26. Speech Debelle: Speech Therapy (2009)

It’s hard not to feel sorry for Speech Debelle. In some ways a precursor to Kate Tempest, she channelled experiences such as homelessness into her debut’s smoothly jazzy raps, but her Mercury winner was met with poor sales and sparsely attended gigs. Speech Therapy isn’t bad – none of these albums are – but perhaps it’s not great enough for such an unforgiving spotlight.

25. Klaxons: Myths of the Near Future (2007)

Klaxons celebrate their Mercury victory, 4 Septmeber 2007
‘What the ...?’ Klaxons celebrate their Mercury victory in 2007. Photograph: Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images

For many, the wizard-costumed, glowstick-wielding Klaxons’ victory was a “What the …?” moment. The band’s debut certainly ticked all the Mercury boxes – it felt zeitgeisty, it blended dance and psychedelia and it was rooted in the then painfully trendy “new rave” genre – but perhaps too determinedly so. Still, Golden Skans remains a cracker.

24. Alt-J: An Awesome Wave (2012)

The album cemented the band’s journey from University of Leeds DIY types to the Top 20 and made them bookies’ favourites for the prize. The well-connected posh boys’ success spawned predictable social media outrage, but their debut’s clever mix of experimental glitches, daft lyrics and quirkily catchy tunes nonetheless shifted 100,000 copies.

23. Ms Dynamite: A Little Deeper (2002)

Niomi McLean-Daley’s Mercury triumph was a rare early victory for British hip-hop in a field dominated by US culture; you heard Dy-na-mi-tee’s hook being sung by fans everywhere. Sixteen years on, A Little Deeper’s mix of Lauryn-Hill-inspired singing, ragga and R&B sounds somewhat of its time, but it’s not without its charms.

22. James Blake: Overgrown (2013)

The classically trained electronic musician triumphed at the second attempt. Following his debut’s Mercury near-miss two years before, Overgrown saw off previous winners Arctic Monkeys and the critically beloved Laura Mvula with its disembodied vocals and eerie, neo-dubstep songwriting deconstructions.

21. Benjamin Clementine: At Least for Now (2015)

‘A striking, anguished voice’ ... Benjamin Clementine wins in 2015.
‘A striking, anguished voice’ ... Benjamin Clementine wins in 2015. Photograph: Richard Isaac/REX/Shutterstock

The London-born winner accepted his prize in tears – as you would, had your career taken you from sleeping rough to being hailed (by Debrett’s, no less) as “one of the most influential people in Britain”. At Least for Now didn’t shift units, but the pianist tenor mixed emotion, grandeur, poetry and humour with a striking, anguished voice.

20. M People: Elegant Slumming (1994)

Controversially, this saw off such era-defining albums as the Prodigy’s Music for the Jilted Generation and Blur’s Parklife. Although the Hacienda-influenced band’s advert-hogging pop was seen as dance music for Mondeo man, it shrewdly took club culture into the mainstream.

19. PJ Harvey: Stories from the City/Stories from the Sea (2001)

Polly Harvey’s first Mercury-winning album is her most commercial. The title recognises the songs’ inception in New York and her coastal home in Dorset. While Big Exit is contemporary, punky melodrama, not all fans were comfortable with the album’s shift from her former edgy, ramshackle, indie-blues to a more FM radio sheen.

18. Young Fathers: Dead (2014)

‘Relatively unknown but deserving’ ... Young Fathers looking nonplussed in 2014.
‘Relatively unknown but deserving’ ... Young Fathers looking nonplussed in 2014. Photograph: Paul Hackett/Reuters

This Edinburgh-based, Liberian/Nigerian/Scottish experimental hip-hop trio overcame long odds to win. The Mercury did its job in shining a spotlight on a relatively unknown but deserving band whose music inventively fused electro punk and African sounds.

17. Gomez: Bring It On (1998)

Gomez’s winner sold shiploads, but it was not received well among elements of the music press. However, the Bring It On 20th anniversary tour proved a hot ticket: there’s still much love among its dusty psych-blues-funk and vim-filled tales of youthful escapades.

16. Sampha: Process (2017)

The singer-songwriter-cum-Beyoncé-producing-whizzkid’s winner is one of the Mercury’s most personal: the south London soul singer addressed his mother’s death from cancer and his fears for his own physical health. It’s beautiful and moving.

15. Elbow: The Seldom Seen Kid (2008)

Elbow toast their 2008 Mercury win
Bereaved, frustrated – and award-winning ... Elbow toast their 2008 victory. Photograph: Gareth Davies/Getty Images

The Bury band’s fourth album has quite a story behind it. They had been dropped from their label and suffered the death of a close friend, Bryan Glancy (the “seldom seen kid”). Guy Garvey and the band poured their frustrations into a set of emotional but uplifting songs, including the exuberant One Day Like This, arguably the best song of their career.

14. Roni Size/Reprazent: New Forms (1997)

The Bristol collective’s debut was doubly significant: it was the first Mercury winner to come out of leftfield and, conversely, the album that took drum’n’bass into the mainstream. Twenty-one years on, the likes of Brown Paper Bag and Heroes still hold up admirably.

13. Talvin Singh: OK (1999)

The tabla-player/producer’s prize marked a triumph for the emerging British-Asian underground dance music over established acts such as Manic Street Preachers and the Chemical Brothers. Although OK stalled at No 41, it remains beautifully enriching: a global travelogue of sound.

12. The xx: xx (2010)

The xx take home the Mercury prize in 2010
‘As fresh as a daisy’ ... the xx take home the prize in 2010. Photograph: Ferdaus Shamim/WireImage

The young Londoners’ debut has been widely imitated. Still, in 2010, the Mercury winners’ stripped-down, minimalist, spacious sound – a sparse negative of Joy Division, with whispered tales of sexual longing and shades of contemporary R&B – felt as fresh as a daisy.

11. Suede: Suede (1993)

Although it’s debatable whether Suede’s debut is even their best album, it certainly helped justify frothing music-paper claims about “the best new band in Britain”. Brett Anderson’s voice soars over Bernard Butler’s guitar, a pirouetting, pre-Britpop collision of glam-era David Bowie and the Smiths.

10. Badly Drawn Boy: The Hour of Bewilderbeast (2000)

A man who single-handedly made the scruffy woolly hat a fashion item and performed drunken press-ups onstage, Bolton singer-songwriter Damon Gough was an uncomfortable victor. However, the mega-selling Bewilderbeast’s 18 beautifully observed songs remain widely loved.

9. Franz Ferdinand: Franz Ferdinand (2004)

After the Strokes revitalised indie rock, the 2004 Mercury winners gave it an art-school makeover. The Glaswegian four-piece stylishly combined influences from Edinburgh’s Fire Engines to Los Angeles’s Sparks into sharp lyrics and killer pop songs, especially the No 3 hit Take Me Out.

8. Skepta: Konnichiwa (2016)

Skepta and co in 2016
‘Cemented grime’s second wave’ ... Skepta and co in 2016. Photograph: Nils Jorgensen/Rex/Shutterstock

Skepta’s British-sounding album had an international reach, finding room for a guest spot from Pharrell Williams and lyrical references to male stripping troupe the Chippendales. The 2016 winner beat off David Bowie’s Blackstar, its triumph cementing grime’s commercial second wave.

7. PJ Harvey: Let England Shake (2011)

Harvey is the only artist to win two Mercurys. Her most recent triumph was almost unanimously well received. Let England Shake is a dark but strangely uplifting collection of anti-war contemporary folk songs, with mesmerising lyrics, articulations of soldiers’ experiences in Iraq, zinging tunes and rabidly strummed autoharps.

6. Antony and the Johnsons: I Am a Bird Now (2005)

‘A Mercury winner unlike any other’ ... Anohni (formerly known as Antony and the Johnsons) accepts the 2005 gong.
‘A Mercury winner unlike any other’ ... Anohni (formerly known as Antony and the Johnsons) accepts the 2005 gong. Photograph: Jo Hale/Getty Images

Few expected the transgender vocalist now known as Anohni to triumph with an album about death and identity. There was a subsequent ruckus about whether an artist who had lived in the US since the age of 10, despite being born in Chichester, should win a British music prize at all. Still, I Am a Bird Now is beguiling, a Mercury winner unlike any other.

5. Portishead: Dummy (1995)

Its impact in popularising trip-hop was gradually dulled by its own ubiquity and a glut of inferior soundalikes. Now that shoddy replicas of Sour Times and Glory Box no longer blare from shops, Dummy’s mix of Beth Gibbons’ haunting vocals, well-placed samples and inventive production sounds special once again.

4. Arctic Monkeys: Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not (2006)

Arctic Monkeys look surprised by their 2006 victory
‘Urban romances, memorable put-downs, pithily catchy tunes’ ... Arctic Monkeys in 2006. Photograph: Dave Hogan/Getty Images

Still the fastest-selling debut by a band in British music history, the young Sheffield indie rockers’ album swept the Mercury and the nation with Alex Turner’s tales of urban romance and prostitution, memorable put-downs (“you’re not from New York City, you’re from Rotherham”) and pithy tunes.

3. Pulp: Different Class (1996)

The Sheffield sextet’s big breakthrough still sounds like the record Jarvis Cocker had waited all his life to make. Pulp’s gangly frontman poured years of sexual, social and class frustrations into Disco 2000 and, of course, Common People. The long-struggling, charismatic misfits stormed pop’s gilded palace.

2. Dizzee Rascal: Boy in Da Corner (2003)

Dylan Mills may have acquired a slightly goofier image since Bonkers slayed the chart, but it’s hard to overemphasise what a game-changing original this was. Startling, grim tales of inner-city life combine with stomach-rumbling bass and disorienting synths to form one of the foundation stones of grime.

1. Primal Scream: Screamadelica (1992)

It’s faintly disturbing to think that the first Mercury winner is the best, but Primal Scream’s genre-busting colossus remains the benchmark. The hedonistic, record-box-scouring Scots had already been fey, jangling Byrdsy types and leather-trousered Stooges aficionados before the combined influence of ecstasy, acid house clubs and DJ Andrew Weatherall (as co-producer) came into the mix. Screamadelica captured the zeitgeist, like any Mercury winner should, with its mix of dub, house, indie-dance and – in Loaded, Movin’ On Up and Come Together – era-defining but timeless anthems.


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