Back to Black (2006)
Amy Winehouse’s second album wasn’t exactly in need of a sales boost, and her tabloid ubiquity meant an award win would barely have registered with the general public, but her second album was leagues ahead of winners the Klaxons’ flimsy Myths of the Near Future. Her performance of modern standard Love is a Losing Game at the 2007 ceremony also should have swayed it.
Soft and supple as Sade, Ware’s expertly refined debut album is a masterclass in mood-setting. Even when she aims for blown-out X Factor ballad territory on Wildest Moments, it still manages to feel restrained, as if she’s singing directly to the listener. Balancing sonic playfulness with melodic pizazz is tricky to pull off – just ask that year’s inexplicable winners Alt-J.
Professional students Gomez swiped the gong from that year’s favourites the Verve, but it should have gone to Massive Attack’s inky third album. Musically, it sought to steer the band away from trip-hop’s creative cul-de-sac, while lyrically it careens headfirst into paranoia and despair, with Teardrop its bleeding black heart.
Common Sense (2017)
As impressive as winner Sampha’s Process album is, UK rap’s newest superstar was the one who got away. Rooted in grime and hip-hop (50 Cent was an influence) and finessed with nods to Afrobeat and dancehall, Common Sense details the life and times of the then 21-year-old, from the braggadocio to the sobering.
Stitching together mementos from her global escapades, MIA never sounded more vital than on her debut. Trying on genres at will – from reggaeton to electroclash, hip-hop and dancehall – its influence spread through pop, cited by everyone from Nelly Furtado to Thom Yorke. A worthy match for the equally trailblazing winner, Antony and the Johnsons.
Music for the Jilted Generation (1994)
The Prodigy’s second LP was the antithesis of surprise winners M People’s coffee-table soul. Raging against the erosion of rave culture, it unites breakbeat, rave, techno and jungle, the menacing Voodoo People and Poison setting up their next move as parent-scaring superstars.
On a Mission (2011)
After years guesting on various dubstep crossover hits, Katy B’s debut cemented her status as that genre’s first proper star and showcased a versatile talent. An album about clubbing by someone who’s actually been to a club, it channels UK garage, UK funky, house and R&B into anthems that throb and pulsate.
Bedwetters of the world, unite and take over! Coldplay’s debut might be sappy, but it also perfectly captures a specific lovelorn giddiness, all crumpled love notes stuffed in the pockets of bootcut H&M jeans. Shiver, Trouble, Yellow, Don’t Panic, the lovely “secret track” Everything’s Not Lost, are all more emotionally cathartic than Badly Drawn Boy’s winning debut.
In Rainbows (2007)
After years of running away from their success, the luminous In Rainbows marked the point when Thom Yorke et al acquainted their experimental side with their ability to craft heart-swelling alt-rock epics. Their fourth nomination and, staggeringly, their fourth loss (Elbow’s festival-ready The Seldom Seen Kid won), it contains some of their very prettiest moments.
How I’m Feeling Now (2020)
No offence to winner Michael Kiwanuka but a weird year needed a weird winner. Created in lockdown with help from fans, How I’m Feeling Now’s bottled-up energy perfectly encapsulated time spent trapped inside (the frantic Anthems opens with the relatable “I’m so bored”), with emotions old and new ricocheting off the walls.