A week or so ago, the Polaris Prize shortlist for 2013 was released. It’s an award I probably care about a little too much: it’s supposed to reward the Canadian album of the year, solely on artistic merit. While I suppose the Junos do the same thing, the Polaris feels a little more hip: it’s voted on by a group of music journos and generally has a more interesting ballot than more mainstream awards.
I suppose this year is no exception. As I predicted a little while ago, some of the big names of Canadian rock are here: Metric, Young Galaxy, Tegan and Sara. I actually managed to get four picks correct (I still maintain Mac Demarco was robbed, by the way). Let’s break the ballot down, album by album, and give a percentage for how likely it is to win.
METZ – Metz
This album rocks like you didn’t know indie rock could rock anymore. Forget “Sweater Weather”, this is a claustrophobic, right up in your face musical assault. When I listen to Metz, it’s like I can do anything: outrun the bulls in Spain, drop George St. Pierre with a single blow, pull of a jewel heist in Paris. And nobody played better guitar than Alex Edkins did last year, even Japandroids’ Brian King. Nobody is more worthy of winning the Polaris than METZ. Odds: 65%.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!
I’m not a huge post rock guy. As much as I enjoy listening to jam bands, there’s something about bands like Sigur Ros that puts me to sleep. And for parts of this record, I found GY!BE dull. They do that postrock thing where there’s a lot of quiet jamming, like they’re building up to a monster guitar solo but nothing comes. But about six minutes into the opening cut, this started growing on me: they start pounding and the band explodes out in bursts of screeching feedback and drums rolls, firing on all cylinders. God help me, it sounds like a lost King Crimson record. And I can get behind that any day. Odds: 50%
A Tribe Called Red – Nation II Nation
Shouldn’t dance music inspire a feeling of making you want to dance? It’s not bad music, it’s certainly better than half of the stuff on the list, and I like their stance on idiots deciding it’s cool to appropriate culture. But as dance music, it just doesn’t really do much for me: I feel like this album sounds like a workprint or mixtape, like a demo they’re handing out to prospective MCs. I know I kept waiting to hear someone start rapping over these beats. But then again, it took some time for Grimes to grow on me, too. Odds: 35%.
Tegan and Sara – Heartthrob
The best Tegan and Sara songs are the depressing ones, the ones about broken hearts and longing. And on Heartthrob, they bring it: “I was a fool for love,” is one of the cheerier statements here. It’s certainly one of the best, too. When they try and sound cheerful, it doesn’t work as well: “Closer” sounds like it was written to be a hit single. And elsewhere, the album has an odd sound: “Now I’m All Messed Up” sounds like it should be a ballad, but it’s drenched in keyboards and loud drums. It’s an interesting move by the duo, which are openly trying to move product with this album. I can’t blame ‘em, but I don’t have to like it, either. Odds: 45%.
Whitehorse – The Fate Of The World Depends On This Kiss
I’m not sure what’s worse, this album or it’s full sentence title. It’s the kind of vaguely folky music you’d hear in an overpriced coffee shop, a record pushed on you by an academic wearing a corduroy blazer. It’s too precious by half and not as clever as it thinks. You know, typical snobby critic music. It gives me bad flashbacks to The Rheostatics, too. How they made it and Mac Demarco didn’t is a real shame. Maybe it’s because he’s signed in the US and Whitehorse is on a tiny Canadian one. This is kind of the problem with the Polaris Prize in a nutshell: it fosters this idea of a Canadian Identity at the expense of good Canadian bands more successful in the US. It’s why Crystal Castles will never win a Polaris and the upcoming Arcade Fire album is already on 2014’s shortlist. As for Whitehorse, their CD has its uses: coaster, paperweight, a little mirror you could use on a desert island. I’m sure you’ll find your own. Odds: 20%.
Metric – Synthetica
Now, we’re sure this is a new record, right? It sounds like something that washed up from 30 years ago, and I don’t mean it in a good way. Sometimes, I think Metric represents the worst of Canadian music: they’re constantly rehashing the same tunes, trying to bury their weaknesses (ie: Emily Haines’ singing, which has steadily gone downhill since Live it Out) instead of doing anything about it. Their latest record is decent at times, but as a whole, it’s super slick and makes me think they’re trying to pull something over on me. Maybe that’s why Haines sounds like a Daft Punk robot, sans the emotion. “A scream becomes a yawn.” You said it Emily, not me. Odds: 10%
Young Galaxy – Ultramarine
On the other hand, Ultramarine sounds like something from 30 years ago in a positive way. It’s covered in keyboards, but where Metric smothers thing in a New Wavey gloss, Young Galaxy uses them as accents. It’s the difference between pouring on paint and applying a base coat. Ultramarine has their best batch of songs yet: they play around with rhythms on “Fall For You” and with your emotions on “New Summer”. Don’t sleep on this or let it’s chillwavey sounds dissuade you, this is a strong and unpretentious album. Odds: 70%
Colin Stetson – New History Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light
I don’t have a problem with experimental music and there’s a part of me that even likes what Colin Stetson does: he makes his saxophone sound uncomfortable, makes it moan and bleat. It’s confrontational stuff, hard to ignore. But at the same time, it’s also limited. Even for Stetson, there’s only so much you can do with a baritone saxophone. As a whole, this album all blends together and all that stood out was his tone, not his music. Put it on at parties if you need to clear out before mom and dad get home. Odds: 15%
Purity Ring – Shrines
A cool record by a group that’s doing something different. There aren’t many people out there making music quite like this, which is alternately spooky, atmospheric and catchy as hell. Even when it rumbles like dance music, it still something you’d hear echoing in a church. And that’s not even getting into Megan James, who’ll sound like a child one second and a demon the next. And that’s before you even parse her lyrics. It’s an impressive debut. Odds: 65%.
Zaki Ibrahim – Every Opposite
In press releases, Ibrahim is sometimes described as a citizen of the world, since she’s lived all over the place. You’d think it would disqualify her from a Canadian music award. But her debut album, Every Opposite (available on her Bandcamp page) cracked the shortlist. It’s one of the better albums on this list: it reminds me a little of Grimes, in how it distills a range of influences into sort of dance music. But it feels more organic and less spacey. And songs like “Draw The Line” certainly easier to put on at parties. Ibrahim’s an interesting talent and I’m curious to see where her next album takes her. I won’t be upset if she wins the Polaris prize, but I don’t expect it either. Odds: 50%
Overall, it’s a decent list. I’m not surprised Metric made it – they’ve cracked the shortlist two other times – and I’m pleasantly surprised to see Purity Ring make it. Now for the million dollar question: who do I think will win? And who do I want to win?
If I was a voter, I’d pick Young Galaxy’s Ultramarine. I think it’s not only the strongest album on this list, but the band’s best to date, too. And I think we’re due for a bit of a shift: over the past few years, the Polaris Prize has shown a tendency towards rewarding big names in indie: Feist, Fucked Up, Arcade Fire. I think they’ll move away from that this year. Sorry Metric, your third time up isn’t the charm.
Freelance writer and music fan, whose writing has appeared on The Good Point, The Toronto Review of Books, and CTV.ca, among other places. Favorite albums: Dig Me Out, Live-Evil, Decade.