On September 24, 2012, the seventh annual Polaris Music Prize will be handed out. The award is bestowed upon the best Canadian album of the past year, and is based solely on artistic merit; the Prize establishing its cred from Day One, with the very first winner being Final Fantasy. After the tedium of Arcade Fire's 2011 win, the 2012 field feels far more wide-open (though, if I had a say, Grimes would win going away). So, let's break down each of the nominees, and wish them luck in pursuit of the honor of the Polaris. And, y'know, the $30,000, too.
Rapper, scholar, thinker, critic, Poet Laureate of Edmonton, former Polaris nominee. Rollie Pemberton has quite the CV; the artist otherwise known as Cadence Weapon known for both his mic-rockin' and his chin-scratchin'. Back in 2006, with the very first Polaris Music Prize, Cadence Weapon may've even been the favorite; his debut LP, Breaking Kayfabe, having been embraced from hither to yon for its experimental, ambitious, iconoclastic take on one of music's most conservative genres, hip-hop. Six years on, and Hope in Dirt City sounds far more relaxed, Pemberton comfortable in his hip-hop skin as he leads a set of songs whose lazy, low-slung jazziness owes a huge debt to the Daisy Age days of the early '90s. Yet, where he once seemed like a Short Lister Most Likely to, these days Pemberton should just settle for happy-to-be-here; there little build-up or buzz suggesting a Polaris Night party in Dirt City.
Though a Canadian ex-pat dwelling in London, Al Spx —not, I'm guessing, her real name— caught the ears of Polaris voters with her debut; an often spartan set that showcases her raw, rough, soulful singing. As Cold Specks, Spx evokes depression-era blues in her singing, and also in the music's thought and theme. Death lingers throughout I Predict a Graceful Expulsion, Spx both calling for it and looking to beat it away. The music, itself, isn't bluesy in a stylistic way; the deft piano and gentle acoustic guitar —arrangements handled by longtime PJ Harvey collaborateur Rob Ellis, no less— are mostly notable for how much space they leave. This, of course, gives Spx's voice a stage on which to shine.
When recurring Drake collaborateur The Weeknd was nominated for the 2011 Polaris, it was in keeping with the award's indie spirit. After all, the elusive, reclusive, myth-making studio rat was almost anti-establishment: his free-to-download mixtapes and refusal to do interviews standing in defiance of major-label starmaking. Drake stands in stark contrast: the obscenely-famous rapper-crooner having been primed for fame from his child-star (Degrassi!) beginnings. And Drake's lyrical persona is inextricably wed to his celebrity; his songs studies in the alienation, emptiness, and ennui of a life lived in five-star hotels, backstages, and VIP rooms. So, if his 80-minute opus Take Care won Polaris' wad of cash, would that only add to his unhappiness?
Arriving four long years after her 2007 mega-breakout The Reminder, Metals was met, in many corners, with a tinge of disappointment; the Nano-shilling hits of the last LP lost in a sad, slow, sandy album that tearfully trudged where the past record turned choreographed pirouettes. But with time on its side, Metals is starting to grow in stature; due for reappraisals by those —be they critics or fans— who at first felt underwhelmed. The album has been helped by endless touring on its behalf; with Feist developing an outdoor-festival-friendly show of both subtlety and drama, a thoughtfully-staged presentation that posits the show's leader as a force of nature, and also finds the inspired recruitment of the pure-voiced sweethearts of Mountain Man in Feist's backing band. All this said: I'd be genuinely surprised if Metals launched the Polaris; the award's history has strongly trended towards unexpected Prizewinners.
After Fucked Up's breakout 2008 album The Chemistry of Common Life was met with a chorus of critical praise —and won itself the 2009 Polaris Prize— the Toronto hardcore-prog-pop troupe figured that people were going to hate their follow-up no matter what they did. So, they amped up the ambition to comic levels: conceiving of a concept-album, songbook narrative called David Comes to Life. Its story stages a coming-of-age saga of adolescent angst and anti-authoritarian edge in the form of a soap-operatic love-triangle, set against the darkest days of Thatcher's industrial Britain. And, surprise!, the world loved it just as much as its predecessor. Thus, Fucked Up find themselves up for another Polaris, and with plans to turn David Comes to Life into an actual stage musical, you know where the cash can be used.
As pundit surveying the Polaris nominees in previous years, I often felt like someone without a horse in the race. But not this year. Given Grimes' glorious Visions is my album of the year so far, it has to be my official pick for Polaris favorite; yet it also feels like an album I should cheer on, somehow (even though this isn't a sporting event, and there's no real cheering to be done). The Vancouver-raised, Montréal-based pop starlet has come a crazy-long way in a short time; when she first arose two years ago, shrouded in anonymity and peddling home-recordings for free, the last thing anyone could've expected was straight-up pop-stardom. Yet, sometimes, that feels as if where she's headed, and a Polaris gong could be another sign; after all, last year's winners also won themselves a Grammy...
It almost goes without saying, but: no, the Polaris has never been awarded to a band who's broken up. After six years and three LPs together, the (ex?) husband-and-wife duo Handsome Furs announced their unexpected breakup in May. Within a matter of weeks, HF frontman (and Wolf Parade bro) Dan Boeckner already had a new band, Divine Fits, with Britt Daniel from Spoon. And it seemed like Handsome Furs were swiftly history. But their last LP, Sound Kapital, just snuck into the Polaris qualifying period, and their place in the shortlist was almost as unexpected as their breakup. Now, the band who are no longer a band have a chance to claim the honor postmortem. And, y'know, the cash; which can be cleanly divided, $15,000, right down the middle.
Japandroids may be best bros rockin' like there's no tomorrow, but they're all about yesterday; living out their adolescent rock dreams yet wanting to only remember their adolescence. "Remember saying things like 'we'll sleep when we're dead'/and thinking this feeling was never gonna end?" Brian King wails, in the telling "Younger Us," a jam whose balls-out joie de vivre is filled with an obvious tinge of sadness. It's this lyrical wrinkle that makes Japandroids' music —their Celebration Rock— both righteous, rousing noise and commentary thereon; each superfuzzed riff and bashed fill and hollered vocal fighting off the very specter of mortality. Japandroids' second record has been feverishly praised since its release, and come December it'll land on all manner of album-of-the-year lists. A Polaris Prize win would be in keeping with Celebrated Rock's celebrated status, and wouldn't be much of a surprise at all.
Country-tinged songbird Kathleen Edwards scored a Polaris Short List place with her last album, 2008's warm and weary Asking for Flowers, so seeing her score a repeat nomination with Voyageur is no surprise. The album marked both Edwards' most critically and commercially successful record; earning glowing reviews whilst debuting at #2 on the Canadian charts (and cracking the Billboard Top 40). Voyageur was helped, to no end, on both counts by the collaborative presence of Edwards' love-interest, a suddenly-super-famous chap named Bon Iver. Justin Vernon creates a host of evocative atmospheres across the LP, with a few unorthodox decisions pushing Edwards towards places —both pure pop and near avant-garde— she'd never before been. Yet, I doubt Voyageur will win the thing. Though Bon Iver has fared pretty well at awards ceremonies, I think Edwards is a little too 'straight' a pick for the Polaris voters.
With a name offering equal parts homage to both Japanese astral travelers Boredoms and legendary stoner-metal wanderers Sleep, Yamantaka//Sonic Titan wear their psychedelic heroes proudly. But the Toronto-based outfit aren't your standard-issue psych-rock troupe; instead, they're a highly-theatrical concern founded by a pair of performance artists, with their sprawling jams —all interstellar crawl-metal and flights of dream-woven fantasy— soundtracking a stage show big on facepaint, costumes, and Chinese opera. Their debut LP is certainly the most underground entrant in amongst the nominees, and it's utterly awesome that they've even made the short list. It seems very, very unlikely that they'll win the whole thing, but there's a definite spirit of defiance in the Polaris voters, and having a rank outsider this 'outsider' win would be a badge of honor. And lord knows what Yamantaka//Sonic Titan would do with the money...