Wednesday, October 30, 2019

The 2010s in 10x10

Informative, not authoritative. I much prefer personal lists to those that lay some sort of claim to objectivity. I learn about a lot of great music from them. I hope this does this same for you. I want to read yours.

During this decade, like the one before it, I had a weekly review column in which I discussed approximately 200 albums a year. That’s 2,000 in a decade, not counting music by artists about whom I wrote stories or by whom I was hired to write bios, and not counting music I listened to just for the hell of it. So yeah, I had trouble narrowing a few things down.

This list has nothing to do with any professional obligation, however; it’s personal. It’s a list made by a 48-year-old white dad who lives in Central Canada, so make of that what you will. I don’t feel an obligation to pretend to like Frank Ocean or Taylor Swift or Bon Iver or Lana del Rey or Radiohead or whomever else leaves me cold. I didn’t think I listened to much rock’n’roll anymore, but apparently I listen to a lot more of it than Pitchfork writers do. Because I’m still very much an album listener, there’s nothing here by some decade-defining artists whose singles I love. And there’s definitely no Drake here—because, hey, I’m older than 35 and I’m pigheaded about my emperor’s-new-clothes crusade. The fact that he’s universally hailed as the “artist of the decade” only proves how wrong I am about everything.

So here’s my top 100 of the decade 2010-19. There’s no way I’m going to rank these. I did, however, break it down into a top 20 and the remaining 80, singling out 30 underdogs for discovery purposes. With four exceptions, no artist appears twice. One of these records seems to have been wiped from the internet, and I’m probably one of the only people who’s noticed. All lists arranged alphabetically, except the one off the top that’s not. I’m sure I forgot more than a few things.

If you want to shuffle all these up in your Spotify, there’s a playlist here.
If you just want one sample song from each, that playlist is here.

Here we go:

The top 20:

I wrote year-end lists every year—which made this task a helluva lot easier. Looking back, it’s always interesting (to me) to see what records I still want to listen to, and which merely sounded good at the time. But I’ll stand by my 10 #1 choices: I might not feel, today, that they’re necessarily the best records of that given year, but they’re still favourites that earn an easy pass onto an end-of-decade list. Click for links to the full lists for the years in question.

2010: Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
2011: TuneYards – Whokill
2012: Grimes – Visions
2013: AroarA – In the Pines*
2014: Owen Pallett – In Conflict
2015: Buffy Sainte-Marie – Power in the Blood
2016: Beyoncé – Lemonade
2017: Weaves – Wide Open
2018: U.S. Girls – In a Poem Unlimited
2019: Snotty Nose Rez Kids – Trapline

Here’s the last half of my top 20, absolutely essential records, all—at least to me, if no one else:

Alabama Shakes – Sound and Color (2015)
Eric Bachmann – s/t (2016)
Bonjay – Lush Life (2018)
Jeremy Dutcher – Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa (2018)
Veda Hille – Love Waves (2016)
Kaytranada – 99.9% (2016)
Man Man – On Oni Pond (2013)
Mbongwana Star – From Kinshasa (2015)
Robyn – Body Talk (2010)
Gillian Welch – The Harrow and the Harvest (2011)


Stop here if you’re already bored. But of the other 80 records on this list, here are 30 underdogs records that got little or no press, by artists unlikely to fill a venue in English Canada larger than 500 capacity. Again, other than the top 20 listed above, these aren’t ranked; these are just highlighted in the hopes that you make some discoveries here. Broken down by Canada vs. the world:

Geoff Berner – Canadiana Grotesquica (2017)
Cadence Weapon – s/t (2018)
Kathryn Calder – Bright and Vivid (2011)
Le Couleur – P.O.P. (2016)
Mark Davis – Eliminate the Toxins (2011)
Dennis Ellsworth – Things Change (2018)
Jim Guthrie – Takes Time (2013)
Hilotrons – At Least There’s Commotion (2013)
Zaki Ibrahim – Every Opposite (2012)
La Force – s/t (2018)
Jean Leloup – À Paradis City (2015)
Michelle McAdorey – Into Her Future (2015)
Scott Merritt – Of (2015)*
Nick Buzz – A Quiet Evening at Home (2013)
Doug Paisley – Constant Companion (2010)*

Africa Express Presents Maison des Jeunes – Various Artists (2014)
Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah – Ancestral Recall (2019)
Gaye Su Akyol – Istikrarli Hayal Hakikattir (2018)
Altin Gun – On (2018)
Anna Calvi – Hunter (2018)
Brandy Clark – 12 Stories (2013)
Nels Cline – Lovers (2016)
EMA – The Future’s Void (2014)
Bill Fay – Life is People (2012)
Kikagaku Moyo – Masana Temples (2018)
Nakhane – You Will Not Die (2019)
Sons of Kemet – Your Queen is a Reptile (2018)
Moses Sumney – Aromanticism (2017)
The Thermals – Personal Life (2010)
Shye Ben Tzur, Jonny Greenwood and Rajasthan Express – Junun (2015)


Looking for more familiar faces? Here’s the remaining 50, featuring somewhat more well-known subjects (though not necessarily, especially if you’re not Canadian):
Arca – s/t (2017)
Arcade Fire – Everything Now (2017)
BadBadNotGood – IV (2016)
Beach House – Teen Dream (2010)
Belle and Sebastian – Write About Love (2010)
Mary J. Blige – The London Sessions (2014)
David Bowie – Blackstar (2016)
Broken Social Scene – Forgiveness Rock Record (2010)
Basia Bulat – Tall Tall Shadow (2013)
Caribou – Swim (2010)
Rosanne Cash – The River and the Thread (2013)
Jennifer Castle – Pink City (2014)
Cat Power – Sun (2012)
Neneh Cherry – Broken Politics (2018)
Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker (2016)
Destroyer – Poison Season (2015)
Beth Ditto – Fake Sugar (2017)
Gord Downie and the Country of Miracles – The Grand Bounce (2010)
Feist – Metals (2011)
Fucked Up – Dose Your Dreams (2018)
Lady Gaga – Joanne (2016)
Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly (2015)
Lee Harvey Osmond – The Folk Sinner (2013)
Low – Double Negative (2018)
Corb Lund – Cabin Fever (2012)
Janelle Monae – Dirty Computer (2018)
AC Newman – Shut Down the Streets (2012)
Joanna Newsom – Have One on Me (2010)*
Orville Peck – Pony (2019)
Perfume Genius – Too Bright (2014)
Robert Plant – Band of Joy (2010)
Jessie Reyez – Kiddo EP (2017)
Rosalía – El Mal Querer (2018)
Santigold – Master of My Make-Believe (2012)
Sleater-Kinney – No Cities to Love (2015)
Solange – True EP (2012)
Spoon – Hot Thoughts (2017)
Mavis Staples – One True Vine (2013)
Vince Staples – Summertime 06 (2015)
Tanya Tagaq – Animism (2014)
Tracey Thorn – Love and Its Opposites (2010)
Timber Timbre – Sincerely, Future Pollution (2017)
Tinariwen – Elwan (2017)
The Tragically Hip – Man Machine Poem (2016)
Rokia Traoré – Beautiful Africa (2013)
A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here… (2016)
A Tribe Called Red – Nation II Nation (2013)
Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City (2013)
The Weeknd – House of Balloons (2010)
The Xx – I See You (2017)

*Four titles are not available on streaming services

AroarA seems to have ceased their web presence since Ariel Engle launched La Force: you can’t stream or buy this anywhere. I’ve been told In the Pines is about to be reissued in the U.S. on a poetry label out of Portland, Oregon.

Scott Merritt’s music can be purchased here.

Joanna Newsom’s music can be purchased here.

Doug Paisley's music is on Spotify, but curiously his 2010 album Constant Companion is not. It is, however, on Bandcamp here


What’s that? You’re still here? Finally, in the highly unlikely event you’re not already satiated, here’s yet another 50 excellent records I think should also be thrown in the time capsule:
Alvvays – Antisocialites (2017)
Atoms for Peace – s/t (2013)
Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think… (2015)
Willis Earl Beal – Nobody Knows (2013)
Geoff Berner – Victory Party (2011)
Jim Bryson – Somewhere We Will Find Our Place (2016)
The Comet is Coming – Channel the Spirits (2016)
Darkside – Psychic (2013)
Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan (2012)
Gord Downie – Introduce Yerself (2017)
Dominique Fils-Aimé – Stay Tuned (2019)
Dr. John – Locked Down (2012)
Kevin Hearn – Days in Frames (2014)
Hidden Cameras – Home on Native Land (2016)
Japandroids – Celebration Rock (2012)
J Rocc – Some Cold Rock Stuff (2011)
Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings – Give Them What They Want (2014)
The Julie Ruin – s/t (2013)
Lydia Képinski – Premier juin (2018)
Angelique Kidjo – Remain in Light (2018)
Michael Kiwanuka – Love & Hate (2016)
Pierre Kwenders – Le dernier empereur bantou (2014)
Terra Lightfoot – New Mistakes (2017)
Hubert Lenoir – Darlène (2018)
Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes (2011)
Lizzo – Coconut Oil EP (2016)
Lotic – Power (2018)
Brad Mehldau – Finding Gabriel (2019)
Miguel – Kaleidoscope Dream (2012)
Tami Neilson – Don’t Be Afraid (2015)
Tunde Olaniran – Transgressor (2015)
Operators – Blue Wave (2016)
Anderson.Paak – Malibu (2016)
Pusha T – My Name Is My Name (2013)
Kim Richey – Edgeland (2018)
Rocket Juice & the Moon – s/t (2012)
The Roots – And Then You Shoot Your Cousin (2014)
Sagot – Valse 333 (2014)
Sampha – Process (2017)
Paul Simon – Stranger to Stranger (2016)
Snowblink – Inner Classics (2012)
Kae Sun – Afriye (2013)
Tobi – Still (2019)
Maylee Todd – Acts of Love (2017)
Two Hours Traffic – Foolish Blood (2013)
Tom Waits – Bad As Me (2011)
Jack White – Lazaretto (2014)
Whitehorse – Panther in the Dollhouse (2017)
Wolf Parade – Cry Cry Cry (2017)
Wye Oak – Civilian (2011)

Apparently I thought 2018 and 2013 were amazing years for music. Breakdown by year:
2018: 21
2013: 20
2016: 19
2017: 18
2014: 14
2015: 14
2012: 14
2010: 13
2011: 10
2019: 7 (I’m less likely to trust my recent infatuations)

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Haviah Mighty's historic win

“My history is not viewed on a pedestal”
—Haviah Mighty, “Thirteen”

In the previous 13 years of the Polaris Music Prize, a rap record has never taken the top prize. It almost happened at least three times before, to the best of my knowledge. (I’m not allowed to tell you when.) In the year 2019, Haviah Mighty brought one home. Her record is called 13th Floor. It’s about subjects people prefer to avoid, about historical omissions. It broke a 13-year curse.

The first time I saw Haviah Mighty perform, at the Hillside Festival earlier this summer, she was so compelling on so many fronts—as a rapper, a singer, a wordsmith, a performer—I thought I was watching the second coming of Lauryn Hill. So it wasn’t at all surprising that 20 years after Hill made history with the first rap record to ever win Album of the Year at the Grammys, that Haviah Mighty would break the glass ceiling at Polaris.

“I work / All the fucking time,” proclaimed fellow shortlister Marie Davidson on stage earlier that evening. But watching Haviah Mighty take the stage, it was clear who was going to work their ass off that night to give the performance of a lifetime, a five-song medley of tracks from 13th Floor. The Fanshawe College grad roamed the stage like it was the Scotiabank Arena. She had choreography, dancers, and a guest turn from her sister, Omega. Another sister played jazzy piano in the band—apparently the first time Mighty had ever performed her music with live musicians before. Opening her medley with “Thirteen,” which packs the punch of a Malcolm X speech in the space of a few verses, she echoed Kendrick Lamar’s “Blacker the Berry” at his legendary 2016 Grammy performance. (This being Polaris, she didn’t have access to costumes, black light, dozens of dancers, or a large bonfire as a backdrop. But she didn't need them.) This was a performance by a woman who was not going to be ignored, as she rapped: “I’m darker than my friends … I gotta do four times more to get two times less.” Work it, she did.

My money for the prize was actually on Snotty Nose Rez Kids, an Indigenous rap duo from Kitimaat, B.C., who would also have been the first Western Canadian winners (hopefully that’s rectified sooner than later—have you heard that new Begonia record?). Haviah Mighty was my second bet. I thought a rap record would win either way. But it’s incredibly important that the first rap Polaris went to a black woman from the Greater Toronto Area. After all—as Maestro and Chuck D and countless other will tell you—the story of Canadian hip-hop begins with Michie Mee, from Toronto’s West End, who cut her first single 32 years ago.

Much respect to Shad, who was shortlisted this year and is also the host of HBO/Netflix show Hip-Hop Evolution (season three just launched). He has a record four appearances on a Polaris shortlist—all more than well deserved, but it also speaks to the shallow pool from which Polaris often draws its shortlists.

Kaytranada won the Polaris in 2016, for a mostly instrumental album heavily informed by hip-hop. That was a huge breakthrough. But until the Rez Kids, there were only three other rap artists to shortlist more than once: Drake (3x), K’naan (2x) and Cadence Weapon (2x). That’s four artists whose work comprises most of Polaris’s rap history. The only other rap acts to ever shortlist were bilingual Acadian crew Radio Radio—which was a head-scratcher for most hip-hop fans—and, uh, Ghostface Killah, for his collaboration with BadBadNotGood.

On top of that, the only other black women to ever be shortlisted are Cold Specks (2012) and Zaki Ibrahim (2013). With Dominique Fils-Aimé also on this year’s shortlist, it was the first year two black women were on a Polaris stage. (It should be noted that Arcade Fire’s Régine Chassagne, like Fils-Aimé and Kaytranada, is Haitian-Canadian; her band has won once and been shortlisted two other times.)

All that adds up to Haviah Mighty’s win being a big breath of fresh air.

Her win is being widely recognized for the breakthrough it is, but usually only as a throwaway line in a news item. She won! Kendrick might have a Pulitzer, but has never won the Grammy for Album of the Year; neither has Beyoncé; that Grammy hasn't gone to a rap act since Outkast—a whopping 15 years ago. 

The Polaris Prize itself is still a curiosity for much of Canadian media, despite the fact that its jury is populated with music critics. Editors don’t place much stock in the prize, hence Polaris articles don't get green-lit. Other than media sponsor CBC Music, this year’s pre-Polaris coverage elsewhere amounted to crickets. Perhaps not that surprising: other than Jessie Reyez and maybe Shad, there were no names that would register for anyone but diehard music fans. I’ve long lamented that the Polaris doesn’t get the same amount of coverage as the literary Giller Prize—another juried prize where the shortlisted titles are often unknown to larger audiences—which speaks to the marginalization of serious music coverage in this country.

At the gala I was talking to a peer slightly older than I am, who started out in Toronto campus radio in 1985; as a huge champion of homegrown hip-hop from almost day one, he was visibly moved by Mighty’s win. But he’s no longer a writer. So when someone like Haviah Mighty takes home the prize, and makes history doing so, what does it say about Canadian media that no one bothered to put the win in context? The best we could do was this piece by Brad Wheeler in the Globe and Mail, which at least went slightly deeper than a line or two. Am I missing anything?

Who called Michie Mee for a quote? Who called Zaki Ibrahim? Nana McLean? Lillian Allen? Sate, the daughter of Salome Bey? How about Ron Nelson—can we assume anyone in a position of power even knows who Ron Nelson is? (Shout out to Del Cowie, who’s currently writing a long-overdue history of Toronto hip-hop for ECW Press.) Furthermore, did anyone even notice in 2016 when The Weeknd became the first non-white artist ever to win Album of the Year at the Junos?

I’ve always known I live in a country with terrible cultural amnesia, a country where art made by marginalized communities has been historically ignored. I’ve been complicit, tacitly and otherwise. I’m excited a new generation of artists is changing the game. But is Canadian media even close to catching up? Or does everyone think just a few tweets and a pat on the back will suffice? Is that the future of cultural history in this country?

While I have your attention, Haviah Mighty is rejoining her group The Sorority for dates in B.C. and Ontario with Snotty Nose Rez Kids this November. That will be one for the history books. See you there. 

“Man, we have so much work to do.” —Haviah Mighty, “Thirteen”


Friday, September 13, 2019

Polaris Music Prize, day 5: Shad, Snotty Nose Rez Kids

Here it is! The final of a five-day look at this year’s Polaris Prize shortlisters, culminating in my personal pick to win. Bonus: two more should’ve-beens. Day one is here; day two is here; day three is here; day four is here.

The shortlisters:

Shad – A Short Story About A War (Secret City)

The album:


From my October review:
Two years ago, Shad collaborated with avant-garde Inuk singer Tanya Tagaq on a track from her album Retribution. On it, the rapper proved his stylistic versatility on music that didn’t resemble his own, or most other hip-hop, for that matter. Not that Shad had ever fit into much of a mould to begin with, but on his first proper record in five years, Shad goes for a total reinvention. First single “The Fool Pt 1 (Get It Got It Good)” draws from the early ’90s hip-hop that most influenced his early work, but after that he moves all over the map, from bright pop to dark electronics, with lyrics largely focused on conflict and violence in its many manifestations, and maintaining his rep as one of the richest, most poetic MCs working today. He gets musical assist from Kaytranada, Lido Pimienta, 2oolman of A Tribe Called Red (also heard behind the boards on the Haviah Mighty record), and B.C. rock band Yukon Blonde, with some lyrical assist from Toronto underground heroes Ian Kamau and Eternia on the municipal lament “Another Year.”

Only the Yukon Blonde track, “All I Need,” sounds like a potential radio hit, but it’s obvious that elsewhere his music is simply going wherever his lyrical fancy takes him. The only other rapper that springs to mind, who shares this level of lyrical density and musical agnosticism, to say nothing of overall talent? Kendrick Lamar.

The chances: Fair. This is a dense album that rewards repeat listening, and it stands out from the other hip-hop records on this list, both musically and lyrically. Shad himself attracts a lot of good will, and after three previous shortlist appearances, it’s possible the tide could possibly turn in his favour. That said, this is an easier album to respect than it is to love. And on top of that… (see below)

Snotty Nose Rez Kids – Trapline (independent)

The album: Here we go. This is the one.

Excerpts from my May review:

This is not an album you should hear. It’s an album you have to hear.

Right from the first track, “Rebirth,” their mantra is “resist, revive, indigenize.” As I wrote about The Average Savage, this is not music of reconciliation: it is music of resistance. It is inherently political. It pulls no punches.

But it’s also better than that: it’s clever, it’s funny, rich in metaphor, puns and wordplay, and intersects deep references to Indigenous cultures across the country and the history of hip-hop. And while the music is inherently of-the-moment, influenced heavily by trap (which makes the title that much more brilliant), the two MCs are a far cry from the opiated mumblemouths who dominate the genre of the day: SNRK's presence is arresting, animated, playful and gripping. They’re rapping like their lives are on the line, grabbing the listener by the collar and demanding an audience. As yet as uncompromising as the lyrics are, the music is full of hooks, and the beats are brassy and bold.

Then there are the guests. Not surprisingly, Tanya Tagaq shows up on “Rebirth.” Rising Vancouver rapper Kimmortal soars on “Lost Tribe.” Boslen is ferocious on “Creator Made an Animal.” Brevner scores on “Hooligans” and bombs on “Hunger Games.” But it’s the presence of Toronto crew the Sorority on “Son of a Matriarch” that provides the truly historic track here. The Sorority, of course, are a Torontonian all-woman crew (whose Haviah Mighty is also shortlisted), and the track is predictably packed with feminist fire (“Don’t forget you was raised with your face in a tit!”). But SNRK don’t just cede the spotlight to the sisters; they join in with some of the fiercest anti-misogynist lines I’ve ever heard from male MCs. It’s ferocious and invigorating.

And essential. Just like the rest of this record.

I also love this record because I'm a Canadian history nerd who grew up on rap duos and trios (Tribe, Beasties, Cypress Hill), and the interplay between these two MCs is a glorious throwback even though the beats are thoroughly modern. Oh, and this video is amazing: 

The chances: This can and should win. Lyrically and musically, it’s outstanding. Artistically, it achieves its goal and stands apart from other records in the same genre; indeed, it stands apart from other records in any genre. It’s a high-water mark all around. If it wins, it will be the fourth Indigenous winner in the last six years (fifth, if you count Lido Pimienta’s maternal roots with the Wayuu people of Colombia). It will also mark the first Western Canadian winner, and—remarkably—the very first straight-up rap record to win Polaris.

It won’t win because of any of those external factors. It will win because it’s just simply a great, groundbreaking, historic record that’s also a helluva lotta fun.

The could’ve/should’ve/would’ve beens:

Alexandra Stréliski – Inscape (Secret City)

The album:

From my October review:

Alexandra Stréliski is a Montreal pianist and composer whose second album, Inscape, contains several songs that appear in the HBO mini-series Sharp Objects, directed by fellow Québécois Jean-Marc Vallée; she’s also worked with him on Dallas Buyers Club, Demolition, and Big Little Lies. For all the talk about the new wave of Quebec directors running away to Hollywood, the ongoing collaboration between Vallée and Stréliski is heartening. It’s also led to streaming numbers in the multi-millions.

As to be expected, Stréliski’s composition and gentle and meditative, designed to be both evocative and transparent. There is a mournful melancholy throughout, a darkness underneath the beauty; few, if any, of these songs will be soundtracking sentimental rom-coms. In a crowded field of pianists, this record stands out.

Why it didn’t shortlist: I won’t expect an instrumental album of solo piano to shortlist, but that didn’t stop Jean-Michel Blais last year. Maybe it’s too much to expect that to happen two years in a row? I thought Stréliski would have had even more traction, because of this album’s immense popularity in her home province. Her success is one of the best-kept secrets in English Canada; Polaris would’ve helped break that a bit, but she seems to be doing pretty well without it. 

Tobi – Still (Same Plate)

The album: This Nigerian-Canadian R&B artist hit it out of the park on his debut album. Why? For starters, he’s as good a singer as Daniel Caesar, and he’s a far better writer. Check out “City Blues,” where he croons like Luther Vandross and raps like Nas over a jazzy boom-bap, delivering an ode to his mama and displaying a kind of vulnerability that Drake could only dream of, not to mention insight into the vapidity of celebrity culture: “Monetize my pain / commodify my fame.” The rest of the album is just as strong; as a complete work, it easily stands alongside—and arguably betters—shortlisted records by Haviah Mighty and Jesse Reyez, with a dash of Dominique Fils-Aimé (speaking of whom, I’d love to hear her do a duet with Tobi). It's a record that should definitely be part of the Polaris discussion in 2019, a longlister that shouldn’t be left behind. If he follows it up with something as good or better, he’ll be taking home the prize sooner than later. To learn more, there’s a good interview in Billboard here.

Why it didn’t shortlist: It’s a debut album and independent release and it came out in May, mere weeks before the Polaris deadline, so it had limited time to gain enough traction to make the final stretch. (Bonjay suffered the same fate last year, and they made one of the greatest records of 2018.) Mind you, the exact same could be said of Haviah Mighty, but she was already a known entity from The Sorority. All this is to say that don’t be surprised to see Tobi’s name on year-end lists come December. This record is way too good to get buried. 

The winner of the 2019 Polaris Music Prize will be revealed at the gala on Monday, Sept. 16, which will be broadcast online by CBC Music.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Polaris Music Prize, day 4: Pup, Jessie Reyez

Day four of five examining this year's Polaris Music Prize shortlist, and some should've-beens. Day one (Marie Davidson, Elisapie) is here; day two (Fet.Nat, Dominique Fils-Aimé) is here; day three (Les Louanges, Haviah Mighty) is here.

The shortlisters: 

Pup – Morbid Stuff (Little Dipper)

The album:
 It’s my own ignorance that I can’t tell the difference between this and Sum 41. Musically, anyway: it’s clear that Pup wade into much deeper, darker lyrical territory, grappling with myriad mental health issues—could you tell from the title? Or maybe from the ferocious sounding “Full Blown Meltdown,” which is as heavy as it should be. As far as pop-punk with unison gang vocals go, this record is likely as good as it gets. My hang-ups with this album are entirely subjective and likely related to my age; it says a lot that my favourite thing about it is the accordion coda at the end of “Scorpion Hill.” Bonus points for having one song in 6/8 with a chorus in 5/8 (“Bloody Mary, Kate and Ashley”). Looking forward to hearing where these guys are in 10 years.

The chances: Nil. I do not think an all-boy, straightforward punk guitar quartet will ever win Polaris, no matter how good they may be. And no, please, for the love of your Christian god, please do not write an unreadable, interminable Quillette "think" piece about it. 

Jessie Reyez – Being Human In Public (Universal)

The album: This seven-song EP is a follow-up to her sensational 2017 EP Kiddo, which announced this major new talent to the world. She slayed on The Tonight Show and had a star turn with Daniel Caesar at the Junos duetting on “Figures.” Expectations were sky-high, and yet Being Human in Public sounds like Reyez slamming on the brakes and taking time to collect herself. She’s as fiery as ever on “Dear Yessie,” “Body Count” and “Saint Nobody,” all of which exude the confidence and prowess as a singer and rapper that set her far apart from her peers. “There is no template for Jessie Reyez: she is the template,” wrote Ryan Patrick in his Exclaim review—and yet “Fuck Being Friends” is almost a parody of herself. “Apple Juice” is a lovely soul waltz, and “Sola” is a solo acoustic number sung in Spanish (Reyez is the daughter of Colombian immigrants). Yet there’s nothing here that’s as bold or gripping as “Blue Ribbon,” “Figures” and “Gatekeeper,” the killer triumvirate at the heart of Kiddo, three of the greatest pop songs written in this country in the last decade. After arriving as one of the most original new voices in pop music—and a welcome antidote to the morose moping that passes for cutting-edge in both pop and rap—Reyez still sounds like she’s just warming up.

The chances: Slim. Reyez is a goddam superstar, but this feels like a mere stopgap.

The could’ve/would’ve/should’ve beens:

Orville Peck – Pony (Royal Mountain / Sub Pop)

The album:

From my May review

Let’s say you’re a Toronto guy via Vancouver with a strong lower-register who loves country crooners. You’re also queer and you love Joy Division as much as you do Johnny Cash. At best, you’ll appeal to the same crowd as Timber Timbre, who certainly do well enough, but there’s a glass ceiling there. What do you do?
You dandy up in full rodeo regalia, develop a persona named Orville Peck and reveal very little about yourself—including your face, which you keep veiled behind a mask. The result: everyone is intrigued, no one asks about authenticity, and the music speaks for itself. 

Start with the voice: Peck has a commanding presence, his low tenor enhancing the gravity of whatever it is he’s singing about. If we are to believe the little about himself that he’s revealed to the press, he’s a classically trained singer who did time on stage in London’s West End. It’s not hard to believe. There’s certainly some Ian Curtis in the mix, although Peck’s particular accent calls to mind a much more unlikely ’80s reference: Stan Ridgway of Wall of Voodoo. The ’80s loom large here: not just in the overall Twin Peaks vibe (Peck would be a shoo-in for a gig at the Bang Bang Bar featured in the series’ 2017 sequel), but in that decade’s reverb-heavy approach to country music in what was then rebranded as “roots rock”: Steve Earle, BoDeans, Blue Rodeo, R.E.M.

Twangy guitars alone do not country music make; no, it’s the melancholy balladry that puts Peck in a country tradition. A song like “Kansas (Remember Me Now)” or “Roses Are Falling” aches like Patsy Cline, devoid of the drippy string sections, as if Cline were produced by Lee Hazlewood and not Owen Bradley. And titles like “Queen of the Rodeo,” “Old River” and “Big Sky” don’t hurt, either.

There’s a danger that all of this could just add up to shallow shtick, a male counterpart to Lana Del Rey (against whom I hold no prejudice, but also have no love). But Peck is no cypher. The man’s voice has passion and personality to burn—there’s a helluva lotta Elvis in this here building. He sounds completely invested in every note here, as does his backing band (comprised largely of angular Toronto postpunk band Frigs). Even his whistling is on point.

Time to ride Peck’s pony.

Why it didn’t shortlist: I was convinced it would. Alas. Among some jurors there is some deep resistance to Peck’s shtick—why, I don’t know. I thought authenticity died sometime in the ’90s. I think some critics feel conned by someone hiding behind a mask; a journalist’s instinct is that the public has the right to know everything about public figures—especially in this era of excessive sharing, on social media or otherwise—and so when someone purposely messes with that, critics get their collective back up. Of course, plenty of people just subjectively don’t like Peck’s songs. I’m sure the mask doesn’t help. Yet I’m not sure this project would work otherwise; Peck’s vibe doesn’t fit into modern sounds in country and western music, and would likely fall through several cracks without some other way of getting your attention. Remember Daughn Gibson? Right, exactly. 

Rae Spoon – Bodiesofwater (Coax)

The album:

From my September 2018 review:
“Should I be an artist, even after I turn 40?” asks Rae Spoon, rhetorically, on a peppy song they titled “Do Whatever the Heck You Want.” The answer, as shouted back by a sudden chorus of onlookers on the track, is, of course, “YES!” Especially if, like Spoon, you’re just hitting your prime.

Bodiesofwater, however, sounds very much like the culmination of a life’s work, and not only just because it’s so good that it sounds like a greatest-hits, with pop melodies that rival Alvvays and other current master crafters. Spoon has successfully integrated their electronic influences, which in the past often felt like slightly ill-fitting clothes, into their often sparse, guitar-based arrangements with live drums. The one time they dive deep into the electronics, on the stirring, dirgey anti-pipeline protest song “You Don’t Do Anything,” they sound like the Eurythmics’ earliest work (i.e. “This is the House,” from 1983’s Sweet Dreams). As an arranger, a producer, a songwriter and a storyteller, Spoon is at the top of their game.

Why it didn’t even longlist: That’s a bit of a crime. All these songs are killer, not to mention total earworms. I can only guess that a prolific artist of Spoon’s age is easily taken for granted, and people with a set impression didn’t open their ears. Don’t make the same mistake. Unrelated: there’s been some internal Polaris jury discussion about the lack of longlisters from the Prairies, which is entirely valid. (See also: Christine Fellows, Belle Plaine, John Wort Hannam.) Rae Spoon’s inclusion would have made a difference. They have a brand new record, Mental Health, which is almost as good. Let's talk about it in the next eight months.

Tomorrow: our final look at the shortlisted albums, with Shad and Snotty Nose Rez Kids, along with two final should've-beens.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Polaris Music Prize, day 3: Les Louanges, Haviah Mighty

Part three of five posts looking at this year's Polaris Music Prize shortlist, as well as some should've beens. Day one is here; day two is here.

The shortlisters: 

Les Louanges – La nuit est une panthère (Bonsound)

The album: Slick R&B pop in the same neo-’80s vein as Blood Orange, Twin Shadow, et al, and à la français. I’ll admit that I was surprised this was the album that franco jurors rallied around, as opposed to Salomé Leclerc, Laurence-Anne or even the acoustic Jean Leloup record. Les Louanges is the project of Vincent Roberge, of Lévis (across the St. Lawrence from Quebec City), and this is his debut record. He’s a student of jazz and a lover of R&B, and there are certainly some unconventional harmonies and textures here that make it anything but rote, hence the numerous accolades he’s been getting from in and outside Quebec. It’s not a fusion that works for me, as someone who lived through the ’80s and wasn’t exactly jonesing for a combo of Scritti Politti and Level 42 minus the pop songs. I can’t begrudge his talent, but this record leaves me ice cold. Is he the Quebecois Frank Ocean? I’m the wrong guy to ask, because I’ve never been able to dive into Ocean, either, so take that for what it’s worth.
I also suspect the unforgivable Steely Dan renaissance has something to do with this, though that's hard to prove. 
The chances: Karkwa! 

Haviah Mighty – 13th Floor (independent)

The album: I thought we’d be talking about this Brampton MC last year, as part of The Sorority, a group of female MCs who found strength in numbers (and became the first four-member rap crew that I can recall in a long time). Sadly, that record didn’t longlist. But Ms. Mighty (yes, that’s her real name) more than holds her own on the 13 songs on 13th Floor. Co-produced by A Tribe Called Red’s 2oolman, 13th Floor is a slick hip-hop/pop hybrid that showcases this woman’s immense talent as both a singer and rapper. There’s no particular musical angle here: the trap element is minimal, there are Caribbean flavours, nods to U.K. grime, some AutoTuned R&B, some spoken word and political poetry, some Rihanna-esque pop. The consistency comes in Mighty’s delivery: her talent matches her charisma, which is at Lauryn Hill levels throughout. The fact that she shares this shortlist with Jessie Reyez speaks volumes about the future of feminist hip-hop, in Canada and elsewhere. 

The chances: Very strong. I’ve got my money on someone else to take the prize, but this would be my second bet. And if she doesn’t take it this year, I’d bet that she does sooner than later. Unrelated to this discussion: her live show is the bomb. Expect her to deliver all the goods at the gala.

The could’ve/would’ve/should’ve beens:

Lee Harvey Osmond – Mohawk (Latent)

The album:

My January 2019 review:
Tom Wilson has a story to tell. He always has. Until somewhat recently, he didn’t even know what it was. As he details in his 2017 memoir Beautiful Scars, his family was full of all kinds of secrets, one of which—spoiler alert—is that the lifelong Hamiltonian was born to two Mohawk parents in Kahnawake, outside Montreal.

On the fourth album by his current band, Lee Harvey Osmond, the former Junkhouse leader uses the title track to set an excerpt of his book to music. It is evocative and haunting, setting the scene for Wilson’s first visit to Kahnawake to meet his sisters. As spoken-word verses with a sung chorus, it’s not unlike Robbie Robertson’s “Somewhere Down the Crazy River” (produced, of course, by fellow Hamiltonian Daniel Lanois), though Wilson easily beats Robertson at his own game.

The rest of the record is business as usual for Lee Harvey Osmond—and business is good. Moody, bluesy folk rock that leans toward the minor keys, it’s driven by the slow, loping bass lines of Anna Ruddick, perfectly tasteful guitar work by the wizard Aaron Goldstein, and evocative horn lines by Darcy Hepner. It all underscores Wilson’s delicate baritone, as always delivered like an old carny sharing secrets with you in a southwestern Ontario town after the Ferris wheel shuts down for the night. Harmonica from Paul Reddick and backing vocals by Suzie (Oh Susanna) Ungerleider are welcome additions.

Producer/co-founder Michael Timmins once again brings an obvious Cowboy Junkies vibe to the whole affair—most explicitly on a faithful cover of that band’s underrated 1996 single “A Common Disaster,” which is ripe for rediscovery.

Despite Wilson’s persistence in clinging to this truly awful band name, Lee Harvey Osmond remains an embodiment of 50 years of roots, rock, folk and blues in this province—from Ian & Sylvia and The Band to Jennifer Castle and Timber Timbre—and should be considered a national treasure. There’s nothing here to surprise fans of the first three records, but not enough people heard those albums—so hopefully Wilson’s new literary profile while shine some more light on his new songs.

Why it didn’t shortlist: Ever the bridesmaid, never the bride: Wilson is in the unofficial Polaris Hall of Fame for the most appearances on a longlist without shortlisting. Considering the age demographic of the jury, I would never expect someone of Wilson’s vintage to shortlist. Only Leonard Cohen, Gord Downie, and Buffy Sainte-Marie have ever done that, and in each case those were exceptional circumstances—and exceptional artists. No slight against Wilson, but he doesn't have that godlike status.

Steven Page – Discipline: Heal Thyself Part II (Warner)

The album:

My September 2018 review:

Discipline is perhaps the single strongest collection of songs Page has ever assembled.

He warned us that he was not messing around. Earlier this summer he dropped the single “White Noise,” and released a lyric video featuring footage of the Charlottesville neo-Nazi rally, over which we could hear an unusually punk rock Page singing, “I tell you, as an immigrant and a Jew / I’d be more than glad to replace you … Let’s have a Second Civil War! / That’s what the Second Amendment is for … Said the snowflake to the nationalist / ‘I won’t cease until you desist / you raise your flag, I’ll raise my fist / Resist! Resist! Resist!’ ” He wasn’t just interested in sloganeering, either: the song itself was a major-key pop song that would stand as one of his finest singles, regardless of what it was about. Fist, meet velvet glove.

The rest of the record isn’t pointed as directly at the jugular (with the exception of the brief interlude, “You Fucked Yourself”), although opening track “Nothing Special” is a similarly political song, where it’s odd to hear a peppy pop song with the couplet, “Children starving in the desert sun / look out, mama, junior’s got a gun!” Much of the genre-jumping song there is set to an “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” shuffle and similar synth sound. Page’s secret weapon throughout, as it was on 2016’s first instalment of Heal Thyself, is Craig Northey of the Odds, who also shares some co-writing credits.

What sets Page the solo artist far apart from his previous work is his embrace of lush orchestration—indeed, he’s performing several gigs this fall with local symphonies. The arrangements suit the range of his melodies; Page has always been somewhat underrated as a vocalist, but even a casual listen to this record would illustrate his obvious skill. Several tracks lean on a bossa nova beat, notably the satire of anti-science skeptics “Gravity” (“All I can see is what God tells me to see / and we live in a world that’s outlawed gravity”), while others echo Burt Bacharach (“What I Got From You”) or Broadway (“Done”), with a straight-up 6/8 R&B ballad for good measure (“Where Do You Stand”).

It would take a game-changing, incredibly strong record to help Page shake the baggage of his former band. This record is it.

 I haven't been posting any videos during this series, but I really don't think enough people heard this song, various lyrics from which run through my head at least once a week while trying to crawl out from under an avalanche of depressing headlines. 

Why it didn’t even longlist: Even if it wasn't made by a former member of Barenaked Ladies, for most Polaris jurors this likely sounds too much like Michael Bublé. Which, of course, it doesn’t at all. But this is definitely music for old folks. NOT THAT THERE’S ANYTHING WRONG WITH THAT. (Hi, I'm one year younger than Steven Page.)

Tomorrow: Day four, with Pup and Jessie Reyez, as well as two more should've-beens