Ignored 37: Gaming the Polaris short list


#Ignored37 Grooveshark playlist

It’s rare that I write anything topical on this blog but I kinda sorta love how the annual (raging) Polaris Prize long list/short list debates have become “a thing” for Canadian music dorks.

The 2014 rage is underway.

Subconsciously, I think Polaris debates remind me of hours spent listening to podcasts and Prime Time Sports episodes about the merits or lack thereof of Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game. Namely, how there is serious outrage about omissions year-after-year… and yet NOBODY gives a (darn) about the game, the rosters, the broadcast, the skills competition (really) or anything surrounding the spectacle. For whatever reason, I LOVE watching the intros but everything else can go IMHO/IHOP.

However, there is a distinction to be made: people actually DO care about the Polaris Prize (I think) and rightfully so. It has its critics but at its core, it’s basically a prompt for us to look at Canadian music in aggregate each year and ultimately, that’s never going to be a bad thing.

The 2014 short list drops July 15 and should give us a bite-sized pulse on “what’s up” in Canadian music from a half-“bird’s eye”/half-“worm’s eye” perspective. In some ways, the short list is the most objective component of this whole exercise, serving as a more concise drill-down of the Canadian music that critics, media and some actual listeners enjoy. Again, it’s not perfect but each year, the short list delivers as a decent snapshot and a far more legit gauge than the Junos and/or other industry force feeds.

There always does seem to be a degree of gaming in how the short list comes together. Yeah, it often skews indie but there does tend to be a degree of inclusion along gender, race, geography and language lines. That’s good although if we start getting into “inclusion for the sake of inclusion” debates, it can get messy fast in a “uh, are you sure we should be talking about this?!?” sense.

So I’ll tread lightly and present my prediction for who I think WILL (not necessarily SHOULD) end up on the 2014 short list and why.

Arcade Fire – Reflektor
Reactions were pretty split on this beast of an album and many seemed to find the lead-ins and promotion kinda gimmicky (although it did tap into America’s strange new obsession with oversized paper mache heads). That said, if there is a Canadian stadium rock band who can overcome this kind of critical and commercial shruggage, it’s the Arcade Fire. This might be the last time they can play that card (people are fickle) but for now, I think they have enough residual cache that they’ll reach the “Round of 10”.

Austra – Olympia
This album actually came out in June 2013 so it’s one of the “oldest” efforts on the long list. Flipside: it’s also had one of the longest marination periods in listeners’ ears. That’s (maybe) a good thing. Buzz built for Katie Stelmanis’ outfit as 2013 churned and I dunno: there always seems to be an appetite for this kind of fuzzy, electronic, synth-y type of music. It seems poised.

Mac DeMarco – Salad Days
Mac DeMarco has more than 91K+ Likes on Facebook!!! It’s weird to think of weirdo like Mac as a superstar but at this point, he pretty much is. Countless world tours, a Top 30 album on the Billboard charts (seriously), upper echelon festival seeding, etc He’s not quite in the Arcade Fire/Drake echelon of “hey, he’s TOO POPULAR to be here” but he’s certainly dipping his toe in that pool. His album 2 was my early pick for 2013 and yet he didn’t even get shortlisted. I think he’s due, especially since Salad Days is completely great and my favourite album on the list. So there.

Shad – Flying Colours
Shad’s last two albums have made the short list so why not this one too?!? He’s clearly got their attention and given the 2014 long list is decidedly short on anything resembling hip-hop (Drake is the only other “sorta”), Shad might be the beneficiary.

Timber Timbre – Hot Dreams
Hot Dreams is the fifth Timber Timbre full-length but they’re clearly on the uptick in terms of popularity, having headlined Massey Hall and toured extensively across the globe in recent years. A totally strategic pic as they just SEEM like a band that’d make the short list again (last time: 2011 for Creep On Creepin’ On). And if somebody held a gun to my head and asked me to pick a grand prize winner (a totally plausible scenario BTW), I may very well go with them to take home “the big prize“.

Chad VanGaalen – Shrink Dust
CVG has made the Polaris short list twice before (in 2007 for Skelliconnection and in 2009 for Soft Airplane) and has (kinda) quietly put together a really impressive past decade, both critically and relatively-speaking, commercially. The fact he’s from Calgary could be both a help and hindrance but given voter willingness to vote ‘im up in the past, there’s no reason to think he won’t be a contender again this time around.

Owen Pallett – In Conflict
Is it just me or did this album come and go fairly quietly? Sure, Pallett now headlines large rooms like the Danforth Music Hall but anecdotally, his Academy Award nomination and continued Arcade Fire collabs continue to overshadow his solo output in part. As a former winner (2006’s He Poos Clouds under his Final Fantasy monicker) and former short lister (2010’s Heartland), maybe his name is too tapped in Polaris land but I somehow think he may have a certain “grandfathered”-ish thing going on with voters.

Philippe B – Ornithologie, la nuit
Full disclosure: I know nothing about this artist or this album. However, there hasn’t been a decidedly Francophone outfit on the short list since Galaxie made it on 2011. I’m going to assume voters will be aware of this and voters might react to this.

Pink Mountaintops – Get Back
“Heavy music” has typically been very underrepresented in past short lists. Fucked Up, Galaxie and (I guess) Japandroids are outliers but in terms of hard rock/stoner rock, Black Mountain is really the only outfit to turn the trick (in 2008 for In the Future). People like(d) Black Mountain and miss Black Mountain so it’s quite feasible that Stephen McBean and his Pink Mountaintops collective might sneak on to the short list. Plus the “Vancouver band pulling in some Montreal folks” concept could help the cause in terms of regionalism.

Rae Spoon – My Prairie Home
Rae Spoon has some good songs and is very likable as an artist and as a person. They (as requested) also have the benefit of having played a TON of shows across Canada in recent years and having an angle in terms of gender and geography. Again, not saying voters will be swayed by factors that aren’t purely about the music. But if they are…