The Polaris Short List

Finding great new music has been a hobby for most of my adult life, almost in excess of listening to music. Once I have found an album with the je ne sais quoi required for repeated listenings, I usually seek out everything else available by that artist, but after that the thrill of the hunt is gone, and the act of listening returns to its usual background status. I rock out to tunes whilst in the shower, and I play certain types of music when writing, but apart from that it’s the having, not the hearing, that I relish.

S. misses her CD collection, most of which have been converted to .mp3s, a format that might as well be buried in a time capsule as far as she’s concerned. I, too, tend to forget what I have stored on iTunes, as these days I use Spotify, usually dialing up the same few acts I’ve dug for decades: R.E.M., Paul Simon, Nine Inch Nails, The Beatles, or They Might Be Giants, depending on my mood. Then I start to feel guilty and rut-stuck for listening to the same stuff ad nauseam, so I launch a new crusade to find another New Sound. Once a year or so, this quest pays off, and I’ve been able to add a few acts to my permanent rotation list: Feist, Dan Mangan, Owen Pallett aka Final Fantasy, Grimes, Moonface.

You’d have to be a music maven to recognize that all those new entries are Canadian artists. And you’d have to be a Can-Con connoisseur to know that most of them featured as finalists for, or winners of, the Polaris Music Prize. That’s how I get many of my new tunes; for one whose tastes are as eclectic as mine, it’s a fabulous way to sample a broad range of excellent cross-genre albums whilst feeling patriotic at the same time. And, the way the competition is set up, it’s almost its own entertainment – one short step away from an elimination-style reality TV show, except everyone involved has actual talent.

The Polaris Prize award began in 2006 with a $20,000 cash prize going to the Canadian artist whose full-length album demonstrates the most artistic merit, regardless of genre or popularity. The value of the prize has increased to $50K, with runner-up prizes going to other acts on the Short List. But one month before the jury announces their Short List of 10 albums, they drop a Long List of 40 albums. I tune in every June to see if there are any acts I recognize, and then to start seeking out unfamiliar artists (mostly on Spotify). And then the betting begins.

I don’t actually bet, partly because I don’t have any friends who are music-geeky enough to compete with me. But I lay some private odds down anyway, as in: “Ooh, The Weeknd, very hot right now. Probably too flashy for the Short List. Hmm, The Sadies, Northern Passages, with a picture of aurora borealis on the cover. Country-tinged psych-folk, a real throwback. A dark horse…”

In July, before I’ve had a chance to listen through all 40 Long List albums, the Short List drops. Then I have till mid-September, when the winning album is announced at a gala. That’s plenty of time to find my favourites, although they don’t always match my expectations – now that they’ve been doing it for more than 10 years, the jury’s predilections are emerging. But I don’t even care that much who wins; just as finding new music is, for me, about the hunt, so too is the Polaris Prize more journey than destination.

Here, are my brief takes the 2017 Short List contenders, along with odds, in case you decide you want to get a racket going after all. Along with each of the albums on this page, you’ll find a host of links to help you listen. Disclaimer: I have no idea how odds and betting actually work.

A Tribe Called Red, We Are the Halluci Nation: Young First Nations artists from Ottawa blend hip hop and dubstep/dance with traditional chanting and drumming to create a new genre: powwow-step. In 2014, their sophomore LP, Nation II Nation, won Breakthrough Album of the Year at the Junos. Halluci Nation is heavy-hitting rap with a political bent, but two out of three most recent Polaris winners were Aboriginal artists with agendas – plus there are other, similar contenders on the current list. Scott’s Odds: 9/1

BADBADNOTGOOD, IV: A tight trio of jazz-trained Torontonians, BADBADNOTGOOD acquired fame for their jazzy covers of hip hop classics. Lots of guest artists and wild experimentation on this album make it one of my favourites, but loungey grooves and a muscular baritone sax may not be enough to woo the jury. Scott’s Odds: 40/1

Feist, Pleasure: Stephen Colbert called Leslie Feist an “indie darling.” She is certainly a Polaris darling, with numerous nominations and even a win, for 2012’s Metals. Her crooning soprano and low-key electro-folk vibe are on full display in Pleasure, along with several gestures towards experimentation; but I think this year, the “Pleasure” is just having been nominated. Scott’s Odds: 80/1

Gord Downie, Secret Path: Tricky one, this. Downie is a living legend, thanks to his work with the Tragically Hip. He’s also a dying man, which makes him award-bait. His solo work is uneven, but Secret Path is a genuinely affecting album, framed thematically by Downie’s commitment to justice for Canada’s First Nations peoples, but also striated with foreboding at his own mortality. If it gets shut out from the win, it will only be because Downie is a white guy flanked by Aboriginal artists. Scott’s Odds: 5/1

Leif Vollebekk, Twin Solitude: Sombre folk-rock with a generous portion of Neil Young in its DNA, Vollebekk’s music conjures a strong sense of place, but the mood and style are too uniform for Twin Solitude to raise itself above the pack. Besides, just Leif’s luck that the next contestant very nearly invented sombre folk-rock… Scott’s Odds: 90/1

Leonard Cohen, You Want It Darker: Montreal’s monk-saint of cigarette-smoke and sensual suffering passed away in 2016, 19 days after You Want It Darker dropped. Like David Bowie’s Blackstar, it’s impossible to dissociate the music from its swan-song connotations – but even if Field Commander Cohen hadn’t gone into the speakeasy in the sky, this would still be a powerful album of stark arrangements and lyrics meditating wryly on God, death, and the last dance. Scott’s Odds: 3/1

Lido Pimienta, La Papessa: Grimes-style dream-pop, edgy yet highly danceable; lyrics excoriating the patriarchy and the global water crisis; a powerful vocal range that dips on occasion from ingenuous to intimidating; and oh yes, it’s all in Spanish. Columbia-born Pimienta embodies the reasons I love Polaris, because under what other circumstances would I ever have heard this album? Scott’s Odds: 14/1

Lisa Leblanc, Why You Wanna Leave, Runaway Queen?: Fuzzy yet tight, this folk romp trundles along the border of country rock, with satisfying detours into Cajun and bluegrass. It would be a fine album even without lyrics, but it’s Leblanc’s rough-edged personality that wins you over. Observations like “I understand that you love him / And I respect that / But I kinda wanna punch him in the balls” probably won’t win the Polaris Prize, but they won my respect with breakneck speed. Scott’s Odds: 60/1

Tanya Tagaq, Retribution: If you’ve never heard Inuk throat-singing, there’s no way to describe it. And even if you have, Tagaq is in a different class, or maybe a different plane of existence. Her music is so raw, organic, and terrifyingly human, it creates an experiential aura normally reserved for births or exorcisms. Tagaq’s agenda is made clear by the album’s title, which rejects our current efforts at “reconciliation” with its generations of traumatized Indigenous Canadians. The lyrics are equally condemnatory, but Tagaq’s throat-singing tops it all; in this album, she is taking the pain of the world inside her. Retribution would be an absolute shoo-in if Tagaq hadn’t won three years ago, with Animism. Even so, this album is important enough that Tagaq might become the first artist to take home the Polaris Prize twice. Scott’s Odds: 8/1

Weaves, Weaves: Sure, okay. A Toronto indie quartet with modest art-rock aspirations. But they’re really more of a Long List act, alongside The New Pornographers and Japandroids. I respect their willingness to tweak their sound with each track, and there’s a lot of bouncy fun throughout that could easily make Weaves break big, if they get the right sort of promotion. But Polaris isn’t it, and when you consider this is a debut album by a bunch of millennials in competition with, y’know, Leonard fucking Cohen…well, let’s check in a few albums down the road, and see where they’re at. Scott’s Odds: 100/1

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