Recap: I cast my ballot for the Polaris Prize this week. Jurors only get five slots. Almost 200 albums were suggested by fellow jury members. A long list of 40 will be published next week. As always, there’s no shortage of excellent Canadian music. But this year there’s no one album—or even three—that I feel so obviously tower above the rest. Which makes the winnowing even more difficult.
I’m not going to tell you what’s on my ballot, but these are the 40 records I considered (10 in each post). Most of these have been discussed by the Polaris jury at some point, but this is a very personal list that no one should read into deeply. Many of these will likely not make the long list, and many not mentioned here most definitely will.
Owen Pallett – Island: This long-delayed album came out two weeks before the Polaris deadline, and yet I wouldn’t at all be surprised to see it become one of the most-discussed albums this year. And not just because the first single (with its excellent accompanying video) contains this lyric: "Do not be scared / Surely some disaster will descend and equalize us / a crisis / Will unify the godless and the fearless and the righteous.” Though as lushly orchestrated as much of his work, these songs are centred around acoustic guitar, marking a new(ish) direction for Pallett: very little evidence of his violin-virtuoso past, few of the electronics that shaped 2014’s In Conflict, the orchestration never draws attention to itself, the music rich with subtleties and no concessions at all to pop audiences (usually Pallett would throw a bone or two). This sounds like Pallett’s most musically personal album; it also features the loveliest vocals he’s ever put to tape. For day-one fans, it’s as much a mature, one-man version of Les Mouches as it is a Final Fantasy record. Bandcamp link here.
Pantayo – s/t: Now here’s something you haven’t heard before: a group of Filipinas integrating traditional percussion (kulintang) with R&B and pop that lies somewhere between ESG, Massive Attack and Solange. Yes, the novelty is part of the appeal, and that will help this land on the long list and go possibly much further this Polaris season. But, like Tagaq or Jeremy Dutcher’s work, this is far from mere novelty: it’s an incredibly strong record: the grooves, the vocals, the songs, the sonic textures, the production by Alaska B (Yamantaka // Sonic Titan). Pantayo didn’t start out like this; when I saw them perform at a Long Winter event several years ago, it was definitely more on the traditional side. Now, “V V V (They Lie)” and “Desire” are total radio summer jams, uptempo and down, respectively. There’s even, it seems, some ’80s new wave in the mix here, but that could just the Scarborough boy in me being brought back to a time when I would have first heard traditional Filipino music at high school talent shows 30 years ago and now I’m weirdly conflating a bunch of my own memories in what is apparently a record review. Anyway, this is going to be the record that will make the list and have industry veterans wondering, “Where the hell did this come from?” Bandcamp link here.
Lido Pimienta – Miss Colombia: Is it okay to say now that I didn’t like Pimienta’s 2017 Polaris winner La Papessa? That was a milestone win for many reasons (first allophone winner, entirely indie release), but I still heard a nascent artist who had yet to fully bloom. The conversation around the win—and the way Pimienta dealt with an onslaught of hateful criticism—was more worthy than the album itself, in this random white guy’s opinion, FWIW (not much). The Toronto artist took a lot of time and care following it up, and now we can talk about the music again. Everything has stepped up, starting with Pimienta’s own vocals: they’re stronger, express more dynamics and inflection, and generally more emotionally resonant. That’s true of the electronics as well; she’s said part of her challenge here was to make the technology sound beautiful, and she succeeded. The brass arrangements throughout are also a nice touch. Prince Nifty, a.k.a. Owen Pallett collaborator Matt Smith, co-produces here (check out his lovely new solo release), and guests include Colombian palenque group Sexteto Tabala (the collab here will sound familiar to any fans of Caribbean-Colombian legend Toto La Momposina) and South American superstar Li Saumet of electro-cumbia-pop band Bomba Estereo. One could argue that Pimienta won the Polaris prematurely, but if she hadn’t, then this superior record would likely not be getting an international release; its ambition might not even have been possible. Bandcamp link here.
Slow Leaves – Shelf Life: It’s not like critics are stumbling over themselves in a hunt for the new Lightfoot in 2020. But hey, FWIW, Slow Leaves is likely the new Lightfoot, or at least the most worthy contender since Doug Paisley dropped the 2011 classic Constant Companion. Davidson sings with a gentle lilt and affecting tremolo, his breezy folk rock designed to be played on crackly vinyl or around a campfire. Davidson sounds like a middle-aged dad, which he is, and this is an ideal midlife rainy day record when accompanied by coffee and/or scotch. It’s not new or dark or sexy; it’s just life. Hard to make that sound exciting in a record review. But hey, if the likes of Leif Vollebekk can crack the shortlist, surely Slow Leaves can. Bandcamp link here.
Rae Spoon – Mental Health: This artist has had quite a rollercoaster two years: they continue to run the best truly indie label in Canada (Coax Records) and they released two of the best albums of their career (including this one). But shortly after cancelling a tour due to the pandemic the non-binary artist announced they were diagnosed with cancer before even turning 40. Rae Spoon’s music has always been about resilience, which means in 2020 an album like Mental Health strikes particularly potent chords. As a former folk country artist who now makes what could be called electro-tinged indie rock, Spoon is first and foremost a classic pop songwriter: their songs are full of earworms, no matter the arrangements underneath. Lyrically, this record taps into the anxiety age with precision, which makes it essential listening. Bandcamp link here.
Storry – CH III: The Come Up: The back story behind this record is fascinating, terrifying, tragic, and a whole other tale unto itself (read Nick Krewen’s profile here). But the short on Storry is that this debut album (don’t let the CH III title fool you) is about her past life as a sex worker after an opera career went astray. She turns her classically trained voice to gutsy and jazzy R&B with some ace players behind her. The slick veneer might be suited to upscale jazz clubs, but the narratives pull no punches. Even if there wasn’t a back-Storry here (sorry), the woman’s voice is enough of a draw on its own. Ain’t no AutoTune here, she belongs on a stage. Won’t even need a microphone.
US Girls – Heavy Light: It’s weird to think of Meg Remy as a Polaris veteran, but this is likely to be her third appearance on a shortlist and another likely winner—I thought she’d take it for 2018’s In a Poem Unlimited, my favourite record that year. Heavy Light picks up where that record left off, and, inspired by her 2018 Polaris performance, features a strong vocal presence from backing singers including arranger Kritty Uranowksi, James Baley (remember that name), and Basia Bulat. E Street saxophonist Jake Clemons also shows up, as do members of Arcade Fire and Ice Cream. The album was recorded largely live in Montreal by Howard Bilerman, and the electric energy is evident. Hard to go wrong with that many all-stars on board, and Remy rises to every challenge: she’s one of the most astute and fascinating lyricists working today, set to beautiful melodies steeped in the history of pop music. Part of this album’s success is due to Remy’s generous and collaborative spirit: she’s not precious about empowering her collaborators, working with co-writers (including Bulat), or even revisiting earlier material from her lo-fi solo days (“Overtime” and “Red Ford Radio” are highlights here). Everything about this exudes empathy and community, which is exactly what we need right now.
Whoop-Szo – Warrior Down: I’m a lightweight when it comes to heavy music, which makes Whoop-Szo all the more surprising. This is stoner sludgy grunge that packs a wallop, even more so when Adam Sturgeon sings about his family’s experience in residential schools or a cousin being shot by cops in Saskatchewan (The chorus “Warrior down in a Saskatchewan town” says so much with six words, a Neil Young-esque simplicity all political songwriters should study). But this isn’t just a Sabbathian sonic anvil; this band started out as a considerably more experimental project, and there are more delicate moments here and prog diversions and deliciously dirty synth interludes and piano instrumentals. I don’t know who London, Ontario engineer Kyle Ashbourne is, but he’s heavy as fuck when he wants to be, with a Blurtonian touch that serves this material extremely well. Watch out for Whoop-Szo: at least one more record like this and they could turn into the most important rock band in Canada. Bandcamp link here.
Witch Prophet – DNA Activation: I certainly didn’t hear any other Canadian record like this in the last year: Habesha hip-hop beats with an Afrofuturist bent and jazzy saxophone (Karen Ng) throughout. Fans of Erykah Badu’s work with Georgia Anne Muldrow will find a lot to love here. This is hypnotic, healing music for humid days, during days when these lyrics strike deep: “Where do we go from here / When the whole world is falling / Through darkness / And we cannot see the light.” The woman known as Witch Prophet brings that light. Bandcamp link here.
Wolf Parade – Thin Mind: All great bands who feel like they’re hitting a wall should take a seven-year break. It did wonders for Wolf Parade. Both 2017’s Cry Cry Cry and now Thin Mind take everything that was ever intriguing about this group of musicians—as players and songwriters—and amplify all their strengths. Rare is the rock band that actually gets better with age, but this new chapter of Wolf Parade is the prime of their career, and Pacific Northwest star producer John Goodmanson captures it perfectly. Other than the obvious strengths of frontmen Dan Boeckner and Spencer Krug, the MVP here is drummer Arlen Thompson, who gives the material a real swing and swagger. Fuck nostalgia, forge the future. Bandcamp link here.
I’ll feel extremely lucky if even half of those 40 records make the longlist.
These next ones are not my bag, but here are 15 artists whose albums are likely to be longlisted, so give them a listen if you haven't already:
Men I Trust
Super Duty Tough Work
The official long list will be announced on Monday June 15.
Jurors will then have a chance to submit their shortlist ballot; the shortlist will be announced July 15, and the winner on Sept. 21.
Happy listening! Buy the music you love!