The Polaris Music Prize was first awarded in 2006, serving as the Canadian equivalent of Britain’s Mercury Prize, or the United States’ short-lived Shortlist Music Prize. 40 eligible Canadian releases are chosen for the longlist by the Polaris Jury, who then pare the group down to a 10 album shortlist before the final vote. Previously, the award has been given to Final Fantasy, Patrick Watson, Caribou, Fucked Up, and Karkwa. The disparity between those winners suggests little rhyme-or-reason is involved with the eventual winner, so the list-making process remains entertaining as ever, as it’s usually anyone’s game.
The most recent winners have come with some stigma attached. Both Fucked Up and Karkwa came completely out of left-field as winners, making many question the final 10-person vote. However, having seen both acts live within the past few months, with Fucked Up making for one of the most enjoyable shows I’ve seen in a long time, and Karkwa completely stealing the show from Plants and Animals, I can no longer say their wins were completely undeserved. I will make no defence for Patrick Watson.
The 2011 shortlist was released yesterday, and despite boasting eight first-time shortlist nominees, it seems to be eliciting more grumbling than previous years. We’re not on the jury, but Ca Va Cool favourites PS I Love You, The Rural Alberta Advantage and Young Galaxy inexplicably did not make the jump from the longlist, and we’re scratching our heads at some of the inclusions. So, without further ado, the artists on the Polaris Music Prize 2011 shortlist:
Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
As the universally-acclaimed winner of the Grammy and Juno for Album of the Year, how does the Polaris jury not just hand the award over to Arcade Fire? The optics are bad either way. Do you award the prize to The Suburbs and be seen as appealing to the masses, or give it to someone else and maintain some degree of indie snobbery? Of course, since the Polaris Prize is supposed to be given to the year’s best Canadian album, we can always pull out the old Win-Butler-is-from-Texas card, dodging this whole argument. But seriously, this is the album to beat.
Austra – Feel It Break
Austra represents the female quota for the short list. Though my time with Feel It Break has been short, the album at least strives to do something different, which is always a plus. The electronic genre has also been rather under-represented in previous years of the prize. I have a feeling many votes for Shapeshifting found their way over here.
Braids – Native Speaker
I was incorrect, Braids also contributes to the female presence on the list. This is an album I haven’t been able to get into. Is this that chillwave I keep hearing about? High-pitched vocals and ambient noise instantly throw this into the art-rock category, but right now, I’m not buying it.
Destroyer – Kaputt
I’ve always liked Dan Bejar’s contributions to the New Pornographers, but his work in Destroyer has been hit-and-miss for me. Kaputt follows that trend. ‘Bay of Pigs’ is pretty awesome though, so I’d be fine with a Bejar win.
Galaxie – Tigre et diesel
Welcome to the token Francophone nominee. Last year’s win for Karkwa pretty much guarantees that this isn’t a serious contender, unless the final jury is heavily loaded with Quebeckers. Upon first listen, it’s fairly standard French garage rock, nothing terribly mind-blowing. Fun fact: the band was originally named Galaxie 500, which means they’re probably a bit clueless and somehow took the name of an influential American alternative rock band. Of course, the solution was to drop the 500 and have the same name as a Canadian television-based music service. Marketing must be a bitch for these guys.
Hey Rosetta! – Seeds
The sarcasm takes a break here, as I legitimately love this album. It’s one of the few releases this year that has kept me coming back. Great album coming out of Newfoundland, and one I’m rooting for.
Ron Sexsmith – Long Player Late Bloomer
Probably the most unhip member of the shortlist, Ron Sexsmith is better suited to the top ten of an adult alternative radio station. Granted, the Polaris Music Prize never explicitly stated that indie rock was its sole domain, but given previous nominees, Sexsmith sticks out like a sore thumb. When I think of Ron Sexsmith, I think of that mopey duet with Chris Martin, ‘Gold in Them Hills’. Single ‘Love Shines’ carries on with that melancholy vibe, and it’s nice enough, but if the Polaris is meant to shine a light on the Canadian music scene, I’m not sure MOR is the place to start.
Colin Stetson – New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges
Colin Stetson is the obligatory “Who the fuck is that?” entry on the list, which also makes New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges the odds-on favourite to win. Billed as “avant-garde jazz”, my first introduction to the saxophonist was not a pleasant one. This is music best described as “difficult”.
Timber Timbre – Creep On Creepin’ On
I never got into Timber Timbre’s last album, and passed on this one. After a few tracks, I’m reminded of Bahamas, and decide to start listening to Pink Strat instead. Nothing terribly wrong with it, but nothing particularly groundbreaking about it either. If you told me this was the album of the year, I’d be a little bummed out.
The Weeknd – House of Balloons
The Weeknd immediately lose points from me for missing an “e” in their name. Seriously, are we hurting enough for band names that we have to start butchering the English language? The Weeknd breaks the Polaris barrier for albums that were not commercially released, and R&B albums, I guess. Truthfully, what I’ve heard from their Soundcloud is actually quite good.
Those are the nominees. The year boils down to Arcade Fire versus everyone else, and it’ll be interesting to see whether the jury goes with them, or picks another album out of a hat to cause an uproar. In future years, it’d be nice to see the Polaris Music Prize develop a clearer mandate. Searching for, as their mission statement says, “an album that best represents artistic integrity” is so broad that it invites criticism about under-representation of genres, leading to, as previously stated, nominees like the token francophone album.