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.
Day One (of four):
Allie X – Cape God: This is a really smart, well-arranged pop record, in the realm of a more operatic Maggie Rogers. It pushes all the buttons for me that Carly Rae Jepsen should but never does. Allie X is a pop star without a radio audience of her own; she writes for BTS, Katy Perry’s a fan, and she’s been slogging it out for a while, to the point where she has more than a million streams (which is more than some Canadian acts who fill arenas). But this album is where Allie X’s classical training and craftsmanship really come to the fore. Ideally, she’d be a household name by now; in the days of Kate Bush, maybe she would have been.
Begonia – Fear: If you’ve ever seen this woman live, you know she’s a superstar. Her debut record catches most, though not all, the charisma she exudes on stage. Her voice is enormous, a powerful instrument that threatens to overshadow everything underneath it. But the production—by a team that includes her longtime collaborators in Royal Canoe—holds its own and provides some interesting twists to the modern pop/R&B universe. Bandcamp link here.
Geoff Berner – The Grand Hotel Cosmopolis: One of the greatest songwriters in Canada is a radical eco-socialist who plays accordion, sings increasingly in Yiddish, and gathers some of the finest modern klezmer players around him. So: not primarily Polaris bait, unfortunately. This timely record is largely about the plight of the displaced, though also features a scathing take on survivalists and a song that Berner had hoped to one day play at Bernie Sanders rallies: “Why Don’t We Take All the Billionaires’ Money Away?” If that’s not the song of the year, I don’t know what is. Bandcamp link here.
Bon Enfant – s/t: This is the single biggest surprise for me this Polaris season. This psych-pop band is the Quebecois equivalent of Japan’s Kikagayu Moyo or Holland’s Altin Gun, meaning they’re a peculiar regional blend of local influences with groove-heavy psychedelia. Their debut album sounds like Black Mountain joining Plants and Animals to cover the Hair soundtrack, with a McGarrigle singing en francais. This record came out in the fall of 2019, which is too bad because it is so obviously the sound of springtime and we should all be dancing in Parc Lafontaine to this. We’re not, for so many reasons, which makes this an escapist listening experience more than anything right now. I’m feeling nostalgic for joy these days, and this record helps a helluva lot. Bandcamp link here.
Boniface – s/t: Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs is 10 years old this year. Micah Visser was 13 when it came out, and one suspects it made a deep impression. Visser, who had a few years performing under his own name before rebranding himself after his Winnipeg neighbourhood and releasing the debut Boniface album on Valentine’s Day this year. He shares with Win Butler a bittersweet melancholy for a suburban youth with ’80s alternative anthems—though in Visser’s case, probably some Robyn, Killers, and Tegan and Sara in the next-gen mix. (Don’t doubt that the ’80s are present, however—check out the album cover and font). The production is big enough to vault him on to Euro festival stages, but it’s the songwriting that really shines here, and the moments (“I Will Not Return as a Tourist”) where he sounds like he’s writing a shiny pop version of “Born to Run” for a 2020 Pride celebration. Bandcamp link here.
Bruce Peninsula – No Earthly Sound: One of my greatest musical regrets of this time is that I won’t be able to witness this band and its vital chorus of voices live any time soon. This Toronto group has been away for most of the last decade; I didn’t expect them to return. They’re a record nerds’ dream, with grooves that borrow from Afrobeat and jazzy Chicago post-rock underneath what sound like modern choral field hollers. Neil Haverty and Misha Bower trade lead vocals, but it’s the chorus behind them—a choir that once included many of Toronto’s best singers, including Snowblink, Austra and the Weather Station—that really elevates the material. The rhythm section also kicks much ass. This is a much slicker production than heard on their first two records, which suits them surprisingly well, while the raw energy still shines through. Welcome back, beautiful people. Hope to see you on a stage again some day. Bandcamp link here.
Caribou – Suddenly: Dan Snaith continues to not only improve, but to remain unique in his field. I’m hard pressed to think of another electronic artist with this breadth of material in one album, from beat-less ballads to R&B pop songs to psychedelic jazz loops to early 90s house. Less rigid than his last record, this is Snaith’s most soulful and encompassing records of his long career. Suddenly is like his own greatest hits collection. He’s one of five previous winners (Lido Pimienta, Kaytranada, Patrick Watson, Owen Pallett) with new records in this year’s eligibility period; I would not be surprised if he became the first repeat winner in Polaris history. Bandcamp link here.
Leonard Cohen – Thanks for the Dance: “Who’s moving on? Who’s kidding who?” Posthumous records deserve the bad rep they have, but this is a phenomenal exception. Son Adam Cohen proved his production mettle on You Want It Darker, and here he fleshes out his father’s final recordings, which the artist had every intention of finishing before his passing. Adam invites more guests (Daniel Lanois, Feist, Patrick Watson) and fewer chintzy synths than Cohen Sr. would ever allow. None of it sounds like something the artist wouldn’t ultimately have approved; it doesn’t tread on his well-worn template. It’s hard to top You Want It Darker, and this doesn’t—but this unexpected encore is a career coda that’s not only fitting, but entirely satisfying.
Jean-Louis Cormier – Quand la nuit tombe: Cormier won a Polaris 10 years ago with his band Karkwa, which was greeted by a collective “meh” from English Canada. But he’s making much, much more interesting music now. Recorded in L.A., Berlin and Ethiopia, Cormier ditches his guitar for keys and synths, creating a fascinating melange that draws from ’60s film soundtracks, post-Radiohead rock, Gorillaz-style global pop and more, with an unusually good drummer at the core. There are lots of twists and turns on this record, and most of them work wonderfully (the brief rap interlude, not so much). Between this and Julien Sagot’s wonderfully weird records, Karkwa’s solo projects sound better to me than the original band. Bandcamp link here.
Corridor – Junior. The third album by the first franco Quebecois band signed to Sub Pop, Junior is a rollicking, rockin’ good time of a post-punk new wave record that pulls from the Jam, early R.E.M., the fuzzier side of Sloan, and the hazier side of the Stone Roses. The rhythm section is consistently propulsive, the boy harmonies are exquisite, and the guitars pop, ring and jangle and all those other ridiculous adjectives that I no longer know how to use and probably never did. Have Corridor toured with Alvvays yet? That would be dreamy. This is yet another franco record that the anglo indie kids should be snapping up. Bandcamp link here.