Friday, September 21, 2012

Confessions of a Polaris juror, preliminary

The Polaris Music Prize, now in its seventh year, suffers from many misconceptions. When the prize first began in 2006, it was a welcome antidote to the Juno Awards, which seemed only to ever celebrate artists with big money and mainstream radio support behind them, leaving many worthy and influential Canadian artists unrecognized.

By Polaris’s own definition, nominees are chosen by a grand pool of critics, without any regard paid to genre or commercial sales. The only goal is to reward the “best” album from a 10-album shortlist, as selected by 11 sequestered jury members the night of the gala.

Some think Polaris is a prize given to up-and-coming Canadian artists who could use the $30,000 prize. Some think it’s an indie hipster runoff that inevitably goes to the one act on the shortlist that mainstream listeners couldn’t pick out of a lineup (Final Fantasy, 2006). Some think the award means something when it’s won by a francophone act (Karkwa, 2010), when it’s won by an electronic act (Caribou, 2008), when it’s won by a hardcore punk act (Fucked Up, 2009), or when it’s won by the same album that the Grammys and Junos decided was Album of the Year (Arcade Fire, 2011).

This year I get to pick the winner. At least, after six years of being a part of the larger pool of critics that votes on the long list and the shortlist, I’m now going to be one of 11 angry geeks sequestered in a Masonic Temple with a $30,000 cheque in our hands, and at the end of two hours of runoff voting, we’ll decide who gets the oversize novelty cheque at the end of the gala.

In the running: Cadence Weapon (former Edmonton poet laureate’s hip-hop alias), Cold Specks (soulful, dark blues), Drake (mainstream new-school hip-hop star), Kathleen Edwards (rootsy storyteller), Feist (chanteuse extraordinaire), Fucked Up (hardcore punk concept album), Grimes (avant-garde electro bubblegum), Handsome Furs (electro-Clash), Japandroids (anthemic rock), Yamantaka/Sonic Titan (psych-prog metal with Asian pop melodies).

Can those artists even be fairly judged against one another? No, of course not. The best thing about that list, however, is that it’s impossible to dismiss as homogenous. This is not a case of the same-old, same-old. And picking a “winner” is going to be extremely difficult.

In past years, I’ve been content to advocate to the larger jury, to try and predict the shortlist, and scratch my head at the winner. Only twice in six years have I approved of the winner: Final Fantasy in 2006 and Arcade Fire in 2011. And only last year did I genuinely like every album on the shortlist (well, except one). This year, however, I’ve been immersing myself in 10 albums—seven of which I didn’t seriously consider for my ballot, and three of which ranked low on the ballots I submitted over two rounds of voting. (The top spots on my ballot went to Mark Davis, Leonard Cohen and Kathryn Calder, who I think made the best Canadian albums during the current Polaris period. If you haven’t heard those albums, buy them now before you forget. And thank me later.)

Apparently, the jury is constructed so that every album on the shortlist has a champion in the room. Yet I feel like I don’t have a specific horse in this race. I genuinely like eight of the 10 albums (to varying degrees, of course); should any of them win, I’ll be happy. If I manage to successfully argue the two stinkers off the first round of voting, then I’ll consider my evening well spent. Attention, fellow jurors, should you be reading this: I am easily swayed.

I want to listen all the way through the album in question without being bored once, a tall order these days. I want the album to be inspiring in some way; not pleasurable, necessarily, or one I’ll reach for at the end of every work day, but fascinating and rewarding. Ideally, I want to hear new things every time I listen.

I’m not thinking about an artist’s previous work, about stupid things I’ve heard them say in interviews, about whether or not they “need” the money, about their dorky videos (a serious problem this year for one album I like quite a bit), or about their live show (not a problem this year: I’ve only seen two of these acts live in the last 12 months).

There are, however, three things I’m not supposed to think about that I inevitably will. I can’t help but compare these albums to artists’ previous works: is this really the best they can do, is it better than Album X from four years ago? I’ll also go in with a bias against previous winners. When I thought both Owen Pallett and Caribou made the best albums nominated for the 2010 award, I didn’t want either to win for that reason alone.

I think the album should sound like 2012. That doesn’t mean it has to be an electro-hip-hop-punk-jazz-Afro-Balkan hybrid, or that retro or traditional elements disqualify it. It just has to mean that, to me, the album is somewhat situated in the zeitgeist. There is no such thing as a complete vacuum in which these decisions are made, and the winner should, I think, say something about this moment in Canadian music. So if ostensibly objective arguments don’t lead me to favour one album over another, this is the criterion with which I will cast my ballot.

I’ll offer my own detailed final arguments to the jury in this space shortly, but to give you a history lesson and an idea of how I might vote, here’s a list of the winners, who I would have picked that year, and who was the most commercially successful artist on the shortlist the year in question.

Winner: Final Fantasy – He Poos Clouds
My choice: Final Fantasy – He Poos Clouds
Popular choice: Metric – Live It Out

Winner: Patrick Watson – Closer to Paradise
My choice: Miracle Fortress – Five Roses
Popular choice: Feist – The Reminder
My favourite albums not on the shortlist: Amon Tobin, Feuermusik.

Winner: Caribou - Andorra
My choice: Weakerthans – Reunion Tour
Popular choice: Stars – In Our Bedroom After the War
My favourite albums not on the shortlist: Buck 65, the D’Urbervilles, Veda Hille, Corb Lund, Pas Chic Chic. This was perhaps the year I was most disappointed in Polaris. They instituted the 40-album long list the next year.

Winner: Fucked Up – The Chemistry of Common Life
My choice: Chad Van Gaalen – Soft Airplane
Popular choice: K’naan - Troubadour
My favourite albums not on the shortlist: Bell Orchestre, Handsome Furs, Snailhouse, Charles Spearin, Timber Timbre.

Winner: Karkwa – Chemins de Verre
My choice: Broken Social Scene – s/t (though Caribou’s Swim was my favourite)
Popular choice: Tegan and Sara – Sainthood
My favourite album not on the long list: Schomberg Fair – Gospel

Winner: Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
Popular choice: Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
My favourite album not on the shortlist: Doug Paisley – Constant Companion

This year all my favourite records made the long list. I was shocked.

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