The Mercury Music Prize judges don’t always cock up the award, but when they do – they cock it up royally.
It’s no easy task to decide the British (and/or Irish) album of the year by committee as the Mercury panel attempt to do, but in the years since Primal Scream’s Screamadelica won the inaugural prize there has been a near 50/50 split between rightful champions and head-scratching choices.
With the shortlist of nominees now announced for the 2014 Mercury Music Prize, it’s a perfect time to reflect on the great albums that slipped through the net – nominees that were pipped to the post or rogue releases that went completely under the radar.
In a nod to Jim Bowen’s Bullseye, let’s take a look at what should have won.
Blur – Parklife (1994)
Blur’s rise to the status of Britpop juggernauts and the following hoop-la of the ‘chart wars’ with Oasis possibly made them too mainstream to be praised by the Mercury critics. With hindsight, it’s easier to reflect on that time as a golden era of British albums and Blur’s attempt to map the British psyche through tracks such as ‘Girls and Boys’, ‘Parklife’ and ‘This is a Low’ was overlooked. Especially when you consider the fact that 1994’s winner was M People’s Elegant Slumming.
Tricky – Maxinquaye (1995)
The debut solo record from one of the main figures in the rise of Trip-Hop, Tricky’s album Maxinquaye was a dark blend of hip-hop, electronica, dub and rock influences in a record that was a unique gem. The critically-acclaimed LP was nominated in a particularly strong year and lost out to other fellow Bristolians Portishead’s Dummy. Maxinquaye continues to be considered one of the finest albums of that very brief scene, up there with Massive Attack’s Blue Lines.
Aphex Twin – Richard D. James Album (1996)
Cornish bedroom producer Richard D. James’ eponymous fourth album brought a twisted soul to a music scene that had often seemed cold and mechanical. The weird and wonderful mind of Aphex Twin was firing on all cylinders when producing this record – but the finest album to date by one of the biggest names in British electronica, did not make the shortlist. Instead, 1996’s award went to Pulp’s Different Class.
Radiohead – OK Computer (1997)
The Oxford alt-rockers are consistent losers in Mercury standings. Frontman Thom Yorke has been nominated with OK Computer, Amnesiac, Hail to the Thief, In Rainbows and his solo album The Eraser. Perhaps no forehead-slapping quite hits the same heights as OK Computer though, which went on not only to top many ‘best of’ lists for that year but also went on to be various publications’ album of the decade and for some, the best album of all time.
Whether you agree with that particular summation or not, the Mercury panel missed their chance to honour a fairly massive cultural landmark, instead giving that year’s prize to drum n’ bass producers Roni Size & Reprazent’s New Forms.
Boards of Canada – Music Has The Right To Children (1998)
The Scottish electronic duo’s lack of hype, promotion or public image have made them a silent juggernaut through the years, probably best characterised by the cult status of Music Has The Right To Children. The album’s lush ambient tones are never abrasive, but unlock like a puzzle box to reveal truly beautiful sounds. The real kicker for Boards fans is that Right To Children failed to even receive a nomination that year, pipped to the shortlist by the likes of Robbie Williams’ Life Thru A Lens. Make what you will of that information.
The Streets – Original Pirate Material (2002)
Mike Skinner’s debut may not have been quite as polished as the more commercially successful A Grand Don’t Come For Free, but the first record by The Streets was a complete game-changer. Skinner’s mix of the DIY production typical of the UK garage scene with lyrical content that spoke to a generation of Brits, influenced a number of artists that followed and remains one of the best British albums of the decade. The Streets were on the shortlist, but were beaten by Ms. Dynamite’s A Little Deeper.
The Libertines – Up The Bracket (2003)
One of the brief moments where the chaotic relationship between Pete Doherty and Carl Barat came together long enough to produce an album that really did deliver a sense of a rebirth of British rock n’ roll (a phrase now grounded down into dust by the NME). Up The Bracket showed The Libertines at their finest, with their call and response song structures, raucous production and punchy and tightly-knit sound. Lineage lines can be drawn from the rise of Doherty and Barat to the success of the Arctic Monkeys, in the same way The Stone Roses opened the door for Oasis. The album did not make the year’s shortlist.
Richard Hawley – Coles Corner (2006)
Richard Hawley’s charming, vintage-tinged album of heartfelt ballads with rockabilly and jazz influences made it one of the finest albums of the decade and a true timeless gem. The Mercury Prize that year went to the Arctic Monkeys for their debut record, though fellow Sheffield native Alex Turner started the band’s acceptance speech by saying “Someone call 999, Richard Hawley’s been robbed”.
Jamie T – Panic Prevention (2007)
In a year that was saturated with the indie-darlings of the day, Panic Prevention was a cut above. Jamie T’s debut was an album difficult to pigeonhole, with punk and indie influences – and a lyrical delivery that rapped and slurred through colloquial references. The longer that Jamie T was absent, the more it became apparent how influential his first album had been on a whole heap of younger acts. Personal jokes and vocal samples that were clearly done as a nod to friends became instantly recognisable to a loyal fanbase. Panic Prevention stood the test of time whereas The Klaxons’ Myths of the Near Future (2007’s winning album) soon sounded very much of its time.
Burial – Untrue (2008)
Burial’s anonymity meant there was a huge amount of hype around his identity and the album itself. However Untrue held up to the intense scrutiny that comes with inflated expectations. The album is a dark, moody and sluggish record that uses lo-fi drum kits and throwaway R’n’B samples to create a strange urban record that was wrongly tagged as dubstep, when it was its own creation entirely. Although hotly-tipped to be a dark horse in that year’s entries, Burial lost out to Elbow’s Seldom Seen Kid.