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Polaris Prize 2020 - The Soundtrack Picks

By: Dakota Arsenault

Polaris Prize 2020 is here, and here are The Soundtrack's picks.

I have had the pleasure of attending six Polaris Prize galas, three as a writer, and three as a photographer. It has become one of my favourite times of the year. Everyone who is anyone important in Canadian music gathers at The Carlu in Toronto as we get to witness up to ten performances from the most important Canadian acts of the year. I first learned of the Polaris Prize back in 2013 when Godspeed You! Black Emperor won and I watched the CBC live stream and haven’t looked back.

In 2019, I covered the Polaris Prize for The Soundtrack and am excited to do it again this year from home due to COVID19. In the past I ran mock juries and decided to revive the concept this year. I asked nine other Soundtrack contributors (and myself) to listen to all ten nominated albums and then rank them in a preferential ballot from first to tenth as if they were an actual jury member. Now, this isn’t how the Polaris Prize is actually handed out (they eliminate albums on a round by round basis until they have a winner), but it is still a very fun experiment.

I now present to you: 2020 The Soundtrack Polaris Prize Winner! For each album, I received a quote from a jury member who rated that album very highly about what makes that record so special. Special thanks to Gemma Mastroianni, Alex Rodobolski, Amanda McMillan, Tye Hardy, Erica Gellert, John Mendoza, Jayben Favila, Stephanie Prior, and Jared Burke for participating and making this happen.

Make sure you check out this awesome playlist from the nominated albums on Spotify. Unfortunately, Backxwash isn’t on Spotify at the moment, but you can see the top tracks when that record is discussed below.

Each voter was asked to rank the albums from one through ten, a first-place vote received 1 point, a second-place vote got 2 points all the way up to tenth where they got 10 points. Similar to golf, the album with the lowest score appears at the top of our list.

10. Pantayo - Pantayo

Pantayo is a four-piece Filipino-Canadian group that brings their heritage into modern indie rock. They team up with Alaska B from their long time colleagues Yamantaka // Sonic Titan (who previously have been nominated twice for the Polaris themselves). The result was bringing the Kulintang, an ancient way of composing music that has many gongs and drums affixed together to make a percussive melody that would make Neil Peart re-evaluate his set up. This is Pantayo’s first nomination.

“Pantayo's eponymous album deconstructs genre and cultural identity, with each song standing out as sonically unique from one another. Armed with the traditional Kulintang metallophone drums of the Philippines, this queer Filipina band carefully crafts refreshing takes on American R&B, contemporary punk, and electronic pop.” - John Mendoza

Top tracks: V V V (They Lie), Heto Na

Total Points: 64

Number ones: 0

Highest Ranking: 3

Lowest Ranking: 9

9. Witch Prophet - DNA Activation

Etmet Musa who is Ethiopian and Eritrean brings both of her cultures to make some groovy and out of the world RnB as she sings in English, Amharic, and Tigrinya. The album feels like a warm blanket, comforting the listener even if the meanings of the songs might not be noticeable on first listens. This is Witch Prophet’s first nomination.

"This album is an eclectic masterpiece from front to back. With so many different genres incorporated and a flawless flow with no filler tracks, this is one of the smoothest and exciting listens I've heard in 2020". - Alex Rodobolski

Top tracks: Makda, Tesfay

Total Points: 61

Number ones: 0

Highest Ranking: 2

Lowest Ranking: 9

8. Lido Pimienta - Miss Colombia

Lido Pimienta returns with her follow up record to 2017’s Polaris Prize winner La Papessa. That album was more stripped down and allowed her voice to be the star, here she also lets her music flourish as high as her vocals. Pimienta is a favourite of the Canadian industry and of the three previous winners in this year’s crop, she likely stands the best chance of making history.

“A break up album in a non-traditional sense, Lido Pimienta fuses multiple cultural styles to create a dream-like yet danceable listen.” - Stephanie Prior

Top tracks: Te Queria, Nada

Total Points: 61

Number ones: 0

Highest Ranking: 2

Lowest Ranking: 10

7. Backxwash - God Has Nothing to Do With This Leave Him Out of It

Backxwash only came onto the scene two years ago with her debut EP, but the Zambian rapper didn’t waste any time getting noticed. She now resides in Montreal after coming to Quebec for university. Her political frustrations are on full display as she samples such unorthodox artists as Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. She is a part of a new vanguard of new hip-hop artists body checking the genre into new directions. This is Backxwash’s first nomination.

“Backxwash’s new album brings rap to a whole new level with dark ambience and aggressive vocals. There is no holding back on this release, and is full throttle from beginning to end.” -Tye Hardy

Top tracks: Into The Void, Black Magic

Total Points: 57

Number ones: 2 (John, Alex)

Highest Ranking: 1

Lowest Ranking: 10

6. Junia-T - Studio Monk

Junia-T made a name for himself as the tour DJ for fellow nominee Jessie Reyez, who of course makes an appearance on his lush and dense record that is perfect for either vibing out to or starting a dance party. Other high profile guests include River Tiber and Sean Leon along with a smattering of fellow Toronto acts like Adam Bomb and STORRY. This is Junia-T’s first nomination.

“Junia-T’s Studio Monk had a mix of absolutely everything. Featuring slower jams that pack a punch, like “Know Better” and upbeat anthems like “Sad Face Emoji”- this album is sexy and has something for everyone.” - Erica Gellert

Top tracks: Ooowee, Home Team

Total Points: 54

Number ones: 0

Highest Ranking: 2

Lowest Ranking: 9

5. Jessie Reyez - Before Love Came to Kill Us

This is Jessie Reyez second nomination in as many years and only her first full length album. Her second EP Being Human in Public, made the cut last year despite only being seven songs long. She’s back along with her long-standing working relationship with Eminem and brings on 6lack too. She is a worldwide superstar in the making and we likely haven’t seen her last Polaris nomination.

“Jessie Reyez shows how the theme of romance and how heartbreak can lead to the death of us. Reyez’s versatility as an artist throughout the album starts off with her signature R&B roots leading into a modern pop sound that is powered by her signature voice.” - Jayben Favila


Total Points: 53

Number ones: 4 (Jayben, Tye, Stephanie, Erica)

Highest Ranking: 1

Lowest Ranking: 10

4. U.S. Girls - Heavy Light

Meg Remy was born in the United States but married Canadian musician Slim Twig, so she is eligible to win the top Canadian album of the year. This is U.S. Girls third nomination in five years with 2016’s Half Free and 2018’s In a Poem Unlimited making the short list. Her music continues to get more personal with each subsequent record. Will this finally be the year she breaks through and wins though?

“Meg Remy continues to expand her sound incorporating more jazz elements, while making her album even more deeply personal yet still cryptic enough to leave the listener to debate songs' meaning. In between tearfully thinking about past mistakes made as a teen you’ll be dancing as her voice soars over the beats.” - Dakota Arsenault

Top tracks: 4 American Dollars, Overtime

Total Points: 52

Number ones: 1 (Dakota)

Highest Ranking: 1

Lowest Ranking: 10

3. Caribou - Suddenly

Dan Snaith has previously been nominated three times, winning top honours back in 2008 with Andorra (Swim and Our Love were the other albums). He’s back with another funky record to make you dance in your home (since clubs aren’t really open). His sound has remained fairly consistent album to album so one wonders if he has done enough to separate himself from the pack and become the first two-time winner.

“This album is an eclectic masterpiece from front to back. With so many different genres incorporated and a flawless flow with no filler tracks, this is one of the smoothest and exciting listens I've heard in 2020.” - Gemma Mastroianni

Top tracks: You and I, Never Come Back

Total Points: 47

Number ones: 1 (Gemma)

Highest Ranking: 1

Lowest Ranking: 9

2. Kaytranada - Bubba

Kaytranada previously won the Polaris Prize back in 2015 for his album 99.9% becoming the first black artist to do so and the first winner to feature elements of hip-hop making his win very special and unique changing the course of Polaris history. He’s back with an even grander album with guest features from Mick Jenkins, Kali Uchis, Estelle, Charlotte Day Wilson, Pharrell, Tinashe and much more.

“KAYTRANADA has captured the evolved sound of so-called Canada with every track on Bubba; worldly, creative, tense. Boasting brilliant collaborations, and a beat that never stops, Bubba is exactly the album we needed to get us through to the other side of just about anything. It is pure excellence.” -Amanda

Top tracks: What You Need, Gray Area

Total Points: 43

Number ones: 1 (Jared)

Highest Ranking: 1

Lowest Ranking: 7

1. Nêhiyawak - nipiy

Nêhiyawak who previously put out two EP’s and then got noticed and signed to Arts & Crafts, the label run by Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew. The band who’s name is another name for Cree People poured their history and culture of the modern indigenous people of Canada into their album and it shows as they received a Juno nomination as well. The band’s mixture of English and Plains Cree showcase their unique and vibrant voices. This is Nêhiyawak’s first nomination.

“If 2020 has taught us anything, it's that we need to infuse beauty and nuance into the things that we have been taking for granted. We've been taking alt-rock for granted for years now, and Nêhiyawak has delicately reinfused beauty, and majesty, and an authentic heartbeat back into the genre with every track on nipiy. A treasure of an album, rich with meaning, intention, and a healthy dose of grit.” -Amanda

Top tracks: Somnambulist, Copper

Total Points: 41

Number ones: 1 (Amanda)

Highest Ranking: 1

Lowest Ranking: 10

There you have it: who The Soundtrack jury thinks should win the 2020 Polaris Prize! We wish the nominees the best of luck and can’t wait to see who wins. The Polaris Prize digital ceramony will take place on Monday, October 19th and will be streamed on CBC’s website and YouTube. There will be more great Polaris content coming your way. Thanks again to everyone that participated. Who do you think deserves to win this year?


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