Another year brings another autumnal day of Mercury gongs; and later on this evening, no doubt, the obligatory complaints that the right record didn’t come out on top. Judged by a select panel of industry folks - radio DJs, musicians, journalists and festival directors - it’s all subjective. Sometimes, an unassuming album misses out on the Mercury Prize that year, and goes on to become a bona fide classic.
That’s the Mercury Prize, in essence; a strange mistress and a peculiar one. With one hand it can elegantly elevate new talent to achingly deserved heights, while with the other it can smear lipstick all over its face and just end up looking a bit silly.
As we prepare to enter another winner into the Mercury Prize Hall of (Almost) Fame, here’s a look at some of the now iconic records that missed out. Perhaps the losers-to-be can take comfort in the illustrious company they join leaving without a prize.
The year that ignored Britpop
Rewind back to 1994. Britpop had been running roughshod in a union jack blazer all year, and Blur were outright favourites for the award. ‘Parklife’ would go on to cement itself as an instantly iconic, timely and original album. However this was the year the Mercury Prize chose to reveal a certain absurdity to its character and plumped for M People’s ‘Elegant Slumming’. While the relatively catchy ‘Moving On Up’ had brandished a tough grip on the airwaves over the year, Blur had dominated, with a string of hits, a cult following and icon at the helm.
A vote for Blur was a vote for Britpop, but it was not a vote for the variety in the Mercury Prize. Seemingly by the virtue of being a little too similar to Suede, ‘Parklife’ was overlooked. It would have been odd to suggest at such an early stage that the Mercury Prize was being willfully obtuse, but three years later it was an accusation worth shouting from the rooftops.
No Surprises? ‘OK Computer’ losing out certainly was
In the next two years, the top prize went to Portishead and then Pulp successively; on that basis, you’re entitled to feel pretty sorry for Blur. Maybe they just missed their moment? Unfortunately the Mercury’s unspoken rule of not entertaining the same genre of music for three years running again claimed an even greater casualty than ‘Parklife’. Previous questions and disagreements over past winners turned into a hoarsely yelled ‘How the hell has ‘OK Computer’ not won a Mercury Prize?!’. The Mercury Prize’s need to eschew the obvious is encapsulated in its remote treatment of Radiohead. They’ve been nominated 4 times, with Thom Yorke receiving a further nomination for his solo work. Why? Because they’ve been consistently ridiculously good. They’ve been nominated more than anyone else. Yet they’ve won precisely zero times - because they’re just too good. They’re too popular, they’re too critically acclaimed, they’ve come too far now. What weight would the Mercury Prize carry if it went to such obvious candidates? It needed to shock, and shock it did, with Roni Size / Reprazent scooping the award. The same year left The Prodigy and The Chemical Brothers empty handed, too.
Classic Dance Records? Not this year….
One year before the turn of the millennium, The Chemical Brothers were once more overlooked; perhaps caught out by Roni Size taking an award for the dance world two years earlier. They were joined in their rejection by Faithless and Underworld, forming a sort of holy trinity of British dance acts. Despite collectively producing ‘God Is a DJ’, ‘Hey Boy Hey Girl’ and ‘Born Slippy’ (admittedly not on Underworld’s nominated album) in the ultimate soundtrack to 3AM oblivion, none of the artists were deemed worthy of the award. As it happened, the title was scooped by Talvin Singh’s ‘Ok’, whose own take on trip-hop took home the prize, only one year after Massive Attack’s ‘Mezzanine’ had lost out to Gomez.
The Speech Debacle: The Horrors and Bat For Lashes pipped by an underdog
For a whole decade the Mercury Prize chugged along like a well-oiled machine, awarding its honours to cult favourites. Warming itself in the glow of the rise of Ms Dynamite and Dizzee Rascal during the early noughties, the Mercury seemed to have found a balance. Sure, Bloc Party’s ‘Silent Alarm’ somehow didn’t win a gong in 2005. On the other hand, the flash in the pan antics of the Klaxons took home the trophy in 2007. For the most part, though, these were at worst missteps rather than total collapses. Then along came Speech Debelle. Speech Debelle was apparently confident about winning, so she remarked, at a time when every other person was saying ‘Who’s Speech Debelle?’. It was widely reported that the debut from the rapper had only sold 3000 copies. Still, the Mercury Prize isn’t a popularity contest, and it sure didn’t have a popular winner that year. It wasn’t just the paying public who weren’t convinced, as even the critics failed to manage much more than a polite acceptance. It was, in part, probably down to ‘Primary Colours’ and ‘Two Suns’ getting pipped to the post by an underdog. It’s too soon to establish whether The Horrors or Bat For Lashes’ records will go on to become classics, but regardless, 2009 is the year most commonly referred to as ‘The One They Got Wrong’.
Looking back, it seems hard to imagine that the judges of the era hadn’t twigged that Blur and Radiohead were kind of going to be a big deal. Now it seems a bit like nominating Lionel Messi for a Ballon d’Or, before awarding it to an under 16 who’d scored a great rabona once in a friendly, or ignoring Daniel Day Lewis for an Oscar awarded to the best extra who’d make a great cousin of a Downton Abbey character. Hindsight, it must be said, is a wonderful thing, and these words almost run slick with it.
For the last few years, though, The Mercury Prize has been close enough to spot on. It’s been like that since The XX turned up and rescued it from the Speech debacle by the virtue of just being too good to ignore. Even as recently as last year it was bestowing its gifts on masterpiece-maker James Blake, who walked out with the prize. Usually this calm only comes before a storm of controversy and bad judging. However with bookie’s favourite FKA Twigs carrying on in consistent form, while still pushing it in less over-exposed directions, there’s a chance it can stave off melodrama for another year yet.
That’s the charm of music though at its heart; a pursuit so personal, unique, utterly devoted to the moment and desperately subjective. It’s a prize so unpredictable that a group of people can sit down around a table and say ‘This OK Computer,’ then? Not all that is it?’.