Friday, September 16, 2022

Polaris Prize, not-so-deep dive, shortlist 2022

This year’s Polaris Music Prize will be handed out this Monday, September 19. Normally in this space, for the past 16 years, I’ve devoted extensive digital ink to the shortlisters and albums I think should have shortlisted. This year, my life is upside down for various reasons* and my extracurricular music writing has taken a hit, so I won’t be doing that. (I did a long list deep dive in June, here.) But there’s another reason I’m keeping this (relatively) brief: this year’s shortlist leaves me unusually cold.


This isn’t the first time that’s happened. But it is unusual. In Polaris history, including recent years, there’s usually only one or two records on the shortlist I don’t care for (sometimes they win!). This year, there’s only one or two records on the list I actually do care for. If I don’t have anything nice to say, I don’t even have mental energy this month to say anything at all. Some of the 2022 shortlist records are promising, or just okay; some are by artists I have great respect for but these records just don’t do it for me. A few of them I find interminable and/or downright unlistenable—including one by an artist I’ve loved for a very long time. To each their own.


So here’s who I do want to talk about:


Lisa LeBlanc – Chiac Disco. This is a gas. It’s a party in a can. It practically projects a mirrorball into the listener’s surroundings and makes you feel like rollerskates were just magically strapped to your feet. The Acadian franglais gives it a unique twist. The musicianship is amazing: who is this bassist? (Of course I have no liner notes; I’m waiting to buy a copy when she comes to Toronto on… March 16, 2023?!) The keyboardist is also killer. But also: sacré Jesus, le entire groupe. This doesn’t sound like some overproduced digital bullshit. It sounds like a band that spent the last year playing every taverne from Gatineau to Gaspé, from Montreal to Mistissini. The songs are great. The strings are sumptuous, even more so on ballads like “La poudre aux yeux.” And you gotta love a Covid-era disco banger titled “Veux-tu rentrer dans ma bubble?” 




Will it win? Well, only one franco record has ever won (Karkwa), and that was in 2010. She’d be the second New Brunswicker, after Jeremy Dutcher (who also didn’t sing in English). But the biggest knock against Chiac Disco for Polaris is that IT IS SO MUCH GODDAM FUN. Looking at past winners, I can only see one record that actually feels like a good time, and that’s Kaytranada’s 99.9%, which won in 2016. 

 Will po-faced Polaris nerds embrace the pleasure principle? I’d say no. Especially not for what could successfully be argued is a retro record. But here’s hoping Lisa LeBlanc dances all the way to the bank, one way or another, Polaris or not.


Snotty Nose Rez Kids – Life After. This can and should win. You should, of course, inherently mistrust any 50-year-old white man’s opinion of current hip-hop, but I find these two MCs electrifying in ways I don’t hear in anyone else not named Haviah Mighty or Little Simz**. As lyricists, of course—they effortlessly mix the political and the playful—but also with fiery delivery that flies in the face of the nihilist ennui enveloping modern trap. “Grave Digger” is an absolute all-timer but also specifically now, post-Kamloops: “My very existence is a resistance.” 




The music this time retains the fiery punk energy of earlier records (they also go full-on punk with the help of last year’s shortlisters the OBGMs), but has more nods to pop—which I initially resisted, but they wear it well; “Uncle Rico” is a total jam, and “After Dark” is… lovely and zen?! And I will never not love their extensive use of “niichii” as a term of brotherly affection that replaces that other n-word. Again: that’s me, the Canadian history student (with family history in the Rez Kids’ hometown of Kitimaat). 


Life After should win because it’s the best record on the list. It should win because it’s the best record on the list for these times. It should win because it’s made by an artist at the top of their game (although honestly I prefer their last record, Trapline). And, like LeBlanc, it's also pretty fun! We need fun. But even on top of all that: holy shit, IT’S TIME THE WEST WON. It’s never happened in Polaris history, unless you count the fact that Buffy Sainte-Marie happened to be born in Saskatchewan but never lived there (and Tanya Tagaq is considerably more north than west). Please oh please oh please: can we give this thing to someone west of Brampton?


Because I love two records on the shortlist, here’s eight more that would make my ideal personal shortlist (all Laurentian elites, sorry ROC):

Basia Bulat – The Garden

Chiiild – Hope For Sale

Joyful Joyful – s/t

Orville Peck – Bronco

Lydia Képinski – Depuis

Ada Lea – One Hand on the Steering Wheel…

Salomé Leclerc – Mille ouvrages mon coeur

The Weeknd – Dawn FM


I also came late to Abigail Lappell’s Stolen Time, which came out in April. And Lil Andy deserves a chutzpah award for his box set project under the alias Hezekiah Procter, which involves ancient recording technology and an accompanying novella.


Go listen to some great music right now. The gala will be live on CBC Gem Monday night at 8pm.


* Currently looking for work.

 ** Shameless plug: I'm on stage with last year's winner Cadence Weapon at the Toronto International Festival of Authors at Harbourfront, Saturday September 24 at 4.30pm. Tickets are here.

Monday, July 04, 2022

Polaris Prize Long List 2020 reviews

Voting for the Polaris Music Prize shortlist closed last week. Jurors had to vote for five records from a long list of 40. The shortlist will be announced on July 14. I voted. I have a sense of general sentiment from the jurors who choose to share their opinions often (which is maybe 10% of them), but ultimately I know nothing. I’m always surprised. This year I have reason to believe I’ll be more surprised than usual. Do not take anything in this post as any kind of premonition. This is just my own dive into the long-list records before ¾ of them disappear from the discussion.


I realize this is likely TL;DR so *** indicates one of 10 records I’d love to see on the shortlist. Not a prediction—just where I personally would direct your attention so that you don’t miss these records.


AHI – Prospect. Nice record. Seems like nice guy. This is likely the nicest record on this list. Nice.


Arcade Fire – We. It’s no secret I love this band. I love this record. Just as much as their last one, haters! I didn’t vote for it, though, so if you’re unhappy if/when it shortlists, don’t blame me. 


Backxwash – I Lie Here Buried With My Rings And My Dresses. It’s also no secret I don’t get this artist. If this is a metal record, I want the sound to be heavier and thicker. If there’s supposed to be hip-hop in this mix, I’d love to hear it. I realize I’m trying to fit this into boxes where it might not even belong—and the whole point is to resist classification anyway—but I don’t find the vocals compelling, either. Many people do! I’m not naturally drawn to music this goth-y and confrontational, so there’s that: I don’t like Black Sabbath or Nine Inch Nails, either. This sounds more like primal scream therapy than rapping or singing. (In which case, I’d rather turn to Tagaq or Diamanda Galas.) I love the fact this artist exists in this conversation, but I’m waiting for the music to be as powerful for me as the story and visuals behind it.


BadBadNotGood – Talk Memory. I’m in an extreme minority here, but I feel this band suffered a major loss when co-founding keyboardist Matthew Tavares left the band (somewhat acrimoniously). There are tons of top-shelf guests to help fill the gap, and this record definitely has plenty of inspired moments. But it doesn’t really compare to the two classics they put out before this, 2016’s IV in particular. Like I said, though, this record has an abundance of critical love; wouldn’t be surprised to see it shortlist.


Jean-Michel Blais – Aubades. This is the most “classical” album on a shortlist since previous winner Jeremy Dutcher, and one of a precious few to ever enter the Polaris discussion (do Godspeed and Owen Pallett count?). It’s lovely. Beyond that, I can’t say I have the critical capacity to assess it. It’s lovely! But so is…


***Basia Bulat – The Garden. String-quartet reinterpretations of your back catalogue: it sounds like a retread of an idea, some kind of stop-gap move (timed to your maternity leave?). But in the case of Basia Bulat, it’s not that at all: it’s so much more. Bulat is an artist who’s always been blessed with a powerhouse voice, but as a writer and a performer she gets better with age. Revisiting earlier material with wisdom and experience displays that growth, and the arrangements are often transformative. Other than two or three key songs from her past, this all sounded like new material to me. There will be inevitable grumbling if this record shortlists, but I think it stands on its own in Bulat’s discography; it might even be her best work yet. That should be rewarded. Will it? Unlikely.


Tanika Charles – Papillon de Nuit: The Night Butterfly. This is one classy lady: if you’ve ever seen her on stage or, hell, even just walk into a room, you know what I mean. That’s also apparent from her vocal delivery in the studio; in a time when one has to constantly question how much technology is involved in streamlining even the greatest new R&B singers (see: the Weeknd), Charles sounds like a fully alive human being in every take. How novel! Her music has obvious shades of Al Green, Stevie Wonder, et al., but doesn’t sound like a sonic throwback. “Gin and Wine” is fab, as is “Different Morning,” with a star turn from 2021 shortlister DijahSB.


***Chiiild – Hope For Sale. So good! This is, frankly, at least as good as a Weeknd or Miguel album—without making me feel creeped out. It’s a psychedelic modern pop/R&B record with killer melodies and songwriting sophistication, to say nothing of the great vocal performances and production textures. And—no misogyny. Like Sault, with better songs. It’s all killer, no filler: no skits, no extraneous guest spots, no ego trips, just pure pleasure. I’m positive that the more people spend time with this record, the more they’ll love it. I think that will be true in a jury room as well, should it make it that far.


Destroyer – Labyrinthitis. I’m not sure I’ve ever been even able to listen to this record all the way through. I’m a huge Destroyer fan, albeit a fairweather one—does that make sense? White hot or ice cold, this guy. Three of his earlier albums were a huge inspiration to write my latest book. Some Destroyer shows have been the most memorable of my life; others have been total shit. I haven’t loved a Destroyer record since 2015’s Poison Season, which I thought was one of his best. The last one, 2020’s Have We Met, was not bad but truly came to life on stage; Destroyer’s March 2020 show at Toronto’s Opera House was the last show I saw before the lockdown, and I cherished every memory of it for two years afterwards. Destroyer, indeed. Now this: what fresh hell? This sounds like a parody of a Destroyer record. The man actually rhymes “moon” with “June” at one point. The music, largely by John Collins, is interesting, and characteristically well made, but lyrically and vocally this really sounds like Dan Bejar on autopilot—or worse. And yet, conversely, there are big ’80s pop songs on here (“It Takes a Thief”), which chipper CBC Music hosts introduce with glee on the drive shows. There are times when I wish the reluctant rock star would be a bit more reluctant, and this is one of them.


Julie Doiron – I Thought of You. This is the first record since 2012 credited solely to eternal team player Julie Doiron. There was an amazing—and surprising—collab with metal band the Cancer Bats (Julie and the Wrong Guys), there was another Lost Wisdom album with Mount Eerie, and this year there was a duo album with Québécois psych-folk artist Dany Placard. Little ever changes on Doiron’s solo albums, sonically or thematically. I’m unclear why this one registered with Polaris jurors more than, say the Wrong Guys record. This is her first Polaris appearance since Woke Myself Up shortlisted in 2007.


***The Garrys – Get Thee to a Nunnery. This is a fantastic band of Saskatoon sisters playing surf-influenced, hazy psychedelia—not unlike the Sadies, whose Dallas Good produced this record, the last before his shocking death earlier this year. They’re not just sister Sadies, though; they first came to my attention a couple of years ago when they did a soundtrack to a Dutch silent film about witchcraft. And their sisterly harmonies, often wordless, add magical texture throughout. I’ll be pleasantly surprised if this shortlists—Prairie acts find Polaris hard to break—but I hope they find bigger audiences sooner than later. This is certainly the kind of record that should help them do that.


The Halluci Nation – One More Saturday Night. This group is down to one original member; I enjoyed co-founder DJ Shub’s 2020 solo record more than this group’s 2016’s effort, on which he was audibly absent. This new one has more diminishing returns—the title even suggests something rote—despite the totally stacked guest list, including Tanya Tagaq, Sate, Lillian Allen (!), Haviah Mighty, and new-to-me names like New Zealand’s Rob Ruha and Tex-Mex DJ El Dusty. Full points for the remix of Keith Secola’s “NDN Kars,” the original dating back to the 1994 film Dance Me Outside (I’ve been waiting for a recent hot take on that film’s legacy, but—among other issues, no one wants hot takes on Canadian film history in general). But what’s up with inviting CBC host Tom Power—who anchors the network’s flagship arts show—to play banjo? That just seems like pandering. Fellow CBC host Odario Williams makes a bit more sense here, but still smells funny. I was told recently by someone who works at CBC Music that they weren’t allowed to ask an artist or promoter for a +1 on a guest list because it violated journalistic ethics. And yet a radio host can appear on a record that they’ll likely play on the air?! I thought Randy Bachman got fired over this shit. It’s not either man’s fault that the CBC likes to hire active musicians and groom them to become broadcasters, but it certainly won’t help the CBC look less incestuous if this record ends up on the shortlist and the group plays the CBC-sponsored gala. Wonder if Tom Power will get a +1.


***Joyful Joyful – s/t. These droning songs of devotion are what I needed to hear all through the pandemic, but better late than never. I saw this duo perform a daytime set in a packed tent at Hillside Festival in Guelph in 2019, knowing zilch about them beforehand, and it was nothing short of transcendent. This record has the same effect. It opens with birdsong and what sounds like a choral drone. The vocal melodies are modal. Rarely is a chord change suggested. Never is one required. Nothing about this music sounds like the blues or qawwali or Celtic pipes or ragas or... take your pick and dive into the drone tradition of your choice. But the spiritual and meditative effect is the same. At the risk of projecting from what I know of their biography (they formed in Peterborough, Ontario), this sounds like it was recorded in communion with the Canadian Shield, recorded somewhere remotely, with the layered choir of voices resonating through the woods and across fresh-water lakes. It's healing music informed by queer exile from fundamentalism, made by former folk and noise musicians. Things I hear in here: Alanis Obomsawin, Lisa Gerrard, Majical Cloudz, Laurie Anderson, Jeremy Dutcher. And birdsong on foggy mornings. I can’t recommend this enough.


***Adria Kain – When Flowers Bloom. Of the new crop of Toronto R&B singers, this might be the most fascinating. A Brittany Howard-esque androgynous voice, exceptional production, acoustic elements and D’Angelo grooves, and exceptional tracks like “Melt With You” and “Only With Time.” If an R&B record other than Chiiild makes the shortlist, it should definitely be this one.


***Lydia Képinski – Depuis. I’m still smarting from the fact that Salomé Leclerc didn’t long list, but take solace that this record did. This franco performer makes fascinating prog-pop records that rarely go where you think they might, sometimes within the same song.  “Vaslaw” might be the most accessible entry point here, but once you’re in, you’re in. It was heartening to see Klo Pelgag shortlist last year; hopefully Képinski can this time out (it’s easily the best of the five francophone records here). She deserves to be heard well beyond Québécois borders.


Pierre Kwenders – José Louis and the Paradox of Love. This is a fascinating artist and a very good record—there are few records I feel are certain to shortlist, but this is one. I was a huge fan of Kwenders’ 2014 debut; I was somewhat mystified by the shortlisted 2017 album Makanda. This is a lovely record that I like more and more every time I spin it, and yet: it’s fine. Smooth. “Your Dreams” is a great ballad, “Kilimanjaro” is wonderful Afro pop, as is “Coupé.” I certainly won’t be sad if Kwenders takes the prize—which he well could—but I don’t think this is the best record he has in him.


***Ada Lea – One Hand on the Steering Wheel the Other Sewing a Garden. This took a long time to sink its hooks in me–almost a full year–but it’s now one of my favourites of this Polaris period. This artist is identifiably from Montreal, the city being a frequent and vivid lyrical inspiration (“moving down Parc Avenue at 3 p.m. Paris time”). Opening track “Damn” sounds like Big Thief covering a Cyndi Lauper classic. “Saltspring” is unadorned folk music that belongs beside Jennifer Castle. Several songs here sound like the children of the XX and Mac DeMarco, others like opiated Stars demos. There’s a slightly aquatic submergence to the chorus pedals and reverb units throughout. The swoony, droopy slide guitar on “Violence” is intoxicating; I wish Julee Cruise were still alive to hear it. Crossing my fingers that this shortlists so that no one (like me) will ever underestimate the subtle powers of Ada Lea.


***Lisa Leblanc – Chiac Disco. Easily the most fun record on the long list, this is an Acadian disco record that could only be improved by a Gino Soccio remix. LeBlanc first came to attention as a banjo-wielding, foot-stomping roots rocker (and shortlisted while doing so), so this is a left turn into vintage disco. She plays it straight, and it sounds glorious: this is not a band of slackers slumming in a kitschy thrift shop. Her hoser-ish Chiac accent clashes with the Studio 54 vibe, but only in ways that work in her favour. Meanwhile, the handful of non-disco tracks here, like the lovely ballad “Le poudre des yeux,” drenched in Parisian strings, remind us that LeBlanc is a songwriter of depth, not just on the dance floor.


Hubert Lenoir – Pictura de Ipse: Musique directe. The enfant terrible of Québécois glam-pop fuckery returns with a batshit crazy record that confounds all expectations. Wish I actually liked it. Bit too Ween-y, though the best parts are Prince-y in Camille mode. Weird as he may be, Lenoir is still a pop performer at heart, with tracks like “Sucre + Sel” and “Hula Hoop” following through on the promise of his breakthrough debut (which shortlisted, if any anglos remember).


Luna Li – Duality. Objectively, this is a very well-made, well-crafted pop record: “Star Stuff” definitely has exactly that. Subjectively, it doesn’t do much for me—I suspect that’s generational, the same way my aged brain doesn’t trust anyone under 30 (I’m kidding. See: Ada Lea.). Also, the Lydia Képinski record checks a lot of the same boxes for me in ways I find more fascinating. (They should tour together!) Very interested in what this artist does next.


Les Louanges – Crash. I have no idea how this guy ended up on a shortlist with his last record, and I don’t get the appeal of this, either. Someone tried to tell me that he was the Québécois equivalent of Frank Ocean, if that helps. What do I know? I don’t even get the most influential American pop artist of the last decade, so don’t listen to me. And I never understood Scritti Politti and I’m still livid that there’s a Steely Dan revival. Which means this could easily win!  


Loony – Soft Thing. Singer. Toronto. Pop/R&B. I have nothing to say about this, positive or negative. It exists.


Kelly McMichael – Waves. This Ontario musician has served time in many others’ projects: most recently, Sarah Harmer. Now living in Newfoundland, she won a boatful of ECMAs for this record, an easy-to-like guitar pop record that’s a fine showcase for her voice. I once had the immense pleasure of seeing her duet with Gentleman Reg on a cover of Sheryl Crow’s “If It Makes You Happy”: it was better than the original (which I love). The downside is that I can’t ever stop hearing the vocal resemblances McMichael shares with Crow. But that’s me: people who love this record really, really, really love it, and I would not be at all surprised to see it shortlist. 


Men I Trust – Untourable Album. Duuuuuuuuuuuuude. Did they actually tour this album? Where did they play, mattress stores? Float-tank spas? I know I’m streaming this, but is it even at the right speed? This makes Lana Del Rey sound like Lydia Lunch. Saint Etienne sounds like the Prodigy compared to this. I don’t trust it.


Haviah Mighty – Stock Exchange. This previous Polaris winner, a fantastically gifted singer and rapper (and performer), does not need to bring the T-Pain and I’m not sure why she does here with the effects on her vocals. Kidding: obviously most modern (t)rap records sound like this and I’m a grump. This is a fiery collection of tracks (“Atlantic,” “Protest”) that’s billed as a mixtape, not an album, FWIW. Collabs with Brampton neighbour Tobi and Barcelona MC Mala Rodriguez are highlights. Could easily shortlist; I still think it’s highly unlikely that the actual prize will go to the same person twice—and certainly not in a row.


myst milano – Shapeshyfter. “I am not the rule I’m the exception / Bitches copying notes from me like they in detention.” From their days as a teen punk drummer in Edmonton to DJing and rapping in an early ’90s hip-hop/house style as a non-binary queer Black performer in Toronto, Milano has been on a journey that sounds fully formed on this debut record. If they don’t end up on a shortlist this year, I don’t doubt they will sooner than later.  


Cedric Noel – Hang Time. This record is… fine? What’s it doing here? I’ve listened to it at least a dozen times and I can’t remember a thing about it. Non-descript, plodding and slightly shoegaze-y indie rock singer-songwriter. And yet: would not be at all surprised if it shortlists, because that vibe is very popular these days. Oddly enough, it sounds a lot like the next artist on this list, which would be:


Ombiigizi – Sewn Back Together. Music for anti-colonial cloud-watching, made by previous shortlister Zoon and previous long-lister Adam Sturgeon of Status/Non-Status. Produced by Kevin Drew with Nyles Spencer at the Tragically Hip’s Bathouse. This has a lot of love from the Polaris jury: I expect it to at least shortlist. I don’t really get it at all. Which means it will win!


***Orville Peck – Bronco. I have no desire to see the new Elvis biopic, especially when I could spend the summer listening to Orville Peck. The country singer has a powerful, theatrical baritone with an intriguing tremolo when required, and plenty of Presleyan swagger. (There’s also the cheeky lyric here, in “Outta Time”: “She told me she didn’t like Elvis / I said I’d like a little less conversation, please.”) There’s also, of course, the mysterious-masked-man aspect of his stage persona (he’s never revealed his face), which if nothing else shows he’s invested in showbiz mythology. None of that makes for a great record. What sends me back to this again and again is what he does with that voice, the melodies he writes to showcase its full range, and the band behind him, including guitarist Bria Salmena, who herself put out a fine EP last year (Cuntry Covers Vol. 1). I don’t care if you think the cowboy hats and the mask are corny; I don’t care if you think this isn’t “real” country music. It’s a fucking fantastic album from top to bottom. 


Ouri – Frame of a Fauna. Not sure what’s going on here. Wispy vocals, some mildly interesting electronic soundscapes—background music, not active listening. Makes Jessy Lanza sound like Peaches.


P'tit Belliveau – Un homme et son piano. I love the fact that this odd Acadian from rural Nova Scotia is genuinely and completely bonkers and that his uncategorizable yet vaguely hip-hop-influenced outsider record somehow made the Polaris long list. Those are the only things I love about it. I think it’s genuinely terrible and it makes me want to run out of the room screaming. Can’t believe that B.A. Johnston was somehow controversial a couple of years ago, and this guy gets a free pass.




Sate – The Fool. This was a pleasant surprise. Sate has been toiling in Toronto for years with little to no recognition, despite tonnes of charisma and an astounding voice (inherited in part from her mother, Salome Bey, recently celebrated on a Canada Post stamp). She’s a Black woman making hard-rock music: Betty Davis fronting Fishbone at Lollapalooza. She’s amazing, the production is heavy, the band is tight: I wish the songs and riffs matched her intensity. I will say this, though: this is miles ahead of anything else that passes as “modern rock” on commercial radio. As long as this list leads people to her live show—and to her as an artist in general—all is well.


Shad – Tao. I’m a big fan of Shad the lyricist, Shad the performer, Shad the broadcaster, Shad the guy in general. I wish I loved Shad’s music; I’d happily listen to a spoken-word record by him. This is yet another solid album from the Polaris hall-of-famer (“Tao Pt. 3,” “Storm,” “Out of Touch”), but not sure I’d slot it with his best—or the best of this year.


Sister Ray – Communion. Intriguing new artist. Though this debut took a while to come (I first saw this Edmonton artist play four years ago), it sounds like… a debut. There are some Big Thief vibes here that will serve them well. Much better things will come.


***Snotty Nose Rez Kids – Life After. Hard to imagine a more powerful or timely track in Canadian rap in 2022 than opening track “Grave Digger” from this Haisla duo: “My very existence is a resistance … coz Jesus ain't die for my sins / I tell 'em my ancestors did.” And I can’t imagine that there are two better rap lyricists in the country today: no disrespect to others on this list (or our global pop stars), but these guys write dextrous verses rich with political fury and history lessons and also just the full spectrum of modern Indigenous life (“Uncle Rico”). We could talk lyrics all day long, but SNRK don’t get enough respect for their music: not just the tracks underneath them, but their own cadence and melodic flow, which allows them to deliver dense and complex lines with seeming ease. Unlike, say, a Kendrick Lamar record that might be equally brilliant, this never sounds like work. And yet it’s the product of two master-craftsmen MCs at the height of their powers. It demands as little or as much from the listener as you want to give it. Life After is also their most musically diverse record to date, with some sidesteps into R&B and pop and even metal, thanks to 2021 shortlisters the OBGMs. (There’s also some inevitable use of that goddam T-Pain effect again—why, people, why?! Signed, Old Man). It concludes with “After Dark,” an unusually positive track, an zen ode to “all my relations” that acknowledges struggle and gratitude and that “the sun shines bright after dark.” I thought SNRK should have won the Polaris for 2019’s Trapline, an album I still prefer, but they should win this thing sooner than later, so why not now? This record could do the trick.


Stars – From Capelton Hill. This band is bulletproof—despite the fact they keep threatening to break up because of the unsustainable economics of being a middle-aged pop band in the streaming age. Their creativity, on the other hand, is entirely sustainable, and this album is a reminder of the reasons why. “Pretenders” and “Snowy Owl” are two of the best songs they’ve ever written; the rest is better than most songs other people wrote in the last 12 months. But, like the Julie Doiron record, I wonder: is this any different than the last three or four records that were ignored by Polaris juries? (Fairweather fans: go back and listen 2012’s The North, in particular; or check the best-of collection that came out in 2019.) I’m not complaining, but curious as to why this record, why now. Maybe, like me, other jurors suddenly became big fans of melancholy music about complicated relationships during the pandemic.


Tanya Tagaq – Tongues. The magic of Tagaq’s previous two albums—one of which won the Polaris, the other shortlisted—is that she managed to take the power and unpredictability of her stage show and somehow harness it in a studio with her band. She didn’t need lyrics because her music conveyed so much. This time out, she’s more direct, in part using text from her novel, Split Tooth. There is no logical reason for my opinion, but I’d rather hear her read that text than set it to music. (It's actually the only audiobook I've ever listened to.) I had high hopes for the collaborations here with Saul Williams and Gonjasufi, but I don’t think it improves on anything she’s done before. 


The Weeknd – Dawn FM. Finally, it’s the Weeknd album everyone can love! This is undeniably well-crafted pop music: songwriting, production, and of course the swoony vocals of Abel Tesfaye. It’s a big-tent pop record for a SuperBowl audience. So that means no more creepy, druggy misogyny, right? Do the pop songs still have to compete with nihilistic death wishes about crashing a car off a California cliff while doing coke and getting a blowjob in the driver’s seat? Well, the first song here, “Gasoline,” finds him high at 5 a.m. and squeezing his hands around his lover’s neck, fantasizing about OD’ing and then having her cremate him in his own bed. Fun for the whole family! And the incredibly catchy “Take My Breath Away” appears to be about erotic asphyxiation. The rest of the album mostly maintains his Cabbage Head Lothario character, even—especially—when he’s singing the sweetest melodies. I want to love the Weeknd, I really, really do. I love everything about this record—even the Jim Carrey bits work!—except the goddam lyrics. Does that make me a prude? Fine. (I blame Eminem for everything that’s gone wrong in pop music in the last 25 years.) When this gets peddled as innocuous and ubiquitous pop culture, I have some questions. Can’t take “Less Than Zero” away from me, though, which is low-self-esteem pop perfection.


Charlotte Day Wilson – Alpha. Hard to believe that this is Wilson’s first full-length after years of hype and three EPs. But it is, and, well, I managed to stay awake all the way through this one, even if it sounds like Daniel Caesar on downers.


The shortlist will be announced at 5 p.m. on Thursday, July 14. The winner will be announced at the gala (the first in-person gala in three years) on Sept. 19.




Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Moneyballing the 2022 Polaris Prize long list

Joyful Joyful

Nothing like a Polaris long list to break my hiatus.


Speaking of which: Hearts on Fire: Six Years That Changed Canadian Music 2000-05! It came out in April! Go buy it! Listen to the playlists! It's about, among other things, the artists that inspired the Polaris Music Prize to exist. I'll be speaking at the Bookshelf in Guelph on Tuesday June 28, in Uxbridge at the Springtide Festival on Friday July 22, and at the Hillside Festival on either July 23 or 24.  


You can find this year's Polaris long list here.


Every year I break down the long list of 40 albums up for the prize, and this year it goes a little something like this: 


Previous experience:


4 previous winners: Arcade Fire, Backxwash, Haviah Mighty, Tagaq


15.5 previous shortlisters (not including winners): BadBadNotGood (2xLL, 2xSL), Jean-Michel Blais (1xLL, 1xSL), Basia Bulat (2xLL, 2xSL), Destroyer (1xLL, 1xSL), Julie Doiron (1xSL, 1HP), Halluci Nation (1xLL, 2xSL), Pierre Kwenders (1xLL, 1xSL), Lisa LeBlanc (1xSL), Hubert Lenoir (1xSL), Les Louanges (1xSL), Ombiigizi (.5, Zoon)*, Pup (2xSL), Shad (4xSL), Snotty Nose Rez Kids (2xSL), Stars (1xSL, 1xLL), the Weeknd (1xSL, 4xLL)


6.5 previous longlisters, most appearing only once before: Charlotte Day Wilson (2x), Tanika Charles (2x), Lydia Képinski, Men I Trust, Orville Peck, P'tit Belliveau,  Ombiigizi (.5, Whoop-Szo)*


*Ombiigizi is a collaboration between Zoon and Status/Non-Status (FKA Whoop-Szo)






Toronto/GTA: 15 (includes many migrants from elsewhere)

Montreal: 13 (includes many migrants from elsewhere)

Vancouver: 2 (Destroyer, Snotty Nose Rez Kids)

Quebec City: 2 (Hubert Lenoir, Les Louanges; do they both live in MTL now?)

Non-GTA Ontario: 2 (Halluci Nation, Joyful Joyful)

New Brunswick: 1 (Julie Doiron)

Nova Scotia: 1 (P’tit Belliveau)

Newfoundland: 1 (Kelly McMichael, though she’s Ontarian)

Saskatchewan: 1 (the Garrys)

Alberta: 1 (Sister Ray)

Nomad: 1 (Orville Peck, born in South Africa, started career in Vancouver, band is Torontonian, now in L.A.)


Orville Peck's Bronco
The mysterious Orville Peck isn’t the only one with tricky geography. Tanya Tagaq is from Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, but has lived in many places and has been based in Toronto for many years. Arcade Fire are ostensibly still a Montreal band although the primary couple spends most of their time in New Orleans and the drummer is now in Australia. Backxwash grew up in Vancouver but began their career in Montreal. Lisa LeBlanc is an Acadian from New Brunswick now based in Montreal. Montreal’s Basia Bulat grew up in Toronto and started her career in London, ON. Stars is a Montreal band full of Torontonians and one of their singers now lives in Vancouver. Tanika Charles is a Toronto artist who grew up in Edmonton. Shad grew up in London, ON, began his career in Toronto and lived in Vancouver for many years. Ouri is a South American who grew up in France and is now based in Montreal. 


I don’t doubt there’s even more movement in the stories of other long-listers.



At the peril of misgendering anyone, it looks to me that there are 19/40 female-fronted or female solo acts; three others identify publicly as non-binary.


New Canada:

At the peril of… everything, I would guesstimate that 18/40 artists are racialized minorities; four of those are Indigenous.

Myst Milano's Shapeshifter


This gets trickier and tricker and more fluid every year. Half of these records I would hesitate to slot into any particular genre at all other than the "pop" umbrella, whatever that might mean.

Of the other half, I’d say there are:

5 records that could be identified as modern R&B in its many forms (Adria Kain, Charlotte Day Wilson, Tanika Charles, Pierre Kwenders)

4 rap records (Haviah Mighty, Shad, Myst Milano, SNRK)

2 that could be argued are experimental (Tagaq, Joyful Joyful)

2 records that are folkie adult contemporary (AHI, Cedric Noel)

1 that’s jazz-adjacent, angering the purists (BadBadNotGood)

1 that’s country-adjacent, angering the purists (Orville Peck)

1 that’s metal-adjacent, angering the purists (Backxwash)

And, surprisingly, 3 unabashed guitar rock records (of quite different stripes): Pup, Sate, Ombiigizi. 



There are three franco artists: Lydia Képinski (my fave), Hubert Lenoir, Les Louanges, and two franglais Acadians: Lisa LeBlanc and P'tit Belliveau. And Pierre Kwenders continues to do whatever he wants in whatever language he chooses. In other words, six non-anglophones in total.


Popularity contest:

Arcade Fire and the Weeknd are the only two names here that will come up in lay conversation. Maybe Orville Peck. Possibly Stars or Pup. But expect a lot of shrugging and the age-old response of “I’ve never heard of any of these people.” Which is exactly why you should listen.



The old-timers this time are Stars, Julie Doiron and Destroyer, children of the 1970s who are all on the other side of 50. Tanya Tagaq is only a couple of years behind them.


Stars have quite a long gap between Polaris appearances: the last time they were long-listed was 2011, for The Five Ghosts. But that doesn't beat Julie Doiron: the last time she appeared on a Polaris shortlist was 15 years ago, in 2007, at the second Polaris ever. You can call these a comeback!



Hall of Famers moving up the ranks:


I tabulate the Hall of Fame by according 3 points for a win, 2 for a shortlist and 1 for a longlist.


CAVEAT: Accuracy by no means guaranteed. I’m not getting paid for this!


Before this week, the champs were Caribou (3xSL, 1 win) and Cadence Weapon (2xSL, 2xLL, 1 win), with 9 points each.


Arcade Fire now joins them with 9 points: 1 win, 2 shortlists, and now their second long list. They also won the Heritage Prize for Funeral (not factored in here).


Shad is also now tied for first place with the above, despite never having won (4xSL, 1 LL). This year, if he shortlists or wins he’ll be on top.


(Second tier, with 8 points, has Drake, Owen Pallett and Dan Boeckner of Wolf Parade / Handsome Furs / Operators. No change there this year: Drake's Certified Lover Boy did not make this year's long list.)


Basia Bulat and the Weeknd move to the third tier of the Hall of Fame (7 points), alongside Feist, Joel Plaskett, New Pornographers and Patrick Watson.


The Weeknd now holds the quantitative record for most Polaris appearances: six. However, he's never won and has only been shortlisted once, for his debut, House of Balloons (which lost to Arcade Fire's The Suburbs).


BadBadNotGood and the Halluci Nation enter the fourth tier (6 points); both acts have shortlisted twice and long-listed twice before. They join US Girls, Metric, and Besnard Lakes.


Pup and Snotty Nose Rez Kids both enter the Hall of Fame with their third appearance on a Polaris list; both acts' previous two albums shortlisted (5 points). They join the Sadies, Daniel Romano and Tom Wilson (Lee Harvey Osmond, Blacke and the Rodeo Kings). 


My favourite album that didn’t long list:

Salomé Leclerc — Mille ouvrages mon coeur


Runners-up on my personal ballot:

Suzie Ungerleider — My Name Is

Geordie Gordon — The Tower

John Southworth — Rialto

Abigail Lappell — Stolen Time


Future predictions:

Of the four previous winners on this long list, I think only Haviah Mighty has a chance at shortlisting. But Backxwash has surprised me before.


Several previous shortlisters are likely to make it again; many have momentum with widely acclaimed new records, though I wouldn’t put money on any in particular. 


This could be a shortlist with many familiar names.


As for newbies, I expect Chiiild to do very well through this entire process.