A couple of weeks ago, the Polaris Music Prize announced its long list of nominees for 2009. Each year the prize is awarded to the best Canadian album chosen by a jury of a hundred-odd music writers, editors and bloggers from all over the country. Any album produced in Canada within the last year by a Canadian band is eligible for nomination. How it goes is that jury members select their five favourite albums, and the top forty make the Polaris long list. A few weeks later, after the albums on the long list have been played repeatedly and agonized over, the Jury selects their top ten for the Polaris short list. This year the short list will be announced on July 7 and the grand prize, an amazing $20,000, will be awarded on September 21.
The Polaris Music Prize was started a mere three years ago in 2006. The very first winner of the prize was Final Fantasy for his album He Poos Clouds. Since then the contest has served to assist numerous Canadian artists by promoting their albums and giving a massive boost to its winners. In 2007, Patrick Watson won for his album Close to Paradise and in 2009 Caribou won for Andorra. Other giants have been included in the Polaris short list for their remarkable releases, including Broken Social Scene, Arcade Fire, Feist, Miracle Fortress, the New Pornographers, Sarah Harmer, the Weakerthans, and the list goes on and on.
This year’s long list features a ton of amazing Canadian talent. Many bands are fresh members of the music scene and many are well-established veterans. The Arkells, Beast, and Coeur de Pirate have all been nominated for debut albums, whereas Metric, The Stills, Martha Wainwright and Leonard Cohen are all recognized for their ongoing work. Patrick Watson is back with another album after his big win two years ago, as are Wolf Parade, Junior Boys, Joel Plaskett and Chad VanGaalen who also all made the short list in 2007. Finally, Ca Va Cool favourites Japandroids, Handsome Furs, and Pink Mountaintops made this year’s long list, much to Ca Va pride.
I have to admit, when I saw this year’s long list just last Tuesday (feels like a lifetime ago) I was a little shocked. Seriously. My mouth was hanging open. I didn’t realize how much music had cropped up in the past year on Canadian soil; there were a lot of names I didn’t recognize and even more albums I hadn’t heard. I had some listening to do. Ten days later (and maybe a bit of sleep), I’ve managed to not only listen to, but also appreciate and digest forty fabulous albums of pure Canadian talent. And I am blown away. There is so much going on in the Canadian music scene that needs to be talked about! Each of these bands deserves to win this prize for their hard work and love for what they do. As far as I’m concerned, they’ve won it already simply by being nominated. So a big congratulations to everyone that made this list. You deserve it!
That said, it was my mission to choose a handful of albums to make up a short-list of my own. I spent a lot of time and energy going through the entire long list, pulling out which albums I felt deserved extra mention. It was an exceedingly hard task, and choosing was not something I did willingly. But it was done and here is my short list:
Women – Women
Women’s self-titled debut album is totally insane. As in, insanely good. This Calgary-based band has tons going on and listening to them is like attending a great big party where everybody knows your name. So much is happening. The drummer is especially phenomenal and at times I could almost swear more than one song is being played. Their music style is like nothing else; maybe more experimental jazz-rock than anything?. From start to finish the album is succinct and the music completely awe-inspiring.
Bell Orchestre – As Seen Through Glass Windows
Bell Orchestre is Richard Reed Parry, Sarah Neufeld (both of Arcade Fire), Stefan Schneider (the Luyas), Pietro Amato (Torngat, the Luyas), Kaveh Nabatian, and Mike Feuerstack (Snailhouse). As Seen Through Windows is the group’s second album and an utterly raw and compelling piece of art. My first experience seeing Bell Orchestre was some two years ago and I remember remarking then how they were the most intent and passionate musicians I had ever seen. They maintain that same intensity with this album; it is stirring, provocative and deep; a complete intellectual treat. Listening is like chewing over a book of poems by Wordsworth.
Coeur de Pirate – Coeur de Pirate
Nineteen-year old Beatrice Martin aka Coeur de Pirate is a fresh new face to the Canadian music scene. She has been playing the piano since the age of three and is my absolute favourite for the Polaris Music Prize this year. Her debut album showcases expert songwriting and musical talent, her primary instruments being the piano which she plays effortlessly and her voice which is refreshingly soft. Other instruments such as the accordion, banjo and violin are brought in regularly to add a delightful flavour of French folk; the result is an absolutely beautiful, unaffected album.
K-Os – Yes
K-Os’s album Yes is an excellent contribution to Canadian music as a whole. K-Os (Rapper Kevin Brereton of Toronto) chooses not to define his music based on any one genre, and I would agree; it showcases a mix of tastes that is broadly accessible to a wide variety of audiences and is difficult to categorize definitively. Open and honest, Yes is especially striking for its musical complexity and grace. Every track brings something fresh and the arrangements are genius. K-Os raps about his ethics, his place in the world and the music scene, and relationships lost, for which he is open and unapologetic. I’m hooked on this album, and especially this single ‘The Aviator’ which I’ve played on repeat often:
Bruce Peninsula – A Mountain Is a Mouth
I think that Bruce Peninsula is a definite contender for the Polaris short-list. An essentially brand new band from Toronto (this is their debut LP), they are unique, talented and very Canadian. A Mountain is a Mouth is a carefully written album with arrangements that feel like they could be part of the regional music in any part of the country. This band and this album are of sheer geographic proportion. Check out the spotlight done on them recently, and this amazing track:
Handsome Furs – Face Control
Montreal natives Dan Boeckner and wife Alexei Perri’s latest album is super solid. It is a definite Ca Va Cool favourite and easily one of the best albums released in the past year – Canadian or otherwise. I had the opportunity to see the Handsome Furs when they first performed these songs. It was last summer at an intimate little venue that was not used to such strain on the power supply – the high energy and awesome sound were just too much for the little power box to handle and it kept shorting. Of course the show was still utterly amazing. Even now this album remains the number one cause of me dancing at work by myself. It was tricky to find just one track to share, but here it is:
Junior Boys – Begone Dull Care
Since 2003 Hamilton’s Jeremy Greenspan and Matt Didemus have been making phenomonal music. In 2007 they made the Polaris short list for their album So This Is Goodbye, and their new album Begone Dull Care is sure to be on the list for 2009. Begone is an album that is near-impeccable. As artists, Junior Boys have astonishing musical intuition; each note, each beat, each voice are placed perfectly in the most incredibly pleasing combination. This album is sexy, calming and invigorating all at once. ‘Parallel Lines’ will leave you wanting more:
Chad VanGaalen – Soft Airplane
Calgary-based Chad VanGaalen returns to Polaris, having been honoured in 2007 as a short-list nominee for his album Skelliconnection. Soft Airplane is another masterpiece and an album I have a lot of respect for. When I first heard Soft Airplane I didn’t love it immediately, but I found myself going back to it again and again. It’s that perfect kind of album that may be hard to appreciate at first but grows on you over time, each listen revealing new layers and complexities that pull you deeper and deeper into the music’s depths. The best delayed reward; it’s love now. I’ll be listening to this album for years.
Jill Barber – Chances
Jill Barber’s latest album Chances is a departure from the folk-acoustic sounds we’re used to hearing from her, but Chances is truly a musical breakthrough. Sultry, honest and charming, this album is open and intimate, friendly and accessible. Barber has managed to turn music reminiscent of different eras and introduce it to a modern-contemporary audience. Some tracks evoke images of 50’s era television specials; others, images of gramophones; and still others, images of 30’s jazz clubs. My Dad is a fan.
Unfortunately, due either to my lack of internet savvy or because it’s actually not out there, there is no sample to be made available directly from Ca Va Cool. But check out her myspace.
X – x
This tenth placing is for every other Canadian album out there. There are many bands that weren’t nominated because they don’t have the press, and there are many nominees I didn’t pick for my short list because there’s not enough room. But whether on my short list or not; whether on the Polaris long list or not, I know that every album put together by anyone is deserving of $20,000 solely for the time, energy and care put into its creation. I’m glad you’re out there doing what you love. Just be sure you come play a show in my town when I’m not working and we’ll be good.