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.
Final caveat: I’m a 48yo anglo white dad who lives in Toronto with all the obvious blind spots that entails, so take all this with as many grains of salt you feel are required.
Kacy & Clayton – Carrying On: This duo are second cousins from south Saskatchewan who have now made two records with producer Jeff Tweedy in Chicago, but you’d be forgiven if you thought this was a lost Laurel Canyon classic. Kacy Anderson takes most of the lead vocals, and, along with Jennifer Castle, she may well be the most compelling female voice in Canadian folk music since Frazey Ford showed up in the Be Good Tanyas. This duo’s take on countrified folk is lazy, hazy and fairly sparse. In other words, it’s perfect. Yet another act I wish I was seeing at a folk festival this summer. Bandcamp link here.
Kaytranada – Bubba: This album dropped in the dying days of December, after a lot of publications assembled their year-end lists, and so got somewhat lost in the shuffle. It was also an album that, though I loved Kaytranada’s Polaris-winning debut, I didn’t want to listen to in the dead of winter. This is summer music! Maybe it was big in Australia five months ago?! Giving it a proper listen now, in warmer climes, it’s a winning follow-up to 99.9%. The worst thing I can say about it is that it doesn’t expand on what the artist has already accomplished, and the guests are less inspiring this time around (especially, perhaps oddly, Pharrell Williams). But it’s head and shoulders above everyone in this genre not named Anderson.Paak. And the hotter it gets, the better it sounds.
Lightning Dust – Spectre: Josh Wells and Amber Webber left Black Mountain a few years ago; they’d been in that band since the beginning and even before, in its predecessor Jerk With a Bomb. Over the years they put out three duo albums as Lightning Dust; all were great, none of them got much traction. Now that this is their full-time project (when Wells isn’t drumming for Destroyer’s live band), they’ve returned with a whopper. Webber is still one of the most distinctive and compelling voices in Canada, her witchy tremolo perfectly suited to the minor-key psychedelic folk songs she writes with Wells, which sound like they came out between in the years between ’70s soft rock and the birth of new wave (“Run Away” sounds like Patti Smith covering Springsteen’s “The River” in 1981). Honestly, I could listen to Webber sing just about anything, but this is the strongest material she’s ever delivered, while drummer/producer/keyboardist Wells retains his rep as one of the MVPs on the West Coast. This side project now has their full attention, and it shows. Now it deserves yours. Bandcamp link here.
Lil Andy – All the Love Songs Lied To Us: "All the Love Songs Lied to Us"—the title sounds like something Stephen Merritt would have penned for 69 Love Songs. And that's the league Andy is aiming for here, albeit within a specific sonic space, and tied specifically to country music. Not an urban hipster ironic take on country music, either. Andy is a songwriter in love with the literary side of country music: the clichés that ring true, the wordplay, the storytelling. While the instrumentation doesn't stray from the traditional, the lyrics are resolutely set in the modern world. But about that instrumentation: he's got Montreal MVP Joe Grass at his side here. His guitar playing here is downright magical, like Nels Cline playing straight-up country. Andy's love of Leonard Cohen shows in the ornamental use of female backing vocals, notably on "The Lives of Others." But longtime collaborator Katie Moore—another Montreal MVP—also provides gorgeous, straight-up Emmylou-ish harmonies underneath Andy's rich baritone. This is a country record, but one that transcends genre. Most important, it's a songwriter's record, brilliantly illustrated by top-notch arrangements, sparse and gorgeous production, and lovely vocal performances all around. For years now, Lil Andy has been working somewhat quietly within the confines of a certain Montreal neighbourhood. This record deserves to be heard around the world. Bandcamp link here.
Little Scream – Speed Queen: This is richly produced, textural pop music that sounds like Fleetwood Mac made by art school students: soft rock with real bite, as oxymoronic as that may sound. Lyrically, she's a poetic force, at times Joni-esque, an acute observer with a razor-sharp pen: "I don't mind burning bridges to gated houses I don't want to live in." First single "Dear Leader" is an absolutely essential song for these times (by which I mean at least the last decade, not just the last month). There's some songwriting collaborations here from Mike Feuerstack (Snailhouse, Wooden Stars), Mike Dubue (Hilotrons), Pietro Amato (Bell Orchestre, Luyas) and Richard Reed Parry (Arcade Fire); all of them bring their top game here, resulting in what is easily Sprengelmeyer's best album so far. The songwriting, the production (Marcus Paquin: Arcade Fire, Stars, Begonia, Sarah Harmer, etc.), the arrangements, the playing and her inviting vocals are all top-notch. This one took some time to grow on me, and then it hit me hard. Real hard. Bandcamp link here.
Loving – If I Am Only My Thoughts: I don’t have a lot to say about this Victoria band’s second release except that I never liked Mac DeMarco but I love this and listening to it makes me feel too drunk and sun-baked to actually say anything intelligent. Tune in, turn on, drop out and all that. Bandcamp link here.
Jon Mckiel – Bobby Joe Hope: There’s a fascinating backstory to this record, involving an old reel-to-reel tape machine Mckiel purchased, which included tape with instrumental snippets recorded likely decades ago. The Sackville, N.B.-based Mckiel collaborated with Joyfultalk’s Jay Crocker in rural Nova Scotia to “collaborate” with this found material to create hazy folk songs for a psychedelic breakfast. In the lineage of Atlantic Canadian weirdness, this is very much an extension of Eric’s Trip, though obviously its own thing, creating modern magic with vintage tools in a dialogue with the past. Bandcamp link here.
Marleana Moore – Pay Attention, Be Amazed!: This is another of my favourite discoveries from fellow jurors. This Edmonton songwriter is bound to appeal to anyone raised on 90s indie rock or more recent purveyors like Angel Olsen or this album’s producer, Chad Van Gaalen. Moore has an inviting voice with a wide range, the songwriting is incredibly strong, and the players (including members of Calgary’s Preoccupations) provide perfect colour. I’m at an age where twentysomething indie rock usually either bores me to tears or drives me bananas; this record easily rises far above her peers (i.e. the Boygenius crowd). Extra points for the beautiful cover art and the entirely apt title. Bandcamp link here.
New Pornographers – In the Morse Code of the Brake Lights: It’s more than easy to take this band for granted: this is their eighth album, Dan Bejar is long gone, and 2017’s Whiteout Conditions was incredibly disappointing—even more so because it followed the late-career highlight Brill Bruisers in 2014. Morse Code finds the band back on track, playing to all their strengths: lush, inventive, intricate power-pop rock with plenty of left turns and massive harmonies. Just because they’re now celebrating their 20th year together doesn’t mean we should appreciate them any less; this album, like Brill Bruisers, guarantees they won’t remain a nostalgia act.
Obuxum – Re-Birth: “Take up SPACE!!” is the title of one track here; the emphasis is hers, not mine. It’s a reference to the fact that this young beatmaker from Toronto’s Rexdale neighbourhood doesn’t see a lot of support for people like her: i.e. a Somali-Canadian woman making electronic music. She travels interstellar paths similar to those of fellow Habesha-Canadian Witch Prophet or L.A.’s Flying Lotus: dreamy, discombobulated, rich with texture. She got some spotlight when she produced “In Women Colour” for Haviah Mighty’s Polaris-winning album last year, but she’s not the type to normally work with MCs. She’s much better off left untethered in her travels, where she can take up as much space as she needs. Bandcamp link here.