Polaris Music Prize Turns 10: Inside Each Winning Album With the Jurors Who Championed Them
In the 10 years since Steve Jordan founded Canada's Polaris Music Prize, which honors the best Canadian album of the year, plenty of blood, sweat, tears, study and fighting has gone into the selection of the annual winner. The decision-making process is unique among major music awards, bringing together 10 jurors, each chosen to 'champion' a particular nominee, with one 'wild card' juror selected to keep things interesting. (Billboard covered the process in detail last year). While the show gets underway place tonight at Toronto's Carlu, these 11 grand jurors will be deliberating within a private room onsite; no one knows the winner until it is announced.
To commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Prize, Billboard tracked down jurors from each year -- most of whom were representing the eventual winner -- asking them about their overall experience and core argument in support of the winning album. Initially, the grand jury wasn't selected with such specificity. For 2010, the most contentious year, a second grand juror spoke to us on condition of anonymity, while the first didn't recall "the incident."
Winning album: Final Fantasy's He Poos Clouds
Grand juror/affiliation: John Sakamoto (The Toronto Star)
Experience in grand jury room: "I remember it being a much more wide-open conversation. I remember being shuttled into a backroom at the Phoenix; the party was going on outside and I remember it feeling quite formal and it took a while for the debate to kick into high gear because I think people were a little afraid of offending each other. It was notable because Jian [Ghomeshi] was the host. We did not have any sort of dinner. It felt like we were shuttled into a cafeteria or something. We were sitting around in chairs and I remember never being more aware of the inherently geeky nature of what we do because you could hear the music and party outside beyond the walls enjoying the music, while we were sitting around figuring out if it was good [laughs]."
Was He Poos Clouds your top pick? "I would say going in it was my informal pick. But I was more than willing to be persuaded otherwise and I think most of the other people in that room felt the same way, that they had a favorite in mind, but that the winner would be arrived at by discussion, not argument -- not who would prevail in making their argument. I remember it being quite civil, but there was definitely some underlying tension and some fairly pointed push and pull among the different parts of the country that was represented. There was a definite regional bias subtext to the whole thing."
Winning album: Patrick Watson's Close to Paradise
Grand juror/affiliation: T'Cha Dunlevy (Montreal Gazette)
Experience in grand jury room: "It was fine. My takeaway was that it's a tricky thing to try and come up with a winning album, and the best Canadian album, when you have 11 people with all different ideas. There's a lot of negotiating that goes on. It's a big responsibility. The way it comes out is an interesting process, and it's a bit of a crapshoot. You never quite know how everyone is voting. It was really tricky because it became obvious pretty quickly that my album was not going to be considered in the end for the final. It wasn't one of the albums that people were most interested in. It wasn't a consensus in the end; it was just a vote and the results come out. I enjoyed it. It was cool. We were talking about Canadian music and it was fun being a part of that process."
Winning album: Caribou's Andorra
Grand Juror/affiliation: Denise Benson, (then Eye Weekly / author)
Experience in grand jury room: "In my case, Steve [Jordan] asked me that year because all five of my final votes were on the vote list. So 10 on the shortlist and five that we each pick -- Caribou, Shad, Holy Fuck, Plants and Animals and Black Mountain. In our case, out of the 10, we were finally able to agree on two or three titles and from there it just got heated. Passionate. But also, everybody could step up with different perspectives. It was very verbose [laughs]. People had a love for a number of albums on the list. And when the Caribou album was announced, because Josh [Ostroff] and I were both on the jury and are heavily involved in electronic music, I've gone on record before as saying that wasn't my final choice. So even though there's lots of ‘that figures' afterwards, actually you don't know what goes on in that room [laughs] and what goes on in that room can really shift over an evening and that is the part that is really difficult to explain to people who don't go through that process."
Winning album: Fucked Up's The Chemistry of Common Life
Grand Juror/affiliation: Ben Rayner (Toronto Star)
Experience in grand jury room: "I was the champion of Fucked Up's The Chemistry of Common Life. It was awesome two-day summer camp. I was with some of my peers and some were my friends and some who became friends because of that experience. I was really delighted to spend two entire evenings, dinner at the Drake, where people argued for the first round of many, and then the night when you're locked away in that room with people, being a bit tipsy as you argue about music. What I remember about it was it was this awesome bonding experience."
Argument for The Chemistry of Common Life: "Most people were there with a specific aim in mind. I don't want to make it sound like I was some lone voice because after the second round of votes, there might have been people that were halfway there. My whole argument for it was 'Here's a wicked record that elevates what the band does and elevates an entire genre -- hardcore.' It had a combination of all your favorite things about shoegaze, with all your favorite aspects of hardcore music, and it created something totally new and totally challenging, yet which in its own perverse way was actually kind of poppy.' I had never heard a record that sounded like that before. It was a completely original synthesis of underground hardcore and '80s and '90s shoegaze. This is something new. This is a band doing something that hasn't been done before, and in the end that won out."
Winning album: Karkwa's Les Chemins de verre
Grand juror/affiliation: Philippe Rezzonico (then Rue Frontenac/now Radio-Canada)
Experience in grand jury room: "The process was like any kind of jury. The difference was probably the fact because that there were no boundaries, and especially the kind of music. It was really interesting that perspective, because usually you compare apples to apples; here you might have, as was the case that year, French, a lot of albums in English, but musically speaking they were all different in terms of genre. And it's always more interesting to debate on the merits."
Core argument for Les Chemins de verre: "Musically, I find it absolutely solid from top to bottom. They've had other albums but this one was especially excellent, the fact that one of the strong points and precisely because they sing in French but it could have been any other language. The music was a lot stronger than the language, and I would probably dare to say that it was one of the reasons English-speaking colleagues voted also for that album because the language was not a barrier anymore regarding the merits of the album."
Anonymous grand juror: "After a night of cordial deliberation at The Drake, things fell to pieces once we were deliberating at the Gala. By the end of the night, some of the female jurors were crying and it almost came to blows. [Name withheld] tried to change his vote, which certain groups didn’t take to kindly. People were yelling at each other. It got really real. It was between [artist] and Karkwa, and the Francophones on the jury ganged up for Karkwa -- they argued the anglophones couldn’t understand the subtleties in the language. In the end, it came down to one vote. [Name withheld] voted for Karkwa and that should have been it. As we were about to leave I told him, ‘Listen, to be honest with you, we can't discuss anything but the merits.’ Which is a funny concept, because how can you compare the merits of hip-hop and prog? 'But,' I continued, 'if Karkwa wins this, no one cares. Honestly, we'll be remembered as the jury that voted for the album that no one gave a shit about.’ And he agreed and asked why I hadn’t brought that up before the vote. He publicly asked if he could change his vote and that’s when everything went crazy. Crazy. All the French jurors were getting riled up. Those who weren’t crying were yelling back. We asked for a re-vote and they wouldn’t allow it. It was insane."
* Billboard has chosen to withhold juror and artist names out of respect for the process.
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Winning album: Arcade Fire's The Suburbs
Grand juror/affiliation: Anna Zee (Q104FM, Halifax)
Experience in the grand jury room: "It was positive; it was interesting to me to see how the process works and how passionate the other jurors were about the records that they wanted to win and just how serious people took it. It wasn't a joke. It was basically pleading the case for the album that you thought deserved to win. And what was interesting was the difference of opinions, but I found it very respectful. And I learned so much from being in that group. I can't remember what my number 1 pick was. I remember I had Sloan in there but Arcade Fire were the ones I picked to win. They were definitely one of my top ones."
Winning albums: Feist's Metals
Grand Juror/affiliation: Tabassum Suddiqui (freelance music journalist)
Experience in the grand jury room: "I was just blown away by how incredibly passionate and prepared the jurors were in that room. Just having those 11 people in the room together, there was something great about it, and having everyone come from a different perspective and yet be fully into discussing the various albums. Also having an open mind, regardless of whether they were championing a particular record. I think they were willing to hear everybody out and, to me, that was a little bit of a surprising part of the process.
Core argument for Metals: "Interestingly for me, going in championing what ended up being the winning album, I felt from the discussion list and even reading other criticism during the year, it felt like maybe that album didn't have a very strong chance going into final debates for the prize. It was only during the actual process of debating that I realized, wow, these jurors do fully like this album, even if it wasn't their No. 1 choice, and are willing to listen to what I have to say about the merits of why I think this should be the winner this year. For me, it being a record that I think we can all agree was a great artistic statement. It was something that was very timeless, in that we could look back on this 10 years from now and say, ‘Is this record worthy of standing up as one of the best Canadian records there is?' And, for me, that was indeed the case."
Winning album: Godspeed You! Black Emperor's Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!
Grand juror/affiliation: Sean Michaels (Said the Grammophone; now author/columnist, Globe and Mail)
Experience in the grand jury room: "The jury discussion of the evening where the final deliberations were does not stand out as very special. In our year, the real discussions and the real conversations happened the night before. The process once we got to the Carlu, it felt like the end of the process, much more formalized -- now we do a ballot, now we talk a bit, now we do a ballot, now we do a ballot. I didn't feel as if it was as spirited or as convivial as the other discussion had been. But it was so inspiring to be in a room with a bunch of my peers talking about music in such an earnest way. I was reminded that so many music journalists and music critics are in this because they love music. They were trying to truly make their selection in good faith of the best record release that year and it was all so sincere."
Core argument for Godspeed You! Black Emperor's Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!: "I really tried to get the people in the room to set aside their preconceptions and opinions about the politics or attitude or positioning of Godspeed You! Black Emperor. I really pushed everyone to spend an extra bit of time the day of the awards to sit and listen to the music. I told them that this isn't music for every day; it's not music that you can put on in the background and be satisfied with, but if you're able to give it your full attention, you can really have this powerfully moving experience. You couldn't tell that to people who were trying to make a clever choice, so the group's win really signaled that all these critics went back to their rooms and sat in the dark listening to this music on headphones and really feeling it with all their hearts, which was so cool."
Winning album: Tanya Tagaq's Animism
Grand juror/affiliation: Stephen Cooke (Chronicle Herald)
Experience in grand jury room: "It was a whole new experience for me, for sure, and I didn't know what to expect going in. I don't really get to debate music. I write about it and I debate in my head, but certainly not at work and certainly not in any other public forums do I get the chance to duke it out about music. What struck me about the whole weekend -- from the dinner through to the final jury process -- was the passion that everybody had for music. People were championing different records, but they also liked some of the others, so it was interesting, the back-and-forth, and hearing what people had to say about records that I had been spending the last few days really going over with a fine tooth comb and hearing what they got out of it and how it affected them and how that differed from how they affected me, or if they affected me at all [laughs]. That level of enthusiasm and combined depth of knowledge in one place was a pretty great experience."
Core argument for Animism: "it just felt like the strongest album of the year in terms of a unique artistic voice. I had not heard another record like that. I'd heard Tanya's other records, but this collaboration with Jesse [Zubot] was unlike anything I had ever heard before. Because of the things she had been saying about the disappearance of aboriginal women, just how it tied into bigger picture for First Nation and Inuit People in Canada, the record had this meaning in the songs beyond simply a good collection of songs. There was a depth of feeling to it that was unlike any other record on the list. It was hard to put into words. I was stunned when she won, because my argument skills are not the greatest, but something came out of it. The record hit me on a gut level and it was hard to summarize, but it felt like the most Canadian record of the finalists. It said a lot about the landscape and the North and the voice so clearly. It was one of the best weekends of my life but it could never be topped."
Shortlist: Drake's If You're Reading This It's Too Late; Tobias Jesso Jr.'s Goon; The New Pornographers' Brill Bruisers; Buffy Sainte-Marie's Power In The Blood; the soon-to-be-renamed Viet Cong and Alvvays for their respective self-titled albums; BADBADNOTGOOD & Ghostface Killah's Sour Soul; Braids's Deep In The Iris; Caribou's Our Love; and Jennifer Castle for Pink City.