Mary Margaret O'Hara – To Cry About (1988)
With this week's announcement that the Polaris Music Prize will debut a "heritage" award honouring albums released prior to the main prize's 2006 launch, I'm hoping we won't just see a re-beatification of classics by Leonard Cohen, Rush, Oscar Peterson, etc., but proper acknowledgment of occasionally overlooked gems by artists such as Royal City, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Kardinal Offishall. Organizers have yet to announce the award's methodology – I'd love it if it helped lesser-known treasures shoulder past canon-consensus picks. Every Canadian music fan has a roll of forgotten favourites a kilometre long.
On my own list of sweethearts, Mary Margaret O'Hara's Miss America rests at number one. I am not the only person for whom this intimate, infinite album occupies a special space. And yet it remains relatively obscure, woefully out of print. We adorers have to quietly, privately listen to its slo-mo ecstasies, its asking and answers, like Astral Weeks through the reverb'd filter of Toronto's eighties electric. We have to put To Cry About and Body's In Trouble on repeat, dreaming that an award's attention could lure O'Hara out of retirement, cajole that rumoured follow-up off its studio tape and into waiting space. When they are at their best, prizes like Polaris don't just commemorate the past: They change the future.
Alabama Shakes – Dunes (2015)
This wonderfully peculiar song has Brittany Howard's pleading vocals and the whole band's thundering guitars, but beyond the drought and lightning storm there's above all a sense of mischief. "I don't know whose fuck to give," Howard sings, and you can hear the way she's balanced precariously between giving and not giving one F. Led Zep's seventies riffs are filtered up through the stuff of Wilco or Unknown Mortal Orchestra, and Dunes' psychedelia seems founded on nothing more freaky than the fact of being a plain human being with a wacked-out human heart.
The Weather Station – Tapes (2015)
For Tamara Lindeman, I think these four minutes and seventeen seconds must be more precious than any coins or folded bills. Maybe not the seconds themselves but the moment she is singing into: a recollection, a wish, the wake of a tall, reverberating ghost. Tapes tells the story of listening to another person's songs; of hearing another person's voice, on a cassette, after their death. Lindeman sat and heard – the sound of footsteps, the sound of a "high, strange voice," the sound of a singer drawing a song into being.
Lindeman sings, "Trying to sing what you meant, late at night – it was too important." She is imagining the departed singer and their little recorder: the melody murmured into midnight air, before forgetting. But this line might also stand for what the Weather Station is attempting: trying to sing the same important thing, the same scant song, years later. Trying to hear and know and repeat what the other person felt. Trying to be an echo, down the procession of the hours.
Sean Michaels received the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize for his novel Us Conductors. He is the editor of the music blog Said the Gramophone.