2011 Polaris Prize Goes to Arcade Fire
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2011 Polaris Prize Goes to Arcade Fire

Canada's biggest little "indie" band are the prize's first commercially and critically successful winners.

At the end of our Polaris Music Prize summary last year, we predicted that Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs would win or that it would lose to the prize’s first hip-hop winner, resulting in an upset of sorts either way: Arcade Fire made the best Canadian album of the year, but would it be too obvious a choice? In the end the Polaris mandate of artistic merit is the deciding factor, and as such The Suburbs took home the sixth annual prize (though this year the prize got a $10,000 bump up to a grand total of $30,000). The 11 grand jurors who were chosen to fairly represent the 10 shortlisted albums decided that, ultimately, maybe The Suburbs aren’t so bad.

Hosts Grant Lawrence and Damian Abraham got most of their shtick out of the way early on in the show, first taking to the stage dressed as each other. Abraham wore a slick suit, while Lawrence wore his co-host’s usual outfit—an oversized T-shirt, shorts, ball hat, and blood on his face. It seemed an odd intro to the subdued Ron Sexsmith, who kicked off the night’s performances. “I always feel a bit square being here,” Sexsmith said after he performed in his burgundy blazer, a remark punctuated by Toronto’s black-clad, bleached-blonde Austra taking their gothic electro-pop to the stage next.

Only six of the 10 nominees performed this year—Arcade Fire were bound by logistics after headlining the Austin City Limits festival the night before; The Weeknd prefers to keep the mystery that’s no longer a mystery, Colin Stetson was on the road with Bon Iver, and Destroyer’s Dan Bejar was, well, Dan Bejar—and of them, Montreal’s Galaxie seemed the most divisive. Their retro rock-riffing felt dated and a confusing inclusion to most, though to others, volume is king.

Toronto’s Timber Timbre fleshed out their spooky sock-hop sound with help from members of Ohbijou on strings, while Montreal-via-Calgary’s Braids were one of the most revelatory bands for many in attendance, and as critic Carl Wilson noted, they could be stellar in a few more albums. But CBC Radio 3’s Vish Khanna was the real star of that set; as the presenter for their album Native Speaker, he said, “Braids reminds me of why I enjoy having sex with white people,” and that was it. That was all we needed. Polaris vets Hey Rosetta! closed the night’s performances and the room stayed pretty much still immediately after as the announcement of the winner was pending.

And so it was Arcade Fire. The Suburbs‘ release date, at the very beginning of the prize’s qualifying period, was a disadvantage, but no one forgot about it; this year’s perfect Polaris storm was one of critical acclaim and commercial success. “Just because you’ve heard of a band doesn’t mean they suck,” frontman Win Butler said, all smiles and a bit bumbly. “You don’t get anything for not trying as hard as you can.”