The realm of possibilities is nearly infinite when the time comes for a musician to stand out and make a place for themselves. Of course, there are numerous charts – Billboard, iTunes, and the like – where, week in and week out, certain artists brerak through to a mass audience. Just as there are numerous awards galas, such as the JUNOs, the ADISQ Awards, or the SOCANs. And then there’s the Polaris Music Prize, now goiing strong for 11 years.
The Polaris Prize isn’t awarded haphazardly. Each year, nearly 200 critics, journalists and industry members gather digitally all over Canada to discuss some of the best albums released during the previous year. Each of them submits a first ballot that includes their top five picks. Following the publication of the Long List of 40 albums in July, the members of the jury must pick five albums out of the 40, and thus the Short List of 10 is born.
Whereas the 2016 long list only featured five francophone albums, this year’s has seven, plus a bilingual album, Adieux au Dancefloor, by Montréal’s Marie Davidson. She’d been included on the 2016 long list as part of her duo Essaie Pas, nominated for their album Demain est une autre nuit.
But the short list is often the one that is a bit of a shocker for Francophiles, since no French album has made it since 2011’s Tigre et diesel by Galaxie.
“When you look at Francophone albums, the real issue is the Short List,” says Steve Jordan, the founder and director of the Polaris Prize. “That’s where people have traditionally complained. We do, however, try to have as many critics and journalists from Montréal in the [large] jury so that, naturally, more Francophone albums are selected. But past that point, it’s really not up to us.”
From one year to the next, Jordan has witnessed the evolution of music critics’ tastes in music at the same pace as music itself has been evolving. “There seems to be much more openness for music that’s beyond white guys and guitars,” he says. “Shorter albums and EPs are also making a place for themselves, increasingly.”
The issue of the place of women in music has also been a hot topic for the last few years, and even more so, in the past few weeks in the wake of the creation of the FEM (Femmes en music—Women in Music) collective in Québec, a group whose mission is to denounce the male-female inequities in the music industry, especially the unde- representation of women in music festivals, in order to start a dialogue and find solutions. But where festival programs lack in terms of female headliners, the Polaris Prize fares better – although it is still not at par. Twenty-five mainly male groups are featured on the Long List, compared to 13 female artists and two mixed-gender groups, Le Couleur and Weaves. Those proportions were the same in 2016.
In composing the 11-person Grand Jury (which last year included SOCAN Editor in Chief Howard Druckman), it’s mandatory that six of its members are not from Toronto, and that six are women. This final jury is composed of eleven people who analyze the Short List to determine a winner.
“We ensure there’s a certain diversity in these people’s choices,” says Jordan. “Then, all the jury members are sent the albums on the Short List about six weeks prior to the gala, and we ask them to listen to them until they can’t take it anymore [laughs]. Then, we gather around a meal. It’s what I call the epic dinner. It goes one for five hours and we have a discussion about each of the nominated albums. Then, we invite people to go their own way and reflect on what’s been said. That’s when the magic happens: their vote is secret and the winner is selected. It’s a surprise for everyone until the very end.”
“I feel like the Polaris truly is there to recognize raw talent rather than an artist’s commercial success.” – Kaytranada manager William Robillard Cole
A Mish-Mash of Everything
An extended folk family that dominates this year’s Long List with, notably, Leif Vollebekk, Philippe B, Antoine Corriveau, Leonard Cohen (posthumously), Daniel Romano and Gord Downie (for Secret Path) who, as it turns out, is nominated twice, since his band The Tragically Hip is also on the list for their album Man Machine Poem. Rock also occupies its rightful place on the List with Québec’s Chocolat, Nova Scotia’s TUNS, and BC’s Japandroids. Hip-hop and R&B are represented by Drake’s More Life, Alaclair Ensemble’s Les frères cueilleurs as well as Clairmont The Second’s Quest for Milk and Honey, an album by a young Toronto producer who, at the age of 19, has been deemed the greatest hope for the future of hip-hop in Toronto.
And in many cases, the messages carried by the nominated artists are quite significant. Nunavut throat singer Tanya Tagaq, who won the 2014 Polaris Prize, is among them. Her album Retribution touches on many political topics and she is, de facto, the voice of woefully seldom-heard First Nations women. A Tribe Called Red’s We Are The Halluci Nation is the band’s most political statement to date, and amalgamates traditional Indigenous chants with electro beats, intending to breaking the cliché of sadness associated with ancestral music. As for young Lido Pimienta, a Colombia-born Ontarian, she bears feminist messages to powerful electro-pop tracks.
Winning? So What?
Similar to the British Mercury Prize, created in 1992, the Polaris is awarded to the country’s best album, according to critics and industry types. The fact that no importance is given to the commercial success of the winning album is what distinguishes it from the rest. And since the nominated albums are proposed by Canada’s music journalists, artists are never in a position to submit their own candidacy, which makes a nomination that much more meaningful.
For Patrick Watson’s manager Olivier Sirois, the Polaris is a prize apart from others. Watson’s 2007 album Close To Paradise won the prize and he was fully able to gauge the impact of that award on the rest of his career. “It directs the attention of the whole industry on an artist that is still relatively marginal,” he says, “and it’s a prize that’s determined by critics and people from the industry. It’s an extremely valuable recognition.”
To him, the announcement of the Polaris Prize winner is always a big surprise, because it’s rarely the apparent front-runner that takes the crown. “Two-thousand-and-seven was a huge album release year, and the fact that Patrick won surprised a lot of people because he was anything but mainstream, back then,” syas Sirois. “I remember it was Feist’s big year [with her album The Reminder] and a few established music websites made snide remarks about Patrick, wondering who the guy was.”
William Robillard Cole, manager of last year’s Polaris winner Kaytranada, says the interest in his talent couldn’t have been more obvious after he was declared the winner. “We immediately noticed an increased interest in his work, especially at the international level and members of the press,” says Cole. “I feel like the Polaris is there to truly recognize raw talent rather than an artist’s commercial success.”
And the fact that the winner walks away with a cash prize of $50,000 CDN also contributes to the uniqueness of this prize. “Compared to the JUNOs or ADISQ Awards, the Polaris is unique because, well, there’s only one,” says Sirois. “It kinda creates a myth.” The prize created the perfect storm for Patrick Watson’s career. It took off in earnest, and the Polaris was one of the catalysts for that.
The positive effects of the prize for Kaytranada are still adding up. ‘He’s been offered a ton of great opportunities,’ his manager explains. ‘The Polaris definitely was the boost that took him to where he is today.’
2017 Polaris Prize Long List (Short List will be announced July 13, 2017)
A Tribe Called Red — We Are The Halluci Nation
Alaclair Ensemble — Les Frères Cueilleurs
Anciients — Voice of the Void
Arkells — Morning Report
Philippe B — La grande nuit vidéo
BADBADNOTGOOD — IV
Louise Burns — Young Mopes
Chocolat — Rencontrer Looloo
Clairmont The Second — Quest For Milk and Honey
Leonard Cohen — You Want It Darker
Antoine Corriveau — Cette chose qui cognait au creux de sa poitrine sans vouloir s’arrêter
Le Couleur — P.O.P.
Marie Davidson — Adieux Au Dancefloor
Mac Demarco — This Old Dog
Gord Downie — Secret Path
Drake — More Life
Feist — Pleasure
Figure Walking — The Big Other
Fiver — Audible Songs From Rockwood
Geoffroy — Coastline
Hannah Georgas — For Evelyn
Japandroids — Near To The Wild Heart Of Life
Carly Rae Jepsen — E.MO.TION Side B
B.A. Johnston — Gremlins III
Lisa LeBlanc — Why You Wanna Leave, Runaway Queen?
The New Pornographers — Whiteout Conditions
Klô Pelgag — L’Étoile thoracique
Peter Peter — Noir Éden
Lido Pimienta — La Papessa
Jessie Reyez — Kiddo
Daniel Romano — Modern Pressure
The Sadies — Northern Passages
John K. Samson — Winter Wheat
Tanya Tagaq — Retribution
The Tragically Hip — Man Machine Poem
TUNS — TUNS
Leif Vollebekk — Twin Solitude
Weaves — Weaves
The Weeknd — Starboy
Charlotte Day Wilson — CDW
2017 Polaris Prize Short List
A Tribe Called Red – We Are The Halluci Nation
BADBADNOTGOOD – IV
Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker
Gord Downie – Secret Path
Feist – Pleasure
Lisa LeBlanc – Why You Wanna Leave, Runaway Queen?
Lido Pimienta – La Papessa
Tanya Tagaq – Retribution
Leif Vollebekk – Twin Solitude
Weaves – Weaves