The 11th Polaris Music Prize gala is five days from now, Sept. 19, at the Carlu in Toronto, where 11 jurors locked in a room will decide which one of these 10 artists will get $50,000. All other nominees receive $3,000.
Every day this week I’ll look at two of the shortlisted albums, assess their chances, and celebrate two albums that didn’t make the short list—or, in some cases, even the long list. Day one (Black Mountain, Basia Bulat) is here. Day two (Grimes, Carly Rae Jepsen) is here.
Kaytranada – 99.9% (XL)
For me, there’s only one album in contention for this year’s Polaris Music Prize. This is it. O, Kaytranada.
My May review:
Daft Punk spent millions of dollars on vintage synths and disco legends to make Random Access Memories. Kaytranada—24-year-old Montreal DJ Louis Kevin Celestin—made this tour-de-force debut record in his parents’ basement, where he still lives, and it’s every bit as all-encompassing and forward-thinking as the French duo’s Grammy-winning classic.
Until now, Kaytranada has been known for remixes posted on Soundcloud, of Janet Jackson, Missy Elliott and others, which launched his international DJ career. He doesn’t pull that kind of starpower on the guest list here—even though he’s gone on tour with Madonna and been summoned to Rick Rubin’s ranch. But he certainly doesn’t need name-dropping when he’s made an album like this.
At a time when EDM and hip-hop both opt for maximalist excess, Kaytranada is refreshingly raw and sparse, his speaker-rattling bass lines falling behind the beat—which is fine, because the bass throughout is mixed far louder than any of the drum tracks. One can hear J Dilla’s work with Erykah Badu in here, as well as Stevie Wonder’s ’70s prime, and the Brazilian-influenced broken beat scene out of West London at the turn of the century. Detroit jazz drummer and hip-hop producer (and Dilla associate) Karriem Riggins—whose day job is behind the kit for Diana Krall—lays down some live tracks. Toronto group BadBadNotGood are natural collaborators, as is Phonte, an MC from 2000s hip-hop cult heroes Little Brother. Anderson.Paak, Vic Mensa, Aluna George and Craig David all show up for the party.
Along with Poirier’s Migrations, 99.9% marks a massive moment in Montreal’s beat-making scene. Don’t be surprised if the Haitian-born Kaytranada becomes his hometown’s biggest international calling card since Arcade Fire.
Why is this the one? For starters, it’s downright refreshing. This country has plenty of great beatmakers of various stripes, but I’ve never heard a single hip-hop producer in this country make an album as consistently strong as this one. It’s the best instrumental hip-hop record I’ve heard since J-Rocc’s Some Cold Rock Stuf. And as someone who’s left downright chilly by the so-called “Toronto sound” in the domestic hip-hop scene that has the whole world talking, Kaytranada is much more my bag of meat.
Someone tried to convince me that this wasn’t a hip-hop record at all, but an EDM album. Which is ridiculous for several reasons, starting with the fact that EDM is anything but funky. This record has maximum soul.
Compared to everything else on the shortlist, it’s also the record that gives me the most pleasure. As much as I love Black Mountain and Basia Bulat, I know their moves stone cold. Kaytranada’s record reveals more to me with each listen. And dammit, I can dance to it.
There’s also the not-insignificant matter that he’d be the first, shall we say, “non-old-stock” Canadian to take the prize (with the exception of the couple at the core of Arcade Fire), and the first from this genre of music—and I’d argue that it’s also the best hip-hop-related record to ever be shortlisted in the prize’s 11-year history, so a win would be far from a token affair.
The chances: Excellent. The fact it sounds like nothing else on the shortlist this year bodes well, especially if the rockists and popists on the jury split their votes.
Kaytranada is playing Echo Beach in Toronto this Saturday, Sept. 17, with Anderson.Paak and long-lister Daniel Caesar (who you might see on next year’s shortlist, by the way).
Jessy Lanza – Oh No (Hyperdub)
My May review:
This Hamilton artist seemingly came out of nowhere in 2013 to be signed to a prestigious British electronic label, and her debut, Pull My Hair Back, was shortlisted for the 2014 Polaris. It showcased Lanza’s electronic production skills, her playful, confident vocals and her love of ’90s R&B and ’80s synth pop and ’00s Daft Punk disciples. But if the debut was merely promising, Oh No delivers on every level. With co-producer Jeremy Greenspan of Junior Boys back on board, Oh No buries any sexist assumption that he was the principal architect of Lanza’s sound, seeing how this album betters his band’s entire output. There’s nothing cold or distant or arch about Lanza’s music; Oh No is joyous and even euphoric, something that too much of modern retro-tinged synth pop seems to forget. Oh No is a sunnier side of Grimes, and easily the best electronic pop record out of this country since that artist’s Visions. Oh look, and summer is right around the corner.
I’ll admit I was fudging a bit there: I really did not like Pull My Hair Back at all; I thought it was slight, unformed, green—although promising. For me, the leap between Lanza’s two records, therefore, is huge. Her vocals are much more confident, the beats have more bounce. I realize I dump on Greenspan a bit much; the Junior Boys have never done it for me. He obviously brings much to Lanza’s music; I’m just glad she’s in charge.
The chances: Weak. Aesthetically, she sits somewhere between Grimes and Kaytranada, and sympathetic votes that might go her way will likely propel one of those two instead. Those are also more sonically diverse records—though that could also work against them for some jurors who appreciate consistency.
The could’ve, should’ve beens:
Veda Hille – Love Waves (independent)
Jesus fucking Christ I love this record. It was #1 on my ballot. (Kaytranada was #2.)
My May review:
Not since David Bowie’s Blackstar have I wanted to play a new album every day, as often as possible, in the weeks after first hearing it as I have Veda Hille’s Love Waves.
There’s a direct connection there—and no, this veteran Vancouver songwriter is not on her deathbed. Far from it. She is, however, taking some stock of her musical influences, with an unrecognizable cover/interpolation of Bowie’s 1980 song “Teenage Wildlife,” and rewriting Brian Eno’s 1977 song “By the River” to make it even more gorgeous than it already was. Other artists are happy to cover their heroes; Hille has the cojones to improve on them.
If that weren’t enough, there’s also a cover of a Gilbert and Sullivan song from The Mikado (“The Sun Whose Rays”), a nod to Hille’s extensive work in musical theatre—which has included her brilliant Do You Want What I Have Got?: A Craigslist Musical and the delightfully absurdist source of her last album, something called Peter Panties.
And because she’s Veda Hille, this album also features an adaptation of a Greek myth performed in part by a pitch-shifted, gender-bending voice singing in German.
“Absence makes the heart grow fonder, so stay away for a little longer,” sings Hille on the opening track here, and Love Waves is her first non-conceptual recording in seven years. Of course, Hille is usually juggling a half-dozen projects at once, so a solo album of disconnected songs gets bumped down her priority list, seemingly a vanity project in comparison to her other work. But her wealth of experience doesn’t distract from her own songs; it enhances them immensely. She gets progressively more melodic with each album, while pulling off feats like modulating the key of a song via an a cappella phrase, like she does on “Trophy.”
Love Waves’ co-conspirator John Collins of the New Pornographers brings the same sympathy for synthesizers he developed while co-producing Destroyer’s 2004 classic Your Blues—only instead of that album’s deliberately arch digital display of an orchestral Potemkin’s village, Love Waves bathes in warm sounds reminiscent of those ’70s records by Bowie and Eno that Hille references directly. Her backing band consists of Vancouver all-stars: Collins, engineer/guitarist Dave Carswell, resident genius Ford Pier, Tagaq violinist Jesse Zubot, jazz cellist Peggy Lee, P:ano’s Nick Krgovich, and longtime rhythm section drummer Barry Mirochnick and Martin Walton.
Opening track “Lover/Hater” slowly unfolds over underwater pianos before a cavalcade of cascading e-bowed guitars carry the first chorus unaccompanied, sounding like the most beautiful swarm of insects you’ll ever hear in your life. Shortly after, 2/3 of the way through the song, an electronic bass drum start thumping, and the rest of the track bounces like a Tegan & Sara Top 40 single—albeit one in a mournful minor key. Love Waves is a record with enough surface pleasures to draw you in immediately, but with dozens of tiny tasty tricky bits, both musical and lyrics, that reveal themselves over time.
“I will make a record just for you,” she promises. “I will make it like the old days / just as good as I can do.”
I don’t have anything to add to those thoughts, other than that once the lyrics to “Burst” finally sank in, the parent in me got pretty weepy in ways I haven’t been since Gord Downie’s “Trick Rider.”
Why it didn’t shortlist: Art-rock cabaret music from Vancouver isn’t really trending right now (what kind of world is this). But also, this was released a week before the Polaris deadline, and it’s the kind of record that, if you’re not predisposed to Hille’s brilliance, could take some to appreciate. She’s not an artist summarized in a sound bite. I’m ecstatic that she did rally enough jurors to land her on the long list. I’ll be even happier if you go and listen to the whole thing right now. (Which means you’ll have to buy it; only one track is streaming anywhere, which is here.)
Selina Martin – I've been picking Caruso's brain; I think I have the information we need to make a new world (independent)
My March review:
“Why is the harder road always the way to go?” sings Selina Martin on her fourth album, the music of which answers her question for her: because refusing to take the easy route makes Martin’s music that much more rewarding. She’s a female singer-songwriter who doesn’t do acoustic ballads; she’s a rocker who doesn’t hide anonymously behind a band; she’s a guitarist who loves manipulating electronic textures. Martin has always had an ear for pop hooks—her last album, Disaster Fantasies, was full of them—but here she and producer Chris Stringer seem just as interested in what lies underneath, both in terms of overall sonic sorcery and in particular the ways in which they can manipulate the live drums of Jesse Baird (Feist).
Martin is interested in messing with rock music in ways few people have in recent years; the only recent analogues that comes to mind is EMA or Micachu or Deerhoof; the furthest precedent is Post-era Bjork (the groaning electronic sirens in “The Addicted” recall “Army of Me,” but there are other hints throughout). That said, she’s far from obtuse: songs like “Hawaii” would not at all be out of place on rock radio. She’s a frequent collaborator with former members of the Rheostatics; in many ways, she takes the best of what that band did and filters it through a modern digital lens. Always a strong lyricist, Martin scores here on several tracks, but most especially “Wish List,” the rare new Christmas song that will actually survive the season.
Why it didn’t even make the long list: Like Veda Hille, Selina Martin isn’t subject to sound-bite summaries. (The two are also friends and collaborators; Martin starred in Hille’s Craigslist musical.) If I, a fan, consider the most apt reference points to be obscurities EMA and Micachu and Deerhoof, that doesn’t bode well for explaining what it is that Martin does. Would she be more successful if she ditched the trappings of rock and went all-electronic for the Grimes era? (The electro version of “When the City Fell” that closes the album is better than the “normal” version in the regular sequence—although the melody is the main draw in both takes.) Maybe, but Martin is a) a great guitarist and b) doesn’t think rock music and progressive fuckery are mutually exclusive, and nor should she (or you).
Note: Selina Martin is heading to France for a year, but is playing a series of dates in central Ontario. You should go:
Hamilton Saturday Oct 15 @ L’Étranger on James
Toronto Sunday Oct 16 @ The Dakota Tavern 7-9pm
Guelph Friday Oct 21 @ Van Gogh’s Ear
London Saturday Oct 22 @ The St. Regis Tavern
Ottawa Friday Nov 18 @ TBA
Montreal Saturday Nov 19 @ Bad Lunch
Tomorrow: Pup, Andy Shauf