997): Cited as this drum and bass act's "magnum opus", New Form is a hypnotic and vibrant take on the typically aggressive style of dance music at the time. Rich instrumentation and a mastery of dynamics. Not for the faint hearted, a record that requires patience and time to let it's proficiency sink in and for the density to be processed.

  • 21) M People - Elegant Slumming (1994): It's neon tinted and touches all the bases that good dance-pop should. Down-tempo soul cuts intermitted by saccharin appeal of singles like 'One Night In Heaven' with a production that incorporates a handful of great house influences but, as a whole, remains at a steady glow throughout.

  • 20) Badly Drawn Boy - The Hour of Bewilderbeast (2000): The Mercury Prize brought in the new millennium with the sounds of Damon Gough and his sweet acoustic tinged chamber pop. As well as the more straightforward and infectious ballads, Gough plays with some light experimentation. If you can see through the moments of self-indulgence peppered throughout, this is a stellar singer-songwriter record.

  • 19) Talvin Singh - OK (1999): Titled for it's global universality, OK is a melding of late 90s electronic music and the sounds of Indian classical. A gateway album great for anyone looking to get into that side of World Music or if the monotony of modern dance music has driven you to look back for something more flavoursome. Selling only 90,000 copies in the UK, this hidden wonder is one of the Prize's smallest sellers.

  • 18) Klaxons - Myths of the Near Future (2007): Widely regarded as the cornerstone of the New Rave movement, Klaxons broke ground on Indie dancefloors everywhere with this release. Bangers like 'Magick' and 'Atlantis to Interzone' are just a couple of the six singles that this album produced, that's over half the album's tracklist.

  • 17) Elbow - The Seldom Seen Kid (2008): Who could ever forget the sounds the of foot-stomping and pint slinging raucous that blows out of 'Grounds For Divorce' whenever it's played live. The fourth release from this Bury band, it was their first self-produced record. Home of 'One Day Like This' and 'The Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver', Seldom Seen Kid is full of both heavy handed and beautiful moments.

  • 16) Gomez - Bring It On (1998): A hidden gem among British Indie of the late 90s, Gomez's debut is slick, shady and an album you hear and immediately regret not having heard it before. It has the temperament of your best friend that can sometimes turn menacing over the smallest thing. The production is wild enough to warrant multiple listens, it's such a shame this is one of the records that was forgotten.

  • 15) Franz Ferdinand - Franz Ferdinand (2004): The self titled debut from this Scottish four piece provided some of the most infectious indie tunes of this generation. 'Dark of the Matinee' and 'Take Me Out' seemed to have had a bigger presence than any other song in 2004. Simultaneously sexy and smart, this debut was and is, hands down, one of suavest Indie releases of the early noughties.

  • 14) Young Fathers - Dead (2014): Last year's winners that succeeded completely against the odds, Young Fathers took the Mercury in all their mysterious and broody majesty and yet their album was anything but that. Raw, emotive and intoxicating, Dead was an amalgam of all the best bits of their Tape EPs blending industrial Hip-Hop with dance beats, pop choruses and world tones.

  • 13) PJ Harvey - Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea (2001): A Mercury Prize given to an album that is effectively a love song dedicated to New York City. Setting out to make an album that sounds "as beautiful as possible", Harvey made good on her promise crafting songs rich in life affirmation, this is definitely one of the highlights of Harvey's esteemed career.

  • 12) Antony and the Johnsons - I Am A Bird Now (2005): They say you should never meet your heroes, but if this record is anything to base that on, it's a damn lie. Antony Hegarty was lucky enough to work with his idols Boy George and Lou Reed on his second album of emotionally heavy baroque pop. Fans of Perfume Genius, Woodkid and even Sam Smith should get their ears round this, it's almost as good as it gets.

  • 11) The XX - XX (2010): Brooding and intriguing, The XX won the hearts of the alternative world with their simple aesthetic and introspective sound. Sparing where it matters, XX is built on the foundation of basslines and beats and given life with masterful texture and exchanged vocal parts. The XX created atmosphere by doing a lot with very little.

  • 10) Speech Debelle - Speech Therapy (2009): Speech Therapy is the debut from this London rapper and an understated gem as far as I'm concerned. Combining conscious rap with lush instrumentation, this a record that stands out from the rest. Covering topics as relatable as falling for a close friend in 'Buddy love' to more treacherous relationships in 'Daddy's Little Girl'. Speech Therapy is an intelligent, fun and sometimes eye-opening perspective record which calls back to the storytelling attitude of golden-age Hip Hop.

  • 9) Alt-J - An Awesome Wave (2012): An album that was strangely popular out of the alternative market, An Awesome Wave was a weird and infectious adventure out of our comfort zones. Tracks like 'Tessalate', 'Breezeblocks' and 'Fitzpleasure' rattled around our heads constantly with us never being able to put our fingers on why we liked them so much. Winning the Mercury propelled Alt-J into a lane of their own and, hopefully, will have them creating fantastic art-pop for many years to come.

  • 8) Dizzee Rascal - Boy in da Corner (2003): The perfect combination of hard garage beats, grime and a razor wit, Dizzee took the UK kicking and screaming releasing this album at age 17. Whether he's spitting angrily or in jest, there is an immaculate focus to his bars setting an unmatchable standard for any Grime that followed it.

  • 7) Arctic Monkeys - Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not (2006): What can be said about this album that hasn't already been said? Bringing light to the most iconic UK band of the following decade, Turner's dry wit would forever be carved into the history of alternative music backed with the most insatiable guitar work and tempos the Mercury had ever experienced.

  • 6) James Blake - Overgrown (2013): You have to watch the quiet ones, sometimes they win Mercurys. This was definitely the case for electronic singer-songwriter James Blake who beat out favourites Disclosure, Laura Mvula and David Bowie for the prize. The soulful sounds of 'Retrogade' channeled Sam Cooke reincarnate but produced for the modern audience with an amazing depth and knowledge of harmonies. Also RZA is on the record which is awesome.

  • 5) Portishead - Dummy (1995): Another debut success story that took the Mercury, Dummy had tough competition running against both Definitely Maybe and Elastica's self-titled record; a well deserved winner. Dummy is a crash-course in the art of trip-hop in all it's nonsensical mystique. The album morphs between paranoia and comfort seamlessly blending the two contradictory atmospheres to create more beautiful than both.

  • 4) Suede - Suede (1993): Britpop at it's best: unfiltered and inventive. Guitars whirr and sizzle while Brett Anderson weaves melancholy tales. Tracks like 'Animal Nitrate' and 'The Drowners' represent how great the 90s was for anthem production. 'So Young' and 'Metal Mickey' are Mercury worthy on their own let alone within the context of a debut. The whole record feels like the stakes are higher than they've ever been and Suede know they're due a payout.

  • 3) Pulp - Different Class (1995): Five albums in, Pulp managed to blow all their previous work out the water with Different Class. Hosting 'Common People', 'Disco 2000' and 'Mis-Shapes' in the tracklist, how could it not have won the Mercury? For many, this was the first encounter with Cocker's sweetly promiscuous lyricism and the sentiment that "We don't want no trouble, we just want the right to be different. That's all." An album written by outsiders for outsiders, it's no surprise this album grew to eventually define the Britpop era.

  • 2) PJ Harvey - Let England Shake (2011): The second Mercury for Harvey, Let England Shake surpasses the beauty of Stories with this album built on brutality and bloodshed. Let England Shake is wildly exciting, every track amalgamates flawless experimentation with a burning passion and the foresight of an artist at the peak of her game. On top of this, it's Harvey's most British sounding record to date so fitting it should be awarded the Mercury for it's proficiency and her invaluable contribution to UK Alternative music.

  • 1) Primal Scream - Screamadelica (1992): The inaugural Mercury Prize winner and the best in the awards short but competitive history. It's sound is as iconic as the artwork it rests behind. An album that pays homage to the history of music it owes it's existence too, there truly is no better record to signify the achievements of UK alternative musicians.

More about:


Photo: Artwork