July 12, 2011
The Polaris Music Prize is an annual award based on that craziest of criteria: pure artistic merit. There's no deference towards sales, no politicking, no palm-greasing submission process. "No one with a direct financial relationship to the music or its creators is allowed on the jury," go the rules governing those who decide on the prize, which makes it the spiritual opposite of the Grammys. Every year, the Polaris hands over an oversized novelty cheque for $20,000 to some worthy winner, but often the results are unexpected. This year's ceremony is on September 19; in advance, let's vet the candidates for their worth.
After winning the Album of the Year gong at the freakin' Grammys, you'd have to think that Arcade Fire would be unbackable favorites for taking out the Polaris. The Suburbs was hailed from hither to yon for its narrative and artistic ambition; an album attempting to define a generation is one suited to award-shows. But, the Polaris is handed out by a small coterie of clued-in tastemakers and has shown a propensity, in its brief history, for surprise. So it seems more likely that The Suburbs' globe-conquering status may actually inhibit its chances. After all, when the Prize is $20,000 in cold, hard cash, you get the feeling the Polaris peeps would probably rather hand the oversized novelty cheque to someone for whom that isn't tipping money.
Katie Stelmanis once sang on a Polaris Prizewinner: Fucked Up's The Chemistry of Common Life
, which got the gong in 2009. Now, the childhood opera chorister turned all-grown-up electro chanteuse has a chance to score the Polaris on her own. All thanks to that singing voice. Stelmanis has some series pipes, and across her debut Austra LP, Feel It Break
, she belts it out over a Gothed-out take on new wave disco. The album is huge and anthemic yet undeniably melancholy, moored in the past yet disinterested in repeating it. It's one of the best records of 2011
, for sure. And it has to at least be in the Polaris mix, even if it seems unlikely to actually win.
The Polaris's artistry-above-commerce credentials get a big boost with the Short List status of Braids. The Montréal-based band certainly aren't obscure anymore; after releasing their debut LP, Native Speaker
, back in January, they've turned critical acclaim, constant comparisons to Animal Collective
, and key support slots into a sense of genuine career momentum. This is a young band bound, obviously, for great things. But it's a greatness all their own; Native Speaker
a strange, slippery mixture of experimentation, ambience, post-rock
patterns, and lyrical disclosure. Even though Raphael Standell-Preston seems, to me, like a star in waiting, Braids aren't the easiest of musical propositions; so kudos to the Polaris for the acknowledgment.
4. Colin Stetson 'New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges'
Colin Stetson's Short List nomination was met with a bunch of Canadian stories titled things like (or just exactly) "Who is Colin Stetson?" The clued-in will surely already know that the saxophonist has, when not out to redefine what a woodwind instrument is capable of, collaborated with Yeasayer
, TV on the Radio
, Bon Iver
, Tom Waits et al. His latest solo LP —released on Constellation
, produced by Godspeed You! Black Emperor's
Efrim Menuck— is a suite of instrumental mood-pieces equal parts playful and ominous, blessed by guest spots from Laurie Anderson and Shara Worden. Fun fact: Stetson also plays on Arcade Fire's The Suburbs
and Timber Timbre's Creep On Creepin' On
, giving him a finger in three potential Polaris Prize-winning pies.
It feels like Kaputt
should be the favorite to claim the Polaris. Who could possibly not
love it? Daniel Bejar's ninth Destroyer record found the ever-poetic lyricist trying on yet another musical outfit: effectively a white linen suit, worn with boat-shoes sans
socks. The timing proved perfect: Destroyer luxuriating in the sounds of yacht-rock, blue-eyed soul, and general turn-of-the-'80s smoothness right at the moment the indie world was ready for it. Arriving in January, Kaputt
heralded the arrival of the Year of the Saxaphone, immediately cemented a spot atop album-of-the-year lists, and became far-and-away Destroyer's most successful LP so far. It also could be his best, which is saying something given the greatness of Destroyer's Rubies
6. Galaxie 'Tigre et diesel'
Galaxie feel like a token Francophone nominee. But, then again, last year's token Francophone nominee, Karkwa, ended up winning the Polaris for an unfavored album (Les Chemins de verre
) unknown to the indie world at large. Galaxie are similarly anonymous outside of Québec, and the fact that they initially called themselves Galaxie 500 —apparently ignorant of the fact that name was, indeed, already taken
— suggests their complete absence of indie spirituality. Galaxie are, effectively, an adventurous commercial rock-band; changing shape and form, courting curious sounds, yet always sounding slickly radio-ready. Tigre et diesel
embraces neon-sounding synths and electronic sounds, but that's a pretty standard shift for a band to take circa-2011. I'd say back-to-back Francophone wins are unlikely.
7. Hey Rosetta! 'Seeds'
Hey Rosetta! have the unfortunate feeling of being Arcade Fire imitators. But that hasn't limited the love they've received from the Polaris; HR! now shortlisted as many times (two, for 2009's Into Your Lungs (and around in your heart and on through your blood) and, now, 2011's Seeds) as the band they owe their musical lives to. If their exclamation mark didn't tip you, Hey Rosetta! pride themselves on their energy and enthusiasm, with their exuberating liveshows excited culminations of their happy/clappy aesthetic. They've come far enough, now, to be thought of as their own thing, but expecting them to triumph over Arcade Fire is taking the thought of some master/apprentice narrative too far. They're just happy to be here.
8. Ron Sexsmith 'Long Player Late Bloomer'
All those writers who tiredly riffed on the title of Long Player Late Bloomer —suggesting that the 12th Ron Sexsmith album might finally be the one to deliver him unto popularity— would love a Polaris win to give credence to their creaky words. Sexsmith has long been a songwriter's songwriter; a classicist following in the Canadian tradition of troubadours like Gordon Lightfoot and Leonard Cohen. Like another of his heroes, Tim Hardin, Sexsmith's songs have been covered by many, but he's remained just below the commercial radar. The slick polish given to Long Player Late Bloomer by producer Bob Rock(!) again suggested a possible change in fortunes, but the LP seems like it's going to be another solid, well-received entry in the Sexsmith canon. $20,000 cash may or may not alter that perception.
9. Timber Timbre 'Creep On Creepin' On'
Arts & Crafts
Creep On Creepin' On has served as Timber Timbre's breakout disc, finally delivering Taylor Kirk's eerie baritone unto the world at large. The Toronto trio's fourth LP is a brilliantly produced record; glints of piano (played by Mathieu Charbonneau of The Luyas) and saxophone (played by fellow-Polaris-nominee Colin Stetson) daubed across a vintage sound reminiscent of Cass McCombs and The Walkmen. And it's genuinely creepy: its songs stalking through stark landscapes that transform the familiar tropes of musical Americana into shadowy, sinister places. It reminds me of David Lynch and his fondness for perverting wholesome forms. Whether or not that makes Timber Timbre more or less likely to be Polaris winners is another story entirely.
10. The Weeknd 'House of Balloons'
The presence of House of Balloons on the list is, in itself, a sign of the digital epoch. The debut LP for semi-mysterious R&B moodist The Weeknd has, after all, never been 'officially' released, at least in the old sense. Instead of being sold to the world by some record label, 21-year-old Abel Tesfaye simply turned his LP loose online, and let the world come to him. House of Balloons is a set of slippery slow-jams whose rippling, digital production creates a glossy patina; Tesfaye's odes to the nightlife inhabiting an audio atmosphere both neon-bright and woozily distorted. It's pop music worthy in both its artistry and its distribution, and its mix of accessibility and credibility make it a genuine Polaris contender.