The Polaris Prize occupies an interesting place in Canadian music scene. It’s not quite mainstream enough to be on everybody’s lips in the same way the Junos are, but it has enough prestige that the award feels like it actually means something. Essentially, more people know who wins the Juno for album of the year, but winning the Polaris is a bigger honour.
Personally, I’ve always had strong opinions on the award (see my previous Polaris coverage here, here and here). Through a long selection process, a jury of writers, critics, and Canadian music fans nominate, debate and slim down just about everything released over the previous 12 months. As the process is a debate, there’s sometimes controversy about the eventual winner, but both the long and short lists do a remarkable job of picking the highlights from the previous year in Canadian music.
Recently, the long list for the 2016 award was released and it keeps the tradition alive. Where else would a female-fronted punk band rub shoulders with one of the biggest hip-hop artists on the planet? Where would a country-folk record sit next to glossy pop and piano-based adult contemporary? The list does a remarkable job of covering a wide range of artists, styles, and genres.
There are some familiar names here, of course. Two of the biggest names in music are here: Drake and Justin Bieber. Drake’s here for his new album VIEWS, which is not just the fourth time he’s been nominated, but the third year in a row he’s cracked the long list. I believe this is the first time Bieber’s cracked the list, which is kind of remarkable in retrospect; he’s arguably Canada’s biggest musical export. Both yet to win the Polaris Prize.
On the other hand, there are names here likely unfamiliar to most Canadian music fans. For example, Coeur De Pirate is a francophone indie artist from Montreal who sings in French; her 2015 record Roses cracked the long list (and is a lush, rewarding listen). Likewise, PUP are making inroads in the United States, but are still writing and singing Toronto-centric songs like “DVP,” which takes it’s name from a Toronto expressway.
There are a couple of records I’m surprised not to see on the long list. I thought Young Galaxy’s Falsework was an enjoyable record and it cracked BGM’s Best of 2015 list. I also enjoyed Tim Hecker’s Love Streams, which came out in April but it nowhere to be found on the long list. That said, both are artists who’ve made the long list several times before, so in a way it’s nice to see some new names here.
With all that in mind, what follows are my ten favourite records from the long list, which is approximately what my ballot would look like, if I were a voting member of the Polaris Prize jury. Someday, maybe. For now, let’s call it a pretend ballot, much like I did last year, with my top ten picks in reverse order.
10) Drake – VIEWS (2016 – Cash Money/Republic)
On this, his first proper full-length since 2013’s Nothing Was the Same, Drake builds off of releases like If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late and What A Time To Be Alive, to make a record that’s alternately nervous and jealous, tense and joyful.
It’s an interesting journey into the mind of Canada’s biggest rapper: “My friends always feel the need to tell me things,” raps Drake, “Seems like they’re just happier than us these days.” He acts jealous and petty; when he says he’s being too good to his girlfriend, Rihanna counters by repeating his lines and throws it back at him. He’s always worn his emotions on his sleeve, but now he’s aware of his it comes off, I think. And, maybe more than on any of his previous records, he’s playing a character: someone who wants to be tough, but is too insecure to not care what people think. I think it’s more fully formed than What A Time, but lacks the punch and energy of If You’re Reading This. Although his idea of a record that captures Toronto is a quixotic quest, but the fact he managed to put out such a sprawling record, one that tries to capture so many emotions and moods, is a feat in itself.
9) PUP – The Dream Is Over (2016, SideOneDummy)
I suppose it’s something of a comeback record, but PUP’s latest is a loud, raucous burst of Toronto punk. Between the lead singer was told he’d shredding his vocal chords and might not ever sing again, and the band touring so much they started hating each other, it seemed PUP’s career could hit an abrupt end. Instead, they came back with a compelling burst of guitars and screaming, songs about how they hate each other and a music video to match, complete with them pouring gasoline on each other and ending up in the emergency room. Our own Aaron Cooper loved this record.
8) The Strumbellas – Hope (2016, Six Shooter)
A fun folk-pop record that I’m finding it hard to escape as the spring turns to summer. I’ll admit I find them a little too twee at times – what’s with all the costumes in the video for “Spirits,” for example? – but I’ll also admit they can make a hell of a catchy chorus, too.
Of course, there’s a lot more to Hope than just their hit single; the record is full of clever songs that build into chants and sing-alongs. On songs like “Shovels and Dirt,” they’ve crafted folk-pop with a hell of hook; the live version for CBC Music has them sounding every bit as assured they’ll need to be to win over people who jokingly compare the singer to Captain Obvious. I think they’ll win them over, too.
7) Peaches – Rub (2015, I U She)
Can you believe Peaches hasn’t won a Polaris Prize yet? In fact, she’s never been nominated, unless you count the historical album nomination last year for her debut The Teaches of Peaches. Granted, she hadn’t released anything in awhile, but still, even I was surprised. Anyway, she cracked the long list this year with Rub, a slick album that both provokes and makes you wanna dance.
Personally, I like how she raps over a minimal beat on “Close Up,” with Kim Deal handling the hook; the song’s video, where she starts wrestling and ends up making out in the ring, is a hoot. The whole records full of moments like that: just as it seems her music’s so in-your-face and political, she’ll drop a reference to a muppet or make a quick joke. A little humour makes her message go down easier; her live performances (dig this set for Seattle’s KEXP) are on a level all their own.
6) The Weeknd – Beauty Behind the Madness (2015, Republic)
Sure, it’s a step back from the hazy R&B of his mixtape trilogy, even from LPs like Kiss Land, but here, on a home-run swing of a record, The Weeknd made a play to be one the biggest names in R&B and I think he more or less succeeded, placing himself in the same league as big tent performers like Justin Timberlake – whose latest tune sounds like something The Weeknd would’ve rejected for being too hallow. And if I’m being honest, I still have the bass riff from “I Can’t Feel My Face” stuck in my head and it’s been at least a month since I heard that song.
5) Basia Bulat – Good Advice (2016, Secret City)
She’s been nominated four times now, but I think this one’s the charm for Basia Bulat. After all, Good Advice seems posed as her breakout record; I’ve seen more people tweeting about her in the past months than I can ever remember before.
But then again, Good Advice is a solid, fun record mixing pop hooks with old-school soul grooves. The organ on songs like “Long Goodbye” sound like something out of the 60s and the way her voice carries puts similarly styled musicians like Alessia Cara at arm’s length. But as the record goes on, the album builds momentum; “Infamous” builds up steam like a locomotive for over three minutes, while the album-closing “Someday Soon” ends things with a spacious, slow groove; it brings to mind Timber Timbre, but where they trade in ominous darkness, Bulat’s music radiates light.
4) Dilly Dally – Sore (2015, Buzz Records)
Toronto rockers Dilly Dally make music that’s almost gleefully raw and rough, which almost masks the band’s sharp rock and Katie Monk’s whip-smart songwriting. Almost. The way they pummel forward, with sharp lurches and bursts, makes records like Sore an energetic listen. And while Monk’s snarling vocals bring to mind a history of punk – everything from Johnny Rotten to Kurt Cobain – it’s the sizzling lead guitar of Liz Ball which really pushes things over the top, taking what could’ve been a pounding punk group and giving them a counter to Monk’s singing, an electrical current making songs like “Desire” leap out of the speakers.
3) Andy Shauf – The Party (2016, Arts & Crafts)
Adult-contemporary pop hasn’t sounded this good since Josh Rouse’s peak a good decade ago. On this record, Shauf’s music is melodic and engaging, sounding like it could’ve come out decades ago or, as the case is, only a few weeks back. It doesn’t blow your doors off, but that’s not the point: it’s intelligent pop, carefully crafted and unwinding over several listens. Personally, I like how the crunchy guitar and Shauf’s mumbling delivery play against the strings in “The Worst In You,” although any of the piano-led songs (“To You,” “Early to the Party”) have a compelling air to them. It won’t be everybody’s favourite, but I bet the people who like this like it a lot.
2) Carly Rae Jepsen – Emotion (2015 – Interscope)
By going back to slick 80s styles, Jepsen’s pop music hit new a new level on Emotion. Her music’s always been a fun listen, but here the productions have one foot in the past, evoking the heyday of the pop she’s made a living of emulating. Which isn’t a bad thing: it doesn’t sound like a tribute, more like someone going into the past for inspiration.
There was a couple pretty big hits on this record, and while I don’t dislike either “Run Away With Me” or “I Really Like You,” for me where the album really comes together is when the production anticipates what’s been this year’s hot trends: a vaporwave- influenced turn to the past. Compare the slow groove of “All That” to Troncbox’s remix of “Love Yourself” or to HOME’s retro-keyboard “Resonance.” Give this one a second listen, there’s a lot more here than just slick productions and radio-tailored pop.
1) Grimes – Art Angels (2015, Crystal Math)
I’ve written about this one at length like two or three times already and feel like I’ve already said everything I want to, so I’ll keep it brief: on her latest record, Grimes took everything she’d been working towards and went up into the stratosphere. Between the rich, atmospheric music and her nuanced and razor-sharp lyrics, she became everything hinted at on records like Visions. But more to the point is how Grimes almost single-handedly made pop music not just cool, but edgy and exciting. I liked Jepsen’s latest, but Grimes pop has a dark, menacing edge which reveals itself slowly over the course of the record.
But what’s really come out of repeated listens is how fully formed the music is: the instrumental version of the record floating around online puts the focus on her production and musicianship, and under this microscope the details really shine: the edgy, chugging guitar on “Scream,” the propulsive rhythms on “Kill V. Maim,” and the angular keyboard patterns on “Butterfly.” Throughout, everything falls into place; even sans vocals, the record sounds fully formed. When you think about it, it’s quite an accomplishment. Have I mentioned I bought a copy the day it came out and it still hasn’t gotten out of my car yet? That I’ve been listening at least once a week since November? I don’t think any record on the list is more deserving of the Polaris Prize.
The Polaris Music Prize shortlist will be announced on July 14, and the winner will be revealed at the Polaris Music Prize Gala in Toronto on Sept. 19. For more information, please visit the Polaris Music Prize website.