Thoughts on the Polaris Music Prize Short List 2011
Of all the ways in which I engage with music, being a juror for the Polaris Music Prize is one of the most fulfilling.
I've always maintained that the value of this prize is mainly in the discussion between music professionals across the country struggling to compare apples to oranges to attempt to appreciate very different forms of music. I believe in the simply stated process: to pick the best album in Canada regardless of genre. Even if a good record doesn't make the Long of Short List, it may end up on the radar of critics across the country when that artist is touring, leading to more coverage and hopefully more popularity.
Other than Elizabeth Shepherd last year, there had never been a jazz record represented in Polaris in any way. I wouldn't say Colin Stetson plays jazz, but this is without a doubt the most experimental record ever to make the short list (Final Fantasy was pretty out there too, but at least it had a more conventional vocal presence). His music, which I got to experience live last week at the Music Gallery, is cathartic - physically so for him, emotionally so for listeners. The way he has developed a compositional system for circular breathing techniques on the bass sax is unique in the world. For my money, the closest comparison is Britain's John Butcher, but the bass sax adds a different dimension to Stetson's art. Plus, there's a punk edge that comes out live. I can't wait to hear him fill the Masonic Temple with the brute force of that bass sax ringing off the rafters. People will 'get it' then even if he doesn't win the prize. And to see that on CTV/Much? Awesome!! As the editor of Exclaim's Destination Out section, and having seen the rapid ascent of Weird Canada this year, I couldn't be happier.
I'm also very pleased for The Weeknd. It's the first mixtape to make the top 10, building on the success of South Rakkas Crew last year and D-Sisive (also Long Listed this year). The reason that mixtapes are eligible in the first place is thanks to the ever-simmering discussion about what constitutes an album for an album prize. In terms of beat-oriented music, some of the best music comes out in formats other than albums, and it's been argued that certain genres of music were likely to be at a disadvantage due to their audiences demanding more fluid output from EPs to videos to mixtapes. The Weeknd are the first R&B (it's more than that, but rooted there) act to get any kind of sniff at Polaris. Given how the Canadian music industry has micromanaged and let down just about every promising soul/R&B singer that's ever come up, to see a stealthily produced mixtape explode into public consciousness is refreshing to say the least. It didn't need to confront the impossibility of radio play for R&B in Canada, it didn't have to water down its scabrous narrative and most of all it didn't have to fix the sometimes dumb, juvenile lyrics that nonetheless add spontaneity and edge to the project. You know the Abstract Index loves Lee Scratch Perry, a guy who would turn out rough and rugged dub mixes from the Black Ark one after the next with little regard for perfection. It's still classic or at least vital material. Plus, Drake should feel like he's getting a veiled co-sign on this project which he helped take to the mainstream.
As for other selections, of course I wrote my first cover story in Exclaim about Timber Timbre and voted for them, so I'm happy about that. Austra is a good thing: Katie Stelmanis has covered a lot of ground in the Toronto indie music scene over the years and this is a well composed record. Arcade Fire, sure, why not? Colin Stetson goes three for 10 on the Short List with his contribution to the Suburbs, Timber Timbre and his own disc. I've played Braids on this show before, thumbs up there. I didn't seriously consider voting for the Galaxie album but it's fun. I no longer hate the Destroyer record. Hey Rosetta are definitely not my thing, nor is Ron Sexsmith but that's one guy you can't hate on after plugging away for 12 albums.
The rules and the composition of the jury have been tweaked subtly over the years, and I feel there's more participation in the process from a wider range of people. To see tangible success beyond in-virtual-camera big-ups for artists like Colin Stetson and the Weeknd is a big step. This prize is really living up to its potential.
UPDATE: My Short List picks
1. Colin Stetson - Judges
2. Tim Hecker - Ravedeath 1972
3. D-Sisive - Jonestown 2
4. Timber Timbre - Creep On Creepin' On
5. The Weeknd - House Of Balloons
Labels: Polaris prize