Photographs by Katrina Lat.
When celebrated singer Buffy Saint-Marie came out on stage to announce this year’s winner of the Polaris Music Prize, she received a standing ovation like no other. She tried to ignore the cheers as she fumbled with the envelope, having to pass it off to the hosts to open. She took a bow to acknowledge the reception she was getting. For someone with the discography that she has, it’s a shame it takes the Polaris Music Prize to award her the album of the year in 2015 for people to give her the respect a legend like her deserves. Really though, each passing year proves that the Polaris is the definitive award given out and allows its winners finally get their due. As Saint-Marie pulled out the magic piece of paper that would award the winner $50,000 and the title of Best Canadian Album, she giggled and couldn’t hide her excitement as she announced Kaytranada for his album 99.9% as the latest name to go down in history. Even though he didn’t perform, he was still seated at a table right by the front of the stage and his tablemates started hooting and hollering and banging on the stage they were seated in front of. Kaytranada, who’s real name is Louis Kevin Celestin, bounded up the stairs to give Buffy Saint-Marie a hug and the Montrealer, in French thanked his adopted home city before a smile so huge came across his face and he blurted out “I don’t know what to say, it’s crazy! Thank you very much” and walked off stage in disbelief. Kaytranada’s win marks the first time a Hip-Hop album won the top prize and only the second electronic album (after Caribou’s 2008 win) showing just how diverse our countries music is. Adding Hip-Hop/Electronic to the list means that the Polaris Prize has been awarded to Chamber Pop, Political Punk, French Indie Rock, Folk Pop, Instrumental Post Punk, Inuit Throat Singing and more. Critics used to complain that the Prize was too safe, or white, but the last three winners have been people of colour, six of the eleven winners have had females in their groups, there have now been two openly gay winners, one Francophone album and only three albums (this year’s included) that really made a dent on the pop charts making the Prize as diverse and inclusive as a music award could possible be.
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The night at The Carlu started out with Black Mountain taking the stage to perform Mothers Of The Sun from their record IV, a pulsing deep bass and organ infused psychedelic rock song. The giant LED back drop had a giant red blinking light like HAL 9000 was transmitting the bands message to the crowd. The band appears to be the heir to the throne that bands like Black Sabbath and Jefferson Airplane used to hold and fellow nominee Carly Rae Jepsen was seen head banging to group. I was lucky enough to sit a few seats over from the parents of one of the band members and seeing the pride on their faces every time the band was mentioned throughout the night showed the reality that the Prize has the ability to give a boost to an artist’s career like no other. In previous year’s a fellow musician, critic or friend of the nominees would get up on stage to advocate for them. This year the format was switched up as video essays were played. Boyd Devereaux, former Toronto Maple Leaf and Stanley Cup Champion (with Detroit, obviously not with Toronto), praised the band for its expansive sound and how important they are.
The show was hosted by Tom Power and Amanda Parris from the CBC, a job that normally has quite a bit comedy involved but the duo was relegated to merely announcing who was up next and thanking sponsors. If the CBC was trying to push Power as the new host of Q, they didn’t make much of an impression as at least last year Fred Penner made cracks about Drake not being in attendance and he walked out onstage in front of his iconic “log”. Polaris founder Steve Jordan came out to thank all the usual suspects, but kept it light and funny as he made digs about the Jays lack of hits and Donald Trump. His speech got real when he did a teary eyed dedication to broadcaster Andreanne Sasseville and to Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip, whom Jordan called the Godfather of the Polaris Prize and summarized it by saying “Fuck cancer” as both dedicatees are currently bravely battling the disease.
Other performers included Jessy Lanza performing songs from Oh No, who went full on 80’s dance party and celebrated Grimes and Carly Rae Jepsen subtly with her and her drummer’s bedazzled hats nodding to their works. The Toronto Symphony Orchestra backed a few of the performers including Basia Bulat who played In The Name Of from Good Advice in a gorgeous short green dress and gold boots. Bulat was also backed by a quartet of females providing backing vocals including from Meg Remy of U.S. Girls.
PUP was touring in Austria at the time of the ceremony, so they recorded a video message themselves thanking the Prize for nominating them. While there were plenty of celebrities advocated on behalf of the artists including Jeff Tweedy repping for Andy Shauf (“I hope he comes to Chicago to make music with me one day”), Amber Tambyln on behalf of White Lung (“Paradise is a very hot record”) and the legend himself Iggy Pop praising U.S. Girls (“It’s like someone put popular music through a particle collider”) but PUP arguable had the best cameo of the night. Finn Wolfhard, who plays Mike Wheeler the adorable lead boy on Stranger Things popped up in PUP’s thank you video praising their gang vocals and how it’s a total group effort on their album The Dream is Over…. The video ended with PUP playing Dungeon’s and Dragons and only rolling a two, which Wolfhard exclaimed “You got the White Lung from Grimes!”
White Lung had one of the most impressive sets, unfortunately due too the terrible mixing, Mish Way’s vocals were basically muted, a problem that seemed to dog most of the band’s and some of the video clips as well, Dev Hynes of Blood Orange was impossible to hear for his praises of Carly Rae Jepsen. Jepsen, someone who even a few years ago would have been a total shock to be ever even considered in the same breath as a contender for Best Canadian Album took the stage to play Your Type from E•MO•TION, striping the song down and having the TSO and an acoustic guitar back her up, putting her voice on display. It was disappointing that Jepsen only played one song as every other act played two (Black Mountain played one really long song though).
The best performance of the night was saved for last as U.S. Girls came to the stage. Remy started off with a stark a capella number from Half Free snapping her fingers to Sororal Feelings before breaking into her best Springsteen rendition with a blazing sax accompaniment. The deeply moving set was all everyone was talking about afterwards putting Remy squarely on center stage as someone who must be paid attention to.
By the time Kaytranada was announced as the winner it was easy to see why the ten nominees were being feted on this night. You can look no further than Tanya Tagaq as someone who has had an incredible career boost since her win, appearing at big festivals like Bonnaroo and being featured on the the new albums from July Talk and A Tribe Called Red. One can only hope that Kaytranada follows a similar trend, making important music to him while also finding the mainstream success he so richly deserves. 2015 to 2016 was a fantastic year for Canadian music, showing the world yet again we are the best in this department.
I put together my own jury for the Polaris Prize and while Grimes was easily picked to win it all both myself and Mike Gallagher ended up putting 99.9% as the second best album of the year, one that could have easily been swapped out for top spot on my list. Check out our preview HERE or listen to our LiL mix playlist featuring all ten nominees HERE.