Mercury rising: The top 20

The 20th Mercury Prize is awarded this week. To celebrate, Simmy Richman presents the greatest hits of the 'alternative to the Brits'
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The Independent Culture

1. Where do we go from here?

In 2003, the Mercury panel embraced the new urban music then known as garage by giving the award to the 19-year-old east London rapper Dizzee Rascal – who is still the youngest ever winner of the Mercury Prize.

2. Definitely, maybe not

Though Britpop forerunners Suede had won the award in 1993, by the time the Oasis vs Blur battle was raging, the Mercury judges had moved on. In 1994, Blur's Parklife was nominated, only for Elegant Slumming by M People to win. The year after Oasis could only watch as Definitely Maybe was pipped by Portishead's Dummy.

3. No strings attached

The annual shortlist was intended to represent all genres, but there has been no classical album nominated since Joanna MacGregor's Play in 2002. And while we're on the subject, no folk, jazz or classical album has ever walked away with the prize.

4. Brits on the side

While the award was set up to reward "the best album from the United Kingdom and Ireland", the odd questionable nominee has slipped in over the years. Bheki Mseleku (nominated in 1992) was born and lived much of his life in South Africa. Mark Lanegan (nominated in 2006 for his album with Isobel Campbell) is American. And Antony Hegarty (whose I Am a Bird Now won in 2005) was born in Sussex but grew up in San Francisco.

5. What's in a name?

It may still be called the Mercury, but the company that gave it its name was amalgamated into its parent company, Cable & Wireless, in 1997. Since then, the awards have been sponsored by four companies: Technics, Panasonic, Nationwide Building Society and, currently, Barclaycard.

6. Go and busk elsewhere

Only one male singer-songwriter in the recognisable sense of that term has ever won: Badly Drawn Boy for The Hour of Bewilderbeast in 2000.

7. Oops

History has not always judged the Mercury winners kindly. In 2007, Amy Winehouse's Back to Black (then and now considered a classic) was beaten to the gong by the Klaxons' Myths of the Near Future. Winehouse clapped politely but left the event shortly after the winners were announced.

8. Better luck next time

The band with the most cause to be known as the Hitchcock of the Mercurys (multiple nominations, no awards), is Radiohead. They have made the shortlist four times, including for OK Computer, or five if you include Thom Yorke's solo album, without troubling the judges.

9. file under 'where are they now?'

The Mercury nod is no guarantee of longevity. Among those nominees lost along the way are Lemon Jelly, Black Star Liner, Floetry and Propellerheads. As for the winners, the so-called "Mercury curse" does seem to have taken its toll on the careers of Roni Size, Gomez and Ms Dynamite.

10. Still coming together

Having said that, Primal Scream have spent much of this year celebrating the 20th anniversary of Screamadelica, the first album to win the Mercury Prize in 1992. In doing so, the group's singer Bobby Gillespie beat off competition from his former bandmates, the Jesus and Mary Chain.

11. The show must go on

The 2001 prize-giving ceremony was held at London's Grosvenor House Hotel on 11 September. The winner (PJ Harvey) was stuck in the States as a result of that day's turmoil, but a decision was taken late in the day to continue with the event as planned.

12. Tip the sales

Nearly all winners experience a vast increase in sales – last year, HMV reported a 448 per cent increase in sales of the xx's eponymous album the day after they won the award, eventually going platinum (about 600,000 sales). Spare a thought, then, for the 2009 winner, Speech Debelle, whose album Speech Therapy struggled to sell 10,000 copies.

13. Missing in action

Scottish nominees Glasvegas had to cancel their performance at the 2009 show due to their singer, James Allan, going missing. The other band members told reporters that Allan was suffering from an "illness", but later admitted to not knowing where he was. He turned up five days later in America.

14. The pop pickers

So, who judges the Mercury Prize? The organisers like to keep the names of the panellists a secret, although among those whose opinions have been garnered over the years are the names of DJ Janice Long; Radio 1's head of music, George Ergatoudis; and music critics from the NME, Time Out and Metro. The head of the panel is no less than Simon Frith, a lecturer and the author of Music for Pleasure: Essay on the Sociology of Pop.

15. Thanks, but no thanks

The only act to reject a Mercury nomination is Gorillaz, the cartoon band founded by Blur's Damon Albarn. A spokesdrawing for the band described being nominated as "like carrying an albatross around your neck for eternity".

16. Hard to call

The bookies rarely get the winner right, more often than not choosing the album with the highest sales. Ergo, the early frontrunner this year was Adele's 21, although as we went to press PJ Harvey's Let England Shake was making a late charge for glory.

17. The yawn industry

Despite being the most prestigious music awards ceremony in the UK, the Mercury has its share of detractors. Our own music critic, Simon Price, described the event as "the music business at its most smug and least charming", while Liam Howlett of the Prodigy complained that "it's got nothing to do with the public" and Word magazine proclaimed: "Mercury shortlist announced – world yawns."

18. It ain't heavy

Outside the event to announce this year's nominees, heavy metal fans gathered to protest at the exclusion of the Sheffield band Bring Me the Horizon's There Is a Hell... from the shortlist. In fact, no heavy metal act has ever been nominated.

19. A rare show of consensus

Although the prize was set up to offer an alternative to the Brits, the rivals' ceremonies don't always end up in disagreement. In 2007, Arctic Monkeys won both the Mercury and the Brit for their debut album Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not.

20. And the winner is...

Who can say? The judges may feel that PJ Harvey deserves to collect an award after being indisposed in 2001 and that the "first artist to win twice" would make a good story. But this is the Mercury, so our money's on Katy B or Ghostpoet.

'Mercury Prize: Live' is on BBC2 at 10pm on Tuesday