Ah, the Junos – subject of speculation, argument, and pride.  The most-recognized Canadian music awards, the Junos have been around since the mid-60s or early 70s, and they’re coming up this weekend.  And this year there’s a little extra spice for me, because I was invited to be a juror for the awards!

The Juno Awards 2009

The Juno Awards 2009

Though the Wiki page doesn’t discuss it, there’s been a fair amount of controversy over the Junos as long as I’ve been aware of them – what Canadian music junkie doesn’t know the story of Stompin’ Tom returning his 6 Junos in a garbage bag in protest at how little airplay Canadian musicians get in Canada?  And this year, the word in the music press and the general muttering online has been that this year’s nominees are embarrassing (and here’s what Matthew Good thinks).  Well, Canadians love to argue, and maybe we grouchily love the Junos for that reason – they provide a lot of fodder.

I was pretty stoked when I got a letter in October asking me to be a juror for the category ‘Roots and Traditional Album of the Year – Group.’  Ever since, at 15, I first really became aware of the great Canadian music that wasn’t getting played on the radio, I’ve wanted opportunities to bring all that great stuff to the ears of people all over the world.  Through my work at the MoHo and the Ptbo Folk Festival, I’ve had plenty of chances to present (and pay, which is always a treat) great artists, but an opportunity to judge the Junos means participating in the national conversation on a different level.

Stompin' Tom made a stand for Canadian music

Stompin' Tom made a stand for Canadian music

While I agree that maybe Nickelback don’t deserve their 5 nominations and my dislike of Celine Dion is almost legendary, if you dig beyond those initial categories you’ll find some really great music, most of which you probably haven’t heard before unless you’re already dialed in (in which case you’ve been hearing about these musicians for a few years).  I wouldn’t say 2008 has been an amazing year in this regard, but even in a slowdown you find some crazy gems that get you all excited and remind you why you’re in this long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs.

The way the Juno process ran for me this year was like this:  After sending in my acceptance and agreement to keep my trap shut about judging until the process was done, I got a letter with my username and password for the Digital Media Distribution Service.  I log in, and find my category waiting for me.  35 albums or so, in full with band bios and photos.  I load up the albums to listen while I’m doing housework or making dinner, and pick my top ten for submission.  About a month after those get sent to CARAS, they figure out who the official nominees are, and send them back to me (and the other judges, I presume) for the final round of voting.  I rank the five nominees, and send that off to CARAS, job done.

I know 35 albums sounds like a lot, but consider that for the festival I’ll listen to approximately 800 artist submissions this year (though rarely more than one track of each, and it’s a nice break to get to deeply listen to a whole album).  It was pleasant to run into old favourites as well as artists I’d never heard of before who blew me away. My ten initial picks are below; I would’ve had a much easier time if I’d gotten to pick a top 15, because I know there are at least five more albums that I considered to be really, really good.  I guess you’ve got to cut it off somewhere, eh?

Twilight Hotel

Twilight Hotel

The final 5 was a crazy-difficult decision; out of 5, 4 ended up being real favourites of mine.  I listened to the albums non-stop for a couple of days before ranking, and a couple of weeks of wembling over that ranking before  taking a deep breath and hitting ‘send.’  It’s a hard thing to weigh which is the best of any given group of really talented musicians, and added to that is the pressure of knowing what a boost a Juno award can be to record sales and a career.  And the Canadian music industry is a small one, so you know a lot about the people in it, whether you know them or not.  You have to strip away all that, and your personal knowledge of the bands, and your friendships, and just knuckle down to decide which album is the best.

If you’re curious, here’s my top ten, in alphabetical order:

Another NoonJohn and Roy

NQ Arbuckle

NQ Arbuckle

Courting Stories: True Love and Treachery -  Skye Consort and Miranda Mulholland
Highway PrayerTwilight Hotel
Hold OnThe Sojourners
La Traverse MiraculeuseLes Charbonniers de L’Enfers
Mountain MeadowsElliott Brood
RideHungry Hill
Sweet As the GrainThe John Henrys
TradarnacSWING
XOKNQ Arbuckle

And the five official nominees are:

Congratulations to Chic Gamine, Winners of the 2009 Juno

Congratulations to Chic Gamine, Winners of the 2009 Juno

Chic GamineChic Gamine
Mountain MeadowsElliott Brood
XOKNQ Arbuckle
Highway PrayerTwilight Hotel
Fast-Paced WorldThe Duhks

And no, I’m not going to say who my final votes were for, so don’t bother asking.  There’s no one on the two lists above who isn’t awesome, and who doesn’t deserve a listen (go buy their albums!  Go to their shows!).  Anyone who knows these artists knows that this is a high-quality group, and I can assure you that there were a lot of other fabulous artists that didn’t make it onto my short list.   Like everyone else, I’ll be watching with interest to see who gets the award this year.

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