Juno “Album of the Year” Award: Reliable Barometer of Greatness?

2010_statuette

Last night I tuned into the final half hour of the Junos to see K.D Lang perform. A buddy of mine, Josh Grange, plays pedal steel in her band and I wanted to check out his playing. I wasn’t too interested in much else about this year’s show. I would have liked to see Alan Doyle win for his excellent video, “Testify,” and another win for Amelia Curran would have been great. But other than that I wasn’t too engaged. Years ago, when I thought I was destined for musical stardom, I kept better track of the Junos. I don’t bother as much these days. I do know a lot of past nominees and winners – either as friends or people I’ve performed with over the years. I’ve gone to a few shows as a spectator or guest. As a Canadian music fan, I’ve been tuning in for decades. As a critical thinker, I recognize the sham behind much of it. But then again, so do the participants.

The inside operations of the Junos are a bit hazy. For the average Canadian music fan, the award show is simply a chance to see their favourite Canadian entertainers all under one roof. The public doesn’t have to think about the politics of the biz. It’s just an entertainment show to them. However, people in the music business know exactly how this award show works and how to use it. For emerging artists, it’s a chance to get exposure both in the form of a nomination and a performance spot on the telecast. For industry people, it’s a chance to network and make deals. For the veteran icons, it’s an opportunity to keep in the loop, use it as a springboard for new releases, and to hopefully get lifetime achievement accolades. It’s our version of the Grammys, and overall it’s a well-run entity that has endured several decades in a constantly evolving music business.

For perspective, I’ll take a minute to explain the process by which one wins a Juno award. The organization CARAS (Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences) has a membership consisting of musicians, promoters, agents, managers, producers, directors, publishers, and anyone else who has a stake in the Canadian music industry. Several months before the awards show, they receive ballots in the mail containing a list of nominees for each category (earlier selected by committee from a larger pool of acts) and they vote according to their preferences. The nominee who receives the most votes wins the award. It’s the same as the ECMAs on the east coast and many awards shows in other countries. I will leave it up to you to decide whether or not this process is transparent and devoid of bias, or if it’s riddled with corruption and incestuous manipulation of votes.

Last night, the Juno Album of the Year was presented the end of the show, as is custom. The presenters were singer/songwriters Tom Cochrane and Colin James, two iconic Canadian musicians who have received numerous Juno accolades in the past. I have tremendous respect for both of them. Cochrane and James are organic rockers, each forging a unique sound and style from the bare essence of who they are as people. What you see is what you get. They get on stage with a great band, strap on their guitars, and captivate a room full of people with nothing but their life stories rendered skillfully in songs that have become part of the Canadian consciousness.

The winner they announced? Carly Rae Jepsen, for her album Kiss. Best known for her 2012 hit single “Call Me Maybe,” the B.C. native and former Canadian Idol contestant (roll eyes here) got a push from Bieber on Twitter and it catapulted her into the international spotlight. The industry hounds then descended and quickly pieced together a full-length release. The result is a bubblegum collection of flirty party tunes with loose plots centered around the retaining of one’s virginity. She accepted her award graciously, thanking mostly the fans but not having much else to say. Cochrane and James stood by politely, but you could sense a sort of bemusement on their faces. I do not wish to speak for them, but it’s hard not to think that inside they were shaking their heads in disbelief at the questionable caliber of album and artist eligible to receive this accolade. It begs the following question: Have the Junos ever been an accurate barometer of “best albums” in this country?

Carly Rae Jepsen wins Album of the year at the 2013 Juno awards.

Carly Rae Jepsen wins Album of the Year at the 2013 Juno Awards.

The first problem arises when discussing the highly subjective topic of what constitutes a great album. Celine Dion has won the most Junos in this category, followed by Michael Buble. They are great singers, to be sure. Great albums? I’m not convinced. When I think of great albums, I think of pieces of work that have unity of purpose and expression. Great “album artists” have originality and depth that is first rooted in an affinity for their own favourite albums and then rendered into a new hybrid of melody and lyric. These albums break new ground. They have a structured path from beginning to end that captures an artist or band at a certain time in their creative lives. Great albums punctuate people’s histories and emotionally place them in memorable moments and experiences. When I think of great albums, I think of Dark Side of the Moon, The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Blonde on Blonde, Blue, Music From Big Pink, Led Zeppelin II, Abbey Road, After the Gold Rush, The Stranger, Tapestry, Nevermind, Machine Head, ad infinitum. I do not need to list the artists connected to the albums above. If you’re a true popular music fan, you know who made these albums. I wonder how many of these albums are in Carly Rae’s collection? I wonder if she’s even familiar with the catalogues of Bob Dylan and the Beatles, the most basic staples for any self-respecting artist who purports to make real albums. The idea of someone winning Album of the Year in a popular music category without at least a shred of influence from the above list is preposterous to me.

When studying the past winner list for Juno Album of the Year, let’s first consider the following travesties against the true artistry of Rush. In 1980, Anne Murray’s New Kind of Feeling beat out Rush’s Hemispheres, and the next year her Greatest Hits won over Rush’s Permanent Waves. In 1982, Loverboy’s debut album beat out TWO Rush albums, Moving Pictures and Exit…Stage Left. In 1983, Loverboy’s Get Lucky won over Rush’s Signals. In 1986 Glass Tiger’s The Thin Red Line won over Rush’s Power Windows. How can a run of artistic greatness like Rush’s ‘80s output be overlooked by a membership of supposedly “informed” voters in the CARAS organization? Doesn’t it look a bit ridiculous in hindsight that forgettable pop acts with nothing musical to say and no new ground to break could overshadow the magnitude of Rush?

Some argue that the artists who won instead of Rush sold a lot more albums, and that is no doubt true. However, the CARAS voting process is not supposed to be based on sales. If it were, there’d be no need for a voting process. A committee could simply compile the sales data and present the award to the biggest seller. In fact, the Album of the Year Juno was actually called “Best-selling Album” in the 1970’s but was changed in 1980. Perhaps the “largest sales” mandate continued subversively in the CARAS membership throughout the industry despite the name change. I’m sure there’s always been a lot of pressure to vote for the money-making albums because they’re the ones paying everyone’s salaries. This dynamic is no doubt behind the Carly Rae win, although no one with a stake in the game wants to break the 40-year code of membership silence and be forever shunned from the fishbowl Canadian music business.

Rush's legendary 1982 album Moving Pictures (featuring the incredible "Tom Sawyer"), which lost out to Loverboy for Album of the Year.

Rush’s legendary 1982 album Moving Pictures (featuring the incredible “Tom Sawyer”), which lost out to Loverboy for Album of the Year.

In 1989 the award was finally given to what has now become a truly iconic record, the debut self-titled Robbie Robertson. This was finally some good insight from the CARAS voter base, although it helped that music mogul David Geffen’s logo was on the album sleeve. It must have boded well for CARAS to have the attention of the most influential music exec in the world by bestowing such an accolade on his newest solo artist. Robertson rightly won over Glass Tiger and Honeymoon Suite, but unfortunately another classic album, Blue Rodeo’s Outskirts, lost to Robertson’s debut. This touches on the contentious issue of Canadian exports stealing the spotlight from domestic artists. Stompin’ Tom went to his grave cursing the Junos over this controversial matter, having returned all his Junos decades earlier in protest. And he was right in his convictions. Robertson is native Canadian, but he is essentially an American now; he moved there in 1966 and achieved success far beyond what most domestic Canadian bands could ever dream. Robertson did not need that award half as much as Blue Rodeo did at the time.

Stompin' Tom sends his six Junos back to CARAS in 1978.

Stompin’ Tom sends his six Junos back to CARAS in 1978.

In the ‘90s we saw varying levels of artistry in the Juno Album of the Year winner’s list. Tom Cochrane was vindicated in 1992 with the award for the excellent Mad Mad World after losing out to Alannah Myles’ debut a few years earlier. K.D. Lang’s awe-inspiring Ingenue won out over Celine Dion’s self-titled release in 1993. Neil Young’s Harvest Moon took it home in 1994, although the fantastic Leonard Cohen album The Future lost out to Young. In 1995 Celine Dion’s campy release The Colour of My Love inexplicably won over Blue Rodeo’s masterpiece Five Days in July and Sarah McLachlan’s beautiful Fumbling Towards Ecstasy. Alanis Morrissette deservedly won in 1996 with her landmark Jagged Little Pill, and thankfully the Tragically Hip won over Celine Dion’s Falling into You in 1997 with Trouble at the Henhouse. However, Celine stole it back in 1999 when she beat out the Hip’s Phantom Power. The CARAS membership apparently has a lot of love for Celine Dion as an album-oriented artist.

Dion performs at the 2013 Junos.

Dion performs at the 2013 Junos.

The first worthy new millennium Juno Album of the Year (after several years of relative blandness) was awarded to Sam Roberts in 2004 for We Were Born in a Flame, giving Canadian rock a much-needed kick in the crotch after a yawn-inducing start to the new century. In 2008 Feist’s The Reminder beat out the usual suspects Michael Buble, Anne Murray and Celine Dion, which showed that the ambivalent and unpredictable CARAS membership was actually thinking straight. In 2009 Nickelback won. (Insert nothing here.) Buble took home the accolade in 2010 and 2012 with little serious competition, and the Arcade Fire slipped in to grab the award from Drake, Hedley, Bieber and Johnny Reid in 2011 with their third album The Suburbs.

Taking into account the varied and storied history of this particular Juno award category, I guess it’s not too surprising that someone like Jepsen could actually win. Out of all the albums that have received this award in the past three decades, only a small handful have persevered and become part of our Canadian vernacular. They are as follows:

Cuts Like a Knife, Bryan Adams

Reckless, Bryan Adams

Robbie Robertson, Robbie Roberston

Shaking Like a Human Being, Kim Mitchell

Mad, Mad World, Tom Cochrane

Ingenue, K.D. Lang

Harvest Moon, Neil Young

Jagged Little Pill, Alanis Morrissette

Fortunately, CARAS does not influence the larger public vote for great Canadian albums. In fact, the nominee list from the history of this award contains many more iconic albums than the actual winner list:

The Rush catalogue, 1980-86

Hot Shots, Trooper

Outskirts, Blue Rodeo

Neruda, Red Rider

Black Cars, Gino Vannelli

Strange Animal, Gowan

Gordon, Barenaked Ladies

Reasons to Believe, Rita McNeil

Victory Day, Tom Cochrane and Red Rider

Waking up the Neighbours, Bryan Adams

Lost Together, Blue Rodeo

The Ghosts the Haunt Me, Crash Test Dummies

Fully Completely, Tragically Hip

Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, Sarah Mclachlan

Five Days in July, Blue Rodeo

North Country, Rankin Family

The Future, Leonard Cohen

Happy?, Jann Arden

Granted, some newer albums such as The Suburbs, We Were Born in a Flame and The Reminder are too new to be canonized; but they may see that status in years to come. Will Carly Rae’s Kiss endure as an essential addition to our great Canadian musical history collection? Taste is subjective, but time is the great revealer. What is undeniably true about the Juno Awards is that the CARAS membership will continue to vote in favour of preserving the financial infrastructure of the Canadian music industry. And in no time has it ever been in as much danger of collapse as it is now.

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10 Comments

Filed under Newfoundland

10 responses to “Juno “Album of the Year” Award: Reliable Barometer of Greatness?

  1. DM

    I don’t watch the Junos, but consider myself a music fan. I don’t know if you can undermine Marianna’s Trench’s musical ability. I believe that their fallibility is in their marketing and their demographic. The lead singer is an amazing vocalist and his songwriting is very well crafted. Unfortunately, they have made the tween market their demo and, in the process, diminished their credibility with their interview style and live antics. Unfortunate to say the least.
    I also would like to know if the Junos have an application fee, as the ECMA’ s do? I know that even on a local level, to invest the money in applying can be marginalizing for more grassroots bands.
    I would also like to add that I wasn’t comparing Rush to MT…….seems like comparing apples to oranges, if you will.

    • Hey DM,

      Thanks for reading! I assume CARAS has a fee, yes. And you’re right; such fees can marginalize more grassroots bands.

      Related to that, I know that less Newfoundlanders win ECMAs simply because our membership is lower than that of Nova Scotia. So when does it become less about the polls and more about the music? It’s an imperfect process for sure. I guess when it comes to NL’ers and ECMA shut-outs, one must not bitch if one does not vote. 🙂

  2. Jim Downton

    Excellent article Chris.

    Kudos to you for the concise retrospective on the Juno Awards as well.

    So, is the Juno Awards a reliable barometer of greatness? I think you’ve answered your own question – sometimes yes and sometimes no.

    As for Carly Rae Jepsen and her influences, who knows what they are and were, but make no mistake about it – many people love “Call Me Maybe”.

    As you’ve said:

    “Great albums punctuate people’s histories and emotionally place them in memorable moments and experiences.”

    This is true for individual songs as well and in an iTunes world, it’s even more true today.

    Now you can “Call Me Crazy” but to use your own barometer, I truly believe that for many young people “Call Me Maybe” will hold a place in the soundtrack of their lives.

    Does that fact make it Juno worthy? Maybe not, but it is a happy little ditty wouldn’t you say. It is a POP song after all!

    I would also agree with Glenn, and as I have experience with competitive sport, I do believe music should not be a competition.

    Unless we are attempting to critique the skills of young musicians with regard to technique, accuracy and ability like in the many Kiwanis Music Festivals held in this country do, what really does an award show like the Junos count for anyway?

    I believe they exist to keep up with the US and promote and honour Canadian talent.

    I had the pleasure to have breakfast with Walt Grealis at the ECMAs in Sydney, NS one year.

    Here is a little background taken from the Juno’s website worth remembering about Walt:

    “Walt Grealis dedicated his life to creating the Canadian music explosion…the sound heard ’round the world,” said long-time friend and business partner Stan Klees. “His goal was to open the door for all artists and build a star system in Canada.”

    Affectionately known as ‘Canada’s Music Man’, Grealis was a leading figure in the Canadian recording industry. In the early 1960′s when American acts dominated the Canadian radio waves and Canadian talent was turning to the South, Walter recognized the need to promote Canada’s own ‘star system’. In 1964, Grealis pioneered Canada’s first national recording industry trade publication, RPM Magazine. Grealis used the magazine as a vehicle to promote Canadian acts to radio stations and the record business. RPM Magazine also charted a new course for developing the Canadian music industry by connecting key industry figures across the country. RPM Magazine was published for almost 40 years with the last issue in 2000.

    Walter Grealis was also a key figure in establishing today’s Juno Awards. In 1964, he and business partner Stan Klees created RPM Magazine’s Gold Leaf Awards, which started out as simply a readers’ poll of favourite artists. By the mid-1970s the awards evolved into a broadcast ceremony that took Canadian talent to the national stage. In 1970, Gold Leaf was substituted for the nickname ‘Juno’ after the then CRTC chairman Pierre Juneau. The Juno Awards have been a fixture in the Canadian music industry ever since…..”

    Among the many things we discussed was the rules for Canadian Content on radio which was quite controversial. Lot’s of differing opinions as to whether or not it’s good for the Canadian music business or not.

    So while I appreciate your article and really enjoyed reading it, and the comments, if I were you I wouldn’t get too upset with results from the circus that is The Juno Awards.

    After all, how much do they influence what you buy and consume anyway?

    Jd

    • Jim,

      My apologies for the delayed response! I’m just catching up to the comments now. Wow, thanks for the detailed response. You’re obviously well-versed in how the music business works. I agree that the barometer is sometimes accurate and sometimes not. And you’re right: “Call Me Maybe” isn’t a bad song. It’s just that her album is obviously thrown together for swift and maximum sales and not a purposeful musical endeavour as much as, say, Rush albums are.

      Yes, we’ve had some great figures in this country who have steered the ship in the right direction and put Canada on the world map in music.

      Thanks again. Hope all is well,

      chris

  3. Glenn Simmons

    I have never watched the Junos. Truly…. I’ve seen little bits from time to time, but I could never sit through a whole show. I’ve only seen the Grammys 2 or 3 times. But certainly never all the way through. I just can’t get into the showcase/awards thing. Never could. Not sure why.. Great for the songstress like Celine I s’pose, but I don’t think one showcase song on an awards show fully allows the kind of artist that I like to really perform, . It’s too structured. You’re on, you’re off!! The sweat needs to be rollin’ off before shit starts to sit and become worth listening to. And the whole winning and losing thing has always been uncomfortable for me. I’ve never liked looking at music like a competitive sport. I guess it’d be fine if it got the public more involved in music, but I don’t think it does. It just gets people more into the hype I think. And again, too many 14 year olds with too much disposable income. And that equals to too much disposable music..as Chris so eloquently points out that’s what wins mostly. So that saddens me. Why be sad.. better not to go there..

    I’ve never been influenced to think something is good because someone else said so. You listen. You like .Or you don’t. It’s pretty simple.. I listen. I like. Or I don’t. Doesn’t matter who says what. It either makes me happen or it doesn’t.. Mostly i don’t listen tho.. Didn’t mind Call Me Maybe actually. Only saw the Jimmy Fallon version ..Band played toy instruments and it was quite ingenious I thought. And musical.. Had an air of spontaneity too, even tho they may have done a few takes, but it still looked fun and light. The awards show bits that I’ve seen had little of that. But then again, that may be there, but I don’t know, I can’t watch … Brrrrr

    • “that saddens me. Why be sad.. better not to go there.”

      I died at that statement, Glenn. Ha!!! Ya I’m with you on the awards shows. Getting through a whole show is like a test of endurance. I believe that they’re more for the industry people than the musicians, who are usually rushed, using borrowed gear, hungover, pissed off, jetlagged, etc. As we know, the business was born out of the reality that everybody loves music. In that way, music is a valuable commodity for business people, and awards shows are a confectionary of sorts. I could go on….but I already spent the day writing the piece and my vision is practically gone! 🙂 Let’s discuss over lunch next time to get to town!

  4. Chad Murphy

    I was truly sickened when I learned that a band like Mariana’s Trench (and I use the term “band” very lightly in that instance) would win in the Group Of The Year category over Rush who were, in my eyes, the only true contender on the list.. As you said, throwing the accolades and awards at artists cut from the same cloth as Carly Rae Jepsen speaks nothing of their validity, or artistic merit. The barometer in this case is just a measure of visibility and marketability. Time will tell for sure whether or not her mark will be that of an indelible etching, or an accidental skid mark that we will soon try our best to erase from our memory after leaving those briefs in the gas station bathroom so we can carry on with what dignity we are hopefully able to retain.

  5. Gayle Harvey

    Good stuff. Answered some of my questions and agree with sooo much of what you wrote!! Killed me to see the vid that won best video for the year. A vid that wasn’t even nominated for Rap vid of year but receives Best video of the year. Yes, we all have our own taste but HYFR was like comparing apples and oranges- and not in the same league at all as Testify in every sense of the word.

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