Breaking down the 2018 Polaris Prize short list

This year’s 10 contenders include albums from Daniel Caesar, U.S. Girls, Pierre Kwenders, Jeremy Dutcher, Snotty Nose Rez Kids and more


The Polaris Music Prize has announced its 2018 short list and, as always, there’s plenty to argue about. That’s arguably the purpose of the prize as much as the $50,000 award. There’s just one winner chosen as the best Canadian album of the period based solely on “artistic merit,” but when you gather 200 or so music critics and journalists on a jury and ask them to pick the best of the best, you get a lot of interesting discussions.

So, in the interest of facilitating those arguments, here are a few things to look out for this year. (Scroll to the end for the full list.)

Polariss relationship with indie rock

Polaris has been dogged throughout its history by a conception that it’s the “indie rock” alternative to awards like the Junos. That was never totally the case, but in the last few years it’s mirrored the broadening of what it means to be a “Canadian musician” and recognized a wide variety of artists from myriad genres, languages and cultural traditions, culminating in last year’s watershed win for Lido Pimienta’s La Papessa.

Still, there are a few albums that fit the bill. The albums by Hubert Lenoir, Alvvays, Partner and Weaves could all semi-comfortably be called “indie rock,” while also each slotting semi-comfortably into a decade of the genre: Lenoir with 70s glam, Alvvays with 80s anglophile jangle pop, Partner with 90s Big Shiny Tunery and Weaves with some 00s Karen O-isms and Funeral bombast layered into their inside-out rock music.

Missing from the equation, as often, is rock music from the heavier end of the spectrum. Propagandhi seemed like they had a shot, but missed the short list. As did Yamantaka // Sonic Titan with their heaviest album, Dirt.

Mainstays missing the mark

Speaking of Yamantaka // Sonic Titan, Dirt was the first of their three albums not to make the short list. Cadence Weapon, too, failed to short list for the first time in his career with his fourth album, this year’s self-assured self-titled LP – maybe the most glaring omission on the list. Zaki Ibrahim and Jennifer Castle have also been there before, and weren’t this year. Previous winner Arcade Fire was also absent. But only ten albums can make it, and these were not them.

The Indigenous next waves Polaris hot streak

Only one hip-hop album made this year’s short list, but it’s a standout. Snotty Nose Rez Kids’ The Average Savage. That fiery, defiant and often hilarious rap record is one of two albums that made it from Indigenous artists. The other, Jeremy Dutcher’s Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa – a contemporary classical mix of ethnomusicology, oral tradition and opera – once again shows the diversity of modern expression that exists within Indigenous music’s next wave.

A good year for Quebecois artists

Polaris is often swept into the two solitudes of French and English within Canada, but there were a number of interesting exceptions this year. Herbert Lenoir’s Darlène definitely seems like this year’s dark horse, an album that many people discovered through the Polaris process. Jean-Michel Blais’s ambient piano music is mostly instrumental, but he is a Quebecois artist. As is Pierre Kwenders, whose Afrofuturistic MAKANDA At The End Of Space, The Beginning Of Time is multilingual and often mind-blowing.

NOW cover stars

Though Polaris is historically unpredictable, the two names we’ve most heard bandied about as predictions have been U.S. Girls’ In A Poem Unlimited and Daniel Caesar’s Freudian. And hey, both have been the subject of NOW cover stories. The third on the longlist, Charlotte Day Wilson’s Stone Woman, unfortunately didn’t make the cut. We’re betting her eventual long-awaited debut LP will be the one that does.

The full 2018 Polaris Prize short list:

Alvvays – Antisocialites

Jean-Michel Blais – Dans ma main

Daniel Caesar – Freudian

Jeremy Dutcher – Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa

Pierre Kwenders – MAKANDA At The End Of Space, The Beginning Of Time

Hubert Lenoir – Darlène

Partner – In Search Of Lost Time

Snotty Nose Rez Kids – The Average Savage

U.S. Girls – In A Poem Unlimited

Weaves – Wide Open

richardt@nowtoronto.com | @trapunski

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