Place your bets: here are our favourites to win the 2011 Polaris Prize

Just because Arcade Fire has won every prize in the known universe doesn’t mean it’ll be a cakewalk

The Suburbs, Arcade Fire’s concept album about tract housing ennui, has already netted the Montreal-based band an Album of the Year Grammy, the Best International Album award at the 2011 Brit Awards and the Juno Award for Album Of The Year. All that’s left now is planning the parade for its inevitable win at the prestigious Polaris Music Prize gala on Sept. 19 in Toronto, right?

Not quite. Arcade Fire’s victory won’t be so easy or clear-cut.

The Polaris Prize, which honours “the best full-length Canadian album based on artistic merit, regardless of genre, sales, or record label,” has frequently been awarded to unlikely outsiders (see: Karkwa’s victory in 2010, F–ked Up’s in 2009, or Patrick Watson’s in 2007).

If you were to consensus-build from the nationwide cast of over 200 music journalists, bloggers, radio programmers and producers whose votes are used to pick the top 10 nominees, then yeah, Arcade Fire would probably rule the day. But the larger jury pool is used only to create the short list. On decision day, a “grand jury” of 11 carefully selected jurors get locked up in a room, papal conclave-style, and told not to come out until they pick a winner. The kicker: unlike the groupthink-y greater jury pool, the grand jury is selected in part by ensuring that every one of the nominated albums has an unofficial if obvious advocate in the room, making the playing field theoretically even.

Luckily for all you music-obsessed gambling types, we have painstakingly analyzed the candidacies of the 10 short-listed albums and come up with the Official Maclean’s Betting Lines for the 2011 Polaris Music Prize:

25-to-1: Braids | Native Speaker

The hook:
The Montreal-via-Calgary art rock group re-imagines the hazy, glazy shoegaze rock scene that was all the rage in the early ’90s, anchored by Raphaelle Standell-Preston’s alternatingly breathy/Bjorky vocals.

What needs to happen for this album to win:
For Braids to win, the grand jury has to forget they heard other albums this year by sonically similar trend-riders like Cults, Tennis, Warpaint and Gang Gang Dance. That’s not going to happen.

Braids | “Plath Heart”

25-to-1: Hey Rosetta! | Seeds

The hook:
Hey Rosetta! are basically what Arcade Fire would be if they were from St. John’s, Nfld., and had about 83 per cent more “Aw shucks” about them.

What needs to happen for this album to win:
Hey Rosetta! will not win. Do not bet on them. What they represent, however, is the number one threat to Arcade Fire since their almost-as-epic pop-rock could steal some of the votes from their big-name cousins from Montreal.

Hey Rosetta! | “Bandages”

15-to-1: Austra | Feel It Break

The hook:
Led by classically trained opera singer Katie Stelmanis, Toronto band Austra do gothy, Depeche Mode-inspired electro music for witches.

What needs to happen for this album to win:
There needs to be more people on the grand jury who wear capes unironically. Although Austra will get a bump from being the only remotely “dance” record on the short list, it’s going to be tough to make Feel It Break‘s zappy song-spells work on jurors.

Austra | “Lose It”

14-to-1: Timber Timbre | Creep On Creepin’ On

The hook:
Y’know the story of how legendary bluesman Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads? Nobody will be surprised if it comes out Lucifer also owns the spirit essence of Taylor Kirk, the main man behind Timber Timbre’s creepy swamp folk.

What needs to happen for this album to win:
For Timber Timbre to win, there’d have to be enough people on the grand jury who kept dead birds hidden under their beds as pets when they were kids. That’s not likely. And with Austra in the mix to split the witch/warlock vote, it’s not looking like 2011 is going to be the year for super-creepy tunes.

Timber Timbre | “Black Water”

12-to-1: Galaxie | Tigre et Diesel

The hook:
Take bits of T. Rex and Primal Scream, put them in a French-singing band from Montreal, and you’ve got a Québécois rock ‘n’ roll party dans la discothèque.

What needs to happen for this album to win:
By far the closest thing to a “rawk” band on the list, Galaxie are a lock with those jurors who think Some Girls was The Rolling Stones’ best album. Weighing against them will be the fact that Karkwa, another francophone band, won last year and music critics will subconsciously revolt against a repeat.

Galaxie | “Piste 1”

11-to-2: Destroyer | Kaputt

The hook:
Dan Bejar, the Vancouver-based brains behind Destroyer, revisits smooth ’80s cocaine balladeers like Spandau Ballet and O.M.D. with a twist. Kaputt is as much about the comedown—think Robert Downey Jr.’s character in Less Than Zero—as it is the yacht rock.

What needs to happen for this album to win:
This engaging album runs deeper than its smooth saxophone bits and faithful reproduction of me-me-me generation music would indicate. If jurors can get past their “Careless Whisper” flashbacks this could be a dark horse.

Destroyer | “Kaputt”

5-to-1 Ron Sexsmith | Long Player Late Bloomer

The hook:
The Rodney Dangerfield of Canadian singer-songwriters, Toronto’s Ron Sexsmith has earned his don’t-get-no-respect rep from decades of crafting meticulous songs that never quite seem to get him to that next level.

What needs to happen for this album to win:
In past years, records like Long Player Late Bloomer have been quickly dismissed by grand juries as mom music. Throw in the fact that populist producer Bob Rock (Aerosmith, Bon Jovi, Our Lady Peace) was brought in on this album to heighten its commercial appeal and the result would normally be Polaris juror kryptonite. These are not normal times, however. Sexsmith, by virtue of having the only genuinely “normal” person’s record on the short list represents an oasis for jurors who just want to hear a good ol’ love song. If there’s going to be a shocker win, this will be it.

Ron Sexsmith | “Love Shines”

4-to-1: Colin Stetson | New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges

The hook:
The Montreal-based saxophonist to the indie stars (he also plays on Arcade Fire and Timber Timbre’s nominated albums, and has worked with the likes of Tom Waits, David Byrne and Feist), has created an album of apocalyptic ambient jazz skronk.

What needs to happen for this album to win:
This is exactly the sort of album music critics magnetically gravitate to. It’s strange and unique and inhabited with the same sort of peculiar solo virtuosity that saw the grand jury reward violinist Final Fantasy with the Polaris Prize in 2006. If the grand jury’s historical pattern of bold decisions continues, this is a likely beneficiary.

Colin Stetson | “Judges”

5-to-2 The Weeknd | House Of Balloons

The hook:
Toronto’s progressive soul upstart Abel Tesfaye is a man of mystery. He doesn’t do interviews, rarely plays shows, and gave House Of Balloons away for free online. He’s also got Drake as an “unofficial” cheerleader.

What needs to happen for this album to win:
Naysayers would argue that The Weeknd’s success is as much due to next-level marketing as substance. Or that the album’s lyrics are misogynist and the accompanying music is just polished 20-year-old trip-hop beats. And they’d be right. But what they’re missing is the fact that House Of Balloons speaks to listless young urbanites in much the same way rapper Mike Skinner, better known as The Streets, did to British youth in the early 2000s. If some sort of “CBC music” vote-splitting rat king sucks up Arcade Fire, Hey Rosetta!, Sexsmith, Timber Timbre and Austra, The Weeknd will be the obvious beneficiary. The big question: if Tesfaye wins, will he even show up to accept the award?

The Weeknd | “The Zone (feat. Drake)”

2-to-1: Arcade Fire | The Suburbs

The hook:
The Montreal rockers have turned box stores, manicured lawns and bored-bored-bored youngsters into a concept album that perfectly captures suburban angst.

What needs to happen for this album to win:
First, Arcade Fire need to overcome the fact no Polaris grand jury has ever handed the prize to the most popular act on the short list (see: Metric in 2006, Feist in 2007, Kathleen Edwards in 2008, K’naan in 2009, and Broken Social Scene in 2010). Then jurors need to get past the argument, “The suburbs suck? Isn’t that what every Sum 41/Green Day/Blink-182 album for the last 15 years was about?” Finally, it sounds petty, but it’s quite likely there’ll be multiple jurors who’ve been “Arcade-snubbed” in the past—perpetually turned down for interviews, declined access to special shows, etc. The sin of pride could rear its head during juror balloting.

That said, The Suburbs has to remain the favourite. It’s grand, it’s bold and it’s the first short-listed record in Polaris’ six-year existence that’s been an actual, legitimate worldwide hit. Any grand jurors with a sense of history will have a hard time voting against an album that, in relative terms, is to music fans in 2011 what Nirvana’s Nevermind was to 1991.

Arcade Fire | “The Suburbs”

[Aaron Brophy is a music writer and one-half of the website, His hockey team, the Hack HC, frequently competes against various Maclean’s staffers in Toronto’s Good Times Hockey League Of The Arts. It’s where they’ve learned to not bet against him.]