After six years of the Polaris Prize, where 10 Canadian albums compete for a $30,000 prize (up this year from $20,000), almost everyone expects to be disappointed by the shortlist, where compromised, consensus picks tend to rise to the top rather than people’s passionate favourites.
So before tomorrow’s announcement of the Polaris Prize shortlist, let’s take a last look at the longlist. Released three weeks ago, it is the real conversation starter, and for me, the more interesting document. For better or worse, the 40 records on the longlist are considered the true snapshot of the year in Canadian music.
Let’s look at who’s on the list.
Regionally, Toronto and Montreal still dominate, and Vancouver suffers (which, with the list being announced the day after the hockey riots, must have been another slap to the city’s pride—albeit a comparatively minor one). There are 14 acts from Montreal, 13 from Toronto, and three from Vancouver (Black Mountain, Louise Burns, Destroyer). Tiny Sackville, N.B., gets two: former bandmates Shotgun Jimmie and Frederick Squire. Eight other cities (Hamilton, Halifax, St. John’s, Winnipeg, Kingston, St. Catharines, Calgary and, um, Marin, California) get one apiece.
Two of those Montreal acts, Braids and Dirty Beaches, hail from Calgary and Vancouver originally, though their careers were built in Montreal. Likewise, Buck 65 and Sloan are Haligonians originally, but have lived in Toronto for several years, so are included in that city’s count here. Tim Hecker has ties to Vancouver and Ottawa, but his entire musical career has been based in Montreal.
Four acts can be considered hip-hop or R&B: Buck 65, D-Sisive, Eternia & Moss, and The Weeknd.
Four acts, it can be argued, appeal almost exclusively to the over-30, CBC Radio 2 crowd: Luke Doucet, Ron Sexsmith, Jenn Grant and Doug Paisley. (The latter made my ballot.)
Two acts, Tim Hecker and Colin Stetson, make experimental music that will never, ever be played on CBC Radio during the day. More power to them.
The other 30 acts are, arguably, loosely affiliated with the indie rock world.
There are two francophone acts: the perennially nominated Malajube, and the much more exciting Galaxie (who had a spot on my ballot).
Two acts, Little Scream and Colin Stetson, are American citizens who are landed immigrants in Canada, thereby making them eligible for the Polaris. Both have deep ties to Arcade Fire.
Only nine acts on the list had recording careers 10 years ago. Only four (Neil Young, Sloan, Ron Sexsmith and Buck 65) had recording careers 15 years ago. And, ahem, only one of those had a recording career 40 years ago.
Ten of the 40 albums are debuts.
Two albums were only available as a free download (D-Sisive, The Weeknd).
Only two albums were released directly by a major label (Buck 65, Neil Young).
One album on the list won both the Grammy and Juno award for 2010 Album of the Year—which may well make it an underdog for the Polaris.
Seven artists have been shortlisted before (Arcade Fire, Black Mountain, the Dears, Hey Rosetta, Malajube, Miracle Fortress, Stars). Of those, one—Malajube—have been shortlisted twice before. Seven more artists have been longlisted before (D-Sisive, Tim Hecker, Land of Talk, One Hundred Dollars, Timber Timbre, Women, Young Galaxy). That means 26 artists on this year’s long list have never been nominated for Polaris.
Now let’s look at who didn’t make it.
Four of my picks made the list. I knew that the one that didn’t, Kathryn Calder’s Are You My Mother?, was an underdog, despite the fact that she’s a member of the New Pornographers. Mother is a record of subtle charms; I liked it well enough the first time I heard it, but didn’t grow to love it until later, and now almost a year after its release I enjoy it more and more with every listen, hearing new details all the time and having every one of the album’s many hooks stuck in my head at various points of my week. I was disappointed it didn’t make the list, but not surprised; I didn’t sense it had much critical traction.
Three major artists did not make the long list, much to the apparent shock of many: Drake, Sarah Harmer and Chad Van Gaalen.
Drake should come as a surprise to no one: Polaris is a critics’ prize, and critics do not love Drake. Why would they? He can’t rap, can’t sing, and he’s a morose, self-loathing narcissist whose album is tiresome at best. Not even the industry embraces him: tellingly, he was entirely shut out of the Junos, despite having the most nominations and being asked to host the show. He’s a celebrity posing as an artist, and has a lot to prove before he’s taken seriously.
Sarah Harmer and Chad Van Gaalen have both been shortlisted for Polaris before; Van Gaalen twice, in fact. Yet both of their albums from this year’s qualifying period generated lukewarm shrugs, and as a result were snubbed by Polaris. I suspect no fan of either artist loves them any less, but neither were on top of their game this year.
The only other viable gripes I could entertain about longlist omissions: Jim Bryson and the Weakerthans, Selina Martin, Geoff Berner, Socalled, Forest City Lovers, It Kills, and Kiran Ahluwalia—all of whom made better records than some of the snoozers on the longlist.
Almost half of the records on the longlist I would never listen to all the way through—most of them made by guys with guitars. By my count, over half the artists on the longlist feature either a) a solo guy with a guitar or b) a band led by a guy with a guitar who writes all the songs. Some of those acts made my ballot—but most of them I never even considered, and in some cases, I can’t even tell them apart (Daniel Romano vs. Frederick Squire, for starters).
That said, I’m very excited about the other half: the presence of Hecker and Stetson, the sudden ascent of The Weeknd, the recognition of Neil Young and Ron Sexsmith, the underdog that is Eternia, the charming Hooded Fang, the word-of-mouth buzz that built up Doug Paisley, the comeback story of Sloan, the Quebecois push for Galaxie.
Lots of fine Canadian records did not make the longlist. It speaks volumes about the health of the scene that there was so much to choose from. And so no matter who makes the final cut tomorrow, the conversation is a prize in itself.
But just for the hell of it, here’s my prediction: Arcade Fire, Black Mountain, Braids, Destroyer, Diamond Rings, Eternia & Moss, Galaxie, Doug Paisley, Rural Alberta Advantage, The Weeknd.