We take a close look at Canada's most prestigious music award.
September is a tumultuous time for Canadian music snobs, as friends and colleagues go at one another’s throats over who deserves the annual Polaris Music Prize. Now in its 10th year, the Polaris Prize bestows $50,000 to the Canadian artist who births the year’s best album. The longlist of 40 nominees is compiled by music aficionados across Canada, and then pared down to a shortlist of 10. The winner is decided by a grand jury, and honoured live at the Polaris Music Prize Gala, which takes place tonight at The Carlu.
Aiming to set itself apart from other awards—Polaris celebrates artistic merit, regardless of popularity or sales. Even though there is no quota to fill, the shortlist can often be neatly separated into a few tidy categories. Since we want you give you a leg up on tonight’s discussions, we’ve done you a favour and dissected Polaris’ common themes.
The Returning Champ
This is an uneasy position for any artist—feared for their staying power, this entrant’s chance of winning is discounted, because is anyone really that good? This year it’s Caribou, who makes a return to old stomping grounds, hoping to become the first two-time winner. However, there’s a good chance he’ll go home disappointed, as previous award winners Arcade Fire, Fucked Up, and Patrick Watson have in years past.
Ending up on the Polaris shortlist more than once is no doubt a great honour, but getting so close and never receiving the proverbial cigar must be frustrating. Braids may face this fate this year, having already lost to the almighty Arcade Fire in 2011. They’re in good company though—Yamantaka//Sonic Titan, Timber Timbre, Besnard Lakes, Shad, Chad VanGaalen, Tegan and Sara, Drake, Metric, Broken Social Scene, K’NAAN, Cadence Weapon, Joel Plaskett, Malajube, Colin Stetson, Hey Rosetta!, and Basia Bulat have all been denied the prize more than once.
The Genre Representatives
Though no act has quite terrified a room of suit-wearing industry execs since Fucked Up took the stage at the gala in 2009, almost every shortlist contains one album that embraces the abrasive. Viet Cong are this year’s punk entry, joining the ranks of Metz and Japandroids. Depending on industry trends, the amount of electronic artists fluctuates from year to year. Caribou is this year’s only representative; past nominees include Purity Ring, Final Fantasy, Grimes, and Austra. Finally, there is the annual safe hip hop choice—you know, the one your mom has probably heard of. This year, Ghostface Killah has teamed up with BADBADNOTGOOD—some nice Humber College jazz program grads—to create Sour Soul. Shad, K’NAAN, Drake, and Cadence Weapon precede them, having graced the shortlist three times each. For those of you keeping track—the prize has never gone to a hip hop artist.
The Uniquely Canadian
There’s a sentiment in the Canadian music scene that aims to fiercely support its own out of fear that no one else will, and Polaris does well to promote artists who uniquely represent our culture. Aboriginal icon Buffy Sainte-Marie enters the shortlist this year, hoping to follow in Tanya Tagaq’s win last year. A sore spot for many, this year’s shortlist is oddly void of any Francophone acts. This is disappointing, as Polaris has introduced Anglo ears to great French artists like Karkwa (winner in 2010), Malajube, Radio Radio, and Galaxie.
The Buzz Band
This precious category is made up of those flavour-of-the-month type artists, often the only ones on the list that the casual music listener would say, “Oh yeah, I’ve heard of them.” This year, Alvvays is that buzz band, having already graced the festival circuit and garnering praise at this year’s Junos. They’re in good company, alongside past nominees Dan Mangan, Hey Rosetta!, Elliott Brood, Sarah Harmer, Grimes, and Joel Plaskett.
The Polaris Prize is often regarded as a champion of the little guys—the obscure artists who make music for the sake of art, rather than fame and fortune. So naturally, there are sneers when artists who have already “made it” end up in the running for a large cash prize and career boost. This issue came to a head with the back-to-back wins of Arcade Fire in 2011 and Feist in 2012. Polaris purists have also scoffed at Drake’s third nomination, and past inclusions of Metric, Broken Social Scene, Tegan and Sara, and Ron Sexsmith.
The One Who Won’t Care
As Canadians, we’ve gotten used to big international artists snubbing our awards (probably because they don’t even realize they’ve been nominated), but there does exist some animosity within our own little scene. Most notable is Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s very public rejection of the Polaris Prize in 2013. Aiming to preserve his air of mystery, The Weeknd declined to attend the gala in 2011. And then there’s Drake, who has a reputation of promising to attend the gala, but never quite making it there. However, the industry-based audience is equally apathetic–listen carefully during the broadcast, and you’ll notice an audible drop in applause any time his name is mentioned.
Despite these shortlist patterns, the main prize is still anyone’s game. Watch things unfold live tonight at CBCMusic.ca, starting at 7:50 p.m.