Pontificating on Polaris

Then the North Star
is guiding us home in your friend’s car
Will we take a chance or will we restart?
The sky is a map that’s guiding back to my heart

“North Star” by the Rural Alberta Advantage (2011 Polaris Music Prize Nominees)

The Polaris Music Prize is an annual competition that seeks to reward the best in Canadian recorded music.  The organization’s mission statement is to ‘recognize and market albums of the highest artistic integrity, without regard to musical genre, professional affiliation, or sales history’.  In other words, Justin Bieber and Nickelback need not apply.  It is modeled on the UK’s Mercury Music Prize, and nets the winner a cool $30,000.

Each year, a plethora of new albums by Canadian artists are nominated by over two hundred jurors for consideration.  The jurors range from print and online music journalists to radio programmers to musically-orientated TV personalities to (scraping the bottom of the barrel) some lowly bloggers.  The breadth of backgrounds is reflected in the wide stylistic variety of albums that get nominated.  The winners over the past five years include:

  • 2007:  Close to Paradise by Patrick Watson
  • 2008:  Andorra by Caribou
  • 2009:  The Chemistry of Common Life by Fucked Up
  • 2010:  Les Chemins de Verre by Karkwa
  • 2011:  The Suburbs by Arcade Fire

For 2012, a ‘long list’ of 40 candidate albums was published back on June 14th.  Earlier this week, the candidates were pared down to a top-10 ‘short list’ featuring (in alphabetical order):

  • Cadence Weapon – Hope In Dirt City
  • Cold Specks – I Predict A Graceful Expulsion
  • Drake – Take Care
  • Kathleen Edwards – Voyageur
  • Feist – Metals
  • Fucked Up – David Comes To Life
  • Grimes – Visions
  • Handsome Furs – Sound Kapital
  • Japandroids – Celebration Rock
  • YAMANTAKA / SONIC TITAN – YT//ST

Sadly, several excellent records were left off the short list.  Kathryn Calder (on a diversion from her day job in the New Pornographers) didn’t make the cut with Bright and Vivid.  Septuagenarian legend Leonard Cohen and his Old Ideas were good ideas, but evidently not quite good enough to make the top ten.  I really like New Wild Everywhere by Great Lake Swimmers, but they didn’t make the short list this year.  I was very surprised that Dan Mangan’s excellent Oh Fortune was left off the list, after a winter and spring of fawning praise from all corners of the media.  Scrappy Happiness by Joel Plaskett Emergency is pretty cool but was maybe too new to gain enough momentum.  The Weeknd got a lot of buzz last year with Echoes of Silence (among other releases), but it’s not going to win the Polaris prize.  Likewise for Yukon Blonde’s Tiger Talk, which is a genuine grower of an album.  And one of my favourites, Summer of Lust by Library Voices, didn’t even make the long list.

Admittedly, the short list IS a pretty tidy microcosm of Canadian hip & happening music.  Feist and Drake are the biggest names that mainstream music fans would recognize, but star buzz doesn’t help an artist in this contest.  In fact, the Polaris Prize often carries more than a whiff of indier-than-thou preciousness, where bands are celebrated seemingly for being willfully obscure.  I bought the Patrick Watson record that won the prize back in 2007, largely due to favourable comparisons to Pink Floyd’s Meddle album (and the Craven Hermit LOVES the languid intensity of Meddle).  But for the life of me I can’t see why Close to Paradise was even considered for the Polaris Prize, unless it was the way that its’ ho-hum mediocrity sprung forth from total musical obscurity.

The nomination of Cadence Weapon brings a modern, experimental hip-hop flavour to the proceedings.  Kathleen Edwards continues to release perfectly nice, introspective indie-pop records but, truth be told, they’re just too boring to ever truly grab my attention.  Cold Specks is an interesting proposition – not a lot of cotton-field old-skool soul sisters creating a buzz in Canada.  Japandroids are defiantly waving the beer & nachos indie rock flag, which is totally cool with me.  I personally hope Japandroids win, but the Polaris Prize jury has a track record of picking winners that skew more towards the musical margins.  Even so, Celebration Rock is about the most fun you can have with your pants on.

I’m less comfortable with Fucked Up’s nomination.  I love the idea of an ambitious anarcho-rock-opera, and the music is exciting and engaging, but I simply cannot stand lead ‘singer’ Damien Abraham’s gonzo vocals.  This ass-clown also single-handedly ruined my favourite show on MuchMusic.  Every millisecond Abraham’s preening, self-aggrandizing douchiness polluted the screen during his guest-host stint on “The Wedge” made me want to hurl nasty epithets and blunt objects across the room.

This year’s left field pick is YT//ST by the art collective of Yamantaka and Sonic Titan.  I’m a reasonably well-read indie music fan, but this one’s so far off my radar I had to Google it.  Whereupon I learned from the National Post that YT//ST is an “Asian Diasporic psychedelic noh-wave opera group fusing noise, metal, pop and folk music into a multi-disciplinary hyper-orientalist cesspool of Eastern culture”.  I’m trying to keep an open mind about YT//ST until I actually get a chance to hear it, but based on this description alone I’m steeling myself for some serious Pitchfork-baiting, industrial-strength, avant-garde bullshit.  It’s almost as though the IDEA of this record is more important than the record itself – which is never a good situation.

All of the foregoing maybe leaves Vancouverite (by way of Montreal) Grimes as the favourite by default.  In a country as big as Canada, with so many different regions and musical histories, it’s so difficult to find consensus in the zeitgeist.  Yet somehow, everyone seems to be rallying around Claire Boucher’s quirky electro-indie-dance-pop stylings.  Her squeaky childlike voice is a take-it-or-leave-it proposition (personally, I’d leave it), but the music is undeniably compelling.  Visions by Grimes might just find itself parked at a quasi-stationary spot in the Canadian night sky this year.

The Polaris Music Prize jury has been pared down to an eleven-member Grand Jury for the final round of voting.  We will find out which album gets the prize on September 24th.

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