Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Polaris, preliminary

Critics across the country are busy assembling their ballots for the second Polaris Prize, which are due this Friday, June 22. The shortlist will be announced on July 10; the award will be given out on September 24, chosen by a jury of 10 that same night.

Last year, you may recall, Final Fantasy scored a so-called “upset” win over Broken Social Scene, Metric, New Pornographers, Wolf Parade, Sarah Harmer, and fellow underdogs Deadly Snakes, Malajube, Cadence Weapon and K’naan.

In preparing my own ballot this year, I easily came up with a shortlist of 20. I was somewhat surprised by the number of roots-related releases on my ballot; while Canada has always excelled in this genre, my own love for this music has waned in recent years—which means that the artists I love in this genre all surprised me with either the depth of their songwriting or slight twists on anticipated arrangements.

Sadly, I’m not surprised by the lack of hip-hop and electronic music on my own ballot. Much more often than not, my own love for those artists doesn’t extend to an entire album—and the whole point of Polaris is to reward the complete album as a listening experience: not scene politics, not the live show, not commercial status.

I do fear, however, that many critics in the pool will feel the same way, and that this year’s final list will be entirely devoid of anything outside the loose parameters of pop and rock. There are myriad reasons for this, among them the fact that this is what dominates the musical taste of editors and writers in this country (I can count on one hand the number of Canadian writers I trust to write about hip-hop), and by extension the publicity machines. The only Canadian hip-hop most critics hear is the stuff that shows up in their mailbox unsolicited, and I’m as guilty as anyone else.

IMPORTANT UPDATE: I have no idea why I hadn't found this excellent Canadian hip-hop site before, but it looks like a great read.

Without a major label hip-hop contender other than K-OS (whose reviews were decidedly mixed on his last album) and Brassmunk (again, mixed reviews), will we see No Luck Club, Omnikrom, Ghettosocks, Politiclive, Birdapres, Marco Polo or Isis in the final Polaris Top 10? Highly unlikely. None of them, except maybe No Luck Club, physically got to as many Canadian critics as Cadence Weapon did last year. I’d argue that credit for his Polaris nod last year was due as much to Upper Class Recording’s mailing list as the album itself.

I’d be equally shocked if a single electronic release squeaks in there. Ditto for anything that could be termed world music, jazz, or roots music that doesn’t have a foot in the indie rock world. I think we should all be paying more attention to David Dacks.

Again, however, I live in a glass house, as my shortlist of 20 will demonstrate.

Unlike Mr. Zoilus and Mr. Chromewaves, I don’t feel like announcing my final choices, but here’s the list I was working with. Five of these made my ballot. Some were disqualified for reasons of length (albums must be either eight tracks or over half an hour), citizenship, or previously released material.

Acorn – Tin Fist EP (Paper Bag). Review here.

Apostle of Hustle – National Anthem of Nowhere (Arts and Crafts). Reviewed here and here.

Arcade Fire – Neon Bible (Merge). Reviewed here. Transcripts here, here and here.

Awkward Stage – Heaven Is For Easy Girls (Mint). Article here. Full interview here.

Blood Meridian – Kick Up the Dust (Outside). Review here. Article here. Full interview here.

Mark Davis – Don’t You Think We Should Be Closer? (Saved By Radio). Reviewed here.

Angela Desveaux – Wandering Eyes (Thrill Jockey). Review here. Article here.

Julie Doiron – Woke Myself Up (Endearing). Interview here.

Feuermusik – Goodbye, Lucille (independent). Will saxophone and buckets be this year’s looped violin? A very dark horse that just might rally enough support from Toronto critics to squeak on the list.

Great Lake Swimmers – Ongiara (Nettwerk). Interview here.

Hylozoists – La Fin du Monde (Boompa).

Greg Keelor – Aphrodite Rose (Warner). Review here. (scroll way down)

Miracle Fortress – Five Roses (Secret City). A very late entry, but entirely captivating, dreamy pop that sounds like Caribou with better melodic smarts. Review forthcoming.

Phonemes – There’s Something We’ve Been Meaning To Do (Blocks Recording Club). Years in the works and well worth the wait. Though because it snuck out last month with zero promotional muscle, very few critics even know it exists.

Secret Mommy – Plays (Ache). Not sure it’s his best work, but Andy Dixon is certainly this country’s most playful electronic innovator.

Amon Tobin – Foley Room (Ninja Tune). Review here. Article here. Full interview here.

Various – Friends in Bellwoods (Out of This Spark). Interview here.

Various – Jamaica to Toronto (Light in the Attic). Gushing review of live show here.

Rufus Wainwright – Release the Stars (Geffen). Interview in the new issue of Magnet.

You Say Party! We Say Die! – Lose All Time (Paper Bag). Review here. (scroll way down)

I’m going to go out on a limb and predict what the shortlist will be. Votes have yet to be even counted, so to be absolutely clear, this is entirely conjecture on my part, based on big hunches about what will be a middle-of-the-road critical consensus.

Apostle of Hustle – National Anthem of Nowhere (Arts and Crafts)
Arcade Fire – Neon Bible (Merge)
Jim Bryson – Where the Bungalows Roam (Kelp)
Julie Doiron – Woke Myself Up (Endearing)
Feist – The Reminder (Arts and Crafts)
Great Lake Swimmers – Ongiara (Nettwerk)
Junior Boys – So This Is Goodbye (Domino)
Joel Plaskett – Ashtray Rock (Maple)
Shout Out Out Out – Not Saying Just Saying (Normals Welcome)
Sloan – Never Hear the End of It (Murder)

Trainspotters, take note: this would mean four from Toronto, two from other Ontario cities (Ottawa and Hamilton), three with strong ties to the East Coast (as opposed to none last year), none from Vancouver, one from Edmonton, two female solo artists, two pop acts that use mostly electronics but are still decidedly rockist, two albums that debuted in the top three of Soundscan, two acts signed directly to international deals. No hip-hop or francophones this year.

But I look forward to being pleasantly surprised on July 10.

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