by carl wilson

Cooler Than Mercury


After years of chatter about the notion - I've been party to at least three serious on-the-verge-of-taking-action talks among Canadian critics - someone has finally stepped up and done it: Created an alternative to the Junos, a hoser equivalent of the Mercury Prize. It's called the Polaris Music Prize, helmed by veteran A&R; type Steve Jordan (most recently, I think, of True North Records), and Eye critic Liisa Ladouceur is a "board member and returning officer." The purse is $20,000 (!) for Album of the Year (insert anti-rockist critique here!), "selected solely on artistic merit without regard to genre, sales history or label affiliation." This has been an open secret for awhile, but the prize will be launched all official-like on Tuesday in the Drake Sky Yard from 3 to 6 pm. (The Hylozoists will perform their "music of mostly instruments.") As the bumpf says:

"The Polaris Music Prize will focus on one category - ­ Best Canadian Album. Choosing a winner is the clear objective - an initial Shortlist will be published, then ultimately a winner will be chosen,­ but the raison d’être of the Polaris Music Prize is to celebrate, stimulate interest in, and provide publicity for all sorts of exceptional Canadian music."

I'm honoured to have been asked to be among the judges, whom I gather will be a collection of critics and broadcasters (and possibly musicians?). I'm assured "no one with a direct affiliation with artists (i.e. managers, agents, record labels, publicists, etc.) will be asked to be on this jury," which makes it a far cry from the money-incest game of the Junos.

You may ask - especially if, like some Zoilus readers, you are philosophically opposed to awards - why this is necessary. And it's not, ultimately. But given the sales-driven soul of the Junos, this prize offers a chance to generate talk and make a bow to the deep-rooted parts of the Canadian music community that do not and never will sell gazillions of records. Nothing wrong with selling records, but not all forms of music are cut out for it. It seems like a way to help solidify the world's growing awareness that Canadian music is not just one big opportunity for Bryan Adams jokes. Think back to the late 80s/early 90s when Adams was racking up all the Juno wins - it would have been nice for there to be some vehicle for that era's best 'alternative' bands and budding hip-hop scene (Halifax, raise your hand on both counts) to get recognition as a counterbalance. And while it is too bad there can only be one annual winner, I'm hopeful that the shortlist will draw a fair share of attention as well.

Now, back to that anti-rockist critique: I'd bet that the winner this year (the term of eligibility goes from last June to the end of May, i.e., yesterday) will be an indie-rock or singer-songwriter/folk-rock album. I wish that the nominations were for artist of the year instead, so that performers in singles-oriented genres would get equal time. But, well, welcome to Canada - rockism is a bit of a national religion, unfortunately.

Still, that one bitch-slap aside, I'm pleased to see this finally happening, managed by people of good faith. If it turns out that it sucks - the way the Mercury Prize kind of does, after all - we can all turn coat and rip it to shreds later. (Again, welcome to Canada.) But for now I'm happy to go on the (long-playing) record as a booster. Thanks, Steve, and congrats to all of us. Now fire that starter's pistol - who would be your nominees?

| Posted by zoilus on Thursday, June 01 at 8:54 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (10)



An idea whose time has come, definitely.

Put my vote down for Destroyer.

Posted by keith on June 5, 2006 9:03 AM



Owen Pallet's got this.

Posted by Jere on June 4, 2006 12:29 PM



Bummer: Furtado album out June 15. Robbed!

Posted by Jody on June 2, 2006 3:50 PM



Hey, Carl. A great but dangerous idea. Hope it works out. In the interests of "celebrating, stimulating interest in, and providing publicity for *ALL SORTS* of exceptional Canadian music", here is my highly biased list of recent Canadian albums:

-St Dirt Elementary School: Fall in Love by April
(Rat-Drifting) - actually ANY record on Rat Drifting. OR a lifetime acheivement award for Eric Chenaux who runs one of the most consistent, clear-thinking labels I know of.

-Derome/Tanguay/Guilbeault: The Feeling of Jazz
(ambiences magnetiques)
-Justin Haynes/Andrew Downing/Brodie West: 71ET
Both these albums show the power of musical interpretation. They are recordings of jazz standards (the 71ET record focusing on Billy Strayhorn), yet they are two of the most personal records I've heard lately and are undoubtably Canadian, even with no "canadian content". (I would put the Reveries upcoming "Live in Italy" album in this company as well.)

-Pierre Cartier: Chansons de la belle espérance
(ambiences magnetiques)

-Michael Keith/John Oswald/Roger Turner: title tba
(Emanem) Haven't heard it yet, but it promises to be unbelievable.

-Barnyard Drama: I'm a Navvy (barnyard records)

-Peggy Lee Band: Worlds Apart (spool)

-David French/Louis Simao - Faia. Great Brazilian jazz.

-Eve Egoyan: Weave. A champion of new piano repertoire.

-Mnemosyne's March: Murley/Braid Quartet Live
Kelly Jefferson Quartet - spark
AND David Braid/Phil Nimmons - Beginnings:
Three of the records that have had rave reviews from the Canadian jazz mainstream and will probably be nominated for Junos, but garner very few votes from the Polaris panel (or am I wrong?)
The problem with these types of awards (or one of them, anyway) is that they're too often conceived as a reaction to something else i.e. "The Junos don't serve *our* scene, let's do something that does." They should just frame it that way: i.e. "best Canadian alt/indie/pop/rock album", rather than "best Canadian album without regard to genre, sales, label, blah, blah", which clearly won't be the case. Maybe AIMToronto should start the Canadian new jazz/improvised/experimental music awards (joking). Anyway, I'm sure you'll do a great job, Carl and if anyone can stand up for music that is "too pop" AND for music that is "too weird", it's you.

Posted by Nick on June 2, 2006 2:21 PM



I've been thinking about Furtado, but what's the official release date of the album? I think it falls after the June 1 cutoff. Which is too bad - it's like coming out just after the Oscar nominations - that movie will *never* get nominated the following year.

Posted by zoilus on June 2, 2006 12:12 PM



Not trying to come on all poptimist, but don't forget your homegirl Nelly Furtado. (Not that she needs the $$$. And I guess Timbaland isn't Canadian.) But a vote for Nelly is anti-rockist vote that will stand up to scrutiny -- the whole album is great!

Posted by Jody on June 2, 2006 11:42 AM



the richie hawtin campaign starts HERE.

Posted by dave m. on June 2, 2006 10:19 AM



I'm pleased as punch to see this coming to life. Choose well, zoilus!

Posted by PG on June 2, 2006 10:08 AM



I've never been fond of pushing creativity into the realm of competition. That said, I tend to make a distinction between awards and prizes. Awards are glorified pats on the back that customarily involve the winner receiving a door stopper of some sort or another. Maybe the artist benefits in some peripheral way, but generally I think our culture is being poisoned by the increasing numbers of awards, as an essay in Harper's magazine a few months back asserted.

Prizes -- at least the good kind -- usually involve the transfer of money from the account of a wealthy benefactor of some kind (personal or corporate) into the pocket of someone who makes art. It isn't a given that the winner is probably not accustomed to being handed large amounts of cash with no strings attached, but that has often been the case. Sadly, I don't read much poetry, but it warmed my heart to read in the paper this morning that someone just got $50,000 for writing poetry. I have no idea whether that person was the deserving winner, but $50,000 to a poet can't be bad. Can it?

Same thing here. As a music and former theatre critic, I have frequently turned down offers to be on the jury of some award or another. But I agreed to do this for the same reason that I happily served for many years on the Chalmers jury for playwriting: if the end of the process is that an artist gets money, I'll swallow whatever reservations I have and sign on.

Posted by vfw on June 2, 2006 7:35 AM



I think this is good. It's fascinating to see how the Mercury Prize has affected Britain's mainstream music discourse. (imho) And not just are the Junos an embarrassment at home - they're an embarrassment when talking with people abroad.

Does Canada really have the same 'singles artists' as the US or Britain, though? Aren't most big cancon radio hits by 'albummy' types? Most r&b;, hip-hop and pop hits that I remember were either by Canadian Idol contestants or else from typically rockist acts...

Though I guess something like a big Best Artist prize might go a long way toward changing that...!

As for the nominees, the obv. indie shortlist so far is:

Final Fantasy
Sunset Rubdown...

Posted by Sean on June 2, 2006 6:35 AM




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