So here we are. It’s Monday, September 20, and in just a few hours this year’s Polaris Prize winner will be revealed. I’ve spent the last couple of months listening to and writing about the ten nominated albums, but I’ve cagily avoided making my pick. With the clock on the official Polaris Prize website resolutely ticking down, though, the time has come.
I’ll make my declaration of support below, but first, a quick review of the nominees:
The Besnard Lakes, The Besnard Lakes Are The Roaring Night – Immersive, droney, distorted psy-rock overlies a fictional narrative about Cold War spies.
Broken Social Scene, Forgiveness Rock Record – An enjoyable but inconsistent pop record from the flagship collective of the Toronto scene.
Caribou, Swim – Atmospheric, experimental electro-pop from a DJ with a math PhD.
Karkwa, Les Chemins De Verre – Intense, edgy Radiohead-esque rock with folky undertones from Montreal francophones.
Dan Mangan, Nice, Nice, Very Nice – Clever and well-observed literary folk-pop that also pulls at the heartstrings.
Owen Pallett, Heartland – Violin-led orchestral pop concept album fortified by innumerable layers of allusion and metaphor.
Radio Radio, Belmundo Regal – Madcap hip-hop humor delivered in a mixture of French, English, and sound effects.
The Sadies, Darker Circles – Solid but standard noir country with as much sentimental value as musical.
Shad, TSOL – Clever, funny rap with dizzying wordplay and a socially conscious message.
Tegan and Sara, Sainthood – New wave dance-pop for grown-ups. Intelligent, lyrically strong, and irresistibly catchy.
All of these albums are good (shitty records just don’t make it to the Polaris Prize Short List). So how do we decide which of the ten should be The One? The rules themselves are deliberately vague and open to interpretation:
“The Polaris Music Prize… honours the full-length album as an art form and awards a cash prize of $20,000 to the artist or artists who create the best album of the year.”
Not the prettiest or the funniest or your favorite, the best.
I established some metrics to help me make my pick, based upon last years extremely deserved winner, Fucked Up’s The Chemistry Of Common Life. This album is undoubtedly an artistic masterpiece, and some of its characteristics – not musically, but experientially, the characteristics of the listening experience – would, I figure, be common to other works of the same caliber. By examining each of the Short List nominees for these criteria, I could come to a fairly logical conclusion regarding who deserves the Prize.
(Now clearly logic doesn’t have a lot of room in music, and it never should. Listening is, first and foremost, an emotional experience. But what I’m really doing here is applying a logical framework to my emotional experience with the music, so I hope you’ll bear with me.)
The Chemistry Of Common Life is an intense, powerful album, a fifty-minute tour de force of anger and beauty that commands your attention. It’s not background music, it can’t be tuned out; it demands you come forth and grapple with it. It’s pointed and thought-provoking. It’s also startlingly weird. Though Fucked Up is clearly a hardcore band, you’d never confuse them with Black Flag, not with their six-and-a-half minute tracks and practically orchestral arrangements. The Chemistry Of Common Life is like a hardcore album arrived from another planet, or from twenty years in the future — it doesn’t sound like anything else, though soon we’re certain to see other albums trying their best to sound like it.
Of course I don’t think that this year’s Polaris Prize winner also has to be a hardcore album, or have six-minute tracks, or come from a band with a curse word in its name. But I do think that three descriptors that apply to Chemistry often apply to other truly great albums:
With those metrics in mind, I re-examined the list of ten. Though several of them could be described as one or two of the above, there’s only one album I feel meets all three of the characteristics. That album is Owen Pallett’s Heartland.
Now frankly, this was not the album I expected to choose, going into this. You’ll recall that this isn’t even an album that I particularly like. But at some point I acquired a begrudging respect and even admiration for it that hasn’t gone away, and I think it’s totally worthy of Canada’s highest artistic prize.
So there’s my logical decision, and it’s one I’ll stand behind. But I’d also like to take a moment to throw my heart into it and mention the album I personally loved the most this year, the record I would unquestionably choose if I were only allowed to keep one of the ten. That record is Dan Mangan’s Nice, Nice, Very Nice. It’s made me smile and it’s made me cry, and it’s guaranteed to land on my turntable at least a couple of times a week for the foreseeable future. On top of all that, Dan is cute and he’s sweet, and seeing him take home the honors and the dough wouldn’t make me a sad girl at all.
You can listen to the Polaris Prize awards gala, which begins at 5 p.m. Pacific, on Sirius satellite channel 86 or online at http://radio3.cbc.ca/.
If you’re in Canada, you can watch a live stream of the gala at http://www.muchmusic.com/, and if you’re in Toronto there will be a screening party at the Drake Hotel.