Canada’s Polaris Music Prize, now in its seventh year, awards a $30,000 prize to the best Canadian record of the voting period June 1-May 31. The criteria are broad, but clear: jurors are to assess records any consideration of commercial success, sales figures, track record, or live performance. The idea is that if a band puts out an exceptional record it will stand a chance, no matter what genre it emerges from (however obscure), what region the band calls home, what following it enjoys, or what preconceived notions critics might have about them. This is really, really, difficult, it turns out.
Every year the pool of some 200-plus Canadian jury members debate, complain, exclaim, and declaim various records. Often 50 or more albums are suggested and debated on the jury’s listserve before the Long List of 40 is finally compiled in early June. That Long List is then voted on and whittled down to a Short List of 10. Finally, a Grand Jury is pulled from the pool of 200-plus regular jurors and these intrepid souls gather on the evening of the Gala in late September to battle it out in a back room all 12 Angry Men-like and emerge with a winner. It’s all very fun, and also extremely exciting for those involved, especially when the band you were hoping for comes out on top (which has happened, for me, only once.)
The Polaris Prize appeared at a fortuitous time in the development of the Canadian popular music industry: precisely at the moment when Canada blew up. Broken Social Scene, Feist, Arcade Fire, Justin Bieber, Stars, Micheal Bublé, Drake, the Weeknd, Fucked Up, Kathleen Edwards, Nickelback… for the past 10 years Canada has been all over the airwaves, all over tastemaker blogs, all up in your face. But behind these standouts there remain dozens of extraordinary artists from across the broad expanse of Canada that don’t get heard. The amazing thing about Polaris is that it has opened up a space for Canadians to learn about all of these lesser-known artists alongside the big names. It has opened up a space in which we are invited to treat them all equally, the Drakes and the Daniel Romanos alike. Is the record good? Then it has a shot. Even if it’s by Patrick Watson (Winner, 2006) or Karkwa (Winner, 2010), neither of whom anyone has ever heard of, really.
In late February Carl Wilson (author of Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, probably the best (and only) book you’ll ever read about Celine Dion), yours truly (Stuart Henderson of PopMatters) and Tabassum Siddiqui (of Spinner) got together onstage at Toronto’s Drake Hotel to discuss nine records that we believed merited consideration this year. Six months into the process, lots could change. But for now, here we are. Attached below is a short film version of the show, and a link to the free audio podcast.