Inside the Polaris Music Prize from Edmonton and beyond

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What does folk balladeer Maria Dunn, roots rocker Jay Sparrow and alternative outlaw D’orjay all have in common? Pop force VISSIA and nêhiyawak’s Matthew Cardinal have it, too.

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They’re all Edmonton artists with albums considered some of Canada’s best releases in the last year.

Organized by a non-profit body guiding a jury of music media professionals donating their time, and agreeing to judge “without regard to musical genre or commercial popularity,” the Polaris Music Prize recognizes distinguished Canadian albums released annually, and we’re well on our way to a 2021 winner.

The task of a juror

This year, 204 albums were nominated as Canada’s best. Being a juror, I can assure you, that’s a lot of listening. It’s an arduous task, not only the physical hours it takes to play all this music, but to weigh through considerations of raw talent, creativity, substance and messaging, and pit one fine work above another, often in wildly different genres. Throughout the process, jurors nominate, debate and converse about all the albums, weighing factors, laying arguments and deliberating the competition with each other.

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Finally, the original list of nominations is voted on, each juror choosing their top five in no particular order. From these ballots, Polaris organizers turn the results into the Long List of 40 albums, which was released in June. Following another close examination of these albums, the jury submits a second top-five ballot, ranked in preferential order, and the Short List of the top ten finalists has finally arrived.

Unlike the last two rounds where names were shuffled on and off my ballot countless times — the internal debate of finite elements carrying on until the hitting the send button in the final hour — I was immediately able to lay out my Short List votes. (Theoretical at this point as a grand jury of 11 will cast the final votes, and they’ve yet to be selected.)

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My finalists are …

And my No. 1 spot goes to Cadence Weapon’s Parallel World. Admittedly, there was a slight twinkle of pride seeing this name on the Short List, but choosing his latest release as the best in Canada this year was as objective a decision as I can make.

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Despite moving out east a handful of years ago, Cadence Weapon — born here as Rollie Pemberton — made a point of correcting another critic who called him a Torontonian by asserting, “I’m Edmonton for life.”

Released in April, Parallel World is a force to be reckoned with, as is Cadence Weapon as an artist. This is his fifth studio release, four of which have been considered by Polaris juries in the past, and the third to land a coveted spot on the Short List of 10 finalists. Plenty of other jurors praised Parallel World as his finest work.

“Agreed!” I replied in a nomination thread. “I grouped him with other similar albums, listened to them back to back, and Cadence Weapon — without question — takes it. It’s real. It’s fresh. It’s puts him over the top, not only of his peers, but past work. Solid spot on my short list.”

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Of the albums I put against his, two had tracks nominated earlier this year for the 2021 SOCAN Songwriting Prize: It’s Not How It Sounds by Clairmont the Second, and Toronto rapper DijahSB’s Head Above The Waters, who took a Short List spot, but not with the album I originally voted for.

They released not one, but two impressive albums in the last year. Head Above The Water, the splashier package of the two, made the Long List cut, but I’d cast my vote for 2020 the Album. It’s a little more backroom raw loaded with sick tracks like Butter Crisp, Mama Said, Just Be Cool … all of them, really. It was a close toss up between the two albums, anyway, so DijahSB gets my second vote.

Number three of my final five is Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s Theory of Water. It was the first nominated album I started passing around to pals and peers — something so different, enchanting and curious.

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As an editor, I’ll read copy a few times: once for overall tone and story, again for technical corrections and finally, a fact check. These albums received multiple listens with a similar approach, the time of day, context and headspace can significantly change a perspective.

While all releases came from massively talented individuals, only some completely pushed my expectations and musical understanding into a new space. There were many that were artistically fascinating, some I voted for while others had specific achievements but couldn’t convince me they were the absolute best Canadian album released in the last year.

The Ends by The OBGMs was a left-field hardball, and the first album I finished and knew immediately it would get my vote.

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The final spot on my list is for Mustafa’s When Smoke Rises. He was an early addition to my Long List ballot, and another one that took me completely by surprise. Not having heard of Mustafa, I was stunned in the first 30 seconds of this album — a collection of rough realities and heartache you’d sooner expect in gangster rap than spun poetically and delivered with an angelic voice in an exquisite acoustic setting, When Smokes Rises is precious in its entirety.

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Gems in the rough

All the albums, from the Short List and beyond, deserve recognition as our country’s finest and there are some I was surprised to not see on the top-10 list.

Allison Russell’s Montreal is a bold and beautiful project rivalling Total Freedom, Kathleen Edwards’ first effort in eight years showing her refinement of experience and prime grasp on her craft. Bernice’s Eau de Bonjourno has been getting a lot of radio play for good reason, and Charlotte Cardin’s debut Phoenix, was deemed “a 10/10!” by a fellow Journal reporter.

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While they’re not in the final fray, the albums from Edmonton musicians that were nominated are all excellent works to dig into. D’orjay’s debut release, New Kind of Outlaw, made the list alongside VISSIA’s sophomore effort, With Pleasure. Also listed was Asterisms from Matthew Cardinal, although his indie-rock trio nêhiyawak appeared on last year’s Short List for its debut release,nipiy. Once the frontman of Murder City Sparrows, Jay Sparrow’s latest solo effort, Let Wild Dogs Run, and Maria Dunn’s Joyful Blazing Banner both received positive
reviews from Fish Griwkowsky and a well-earned place as nominees.

Further afield

Slightly further beyond our city limits, Corb Lund’s Agricultural Tragic was in the running along with Art Bergmann’s impressive Late Stage Empire Dementia, the latter making the Long List shortly after we featured it this spring.

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I could easily go on, but as of May 30, 2021, a new year and nomination list of Canada’s best releases has begun so it’s time move forward on this honoured path and get listening.

The winner of the 2021 Polaris Music Prize will be announced Sept. 27 by the prize sponsor, CBC Music.

jfeniak@postmedia.com

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