Sunday, June 16, 2013

Polaris Prize 2013 long list

Hilotrons: This fantastic, overlooked album is
far better than its cover image suggests

The Polaris Prize long list was announced last Thursday: right in the middle of a busy Toronto week, including NXNE, Luminato, and a massive police raid peripherally connected to our current mayoral travails. So forgive me if I'm late getting this up. 

The full long list of 40 albums is here

Generally speaking, I'm quite happy with the list: almost all the albums I was considering voting for made it on, with a few heartbreaking exceptions. It was a tough year: there were very few albums that stood far and above the pack for me. Instead, there were many completely solid, interesting, challenging and just generally excellent albums released in Canada in the last 12 months. Every year I think I'm about to get jaded, I'm blown away yet again by the staggering amount of great work.

As always, I'm curious how the list breaks down by geography and genre. I'll admit right now that my geographical assessment is contentious: where an artists was born or started their career vs. where they're based now, for example. Either way, once again--as always on Polaris lists--Montreal is the musical capital of Canada.


Nominees living outside Canada: 4 (Daphni, Danny Michel, AC Newman, Zaki Ibrahim) CORRECTION: 3, as Michel doesn't live in Belize, as I'd thought, though he does spend a lot of time there

Montreal (including some franco artists I don't know that I can only assume live there): 13

Toronto: 8

Vancouver: 3 (including AC Newman, who is now in Woodstock, N.Y.)

Hamilton: 3 (including Daphni, from nearby Dundas and now in UK)

Edmonton: 2 (including Purity Ring, who are now in Montreal)

Halifax: 2

Ottawa: 1

Quebec outside Montreal: 2 (Alaclair Ensemble, Peter Peter)

St. Catharines, Ont.: 1 (Daniel Romano, now in Toronto)

Nanaimo, B.C.: 1 (Zaki Ibrahim, via Toronto and now South Africa)

Winnipeg: 1

Waterloo, Ont.: 1 (Danny Michel, now in Belize)

Regina: 1

Calgary: 1 (Tegan and Sara, now in Vancouver and Montreal)


Roots: 7 (Evening Hymns, Lindi Ortega, Al Tuck, Old Man Luedecke, Les souers Boulay, Lee Harvey Osmond, Corb Lund)

Hip-hop/dance/R&B: 5 (A Tribe Called Red, Rhye, Zaki Ibrahim, Daphni, Alaclair Ensemble)

Francophone: 4

Aggressive: 3 (Anciients, KEN Mode, Metz)

Experimental: 3 (Godspeed, Kid Koala, Colin Stetson)

Mainstream radio: 2 (Tegan and Sara, Metric)

World: 2 (Kobo Town, Danny Michel)

Five most surprising things about this list:

Alaclair Ensemble – Les maigres blancs d'Amérique du Noir. This fun franco hip-hop act perhaps shouldn’t have surprised me, seeing how the somewhat similar Radio Radio snuck into the shortlist several years ago. I can’t speak to the lyrics, but the flow is fantastic and the production is stellar.

Zaki Ibrahim – Every Opposite. This totally slipped under the radar when it came out in 2012; partially because she now lives in South Africa and the record had zero promo here. I don’t recall reading a single Canadian interview with her. But some passionate jurors who loved this record (of which I was one) rallied the troops and drummed up considerable interest in an album in danger of being completely overlooked.

Kobo Town – Jumbie in the Jukebox. This fantastic modern calypso album—and how many of those have ever been within spitting distance of Polaris?—got a lot of last-minute buzz after its release earlier this month. The production and performances are one thing, but it’s the songs of Drew Gonsalves that really transcend genre and could catapult them right onto the shortlist.

OMISSION: Two Hours Traffic - Foolish Blood. These PEI power-poppers shortlisted with their debut many moons ago, but they're the rare pop band who keeps getting better, and this is on par with powerhouses like Spoon and the New Pornographers, with fantastic production by Darryl Neudorf. Sorry to see jurors take them for granted.

OMISSION: Stars: Former shortlisters for In the Bedroom After the War released their best album since then… to crickets. I thought it was a very strong record, and I say that as someone who has never particularly liked this band.

Five things I’d like to have seen on the list:

Hilotrons – At Least There’s Commotion: An impeccable, whip-tight new wave rock record with stunning ballads and electro detours. This, to me, is one of the biggest oversights of Polaris 2013.

Snowblink – Inner Classics: This record’s subtle charms perhaps made it too easy to overlook; or maybe it was too Feist-y after that artist’s win last year. But this is a stunning record that you need to hear. Its long-list exclusion, that if nothing else, should silence people who think Arts and Crafts is a promotional behemoth capable of pushing product onto sheep-like critics. In this case, one can only wish.

Veda Hille – Peter Panties: A cast recording of a musical based on Peter Pan and co-written by a playwright with Down syndrome is admittedly a difficult sell. But it’s an amazing—and concise—rock opera album, and deserves to be heard.

Blue Hawaii - Untogether: Superior to associated band Braids, just as equally challenging and beautiful as their friend Grimes, and the rare abstract electronic record with heavy bass.

The Magic – Ragged Gold: This amazing band needs a break, badly. Ragged Gold was one of the most underrated albums of 2012, its take on Hall and Oates-era soul surprisingly convincing and compelling. Plus, you get to hear Evening Hymns supporting player Sylvie Smith really shine on supporting vocals.

Five things I’d like to see off the list:

There are albums on the list I’m indifferent to but recognize their appeal for fans of that genre and/or the artist themselves. These, however…

The Besnard Lakes – Until In Excess, Imperceptible UFO. Even most fans of this band seemed to be disappointed with this record, which is why its presence here is somewhat shocking (despite the fact their last two albums were shortlisted). Imperceptible, indeed.

Mac DeMarco – 2. What a nice, quirky little indie rock record. What’s it doing here?

Hayden – Us Alone. Are we still 20?

Kid Koala – 12-bit Blues. I’ll never deny this man’s creativity, but too often it doesn’t translate into a full-length recording, and these blues jams in particular just sound gimmicky.

Purity Ring – Shrines. Fey, sexless, shoegazy electro-pop that’s way overhyped; I’d love to have seen Blue Hawaii take its place.

Six curious omissions:

Carly Rae Jepsen: She’s the Canadian pop success story of the last year, which of course made her a Juno suction machine and Polaris repellent. She did have some champions in the jury, however, and the album is far better than one would expect: far better bubblegum than Bieber, for starters. But I think the Owl City collab single-handedly sunk any chance she had.

K’naan: The former shortlister dissed his own follow-up, and nobody else seemed to like it much better. It’s not that bad, and has some great tracks—but it’s not very good, either.

Serena Ryder: This young veteran overcame years of “most promising” status to score one of the year’s biggest mainstream pop singles and had a solid album to back it up. She’s a solid artist who deserves everything she attained in the last year, but she doesn’t make the kind of records Polaris jurors put on in their spare time.

Dirty Beaches: His debut album came out of nowhere and landed on the long list two years ago, despite the fact it was incredibly lo-fi, somewhat incomprehensible and owed its biggest debt to CBGB underdogs Suicide. His 2013 follow-up is much more accomplished: still murky and mysterious, but far more intriguing and beautiful (while still occasionally terrifying) and even with some discernible beats. It’s had glowing reviews here and abroad, but probably was released too close to the voting deadline, and it’s a record that grows on you.

Bob Wiseman - Giulietta Masina At the Oscars Crying: I wouldn’t have expected Wiseman to get on the list, as his work is easily dismissed as too difficult or political or adventurous or inconsistent or—well, whatever. Fact is, the man is still fascinating, and his latest is his strongest work in, oh, I don’t know, 15 years—certainly it’s his most extroverted and social, employing many of his talented friends.

And ladies and gentlemen, I predict this will be the shortlist announced on July 16:

A Tribe Called Red
Jim Guthrie
Zaki Ibrahim
Daniel Romano
Colin Stetson
Tegan and Sara

The Polaris gala takes place Sept. 23 at the Carlu in Toronto.

Last year I was on the grand jury that picked the winner.