Polaris

Meet the 10 artists shortlisted for the 2020 Polaris Music Prize

This year's contenders are a mix of new and familiar artists.

This year's contenders are a mix of new and familiar artists

This year's Polaris Music Prize short list includes albums by, from left: Jessie Reyez, Backxwash and Kaytranada. (Getty Images, Bianca LC, Getty Images; graphic by CBC)

The 2020 Polaris Music Prize short list is here. 

Following a similar reveal as last year, this year's 10 nominees were announced on CBC Music, in a radio special hosted by Angeline Tetteh-Wayoe. (Listen to the full special here.)

This year's list is an even split of new and familiar names, with five previously shortlisted acts going up against five first-timers. Of the five who have been nominated before, three have already won: Caribou, Kaytranada and Lido Pimienta. Scroll down to learn more about each nominee. 

Due to the ongoing pandemic, Polaris has chosen not to host a winner's gala this year. Instead, the short list will be celebrated in a special cinematic tribute, which will take place on Oct. 19, and will be broadcast in Canada on CBC Gem, CBC Music's Facebook, Twitter and YouTube pages and around the globe at cbcmusic.ca/polaris. The winner of the 2020 Polaris Music Prize and the $50,000 cash prize will be revealed live at the end of that event.

For this special, Polaris is searching for Canadian filmmakers to create commissioned films honouring each shortlisted album. For more information, head over to the Polaris website.

Listen to CBC Music's Polaris Picks playlist now, and read on for introductions to this year's short list nominees.


Name: Backxwash
Album: God has Nothing to do With This Leave him out of It
Hometown: Montreal, via Lusaka, Zambia
Release date: May 28, 2020
Polaris history: This is Backxwash's first Polaris short list nomination. She was also longlisted for Deviancy this year. 

About the album: Arresting, urgent and in your face, God has Nothing to do With This Leave him out of It is the album rapper/producer Backxwash has been working toward during her relatively short career. The production is industrial and explosive, surprising listeners at every turn by combining everything from televangelical sermons, Zambian singer Angela Nyirenda and church choirs to samples from Led Zeppelin, Patti Smith and Black Sabbath. The self-titled track begins with Ozzy Osbourne yelling, "Oh no no, please God help me," a plea that is all the more haunting given the title of the album.

Over this uneasy sonic bed, Backxwash explores issues of faith and identity, particularly the transfeminine experience. "Feel like you lost a son but you gained a daughter," she raps on "Redemption," a sparse, deeply personal song that closes the album. "Before you write, you ask yourself 'Are people ready to listen to this? Are people ready to receive these lyrics the way they are?'" she said in an interview with Bandcamp, adding, "Am I ready for people to listen to these lyrics?" Ready or not, the album is a powerful statement that demands our attention. 

Recommended if you like: Death Grips, JPEGMAFIA, Danny Brown, Run the Jewels

Backxwash's album God Has Nothing to Do With This Leave Him Out of It is on the 2020 Polaris Music Prize Short List. 2:03

Name: Caribou
Album: Suddenly 
Hometown: Dundas, Ont.
Release date: Feb. 28, 2020
Polaris history: Caribou's Andorra won the third Polaris Music Prize in 2008. Since then, Caribou has made two more appearances on the Polaris short list: in 2010 for Swim and 2015 for Our Love

About the album: Ten albums in, Caribou frontman Dan Snaith continues to find new ways to grow and evolve his brand of dance music. Suddenly is his first new Caribou album in six years, following up the Polaris shortlisted Our Love, and it picks up where things left off. Looking inward and exploring themes of loss and grief, Suddenly is one of Snaith's best and most personal albums to date. While the dance-floor bangers that made albums like 2010's Swim a breakout are still there ("Never Come Back" being a highlight), many of these songs embrace a more toned-down sound that uses samples, hip-hop influences and Snaith's tender vocals to build something just as compelling and beautiful as any of his previous work.  

Recommended if you like: Four Tet, Floating Points, Hot Chip

Caribou's album Suddenly is on the 2020 Polaris Music Prize Short List. 1:50

Name: Junia-T
Album: Studio Monk
Hometown: Mississauga
Release date: Jan. 24
Polaris history: This is Junia-T's first Polaris nomination. 

About the album: As the story goes, Toronto rapper/producer/DJ Junia-T was ready to quit music, but instead channelled his frustrations into making one of the best Canadian albums of the year. It was a two-year journey in which Junia-T surrounded himself with like-minded creatives and embraced his inner Quincy Jones, as he told Complex. Junia-T moved his rapping to the background and instead focused on producing and sequencing a front-to-back classic, an album that takes the listener down various sonic paths that end up in the same place at the end.

With an impressive roster of guests — such as Jessie Reyez (a longtime friend, he was also her tour DJ), River Tiber, Faiza, Storry, Sean Leon and more — Studio Monk effortlessly traverses genre and compartmentalization. Whether it's radio-ready hits ("Sad Face Emojis" with Reyez), jazz improvisations ("Tommy's Intro"), laid-back rap with a touch of soul ("Ooowee" with Elijah Dax) or boom bap and bars ("Complicated" with Adam Bomb), Studio Monk has something for everyone. 

Recommended if you like: Kaytranada, Frank Ocean, Anderson. Paak, Jessie Reyez

Junia-T's album Studio Monk is on the Polaris Music Prize 2020 Short List. 1:49

Name: Kaytranada
Album: Bubba
Hometown: Montreal
Release date: Dec. 13, 2019
Polaris history: Kaytranada's debut album, 99,9%, won the 2017 Polaris Music Prize.

About the album: When Kaytranada's Bubba was released at the tail end of 2019, reviewers praised it as a "dance album front-to-back" and an "addictive club record" with "more-is-more production." And while the album does boast some tremendously danceable beats and richly layered sounds, these descriptions belie the subtlety employed by Kaytranada to evoke various moods across its 17 tracks. "Oh No" pairs bongos (and not much else) with British soul superstar Estelle; "What You Need" updates '90s pop as a vehicle for Charlotte Day Wilson's stylish singing; instrumental track "Scared to Death" is a swarm of insects that have come from the future to torment you; Island beats infuse "Need It" and "Midsection;" "Taste" is a delicious disco number, and in President Obama-endorsed "Go DJ," SiR enlists you in an irresistible call and response. As with 2016's 99,9%, these diverse emotional states flow ingeniously from start to finish and have got Kaytranada poised to pull off the Polaris Music Prize's first two-peat.

Recommended if you like: The Internet, Thundercat, Col3trane, Free Nationals.

Kaytranada's album Bubba is on the 2020 Polaris Music Prize Short List. 1:59

Name: nêhiyawak
Album: nipiy
Hometown: amiskwaciy (Edmonton) 
Release date: Oct. 24, 2019
Polaris history: This is the band's first appearance on both the Polaris long and short lists.

About the album: nêhiyawak skillfully merges traditional storytelling with modern sounds for music that simultaneously propels you forward while digging deep to shine light on the past — all of which is a bit difficult to classify. So Kris Harper, one-third of the band, gave it a shoegaze-adjacent label. "I created the term moccasin gaze to describe something that did not exist," he tweeted earlier this year. "Excited about the traction, exciting for new voices. Listen closely, genre is a colonial trap." 

Harper and bandmates Marek Tyler (Harper's cousin) and Matthew Cardinal hail from amiskwaciy, also known as Edmonton, on Treaty 6 territory, and nipiy is their debut full-length. The album title is Cree for "water," as the element holds a distinct rhythm throughout the album, bookending it with songs dedicated to the North Saskatchewan River. Working with traditional drums, powwow beats, a one-of-a-kind synthesizer and the flow of water, nehiyawak's music slides along the lines of rock, pop and ambient music while being firmly rooted in place and a sense of self. "Nipiy is for those who don't seem to fit in for a myriad of reasons," explains Harper. "To inspire others to use their voice and to send messages to future generations."

Recommended if you like: Half Moon Run, Whoop-Szo, Agnes Obel

nêhiyawak's album nipiy is on the Polaris Music Prize 2020 Short List. 1:41

Name: Pantayo
Album: Pantayo
Hometown: Eirene Cloma: North Vancouver; Michelle Cruz: Mandaluyong, Philippines; Joanna Delos Reyes: Tondo, Philippines; Katrina and Kat Estacio: Pasig, Philippines.
Release date: May 8, 2020
Polaris history: This is the band's first appearance on both the Polaris long and short lists. 

About the album: Pantayo's self-titled debut album is a stunning collection, a skillful layering of traditional kulintang music with pop, R&B and even punk influences for a sound that builds on tradition while feeling genuinely modern. The all-women, queer Filipinx crew is based in Toronto, where the founding members met at a Philippine arts and culture centre in 2012. Together they started workshopping kulintang, a musical tradition played on sets of gongs from the Southern Philippines and parts of Southeast Asia, forming what they've since called a "super girl gong group."

Pantayo, a word meaning "for us" in Tagalog, is the collective story of current members Eirene Cloma, Michelle Cruz, Joanna Delos Reyes, and sisters Kat and Katrina Estacio, one that mixes Tagalog and English lyrics with the sounds of their Filipino heritage and a DIY aesthetic that breaks down genre walls — creating connections in their place instead of erecting new walls. Pantayo is a delightful surprise on the Polaris short list, and one that we're glad to have.   

Recommended if you like: Zaki Ibrahim, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Kimmortel, Lido Pimienta

Pantayo's eponymous album is on the 2020 Polaris Music Prize Short List. 1:45

Name: Lido Pimienta
Album: Miss Colombia
Hometown: Barranquilla, Colombia, before moving to London, Ont.
Release date: April 17, 2020
Polaris history: Lido Pimienta's debut album, La Papessa, won the 2017 Polaris Prize.

About the album: Wading into the first tracks of Lido Pimienta's Miss Colombia is the musical equivalent of submerging in a warm pool of water, draped in sunlight and surrounded by lush greenery. Time stops, and the distinct feeling of oneness with the world around you is heavy. Pimienta's unmistakably skilled vocals, paired with exquisite Afro-Colombian instrumentation, serve as this type of conduit to what's sacred, what's "home" — musically honouring the roots and textures that influenced her, while lyrically challenging the oppressive systems and states that have been built overtop of them. Sung almost entirely in Spanish, Miss Colombia is a resilient statement that demands political accountability and rises above past heartbreak, all while painted in colours so dazzling that you can't help but feel hope for a brighter future.

Recommended if you like: FKA Twigs, Helado Negro, Y La Bamba, A Tribe Called Red

Lido Pimienta's album Miss Colombia is on the 2020 Polaris Music Prize Short List. 1:50

Name: Jessie Reyez
Album: Before Love Came to Kill Us 
Hometown: Brampton, Ont.
Release date: March 27, 2020
Polaris history: This is Reyez's second year in a row on the short list. Last year, she was nominated for her EP Being Human in Public. Her first EP, Kiddo, was longlisted in 2017.

About the album: Kicking off your album with the line "I should've f--ked your friends" is a bold move, but one that fits perfectly with Jessie Reyez's unapologetic personality. The Grammy-nominated, Juno-winning R&B singer has been a rising star for years off the strength of early EPs. Before Love Came to Kill Us marks her official full-length debut, a collection of old and new tracks that fearlessly lay out all of Reyez's feelings of love, heartbreak, revenge and empowerment, sometimes all at once. But Reyez, armed with a powerful and emotive voice, proves here that she can do it all, from tender love ballads to the more bombastic moments that deliver lines like the one she opens with. This album is just the momentous beginning to what will be a long-running, successful career ahead. 

Recommended if you like: Teyana Taylor, Kehlani, 6lack, H.E.R.

Jessie Reyez's album Before Love Came to Kill Us is on the 2020 Polaris Music Prize Short List. 1:40

Name: U.S. Girls
Album: Heavy Light
Hometown: Toronto (originally from Chicago)
Release date: March 6, 2020
Polaris history: This is U.S. Girls' third appearance on the Polaris Music Prize short list in five years. Her two previous albums, Half Free and In a Poem Unlimited, were nominated in 2016 and 2018, respectively. 

About the album: U.S. Girls' latest album is crowded with voices, but make no mistake: Heavy Light is still very much the singular vision of leader Meg Remy. As the sonic palette expands here to include more singers and collaborators (Basia Bulat, Rich Morel; vocal arrangements by Kritty Uranowski), the subject matter — often a Venn diagram of the personal and political — continues to dig deeper into the mind of Remy as she looks both backward and forward in time in search for introspection. Fans of Remy will recognize some old cuts polished anew on Heavy Light ("Overtime," "Red Ford Radio"), and the album's interludes offer her guests to reflect on past experiences and their younger selves. But the real triumph of the album is its ability to illuminate a path ahead that offers a glimpse, even if so slightly, of hope. 

Recommended if you like: David Bowie, Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen, Debbie Harry, Basia Bulat

U.S. Girls' album Hard Light is on the 2020 Polaris Music Prize Short List. 1:38

Name: Witch Prophet
Album: DNA Activation
Hometown: Born in Kenya, raised in Toronto
Release date: March 24, 2020
Polaris history: This is Witch Prophet's first time on the Polaris Music prize long and short lists.

About the album: DNA Activation is a wild and creative excavation of the sacred and the spiritual, and it's as intense and personal as it is joyful and inspiring. Witch Prophet and her partner and co-producer SUN SUN have crafted a record full of purpose and intention. DNA Activation is a deliberately feminist queering of sonic and linguistic landscapes — the songs are a cool collective tangle of jazz, R&B, hip hop and soul sung in English, Amharic, and Tigrinya — fuelled by Witch Prophet's Ethiopian and Eritrean roots, and inspired by her own family members, mythology, and Bible stories. "I will not forget that power lies in me," Witch Prophet sings, and with her aptly titled new album, she delivers on that promise. (From CBC Music's 2020 Spring Preview)

Recommended if you like: Ibeyi, Lido Pimienta, THEESatisfaction, SassyBlack, Missy D, Noname

Witch Prophet's album DNA Activation is on the 2020 Polaris Music Prize Short List. 1:54

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