Monday Mixtape: Polaris Shortlist Edition

Tonight marks the sixth time that the Polaris Music Prize will crown the country’s most artistically successful album, decided through a long and arcane process that essentially boils down to:

  1. Asking a bunch of people what they think
  2. Asking them again, in the hopes that their taste has improved
  3. Gathering an elite group of cultural arbiters in a dark corner of a Masonic temple, barring them from them leaving until they have decided on a winner, preferably through merciless physical combat

(For the record, this’ll be the fourth year that I’ve taken part in the first two steps, but I’ve never been invited to the third — just as well, since I’m not much of a scrapper.)

In honour of the occasion, this week’s mixtape will also double as my breakdown of the 10 shortlisted albums. Like most years, it’s a bit of a mixed bag, and every juror will tell you that there’s some chaff included for all the reasons — even if they’ll completely disagree over which albums those are, and why they ended up making the list. In other words, it’s probably as solid of an attempt as you can make at getting 200 music fans to agree on anything:

Arcade Fire – The Suburbs – “Empty Room”
Odds are, if you’re a fan of Canadian music, you’ve already heard this album, and probably own it in some form or another. The Suburbs has already won Arcade Fire the Grammy and Juno awards for best album and topped sales charts around the world. Oddly enough, that might put it at a disadvantage with Polaris, which has a history of supporting underdogs despite its “sales don’t matter” mantra. As for the music itself, it’s the most consistent thing the band has put out, even if it doesn’t have anything that stirs quite as powerfully as Funeral’s best moments.
Will it win: Picking The Suburbs could actually be a politically savvy move for the jury, since it’d mark the first* time that the prize has gone to a commercially successful act, which might do something to dissuade cries of elitism. Still, I feel like this is an album that many people like and few are passionate about, on the jury at least — I doubt it’ll inspire the passion you need to drown out the other voices in the jury room.

*(Note: People love talking about firsts with Polaris, myself included, but the idea is actually pretty meaningless in an award that’s only been given to five albums. Basically anything on the shortlist could lead to some sort of “first.”)

Austra – Feel It Break – Hate Crime
An electro-pop album with an interesting melodic sense and plenty of personality. Singer Katie Stelmanis has been on the Canadian scene for a while, even lending vocals to Fucked Up’s Polaris-winning Chemistry of Common Life back in 2008, but Austra feels like she’s really found her voice. Her precise vocals work well with the chilly keyboard tones, and she certainly knows her way around a pop hook.
Will it win:
Giving the prize to Stelmanis would make for another first — it’s never gone to a woman — but that might not be enough to overcome complaints that the album is an ’80s throwback. It isn’t, mind you — there’s a lot more going on in the music than nostalgia — but Polaris tends to like guitars, and there’s not much of that going on here.

Braids – Native Speaker – “Plath Heart”
Of all the albums on this year’s short list, Native Speaker is the most intuitive blend of pop and experimentation. The guitars are put through enough processing that they’re sometimes hardly recognizable; the vocals search for the edges of their rhythmic and melodic space; and the arrangements include plenty of interesting touches, from heavy breathing to incredibly confident uses of space. With all that, though, Braids is still recognizably indie rock, even if they’re finding plenty of room to play within the genre.
Will it win: A young, talented, co-ed, buzzed-about band making a confident debut that appeals to folk fans as much as to Animal Collective types? The odds seem decent.

Destroyer – Kaputt – “Poor in Love”
There’s a lot of truth to the idea that Kaputt is Dan Bejar’s yacht-rock album — if you had to describe it in a single word, it’d be hard to do much better than “smooth.” That has turned some former fans off, but the smoothness, saxophones and all, helps spotlight Bejar’s strengths as a singer, giving his rambling, wordy melodies a bright new context. That contrast is what really makes the album, and what elevates it above the ironic soft-rock that its critics accuse it of.
Will it win: I’ll say basically the reverse of what I did about Arcade Fire — this’ll be a really hard one to build consensus around. Kaputt seems to inspire adoration and vitriol in equal measure, and an album that’s been compared to Kenny G. will be a very hard sell in the jury room.

Galaxie – Tigre et diesel – “Camouflar”
This French outfit does two things — big rock riffs and danceable hooksand it does them both well. There isn’t an album on the short list that’s more straight-up fun; like last year’s Radio Radio, these are the guys you’d want to play the afterparty, even if you’re not necessarily pulling for them to win.
Will it win: Artistic achievement and party rock are strange bedfellows. No question, Tigre et diesel does what it sets out to do, but nothing about it is boundary-pushing or statement-making. That lack of ambition makes it unlikely to take home the prize.

Hey Rosetta – Seeds – “Welcome”
One of the few albums on the list that I just can’t understand. It’s slick enough, but there’s hardly an ounce of personality to be found. Here’s hoping that their live show will turn me around on this one — I might’ve said the same thing about last year’s winners, Karkwa, but their two-song set at the gala made me a believer.
Will it win: Not likely. It’s not even the strongest offering in its genre — The Suburbs does the “epic indie rock” thing better, and with a fair bit more ambition. I can’t see that album’s supporters jumping ship for Seeds.

Ron Sexsmith – Long Player Late Bloomer – “No Help At All”
After defending Destroyer, it feels disingenuous to criticize Long Player for being altogether too smooth, but while I can appreciate Sexsmith’s songwriting, the album is impossible for me to get a grip on. It’s almost an adult-contemporary version of Galaxie, in that it’s hard to find fault in Sexsmith’s craftsmanship but artistic achievement seems beside the point — and in this case, it’s not even particularly fun.
Will it win: No one plays the underdog better than Sexsmith. He’s long been a critical favourite, but despite some covers by star-studded friends, he’s never managed to break through. If this were his American Recordings (ie. a stripped-down recording to remind audiences why they liked him in the first place) I think it’d have a fighting chance, but Long Player Late Bloomer feels too commercially minded to take home the prize.

Colin Stetson – New History Modern Warfare Vol. 2: Judges – “Fear of the Unknown and the Blazing Sun”
A sometimes terrifying, sometimes frustrating and occasionally beautiful album, New History finds a middle ground between the worlds of jazz, post-rock and experimental noise. Knowing the recording process makes the album easier to appreciate — Stetson mostly recorded live off the floor, using circular breathing and carefully placed microphones to unleash an incredible range of sounds from his saxophone. I wish he was performing at the gala — his music is incredibly physical and his live shows are basically an athletic event — but unfortunately he’s on tour in the U.S. with Bon Iver…
Will it win: It has a shot, for sure. Unfriendly music has made it through before (see Fucked Up’s 2009 win), and while New History is even more out there, it’s far from inaccessible, especially to a room full of hardened music critics. With his close ties to the indie-rock world (he also plays on Timber Timbre and Arcade Fire’s albums), he could be just the friendly face to move Polaris away from rock ‘n’ roll — although the fact that he’s only just received permanent citizenship has some questioning if he’s “Canadian enough” for the prize.

Timber Timbre – Creep On Creepin’ On – “Woman”
It’s not hard to love Timber Timbre. Specializing in spooky backwoods folk with a twisted sense of humour, the group’s second album (the first was more a solo project than anything) also shows a knack for atmospheric instrumentals. Those oddball bridges make Creepin’ On feel more cohesive somehow, and although some of the songs suffer from sounding overly similar, you’d never mistake them for anyone but Timber Timbre.
Will it win: There hasn’t been much discussion of it heading into the home stretch, but it might sneak in as a compromise between fans of weirdo-jazz and straight-ahead rock.

The Weeknd – House of Balloons – “Wicked Games”
Super-slinky R&B from a mysterious Torontonian who had never even performed live before getting shortlisted. On the plus side, the music practically oozes sexiness, the production is consistently top-notch and it’s pretty much the only nominee you could see getting played at a club. On the downside, every track is a slow-jam, which starts to feel oppressive after a while, and a lot of the sentiments reek of teen melodrama and macho posturing.
Will it win: House of Balloons has plenty going for it, and the jury is overdue to recognize Canadian R&B. I’d put The Weeknd easily in the top three contenders (Arcade Fire and Stetson being the other two, and Braids just behind ’em).

Bonus: Three albums that should have made the short list, but didn’t even make the long list

Not that I’m bitter about that at all.

Eric Chenaux – Warm Weather with Ryan Driver – “Since We’re Smokey”
Unfortunately, the live version here doesn’t have Ryan Driver’s piano, but you still get to hear Cheneaux’s warm, expressive voice and guitar. If you’re looking for folk/singer-songwriter fare, Chenaux is probably the country’s finest, and Warm Weather is up there with his best.

The Meligrove Band – Shimmering Lights – “Bones Attack!”
Catchier than Hey Rosetta!, more ambitious than Galaxie, and more fun than Arcade Fire. Plus, if you’re talking about Canadian-ness, Shimmering Lights somehow manages to condense the last decade’s worth of Canadian indie-rock trends into one very listenable package.

Slakah the Beatchild – Something Forever – “Things I Do (For Her)”
I found out about this one too late to truly fall for it before the long list vote, so I’m as much to blame for its absence as anyone, but it’s a fantastic slab of throwback hip hop with nicely breezy production, silky R&B hooks and a summertime vibe that’s tough to top.

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